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19 September 2007

Understanding the evidence of events

A few items have continued to trickle across the nets which bring the all too often forgotten works of AFRICOM to our attention.

The first of these comes from the ever perceptive folks at Coming Anarchy, who note the continuing engagements involving host nation and US forces tracking irregular forces in the wilds of the Sahel. The Taureg rebellions in Mali and Niger are in one sense the very real stuff of which 19th century adventure novels were written, yet at the same time they are the concrete manifestation of the Global Guerrilla / 4GW+ problem set in a small, poor, and out of the way place in the world. A place that just happens to border key areas with other known problems also involving restive populations heavily influenced by militant Islamist ideology….

More troublingly, though, we also note the Economist’s puzzling reaction to the body of public press reporting regarding Islamist – and in particular, Al Qaeda, activities in the region. They editorialize in an article on the dynamics of the rebellions: “But apart from the odd smuggling deal over guns, drugs or cigarettes, no solid links… have been established”. This despite continued open source information regarding the continued expansion (or retreat, depending on one’s perspective) southward of the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, who have re-branded themselves as the Al-Qaeda Organization in the Islamic Maghreb. (And while we may not always agree with their analysis or policy recommendations, International Crisis Group has published to its usual standard of excellent research regarding these issues, as has the inimitable Douglas Farah – perhaps the first journalist to seriously cover the lesser known transnational aspects of global terrorism networks operating in Africa.)

We find a persistent form of cognitive bias in this sort of thinking as demonstrated by the Economist, which would deny the evidence of events. It is one that has increasingly come to dominate policy and intelligence related discussions in many institutions. Let us call it the dissociative fallacy.

The dissociative fallacy is the tendency to ignore linkages between issues based on pre-concieved ideas regarding how such linkages manifest - ideas typically based on unarticulated assumptions, and frequently informed by popular stereotypes and other fictional information. It rejects the actual form of associations when they do not meet an idealized a priori postulate.

The dissociative fallacy is a natural development for those that perceive their role to be primarily centered around minimizing disruption and managing crisis, particularly as those acting in such roles often encounter deeply entangled issues which are not amenable to solutions in part. It is understandable, if not acceptable, that they should then seek – consciously or unconsciously – to reduce the number of factors at play in discussions regarding the issue. But it is a dangerous way of thinking that just as surely leads to intelligence failure and intelligence surprise as any other form of cognitive bias.

We see this fallacy at play in counterproliferation discussions, used to explain away any given set of dual use or even prohibited materials as unrelated to a weapons program end use. The thinking goes that unless it the material under examination is part of a “stockpile” – with attending implications of bubbling vats and ranks of missiles arrayed in Soviet era precision – that it shouldn’t count. (Something all too common in the post OIF era, as the “lessons learned” of the pre-war estimates continue to be applied before the final judgment of history – and the full accounting of the regime’s activities during the 2002-2003 time period – have been reckoned.)

We see it frequently cited in counterterrorism cases, in which travel linkages, communications exchanges, ideological references, and self-identification are discounted in favour of theories of self-radicalization and explainable mental disorders. And for as much of a threat self-radicalization does actually pose to permissive democratic civil societies, all too frequently in recent experience substantive associations to more organized terrorist entities have emerged during post-incident investigations of supposed “lone wolf” actors. But since most of these relationships do not fit the Hollywood-driven assumptions of how terrorist associations are formed, they are unremembered until after the next attacks.

The fallacy itself is perhaps most prevalent in other transnational issues area, where single case study examples of an incident type are merged with implicit assumptions regarding organized crime or other threat activities, creating a “standard” model which does not begin to encompass the range – and frequently, the strangeness – of real world cases.

For as commonly as it appears, there is very little in the literature on this point. There is a clear need for academic research in this area. Perhaps some bright young thing from one of the better institutions might taken an interest, and grace us with unique study and innovative insight into the nature of the problem.

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