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On the Utility of Link Charts

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Intelwire recently published a fascinating link chart: Anwar al-Awlaki’s “social network.” I hope they permit my reposting the image here:

This chart is meant to catalog “Awlaki’s current social and inspirational connections to terrorism,” as part of an effort to “illustrate some of his reach and influence.” It is revelatory for several reasons: for one, it shows that Awlaki is something of a hub, but not a node for terrorist activity (in the sense of he seems to connect to loners more than networks for action). For another, he’s just not very good at planning terrorist attacks (which makes it so puzzling that Janet Napolitano would sound the alarm over AQAP, of which Awlaki is middle management).

This chart, however, is also limiting in many ways. This is, in part, because of the assumptions behind it—it doesn’t help us understand who influences or inspires Awlaki himself, for example. Anwar al-Awlaki is more than just a terrorist, he is a person operating in an environment native to his family. Nasser al-Awlaki, Anwar’s father, has been begging the media to stop “demonizing” his son. It is an understandable thing for a parent to not want to believe the worst about his child; but does this make Nasser an accessory to Anwar’s terrorism?

Obviously it does not. But if Anwar’s own father has a hard time publicly condemning his son for terrorism, what of the rest of the Awlaki tribe? What of the communities the Awlaki’s call home? If they are not constraining Anwar’s terrorist activities, should they be included in his social network of aspirational terror ties? What if they’re encouraging Anwar’s militancy, since people in Shabwa tend to vehemently oppose the government in Sanaa?

These are the sorts of expansive questions one must ask when building a network of a single figure’s ties, influences, and targets. Anwar al-Awlaki is not a single figure, standing astride a vast network of eager empty-vessel recruits awaiting radicalization and instructions. He is the product of a system, an environment of factors that inspire, shape, and just as importantly constrain his rhetoric and activities. We in the U.S. have no idea what those really are: we don’t know who his closest friends are, we don’t know what his family tells him in person, we don’t know who either inspires or discourages him in conversation and in his reading and research.

In other words, we lack information that is critical to understanding his exact motivations and capabilities and intent. Yet, for some reason, we feel very comfortable assigning him tremendous importance and blame in both regional and global terrorist circles… based on little more than after-the-fact dot connecting that may or may not reveal useful information about his ties and activities. Until we close that gap, and start researching the relevant social and environmental factors that shape Awlaki’s decision-making process (and thus, by extension, AQAPs), we will continue to grasp in the dark, not knowing what will come next.

Written by Joshua Foust

February 10, 2011 at 1:45 pm

Posted in Analysis, Case Studies

Tagged with , ,

Unpacking Assumptions

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J. Dana Stuster, an intern at CNAS, has written about Yemeni President Saleh’s succession in The Atlantic. It’s worth unpacking: starting with a number of minor errors that unfortunately add up, the piece is representative of how the assumptions we make can artificially constrain our analysis.

In Yemen, people have an expression for their form of government. They call it “decorative democracy,” a poor disguise for the military autocracy that Yemen has had for decades. The president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, has weathered 32 years in office, including assassination attempts, national unification, and civil war. In the early 1990s, he created the veneer of democratic institutions (including an “opposition party”) mostly for the purpose of courting foreign aid; now, with an affiliate of al-Qaeda festering in his country’s rural interior, Saleh felt his U.S. aid was secure enough to flirt with the idea of abolishing term limits.

This isn’t quite right. Saleh didn’t invent the “veneer of democratic institutions” any more than he invented South Yemen (from which many opposition parties, not just the one noted here, come). Islah, which is perhaps what Stuster is referring to, was formed outside of Saleh’s own party, the GPC, as an amalgam of tribal leaders and Islamists. Unlike Saleh’s GPC, Islah is multi-polar, despite the strong personality and occasional dominance of Abd al-Majid al-Zindani, its nominal leader. Anyway, the point is, Yemen has a thriving, diverse, and raucous opposition movement—it is not the cynical invention of the president. More importantly, these opposition parties were not invented to score foreign aid; a strong case can be made for Saleh massaging the threat of al Qaeda to increase foreign aid (and he has done so successfully the last three years), but not political opposition. The assumptions that underlie this paragraph are wrong, in other words, and thus create a poor foundation for the rest of the argument.

It might have worked were it not for the timing. Yemenis have staged their own protests for political reform in the shadows of Tunisia and Egypt, even naming February 3 their own “Day of Rage.” Saleh has disowned the constitutional amendment that would have abolished term limits, as well as rumors that he was grooming his son for the presidency, and on February 2 he announced that he will not seek another term when his current term expires in 2013.

This, too, rests on some questionable assumptions about Yemen. For one, the “Day of Rage” turned out to be anything but—it was more like a “day of mostly polite pro- and anti-government qat chews.” There is zero evidence to support the claim that the riots in Egypt and Tunisia “inspired” the protests in Yemen. So without those two critical assumptions, Saleh’s decision to rapidly back away from an unpopular decision loses most of its importance, thus undermining this paragraph’s main argument.

The rest of the piece devolves into Kremlinology—an outsider’s assessment of the strengths of various political figures inside and outside Yemen’s mainstream politics. It might be true, or it might now. Frankly, no one really knows, though I share Greg Johnsen’s skepticism of Ali Mohsen’s supposed ambitions. Johnsen also ably deconstruct’s Stuster’s misleading description of al-Zindani’s supposed connections to terrorism, none of which amount to more than rumors and guesswork.

At the end of the day, that is what we’re left with when discussing the post-Saleh political landscape. We have rumors (this guy did this, that guy likes that) and guesswork (he’ll probably do this, he’ll probably not do that). It makes a poor basis for analysis. Saying that Egypt and Yemen are similar because both have fragmented opposition movements is not only not very accurate but it draws a misleading analogy to simplify and gloss over what is, again, rumor and guesswork. Stating up front that that is all we’re working with is fine—there is nothing wrong with either rumors or guessing—but to present that as fact or informed analysis is, at best, misleading.

Further reading: Stacey Philbrick Yadav has written an excellent piece for the Middle East Report: “No Pink Slip for Salih: What Yemen’s Protests Do (and Do Not) Mean.” It is important in that it focuses on the political context of these protests, but highlights the role the U.S. plays in making Yemen’s politics worse off. “The US,” she writes, “does not seem to be listening to the opposition’s claim that meaningful political reform is the only sure path to more equitable and sustainable development.” It’s worth keeping that in mind as the new Kremlinologists dream of what future turmoil will engulf Sanaa.

Written by Joshua Foust

February 9, 2011 at 12:24 pm

Posted in Analysis, Case Studies

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Cause, Meet Effect

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Last week, I wrote for PBS about how we can understand the protests sweeping Yemen:

Reality, however, is more than what happened in the last month. While some protesters in Sanaa have said they were inspired by the protests in Egypt and Tunisia, those two revolts did not inspire the protests anymore than my breakfast burrito did. There were protests in Aden during the Gulf Cup soccer tournament last November, protests over the parcel bombs in Sanaa in October, thousands of people protesting over the most recent round of fighting between the government and the Houthi rebels in the north in March. Yemenis protest routinely, and the last several months have seen a series of increasingly violent rallies across the entire country.

And in Yemen, there is a very regular pattern to protests, opposition and Saleh playing the crowds to stay in charge.

This is not to suggest, as Greg Johnsen helpfully points out, that Saleh will never be removed from office. Rather, it is meant to highlight that what is going on in Yemen is going on for purely Yemeni reasons. And, unlike Greg, I just don’t see the same foreboding sense of doom about the “Day of Rage.” I explained why today for The Atlantic:

Yemen’s own “Day of Rage,” held this past Thursday, one week after Egypt’s, turned out to be a generally polite mix of comparably sized pro- and anti-government protest groups. The Thursday protests in Sanaa–the Yemeni opposition has promised to hold a protest every Thursday until President Saleh relents to their demands–was repeated throughout the country. Some rallied for the “southern movement,” part of which seeks south Yemeni secession, some protested the intrusive U.S. and Yemeni government security services, and some were simply upset over the stagnant economy. But, unlike in Egypt, neither the president’s head nor the government’s collapse were on protesters’ agendas. Saleh, in other words, is not in any immediate danger of being strung up on a lamp post, which gives him leeway to do what he always does: try to accommodate public demands, if only in some minimal way.

Yemen remains deeply troubled, and its protests could very well build into something regime-threatening and violent. But so far, it’s not only not happened, the only ones who seem to want that to happen are analysts and journalists on the outside, quietly cheering them onward to Revolution. I’m sure some Yemenis desire violence as a reaction to Saleh’s abusive rule, but so far there’s just no indication—no evidence, to be specific about it—that such a thing is likely to happen.

Written by Joshua Foust

February 8, 2011 at 12:20 am

Posted in Analysis, Case Studies