[ by Charles Cameron — prisoner releases in Arab springtime, abu Musab and Dr Fadl; Daveed G-R and Aaron Z; two major rules of expertise: detail and humility ]
When you watch a well edited movie, the experience is seamless — despite the fact that the film itself was made with hundreds of cuts and splices. Film critics, mavens and the director’s fellow auteurs who make close readings and detailed studies of the film will see and appreciate the juxtapositions and graphic matches, the fine-tuned timing of the edits and the rhythm they give the film — but for the regular viewer, one continuous fabric of story unspools from opening to final credits. The editor’s skill lies in getting the splices right to a degree beyond the perceptual acuity of the audience.
Similarly, a fine carpenter will often want to make joints that are imperceptible to the client, seeking a sensitivity to changes in height that is an order of magnitude greater than that required for the quick, cheap performance of the same task.
True expertise is at least one order of magnitude deeper and more self-critical than it needs to be to satisfy a cursory examination.
Thus when Daveed Gartenstein-Ross and Aaron Zelin tackle the important — and easily overlooked — question of How the Arab Spring’s Prisoner Releases Have Helped the Jihadi Cause in the Atlantic, they offer us both far more than we knew we needed to know, and yet less than they themselves know about the topic, let alone the broader current of jihadist movements of which this particular topic is a single strand.
It’s a significant topic, though, as their opening paragraphs neatly show:
The investigation of the devastating Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, that killed American ambassador Christopher Stevens — limited as it is by security concerns that hampered the FBI’s access to the site –has begun to focus on a Libya-based Egyptian, Muhammad Jamal (a.k.a. Abu Ahmad al Masri). As a detailed Wall Street Journal report explains, Jamal is notable not only for having fighters under his command and operating militant training camps in the Libyan desert, but also for having recently gotten out of Egyptian prison.
This latter fact makes Jamal part of a trend that has gone largely unremarked upon in the public sphere since the beginning of the “Arab Spring” uprisings: prisons in affected countries have been emptied, inmates scattering after being released or breaking free. In many cases, it is a good thing that prisoners have gone free: the Arab dictatorships were notorious for unjustly incarcerating political prisoners, and abusing them in captivity. But jihadists have also been part of this wave of releases, and we are now beginning to see the fruits of the talent pool that is back on the streets.
I recommend it highly, as does at least one other more knowledgeable than I.
A short piece in the Atlantic is just right for an overview, but not the place to lay out the next level of detail, though — and there are three people in particular whose names I am always on the lookout for, names of people who vanished from public view into some form of imprisonment, and who are of considerable interest to me personally — primarily for their theological significance.
The first of these is the Imam Musa al-Sadr, whose “disappearance” in Gaddafi’s Libya at the age of 50 in 1978 deprived the Lebanon of an inspiring leader — in a manner that eerily paralleled the ghayba or “occultation” of the Twelfth Imam of the Ithna ‘ashariyah.
The second would be Sayyed Imam Al-Sharif, aka Dr. Fadl, whose book The Essentials was one of the major works of AQ ideology and the #2 jihadist manual downloaded from the net according to the CTC Atlas (p.10), and who recanted it from Egyptian prison, writing his Rationalizing Jihad in Egypt and the World which so severely critiqued AQ-style jihad that al-Zawahiri felt obliged to pen a 200-page counter-argument. In Dr Fadl’s case, the interest would be to see what he would say if liberated now.
And my third “person of interest”? That would be Mustafa Setmariam Nasar aka Abu Musab al-Suri, whose massive Call to Global Islamic Resistance is a key document that chides bin Laden for “leading them to the abyss”, says “Al Qaeda is not an organization, it is not a group, nor do we want it to be. It is a call, a reference, a methodology”, and calls for “terrorism created by individuals or small autonomous groups (see Lawrence Wright, The Master Plan). Abu Musab, who may have been released from prison in Syria recently, is of interest to others as potentially the jihadi’s foremost strategist — and to me chiefly because of his use of apocalyptic forecasting in his Call.
Since their Atlantic piece was a short context-setter rather than a longer analytic paper, I asked Gartenstein-Ross and Zelin — Daveed and Aaron — net acquaintance and friendship is a funny thing, we haven’t worked out the etiquette as yet — about Dr Fadl and Abu Musab, not mentioned in the piece itself but surely not far from their thoughts.
Twitter, of course, is even more drastically reduced than a piece in the Atlantic, so you can think of their tweeted responses as something along the lines of snapshots of footnotes. Nevertheless, they give me, as an inquiring mind, a quick glimpse of what a couple of those at least an order of magnitude deeper into these things know or conjecture about two people whose names and potential activities we should all keep stashed quietly away on some easily accessible mental shelf.
Three things emerge from these tweets — how little we actually know, how important what we don’t know may be, and how honest the best analysts are about the limits of their knowledge. I’d tweeted, congratulating them on their piece and saying:
hipbonegamer: i note no mention of Musab a-S – any idea what’s up with Dr Fadl? Dead? Released? Still held?
And they responded:
Aaron Y. Zelin: Details still too murky on Abu Mus’ab and no info on Dr. Fadl.
D. Gartenstein-Ross: However, I think the question “where is Dr. Fadl, and why haven’t we heard from him?” is important for many reasons.
D. Gartenstein-Ross: But Aaron is right: I haven’t seen any open source info that speaks to his fate.
That’s two things at once: not very much, and a great deal.
So if lesson #1 of this post is that True expertise is at least one order of magnitude deeper and more self-critical than it needs to be to satisfy a cursory examination, lesson #2 must be…
True expertise never claims knowledge that is one order of magnitude deeper or more exact than is actually known.
Putting that in other terms: having an accurate mapping of one’s archipelago of knowledges within one’s oceanic ignorance is a highly significant form of meta-knowledge, lacking which one’s knowledges have blurred edges and little definitional value.
And that in turns means — especially in terms of human intelligence — humility.