Center for Strategic Communication

[ by Charles Cameron — Newton, Cusa and Rumsfeld as context, McCants & Abu Susu for your consideration ]

IS tank


Let me anchor this business of unknowing firmly in the hearts of Science, Theology, and the Defense Department. My own preference is for Theology, and the words of Nicolas of Cusa — but you may choose which authority you prefer.

Sir Isaac Newton is reputed to have said:

I don’t know what I may seem to the world, but as to myself, I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the sea-shore and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.

Cardinal Nicolas of Cusa, in his treatise >De docta ignorantia / On Learned Ignorance:

Socrates seemed to himself to know nothing except that he did not know. And the very wise Solomon maintained that all things are difficult and unexplainable in words. And a certain other man of divine spirit says that wisdom and the seat of understanding are hidden from the eyes of all the living. Even the very profound Aristotle, in his First Philosophy, asserts that in things most obvious by nature such difficulty occurs for us as for a night owl which is trying to look at the sun. Therefore, if the foregoing points are true, then since the desire in us is not in vain, assuredly we desire to know that we do not know. If we can fully attain unto this [knowledge of our ignorance], we will attain unto learned ignorance. For a man-even one very well versed in learning-will attain unto nothing more perfect than to be found to be most learned in the ignorance which is distinctively his. The more he knows that he is unknowing, the more learned he will be. Unto this end I have undertaken the task of writing a few things about learned ignorance.

and elaborating on this theme, Secretary Donald Rumsfeld famously opined:

Reports that say there’s — that something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things that we know that we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns, the ones we don’t know we don’t know.

With your choice of those backgrounds in mind, I’d like to turn now to today’s crop of readings on the Islamic State, and bring together for your attention two lists of five — five things we may think we know, and should unlearn, and five things we don’t know and shpouldn’t kid ourselves we do. Both authors of these lists come highly recommended.


William McCants today in Five Myths about the Islamic State notes:

As the United States widens its battle in Iraq against the Islamic State and contemplates strikes against it in Syria, the policy debate at home surrounding the intervention is heating up. Here are five myths circulating in the media that are clouding the discussion.

Here are his five myths:

1. The Islamic State was never al Qaeda.
2. International relations scholars agree arming the Syrian rebels is a bad idea.
3. Qatar funds the Islamic State.
4. The so-called Caliphate was established in June.
5. There is an easy, obvious and quick solution to the Islamic State problem.

Of these, it is number 4, The so-called Caliphate was established in June, that I find most intriguing and instructive, so I present it here:

The self-declared Caliph Ibrahim may have officially declared the reestablishment of the caliphate in June 2014, but the group has hinted since its 2006 founding of the Islamic State in Iraq that the caliphate was already established. Because the group knew its claim would be controversial in the jihadi community at the time, it chose the ambiguous name of “The Islamic State in Iraq” to communicate its intent while maintaining plausible deniability. The term “dawla,” translated as “state” today, is also the name of Islam’s greatest caliphate, the Dawla `Abbasiyya. The Islamic State was “in” Iraq but not “of” Iraq, indicating the state was not contiguous with Iraq and would not always confine itself to the country of that name.

Number 5, however, There is an easy, obvious and quick solution to the Islamic State problem, is the one we may need to grasp most quickly and firmly:

As Brian Fishman, a fellow at the New America Foundation, wonderfully gripes in his profanity-laced “cri de cœur” last week, the pro- and anti- intervention camps in the United States have used simplistic and uniformed arguments to support their favorite policies in Syria and now Iraq. But even those who offer complex and informed policy analysis like Brian can’t come up with a clear policy recommendation. Disagree with Obama’s Syria policy (I do) but don’t pretend the alternatives are obvious or would necessarily work better.


Yassin Musharbash, aka Abu Susu, also published a “list of five” today: 5 Things we don’t know about the Caliphate, prefacing it with this para:

Right now, a lot of people (and media) are asking for information on the “Islamic State”, the “Caliphate” of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and other things related to Jihadist activities in Syria and Iraq. That’s perfectly understandable. But while I am answering as many of these questions as I can, I think it is equally important that we (and by “we” I mean those of us who have followed events there since, let’s say, the days of Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi) don’t forget that there are a whole lot of questions we can’t answer (even if these are not the questions we are usually asked).

Here are his five questions:

1. How important is the role of al-Baghdadi?
2. Is there a plan for expansion of the “Caliphate”?
3. Does al-Baghdadi/IS want to strike in the West?
4. Is there communication between IS and al-Qaida’s branches?
5. How stable/instable are relations to allies and helpers?

Here I find number 2, Is there a plan for expansion of the “Caliphate”? the most interesting. Abu Susu writes:

And by that a mean: A real, tangible one, not the ideological version. In propaganda videos, all sorts of targets are being named: Samarra, Najaf, Baghdad in Iraq; Damascus, Mecca, Jerusalem on a more ideologically motivated level; Rome as a symbol. But that is not helpful in predicting the IS’s next moves. These will be determined by their reading of military conditions on the ground, or so I assume. So will they sit in Mosul and Raqqa and consolidate before their next move at a big city or town? Are they busy forging new alliances elsewhere in order to repeat what happened in Mosul? Are they clever enough not to try and take Baghdad – or stupid enough to play with that idea at this point? I can make assumptions, but they are based on my idea of IS, rather than facts.

I womnder about this. They’re an apocalyptic movement, originating in Sham / Greater Syria, and making much play in their publicity about the apocalyptic battle of Dabiq. Jean_Pierre Filiu said of Abu Musab al-Suri‘s hundred-page account of the end times in the finale of his 1,600 page Global Islamic Resistance Call that there was “nothing in the least rhetorical about this exercise in apocalyptic exegesis. It is meant instead as a guide for action.”


Enough — both pieces are woth pondering:

  • Will McCants’ 5 Myths
  • Abu Susu’s 5 questions
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