Book Review of Indian Mujahideen: Computational Analysis and Public Policy
Authors: V.S. Subramanian, Aaron Mannes, Animesh Roul and R.K Raghavan, Publisher: Springer International, Switzerland, 2013, 173 pp., Price not mentioned; ISBN 978-3-319-02817-0
Reviewed by Manisha Sethi,
Indian Mujahideen. Computation analysis. Public policy. These are the three elements of this book, as the title clearly – if rather uncreatively – suggests.
First, let’s get Indian Mujahideen out of the way. Announcing its existence with an email communiqué mailed to media houses before a series of blasts rocked courthouses in Uttar Pradesh, the Indian Mujahideen has been invoked with great frequency by investigating agencies, their dossiers bulging with Interrogation Reports of suspected IM operatives, lengthy accounts of secret meetings and modus operandi. Over the years, these secret dossiers, chargesheets and reports have congealed a narrative about the birth and growth of IM in public consciousness. This book does no more than tritely reproduce that narrative. “The ‘source’ data for our study”, say the four authors, are primarily “an excellent book by Gupta (2011) and work reported by Fair (2010)”, besides “a vast range of other open source information, particularly from the Indian press”. Shishir Gupta’s sources in turn are mainly custodial confessions. Christine Fair has relied on Indian press reports and terrorism analysts, but concedes, “It is nearly impossible to validate the authenticity of the journalistic accounts of the organizations and their actions.” Further, she says, “The most prominent Indian journalist on this subject is Praveen Swami, who is exceedingly well-connected to the Indian intelligence community…”
In brief then, the IM chronicle is largely an enterprise crafted by the intelligence and investigative agencies.
Though to be sure, there is not an absolute absence of critical reportage and writing, more cynical of the claims of the agencies – but those don’t find their way into this book. The farthest the book travels in its critique of the agencies is to refer to the dispute over the perpetrators of the Mumbai suburban train bombings of 2006. That one of its authors is an ex director of CBI whose “years of experience within an investigative authority” was drawn upon by the research team only reinforces its insider-ness. It takes the security establishment’s views as unimpeachable truth, raising no questions, offering no insights.
But it does have some gems. In an apparent bid to analyze the Indian Mujahideen – which lacks a head office or a centralized structure, by the agencies’ own claims – the book provides us with a rapid overview of their areas of operation. One could speak of power bases of LTTE, or Taliban, or Lashkar, with its head office in Muridke in Pakistan Punjab, but what precisely does one mean by averring, “In addition to regions like Azamgarh and Saharanpur, IM also has significant centers of action in Deobandi madrassahs in Bharuch (in Gujarat) and Ujjain (in Madhya Pradesh).
In the north, one may also count the states of Bihar and West Bengal as areas of considerable (current or previous) IM activity.
In the south, IM has strong power bases in Maharashtra (within the urban centers of Mumbai, Pune, Surat, and Nasik), in Andhra Pradesh (where they have carried out frequent attacks in the city of Hyderabad), in Karnataka (the Bhatkal brothers who co-founded IM with others grew up in Mangalore, Karnataka) as well as in Bengaluru where numerous IM attacks have taken place. IM also has power bases in both the states of Tamil Nadu and Kerala.”
What the authors mean is this: “Attacks usually, but not always, occur in places where a group has at least some support within the underlying population.”
And just in case, we did not comprehend who the “underlying population” was, it further clarifies: “Though support for fundamentalism is common in some Muslim neighborhoods, support for Islamic jihad is limited and not rampant in urban centers. Islamic fundamentalism is strongest in some pockets of southern India (such as Kerala and Karnataka) and northeastern India (particularly areas bordering Bangladesh and Myanmar), in the villages of Uttar Pradesh, and in Jammu and Kashmir. Rajasthan and Orissa are hibernation grounds for Islamic militants and they often escape to these places after perpetrating attacks.” (p. 39)
Sweeping prejudiced proclamations masquerade as observations.
“IM also has a robust media wing responsible for issuing the emailed communiqués under Mansoor Peerbhoy, which is headquartered in Pune, Maharashtra.” (p. 38) Headquartered? One hopes that these authors—four in all, claiming to be experts on terrorism and counter terrorism – understand what it means to say headquarters of an organization. Where precisely is this geographical and physical site of the media headquarters? In Peerbhoy’s laptop? Writing in 2103, they allude to Peerbhoy and Pune in the present tense, forgetting that Peerbhoy has been in Sabarmati Jail since 2008. But such are the pitfalls of copy pasting from ‘official’ sources with no independent research.
Now, the computation analysis part. The authors claim to have collected data on more than 770 variables a monthly basis between January 2002 to December 2010, organizing them along the two axes of environment and action. Is 770 their lucky number? Because that was the exact number of variables the authors gathered data on for their previous book on Lashkar. That IM did not exist in 2002 is a minor problem solved by the authors’ recourse to coding Asif Raza Commando Force and Students Islamic Movement of India as part of IM. This relatively brief lineage, however, ought to be welcomed as the original source on IM, Swami, has elsewhere insisted on tracing it to 15th century Malabar.
Employing what they call the Temporal Probabilistic Rules (T-P rules) based on data mining algorithms, the authors predict possible future behaviour pattern of the IM. “Simplified versions of TP-rules” have been used earlier by the authors to “successfully” predict the behavior of Hezbollah, Hamas and Lashkar-e-Taiba. Chapter 3 lays out the impressive mathematical models which yielded 37,000 TP rules, most of which the authors admit were either “uninteresting or repetitive”. The more interesting TP rules are delineated in chapter 4 -7. For all the pages expended on these interesting rules, they can be summarized as follows. First, there are three kinds of ‘bad acts’ of IM:
• Attacks on public sites;
• Simultaneous/timed attacks.
How precisely can the three be distinguished considering that attacks on public sites attributed to IM have been bombings, as have simultaneous/ timed attacks been bombings. Furthermore, simultaneous / timed attacks have targetted public sites. But this isn’t a book where one should expect clarity of categories (even one titled “bad acts”).
The TP rules predict that an attack by IM can be expected five months after thawing of Indo-Pak relations (‘bad men’ in Pakistan army will want to play spoiler); four months after IM holds a conference; three months before the interactions between IM members and NSAGs would get pronounced and a public declaration is made about its intent and future actions; and finally, a month or so after members of IM are arrested. Chapter after chapter repeats this same hypothesis, first for attacks on public sites, then for bombings, followed by simultaneously timed attacks. None of this of course can be verified with any authority “without access to the internal deliberations and planning processes within IM.” Why then go through all the trouble of creating elaborate mathematical models and fancy syntax if good old intelligence groundwork is all that will eventually matter. Even within the paradigm of unquestioned credulity that the authors are operating, these algorithmic conclusions – predictions for the intelligence and security agencies to act upon – are sparse.
But deeming computation to be its USP, the book goes on to use integer linear programming to automatically generate policy options to counter the IM. The policy recommendations are nothing short of dangerous—leaving one wondering what was fed to the computers in the first place. Among its key recommendations is setting up of “special counter terror courts”. What, pray, are counter terrorism courts? The task of the courts is to try the accused, weigh the evidence, and arrive at a conclusion – not to become instruments of counter terrorism policy. Moreover, these are envisaged as secret courts “out of the glare of India’s energetic press”. The authors would also like to see the “elimination” of IM operatives “if authorized by courts”. In other words, they seek the legalization of encounter killings.
The book further suggests closer counter terrorism ties between India, US and Israel (little wonder that it comes glowingly endorsed by Uzi Arad, former National Security Advisor to the Prime Minister of Israel and Head, Israel National Security Council).
There is one recommendation though which had me smiling: “security organizations should put out deliberate misinformation”. Do the authors realise the probability (since TP rules are the favoured term here) of their book being the product of such a strategy?
All the rule syntax is unable to save the book from its own weaknesses – lack of primary research about the organisation the authors wish to speak of so authoritatively; ignorance compunded by rank prejudice, and the boilerplate language of national security. The window dressing of algorithm serves to reinforce rather than hide its blindspots. Reading the book I was reminded of the anthropologist Robert Albro’s quip, “I’m not saying that computational social science is a voodoo science. I’m saying that voodoo science is all too frequently being generated from computational social science.”Albro’s caution describes the Laboratory of Computational Cultural Dynamics – of which the lead authors VS Subramanian and Aaron Mannes are co-Director and researcher respectively – rather aptly.
In the past LCCD has produced software with such lovely names as STONE (shaping terrorist organisation network efficacy), which uses open source data to predict the successor (and also the successor’s successor) of a ‘removed’ terrorist; and SCARE (The Spatio-Cultural Abductive Reasoning Engine) to predict the location of IED weapon caches in Iraq and Afghanistan. One could legitimately ask what’s ‘cultural’ about an improvised explosive device? One could also ask why LCCD studies entities as disparate as terrorist organisations and tribes? These are not questions asked in jest –but lead to the many ways in which academics is being sucked into the military industrial complex.
The concept of culture and the services of anthropologists and sociologists have been central to the new counter insurgency strategies, post 9/11. Troops leaving for Iraq and Afghanistan were slipped in copies of the Counter Insurgency Manual, a ‘scholarly’ guide to aid them in dealing with the local culture, and to help them win the ‘hearts and minds’ battle. Several anthropologists embraced the military’s cultural turn, writing for the manual, re-published later by the University of Chicago Press. In 2008, the Department of Defense inaugurated the Minerva Consortium where DoD would fund a pool of universities to research in specific areas.
In the haste however to be of service to the nation, ‘culture’ was emptied of all complexities, presenting a view of ‘enemy’ societies in line with the notions prevalent in the military – or the department of defence, which was also the funder. Equally, it could be reduced to a set of variables, which could then be run through complicated mathematical programmes to predict behaviour and offer policy. (For a brilliant critique, see The Counter-Counterinsurgency Manual by the Network of Concerned Anthropologists, Prickly Paradigm Press, 2009 and Weaponizing Anthropology by David H. Price, Counterpunch and AK Press, 2011).
LCCD seems to be afflicted with the same ailment. Combining dubious cultural knowledge with computation, it has produced a range of software platforms to enable the US military to further its wars. Its SCARE software prophesied that Shia groups with ties to Iran were the bombers so IEDs couldn’t be located in Sunni neighbourhoods. (The military was “clearly trying it out”, according to Subramanian). Another of its software CAGE, (Cultural Adversarial Game Engine), is a platform rapidly recreates “a given part of the world – complete with the ‘look and feel’ of that part of the world and, more importantly, with people who behave in accordance with models of the behaviors of the socio-cultural-ethnic-religious groups to which they belong”. A related game called the Cultural Island Game (CIG) is “a training simulation to reduce culture shock and prevent acting against societal norms.” For example, “In an Afghan village, a United States soldier must interact with residents ranging from the revered village elders to regular farmers.” It’s obvious why terrorist groups figure high on the priority list of LCCD. Its website says that the “lab tends to track groups our sponsors find interesting (terrorist organizations)”.
But why tribes? The answer may lie in the unveiling of US Army’s African Command (AFRICOM), which set up the Socio Cultural Research and Advisory Team (SCRAT) in Djibouti to enhance military operations through understanding of local cultures. Concerned Anthropologists noted that recruitment advertisements for AFRICOM stressed on the candidates’ understanding of tribal and clan composition, ethnicity and religion, besides “‘creativity’ in data collection and data mining techniques” (“Africom, Human Terrain, Empire, and Anthropology” by Maximillian Forte, Zero Anthropology, 27 March 2010). Africa, remember, is an important theatre of ‘war against terror’. And LCCD researchers in the past have attempted to make spurious connections between Somalian pirates and Islamists, particularly with Al Shabab – without having done any primary contact with the region or its ground reality (this does seem to be the leitmotif of their ‘researches’).
The British anthropologist Jeremy Keenan in his book The Dark Sahara: America’s War on Terror has argued that following the occupation of Afghanistan the US military entertained the theory that those terrorists which had escaped its dragnet had fled to Sahara through the Horn of Africa (where Somalia lies). The problem in justifying the opening of the Saharan front, however, was the absence of any terrorist activity. So, says Keenan who has spent years conducting fieldwork in Sahara, seven kidnappings of foreigners were orchestrated by the Americans and the Algerian secret service—the latter desperate to be a local partner in the US war on terror in Africa. The front man who had ordered the kidnappings on the behalf of Americans and Algerians began to be labeled an aide of Osama. And Sahara began to be talked about as a swamp of terror, which needed draining. (see Keenan’s interview on Democracy Now here. LCCD’s interest in tribes, as well as its far-fetched linkages between Somalian pirates and Islamists make sense in the backdrop of this need for the creation of scholarship on terrorism in Africa.
LCCD’s research is funded primarily by Air force Office of Scientific Research, Office of Naval Research and Army Research Office, the last being also the main sponsor of the IM book.
These embedded academics and the military operate in an intimate symbiotic relationship—the defence budgets dictating the narrow scope of research enquiries, requiring the abandonment of all critical thinking and the embracing of the national security state; the militarized academics enjoying the fruits of large research budgets in exchange of research results which can justify or fluff up the ends of the military industrial complex in scholarly language. While the extent of these interests in directing research in Indian universities may be limited, the proliferation of ‘think tanks’ in the last few years, especially with those focused on security and strategic issues is an indication of where we may be headed.
And the uses such research will be put to can be gauged from this one example. Another study A Perception Survey of Media Impact on Kashmiri Youth, Institute for Research on India and International Studies, 2012, available here, funded by the Ministry of Home Affairs, which tracked the perceptions of Kashmiri youth through their use of social media among other means, was followed by arrests of young people who ran pro-Azadi facebook pages “J and K Cops crack down on Anti-India FB pages”, Hindustan Times, It’s more than simply mediocrity in research we are faced with.