The Uproar over PERF: Occupy Controlling the Information Environment

Perception is reality.

All sorts of media outlets are going into a low hover today over PERF, the Police Executive Research Forum, a think-tank that serves police chiefs of major cities in the US and apparently Canada.  (See here, here, and here for examples.)  It seems that PERF has, gasp, been in conference calls with police chiefs over how to handle the Occupy protests.  In the media, this has turned into PERF “coordinating” crackdowns across the country.

This meme that PERF is coordinating violent crackdowns is a big win in the information sphere for Occupy.  However, it seems to be only tenuously related to the truth.

The Occupy meme has it, of course, that the advice PERF is giving to police departments around the country is to be more violent and more aggressive.  After all, many senior leaders of PERF were police chiefs in cities where mass arrests took place during various demonstrations.  And there seems to be documentary evidence, too, right out of PERF’s own writings.  One Occupy website reported that a PERF document “encourages the use of undercover officers and snatch squads to ‘grab the bad guys and remove them from the crowd.'”  [That hyperlink may not work for a while.  Anonymous has taken down the PERF website.]

This is mendacious, at best.  The broader context has the Seattle Police Chief talking about how his department has learned from its screwups during the Battle of Seattle in 1999.  Note especially how he ends his remarks:

One more thing we can utilize is a program called “Anti-Violence Teams.” This is a two-part option. We can assign plainclothes officers into the crowd to follow troublemakers. These plainclothes officers are supported by the uniformed personnel assigned to the event. Plainclothes people identify the people engaged in illegal activity or displaying a weapon, and the commander can deploy their uniformed personnel to go in and grab the bad guys and remove them from the crowd. It’s a targeted approach to address those who are violating the law or endangering the public, protesters or police. While not always used, this option provides another tool to on-site commanders to address troublemakers without trying to stop a peaceful protest or demonstration.

In fact, the PERF report in question is suffused with an ethos that would probably make law-and-order types from the chattering classes think the police had succumbed to political correctness.  Much of what PERF does a military analyst would recognize  as “adaptation,” the process of figuring out  new solutions after something goes wrong in a conflict.  Herewith some excerpts that give a better sense of the document:

  • We started developing what we call our “meet and greet” strategy. Instead of using riot officers in Darth Vader outfits, we aim to be totally engaged with the crowd. We were out there high-fiving, shaking hands, asking people how they’re doing, and telling the crowd that “We are here to keep you safe.” We have found that this creates a psychological bonding with the crowd that pays real dividends.
  • It’s worth remembering that most protesters are peaceful; only a very small number are criminals and  agitators who smash windows, vandalize the corporate buildings, and so on. Our goal was to communicate this message to the bulk of the protesters:  “We’re your friends. We are here to protect your right to protest. We will stand in harm’s way to protect your right to protest.”
  • If someone is not infringing on the good times of  another person, then we don’t take the heavyhanded approach and enforce minor infractions. If people get into a scuffle, we try to break it up and separate them. During Mardi Gras, arrests are a last resort for us.
  • One problem in dealing with black bloc protesters is that they infiltrate the crowd in street clothing, get to the center of the larger crowd, and then put on black clothing and masks. You’ve got a large group that’s going down the street and a smaller group dressed in black within that larger group. You know what they are going to try to do at some point; they haven’t done it yet but they are going to do it. How do you go into that crowd now and extract that group preventatively without agitating the rest of the crowd and provoking a larger fight? You can’t forget about the other people who are there. There are tens of thousands of people coming just to protest and march legitimately, and you have to look after their rights.
  • When dealing with law-breaking protesters, don’t forget that thousands of nonviolent protesters are merely exercising their First Amendment rights. So the police must differentiate the lawbreaking protesters from those who are peaceful.
  • We’ve got to get over this fear of videotaping our own people.
  • This protest group sat down in the middle of the intersection at 23rd Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, and the motormen were all ready to jump up and start arresting them.  But instead, we just pulled away and diverted traffic around them. After a while, the group got tired and left. It wasn’t a big deal. So if you don’t have to arrest, don’t do it. It will save you a lot of problems. We don’t need to go after every single person who acts aggressively towards a police officer unless there’s a danger of an officer getting hurt.
  • Admit your mistakes openly.
  • Make sure you have competent leaders in the field to prevent officers from overreacting.
  • Think carefully before you make arrests. Arrests can take valuable resources away from the event and later can result in years of litigation.

Another PERF document on handling mass demonstrations includes such thuggish passages in its section on the use of force as:

  • The police should seek to facilitate any lawful and legitimate aims of groups who are present—especially when conflict breaks out. The aim should be to permit the pursuit of lawful actions while dealing with groups acting illegally.
  • Officers must be mindful that a crowd can consist of a variety of persons, present for a range of reasons. When violence starts, there is the risk of dealing with all those present as if they are hostile protestors.  However, especially in such situations, it is crucial to treat people with respect and win them to law enforcement’s side, not the side of those already promoting conflict. It may be necessary to facilitate the desires of the many, such as the wish to peacefully protest, so that the demonstrators may assist the police with their overall intention, which is to prevent disorder.
  • We have seen from police after-action reports and third-party reviews of police practices that the mass detention of protestors not actively engaged in violence can create significant problems for law enforcement agencies (New York Civil Liberties Union 2004).  Mass arrests during demonstrations in Washington, D.C., New York City and other major locales have been criticized. In some cases, the protest activity, while unlawful, was not necessarily violent. Complaints included that law-abiding protestors and passersby were rounded up and detained along with violators in overly broad sweeps. The negative impact of these media images damages the public perception of the police operation, as it draws into question the reasonableness and proportionality of the police response. Subsequent litigation has proven to be particularly costly. In most instances only a tiny number of those arrested actually appear in court and most of those are charged with offenses that would not normally attract an arrest or detention.
  • The Boston Police Department conducted a critical review of its training and use of less-lethal weapons after police fired a plastic, pepper-spray filled projectile that killed a young woman in 2005. The FN303 firing device is often used because it was designed to avoid causing bodily injury.  However, instructions indicate that it should not be aimed above the waist. The young woman who was killed was unintentionally struck in the eye. Police professionals should not necessarily abandon the use of this type of device, but should be aware of incidents such as this and provide proper training in order to avoid similar tragedies.

As one reads these documents, it’s interesting to note how often the problems and screwups in the past that PERF seeks to correct stem from the application of force (too much force, or force applied too broadly, or force poorly applied by ill-trained officers).

Based on all this, my guess would be–and it’s just a guess because I have no more direct data than do the reporters and Occupy publicists who are pushing this story– that what PERF is telling police chiefs is “you are screwing up.”  Pepper-spraying kids who are sitting on the ground may serve the police department’s short term interest, but won’t serve it well over any longer time frame.

PERF is in a position much like that of the COIN advocates in the US military.  They are saying that the police need to win hearts and minds, they need to have good contacts in the community, they should show restraint even in the face of provocation, they should target the use of their full power as precisely as possible, etc.

Ironically, by delegitimizing PERF and perhaps by chilling police chiefs from talking with it, the Occupy folks may well be setting the stage for more police violence and overreactions.  Of course, this would serve Occupy well.  A good round of police atrocities could be what really kicks their movement into overdrive.

Do I really think that Occupy is purposely trying to sideline sideline the moderates among those who oppose them so as to get more police violence?  (This is an old strategy of insurgents: hollow out the middle thereby making your opponents look more and more extreme.  It can be very effective.)  No, not in this case, at least.  However, Occupy has positioned itself nicely in the information sphere such that anything the police do short of roll over and play dead, serves Occupy’s interest.  That’s a great position for them to be in.

Update on Strategic Manhunting/Studying Special Operations

Benjamin Runkle, author of the forthcoming Wanted Dead or Alive: Manhunts from Geronimo to Bin Laden, about which I wrote the other day, has a brief but thought-provoking article about the topic here at Foreign Policy.  In it he asks why we are attracted to the notion of strategic manhunting.  (HOTEL TANGO to Elizabeth Nathan.)

He finds that “killing or capturing an individual seldom correlates to strategic success” but assesses nevertheless that the idea of manhunting is likely to remain attractive to us.  Two of the several  reasons for this, he suggests, are that the idea of inducing strategic paralysis is attractive and that we manhunt because today’s technology means that we can.

These reasons, which I think are quite right, remind me of those other technologically-enabled theorists who have proposed other ways of achieving strategic paralysis: Fuller, and Boyd, and Warden, for instance.  One might also add Harlan Ullman in there.  For a book that is well worth reading and that casts a lot of cold water on such ideas (thought it doesn’t address Ullman), see James Kiras’ Special Operations and Strategy:  From World War II to the War on Terrorism.  Kiras basically argues that we have given too much attention to one-off “special operations and great raids” and their alleged ability to induce strategic paralysis and other dramatic effects.  In part this has happened because there is a great deal of literature about such operations.  He maintains that we should instead understand the strategic importance of special operations forces as lying primarily in their ability to induce “moral and material attrition in conjunction with conventional forces.”  He seeks to align himself against those who are attracted to ideas of “strategic annihilation” and alongside those who purportedly really understood the strategic dimensions of attrition.  In this latter category he puts Clausewitz, Delbrück, Mao, and T. E. Lawrence.

I’m still undecided on whether I really agree with Kiras, but it does seem to me that the idea has some obvious congruence with counterinsurgency efforts like the one in Iraq where special operations were ubiquitous and apparently indispensable but seldom dramatic stop-the-presses kinds of affairs.  Rather, they were a key part of the effort to hold the enemy in check while the broader Coalition force made blandishments to the population as a whole.

Gene Sharp’s Strategic Non-Violent Conflict and the Egyptian Revolution

This is an item that I wrote a couple of months ago and for some reason never posted.  I’ve dredged it up and offer it for what it may be worth, recognizing that it is rather less than timely at this point.

NPR recently interviewed Gene Sharp, whom they call the “Clausewitz of Nonviolent Warfare,” about the revolution in Egypt.*  The excuse for the story was that apparently some of the Egyptians in Tahrir Square had read Sharp’s books From Dictatorship to Democracy and the three volume Politics of Nonviolent Action.

The story is interesting in itself but the comments are also worth reading.  They touch on the difficult question of how one knows that a text has actually had an effect in the real world.  Another comment, apparently from an Egyptian, downplays the influence of Sharp’s work.  He writes “Yes, the organizers are sophisticated and educated, but not in the theory of nonviolent movement.”  Then he gets into more difficult territory:

It really is important to give credit where it is due. It is the habit of the West to want to own the origins of good ideas. Unfortunately this habit ends up being the ugliness of Orientalism. That is not what NPR is saying, I know. But, the Egyptian people own this victory. Let us have it.

I have trouble agreeing that enunciating the proposition that some of the Egyptian revolutionaries may have among their influences an American is tantamount to stealing the credit for the revolution.  It seems to me that if one is to believe that one must believe at least one of the following propositions:

  1. The Egyptian revolution is unusual in that it was invented from whole cloth, conceived completely without influence from “the other.”
  2. All struggles, including this one, are invented from whole cloth, conceived from first principles and indigenous work without influence from any “other.”
  3. Some of the Egyptians may plausibly have been influenced by Gene Sharp but that fact should be suppressed so as to avoid hurting anyone’s ego.

I find all of these insupportable.  The third proposition is condescending, the second is demonstrably false; and the first is highly improbable on its face.  In addition, of course, the first proposition is, I would argue, precisely the sort of thinking that constitutes Orientalism: the idea that Egyptians (in this case) are special and exotic, set aside from all the rest of us, and with limited capability for learning or evolving.

I think, rather, that the possibility that some Egyptians read and took to heart the work of Gene Sharp is a profoundly un-Orientalist idea.  It means that Egyptians, like the rest of us, are global citizens, not merely captives of their own exotic, retrograde world.  Like the rest of us, they do learn and they do evolve.

Now, whether Egyptians were, in fact, meaningfully influenced by Gene Sharp isn’t clear yet, the NPR story notwithstanding.  However, as someone interested in strategic thought, I’d like to think that we will learn more about this over time.

* I think calling Gene Sharp “Clausewitz” is ill-advised, though he is a man of great abilities who has made tremendous contributions.  To that extent, I think that NPR’s title for the story is poorly chosen.  However, I do tend to think that “warfare” is the right word for it.  I will admit that my thinking on this is not fully formed, but I’m not convinced  think that warfare needs to be predominantly violent and I’m willing to seriously entertain the possibility that it need not be violent at all in its actual manifestation.  Clausewitz, it seems to me, opens the door to this line of inquiry, though I admit he probably wouldn’t agree with me.  I refer, in particular to his section in Book 3, Chapter 1 entitled “Possible Engagements Are To Be Regarded As Real Ones Because of Their Consequences.”  (p. 181 in the Paret-Howard translation)

Leaderless Resistance: Well Isn’t That Convenient?


I’ve suggested before that Anonymous qualifies as a leaderless resistance movement, though, frankly, I waffled on that a little bit because Anonymous hasn’t been violent.

Be that as it may, Anonymous does display many of the qualities of a leaderless resistance movement and it has recently put one of those on particular display.  Last month somebody hacked into Sony’s networks and stole a great deal of customer data, including credit card numbers.  The perpetrator left behind a file named “Anonymous” which contained the phrase “We are legion,” a part of the group’s slogan.

On a blog which claims to speak for Anonymous, a recent posting disavows responsibility for this raid on Sony, implying that Anonymous is not a crass criminal organization but instead is and asserting that it has “never been known to engage in credit card theft.”

I see.  The assertion may be true, but this is all very convenient, isn’t it?

The Anonymous movement is not only leaderless with no definable membership, but in fact it really exists only as an ideology, as Simson Garfinkel has helped us understand.  Hence, any action not consistent with that ideology was not undertaken by the movement, even if it was actually undertaken by someone thinking he/she was acting on behalf of the movement.

Hence, a leaderless resistance movement can be absolutely ideologically pure.  Oh, how the Marxists must be jealous.

Assessing “The Vision of the Jihaadi Movement”

An interesting new strategy document has appeared on the forums.  (See also here.)  It is entitled “The Vision of the Jihaadi Movement and the Strategy of the Current Stage” and written by one Abu Jihad ash-Shami, “a Mujaahid in one of the known Global Jihaadi Fronts that espouse[s] the Salafi Jihaadi Methodology,” as the anonymous translator puts it.

In some ways, this document is an entry into the long-standing debate in Salafi jihadist circles over whether it is best to focus on the near enemy or the far.  This author’s emphasis is on the global fight, putting him to that extent in the al Qaida camp.  However, he also criticizes al Qaida’s strategy and offers a new one.

This author does not seem to be nearly as focused on the heart of the Arab world as many leading al Qaida figures have been.  He mentions mujahidin from Morocco to China and India and he urges his readers not to be in such a rush to liberate all the lands that fell under Sykes-Picot if that rush becomes unhelpful to the overall effort.  Furthermore, he maintains that:

Always focusing on al-Quds is only from the many means of uniting the Ummah behind the goal of the Jihaadi Movement because many of the Muslims today do not see there to be any other enemy besides the Jews. But this does not mean that we must put all of our military and strategic focus on conquering al-Quds.

In offering his new strategy, ash-Shami draws on the writings of Sa’d al-‘Amili, Mohammed al-Hakaymah, Abu Bakr Naji, and Abu Musab al-Suri.  In particular, he offers a way to unify the disparate strategic prescriptions of al Qaida, many of its locally-focused affiliates, al-Suri (open source jihad) and Naji.  It’s not necessarily clear to me that Ash-Shami fully succeeds, but he is clearly swinging for the intellectual fences.  Seldom do jihadist thinkers really strategize coherently about how to succeed in the global aspects of their struggle, so anybody who purports to try gets my attention.

Ash-Shami starts out by defining a goal for the Salafi jihadists: the establishment of the Caliphate.  Of course, this is not new though he will go on to argue that many jihadists have, as a practical matter, lost sight of it.  Interestingly, he does add one new angle in saying that this Caliphate must “govern the entire earth with all of the Shari’ah.”  While the jihadists, of course, believe that Islam has universal applicability and thus should and will come to Peoria eventually, they usually don’t spill much ink on that, so this was an interesting passage.

In any event, having defined the establishment of the Caliphate as the “vision” for the movement, Ash-Shami says that the strategy is to the vision as tactics are to the strategy.  That is to say that the one is a means to get to the other.  The strategy, he says, may be very complex and may change over time, but the enduring vision will be short and simple: establishment of the Caliphate.  He notes that sometimes people mix up the vision and the strategy (a criticism which applies in the US no less than in the jihadist world).

Ash-Shami also has what I would even call an elegant explanation of the differences between tactics and strategy:

It is important here to indicate a common attribute shared by both strategies and visions, which is: that they are both set further into the horizon than tactics and other short-term goals. So, if we wanted to attack the Kuffaar, for example, at some particular base of theirs and we discussed between ourselves which method to use to execute the operation and which weapon would be best, some of us could propose a martyrdom operation, others a raid, and yet others a sniping operation. If we were to succeed in killing the enemy by any of these methods, whichever it may be, there wouldn’t be such a large difference between these different methods and history wouldn’t place any importance on the actual choice that was made. However, when we make martyrdom operations a broad strategy that we intend to use in high concentrations (as was the choice of Abu Mus’ab az-Zarqaawi – may Allaah have mercy on him – in Iraq) then the difference between the resultant product of this choice and the product of other choices would become as clear as day.

With his preliminaries taken care of, Ash-Shami then starts to get down to the meat of the issue.  Al Qaida’s strategy, he says is to “attack the Western interests throughout the world in order to awaken the Ummah and remove the power that protects the thrones of the oppressive Taaghuuts of our own races.”  In other words, Al Qaida views itself as a vanguard party pursuing a cost imposing strategy against the United States in order to oblige it to remove itself from the Muslim world.

This strategic “innovation” was a stroke of “genius” ash-Shami says, but he warns Muslims not to hold to the strategy for its own sake.  Rather, they must recall that this strategy exists only to bring about the Caliphate, not for the sake of “simply harming the interests of the Kuffaar throughout the world.”  However, many mujahidin have forgotten this simple fact.  Ash-Shami assesses this as a grave error.

In the end we will find that we are busy starting up new fronts and chasing out the Kuffaar without any focus on the necessary infrastructure for establishing the Islaamic Khilaafah and we could miss out on harvesting the fruits of our work. The other movements could take advantage of the safety and stability in order to establish secular states; just like what transpired after the first Jihaad against the colonialists.

Ash-Shami maintains that the Taliban, the Islamic State of Iraq, the Chechen mujahidin, and AQIM are making a different mistake.  These groups “are striving to remove the occupier from their lands (or to remove the apostate regimes) in order to establish an Islaamic Emirate which establishes the Shari’ah.”  True, ash-Shami maintains, this strategy does have the advantage of doing something practical.  However, “due to the nature of local conflict, and due to becoming pre-occupied with removing the occupier, the issue of making the conflict global has become merely a bi-product of the strategy, and not its core.”  Jihadists, he says, must “first and foremost” look toward making the conflict global, even while acting to establish Sharia locally.  In fact, “it is more befitting of us that we direct all of these victories and gains towards one unified project as opposed to having multiple different projects (even if it is from our plans to unite these projects later on down the line.)”

His prescription?  Here Ash-Shami puts himself firmly into Abu Bakr Naji’s camp.  The mujahidin should combine the global conflict of Al Qaida and the “element of establishing the Shariah” from the local affiliates “while always reminding ourselves…that these two elements are merely two sides of the same coin.”  In particular, he thinks the mujahidin should open “safe havens.”  These would exist “not solely for the purpose of taking control of land, not solely for the purpose of establishing Shari’ah, not solely for the purpose of attacking the far enemy, and not solely for the purpose of spreading out throughout the land – rather, for the purpose of constructing the infrastructure for the rightly-guided Islaamic Khilaafah.”

Ash-Shami makes clear that by “infrastructure” he does not mean roads and bridges.  Those, he says, are byproducts of infrastructure.  Rather, “infrastructure” to him means “men and money.”  Here he quotes Sa’d al-‘Aamili at length, arguing for bases and safe-havens for the mujahidin, schools and sound Islamic as well as practical education, and “constant funding.”

So, ash-Shami says, when we liberate an area we must consolidate our gains there before moving to liberate new lands.  “This is done by establishing the Shari’ah, increasing propagation, improving the administration and management, and by fully learning the sciences of the Shari’ah before other military and worldly sciences.”

In this way we will raise the level of the Mujaahidiin as well as the level of the populace all at once and we will enter the stage of having a Jihaad that is fought by the entire Ummah (just as Abu Mus’ab as-Suuri explained in his book Da’watul Muqaawamah and just as can be found in the book of Abu Bakr Naaji: Idaarat at-Tawahhush) and we will receive monetary funds from Zakaah, charitable donations, and investments (in business, agriculture, livestock, etc.) and we will reach the level of self-sufficiency which is necessary to spread out to the other lands.

Ash-Shami now rhetorically asks, “What about the outside threat? And where is the global aspect?”  Well, he says:

The launching pad will provide the cadres and the wealth necessary to achieve the dream of opening new fronts and executing outside operations….In this way our goal of spreading out throughout the world will become a reality because it will be built upon the necessary resources to do that and because we will focus on spreading unconventionally deep into enemy territory.

Sensibly, ash-Shami is at pains to explain that “spreading out” and “opening new fronts” should be done by means of guerrilla warfare because this mode of warfare corresponds well to the mujahidin’s relative conventional weakness.  With a bit of a Maoist flair, he suggests that guerrilla warfare can defeat “the enemy” by imposing costs or even actually exhausting him.

I do not intend to state here that the borders of the state should never be spread conventionally in an absolute sense. Rather, I intend to say that the enemy should be sufficiently weakened first – from the very heart if possible – before going on to actually capturing lands. Spreading out too quickly could actually lead to a quicker and larger retreat! Also, seeing that the enemy is currently occupying much of our lands with its limited army – from the perspective of size and resources – it will not be able to fight on multiple fronts on all different sides of the world. Therefore, very small work from our side – which is spread out according to carefully studied plans – can cause the enemy to become completely embarrassed and it can cause the enemy to become dragged down into many small battles which will break its back by the will of Allaah.

He goes on:

The difference between different strategies only becomes clear when there is a possibility of taking one of the two options and it will not be clear in the state of necessity (a lack of financial resources, cadres, and time). In the state of necessity everyone is busy striving simply to survive and there is nothing more important than surviving.  However, we should beware of being the ones who manufacture this state of necessity with our own hands due to choosing to act chaotically or due to placing subsidiary issues high on our list of priorities. Sometimes a state of necessity may seem to exist while it does not actually exist in reality; rather it is a psychological state that we have forced upon ourselves.

Finally, Ash-Shami says, the mujahidin need a Caliph.  In a phrase that probably sounds better in Arabic, he asks, “what is the Khilaafah without a Khaliifah??!”  He recommends that the Caliph be of the Quraysh tribe and be from the Arabian Peninsula.  In another—albeit small—sign of the growing importance of Yemen, he says that country would be a fine location for the Caliph, as the jihad is doing well there and Yemen is close to Somalia where the jihad is also doing well.  That said, he believes that it would be acceptable if the Caliph arose in Iraq, too.

The Caliphate that he envisions would be made up of disconnected pieces, but he makes an interesting, if not entirely persuasive argument,to suggest why that can be helpful, given that the overall strategy is to cause the enemy, here “the empire,” to tire itself through fighting. not necessarily a problem.

[Disconnected territory] is not always a shortcoming. The far off distances between the different parts of one country are only harmful when those parts are all dependent upon one another and when the military strategy being employed requires fighting in the same ranks. As for fronts which are self-dependant and employ the strategy of unconventional warfare, then multiplicity is actually in the interests of those fronts at the expense of the enemy (especially if the occupying enemy claims to be a strong empire because it is not possible for it to turn a blind eye to an open revolt inside its empire).

There are some intellectually appealing points to this strategy.  Ash-Shami has accurately diagnosed a serious problem in the jihadist movement: the lack of focus.  He neatly deploys Abu Bakr Naji’s central idea to provide a functional context for Abu Musab al-Suri’s concept of “leaderless jihad.”  However, he does not address a major problem that al-Suri quite correctly mentions: the crushing military ability of the United States that can obliterate most jihadist safe havens.

Even if ash-Shami’s strategic thinking isn’t perfect, however, it represents yet another step in the intellectual adaptation of the jihadist movement as its elites try to bridge the gap between what they expected and what is actually happening on the world’s battlefields.  The very existence of that adaptation process is, in itself, a worrying sign for us.

[4 November update:  One of the two sites that I’ve found this text was the Islamic Awakening [IA] forum.  Someone posted a wonderful comment there about my own post.  The comment linked to this page and said in its entirety “Seems the kufar took the book more seriously than IA.”]