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Future Imperative

What if technology were being developed that could enhance your mind or body to extraordinary or even superhuman levels -- and some of these tools were already here? Wouldn't you be curious?

Actually, some are here. But human enhancement is an incredibly broad and compartmentalized field. We’re often unaware of what’s right next door. This site reviews resources and ideas from across the field and makes it easy for readers to find exactly the information they're most interested in.

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The future is coming fast, and it's no longer possible to ignore how rapidly the world is changing. As the old order changes -- or more frequently crumbles altogether -- I offer a perspective on how we can transform ourselves in turn... for the better. Nothing on this site is intended as legal, financial or medical advice. Indeed, much of what I discuss amounts to possibilities rather than certainties, in an ever-changing present and an ever-uncertain future.

Monday, May 09, 2011

Obama, Osama, and the Deeper Strategy

As the death of Osama bin Laden sinks in around the world, attention has focused on the 2.7 terabytes of data recovered in the assault. One terabyte being roughly 2,000 hours worth of video or 220 million pages of text, these de facto archives seem significant.

Although analysts have remarked on the value this intelligence could represent, even given some duplication of files and redundant material, outside observers may have made some inaccurate assumptions about how valuable these records really are.

While normally information about cells, agents, leadership and couriers would normally be incredibly important, especially on this scale, there is another factor in play beside which these details, while still critical, seem to pale.

This would be... the donor list.

While al Qaeda may not have maintained a single record of its major contributors, fundraisers and those entrusted to keep and transfer its funds, they are very likely referenced in an archive of this scale. On the face of it, this information would seem to be just one more useful set of clues. On further examination, however, it may well become the crux of President Obama's strategy to shift from a primarily military hunt of al Qaeda to an intelligence and law-enforcement-driven campaign.

When you begin to analyze the movement of al Qaeda funds, especially the money that moves by conventional channels (and quite a bit undoubtedly does, if not directly to its recipients, then to people they pay off, to couriers, to other people in the financial network), you will begin to see some fascinating and telling patterns. If three supporters all send money to a particular recipient over time, and you notice four other individuals making sizable transfers to the same person or organization over time, you realize you may be looking at a person of interest. But when you have enough information to collect bank records for hundreds if not thousands of people, you can run algorithms and pick up a great many patterns very, very fast.

What does this do, in the end?

Ah, that's the fascinating part. Remember that all of this activity is happening in the context of popular democratic revolutions in the Middle East, and that many of the people who have supported al Qaeda over the last 25 years may not be fanatics at all. Remember, their tactics and ostensible goals have changed considerably over the last quarter century.

So, you have a lot of people with lives and jobs and a great deal to lose, now being revealed at incredible speed to U.S. intelligence and law enforcement. You will find some ardent supporters in this group, and the less passionate who keep silent for any number of reasons -- lingering loyalty, fear of reprisal, social pressure, or simply a desire to put all this behind them. But if their leader is gone, if the ideological reasons for al Qaeda's shadow war are patently dissolving, and if these people see the net closing around them... what then?

That question is complicated by the fact that more people besides al Qaeda's casual donors and trusted money men will be asking it. Bin Laden's records are likely extensive enough to reference critical government contacts in Pakistan, Yemen, and elsewhere... people who will realize they are at risk, and who can point to others in return. Indeed, just about every Qaeda ally, leader, lender or operative "knows people," and has intelligence to impart, if only to confirm other data.

Yet the sheer scale involved -- the number of Qaeda supporters, contacts and allies exposed -- is so vast that the U.S. and its friends will inevitably prioritize. And who, then, would law enforcement and intelligence be apt to seize last? Regional or cell leaders trying to slip away in the night? Fanatical killers with a death wish and nothing to lose? Or...

Financiers unlikely to strike personally, and whose primary service to the network, transferring money, might actually be more revealing and valuable to American observers than their immediate arrest, especially if the money -- physical or virtual -- could be tracked by any number of means? Especially if the money could be tracked for great distances, or through multiple transfers?

Ah, you might say, but won't the network eventually realize this fact?

Yes, but the problem is that everyone is now suspect. Their most loyal, diligent, careful people may now effectively be stalking horses for the Americans, all unknowing. And the network may not find out how many have been turned, knowingly or unknowingly, willingly or unwillingly, for years, if ever. U.S. surveillance methods can be incredibly powerful, if they know who to watch and particularly if they can employ the right tools for the right circumstance. They have not had this latitude in the recent past, but matters have already changed dramatically.

But to focus again on the network, we now come to the last, devastating effect of this mission.

As a result of the factors above, Al Qaeda has rebranded itself. The name Qaeda is not so much the mark of failure.

Al Qaeda is now the mark of death.

Consultants who describe al Qaeda as a kind of "shadowy franchise of evil" fail to mention a key fact -- everyone who knows how deeply compromised they are, and who realizes the Americans effectively have to take their time collecting some members, and that the U.S. actually gains by leaving some of them at large... these people all realize that to involve yourself with al Qaeda now is to put yourself in unnecessary peril. Less devoted agents and supporters may melt away, but allies will certainly rethink their association, and most contacts -- suppliers of arms, opium merchants, militia leaders -- will want to distance themselves. Some, indeed, may choose to eliminate the people who link them to the organization, thus removing witnesses or creating "plausible deniability." Governments and intelligence agencies may be especially prone to killing or arresting people themselves in order to silence them or as a "gesture of good faith." And in a rare twist, given the extent to which the tide has turned, U.S. operatives may find it more valuable to leave certain raids and arrests to carefully observed local and national organizations, as a method of testing the competence and trustworthiness of specific people in circumstances where the individual targeted may not be that important... or where their "plausible escape story" might actually add to their value to the intel and law-enforcement agencies directing them or tracking them.

Worse, remember the democratic revolutions mentioned above, and then the whole "shadowy franchise of evil." There are supposedly groups calling themselves al Qaeda with little or nothing to do with the main group. Whether or not that is true, what impact do you think it will have on recruiting, on finding funders, suppliers and allies, if everyone automatically thinks of any Qaeda group as massively compromised, and full of knowing and unknowing agents of the United States?

Further, while such groups can renounce the name, given how widespread Qaeda and its namesakes are, what impact will all of this have on other Sunni-extremist terrorist groups in the Middle East, if everyone begins to assume such groups can be traced and utterly exposed by this overlap in financial supporters -- with people who are inclined to support al Qaeda being inclined to support similar versions of fanatical Sunni terrorism? What impact will it have if people do not believe you if you claim to share their passions but have never had anything to do with the overthrown network... when many people would know to lie, especially any knowing agent of the Americans?

Such networks can not prevail if this kind of environment becomes prevalent, given that the tide of history, represented by democratic movements and other forces, already seems to be leaving al Qaeda in its wake.

In effect, the combination of this mission and the data retrieved from it, alongside the Middle Eastern democracy movement, may have created a powerful immune response in the region, transforming a deadly virus into a potent vaccine.

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