Pentagon Paints Civilians As Potential Terrorists
Social science is being militarised to develop ‘operational tools’ to target peaceful activists and protest movements
A US Department of Defense (DoD) research programme is funding a multi-million dollar programme in universities to identify risks and tipping points for large-scale civil unrest across the world, under the supervision of various US military agencies.
Launched in 2008 – the year of the global banking crisis – the DoD ‘Minerva Research Initiative’ partners with universities “to improve DoD’s basic understanding of the social, cultural, behavioral, and political forces that shape regions of the world of strategic importance to the US.”
Among the projects awarded for the period 2014-2017 is a Cornell University-led study managed by the US Air Force Office of Scientific Research which aims to develop an empirical model “of the dynamics of social movement mobilisation and contagions.” Twitter posts and conversations will be examined “to identify individuals mobilised in a social contagion and when they become mobilised.”
Another project awarded this year to the University of Washington “seeks to uncover the conditions under which political movements aimed at large-scale political and economic change originate,” along with their “characteristics and consequences.” The project, managed by the US Army Research Office, focuses on “large-scale movements involving more than 1,000 participants in enduring activity,” and will cover 58 countries in total.
Last year, the DoD’s Minerva Initiative funded a project to determine ‘Who Does Not Become a Terrorist, and Why?’ which, however, conflates peaceful activists with “supporters of political violence” who are different from terrorists only in that they do not embark on “armed militancy” themselves. The project explicitly sets out to study non-violent activists:
“In every context we find many individuals who share the demographic, family, cultural, and/or socioeconomic background of those who decided to engage in terrorism, and yet refrained themselves from taking up armed militancy, even though they were sympathetic to the end goals of armed groups. The field of terrorism studies has not, until recently, attempted to look at this control group. This project is not about terrorists, but about supporters of political violence.”
I contacted the project’s principal investigator, Prof Maria Rasmussen of the US Naval Postgraduate School, asking why non-violent activists working for NGOs should be equated to supporters of political violence – and which “parties and NGOs” were being investigated – but received no response.
Similarly, Minerva programme staff refused to answer a series of similar questions I put to them, including asking how “radical causes” promoted by peaceful NGOs constituted a potential national security threat of interest to the DoD.
Among my questions, I asked:
“Does the US Department of Defense see protest movements and social activism in different parts of the world as a threat to US national security? If so, why? Does the US Department of Defense consider political movements aiming for large scale political and economic change as a national security matter? If so, why? Activism, protest, ‘political movements’ and of course NGOs are a vital element of a healthy civil society and democracy - why is it that the DoD is funding research to investigate such issues?”
In 2013, Minerva funded a University of Maryland project in collaboration with the US Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory to gauge the risk of civil unrest due to climate change.
Minerva is a prime example of the deeply narrow-minded and self-defeating nature of military ideology. Worse still, the unwillingness of DoD officials to answer the most basic questions is symptomatic of a simple fact – in their unswerving mission to defend an increasingly unpopular global system serving the interests of a tiny minority, security agencies have no qualms about painting the rest of us as potential terrorists.
UK Defence War on Dissent
The self-defeating logic of militarised social science targets anti-capitalist ‘extremists’ in the new ‘age of uncertainty’
In Britain, a key area where this is occurring is in the Research Councils UK (RCUK) Global Uncertainties programme, recently rebranded as the ‘Partnership for Conflict, Crime and Security Research.’
The programme is led by the Economics and Social Research Council (ESRC), and supported by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC). But it is not an independent exercise.
Rather it is explicitly designed to “help governments, businesses and societies to better predict, detect, prevent and mitigate threats to society” in the context of” environmental change and diminishing natural recourses, food security, demographic change, poverty, inequality and poor governance, new and old conflicts, natural disasters and pandemics, expansion of digital technologies, economic downturn and other important global developments.”
The RCUK partnership is thus deeply politicised. It “works closely” with a wide range of UK government departments, including the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, Department of Communities and Local Government, Foreign Office, Ministry of Defence (MoD), Home Office, and the US Homeland Security Department.
Its strategic advisory board is chaired by Sir Richard Mottram, a longtime Whitehall civil servant for defence whose last post was as Permanent Secretary for Intelligence, Security and Resilience in the Cabinet Office – Prime Minister Tony Blair’s top national security adviser.
The government’s defence review which happened to meet with Sir Mottram’s approval, titled ‘Securing Britain in an Age of Uncertainty’, highlights the future risks of heightening “competition for resources, growing populations and climate change.” Priorities include “securing trade and energy supply routes”; working “overseas, using diplomatic, military, intelligence and economic activity to mitigate disruption to the transit of energy supplies”; as well as tackling risks “associated with other resources, such as key mineral components important for particular industries (e.g. rare earth metals which are crucial for some low carbon technologies), water and food.”
Domestically, the review calls for “enhanced central government and Armed Forces planning, coordination and capabilities” under the extraordinary totalitarian powers of the Civil Contingencies Act, to respond to domestic emergencies in the form of natural hazards, environmental disasters or other forms of strategic shocks.
It is no surprise then that UK social scientists are feeling the pressure. International relations departments are being transformed into conveyor belts for establishment-friendly ‘security studies’, with research designed for practical policy and operational utility being favoured the most for funding. Meanwhile, the scope for the sort of independent critical and sceptical inquiry that should be the hallmark of sound scholarship is being undermined.
These concerns are borne out by the facts. In 2007 the Guardian reported on an in-depth report exposing how 26 British universities had received contracts for research from the defence industry to the tune of nearly a billion pounds.
The ideological impetus behind this sort of research can be gleaned from a UK Ministy of Defence (MoD) report on global strategic trends published in 2010, updated in 2013, which contributed to the UK government’s Defence Green Paper.
The key theme of the report by the MoD’s Development, Concept and Doctrines Centre (DCDC) is that the world “is likely to face the reality of a changing climate, rapid population growth, resource scarcity, resurgence in ideology, and shifts in global power from West to East” out to 2040.
Although globalisation is “likely to be an engine for accelerating economic growth” the report said, it could also be “a source of risk, as local markets become increasingly exposed to destabilising fluctuations in the wider global economy. Economically, globalisation is likely to generate winners and losers, especially in the labour market.”
Globalisation will likely benefit “the globalised core, which comprises the most interdependent and economically successful regions of the world.” However, the report alludes to the danger of civil unrest in the core: “Instability within the globalised core is likely to adversely affect the national interests of major powers.” Furthermore it is the job of the globalised core’s security agencies to protect its dominant access to resources and technologies of production.
“Resources, trade, capital and intellectual property are likely to flow through this core, and rely on complex networks of physical and virtual infrastructure” including “air and sea lanes and their associated ports, rail and road infrastructure, communications links, gas, oil, electricity pipelines and cables, food distribution centres, banking and finance hubs, universities and science parks, manufacturing and energy production facilities.” Therefore: “Ensuring the security of this globally distributed infrastructure is likely to be of multilateral interest.”
Given that a tightly-knit network of just 147 of the world’s most powerful companies own and control the bulk of the world’s productive assets, this is virtually a defence manifesto for the 1% (or, perhaps more accurately, the 0.1%).
Despite the world producing sufficient energy, food and freshwater resources, the MoD report continues, “distribution and access to resources will be uneven” – concentrated in the richer core at the expense of the poorer periphery – “and local and regional shortages will occur, increasing the likelihood of societal instability and of disagreement between states, and providing the triggers that may ignite conflict.”
Most disturbing is the report’s implicit securitisation of foreign Muslim-majority populations in the periphery, and diaspora communities in the “core.” Rising populations “especially in the Middle East, Central Asia and sub-Saharan Africa” may “fuel instability” by generating “youth bulges” that could “provide a reservoir of disaffected young people. In particular, young males with limited economic prospects may be susceptible to radicalisation.”
The report emphasises the vulnerability of cities, stating that “large urban areas” especially those with poor governance could become “centres of criminality and disaffection,” and as such, “focal points for extremist ideologies.” This could culminate in “urban, rather than rural, insurgency”, and at worst the failure of local governments. Here, the MoD refers directly to the rationale for the sort of social science research currently being funded in earnest by its American counterpart:
“A greater understanding of the dynamics of urban societies will be required if instability within these regions is to be identified and managed. New ideologies will emerge, driven by religion, ethnic differences, nationalism, inequality or a combination of these factors. Ideological conflicts are likely to occur and extremist groups may use violence to achieve political objectives.”
Note here that the sweeping reference to “extremist groups” indicates that violence is not integral to the assumption of their extremist character; what, then, makes them “extremist”? The MoD report is conveniently vague on this point, but it seems the context suggests any group working for major political and economic change that challenges the dominance of the “globalised core”.
So ideologies which oppose global capitalism are “extreme” or “radical”, and assumed to be inherently vulnerable to political violence. Meanwhile, “diaspora communities” in the west - a polite euphemism for black and ethnic minority groups - will be particularly vulnerable to becoming “reservoirs for resentment” as capitalist globalisation continues to deepen inequalities between “winners” and “losers”, and thus to operating as fifth column “proxies” for foreign interests.
Though the language here is carefully articulated, its racist, imperialist pretensions are difficult to overlook: in coming decades, Muslims, immigrants, foreigners and activists are all potential terrorists, and must therefore be watched.
The underlying assumption is that the present system is the most advanced ever possible for humanity, and thus must be protected in its current structure at all cost.
The upshot is that Anglo-American security agencies believe that civilian populations across both the core and periphery will become vortexes for ‘extremism’ as the normal operation of global capitalism concentrates the benefits of growth in a powerful minority dominating the planet’s productive resources, and thus ramps up resentment against the system – with the core locus of such dangerous resentment orienting around activists, civil society groups, and minority communities.
As the instability of global capitalism accelerates, the ‘war on terror’ is increasingly transforming into a war on dissent – a war on everyone who either opposes global capitalism in its current form, or is marginalised by it. In a world where 85 people are collectively worth $1 trillion - equal to the entire wealth of the bottom half of the world’s population – it’s fair to say that makes most of us.