SPS Symposium 2019 Abstract

After eight years I’ve just submitted the final talk for my PhD thesis at Monash University’s School of Social Sciences:

Causal Mechanisms for Strategic Subcultures: The Case of Aum Shinrikyo

On 20th March 1995, the Japanese new religious movement Aum Shinrikyo (Aum Supreme Truth) mobilised a sarin nerve gas attack on the Tokyo subway system that killed 13 people and injured several thousand. Why did Aum Shinrikyo carry out this attack, and how did it expect to survive? This presentation critically interrogates this question by using (qualitative) process tracing to examine three interlinked causal mechanisms: (1) the cultural transmission of a religious knowledge base that informed the decision preference for terrorist violence; (2) social learning that led to differential outcomes in terms of social reproduction for the senior leadership (the decision elite) and the religious members (renunciates) who were unaware of Aum Shinrikyo’s covert research program for biological and chemical weapons development; and (3) the cultic milieu folklore which functioned to spread Aum Shinrikyo’s ideas in a crowded marketplace for Japanese new religions, and which was a gatekeeping mechanism for potential members. Further research is also identified.

Keywords: Aum Shinrikyo, causal mechanisms, cultic milieu, process tracing, terrorism, strategic subcultures

Update: Talk PowerPoint slides and recorded audio (30th October 2019) are now available.

PhD Original Contributions to Field of Study

This weekend I’m preparing my Pre-Submission Seminar / Final Review slides for Monash University. I will give a presentation on 14th November to an academic panel. I’ve also started an ARC DECRA application for future submission. Below are some thoughts on my PhD’s original contributions to my field of study (counter-terrorism):

  • ‘Fourth Generation’ Strategic Culture: My PhD dissertation has conceptualised a fourth generation of strategic culture theory-building that is closely linked to national security concerns, occurs in a multipolar world, and considers a broader range of instruments beyond military force such as economic statecraft.
  • Strategic Subcultures in Terrorist Organisations: My PhD dissertation has developed and tested a new conceptual theory on strategic subcultures in terrorist organisations. I have developed empirical tests for an expanded case universe.
  • TheoryBuilding and Theory-Testing: My pre-doctoral research used theory-building and theory-testing to critically evaluate a range of theories in journalism, media studies, and internet sociology. In particular, I have recently paid attention to the evolution of ideas and ideologies into mobilised political and religious violence.
  • Methodological Advancement in Qualitative, Causal Analysis: My PhD research and recent scholarship combines theory-building and theory-testing forms of process tracing with counterfactuals and event studies. I am presently exploring the Bayesian and set-theoretic roots of process tracing and other causal inference methodologies.
  • Event Studies: Over my pre-doctoral, and doctoral research career, I have authored and co-authored a range of qualitative event studies, notably on the journalism, media, and grand strategy impacts of the September 11 terrorist attacks on Australia and the United States, and the social media network Twitter’s role in Iran’s 2009 election crisis.

I will submit my PhD to Monash University on 22nd July 2019 for review.

A Draft Abstract For My PhD Dissertation

During the late Cold War period, strategic culture emerged as a comparative analytical framework in strategic studies and nuclear deterrence policymaking. Strategic culture examines the collective, long-term shared understandings on why adversaries may use violence to achieve strategic objectives. An under-theorised aspect is the possible existence of strategic subcultures: organisational or institutional coalitions that prioritise and shape the pathway into violence, and the specific operational contexts in which violence may be used.

 

Terrorist organisations are a national security threat for Australia. This thesis advances a new causal theory of strategic subcultures in terrorist organisations. It draws on current debates in two sub-fields: the fourth generation of strategic culture theory-building, and the terrorism studies analysis of terrorist organisations. Responding to these current debates this thesis focuses on how terrorist leaders formulate strategic objectives, allocate resources, and recruit and mobilise followers for campaigns.

 

A modified form of process tracing is used to examine two qualitative case studies: Japan’s Aum Shinrikyo and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). Three causal mechanisms are examined: the cultural transmission of religiously motivated belief systems for violence; the social learning that occurs between terrorist organisation leaders and followers; and folklore myths and narratives that shape internal worldviews. Combining these three causal mechanisms provides a rationale for strategic subcultures: it develops organisational counter-power to enhance the long-term survivability of terrorist leaders and their ideologies.

 

Both terrorist organisations were unsuccessful in achieving their long-term strategic objectives. Aum Shinrikyo used Hindu and Tibetan Buddhist cosmology to influence its renunciates whilst also hiding a covert, compartmentalised research program into biological and chemical weapons. ISIL used insurgent warfare to capture – and then lose – territory, people, and resources in Iraq and Syria. Both were motivated by apocalyptic worldviews that failed translationally in practice. Understanding these failure sources may help develop effective counter-terrorism policies and strategies.

Russian Strategy and Strategic Culture

The recent Russian approach to strategy has linked nuclear, conventional and informational (cyber) tools of influence into one integrated mechanism. The article traces the intellectual history of this Russian cross-domain concept, discusses its essence and highlights its destabilising effects. By analysing a case outside of Western strategic thought, it demonstrates how strategic concepts evolve differently in various cultural realms and argues for a tailored approach for exploring coercion policies of different actors. The findings of the study are applicable beyond the Russian case, and relevant to scholars and actors exploring, utilising or responding to cross-domain coercion strategy.

Dmitry Adamski expands fourth generation thinking in strategic culture to consider Russia’s ‘cross-domain coercion’ (conventional, nuclear, and informational) in a new Journal of Strategic Studies article (abstract above).

 

Adamski’s important article has several implications. It links strategic culture to the policy challenge of nuclear deterrence in a multipolar world. It considers Russia’s contemporary strategic doctrines: it offers a comparative view to the sub-field literature’s usual emphasis on the United States and Europe. It considers strategic culture’s role in multidimensional coercion and strategic bargaining. It reflects Adamski’s intelligence and national security experience.

Coercion and Strategic Culture

Coercion

 

RAND’s Jack Snyder originally conceptualised strategic culture as a cross-comparative framework for evaluating adversaries’ use of force. Strategic culture’s potential for informing strategic bargaining remains under-theorised. Kelly M. Greenhill and Peter M. Krause‘s new edited collection Coercion: The Power to Hurt in International Politics (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018) offers conceptual, theory-building, and policy insights on particularly non-state actors in a multipolar world who use a range of military and non-military instruments. Coercion has important insights for scholars who wish to further progress a fourth generation research agenda in strategic culture.

Reconsidering The Early Fourth Generation

In rewriting my literature review chapter I’m reconsidering the so-called fourth generation of strategic culture scholarship. I trace this from the Jeffrey S. Lantis-authored article ‘Strategic Culture and National Security Policy‘ (International Studies Quarterly, December 2002) which integrated the mid-1990s ‘constructivist turn’ with a post-September 11 emphasis on national security policy. I regard Lantis as an important norm entrepreneur and advocate of strategic culture-informed policymaking.

 

Lantis situates strategic culture as an evolving framework that can learn much from constructivism’s emphasis on ideas, norms, and culture. He considers under what conditions leaders might adopt strategic culture frameworks for national security analysis. This mirrored the renewal of interest in culture in Special Operations Forces fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan. Lantis provides the theory-building emphasis and policy frameworks. The SOF provides lessons in policy implementation and strategic execution. These parallel developments remain unexplored in the strategic culture literature.

Beyond The Pale?

Washington and Lee University’s Seth Cantey has a new article out in Studies in Conflict & Terrorism on negotiating with Al Qaeda and Islamic State:

 

This article argues that prospects for negotiations with al Qaeda (AQ) and the Islamic State (IS) have been undertheorized. Drawing on nearly two thousand pages of primary source material – all issues of Inspire and Dabiq magazines published at the time of writing – it examines these groups’ statements about their motivations for violence, their objectives, and their views about the possibility of dialogue with the West. It finds stark differences in all three areas and suggests that assumptions that have prevented theorizing about negotiations with these groups should be revisited.

 

Strategic culture deals with strategic bargaining situations. Its potential use in negotiating with terrorists remains under-explored. Cantey’s article is a first step to further theorising.

Amy Zegart on North Korea’s Kim Jong Un

I’ve followed Stanford’s Amy Zegart since discovering her insightful research on analytical misperception in the United States intelligence community.

 

Zegart writes in The Atlantic:

 

Is Kim Jong Un crazy or hyper-rational? Is he bent on destroying America or deterring America? Is his model Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, who averted nuclear war by building a large arsenal and threatening to use it? Or is Kim looking at the cautionary tales of Muammar Qaddafi and Saddam Hussein—two men who lost their power and their lives because American presidents either didn’t believe or didn’t care that they had given up their nuclear weapons programs?

Nobody knows.

 

Answering these kinds of questions is in part what Jack Snyder‘s original policy work on strategic culture sought to do. It’s also what Jeffrey Lantis and colleagues have done in their policy formulation advice for the Defense Threat Reducation Agency. Finally, Jerrold M. Post has published several political psychology books on individual leaders and how they interact with strategic culture.

 

Zegart’s insight gives the so-called fourth generation of strategic culture a new relevance: (1) the proliferation of nuclear weapons to nation-states outside the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons; and (2) the crisis decision-making of foreign political leaders who are driven by different ideational factors: beliefs, norms, values, and worldviews.

 

This will inform post-PhD research.

Research Notes

A few research notes from my PhD thesis draft:

 

  • The journal International Affairs may be a source for Russian perspectives on Jack Snyder’s original conceptualisation of strategic culture, and the SALT nuclear arms reduction talks. In particular, a comparative US-Russia historical perspective is needed.
  • Robert Jay Lifton and Haruki Murakami’s interviews with Aum Shinrikyo renunciates provide possible secondary data to identify possible hypnotisibility. The APA Division 30 definition of hypnotisibility (2014): “An individual’s ability to experience suggested alterations in physiology, sensations, emotions, thoughts, or behavior during hypnosis.”
  • Coercive persuasion sequelae in Aum Shinrikyo and Islamic State would be coded as Other Specified Dissociative Disorder in DSM V (following the work of Robert Jay Lifton and Edgar Schein).
  • A social psychological perspective suggests that the renunciates were sensitised to Aum Shinrikyo’s leader Shoko Asahara from Aum propaganda such as media reports, books, and short anime films. Haruki Murakami documents how Aum renunciates often provided the labour for this media to be produced and disseminated.

Australia’s Strategic Culture

In 2014, I co-wrote an article with Deakin University’s Dr Ben Eltham for Contemporary Security Policy Journal: ‘Australia’s Strategic Culture: Constraints and Opportunities in Security Policymaking.’

 

CSP and their publisher Taylor & Francis have now made the article available for free here.

 

My thanks to CSP, Taylor & Francis, and special issue editor Professor Jeffrey S. Lantis for their help in making the article available to a wider readership.