Dr. Nafeez Ahmed

The defense establishment in both the United Kingdom and United States is funding social science research into what conflicts will be caused by climate change, energy crises, resource shortages, and other societal problems that could lead to civil unrest. One of the most alarming aspects of this militarization of social sciences is how it names certain groups as “social contagions” or “potential supporters of political violence,” even when evidence shows these groups promote non-violence and are peaceful. That means the fact that there are people who are willing to challenge the status quo is regarded as a threat.

Dr. Nafeez Ahmed, a writer and contributor to The Guardian, wrote two articles after investigating some of this research. He wrote a story that was shared widely titled, “Pentagon preparing for mass civil breakdown,” as well as another article on research in the UK, “Defense officials prepare to fight the poor, activists and minorities (and commies).”

Ahmed is this week’s guest on the “Unauthorized Disclosure” podcast, which I host with Rania Khalek.

Following his interview in which we go into great detail on this research, we discuss the memo released this past week, with redactions, containing the Obama administration’s “legal” justification for targeting and assassinating US citizen Anwar al-Awlaki. We also discuss the victory thirteen US citizens placed on the No-Fly List won in court and the water shut-offs occurring in Detroit.

The podcast is available on iTunes for download. For a direct link (and direct download), go here. And, below is a player for listening to the podcast without getting it from iTunes:


As Ahmed describes, the Pentagon began to fund a research program at universities that would “model the dynamics, risks and tipping points for large-scale civil unrest across the world.” The “multi-million dollar program” was designed under the supervision of US military officials to “develop immediate and long-term ‘warfighter-relevant insights’ for senior officials and decision makers in ‘the defense policy community,’ and to inform policy implemented by ‘combatant commands.’”

“What was really disturbing about all this is what we have here is essentially universities, not just here in the United States but around the world, getting funding from the Pentagon to do social science research, which is basically about developing all kinds of analytical tools, conceptual frameworks, data mining programs, [etc], in order to track the direction of social movements.”

He explains that as he delved deeper into the research he noticed that there was this “tendency” of recognizing social movements linked to “civil society, non-governmental organizations, activists, political dissent [and] people questioning governments and demanding things of government through various civil society mechanisms” as threats that needed to be tracked. “It was openly talking about looking at peaceful activists, analyzing the profiles of various people associated with non-governmental organizations, people who might be involved in environmental activism or opposition to US foreign policy.”

What looked like very sloppy research, Ahmed adds, may have been driven by the culture or dominant ideology within the defense establishment. “Quite deliberately” peaceful activism was being “conflated” with support for political violence. It seemed this was occurring because anyone “challenging in some way the status quo, whether it is corporate policy or government policy,” would potentially cause unrest.

“Activists are not seen just as normal citizens who are engaged in doing democracy more effectively,” Ahmed explains. “Instead, we’re seeing that activists and people involved in civil society are actually being seen and being categorized as part of this conveyor belt and automatically as potential terrorists. If you’re an activist, you’re not just someone who’s a peaceful person involved in activism.”

“You are actually a supporter of political violence, a supporter of radical causes and you could be a potential terrorist. And what we need to do instead is to watch you and study you and track you in order to understand not just what stops you from becoming a terrorist but what also leads those amongst you from getting involved in terrorism.”

Ahmed highlights the debate taking place in the UK. There is this idea that measures are needed to “stop extremism because extremism is the conveyor belt that leads to violent extremism.” It originates in “long-standing neoconservative ideology of what is terrorism and what is violence and what is extremism, which has actually been discredited across counterterrorism literature.”

In a “deliberate effort to co-opt what should be independent” research, and to “co-opt it for the purposes of government policy making,” the research promotes the demonization of whole swaths of social groups. It accepts that social inequality will occur and then attempts to contemplate how government could deal with angry people, “middle class Western anti-capitalists,” which could be “anyone who has a grievance against capitalism and thinks something is wrong with it.” It specifically targets black and ethnic minority or “diaspora” groups too, who it recognizes will be marginalized by the impact of capitalism.

It is this “weird, almost Orwellian thinking.” And, as Ahmed contends, if the security states of these countries believe they must defend this unquestionable structure, like global capitalism, the result is anyone standing up to challenge it is an “enemy.”

Such research enables counterinsurgency against populations. In the same way that the Pentagon sought to analyze and control the populations of Iraq or Afghanistan during military occupation, the same militarized approach to maintaining order is being encouraged through the funding of this science.