The Banality of Evil

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Terrorist organizations: They can be just like every other bureaucracy, beset by malcontents, office rivalries, inscrutable rules, and corporate layers of control. Here’s a report from Monday afternoon:

NBC News has learned that ISIS is using a web-savvy new tactic to expand its global operational footprint—a 24-hour Jihadi Help Desk to help its foot soldiers spread its message worldwide, recruit followers and launch more attacks on foreign soil.

What services does a jihadi help desk provide? I’m glad you asked.

The help desk workers closely track all of the many new kinds of security software and encryption as they come online, and produce materials to train others in how to use them. The CTC has obtained more than 300 pages of documents showing the help desk is training everyone from novice militants to the most experienced jihadists in digital operational security ….

And once the help desk operatives develop personal connections with people, ISIS then contacts them to engage them in actual operational planning—including recruiting, fundraising and potentially attacks.

The level of worry that desk has occasioned among NBC’s sources suggests that it is far more effective than the standard corporate help desk you might be familiar with and hostile toward from your cable provider or HMO.

It’s not the first case of a terror group showing that it has studied Weber as well as Wahhabism. In 2013, Rukmini Callimachi got her hands on a 10-page letter from al-Qaeda’s North African HQ to Moktar Belmoktar, a troublesome jihadist. The source of their complaints wasn’t insufficient passion for the fight or deviation from religious orthodoxy. It was far more banal:

The list of slights is long: He would not take their phone calls. He refused to send administrative and financial reports. He ignored a meeting in Timbuktu, calling it “useless.” He even ordered his men to refuse to meet with al-Qaida emissaries. And he aired the organization’s dirty laundry in online jihadist forums, even while refusing to communicate with the chapter via the Internet, claiming it was insecure.

They scolded him in terms that might have come from any employee review: “Your letter ... contained some amount of backbiting, name-calling and sneering … We refrained from wading into this battle in the past out of a hope that the crooked could be straightened by the easiest and softest means.” In other cases, Callimachi noted, they speak in the more purple prose of jihadists worldwide:

They go on to compare their group to a towering mountain before raging storms and pounding waves, and say Belmoktar’s plan “threatens to fragment the being of the organization and tear it apart limb by limb.”

Such chest-beating did not sway Belmoktar, who split off and formed his own group. Nor does it sway me. These guys may front as fearsome terrorists, but they’re just your average middle-management drones.