It is easy to overestimate what I call “privileged information,” the kind of information that is vivid, first-hand and, perhaps most important, of highly limited access. Let me give you a couple of examples.
I came across a great NPR interview on the management structure of the Islam State (IS) courtesy of a Vali Nasr tweet. In the interview, Bloomberg Businessweek reporter Cam Simpson, explains how the IS “m-form hierarchy” works as revealed by the “documents found in a ditch in Anbar province by U.S. Marines on a routine patrol during the surge and from a hard drive captured not long after that.” It’s illuminating, lucid and brief, yet packed with information, so I’ll say no more. It is the first question that the interviewee asks that I want to take up:
Cam, these metrics are largely self-generated. I mean, who's to say they're not just part of ISIS's pretty sophisticated propaganda machine?
Yeah, that's a really good question, Eric. I mean, some researchers at the West Point Counterterrorism Center asked exactly that question…And they found that they were, sadly, extremely accurate. Just from the sort of independent, open-source public reporting that was out there.
Which reminded me of an earlier event…
A few months ago, I had the opportunity to hear a top Middle East academic talk about a field trip in Turkey that he’d just returned from. In the talk, the academic confidently told us that IS would peter out as the calendar year drew to a close since it would run out of money as well as the weapons that it had captured when it overran the Iraqi army in the surprise charge that captured Mosul. He had been to the hinterlands, and there was no way that enough crude oil could be smuggled across the border by the means available to raise the kind of revenue that was being reported. He been there, and seen it.
This went against the gist of almost all the media reports at the time, but I held my tongue. My knowledge of the issues was spotty at best, and the academic did not appear to be the kind of person who would take kindly to criticism.
But I did think that I had reason to doubt. A foreigner getting on in years is not going to get away with backpacking alone through the mountainous boondocks of Turkey, home to conservative Turks and rebellious Kurds, hoping to gather information incognito. Smugglers would not be coming up to the academic with details of their operations in the hopes of making some sales. The locals would be less than forthcoming with information and, as required, downplay the importance of smuggling for fear of doing harm to the local economy or being on the receiving end of retribution. As for the Turkish authorities, they also had good reason to downplay the role of oil smuggling, as they were doing their best to avoid involvement in the war against pressure from the United States while attempting to extract Turkish hostages held by IS. (A later media report detailed how the smuggling helped to alleviate the impact on the local economy of the loss in cross-border trade with Iraq as IS expanded its control.)
Fast-forward to December, and IS is still going strong. Clearly, it is dangerous to rely solely on privileged information. Moral of the story: Do not trust; verify. The West Point Counterterrorism Center did; the academic did not.