This scenario is fictitious, though it generously employs real events and persons. It was originally developed in early 2002 by Sirius-Beta as a complex test case for analytical infrastructure being worked on at the time, a predecessor of topoiesis. By agreement, this subset of the scenario was reused in 2009 by Earl Research which was considering building collaborative workstations. It is used in the Apple Workstation mockups [More], the WorldMerge Demo [More] and an advanced UI Study [More].
The scenario begins with the Islamic Brotherhood being identified as a “group of interest” by the intelligence community in the summer of 2000. The Cairo “Arab Street” is the bellwether and sometime driver of opinion in the Islamic world. The Brotherhood — based in Cairo — had historically spawned two major terrorist organizations. Experts projected that some tipping point was approaching where something similar could again occur.
Beforehand, the Agnelli family of Turin, owners of Fiat and the richest manufacturing family in the world, acquired Telecom Italia and its assets from the Italian government. Telecom Italia, the newly privatized Italian national telephone company had been aggressively expanding throughout the world, primarily in Latin America, Northern Africa and the Middle East, where it had many partnerships.
The black sheep of the Agnelli family, the only son of the head of the family, was put in charge of special projects and research for the parent telecom. This fellow, Edoardo Agnelli, had converted to a mystical sect of Shi’ism, popularly but incorrectly believed to be through Ayatollah Khamenei.
Agnelli considered the Brotherhood a perversion of Islam, and allowed an operation of NSA to monitor Cairo SMS messages (text messages) through his Arabian-language cell phone company, Sky Geo. This monitoring operation was set up in Turkey and Rome, using Israeli-supplied translations and colloquialism-tracking software. Colloquialisms are highly specific to social groups and neighborhoods in Cairo; identification of what area the writer came from helps associate trends, memes and their acculturation.
Mission 1: Was the Loss of Flight 990 Terrorism?
On October 31 of 2000, Halloween, EgyptAir Flight 990 went down in the Atlantic with everyone lost. The incident seemed mysterious and Jihadi terrorism was suspected. So what we will call NSA “mission 1” began to scour these Cairo SMS messages for indications that terrorism was involved. Tens of thousands of selected messages a day were retained in a corpus of interest. During this period, several things occurred and were reflected in SMS-spread rumors.
The US NTSB (the US investigating agency) suggested that the Egyptian pilot may have killed himself and everyone onboard. (This would later be deemed the likely cause, but that is irrelevant here.) The outrage in the Arab work was universal. The assumption was that no good Mulsim would commit suicide or kill innocent people. For reasons that have been widely studied, the Arab world is highly susceptible to conspiracy theories. The street echoed these rumors, and therefore the SMS messages were full of far-fetched speculations.
All of these deviations from the “real facts” basically corrupted the corpus for mission 1, and we were able to take over with mission 2.
Mission 2: Understanding Belief Systems
Mission 2 shifted the narrative situation. In Mission 1, the idea was to find enough pieces of the story of the crash to find a whole, true story.
Mission 2 was to discover how stories form and grow to be accepted as true. Any specific story mattered fairly little, what mattered was the story of how stories grow and what was the influence of the enclosing social identification stories. We did this by performing situated analyses of the Flight 990 rumors to understand the ebb and flow of belief systems, who influences them and what the local narrative dynamics might be. Some rumors were clearly triggered by commercial market forces: a newspaper or television show for instance would say some outrageous but known false assertion to gain audience share, just as it occurs on extremist US media. (This specific effect influenced Murdoch’s strategy in building Fox news.)
Some other rumors seemed to spontaneously appear and in each case an incremental evolution from previous rumors was apparent, allowing an evolutionary chain of speculation to be created. But some rumors were clearly provoked and further were being monitored and adjusted by their provocateurs. The dominant provocateur, both in influence and analytical interest was a surrogate of Ayman al-Zawahiri, the then recently new head of the Islamic Brotherhood in Egypt.
The Brotherhood was foundering because its main “story” was losing traction on the street, that story being opposition to the government of Egypt for not being sufficiently Mulsim. On analysis using our perspective, clearly al-Zawahiri was testing the waters to see what sorts of things could capture the imagination of the street and re-invigorate his group. As it happened, a key rumor chain developed with these touchstones:
“Flight 990 went down because everything Arabs do is broken — we are worthless.”
This self-deprecation is often the first response to any disaster in the Arab world. Mubarak then askEd President Clinton personally to take over the crash investigation, but with Egyptian controls.
“It went down because Mubarak runs the state airline with incompetent appointees who did not maintain things well.”
Then suicide of the pilot is alleged by the American investigators.
“It went down because of a design flaw in the rudder by Boeing and we as a people are being blamed to protect them from shame and lawsuits.”
Then it was alleged that the translator of the Arab language cockpit recordings — indicating a suicide — was Jewish and did not understand the local use of a prayer, repeated 11 times as the plane went down. Oddly, Jews usually appear earlier in fantastic rumor cycles
“The Jews blew it up somehow”
A natural evolution led to...
“The Jews hijacked the plane and flew it to Israel where the passengers, which included some Egyptian army officers, are being tortured.”
A popular soap opera appears that — unrelated to the crash — has a story that assumes that Zionists had mastered some black magical art and are capable of supernatural terror. Here, the rumor reverts a bit.
“Jewish terrorists from the US blew up the plane, but escaped by teleportation, incidentally framing the innocent pilot as a coverup”
This naturally evolved to...
“The Jews tried to hijack the plane to torture the passengers. Knowing this, the pilot, being a good Muslim, crashed the plane rather than allow his fellows to suffer.”
Agnelli dies violently, starting a new set of rumors. (Ironically, no one knows his connection with NSA monitoring.) The events of his death make murder apparently physically impossible, so if it were Jews, they had to have done it by magic — an explanation for why they have the power to continually humiliate. al-Zawahiri during this period tried a dozen or so conspiracy rumors that did not catch, but he did catch fire by reinstating this magical notion. Note in this version the projected accusation of “storybuilding.”
“The Jews hijacked the plane after clever planning, escaping through a magical portal, planting the false story to humiliate us — the date of Halloween being significant."
From now on, is in firm control of the rumor chain, spawning numerous sermons and television editorials. The task now shifted to Mission 3.
Mission 3: Understand what Story al-Zawahiri is Building Support for and Why
The Hajj that year suffered a Meningococcal epidemic that many blamed on Zionist magic, and this featured in some versions of the now dominant family of rumors.
“The Jews hijacked the plane with the intent of endowing it with a special magical power so that when it crashed into the Kaaba, it would destroy the faith (in some versions: and kill all Muslims immediately)”
(Manipulating the rumor a bit...)
“Americans hijacked the plane with the same intent and magical power; our good man (the pilot) thwarted the plan and now the Americans are further humiliating us by claiming it was our fault.”
(This then morphed into...)
“We should hijack their planes and fly into their holy sites to destroy them.”
Immediately following the affirmation of the power of this story, al-Zawahiri meets with a rather crazy but powerless Osama bin Laden who had a similar foundering group, al Qaeda. They had been opposing the rulers of Saudi Arabia for not being sufficiently Mulsim. As with the Islamic Brotherhood, this fight against an internal, Sunni, enemy had run out of steam and al Qaeda had already gathered support for a new mission: against the US.
al-Zawahiri joins with bin Laden under the name of al Qaeda, recharters against the “great Satan” and its magic. Planning for 9-11 commences, originally based on what is known to catch fire on the street. In the fictitious scenario (which could have been accomplished without eavesdropping) there was a Mission 4 that painlessly defused al-Zawahiri by credibly countering rumors with an attractive, truthful story.
The scenario is designed to show that useful analysis goes well beyond understanding what happened and what caused what. In fact, unraveling the specific cause of the Flight 990 event was insignificant by itself on a global scale. What is just as — or even more — important is understanding the narratives that are carried in situated form in the minds of others. Mission 1 was what is ordinarily done by the community and all that theoretically can be with existing methods. Mission 2 and the deeper understandings that would follow from more analysis require something like topoiesis.