Claire Sterling was, at least for a time and by some, considered one of the foremost authorities on terrorism. Yet events proved her wrong. (More)

Conspiracy Theory 102 – Conspiracies of Conflation

For the next two Tuesdays and Wednesdays, I’ll reprise a four-part 2009 Morning Feature series on conspiracy theories. Yesterday we explored common reasons people are attracted to conspiracy theories. Today we look at conspiracies of conflation, theories that purport to connect similar but usually coincidental events. Next Tuesday we’ll discuss conspiracies of convenience, patterns of profit that look like conspiracies but aren’t. Next Wednesday we conclude with conspiracies of commonality, groups acting toward a common goal.

Note: This series will not attempt to prove or disprove any given conspiracy theory. The series isn’t about donning a tinfoil hat, but asking why we find them attractive, and how we make them. I’ve also edited each article for this reprise.

The Arch-Villain.

In 1981, freelance journalist Claire Sterling became a conservative icon with the publication of her exposé The Terror Network. The book presented a compelling argument that the Soviet Union was the organizing nexus for all international terrorism. Defeat the Soviets, the book implied, and terrorism will end. Yet the Soviet Union collapsed in 1989, and terrorism is still a common tactic of political movements in many parts of the world. Sterling was hardly the first or last to propose an Arch-Villain lurking behind disparate events.

British mystery writer Arthur Conan Doyle, may have been among the first to portray an arch-conspirator in 1893, in what was intended to be his last Sherlock Holmes story, “The Final Problem.” That villain was of course Professor Moriarty, whom Holmes described thus:

He is the Napoleon of crime, Watson. He is the organizer of half that is evil and of nearly all that is undetected in this great city. He is a genius, a philosopher, an abstract thinker. He has a brain of the first order. He sits motionless, like a spider in the centre of its web, but that web has a thousand radiations, and he knows well every quiver of each of them.

Conan Doyle borrowed the phrase “Napoleon of crime” from a Scotland Yard official describing American criminal, Adam Worth. Worth’s criminal career began in Boston and spanned three continents, until he was finally caught in Belgium in 1892. Still, neither Worth nor any other criminal controlled “half that is evil and nearly all that is undetected” in London. Conan Doyle wrote fiction, based on a kernel of truth.

But Sterling purported to write non-fiction and presented an compelling argument, again based on kernels of truth. Yet events proved her wrong. Sterling offered a conspiracy of conflation.


In informal logic, the term conflation denotes a comparison without contrast, linking persons, events, objects, or ideas in a way that obscures their differences and presents them as if they were a single entity. If the differences are trivial for a given purpose, conflation can be a useful shorthand. For an airport baggage handler, suitcases are interchangeable: just load them in the cargo hold. But for a passenger, the difference between identical suitcases is important: only one of them contains your stuff.

We often see conflation in political discourse. For much of the Cold War period, U.S. foreign policy was plagued with what some have called strategic myopia, where every international event was seen as part of the struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union. The local issues that concerned a given nation’s leaders or people were irrelevant; they were either “with us” or “being used by the Soviets.” Claire Sterling applied that strategic myopia to terrorism, presenting every terrorist act as part of a grand Soviet plot to undermine the U.S.

The Bush Doctrine espoused a similar strategic myopia, positing what David Brooks and others described as a war of ideology between the West and “a perverted stream of Islam that stretches from Ibn Taimaya to Sayyid Qutb.” Again the specific concerns of a given group are obscured, and all such groups are conflated into a single entity that some have called “Islamofascism.”

Conflation simplifies … and magnifies

Conspiracies of conflation simplify the analysis. Rather than exploring what motivated the Red Brigades in Italy, the Palestinian Liberation Organization, or the Sandinista rebels in Nicaragua – each of which had its own issues and agenda – Claire Sterling treated them as a single entity, part of a Soviet plot to promote a global communist revolution. The Bush Doctrine ignored differences in the Islamic world so resolutely that in 2008 John McCain famously accused Shi’a Iran of training and funding Sunni Al Qaeda. Like many Americans, McCain sees such groups as a single entity, part of an “Islamofascist” plot to promote a worldwide caliphate.

More important, conspiracies of conflation magnify the threat. A collection of similar but different groups or events is a bunch of small problems. Each may be challenging, but none is an existential threat. But if those disparate groups or events are seen as a single entity, the sheer number requires an Arch-Villain powerful enough to threaten our very survival. Nothing short of an all-out-whatever-it-takes effort will suffice to stop the threat. That’s very convenient – and profitable – if you’re in the all-out-whatever-it-takes business.

A kernel of truth

Conspiracies of conflation are so attractive because most are based on a kernel of truth. Claire Sterling wasn’t entirely wrong. When the goals of a political movement were consistent with those of Soviet leaders, the Soviets might indeed offer some assistance. While neither Osama bin Laden nor any other single actor is behind every disaffected group in the Islamic world, there are links between some groups and some events.

But to focus on those kernels and leap to a conspiracy of conflation is dangerous. We may miss important differences that blind us with strategic myopia, and inflate threats and actors beyond their actual influence. We then often overreact in ways that create even worse problems.

Putting the pieces together is important, but it’s equally important to be sure the pieces really are from the same puzzle.


Happy Wednesday!