ventured to Iraq to interview ISIS defectors to
learn about the group’s online messaging tactics,
and to Macedonia to meet with trolls who traffic
in social media disinformation.
With Alphabet’s engineering resources, Jigsaw translates this research into internet tools
Although Cohen’s mission sounds philanthropic, Jigsaw operates as a business, no different from any of Alphabet’s moonshots. Yet Cohen
from the world’s worst digital threats. And if, in
the process, Jigsaw can help address some of the
most acute unintended consequences of digital
communication, all the better. “I don’t think
it’s fair to ask the government to solve all these
problems—they don’t have the resources,” says
Schmidt. “The tech industry has a responsibility
to get this right.”
Jigsaw’s headquarters are located on the
second floor of Manhattan’s Chelsea Market,
reached by a locked stairwell entrance near a
Jared Cohen, the CEO of Jigsaw, surveyed the craggy valley from the
back of a gray SUV as it wound toward the Khyber Pass, the mountainous
roadway connecting Afghanistan and Pakistan that had become a hotbed
of Islamic extremism. The arid landscape was beautiful, but Cohen, who is
Jewish and was raised in an affluent Connecticut suburb, knew the excursion was risky. This was his fourth visit to Pakistan. Colleagues had told
Cohen he was insane for going—his ransom insurance wouldn’t protect
him against the frequent roadside bombs in the area—but he’d still decided
to take a 12-hour flight to Dubai, where he caught a connection to Lahore
and drove to Islamabad and then on to Peshawar, in the north of Pakistan.
At the direction of Pakistan’s former foreign minister Hina Rabbani Khar,
Cohen’s host, they rode in one car, with a security detail following a short
distance behind to avoid attracting undo attention.
Around noon, they pulled into a village compound, where Cohen, 35,
donned a robe and turban, and for the next four hours immersed himself in
Pashtun issues. Through Rabbani Khar’s connections, he was able to meet
with tribal leaders, clerics, smugglers, survivors of drone strikes—anyone
who could help him better grasp the challenges crippling the region.
A Rhodes Scholar and former State Department policy wonk who worked
under Condoleezza Rice and Hillary Clinton, Cohen is fluent in Swahili
and has journeyed to 103 countries, often amid turmoil. Once, according
to Cohen, he snuck into eastern Congo by hiding in a truck under a pile of
bananas during the Great War of Africa. He tells me he’s been kicked out of
Syria twice, and mentions he can’t go back to Cairo after conspiracy theories arose suggesting that he had a hand in the 2011 Egyptian revolution.
A self-described “investigative anthropological researcher,” Cohen was
in Pakistan acting as an attaché for Jigsaw, the Alphabet subsidiary that
defines itself as an incubator building “tools to make the world safer.” It
evolved out of Google Ideas, an internal think tank Cohen cofounded in 2010
with Eric Schmidt, the former Google CEO and current Alphabet executive
chairman, to address geopolitical challenges with technology. Facebook
and Twitter helped spread free expression during the Arab Spring, and yet
social media is also being used to disseminate messages of hate, with terrorist attacks coordinated on WhatsApp and beheadings aired on You Tube.
If there’s one core tenet of Cohen’s philosophy, it’s that you can’t solve
these problems from behind a MacBook. Google prides itself on data and
“I don’t think it’s fair to ask the
government to solve all these
problems,” says Eric Schmidt.
“The tech industry has a
responsibility to get this right.”