Tag: al Qaeda

Avoiding the Joint Security Trap (and Countering Conventional Wisdom)


The diplomatic dustup over Syria brought Russia in from the cold but simultaneously froze any notion that western allies were getting their strategic act together. Nonetheless, although the mistakes in the U.S. and UK’s approach to building support at home and abroad for an intervention in Syria confused leaders and citizens alike, these mistakes should not be interpreted as an abrupt turn-around in their and their allies’ strategic thinking.

In fact the Europeans, even under a prolonged condition of austerity, are making progress filling in the capability gaps made clear in the course of the Libyan operation. Recent history has demonstrated that arguing the U.S. should keep its security blanket in place despite the end of the Cold War—out of fear that Europeans would not increase their own defense capabilities in kind—was mistaken. Still, austerity has prevented sufficient progress to avoid the joint security trap.

Were the Arab Awakening to go awry and were an al-Qaeda affiliate to begin setting up training camps and operating somewhere such as Yemen, the U.S. or possibly NATO would no doubt heed the call once more to deal with the threat.  But any future crisis in Europe’s direct neighborhood, somewhere like Tunisia, will require Europe to take the lead as the U.S. is likely to take a pass.  It is therefore in the joint interests of the U.S. and Europe not to reduce their mutual security at this critical juncture.

However Europe has yet to develop its own integrated, deployable, expeditionary military capability; instead a number of European allies à la the U.S. have been slashing their defense budgets under austerity.  But akin to the classic prisoner’s dilemma, if the U.S. and European allies do not coordinate their cuts and agree to begin “combining” what is left, both will become worse off and experience a mutual loss of security in lieu of cooperating.  In fact, at this juncture western allies are actually on the verge of becoming ensnared in the joint security trap. Continue reading


The Era of Austerity or the Era of Intervention?

Tuareg_rebel_in_northern_MaliA variety of commentators listened to President Obama’s Inauguration speech and, having heard few words devoted to foreign policy, declared that the second term of this Administration will be marked by less activism on the global stage.  The draw downs from Iraq and Afghanistan readily reinforce this view, as do a variety of academics peddling recommendations for a new grand strategy of restraint.  I am more circumspect, for inauguration speeches are by nature more domestic in focus.  More importantly, America’s national security interests have not changed fundamentally.

The Obama Doctrine of robust burden sharing—being multilateral when we can, unilateral when we must—will continue to cope with a world that may be in rapid flux but has little propensity to generate the stability and security that would justify a restraint-based grand strategy.  Al-Qaeda was quiescent in one form, but in its new decentralized affiliate-based form it is anything but.  With the global campaign against terrorism continuing amid a constellation of constrained economic resources, robust burden sharing is an appropriate grand strategy; moreover, it is here to stay (at least for the duration of this Administration and likely well beyond).

Opponents of the President have had a heyday with the unintentional phrase “leading from behind.”  Ever since an unnamed Administration official spoke these tongue-in-cheek words to The New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza, critics have twisted them and/or ascribed their own meaning more along the lines of “retreat to the back.”  Some grew so agitated, they practically fell over themselves in their clarion call for robust American leadership practically at all costs—case-in-point a certain presidential candidate’s “No Apology” book that aptly captured this sentiment, and a certain senator’s delight in singing “Bomb-bomb-bomb Iran.”

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“Zero Dark Thirty” Debate Needs an Interrogation

special ops

Anyone who did not see “Zero Dark Thirty” on its opening night was smart, as it was mayhem in theaters everywhere.  The film shot to #1 at the box office overnight and is there still, for the plain and simple reason that it’s a must see (no spoiler alert here because we all know at least a little about eliminating Osama bin Laden).  Zero Dark features a razor sharp screenplay by Mark Boal, top form directing by Kathryn Bigelow, and higher than high stakes drama from start to finish.

This film, however, is sufficiently controversial that there may soon be Congressional hearings about it–Sen. John McCain and Sen. Diane Feinstein had it in their sites by day one.  The charge is that Bigelow and Boal depict torture in a manner that glorifies it, by way of a plot that allegedly portrays the U.S. government/military eliminating OBL only via intelligence gleaned from full on, no holds barred torture.  In my view they are innocent of this charge.  The raging debate over the film is misdirected and could do better to be debating this country’s torture legacy rather than a film that deserves serious consideration for a best picture Oscar.

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Be Concerned but not Informed: Radical Islamic Terrorism and Mainstream Media since 9/11

The website e-IR asked me to review how mainstream media have represented radical Islamist media in the past decade, and what this means for the spread of radical discourses more broadly. Here is my reply, and you can read the original at e-IR here.

Mainstream media’s presentation of radical Islamic terrorism since 11 September 2001 is simply a continuation of how mainstream media have represented political violence for many decades. Moral panics about enemies within, journalists following agendas set by ministers, scandalised yet sensationalist coverage of violence, victims and perpetrators – all familiar from the post-9/11 period, but also thoroughly documented in the classic studies of media and violence in the 1970s and 80s. The focus on Islam has been hugely damaging for many people across a number of countries, but what is at stake is more fundamental. Modern societies have not found a way to manage the boundaries between their mainstreams and margins. In 20 years’ time, other groups will be demonised, journalists will continue to fail to explain why violence occurs, and many people trying to go about their daily lives will find themselves anxious, suspicious, and ill-informed.

Each society imagines its mainstream differently. Media are the condition for imagined communities, as Benedict Anderson put it, but also imagined enemies. Russia, Israel, France, Thailand – in any country we find journalists, artists, and political leaders routinely making representations of their own values and of groups that might threaten those values. The ‘war on terror’ label enabled a diverse range of states, each with their particular social antagonisms and historical enmities, to represent their struggles as part of an overarching conflict between themselves and radical Islam. They imagined their own community, and an international community, at war. Although some journalists challenged this, journalism as a general institution was a delivery mechanism for the very idea of a war on terror and for all its local manifestations. Reporters on newspapers, 24 rolling news and even ‘highbrow’ news analysis shows accepted the framing assumptions given by military and political leaders, and repeatedly and unthinkingly stitched together disparate attacks into one global narrative.

One of the most striking aspects of this decade was that the enemy became a visual presence as never before. ‘Radical Islam’ could be seen. Indeed, Islam itself became a spectacle for all around the world to gaze upon and think about, the historian Faisal Devji argues. Al-Qaeda took advantage of real-time 24 hour media to project violent events onto all our screens in sporadic but spectacular ways. At the same time, religious views returned to everyday political debate as religious leaders and communities used the internet and TV to promote and discuss their dialogues, concerns and beliefs. This increased visibility created difficulties for many ordinary Muslims, who on the one hand wanted to argue that Islam is one religion and Muslims a united body of people, but on the other complained when the resulting single image grouped together Al-Qaeda’s terrorist iconography with everyday multiculturalism in the West, the rich diversity of Muslim-majority countries, and the terrible suffering of Palestinians. The struggle for the image of Islam took place in large part through mainstream media; if a Muslim person appears in Western news, statistically there is a higher chance it is in a story about terrorism and criminality than if it was an individual of another ethnicity. Lone figures – the angry bearded man and the veiled woman – are the stereotypes media reporting has bequeathed us from the 2000s. While many herald the emergence of social media and the shift from mass communication to what Manuel Castells calls ‘mass self-communication’, it is likely that mainstream media will continue to be a chief venue for the struggle for Islam’s image in the next decade.

Ironically, despite the routine presence of Al-Qaeda in mainstream news, journalists have not always been willing or able to explain what or who Al-Qaeda is, or how it functions. Equally, the term ‘radicalisation’ only became a public term in the 2000s, but journalists have used the term as if its meaning is obvious without actually explained how radicalisation works. Admittedly, these two confusions both stem from the fact that security policymakers lack reliable knowledge about Al-Qaeda and radicalisation themselves, or at least won’t release full information to journalists. Meanwhile a ‘radicalisation industry’ of so-called experts has emerged, willing to speculate on air about radical Islamic terrorism (witness the first 24 hours after Anders Breivik’s killings in Norway this year).These people are rarely challenged by journalists.

As a consequence of these media failings, audiences are routinely presented with the image of an angry bearded man, possibly a clip from a video linked to Al-Qaeda, and then an unspecific warning of an imminent threat. Audiences are asked to be concerned, but not allowed to be informed.

What does this mean for the spread of radical and radicalising groups in the future? Three interlocking, structural tendencies must be considered. First, the state will continue to assimilate all non-state violence as a single threat to international order and the domestic social mainstream. “Violence must not be allowed to succeed”, remarked a British official in the 1970s. It is a simple, unchanging principle. In April 2011 in London, Patrick Mercer OBE, Conservative MP for Newark and member of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Transatlantic and International Security, warned that the three security threats facing Britain are Al-Qaeda inspired terrorism, violence ‘attached’ to student protests, and ‘Irish terrorists’ attacking the royal wedding. Drawing a parallel between students and those engaged in terrorism suggests a failure to appreciate that vibrant democracy requires space for dissent and disagreement. From the point of view of the state, however, it is all actual or potential non-state violence. Meanwhile, the latest version of Prevent, the UK government’s counter-terrorism strategy, has switched attention from addressing violent extremism to simply ‘extremism’. Extremism is understood as divergence from ‘mainstream British values’, defined as ‘democracy, rule of law, equality of opportunity, freedom of speech and the rights of all men and women to live free from persecution of any kind’. Society is asked to imagine itself as a community bounded by shared values, but this necessarily puts some people on or outside that boundary. Even if they are not violent, they might one day consider violence, and violence must not be allowed to succeed.

Second, it is a challenge for journalists to observe how political leaders are re-drawing and redefining these boundaries, since they – as responsible, professional insiders – will be asked to categorise and condemn those deemed on the radical outside. News values endure. The drama, simplicity and immediacy of acts of political violence will keep terrorism and violent protest on the news agenda while allowing a new cast of radicals to come to the fore.

Finally, radical Islamic terrorists or any radical group will play cat-and-mouse with security agencies as they try to use digital media to mobilize potential recruits and supporters. This game will be largely invisible to ordinary people. Nevertheless, we will be asked to endorse cybersecurity policies and work within modified internet infrastructures without being given any systematic data on connections between radicalism, radicalisation and cybersecurity. Journalists will be no better informed, but will be obliged to report as if there are connections.

These intersecting pathologies might leave the reader pessimistic. Opportunities for change seem minimal. On an immediate level, it is a question of changing behaviours. Can security journalists bring a more informed manner of reporting to mainstream audiences? Will the state decide it has a stake in a more informed citizenry? Will citizens themselves bypass mainstream media to find alternative ways to be informed? On a more profound level, it is a question of finding new ways to conceive and manage the relationship between social mainstreams and margins. The implicit equivalence of margin with radical and radical with violence makes for perpetual insecurity. Finding a more mature approach, however, opens up fundamental questions about the state, society and individual which few have begun to ask. This is where the challenge lies.


Pornography and National Security: The ever expanding threat

In today’s ‘horrors of bad social science’, we have a piece by Jennifer S. Bryson, director of the Witherspoon Institute’s Islam and Civil Society Project, (which seems to be a conservative think-tank) who has written a piece for the Institute’s blog on the threat of pornography for national security. (No really.)

Bryson asks the question that no serious scholar has ever, ever addressed and comes up with an argument to be considered. In fact, she is getting right on top of this hard and pressing issue.She reaches around the boundaries of conventional thinking about terrorism and slowly but steadily penetrates the burning question as to whether pornography drives a serious challenge to National Security:

With the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks staring us in the face, we already know that our failure to have an approach to security that is robust and accurate has dire consequences. Pornography has long circulated nearly unbounded due to calls for “freedom,” but what if we are actually making ourselves less free by allowing pornography itself to be more freely accessible?
Are there security costs to the free-flow of pornography? If so, what are they? Are we as a society putting ourselves at risk by turning a blind eye to pornography proliferation?
I wonder further: Could it be that pornography drives some users to a desperate search for some sort of radical “purification” from the pornographic decay in their soul? Could it be that the greater the wedge pornography use drives between an individual’s religious aspirations and the individual’s actions, the more the desperation escalates, culminating in increasingly horrific public violence, even terrorism?

Let me tell you, now that we’ve been stirred to this threat – of young men somehow being converted to wicked, wicked ways – we need to act now, right here and now, damn it! Clearly the perpetrators of this filth have been very, very bad and need to be punished.

I believe that we all need to come together, scholars, government workers, NGOs, and throw caution to the wind. We need to straddle the division between us, fuse ourselves together and come up with an inspired solution. Let’s use each other to the very best of our abilities, and respond quickly to this vitally important need.

It’s Friday night so I’m just going to be at home thinking really long and hard about a solution to this problem. I’m just going to lie back right here by my lonesome self, thinking about nothing but pornography… for the sake of National Security.


Cause and Effect in the “War on Terror?”

 It is impossible to know at this point whether there is any connection between these two disturbing events reported yesterday:  NATO forces’ mistaken killing of nine boys gathering firewood in Afghanistan; and, a few hours later, the killing of two American soldiers at Frankfurt airport, apparently by a Muslim man of Kosovar origin.   We do know that other terror suspects have stated that they acted in response to U.S. policies in the GWOT, in particular the frequent killings of innocent civilians in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere.  It would therefore not be surprising if this were true in the German case.  And it is at least possible that the impetus was in fact the horrific NATO shootings in Afghanistan just hours before.  

This raises yet again the question of what is cause and what effect in the “war on terror.”  Are American policies, which predictably result in large numbers of civilian casualties no matter how great the military’s precautions, in fact reducing the number of terrorists?  Do our heartfelt apologies in the wake of such wholly foreseeable errors in fact have any effect on the families of the victims, let alone on the small number of angry and extreme–but not yet violent Muslims–elsewhere in the world?  The answer seems likely to be, No.  The GWOT is a self-perpetuating policy that increases the amount of terrorism in the world, even as it enriches military establishments, COIN bureaucracies, and all manner of private suppliers of questionable anti-terror services and technologies.  (Read the prior article–an amazingly depressing story of yet more waste, fraud, and gullibility in the GWOT.)
My question for Duck readers is:  How does such folly come to an end?  On the surface, when cause becomes effect, there would seem ample, rational basis to change policies.  And there have been any number of additional reasons to halt it recently too:  the obvious marginality of al-Qaeda in the massive popular upheavals that have rocked the Middle East and North Africa; recent statements by American officials that the number of al-Qaeda fighters is vanishingly small; Robert Gates’s tacit admission last week that the Afghanistan and Iraq wars should never have been fought; and reports that the military is propagandizing U.S. politicians and thereby citizens to believe that the wars are succeeding.  (This article too is worth a full read to see both how some in the military confuse the “mission” with their own ambition–and, a ray of hope, how others sometimes stand up against them). 
Any suggestions from Duck readers about literature on this kind of conundrum?  How are senseless but self-perpetuating policies, backed by hugely vested interests, ever brought to a halt?


(Head of) State Secrets

As I’ve already noted, former President George W. Bush is apparently settling some scores in his new memoir. In Europe, his passages about former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder are attracting a good deal of attention.

According to press reports, Bush says Schroder was for the Iraq war before it was against it. Because of his own electoral problems, Bush implies, Schroeder flip-flopped.

The former president writes that when he said he was considering the use of force in Iraq, Schroder said, “‘What is true of Afghanistan is true of Iraq. Nations that sponsor terror must face consequences. If you make it fast and make it decisive, I will be with you.'”

Mr. Bush writes that he “took that as a statement of support. But when the German election arrived later that year, Schroder had a different take. He denounced the possibility of force against Iraq.”

…Mr. Bush writes in “Decision Points” that though he continued to work with the German leader on some issues, “as someone who valued personal diplomacy, I put a high premium on trust. Once that trust was violated, it was hard to have a constructive relationship again.”

Unlike Bush’s former domestic ally Mitch McConnell, who has remained mum about Bush’s similar accusations, Schroeder says Bush is lying:

Schroder said Tuesday that former President George W. Bush “is not telling the truth” in his new memoir “Decision Points,” according to the German magazine Der Spiegel.

…Schroder says Mr. Bush’s description of the exchange is false. He said in that meeting and in others he told Mr. Bush that Germany would stand by the United States if Iraq is shown “to have provided protection and hospitality to al-Qaida fighters.” He added, however, that it became clear in 2002 that the alleged connection between Iraq and al-Qaida “was false and constructed.”

Obviously, one of these former leaders has the facts wrong.

Throughout Europe, if press reports are accurate, most people side with Schroeder.

Bush skeptics certainly have history on their side. The most hawkish supporters of the Iraq-war simply did not countenance conditional support — and have often accused political opponents of simple and hypocritical “flip flops” when something more complicated was at work. I’ve pointed this out before in regard to the “pro-war” votes in the Congress and UN Security Council in fall 2002. Lots of people labeled “war supporters” were simply trying to give the U.S. enough leverage to force Iraq to yield to weapons inspections and assure disarmament.

In this case, Schroeder’s support was contingent upon the evidence of a link between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda:

“Schroeder’s support (for the invasion of Iraq) was conditional on evidence being found of terrorists being harbored in Iraq, so when there was no evidence delivered, he withdrew his support,” LSE professor [Dr. Henning] Meyer told Deutsche Welle. “Bush is attempting to polish his own picture of this situation with the Germans by saying that the breakdown in relations was not his fault and that it was Schroeder who turned opinion against him.”

As RFE/RL reviewer Christian Caryl notes, Bush’s memoir “passes over in silence…how his administration’s repeated declarations of a link between Al-Qaeda and Hussein’s regime warped the work of the intelligence agencies, who had been told all too clearly what their masters wanted to hear.”


Kandahar and My Lai; Drone Strikes and Carpet Bombing

 The New York Times recently posted reports about the U.S. military’s trial of soldiers accused of randomly killing civilians in Afghanistan’s Kandahar province, “for sport.”  Apart from the horrors of the alleged crimes, there is a terrible irony in the stories.  This goes beyond the fact that these kinds of incidents are hardly news.  They are completely predictable in any war, even among the best-trained and most disciplined armies—let alone those in which governmental and military leaders provide signals that make incidents like Abu Ghraib possible.  

The irony also goes beyond the coincidence that this story appeared in the New York Times the same day as another, titled “CIA Steps Up Drone Strikes on Taliban in Pakistan.”  That story re-emphasized the open secret that Pakistan has become the new Cambodia.  Like that other unfortunate nation, Pakistan is being targeted because another of America’s wars is not going well.  But rather than accepting the original war’s folly, our military and civilian leaders, in their consummate wisdom, have expanded it to nearby countries.  Supposedly, it is these nations’ failures to control their populations and borders that explains the war’s failures.

But the real irony is the prosecution of these soldiers, when the architects of the war–responsible for placing the soldiers in Kandahar to begin with–are taking actions that predictably lead to large civilian casualties as well.  It is, of course, true that from a legal standpoint, there are differences in the intent of the killers:  in the first case, intentional; in the second, unintentional.  It is also true that in the first case, the soldiers allegedly knew their victims to be innocent.  In the second, military officers believe themselves to be targeting Taliban or al-Qaeda fighters—though of course their information is often faulty.  And, of course, the soldiers should be prosecuted for their alleged crimes.
But the strategic effects of these incidents is little different.  Who would you hate more if your home was destroyed and your children killed by Predators?  The Taliban fighters who the missiles were intended to kill and who were conducting operations in your area—or the American military and CIA personnel sitting at their desks in Creech Air Force Base?  Perhaps both equally—but, more likely, those who pulled the trigger.  Nor is a grieving Afghan likely to care about the legal niceties that help the drone controllers sleep at night–or be assuaged by the payments the U.S. government sometimes disburses to relatives of its collateral carnage.
To my mind, the closest analogy to this situation comes from Vietnam:  The well-deserved prosecution and conviction of Lieutenant William Calley for the My Lai massacre–at about the same time that the U.S. government was carpet-bombing Vietnam and Cambodia to the tune of untold thousands of civilian deaths—all with the broad rationale that we would thereby win hearts and minds.

No doubt our new smart bombs and drones kill fewer innocents–though still far too many, given the futility of the “war on terror.”  But if I were an Afghan grieving over a drone’s dismemberment of my family, would I care about this sign of “progress?”


Homeland Security Heads Roll in Pennsylvania—But the GWOT Keeps on Rolling

 Two weeks ago, I wrote about Pennsylvania’s Perverted War on Terror.   This week the state’s Homeland Security Director James Powers, Jr. resigned.  Governor Ed Rendell had refused to fire him, saying Powers was not the only one responsible for hiring the Institute of Terrorism Research and Response (ITRR).  True, enough:  Rendell had command responsibility, and Robert French, director of the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency, apparently had oversight too (neither has resigned).  But it appears that Powers was the person who okayed the $103,000 contract that resulted in numerous “intelligence reports” on everyday political activities here in the Keystone State, including environmental meetings against natural gas drilling—then passed some of those reports on to natural gas companies.  

In his resignation statement, Powers still seems confused—not about our country’s First Amendment this time, but about his former office’s responsibilities.  He wrote that “the primary goal of commonwealth preparedness strategies” and “our greatest challenge” is “to prevent, prepare for, respond to and recover from incidents resulting from all hazards (terrorism attacks, major disasters and other emergencies).”  With such an unlimited conception of homeland security’s role, it is little wonder that his department happily paid ITRR for its “intelligence reports.”  Of course, the far bigger scandal remains the “global war on terror’s” waste, hubris, and threat to our liberties.

For those of you worried about Mr. Powers, who did at least have the decency to resign:  the ex-Special Forces man will no doubt find a job with one of the many “homeland security” operations still feeding at the public trough.  Indeed ITRR is probably looking for a few like-minded employees.  
When I wrote my original post, I was unable to find their website; my mistake perhaps, but ITRR may have suspended it themselves (or perhaps been hit by the Stuxnet worm).  In any case, ITRR’s website appears to have re-appeared.  Check it out!  As a birdwatcher, I do have to say I was taken by the owl on the website’s frontpage (Great Horned, I think)–though wisdom does not seem ITRR’s strong suit.  In any case, ITRR links to an article justifying the surveillance on Pennsylvania’s environmentalists, written by Anthony L. Kimery, who describes himself as a “respected award-wining editor and journalist who has covered national and global security, intelligence and defense issues for two decades.”   It is also reassuring to see that ITRR,  along with Philadelphia University, will be holding a Hometown Crisis Management Series program on Oct. 22.  
I have not had time to peruse ITRR’s website fully, though it looks to make fascinating reading–perhaps worthy of another post one day.


Pennsylvania’s Perverted “War on Terror”

How does America’s bloated anti-terror bureaucracy spend its time and our money? A story out of Pennsylvania last week throws light on the earth-shakingly important work these saviors of our soil perform, defending us all from the scary monsters who pose such a dire menace to America.

Or rather it illustrates, yet again, the myriad ways in which our homeland security hogs work to rationalize their existence and perpetuate their wallow in the “homeland security” slops-trough—even while eroding our civil liberties.

The swine this time: International Terrorism Research and Resources (ITRR), a recently formed company with the right sounding name and the right sounding “experts.” ITRR was hastily hired last year by the Pennsylvania Office of Homeland Security, just weeks before the G-20 meeting in Pittsburgh.
(It’s not exactly news, but in these times of national budget woes it’s worth noting again: With the gusher of Homeland Security funding since 9/11, every state and numerous localities have formed their very own Mini-DHS’s pledged to defend their very own patch of the homeland. Austin Powers’s Mini-Me would be most proud of his pork-barrel protégés.)
The $103,000 annual contract called for ITRR to file reports three times per week about “credible threats” to “critical infrastructure.” ITRR apparently performed that contract to the letter—though its definitions of “credible” and “critical” may have been just slightly aggressive. But no matter, “intelligence bulletins” must be filed–and thrice weekly at that!
So ITRR began digging for threats—any threats. According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, these included crowds expected at a Michael Moore film screening, gay activists promoting same-sex marriage, a protest against Arizona’s immigration law–and (shudders!) a rally against the mistreatment of a killer whale at a Florida aquarium. A particular favorite of ITRR’s monitoring: the budding environmental movement against natural gas drilling in Pennsylvania’s Marcellus shale deposits.
Conveniently enough, ITRR sent some of the latter “intelligence bulletins” to companies planning to drill for the gas. In a memo leaked to the Post-Gazette, state Homeland Security Director James Powers, Jr. made his priorities (and profound understanding of “homeland security”) clear: “We want to continue providing support to the Marcellus Shale Formation natural gas stakeholders while not feeding those groups fomenting dissent against these same companies.”
But it was not just suspects on the Left who ITRR monitored. With three bulletins a week that must be written to keep the government checks rolling in, even an “intelligence” company must get creative. In fact, ITRR was an equal opportunity homeland defender—targeting activism of any political stripe. Its bulletins also covered tea partiers, gun rights proponents, right to life groups, and white supremacists.
All of this may seem a sideshow— a puny and pathetic one at that. A “deeply embarrassed” Governor Ed Rendell quickly terminated the company’s contract. Just as quickly, ITRR and its top officials dropped a Get Smart-style cone of silence around themselves.
But this case is in fact a microcosm of the whole “homeland security” cesspool. ITRR transformed legal political activity—the heart and soul of the homeland—into “credible threats.” It inflated nothing, literally nothing, into ominous “intelligence bulletins” emailed to various Pennsylvania government offices, corporate intelligence bureaus, and god knows who else.
It is little solace that a spokesperson for the state Attorney General claimed that his office saw “no value” in the bulletins and deleted them from in-boxes when they arrived. (For ITRR, of course, the value of those emails was $103,000 in taxpayer money.) Nor is it comforting that Gov. Ed Rendell felt shame—not when Pennsylvania doubtless has contracts with other similar outfits and the other 49 states certainly do as well.
But the bigger scandal is how the bottomless pit of “homeland security” dollars generates unstoppable demand for its own consumption. Consider the trillions spent or earmarked for “homeland security” and for the wars in Aghanistan and Iraq: When CIA Director Leon Panetta admitted a few months ago that “we’re looking at 50 to 100, maybe less” al-Qaeda members in Afghanistan and when National Counterterrorism Center czar Michael Leiter asserted that there may be somewhat “more than 300” in Pakistan, the eye-poppingly irrational dollars-to-“terrorist” ratio caused no embarrassment and generated no outrage. Nor, of course, did the collateral carnage regularly wreaked by what Colin Powell has called our “terror industrial complex.”
There are just too many proud “defenders of the homeland,” like ITRR, feeding at the trough to end the waste. And in any case it is simple to invent a new existential threat–the latest in, of all places, Yemen, one of the poorest and most backward countries on earth.
But, in fact, portraying Yemen as a “national security threat” is easy in the current craven climate–even to a country with the world’s largest military spending and biggest economy. After all, for the last nine years we’ve been waging war to the tune of billions per year in Afghanistan, also one of the poorest and most backward countries on earth.
Keep that gravy train rolling–all the way from Scranton to Sana!


It’s radical, man.

Through the very good King’s of War blog I was directed to a post on Jihadica on the recent emergence of an apparent Al-Qaida affiliated English-language publication called “Inspire”. While the author suggests that this has thrown Western media into a panic, there was very little to actually be worried about (other than the fact that it might contain a computer virus).

The bottom line is that Inspire is a drop in an ocean of jihadi propaganda. The recent media coverage suggests that otherwise educated observers don’t seem to realise 1) how large and 2) how old that ocean is. I find this both disappointing and disconcerting. For a decade, militants have been pumping out sophisticated propaganda and genuinely dangerous training manuals to a vast Arabic speaking audience. In comes a sloppy magazine in English, and suddenly people speak of a new al-Qaida media offensive. This ignorance and linguistic myopia is inexcusable, since blogs and translation services have made information about jihadi propaganda more available than ever.
In my view, the only interesting thing about the release of Inspire is the fact that the PDF file is corrupt and rumoured to carry a Trojan virus… Personally I don’t see why either jihadis or intelligence services would deliberately disseminate viruses, given that a virus would hurt both friends and enemies. In any case, whoever created Inspire wanted attention, and they certainly got that – in spades.

I found this post particularly interesting because last week I attended a conference organized by the International Centre for the Study of Radicalization (ICSR) in New York City. This isn’t necessarily in the realm of my normal academic work – other than the fact that I am interested in the way that democracies confront threats and the threat of terrorism. (But let’s face it – it didn’t take a lot of arm twisting to sell me on a conference to New York City in July.)

The conference was interesting for a number of reasons – it brought together academics, policy makers and political leaders to address questions like “are we any safer after 9-11” and thinking about what has been learned. On the one hand there have been two attempted attacks on the US within six months of each other on the United States. On the other hand, one was a guy who literally could not set his pants on fire and the other a failed car bomb. Maybe we’re just safer because the quality of “terrorist” has gone down in the last couple of years?

Given the organizers, the focus of the conference was on radicalization (and they launched a study on radicalization in prisons). I did, however, expect a little more on thinking about these issues within the context of human rights/democracies/constitutions. (Maybe this was a bit of a sore spot as there were many former Bush administration officials there?) However, the issue was touched upon by the third panel of the second day titled “Counterterrorism Cooperation: Is It Working?” (Short answer: yes and no.) The panellists all agreed that human rights played an important part in how counterterrorism cooperation is engaged in. Australian Ambassador for Counterterrorism, Bill Paterson suggested that his country had worked towards helping to improve conditions inside of Indonesian Prisons to diminish the threat of radicalization there. Richard Barrett, head of the UN Al Qaidea/Taliban Monitoring Team maintained that human rights are one of the main pillars of counterterrorism.

Eric Rosand, the Senior Advisor in the Office of the Coordinator for Counterterrorism in the US Department of State argued that for the US this meant increasing the capacity to prosecute individuals within the United States. Interestingly, he also later added that there was a problem with some multilateral efforts. He pointed out that all UN counterterrorism work is being done in New York and Vienna and not on the ground in the countries where it matters.

Another interesting panel was on “How Terrorism Ends” – seemingly named for Audry Kurth Cronin’s 2009 book on the topic. She was at the conference and noted that while terrorism “doesn’t end” that terrorist groups do – the important question is how. She argued that there were six ways: group leadership may be ‘decapitated’ and the group withers, negotiations, success in eradication, failure to eradicate (leading to massive problems in the state or achievement of terrorist goals), mass repression and reorientation of groups. She also noted that given the variations of groups and the different ways they can be approached and confronted that the term “global terrorist insurgency” is not very useful.

I regret to say that the low-mark of the conference for me were the two plenary speakers, Lord David Trimble and Leader of the Opposition in Israel Tzipi Livni. Trimble – who helped to bring about a solution to the Northern Ireland “troubles” and won the Nobel Peace Prize – did not seem to be able to present a coherent narrative about his experiences (and went on so long that there was not time for questions). The main points I took from his talk was that peace in Northern Ireland was possible because of state power – but state power also gave them room to participate in a political process. While the UK government could have left the IRA to just eventually disappear and dissolve into its own infighting, an approach which accommodated them, according to Trimble, helped to diffuse the underlying problems causing terrorism. In addition the process helped to create political structures to address grievances and problems.

Livni, gave a speech which basically amounted to a justification of Israeli policies rather than any kind of serious engagement with the issue – or how democracies can confront the threat of radical violence. Actually, she talked about the way that Hamas ‘uses’ democracy to gain power. She literally stated that everyone “must choose a side… you are either for us or against us” – without any sense of irony or the fact that she was paraphrasing George Bush. I have a lot of sympathy with Livini (and blogged about it in one of my first posts for this site here). But there was nothing new or interesting in her talk – in fact it was rather depressing way to end the conference. (But then maybe that was the point – none of this is going away.)

So terrorism wasn’t solved but I got a really nice dinner out of it. I like to think that means “we’re” winning.


Battling a Straw Man and Still Losing

[I don’t mean to rail on the Washington Post’s coverage of the war in Afghanistan two posts in a row, but the coverage is honestly a bit dismal this week. In my last post, I showed why Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s article “At Afghan outpost, Marines gone rogue or leading the fight against counterinsurgency?” completely misunderstood the strategic importance of the town of Delaram from which the report was written.]

An Op-ed article in yesterday’s WaPo by Michael O’Hanlon and Hassina Sherjan, “Five Myths About the War in Afghanistan” poorly argues the case for “toughing it out” in Afghanistan. Since my time is limited, let me just tackle the first myth they seek to refute (i.e. “Afghans Always Hate and Defeat their Invaders”). Even though I substantively agree with what they are arguing in this section, the way they argue is objectionable for the following reasons.

First, in seeking to dispute a crass Orientalist straw-man argument that Afghans “always hate and defeat their invaders,” the authors note,

“The Afghans drove the British Empire out of their country in the 19th century and did the same to the Soviet Union in the 20th century. They do fight fiercely; many American troops who have been deployed both in Iraq and Afghanistan in recent years have asserted that the Afghans are stronger natural fighters.”

Natural fighters? I am not quite sure what is meant by this phrase or why the authors would even concede to this notion.

Al Qaeda and the Taliban are not “natural fighters.” These groups have studied and carefully adopted tactics from the US and other countries. As Patrick Porter argues, Al Qaeda’s doctrine of “Long War” is partly inspired by Clausewitz (Porter 2009, 62). Copies of Clausewitz’s writings have been found in Al Qaeda safe houses in Afghanistan. In addition, Al Qaeda fighters in Afghanistan are known to use manuals from the US and UK special forces as well as a collected anthology of asymmetric strategies from China and South America.

The Taliban has benefited from its interactions with Al Qaeda, in addition to the strategies and tactics imparted to the mujahideen in the Soviet-Afghan War. In any case, since the Taliban have shifted tactics and strategies (e.g. to include suicide bombing which was once alien to the Afghan conflict), it is incorrect to state that they are “natural fighters.”

Second, O’Hanlon and Sherjan cite highly dubious survey data to support their case:

“Afghans are far more accepting of an international presence in their country than are Iraqis, for example, who typically gave the U.S. presence approval ratings of 15 to 30 percent in the early years of the war in that country. Average U.S. favorability ratings in recent surveys in Afghanistan are around 50 percent, and according to polls from ABC, the BBC and the International Republican Institute, about two-thirds of Afghans recognize that they still need foreign help.”

When this survey was first published, I (and many others who are monitoring this war) posted some reasons why we should be highly skeptical of this particular study, which claimed that 70% of Afghan respondents believe that “things” in Afghanistan are heading in the right direction (up from 40% the year before!).

The point that O’Hanlon and Sherjan want to make could be done without the use of such questionable survey evidence. In fact, as a general rule I think that surveys conducted in war zones should be considered as inadmissable evidence in an argument.

Third, they attempt to paint an image of a small Taliban force (25,000) relative to the mujahideen (250,000) who ousted the Soviets. My problem here is that any estimate of the size of the Taliban should indicate a range of the estimated size. Estimates that I have seen range from 30,000 to 40,000 for this year. So the authors seem to be low balling the estimate to suit their argument. Nevertheless, it is true that the current Taliban forces are much smaller than the estimated number of mujahideen in the Soviet-Afghan War. However, it should be noted that the mujahideen never overran a Soviet base, something which the current Taliban can at least boast (although US/ISAF completely disputes the Taliban’s characterization of events).

Fourth, they argue:

“Finally, though U.S.-backed Afghan forces overthrew the Taliban after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, today’s international presence there does not amount to an invasion. Foreign forces are present at the invitation of the host government, which two-thirds of Afghans consider legitimate, if somewhat corrupt.”

The idea that ISAF troops are present at the invitation of the host government is about as ridiculous as the same claim by the Soviets during their occupation of the country. The current head of state, Hamid Karzai, has been a crony of the CIA since the late eighties. Even he does not dispute the label of “puppet” to describe his regime. It would be more honest for O’Hanlon and Sherjan to acknowledge that this is an occupation but one that is not detested to the same degree as the Soviet occupation.

[Cross-posted from my Afghan Notebook]


Use it or lose it

A recent paper from Brookings, Georgetown and Hoover discusses the international legal aspects of targeted killing. As you would expect, American policy isn’t in sync with the emerging global norm. An idealist might argue that the US is in the wrong (and they have a very strong case under the International Convention on Human Rights); a Realist might argue that the US needs the latitude to kill because it (or somebody–and nobody else is available) has the responsibility to combat enemies of the legal regime that everyone else assumes. The point that I hadn’t thought of before is the conclusion that the US might want to be open about what it is doing and assert–as a legal principle–that this is as it should be.

The ultimate lesson for Congress and the Obama Administration about targeted killings is “Use it or lose it.” This is as true of its legal rationale as it is of the tool itself. Targeted killings conducted from standoff platforms, with improving technologies in surveillance and targeting, are a vital strategic, but also humanitarian, tool in long-term counterterrorism. War will always be important as an option; so will the tools of law enforcement, as well as all the other non-force aspects of intelligence work: diplomacy and coordination with friends and allies. But the long-standing legal authority to use force covertly, as part of the writ of the intelligence community, remains a crucial tool—one the new administration will need and evidently knows it will need. So will administrations beyond it.


The death of Osama bin Laden and his top aides by Predator strike tomorrow would alter national security counterterrorism calculations rather less than we might all hope. As new terrorist enemies emerge, so long as they are “jihadist” in character, we might continue referring to them as “affiliated” with al Qaeda and therefore co-belligerent. But the label will eventually become a mere legalism in order to bring them under the umbrella of an AUMF passed after September 11. Looking even further into the future, terrorism will not always be about something plausibly tied to September 11 or al Qaeda at all. Circumstances alone, in other words, will put enormous pressure on—and ultimately render obsolete—the legal framework we currently employ to justify these operations.

What we can do is to insist on defining armed conflict self-defense broadly enough, and human rights law narrowly enough—as the United States has traditionally done—to avoid exacerbating the problem and making it acute sooner, or even immediately.


We stand at a curious moment in which the strategic trend is toward reliance upon targeted killing; and within broad U.S. political circles even across party lines, a political trend toward legitimization; and yet the international legal trend is also severely and sharply to contain it within a narrow conception of either the law of armed conflict under IHL or human rights and law enforcement, rather than its traditional conception as self-defense in international law and regulation as covert action under domestic intelligence law. Many in the world of ideas and policy have already concluded that targeted killing as a category, even if proffered as self-defense, is unacceptable and indeed all but per se illegal. If the United States wishes to preserve its traditional powers and practices in this area, it had better assert them. Else it will find that as a practical matter they have dissipated through desuetude.

Does the US (or someone) have the right to target individuals? In States where the US is not formally at war? Inside the US?

I suspect that someone has to have the job of playing cop in the international system. I don’t see anyone but the US who is able and willing to do it. A UN force is a possibility, but it still comes down to great power politics and capabilities. On the other hand, I don’t want to give the cops–any cops–the right to target whoever they choose. Even if they start with the best of intentions, that’s a structure that corrupts the cop, alientates the community, and kills the innocent.


al Qaeda’s electioneering

Current polls reveal that the economy is at the top of voters’ agenda and that they trust Senator Barack Obama to handle the ongoing crisis better than Senator John McCain. Today’s Rasmussen Daily Tracking Poll, for example, has Obama leading 51%-44% overall and by 63-32 “among voters who name the economy as the top voting issue.”

However, that same poll revealed that McCain has a whopping 74-24 lead “among those who say that national security is the highest priority.” Luckily for Obama, half the electorate says the economy is the most important priority, while only 19% “understand” it is national security.

Obviously, however, international events could change that calculus. In March 2004, an al Qaeda-affiliated terror group attacked Madrid’s train system just before the Spanish elections. The BBC reported 6 months later:

The evidence to date suggests that the Madrid attacks did not take long to plan or cost much to commit.

Given all that we know about the persistent vulnerability of open societies like the US, al Qaeda could do something to effect the election.

Remember the closing weekend of the close 2004 election? Osama bin Laden released a tape that Republican talking heads on TV interpreted as an endorsement of John Kerry, even as they gleefully boasted that “We want people to think ‘terrorism’ for the last four days…anything that raises the issue in people’s minds is good for us.”

That weekend, straight talking John McCain declared simply about the tape: “It’s very helpful to the president.”

Would al Qaeda strike the US in advance of the November 2008 elections in order to influence the results? Which candidate would al Qaeda want in office?

McCain promises to stay in Iraq to pursue victory, while Obama says the US will withdraw from Iraq over a period of 16 months and focus much more attention on Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Where would al Qaeda prefer to fight the US?

If the US is attacked by terrorists in the next month, or even if bin Laden releases another high profile tape, national security issues could become much more prominent in the election and McCain’s prospects could dramatically improve as a result.

Ironically, if Congress manages to “solve” the financial crisis soon, the economy might become less of an issue for voters.

Then again, political science research reveals that voters tend to form a perception of the economy and the parties fairly well in advance of the election, making the results fairly predictable by Labor Day of an election year. If this is true, then the debates, the reaction to the debates, and other apparent campaign “signals” are merely “noise.”


The Year’s Under-reported Stories

Foreign Policy has released its annual “Top Ten Stories You Missed in 2007.” Among the contenders:

1. The Cyberwars Have Begun. However, see Miriam Dunn Cavelty’s article “Cyberterrorism: Looming Threat or Phantom Menace” in the inaugural issue of the Journal of Information Technology and Politics.

2. US Navy is in Iraq for the Long Haul. And a good thing too, if trade in the Arabian Gulf is to be protected from the emerging threat of piracy, which is on the rise off the coast of Iraq and is already thriving in other areas of the world characterized by state failure. See the International Analyst Network for more.

3. Rifts Within Al-Qaeda Widening. But is this really news? The movement has always been less monolithic than it has been portrayed by the West.

4. And my favorite, we have evidently “entered” the era of robot warriors. According to FP:

“Although militaries have used robots for everything from minesweeping to defusing bombs, the new “special weapons observation remote reconnaissance direct action system”–or SWORDS–is different. For one, it’s packing heat: an M249 machine gun, to be exact. It can fire on a target from more than 3,000 feet away. So far, three of these $250,000 robots have been deployed to Iraq to conduct dangerous ground operations that would otherwise put soldiers’ lives at risk.”

Well, now we’re ready to crush the rebels! On to Planet Hoth!


J.D. Salinger and al Qaeda’s “Chinese Democracy”

Writer J.D. Salinger has not published any work since 1965 (“at least under his own name,” writes someone at Wikipedia). Many theorize that the author of the classic book Catcher in the Rye just cannot top that effort — so why try? I’d stop short of calling him a literary “one hit wonder,” but you can find that description on the web.

Rock band Guns N’Roses was most definitely not a one hit wonder, though I never owned any of their recordings. Lead singer Axl Rose has apparently been re-working the album “Chinese Democracy” for years and years and years — since 1992, in fact. The latest announced release date, March 6, 2007, was recently scrapped. The band has basically disintegrated during this long period of inactivity.

The GNR silence may be explained by Rose’s perfectionism, though artists like Salinger and Rose might simply have a “paranoid fear of being critically misinterpreted.”

Incidentally, “Chinese Democracy” will reportedly have a song entitled “Catcher in the Rye.”

By now, you probably wonder why I am mentioning the non-productivity of these previously successful artists on a blog about international politics. Well, hold on, I’m getting there.

It has been five and a half years since al Qaeda’s dramatic 9/11 attacks on the United States. Yet, America remains a “target-rich” environment. The US is highly vulnerable to a wide variety of potential terror strikes — whether you are most worried about suicide bomber attacks in malls, bombs in sports stadiums, paramilitary strikes on chemical plants, or various kinds of symbolic attacks on Wall Street or DC’s national landmarks.

You can almost scare yourself to death thinking about how easy it would be for terrorists inside America to wreak havoc and create a lot of new fear.

Yet, al Qaeda does not attack. Days pass, then weeks, months, and even years. Will a decade pass before their next effort?

What does the inactivity mean?

Bush administration supporters claim that this inactivity proves that US policies are working. You know the line from the National Security Strategy: “our best defense is a good offense.” Skeptics argue that the threat of al Qaeda attacks has simply been overblown.

Here’s the Salinger/Rose comparison: It is becoming trendy for analysts to claim that al Qaeda has not attacked the US because it is only interested in something on a comparable scale to September 11:

radical Islamic jihadists are probably only interested in large attacks (the stated objective of al-Qaeda leaders is for the next attack on the United States to be bigger than 9/11)

That sets a high bar.

They killed nearly 3000 people, yes, and that was a huge attack, but the greater symbolism lies in the targets and the results: a major center of global commerce was struck and the Twin Towers themselves were toppled! Moreover, the headquarters of America’s global military machine was hit in a surprise attack!

I inserted those exclamation points not to glorify al Qaeda’s actions but to illustrate the enormity of their task.

How can al Qaeda possibly top those attacks?

A nuclear attack of some kind immediately comes to mind and that is certainly why the US claims to be so interested in the “axis of evil” states. However, I’m really skeptical that a nation-state is going to make a tremendous effort to produce a bomb in defiance of the rest of the world — and then just hand it over to al Qaeda, even if OBL himself writes a check with ten zeroes.

So what should security analysts make of al Qaeda’s relative silence? And yes, I certainly realize there are caveats. The organization has hit targets all over the world during these years of “inactivity” and al Qaeda itself has morphed into a loose network of terrorists. Still, what about a concerted effort to target the US?

Are American citizens at great risk or not? Should Americans turn down the threat meters? Or not?

Like a bad “Saturday Night Live” sketch, I’m not precisely certian how to end this post, but I hope that it has been somewhat provocative.

Reader comments and co-blogger responses are most welcome.


Framing: Foreign Repression Edition

The BBC:

Mauritania has accused Islamic insurgents from Algeria of attacking a Mauritanian army base in the Sahara desert killing at least 15 soldiers. Defence Minister Baba Ould Sidi said the gunmen were from the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC) – suspected of links to al-Qaeda…. In recent months the Mauritanian government has arrested about 50 people accused of links with al-Qaeda.

Critics accuse the government of using the US-led war on terror to crackdown on Islamic opponents.

Human Rights Watch:

Uzbek authorities deny responsibility for the killings. The government claims the death toll was 173 people—law enforcement officials and civilians killed by the attackers, along with the attackers themselves. The government says the attackers were “Islamic extremists” who had an Islamist agenda and help from abroad.

Human Rights Watch found no evidence that any of the speakers at the protest promoted an Islamist agenda. According to numerous witnesses, their grievances were overwhelmingly about poverty, corruption, and government repression. Eyewitness accounts suggest the number of dead to be far higher than the government figure.

Since almost immediately after 9/11 attacks, a good many governments have used “Al-Queda” and “radical Islam” as a cover for more general crackdowns on their political opponents. How much longer will they get away with it? I suspect Uzbekistan is shaping up to be the major test case, and current results don’t seem very encouraging for human-rights activists.

More detailed discussion of similar concerns here.

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