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October 23, 2013

Iranian Terrorism

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Matthew Levitt recounts Iran's history of terror sponsorship:

Thirty years ago today, on Oct. 23, 1983, a delivery van filled with 18,000 pounds of explosives slammed into the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut. Seconds later, another car bomb hit a French military building four miles away. A total of 241 American and 58 French soldiers lost their lives, all members of the Multi-National Forces in Lebanon.

The attack on the Marine barracks was not only the single-largest nonnuclear explosion since World War II, it was also the deadliest terrorist attack against Americans up to that time. [Emphasis mine.]

Was the Marine barracks attack, heinous as it unquestionably was, really "terrorism"? By definition, the barracks housed military service members, not civilians.

If attacks on military targets stationed overseas in a war zone constitute terrorism, then the word essentially has no meaning. Worse, America would then be guilty of terrorism on a scale that is orders of magnitude more severe than anything Iran has done, given the number of military targets the U.S. has blown up since 1983.

(AP Photo)

June 18, 2013

America's Terrorism Strategy Makes No Sense

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Pew Research has released a new survey showing that a strong majority of the American people do not support President Obama's decision to arm the Syrian rebels. "Overall, 70 percent oppose the U.S. and its allies sending arms and military supplies to anti-government groups in Syria; just 20 percent, favor this," Pew wrote. "Opinion is little changed from December of last year (24 percent favor) and support is down slightly from March, 2012 (29 percent favor)."

Regardless of what the American people think, the administration is plodding deeper into the Syrian morass. How deep they go remains to be seen.

Stepping back, though, you really do have to marvel at the abject absurdity of America's counter-terrorism policy. On the one hand, the danger from al-Qaeda is so tremendous and urgent, that it's imperative that all communications everywhere, including those of U.S. citizens, be monitored and collected in complete secrecy with almost no serious oversight.

On the other hand, it's not so urgent that we can't dump guns into groups fighting alongside (and with the same strategic goals) as al-Qaeda or worry about creating fresh new safe havens where they can plot further mayhem.

(AP Photo)

May 22, 2013

What Has Boya Dee Seen That Is Worse than an Attempted Beheading?

I don't really know who "Boya Dee" is but he's some sort of minor celebrity. He was also an eye-witness to the brutal murder of a British soldier that saw two men armed with knives and meat cleavers attempt to behead their victim. This prompted Boya Dee to observe via Twitter:

Top three? What on Earth has he seen?

April 16, 2013

Will Boston Have Any Geopolitical Fallout?

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Events are very fluid following the gruesome terrorist attack at the Boston Marathon, but speculation is already swirling as to motive and responsible parties. As I spoke with friends and neighbors yesterday, several people asked me if I thought North Korea was behind it. That possibility never even crossed my mind (and for the record, I think it's wildly implausible) but it did get me thinking about the potential geopolitical fallout of this event if it can be traced to international sources.

In fact, there's only one plausible scenario* I can think of that would carry significant geopolitical consequences: If Iran's Revolutionary Guard or Hezbollah (or both) were behind it.

In response to the assassination of Iranian scientists, Iran has launched a wave of largely unsuccessful global terrorist attacks against Israel and the U.S. While many plots were bungled, Iran (via Hezbollah) did manage to kill Israeli civilians in Bulgaria and attempted to assassinate Saudi Arabia's ambassador to the U.S. in Washington.

If Iran's hand is in this act of terror, it would galvanize proponents of military action against Iran's nuclear program to push the administration for immediate action. The Obama administration would be under enormous pressure to act in some overt manner to punish Tehran. Yet unlike al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, there's no simple method of punishing Iran militarily that doesn't open the door to a much broader conflict. Retaliatory attacks aimed at the Revolutionary Guard or Iran's nuclear facilities could invite Iranian counter-moves and runs the well-established risk of a direct military engagement with Iran. Standing pat, however, will be politically difficult (if not impossible).

So, of all the potential scenarios associated with the Boston attacks, linkage to Iran carries the most significant geopolitical consequences.

Why not al-Qaeda?

The most likely global culprit is also the one least likely to spur any fundamental change to American security strategy or foreign policy. Three of al-Qaeda's main groupings -- in Pakistan, in the Arabian Peninsula and in Africa (the "Islamic Maghreb") -- are already the focus of intense counter-terrorism campaigns, drone strikes and covert action. If any of these groups are linked to the Boston attack it may lead to a stepped up campaign of drone strikes and covert action, but it's unlikely to radically reorient the Obama administration's current policy (it will, however, likely lead to a sharp debate over the drone strikes and whether they're a cause of, or solution to, incidents such as these).

*There are plenty of implausible scenarios which would have far-reaching consequences as well: just pick your favorite rogue or adversarial state and make them the culprit.

(AP Photo)

April 15, 2013

Will Terrorism Become a Matter of Routine?

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Almost nothing is known about the Boston Marathon terrorist attack. So far, there has been some irresponsible speculation about right-wing extremists, but at this point, there isn't even agreement on how sophisticated the attack was. American law enforcement is world-class, and most assuredly, over the next few days, they will piece together who did this, how and why.

Still, there are a few points worth commenting on.

Ever since 9/11, terrorism has been a part of the American psyche. That traumatic event forever changed how we perceive the world. But while terrorism feels like a relatively new phenomenon, in reality, it has been around for a very long time.

Obviously, Israelis and others in the Middle East are quite familiar with terrorism. But so are Europeans, who for nearly 30 years watched the Provisional Irish Republican Army conduct attacks inside the United Kingdom. Similarly, the Tamil Tigers took suicide bombing to a new level in their 26-year-long conflict with the Sri Lankan government.

In many parts of the world, terrorism is simply a fact of life. One wonders whether or not that will ever be the case inside the United States. When one considers how many "soft targets" are available -- from buses and subways to schools and office buildings -- it is astonishing that massive attacks don't happen more often. What prevents someone from planting a bomb in or shooting up a crowded mall on Christmas Eve? Well ... nothing, really.

And that's what makes terrorism so scary. Simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time can be a death sentence. People don't like feeling powerless, and terrorism plays precisely on that fear.

Thankfully, there are relatively few people in the world who are willing to kill innocent people minding their own business. That's why terrorism mortality remains vanishingly small; indeed, Americans are far likelier to die from car accidents or suicide than by terrorism.

As we learn more about the Boston attacks in the days ahead, let's hope that the national media keeps this tragic event in its proper context.

(Image: AP)

March 6, 2013

Kerry's Magic Words Will Keep Arms from Falling into Jihadist Hands

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Secretary of State John Kerry has a plan to stop Gulf state weapons from ending up in jihadist's hands in Syria:

Secretary of State John Kerry said Tuesday that the Obama administration supported efforts by Middle Eastern nations to send arms to the opposition in Syria, and had had discussions with foreign officials to emphasize that those arms should go to moderate forces rather than to extremists.

“We had a discussion about the types of weapons that are being transferred and by whom,” Mr. Kerry said after a meeting with the prime minister of Qatar, which has been involved in arming the Syrian opposition. “We did discuss the question of the ability to try to guarantee that it’s going to the right people and to the moderate Syrian opposition coalition.”

Mr. Kerry’s comments were the most direct public affirmation to date that the Obama administration was supporting efforts to arm the Syrian resistance, provided that the arms are sent by other nations and that care is taken to direct them to factions the United States supports. [Emphasis mine.]

It's been discussed and emphasized. Is anyone else reassured by that?

(AP Photo)

February 21, 2013

France Embraces the Rumsfeld Doctrine

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French defense analyst Murielle Delaporte writes that France took an almost Rumsfeldian approach to the war in Mali:

The French approach is very much about how to intervene and to trigger coalition operations in order to stabilize the situation with regional partners, rather than to simply stay in place for a long time.

It is "shock and awe" to deter the enemy and to trigger space for coalition success, not "shock and awe" for the sake of staying.

France has obviously learned the lessons of both Afghanistan and Iraq, which is that foreign "stabilization" forces (particularly from the country responsible for initiating hostilities) end up getting bogged down in costly insurgencies.

The current French approach won't necessarily lead to a Mali that is unified and stable, but given a choice between a chaotic Mali with hundreds of dead militants and no French occupation force and a Mali with an on-the-march Islamist movement steadily making gains, it's a pretty clear choice. The trick, of course, is in the getting out. France currently has its full contingent (roughly 4,000 troops) in the country -- and they're still battling Islamist rebels.

(AP Photo)

February 18, 2013

Five Things Americans Fear the Most

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What do Americans fear most? When it comes to America's international security interests, the North Korean and Iranian nuclear programs are deemed most threatening, according to a new survey from Gallup. Americans were giving a list of nine developments and asked to rank them from more to less critical. Here are the top five threats Americans say are most critical:

1. The nuclear programs of Iran and North Korea (tied for first)
2. International terrorism
3. Islamic fundamentalism
4. The economic power of China
5. The military power of China

The poll was conducted before North Korea's most recent nuclear test.

Other issues that had previously ranked higher -- such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and tensions between India-Pakistan -- have declined.

Here's a look at the full list of Gallup's results:

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(AP Photo)

Cleric in Britain Lives on Benefits, or "Jihad Seeker's Allowance"

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Firebrand preacher Anjem Choudary was secretly filmed by the UK paper The Sun, urging his followers to get on Britain's welfare system or, as he dubbed it, claim their "jihad seeker's allowance."

As the Daily Telegraph noted, Choudary receives 25,000 pounds a year from the British government. But he's not grateful for the help:

Choudary, who has been banned twice from running organisations under the Terrorism Act, told an audience at a community centre in Bethnal Green, East London, that David Cameron, Barack Obama and the leaders of Pakistan and Egypt were the devil (shaitan) and should be killed.

“What ultimately do we want to happen to them?” asked Choudary. “Maybe I’m the only one who wants the shaitan to be killed. The shaitan should be finished. There should be no shaitan.

“Democracy, freedom, secularism, the parliament, all the MPs and the Presidents, all the kuffar’s ideas, everything the people worship, we have to believe that they are bad and we have got to reject them.”

He later insisted that he never urged anyone to kill people.

(AP Photo)

February 15, 2013

Are U.S. Bases in Saudi Arabia No Longer Inflammatory?

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Last week, both the New York Times and Washington Post revealed the existence of a secret U.S. drone base operating inside Saudi Arabia. The news raised eyebrows because it was the existence of U.S. bases in Saudi Arabia during the 1990s that figured so prominently in Osama bin Laden's jihad against the United States. That the Obama administration would blithely drop another U.S. base into the country without regard for the potentially negative symbolism could, as Tom Engelhardt argues, be a sign of sheer stupidity. Max Fischer, however, isn't so sure, noting that since the revelation, reaction has been rather tame:

It is difficult to draw many conclusions from this one incident, but it does suggest several interesting possibilities. Perhaps, for example, there is something categorically different, for Saudi citizens, between a large number of U.S. troops and a relatively small drone base, which makes the latter less significantly offensive than the former. Maybe there have been so many hints and suggestions of such a base that people had time to get used to the idea.

Or maybe something about Saudi Arabia has changed during the past 20 years, such that what might have once caused wide public outrage no longer does. It is still an austere, deeply conservative and politically oppressive country, but it has not been totally immune from the Middle East’s two turbulent and ideologically charged decades.

It's obviously too soon to draw a firm conclusion, but it points to the underlying and probably unanswerable issue with the drone war: is it radicalizing more people than it is killing? Everything we know about the Obama administration's counter-terrorism policy suggests that they prioritize taking immediate action at the risk of long-term damage vs. enduring heightened risk in the short-term with the promise (hope) of mitigating the danger of jihadism over the long term.

It's hard to blame them for this approach -- there is no incentive for politicians to take the long view on this (or any) issue. Only time will tell if it was the right approach.

(Satellite photos of possible U.S. drone base in Saudi Arabia, via Wired)

January 30, 2013

Iran's Bungling Its Global Terror War

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Though it grabbed headlines for its brazenness, the 2011 Iranian plot to kill the Saudi ambassador in a DC restaurant was equal parts absurd. The accused assassin was a failed used car salesman who was duped by a DEA agent pretending to be a member of a Mexican drug gang. That such a high profile mission on U.S. soil by what is generally considered to be the world's elite militant group would be entrusted to such an individual raised serious questions about Iran's capabilities.

In a new report (PDF), the Washington Institute's Matthew Levitt illustrates that such bumbling has been the rule, not the exception, in Iran's recent attempts at international terrorism.

Under pressure from a campaign of sabotage and assassination, Iran and Hezbollah have joined forces to seek revenge against Israeli and American interests through a coordinated campaign of attacks in places such as India, Kenya, Georgia and Thailand, Levitt notes. Unfortunately for them (but fortunately for us), most of these have been abject failures, undermined by sloppy trade craft. Operatives took minimal efforts to cover their tracks, re-used phones and SIM cards, carried Iranian currency abroad and partied with prostitutes.

"It's as if there's a systematic policy of Iran recruiting low-rent, downright kooky terrorists," remarks one unnamed analyst in Levitt's report.

"Instead of restoring Iran's damaged prestige, the attacks only further underscored Iran's operational limitations," Levitt writes. Still, Iran has had some success (a strike on Israeli tourists in Bulgaria is one recent example) and the concern is that Hezbollah and Iran "shake off the operational cobwebs" and perfect their technique.

(AP Photo)

January 23, 2013

Pushing Back on the Mali Blowback Meme

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Anthropologist Bruce Whitehouse dismisses the idea that the overthrow of Gaddafi or U.S. military training led to the chaos in Mali:

This would make sense if most of the US-trained officers in Mali’s armed forces had defected to the rebels. But that’s not the case: Pentagon-sponsored training was provided to a broad cross-section of officers and NCOs in the Malian military, of which the defectors (most of them Tuareg) made up a minority. US-trained personnel fought on both sides of the conflict: at best the effects of their training were canceled out, at worst they were negligible. The problem with the US military’s training program wasn’t that it benefited the wrong people, it’s that it didn’t work. Following exercises in 2009, detailed in Wikileaks, even one of the Malian army’s most elite units got poor evaluations despite lengthy collaboration with US trainers. Whatever “advantage” such collaboration may have provided, it was the last thing the Tuareg — experienced desert fighters — needed to defeat Malian government forces.

Whitehouse also clarifies the nature of the conflict:

Moreover, I’m not sure how accurate it is to call the forces fighting against the French “Malian rebels” or to describe the conflict as a “civil war“–the command structures of AQIM and MOJWA in particular are dominated by Algerians and Mauritanians. Malians widely perceive these groups as foreign invaders, motivated by racism and greed as well as a perverted, even ignorant view of their faith.

We cannot say that the war in Mali is primarily about natural resources, Western meddling, or religion. We can say, however, that it is a direct consequence of state failure, which as I have argued elsewhere came about largely due to factors internal to Mali.

Via: Sullivan.

(AP Photo)

January 21, 2013

Do Mali Terrorists Intend to Attack the United States?

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The Obama administration has been slow to hop on the Mali intervention bandwagon and some reporting from the Los Angeles Times indicates why:

Militants in Mali, "if left unaddressed, ... will obtain capability to match their intent — that being to extend their reach and control and to attack American interests," Army Gen. Carter Ham, head of the U.S. Africa Command, said in an interview.

But many of Obama's top aides say it is unclear whether the Mali insurgents, who include members of the group Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM, threaten the U.S.

Those aides also worry about being drawn into a messy and possibly long-running conflict against an elusive enemy in Mali, a vast landlocked country abutting the Sahara desert, just as U.S. forces are withdrawing from Afghanistan.

"No one here is questioning the threat that AQIM poses regionally," said an administration official who spoke on condition of anonymity when discussing internal deliberations. "The question we all need to ask is, what threat do they pose to the U.S. homeland? The answer so far has been none."

It's hard to know just what kind of aims and "intent" AQIM has, since different leaders may have a different conception of their mission. According to the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, AQIM is more of a regional outfit and to the extent that it wants to target foreign countries, France and Spain top the list. Although as this CFR backgrounder makes clear, that picture may be changing with possible links between AQIM and the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya.

Still, the Pentagon risks setting up a self-fulfilling prophecy if it ends up quickly diving into a war in Mali. AQIM will have regional aims up until the minute U.S. bombs start falling on their heads. At that moment, they will no doubt broaden their sights.

(AP Photo)

January 3, 2013

A War in Asia Is Worse than Islamic Terrorism

Clifford May argues that Stratfor's Robert Kaplan is wrong to worry about Asia's brewing nationalism:

Similarly, in Asia, Kaplan sees China, Japan, and other nations “rediscovering nationalism,” undermining the notion that “we live in a post-national age.” He adds: “The disputes in Asia are not about ideology or any uplifting moral philosophy; they are about who gets to control space on the map.” True, but is the revival of such nationalistic sentiment really a crisis or even a major problem? Meanwhile, much more significant, Islamists are offering an alternative to both the old nationalist and the newer post-nationalist models.

It seems self-evident to me that Asia's disputes are considerably more worrisome. Islamists may be offering alternative models to discredited pan-Arab movements, but it doesn't mean the countries they lead (or could lead, if they take power) have much in the way of power or influence on a global scale. We know that when militant Islamist groups take power, the country in question tends to fail (see Afghanistan, Iran, etc.). Egypt's Brotherhood may offer an alternative to Taliban-style militancy, but then it will be stripped of the elements that make it dangerous to Western interests. Islamist governments of the kind May fears produce dysfunction, not global power.

The principle threat Islamism poses to the West is sporadic terrorism. There are some worst-case scenarios which could see sweeping upheaval across the Mideast that deposes the Saudi monarchy and plunges the global energy market into a major crisis. There's also the possibility that terror networks in Syria and Iraq could disrupt regional energy resources. That's clearly a danger, but one that carries the seeds of its own solution -- i.e., the more terrorism disrupts Middle East energy supplies, the faster the globe will transition away from Middle East energy. (A smart political class would be trying to head this off now, by reducing the use of oil -- not just producing more of it domestically -- but that's an argument for another day.)

Switching to Asia, the dynamics are just as combustible but the players far more important. It touches on two U.S. treaty allies, South Korea and Japan. It implicates three of the largest economies in the world (China, Japan, and the United States) as well as major maritime trade routes. The potential for conflict is rife, since unlike the Middle East where every country knows who owns what oil field (for the most part), Asia's untapped resources lie in contested waters. There's just as much history and bad blood among the major players in Asia as there is among the Mideast's various rivals (if not more), but unlike the Mideast, Asian states have advanced militaries.

So I think Kaplan has it right: we should be more concerned with Asia's brewing conflicts than Islamism.

December 26, 2012

Is the U.S. Digging Itself a Deeper Hole in Yemen?

The Washington Post offers some reporting from Yemen that suggests the U.S. drone campaign there is creating a mess:

U.S. airstrikes have killed numerous civilians in Afghanistan, Pakistan and other parts of the world, and those governments have spoken against the attacks. But in Yemen, the weak government has often tried to hide civilian casualties from the public, fearing repercussions in a nation where hostility toward U.S. policies is widespread. It continues to insist in local media reports that its own aging jets attacked the truck.

Meanwhile, the Obama administration has kept silent publicly, neither confirming nor denying any involvement, a standard practice with most U.S. airstrikes in its clandestine counterterrorism fight in this strategic Middle Eastern country.

In response to questions, U.S. officials in Washington, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter, said it was a Defense Department aircraft, either a drone or a fixed-wing warplane, that fired on the truck. The Pentagon declined to comment on the incident, as did senior U.S. officials in Yemen and senior counterterrorism officials in Washington.

Since the attack, militants in the tribal areas surrounding Radda have gained more recruits and supporters in their war against the Yemeni government and its key backer, the United States. The two survivors and relatives of six victims, interviewed separately and speaking to a Western journalist about the incident for the first time, expressed willingness to support or even fight alongside AQAP, as the al-Qaeda group is known.

“Our entire village is angry at the government and the Americans,” Mohammed said. “If the Americans are responsible, I would have no choice but to sympathize with al-Qaeda because al-Qaeda is fighting America.”

Public outrage is also growing as calls for accountability, transparency and compensation go unanswered amid allegations by human rights activists and lawmakers that the government is trying to cover up the attack to protect its relationship with Washington. Even senior Yemeni officials said they fear that the backlash could undermine their authority.

“If we are ignored and neglected, I would try to take my revenge. I would even hijack an army pickup, drive it back to my village and hold the soldiers in it hostages,” said Nasser Mabkhoot Mohammed al-Sabooly, the truck’s driver, 45, who suffered burns and bruises. “I would fight along al-Qaeda’s side against whoever was behind this attack.”

Relatedly, Yemen expert Gregory Johnsen spoke to the Canadian International Council about the budding air war in Yemen. It's a very illuminating interview and in it, Johnsen argues that U.S. policy in Yemen is backfiring:

In the West, the debate over U.S. policy in Yemen has become focused on drone strikes, but in Yemen, the focus is on the civilian casualties that are a result of some of those strikes. When the Obama administration started carrying out attacks in Yemen, there were about 200-300 individuals affiliated with AQAP. Today, it’s at least 1,000 – in fact, the U.S. State Department estimates that it’s at least a few thousand. I don’t think all of this is attributable to the use of drones, or to the civilian casualties they’ve resulted in, but I think a large portion of it is, and because of this, one of the things that I think the U.S. has to do is reconsider its strike policy.
Johnsen goes on to argue that a more targeted policy of fewer strikes against only truly high value targets may yield better results. But he also makes a crucial point -- because of the secrecy that surrounds U.S. counter-terrorism policy, it's very hard to make critical judgments about its effectiveness:
So we’re all basing our analyses on what’s been made public, and because there’s so little of that and so much that remains shrouded in secrecy, we’re all able to import our own biases into the discussion. Two well-intentioned, honest individuals could look at the same thing, and one could claim the action represents an evolution of what the term “imminent threat” means, while the other could see an example of the U.S. acting as a counterinsurgency air force. The truth is that most of us on the outside just don’t know what the government officials who are making these decisions are thinking, or what’s driving the program.

December 10, 2012

What's the Deal with Qatar?

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There's one thing the revolt against Libya's Gaddafi and the revolt against Syria's Assad have in common: weapons have been provisioned to Islamic extremists and al-Qaeda syndicates by the government of Qatar.

It's difficult to tell whether it's due to incompetence (one person quoted by the Times describes weapons being handed out "like candy" without regard for who's getting one) or whether the government is deliberating seeking out Islamists to empower as a means of expanding its regional influence. But either way, Qatar's actions are bolstering people who may present a direct threat to the United States as failed states emerge in both Libya and Syria.

The U.S. is no passive observer: it has an air base in Qatar, is building a missile defense radar installation there and is ostensibly close to the government. While it probably couldn't stop Qatar outright, it seems odd that the Obama administration is doing nothing besides registering token complaints.

Or maybe not so odd: after all, Qatar is a plank in a regional strategy designed to contain Iran. It is, in fact, a perfect example of how such a strategy is going to end up fueling forces far more hostile to the U.S. and its interests -- and far less deterrable -- than Iran.

(AP Photo)

November 26, 2012

America's Counterinsurgency Air Force for Yemen

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There's no question that U.S. drones have served a beneficial purpose in prosecuting the war against al-Qaeda, but there have long been two worrisome trends associated with drone strikes. The first is the target list: it appears to be much broader than simply al-Qaeda's top leaders. The second is the executive branch secrecy and assumption of broad powers to kill people, including American citizens, at will.

A new report in the New York Times sheds a bit more light on the issue:

But by many accounts, there has been a significant shift in the nature of the targets. In the early years, most strikes were aimed at ranking leaders of Al Qaeda thought to be plotting to attack the United States. That is the purpose Mr. Obama has emphasized, saying in a CNN interview in September that drones were used to prevent “an operational plot against the United States” and counter “terrorist networks that target the United States.”

But for at least two years in Pakistan, partly because of the C.I.A.’s success in decimating Al Qaeda’s top ranks, most strikes have been directed at militants whose main battle is with the Pakistani authorities or who fight with the Taliban against American troops in Afghanistan.

In Yemen, some strikes apparently launched by the United States killed militants who were preparing to attack Yemeni military forces. Some of those killed were wearing suicide vests, according to Yemeni news reports.

“Unless they were about to get on a flight to New York to conduct an attack, they were not an imminent threat to the United States,” said Micah Zenko, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations who is a critic of the strikes. “We don’t say that we’re the counterinsurgency air force of Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, but we are.”

Of course, since the administration will only discuss the drone program through self-serving, mostly anonymous leaks, it's literally impossible to judge anything that's written about it. However, taking the New York Times report at face value, it does appear that the administration has unleashed drones on a wider set of targets than seems justified given the threat.

Among the problems with serving as a "counterinsurgency air force" for countries like Pakistan or Yemen is that it makes yet another series of enemies for the U.S. Part of the problem likely stems from the co-mingling of terrorist groups and local insurgencies, but the U.S. shouldn't put its weapons in the service of foreign countries with dubious human rights records unless there is a clear danger to the United States.

(AP Photo)

November 20, 2012

Would Americans Support the Destruction of Gaza?

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Walter Russell Mead (via Sullivan) argues that Americans don't understand or support the concept of proportionality in war and would not blink if Israel decided to raze Gaza:

For many people around the world, this seems patently obvious: Israel has a right to respond to attacks from Hamas but it doesn’t have an unlimited right to respond to limited attacks with unlimited force. Israeli blindness to this obvious moral principle strikes many observers as evidence of hardheartedness and national moral decline, and colors their perceptions of many other Israeli policies.

The whole jus in bello argument sails right over the heads of most Americans....From this perspective, the kind of tit-for-tat limited warfare that the advocates of just and proportionate warfare would require is a recipe for unending war: for decades of random air strikes, bombs and other raids. An endless war of limited intensity is worse, many Americans instinctively feel, than a time-limited war of unlimited ferocity. A crushing blow that brings an end to the war—like General Sherman’s march of destruction through the Confederacy in 1864-65—is ultimately kinder even to the vanquished than an endless state of desultory war.

This may be true, but it also explains why very few American wars end in victory: Korea ended in a stalemate, Vietnam in a loss and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan with far-from-satisfactory outcomes. The view that a war represents an opportunity to forge a "clean break" with the dynamics that initiated the conflict is obviously alluring, but not always true. Many wars, in fact, end with murky, less-than-definitive outcomes. Even "victories" can prove ephemeral, as the victors of World War I soon discovered. There are wars that do end decisively: the American Revolution booted out the British, the Civil War vanquished the South and World War II ended in the collapse of the Nazi and Imperial Japanese regimes. But none of these are really analogous to the kind of conflict that Israel is in with Hamas in Gaza.

Israel understands this, which is why they are fighting in the manner that Mead finds so mystifying. They cannot land a knock-out blow because there is no such thing. If such an option were available to them, wouldn't they have seized it by now?

Moreover, I wonder whether Mead is right that Americans would be indifferent to -- or even encouraged by -- a "time-limited war of unlimited ferocity" against Gaza. Since Mead evokes World War II as the template, let's consider what that would entail: at a minimum it would mean the destruction of most of Gaza's civilian infrastructure and the deaths of tens of thousands, potentially hundreds of thousands, of civilians. It would take a year's worth of awful images from Syria's civil war and compress them (and magnify them) over the space of several weeks. In a fairly short period of time, Hamas would lose its ability to fight back at all and the "war" would become even more one-sided than it already is. At a certain point, unrestrained military action against a civilian population that has no capacity to fight back ceases to be a "war" and becomes something much worse.

Covering this war of "unlimited ferocity" would certainly be difficult -- it would be too dangerous for most reporters since the bombardment would be so widespread -- but the news would leak out and Americans would ultimately understand what was occurring. Moreover, there would be explosive and widespread condemnation not just internationally but also from Washington. The Obama administration would almost certainly not publicly support an Israel campaign to raze Gaza to the ground and kills tens of thousands of Gazans.

Moreover, the most recent public opinion poll shows 57 percent of Americans supporting Israel's current response. It is impossible for me to believe that this number would not decrease if Israel began flattening hospitals and homes in the widespread and coordinated fashion described above.

None of this, I should stress, is going to happen -- this conflict will likely grind down like the last time Israel and Hamas came to blows. This may, as Mead says, strike most Americans as "unsatisfactory," but it's difficult to see a viable alternative.

(AP Photo)

November 19, 2012

President Obama: No Country Should Tolerate Missiles Raining Down on Them (Except the Ones We're Bombing)

"There's no country on Earth that would tolerate missiles raining down on its citizens from outside its borders." - President Obama

As Mike Riggs wrly observes, "That is a very interesting thing to say at a time when the U.S. is regularly raining missiles down on Pakistan and Yemen."

Interesting indeed. President Obama is right, of course. Which is why the U.S. shouldn't be surprised when its own missile campaigns generate anti-Americanism and terrorism targeting U.S. interests.

November 13, 2012

Why Is al-Qaeda Thriving in Yemen? Saudi Arabia

In reviewing Gregory Johnsen's book on al-Qaeda in Yemen, Clint Watts describes how Saudi Arabia fueled the rise of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP):

Going into this book, I expected to be convinced that drones were more central to AQAP’s rise. However, having read the manuscript, I actually am more confident in my assessment from this past summer that it is a combination of external and internal factors that have led to AQAP’s regeneration with the most important enabler being the Saudi purge of AQ members in 2006-2007. Greg does discuss this Saudi purge in the book and I believe it is critical to understanding where and when AQ grows and ebbs. Young Saudi foreign fighters have been the largest portions of recruits and leaders for years supplying one jihad after another. With the decline of Iraq, Saudi foreign fighters flowed into Yemen and today I imagine AQAP in Yemen is now competing with Syria for the collection of fresh recruits. Having read Greg’s book, I see the influx of Saudi foreign fighters, the failures of rehabilitation programs and repeated prison escapes as the driving factors in AQAP’s recent heights. Drones didn’t generate AQAP’s growth, drones responded to AQAP’s growth. [Emphasis mine.]

October 10, 2012

Will Arming Syria's Rebels Prevent a Jihadist Takeover?

By doing nothing decisive, we’re ceding ground to be bad guys in the resistance. There is plenty of money going to the extremists, and their networks (not destroyed or ‘back on their heels’) of fighters and funders are working overtime. By not trying to find reliable partners to cooperate with among the rebels and giving them the tools to get the job done, we are ceding ground to al-Qaeda in whatever shape post-Assad Syria takes. - Walter Russell Mead

This is a common lament, both among pro-interventionist Western commentators and among Syrian rebel forces themselves. But how true is it? Let's presume the U.S. arms the rebels - but only the Good Ones Who Share Our Values - and they're able to fight more effectively against Assad's forces. Will the jihadists decide to quit the battlefield? Why would they do that? Are we supposed to assume that the Syrian forces fighting the Assad regime will instantly turn their guns on the jihadists in their midst if and when they succeed in overthrowing Assad? Won't they have bigger fish to fry at that point?

The possibility of jihadist enclaves in Syria is very real and it's reasonable to assume that the longer fighting drags on, the more opportunities there will be for safe havens and terror networks to take root. But these same networks are just as likely to feed on post-war instability and chaos - which is what is likely to attend the downfall of Assad. What's needed to prevent extremists from gaining traction inside Syria is not American weapons but some plan to actually achieve internal security inside the country. Short of that, arming the rebels may have some merit, but it's not likely to prevent al-Qaeda and its cohorts from taking root in the country.

September 24, 2012

The Use and Abuse of the "Terrorist" Designation

When the Bush administration sought to tie the regime of Saddam Hussein to terrorism, it pointed to the sheltering of the cult/terrorist group Mujahedin-e-Khalq Organization (MEK) as one of its transgressions. Last week, the Obama administration decided to pull the group from the State Department's list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations, despite concerns that they're still in the terrorism business. The ostensible reason the group was removed was because they complied with a U.S. request to depart Iraq, but Paul Pillar notes that it sends an unmistakable signal to Iran:

No good will come out of this subversion of the terrorist-group list with regard to conditions in Iran, the behavior or standing of the Iranian regime, the values with which the United States is associated or anything else. The regime in Tehran will tacitly welcome this move (while publicly denouncing it) because it helps to discredit the political opposition in Iran—a fact not lost on members of the Green Movement, who want nothing to do with the MEK. The MEK certainly is not a credible vehicle for regime change in Iran because it has almost no public support there. Meanwhile, the Iranian regime will read the move as another indication that the United States intends only to use subversion and violence against it rather than reaching any deals with it.

Although the list of foreign terrorist organizations unfortunately has come to be regarded as a kind of general-purpose way of bestowing condemnation or acceptance on a group, we should remember that delisting changes nothing about the character of the MEK. It is still a cult. It still has near-zero popular support in Iran. It still has a despicably violent history.


All nations are entitled to double-standards and hypocrisies - in fact, it would be largely impossible to operate in the world without them - but it's odd that an establishment that prides itself on global norm setting would be so cavalier about advertising their own.

September 11, 2012

National Security in the 9/11 Era

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Jennifer Rubin uses the anniversary of 9/11 to take a partisan jab at President Obama:

It is distressing when we observe the lethargy and unseriousness with which we address national security. Eleven years after 9/11 we learn the president skips half of his intelligence briefings. Congress and the president have set in motion national security cuts that longtime Democrat, Defense Secretary Leo Panetta, has dubbed “devastating.” We learn that the White House came up with the sequestration gimmick to try to force Republicans to raise taxes; there is no sign the president will intervene in sufficient time to halt substantial layoffs in the defense industry. Is this the same nation that rallied to the defense of the West? It’s hard to believe sometimes.

We are light-years away from the Bush administration, to be sure, when George W. Bush “held his intelligence meeting six days a week, no exceptions — usually with the vice president, the White House chief of staff, the national security adviser, the director of National Intelligence, or their deputies, and CIA briefers in attendance.

This is a weird critique to make. Certainly, President Obama's counter-terrorism record is far from perfect, but, good or bad, sequestration and defense industry layoffs are unlikely to impact U.S. counter-terrorism (as defined by intelligence collection, analysis and the drone campaign - not nation building in remote regions). Most of the very controversial legal infrastructure around the war on terror remain in place. When it comes to targeting al-Qaeda, President Obama has been as aggressive - if not more so - than President Bush. Just yesterday, a senior al-Qaeda figure in Yemen was killed, likely by a U.S. drone. As former Director of the CIA Michael Hayden recently observed, there has been "powerful continuity" between the Bush and Obama administrations when it comes to counter-terrorism, with the exception being that the Bush administration was heavier on the torture and the Obama team leans more on assassinations.

Moreover, while it's true that President Obama should attend more intel briefings, why Rubin would choose this angle is odd, given that when President Bush enjoyed those briefings, he dismissed terror warnings before 9/11 and reportedly told a briefer who warned about potential al-Qaeda attacks on the homeland that he had "covered his ass now."

Rather than focus on partisan non sequiturs like the potential impacts of sequestration, the real legacy of 9/11 is just how resilient al-Qaeda has proven. Bruce Reidel paints a stark picture:

Eleven years after 9/11, al Qaeda is fighting back. Despite a focused and concerted American-led global effort—despite the blows inflicted on it by drones, SEALS, and spies—the terror group is thriving in the Arab world, thanks to the revolutions that swept across it in the last 18 months. And the group remains intent on striking inside America and Europe....

But it is in the Arabian Peninsula that al Qaeda is really multiplying. Its franchise in Yemen has staged three attacks on America, including one at Christmas in 2009—the infamous “underwear bomber—that almost succeeded in Detroit. Its brilliant Saudi bomb maker, Ibrahim al-Asiri, is alive and has trained a cadre of students. The Yemeni regime is weak, the country is spinning into chaos, and al Qaeda is exploiting it. Now the U.S. is using drones almost as much in Yemen as in Pakistan.

The al Qaeda apparatus in Iraq, despite being decapitated several times, carries out waves of bombings every month. It has proven remarkably resilient. In North Africa, al Qaeda has allied itself with other Islamist extremists and taken over more than half of Mali, an area bigger than France. There it is training terrorists from Algeria, Morocco, Nigeria, and elsewhere. It has raided Muammar Gaddafi’s arsenal and is armed and dangerous.

A new al Qaeda franchise has emerged in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, where it is trying to provoke a war between Egypt and Israel. American troops in the multinational force keeping the 1979 peace treaty are at risk.

The fastest-growing al Qaeda operation is in Syria.

The toppling of Saddam Hussein and the revolutions that have unseated autocratic rulers have done a lot of bin Laden's work for him.

(AP Photo)

August 10, 2012

Hezbollah's Falling Stock

David Schenker charts it:

Prior to the so-called "Arab Spring," Nasrallah was among the most beloved and feared men in the Arab world. But a year and a half into the popular Syrian uprising, with Hezbollah's allies in Damascus in trouble and the militia's clerical patrons in Tehran facing a possible American or Israeli attack, Nasrallah seems to have lost his mojo.

Question: is it better over the long-run for Nasrallah to be marginalized by events in the region or martyred by an Israeli missile?

July 16, 2012

Al-Qaeda in Yemen

Watch Al Qaeda in Yemen on PBS. See more from FRONTLINE.


In May, Frontline ran a fascinating documentary on al-Qaeda in Yemen. It follows Iraqi reporter Abdul-Ahad as he travels into an al-Qaeda-held city and several strongholds throughout the country.

One interesting revelation to emerge in the footage is how sensitive al-Qaeda has become to tribal sensibilities following their rout in Iraq. Indeed, Ahad relates that even in Yemen, al-Qaeda ran afoul of a local tribe in the town of Lawdar and was quickly driven out. Meanwhile, Yemen's divided and dysfunctional army has largely failed to dislodge al-Qaeda.

May 2, 2012

Al-Qaeda Using Porn to Pass Secrets

Who knew:

The German newspaper Die Zeit and CNN reported this week that a Pakistani Al Qaeda operative was caught by German security officials with a memory disk that contained a pornographic video. Embedded inside the video was a file called “Sexy Tanja” with more than 100 documents outlining plans for terror attacks throughout Europe.

Why a porno?

“The video would be easier to ship and distribute,” said Kenneth James Ryan, professor of criminology at California State University, Fresno, and a counter-terrorism expert. “Whoever has ability to decrypt the code would be the intended audience.”

The next time an Indian lawmaker gets caught watching porn on his phone, he can now claim to be searching for hidden terror messages.

Is Obama's Counter-Terrorism Czar Telling the Truth?

John Brennan, President Obama's chief counter-terrorism adviser once insisted that drone strikes in Pakistan produced no collateral damage - something that was patently untrue. Now, James Joyner highlights another instance where Brennan's assertions run contrary to published reports:

Brennan was at pains to insist that the Obama administration’s targeting policy is judicious enough to pass Rumsfeld’s test. Each and every targeted strike against a militant, he assured the audience, undergoes “a careful review and, as appropriate, will be evaluated by the very most senior officials in our government for decision.” As part of that process, “we ask ourselves whether that individual’s activities rise to a certain threshold for action, and whether taking action will, in fact, enhance our security.” He insisted that there is a “high bar” for action, that strikes are not carried out based on “some hypothetical threat—the mere possibility that a member of al Qaeda might try to attack us at some point in the future. A significant threat might be posed by an individual who is an operational leader of al Qaeda or one of its associated forces.”

But these assertions are contrary to recent news reports that Obama has quietly loosened rules for targeting suspected terrorists with drone strikes. The Washington Post reports that the new policy “allows the CIA and the military to fire even when the identity of those who could be killed is not known” and “marks a significant expansion of the clandestine drone war against an al Qaeda affiliate that has seized large ­pieces of territory in Yemen and is linked to a series of terrorist plots against the United States.”

Before the Post story, the Wall Street Journal also had a detailed report on how targets are chosen for drone strikes - and, contrary to Brennan's assertion, the Journal reported that people are targeted even if their "identities aren't always known." Now, there are one of two possibilities: the newspapers got it wrong, or Brennan isn't telling the truth. Which is it?

March 20, 2012

Glenn Greenwald, Meet Robert Pape

I promise I'm not starting a series ... but this from Glenn Greenwald caught my eye:

Here’s a summary of the Western media discussion of what motivated U.S. Staff Sgt. Robert Bales to allegedly kill 16 Afghans, including 9 children: he was drunk, he was experiencing financial stress, he was passed over for a promotion, he had a traumatic brain injury, he had marital problems, he suffered from the stresses of four tours of duty, he “saw his buddy’s leg blown off the day before the massacre,” etc.

Here’s a summary of the Western media discussion of what motivates Muslims to kill Americans: they are primitive, fanatically religious, hateful Terrorists.

Even when Muslims who engage in such acts toward Americans clearly and repeatedly explain that they did it in response to American acts of domination, aggression, violence and civilian-killing in their countries, and even when the violence is confined to soldiers who are part of a foreign army that has invaded and occupied their country, the only cognizable motive is one of primitive, hateful evil. It is an act of Evil Terrorism, and that is all there is to say about it.

I'm not sure which Western media outlets Greenwald reads, but I think this is just a wee bit overstated. First, there's Greenwald's own prodigious output, which routinely contextualizes most acts of violence directed against the United States as being something other than evil. Second, there is the aforementioned Robert Pape, whose work rather directly refutes Greenwald's premise that we never read about other motives for terrorism besides irrational, hateful evil (he's even got a book - and a database!).

But wait, there's more.

There is a Republican presidential nominee who has staked a large portion of his foreign policy platform on the notion that U.S. military action in the Muslim world is inciting terrorism. There's former head of the bin Laden unit, Michael Scheuer, writing in the obscure journal the Washington Post, on how the true motivations for al-Qaeda include U.S. support for Arab dictatorships. A few weeks after 9/11, Fareed Zakaria had a cover story in Newsweek offering a very nuanced take on the root causes of Islamic terrorism.

At this point, I'd say any casual reader with an interest in foreign or defense policy, or any viewer who tuned into one of the GOP debates on foreign policy, has at least been exposed to the notion that "primitive, hateful evil" is not the sole, or even decisive, motivation behind acts of terrorism.

February 14, 2012

Is Terrorism OK if Israel Does It?

Ever since it was reported that Israel was sponsoring terrorist attacks against Iranians, we've seen a rather curious turn of affairs: supporters of Israel have come to the defense of terrorism.

Daniel Larison picks up the thread, arguing that the moral approbrium due terrorism should hold no matter what:

Tobin makes the charge that the other critics and I are indulging in such moral relativism for the purpose of “delegitimizing” Israel, but it is Tobin who wants one standard for judging Israeli behavior and a very different one for judging Iranian behavior. What all of us are saying is that there is a moral and legal equivalence between different acts of terrorism, and that the victims of terrorist attacks are equally human. The lives of Iranian civilians have just as much value as the lives of Israeli civilians. The former don’t become more expendable because their government is authoritarian, abusive, and supports Hamas. If it is wrong and illegal for one group or state to commit acts of terrorism, it must be wrong and illegal in all cases. The reasons for the acts shouldn’t matter, and neither should the justifications. Either we reject the amoral logic that the ends justify the means, or we endorse it.

Jonathin Tobin followed up saying:

Above all, what Greenwald, Wright and Larison have a problem with is the entire idea of drawing a moral distinction between Iran and Israel. That is why their entire approach to the question of the legality of Israel’s attacks is morally bankrupt. Underneath their preening about the use of terrorists, what Greenwald, Wright and Larison are aiming at is the delegitimization of the right of Israel — or any democratic state threatened by Islamist terrorists and their state sponsors — to defend itself.

Michael Rubin also weighed in:

Jonathan Tobin is absolutely right to dismiss those who argue that Israel forfeited its moral standing by allegedly assassinating Iranian nuclear scientists. Rather, the fact that some argue Israel “started it” shows moral blindness and ignorance of context.

The "context" in question appears to be the fact of who is committing the terrorism. When Iran does it, according to Rubin, it's bad. When Israel does it, it's necessary.

Ultimately, the question seems to boil down to whether a state is justified in committing terrorism if it believes the stakes are high enough. By sanctioning Israel's use of terrorism, Israel's supporters are decrying a "moral equivalency" between Israel and her enemies while simultaneously endorsing moral relativism: they imply that any moral judgments about terrorism must begin with an assessment of the state or group employing it.

Personally, I tend to agree with Larison that this is indeed "amoral logic" but I don't necessarily think that Tobin and Rubin are wrong, at least as far as the general principle goes. I don't agree with the Tobin/Rubin argument that the stakes in this specific case are "existential," but I do believe that if the stakes were existential then it's difficult to rule out any tactic, however awful. Indeed, the very bedrock of a "realist" foreign policy seems to hinge on the notion that states must prioritize the lives of their own citizens above the lives of others. That's ugly, no doubt, and I think there's an argument to be made that the U.S. should often behave as if this were not the case (and build a normative atmosphere that rejects, when possible, amoralism). But at the end of the day, there's a limit to how far that project can go.

Update: Rubin takes issue with my characterization of his post:

But that was not the point of the post Sclobete [sic] selectively cites, nor is it even a fair reading of it. Rather, I list a litany of anti-Israel and anti-Jewish terrorism sponsored by Iran during the past two decades and exclaim that pundits who are jumping on the terrorism bandwagon now show their selectivity by having ignored for so long Iranian sponsorship of terrorism against Israel, Israelis, and Jews.

As for assassination, a tactic used to prevent a wider conflict or an existential challenge, I see nothing wrong with it nor, for that matter, does the Obama administration. Assassination does not violate international law; it is not terrorism.

The broader problem, however, is that there is simply no universally accepted definition of terrorism. As I noted in this paper on asymmetric threat concept, as of 1988 there were more than 100 definitions of terrorism in use in Western countries, and that number has only proliferated in the past quarter century.

I can state unequivocally that Rubin is wrong about one thing: the spelling of my last name. Beyond that, I don't know if this is as exculpatory as Rubin thinks - saying another side "started it" or that it's all too rhetorically vague to pass judgment on doesn't suddenly absolve the behavior in question.

I'm not a legal expert on these matters, but I believe the position of the U.S. government since President Ford is that assassination is illegal. When then-U.S. ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk was asked his position on Israel's policy of assassinations, he said:

“The United States government is very clearly on the record as against targeted assassinations. They are extrajudicial killings, and we do not support that.”

Times change and obviously the U.S. government's attitude toward assassinating people has undergone considerable liberalization following 9/11. As I said, I think Rubin and I are actually in agreement that, if push comes to shove, a state must do what it must to defend itself. I do not believe that Iran is building a nuclear weapon to use against anyone, therefore I'm all that receptive to claims that Iranian scientists are willfully crafting a weapon of genocide to use against Israel (or the U.S.) . However, if you earnestly believe that they are, then such tactics have a stronger justification.

February 10, 2012

Terrorism Is a Tactic

If the deprivation of rights is indeed the root cause of terrorism, why did all these people pursue their cause without resorting to terror? Put simply, because they were democrats, not terrorists. They believed in the sanctity of each human life, were committed to the ideals of liberty, and championed the values of democracy.

But those who practice terrorism do not believe in these things. In fact, they believe in the very opposite. For them, the cause they espouse is so all-encompassing, so total, that it justifies anything. It allows them to break any law, discard any moral code and trample all human rights in the dust. In their eyes, it permits them to indiscriminately murder and maim innocent men and women, and lets them blow up a bus full of children. - Benjamin Netanyahu

Israel is, after all, locked in a conflict with an Iranian regime that has made no bones about its intentions. Just last week, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei repeated the standard Iranian line about Israel being a “cancerous tumor” that must be eradicated. Coming from a man who leads a regime based on religious fanaticism and which is dedicating massive amounts of the country’s resources towards achieving its nuclear ambitions, this is no idle threat. Under these circumstances, Israel is entirely justified in using whatever means it has to prevent Khameini’s government from achieving its genocidal ends. The MEK may be an unattractive ally, but with its Iranian members and infrastructure of support inside the country, it is an ideal weapon to use against the ayatollahs. - Jonathan Tobin

Several people have jumped on Tobin for saying this, but I think he's actually making a point that many critics of neoconservatism (particularly post 9/11 neoconservatism) have been saying since the "war on terror" began: terrorism is a tactic, not an ideology. Tobin approves of terrorism when it's being used by Israel against Iran and disapproves of it when it's used by Palestinians against Israel. But Tobin is acknowledging that - contrary to Benjamin Netanyahu's insistence - terrorism itself is not an outgrowth of a "totalitarian" mindset but a tactical weapon to use against an adversary when other tools are unavailable or too risky.

January 25, 2012

Al-Qaeda's Rope-a-Dope Strategy Revealed

Via Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, a German paper uncovered a high-level strategy paper drafted by what's left of al-Qaeda's leaders in the Afghan-Pakistan border:

According to information obtained by Der Tagesspiegel, terror organization al-Qa’ida plans to fight a war of attrition against Germany and other Western states. Security sources say that a strategy paper drafted by the al-Qa’ida leadership based in the Pakistani-Afghan border area suggests that a combination of smaller and larger attacks “will drive the enemy to despair.” Other documents describe the taking and subsequent killing of hostages, the use of toxic substances, and how to give cover to fighters smuggled in.

Al-Qa’ida expects that growing fear among the general population and increasing reprisals on the part of the security authorities will marginalize Muslims. As a result of such escalation, Muslims will join the Holy War in ever larger numbers, security sources quote from the papers.

Gartenstein-Ross observes:

[T]his strategy paper shows that the group continues to depend on the West’s reactions to advance its objectives, demonstrated by its expectation that “increasing reprisals on the part of the security authorities will marginalize Muslims,” thus causing more Muslims to flock to al Qaeda’s jihad. I won’t reiterate the idea of al Qaeda’s rope-a-dope here, but it is worth being cognizant of to understand how the jihadi group used American reactions to strengthen its own hand over the past decade.

January 23, 2012

Risky Business: The World's Least Business-Friendly Countries

The risk consultancy Maplecroft has found "complicity in the violation of human rights constitute the most significant environmental, social and governance (ESG) risk faced by investors in the fast growing BRIC economies of Brazil, Russia, India and China." In their newly released survey, the company also lists some of the least hospitable places for a business to operate:

According to Maplecroft’s results, the 10 countries with the highest levels of ESG risk are Somalia, North Korea and Myanmar, which are classified as ‘extreme risk,’ while South Sudan, Haiti, DR Congo, Sudan, Zimbabwe, Afghanistan and Pakistan sit within the ‘high risk’ category.

However, global investment is centred in the new financial powerhouses of the BRICs, along with other emerging growth markets, such as Indonesia, Mexico, Nigeria, the Philippines and Viet Nam, and it is in these countries where responsible investors will be particularly exposed to ESG risks.

December 19, 2011

2011: A Bad Year for Bad Guys

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2011 will be remembered for many things but it will also undoubtedly go down as a very bad year for bad guys. Consider the roll call. Among the dead: Kim Jong-il, Osama bin Laden and Muammar Gaddafi. Among those ousted from power: Hosni Mubarak, Ben Ali and Ali Saleh. Then we have the teetering despot Bashar Assad. Even Vladimir Putin has had his smooth transition plans ruffled.

There's no unified theme here, but it's still pretty amazing as far as it goes.

(AP Photo)

November 17, 2011

Haqqanis on Tape

According to the Long War Journal, the Haqqani Network has taken a page out of the al-Qaeda playbook and released a video of its fighters doing the jungle-gym routine.

The Journal quotes a source saying that the camp is located in Pakistan.

November 7, 2011

Bombs Away

If you haven't yet read the Wall Street Journal's piece on the U.S. drone program, it's definitely worth your time. In it, we learn about the two-fold nature of drone targeting:

The March 17 attack was a "signature" strike, one of two types used by the CIA, and the most controversial within the administration. Signature strikes target groups of men believed to be militants associated with terrorist groups, but whose identities aren't always known. The bulk of CIA's drone strikes are signature strikes.

The second type of drone strike, known as a "personality" strike, targets known terrorist leaders and has faced less internal scrutiny.

During the 1990s the Clinton administration reportedly agonized over firing submarine-based cruise missiles into Afghanistan to kill bin Laden due to a variety of concerns (the intel was sketchy, there was a high risk of collateral damage, a Gulf prince had parked his jet too close to the target, etc.). This overabundance of caution arguably allowed the 9/11 attacks to unfold. Today, we have the reverse: the U.S. is not only willing to use force against al-Qaeda's leadership (a good thing) but to fire bombs willy-nilly* into Pakistan's tribal region in the hopes of hitting something important.

Without access to any of the intelligence used in targeting, it's impossible to say what's going on but it's telling that the administration is admitting that, in some instances at least, it's willing to kill groups of people inside Pakistan without a firm grasp of their culpability. Is this a strategy that the administration hopes to export into Yemen and Somalia?

Paradoxically, the end result of this aggressive strategy may be the same as the Clinton-era indecisiveness - a heightened risk of a terrorist attack.

*Some poetic license here.

November 4, 2011

Kenya to Bomb Donkeys

War is hell, especially for donkeys:

The Twitter feed of a Kenyan military spokesman, Major Emmanuel Chirchir, who is rapidly becoming the public face of Kenya's incursion into Somalia, warned that his forces had identified a new threat in the war against al-Shabab militants, loaded donkeys.

In conventional wars (if they even exist any more) intelligence is concerned with mass movements of tanks and troops, but Kenya is watching out for mass movements of donkeys, which would be considered an enemy activity.

November 1, 2011

Creating Safe Havens Where There Were None

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Among the things the invasion of Iraq accomplished was the creation of a large-scale al-Qaeda safe haven and insurgency where previously there was none. While al-Qaeda in Iraq is a shadow of its former self, it still poses a threat to the country's security. Meanwhile, in newly liberated Libya, we see some ominous signs of history repeating itself:

The black flag of Al Qaeda has been spotted flying over a public building in Libya, raising concerns that the country could lurch towards Muslim extremism.

The flag, complete with Arabic script reading "there is no God but Allah" and full moon underneath, was seen flying above the Benghazi courthouse building, considered to be the seat of the revolution, according to the news website Vice.com.

Now, this could be a Photoshopped prank or hoax and certainly one flag does not a Caliphate make, but those championing the Responsibility to Protect or cheering the Obama administration's strategic brilliance might want to wait a few more weeks before taking a victory lap.

(Photo: Vice.com)

October 7, 2011

Terror's Existential Threat

I think when we frame issues of the cost of terrorism and the magnitude of the threat, things like this need to figure fairly prominently:

American militants like Anwar al-Awlaki are placed on a kill or capture list by a secretive panel of senior government officials, which then informs the president of its decisions, according to officials.

There is no public record of the operations or decisions of the panel, which is a subset of the White House's National Security Council, several current and former officials said. Neither is there any law establishing its existence or setting out the rules by which it is supposed to operate.

The panel was behind the decision to add Awlaki, a U.S.-born militant preacher with alleged al Qaeda connections, to the target list. He was killed by a CIA drone strike in Yemen late last month.

The role of the president in ordering or ratifying a decision to target a citizen is fuzzy. White House spokesman Tommy Vietor declined to discuss anything about the process.

Surely a power that would never be abused by this or any future administration...

September 21, 2011

Drone Patrol

Reacting to the big piece in the Washington Post on America's not-so-covert effort to drone-patrol Yemen and Somalia, Matthew Yglesias remarks:

The reporters say the “rapid expansion” of these military efforts “is a reflection of the growing alarm with which U.S. officials view the activities of al-Qaeda affiliates in Yemen and Somalia.” No doubt it is that. But it’s also a reflection of a very grandiose conception of the appropriate role of the American military in the world. After all, a radical who’s in Yemen or Somalia is, by definition, not in the United States. It would be cheaper and easier to focus on making sure people can’t get from Yemen to Yuma or from Somalia to Sacramento than for us to go halfway around to try to kill them. But America’s strategic concept is basically that if there’s a problem anywhere in the world that could potentially be ameliorated by dropping American bombs, then we ought to drop the bombs.

Well, yes and no. It would have been quite helpful if the U.S. had the ability to accurately drop a bomb on bin Laden & co. in the late 1990s. Secondly, building a series of bases and airstrips to fly drones to conduct surveillance on al-Qaeda isn't a bad thing - intelligence collection should be the principle weapon in combating terrorism. Still, there is a legit concern about the extent to which drones will be used to actually kill people as opposed to just spy on them.

Just how often the CIA intends to pull the trigger and at which targets will go a long way to determining whether such a policy is making the U.S. safer or is self defeating. It's interesting to note that as far as making headway against al-Qaeda, the drone attacks have more or less eviscerated the core al-Qaeda group that existed in Pakistan but that did not stop splinter groups from forming in Yemen and Somalia. A similarly robust strategy of drone attacks in either of those countries may just duplicate the Pakistan model - a defeat of the "original" group but the migration and emergence of the same threat somewhere else. And this says nothing about the distortions and destruction that the U.S. will leave in its wake in the target country. Still, the political incentives are what they are: the Obama administration understandably does not want a significant terrorist attack on its watch and it's taking steps with that, and not the long term consequences, in mind.

September 12, 2011

Is the U.S. Helping Saudi Arabia in a 9/11 Cover Up?

Shortly after 9/11, it was reported that the U.S. hastily flew several Saudi nationals out of the country (a report later confirmed). It was never really clear why this happened - the official explanation cited their personal security - but it sure did smell bad. Now comes this striking report in the Miami Herald:

Just two weeks before the 9/11 hijackers slammed into the Pentagon and World Trade Center, members of a Saudi family abruptly vacated their luxury home near Sarasota, leaving a brand new car in the driveway, a refrigerator full of food, fruit on the counter — and an open safe in a master bedroom.

In the weeks to follow, law enforcement agents not only discovered the home was visited by vehicles used by the hijackers, but phone calls were linked between the home and those who carried out the death flights — including leader Mohamed Atta — in discoveries never before revealed to the public.

Ten years after the deadliest attack of terrorism on U.S. soil, new information has emerged that shows the FBI found troubling ties between the hijackers and residents in the upscale community in southwest Florida, but the investigation wasn’t reported to Congress or mentioned in the 9/11 Commission Report....

The fact that the FBI did not tell the Inquiry about the Florida discoveries, Graham says, is similar to the agency’s failure to provide information linking members of the 9/11 terrorist team to other Saudis in California until congressional investigators discovered it themselves.

The Inquiry did nevertheless accumulate a “very large” file on the hijackers in the United States, and later turned it over to the 9/11 Commission. “They did very little with it,” Graham said, “and their reference to Saudi Arabia is almost cryptic sometimes. … I never got a good answer as to why they did not pursue that.”

The final 28-page section of the Inquiry’s report, which deals with “sources of foreign support for some of the Sept. 11 hijackers,” was entirely blanked out. It was kept secret from the public on the orders of former President George W. Bush and is still withheld to this day, Graham said.

There are three possible things at work here. The first is that what's being reported by the Herald may look damning but is incomplete and, if all the facts were known, wouldn't actually be damning. One newspaper report does not an indictment make. The second possibility is that the U.S. and Saudi Arabia were using some U.S.-based Saudis as moles in al-Qaeda and subsequently tried to cover those tracks after 9/11. The third possibility is that the U.S. is simply helping Saudi Arabia cover up their role in 9/11. I think the last possibility is the least likely, but most outrageous. In any event, this is a line of inquiry that should be pursued. Is there another possibility I'm missing?

September 8, 2011

Putting Terrorism in Its Place

Good column from Steve Chapman today asking why there wasn't a deluge of terrorism in the U.S. after 9/11:

It would have been a simple task for a handful of minimally trained volunteers to keep us in a constant state of fear.

But the volunteers, with rare exceptions, didn't come forward. Charles Kurzman, a sociologist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, writes in Foreign Policy magazine that "approximately a dozen people in the country were convicted in the five years after 9/11 for having links with al-Qaida" and "fewer than 40 Muslim Americans planned or carried out acts of domestic terrorism."

That may sound like a lot, until you remember that there are 15,000 murders a year in this country. A report from the Rand Corp., a national security think tank, noted that of 83 terrorist attacks that took place between 9/11 and the end of 2009, only three "were clearly connected with the jihadist cause." Three!

We hear a lot of allegations of radical American imams preaching jihad. If so, they are not getting through. The simple fact is that most American Muslims don't sympathize with religious extremism and almost none are willing to practice it.

None of this argues for complacency - free societies are inherently vulnerable to terrorism - but it is time to put terrorism, and America's obsession with the Greater Middle East, in its proper perspective.

September 6, 2011

9/11's Impact on Pakistan

As the U.S. takes stock of the decade since the 9/11 attacks, it's worth considering the impact elsewhere. First up, Pakistan:

Before 9/11, Pakistan had suffered just one suicide bombing — a 1995 attack on the Egyptian Embassy in the capital, Islamabad, that killed 15 people. In the last decade, suicide bombers have struck Pakistani targets more than 290 times, killing at least 4,600 people and injuring 10,000.

The country averaged nearly six terrorist attacks of various kinds each day in 2010, according to a report by the Pak Institute for Peace Studies....

For Pakistanis, said Cyril Almeida, a leading Pakistani columnist, "it was easy to connect the dots. 9/11 happened, America invaded Afghanistan, and Pakistan went to hell. That's the most common narrative that's offered."

Pakistan's leaders maintain that the alliance with the U.S. against Islamic militants has destroyed the country's investment climate, caused widespread unemployment and ravaged productivity. The government estimates the alliance has cost it $67 billion over the last 10 years.

But it's not as simple as that. Since 2001, the U.S. has sent Pakistan more than $20 billion in direct aid and military reimbursements. And from 2003 to 2007 under Musharraf, the economy grew at a robust rate of 6% a year.

September 2, 2011

U.S. Fears of Terror Attack Fall

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According to Gallup, Americans are less concerned about a potential terrorist attack on U.S. soil.

August 26, 2011

What Happened That Night in Abbottabad?

Mark Follman does a compare and contrast with two insider accounts of the bin Laden raid and finds some discrepancies:

Between the Obama administration and major media reports, there have been multiple divergent accounts of the Navy SEALs' mission in Abbottabad, Pakistan, with the story seeming to be colored by politics, sensationalism, and outright fantasy. In some respects that's unsurprising for one of the most important and highly classified military missions in modern memory‚ the outcome of which, many would argue, is all that really matters. But precisely because of its importance, it is worth considering how the tales have been told, and where history begins to bleed into mythology.

August 24, 2011

Drones Put the Hurt on al-Qaeda

According to David Ignatius:

Bin Laden was suffering badly from drone attacks on al-Qaeda’s base in the tribal areas of Pakistan. He called this the “intelligence war,” and said it was “the only weapon that’s hurting us.” His cadres complained that they couldn’t train in the tribal areas, couldn’t communicate, couldn’t travel easily and couldn’t draw new recruits to what amounted to a free-fire zone. Bin Laden discussed moving al-Qaeda’s base to another location, but he never took action.

Analysts did not find in the material any smoking gun to suggest Pakistani government complicity in bin Laden’s presence in Abbottabad. And it’s clear he was paranoid about being found and killed: He ordered his subordinates to restrict movements to help preserve what remained of al-Qaeda in Pakistan. Fear of being discovered was a subject of regular conversation between bin Laden, Atiyah, Zawahiri and others.

August 2, 2011

U.S. Weapons End Up in Terrorists' Hands

David Axe passes on this bit of news from Somalia:

Bad news in America’s five-year-old proxy war against al-Qaida-allied Somali insurgents. Half of the U.S.-supplied weaponry that enables cash-strapped Ugandan and Burundian troops to fight Somalia’s al-Shabab terror group is winding up in al-Shabab’s hands.

The kicker: it’s the cash-strapped Ugandans who are selling the weapons to the insurgents.

This revelation, buried in U.N. reports and highlighted by controversial war correspondent Robert Young Pelton at his new Somalia Report website, raises some unsettling questions about Washington’s plans to out-source more wars in the future.

Isn't it a bit odd how the U.S. defense establishment has simply dusted off the Cold War script to battle Islamic terrorism, plunging into various wars via proxy forces, dumping cash and guns around in an unaccountable and often counter-productive manner? I mean, would the U.S. face intolerable danger if we didn't hand cash and guns over to Uganda to fight in Somalia?

August 1, 2011

Iran and al-Qaeda

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The Leveretts are skeptical about recent allegations from the Obama administration linking al-Qaeda and Iran:

Not even the George W. Bush Administration was prepared to make concrete accusations that the Islamic Republic was deliberately facilitating al-Qa’ida’s terrorist activities. Now, however, the Obama Administration is advancing specific, on-the-record charges that Iran is helping al-Qa’ida. There is no reason for anyone to have any confidence that official Washington “knows”, in any empirically serious way, that Tehran is cooperating with al-Qa’ida in the ways that are alleged.

Of the six al-Qa’ida operatives sanctioned by the Treasury Department last week, only one is alleged to be physically present in Iran—and, by Treasury’s own account, he is there primarily to get al-Qa’ida prisoners out of Iranian jails. Moreover, the United States apparently has no hard evidence that the Iranian government is supportive of or even knowledgeable about the alleged al-Qa’ida network in the Islamic Republic. In her story, Helene Cooper writes that a “senior Administration official” said “in a conference call for reporters” (which means that the White House wanted everyone to hear this, and Helene did not have to leave her office to hear it), that “our sense is this network is operating through Iranian territory with the knowledge and at least the acquiescence of Iranian authorities”. A “sense” that al-Qa’ida is operating in Iran with “at least the acquiescence of Iranian authorities” now apparently amounts to proof of a “secret deal” that can be authoritatively referenced in the announcement of a legally and politically significant action by the Treasury Department.

Without actually knowing what the White House knows, it's really impossible to speculate. While skepticism is always warranted in claims such as these, it's worth asking what the Obama administration would have to gain by fabricating or hyping thin evidence here. I think the Iraq analogy is a bit off base - it's clear that the Obama administration is not itching for a war with Iran. Instead, they used the charges as the basis for sanctions on several Iranian officials. Nor is this the kind of charge that could move the needle in the debate over a residual U.S. troop presence in Iraq.

I suppose it's possible that the Obama administration had no other way to sanction these Iranians without recourse to allegations about al-Qaeda ties, but is that plausible?

(AP Photo)

July 25, 2011

Terrorism in Europe: A Left-Wing Phenomena?

James Delingpole isn't happy:

There we were deluding ourselves after the USS Cole, and the Nairobi and Dar Es Salaam bombings, and the Madrid train bombings, and 7/7, and the ‘Mumbai’ Massacre and the shoebomber plot and the Heathrow plot and the LAX plot and the New York car bomb plot and the Fort Hood massacre and, oh, yeah, 9/11 that the world’s greatest terrorist threat came from Islamists who love death even more than we love Coca Cola. But this in fact was all just a red herring, brought about by the racism and Islamophobia of conservatives and libertarians and Tea Partiers to distract anti-terrorism resources from the real menace: Right-wing extremists like themselves.
When the news of the Oslo attack first broke I admit my suspicions turned toward al-Qaeda or a like-minded group, but Stephen Walt provides some actual data on European terrorist activity that helpfully clarifies the threat environment:
In 2009, there were fewer than 300 terrorist incidents in Europe, a 33 percent decline from the previous year. The vast majority of these incidents (237 out of 294) were conducted by indigenous European separatist groups, with another forty or so attributed to leftists and/or anarchists. According to the report, a grand total of one (1) attack was conducted by Islamists. Put differently, Islamist groups were responsible for a whopping 0.34 percent of all terrorist incidents in Europe in 2009. In addition, the report notes, "the number of arrests relating to Islamist terrorism (110) decreased by 41 percent compared to 2008, which continues the trend of a steady decrease since 2006."

The other thing to note about the report (pdf), which Walt eludes to, is that most of the incidents of terrorism are overwhelmingly perpetrated by self-styled separatists and left-wing groups - not right-wing extremists. The number of right-wing terrorism attacks, arrests, and foiled/failed plots is small in relation to those two groups.

July 18, 2011

Missing Missiles in Libya

Good news:

Now there is a third dimension of the bad counterterrorist news coming out of Libya, which is the dispersal of terrorist-friendly materiel. Bunkers full of man-portable air defense missiles, or MANPADS, that were lost to government control have been looted, and unknown numbers of the weapons have made it outside Libya to destinations similarly unknown. MANPADS have long been one of the most worrisome forms of conventional ordnance from a counterterrorist point of view, because of the potential to use them against civilian aircraft. It was because of this worry that the United States went to extraordinary lengths after the war against the Soviets in Afghanistan to try to retrieve or account for the Stinger anti-aircraft missiles that it had provided the Afghan mujahedin. It looks like terrorists with thoughts of shooting down airliners have a new source of supply.

And so an operation ostensibly designed to protect Libyan civilians has potentially put American and European civilians in danger.

June 27, 2011

Americans Believe al-Qaeda Is on the Ropes

According to a new Rasmussen poll:

Nearly one-half (48%) of Likely U.S. Voters think the al Qaeda terrorist organization is weaker today than it was before the September 11, 2001 attacks on America.

A new Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey finds that only 11% of voters think the terrorist group is stronger today, despite the killing last month of its leader Osama bin Laden. Thirty-two percent (32%) say al Qaeda’s strength is about the same now as it was prior to 9/11.

By comparison, in a survey last September, 36% thought al Qaeda was stronger than it was before the 9/11 attacks. Only 25% disagreed and felt the terrorist organization was weaker.

May 12, 2011

Oil and Terror

When I first joined the Navy, our military footprint in the Middle East consisted of a one-star admiral and three ships. We now have multiple three- and four-star generals, and 150,000 men and women of the armed forces are deployed at great expense to our blood and treasure.

It is no coincidence that as our nation’s reliance on oil has grown, so has our military presence in this area, which is rich in oil and ripe with volatility.

Reforming our energy policy will take time and political will, but the stakes to our national security are too high not to act. It took nearly a decade to find bin Laden. Let’s start our next attack on Al Qaeda right now — working to end our oil dependence. - Dennis Blair

Transforming America's energy economy in the way Blair states is the work of decades. It will do nothing about al-Qaeda or radical recruitment in the short and medium-term. Indeed, this energy independence argument has little to do with U.S. national security - oil wealth will flow to terrorists so long as their are people who need oil and terrorists who need money. American dollars can easily be substituted with Chinese yuan in this regard.

This is actually an argument about whether or not the U.S. should sustain a large military footprint in the Middle East. I'd agree that such a large military footprint in the Mideast is counter-productive and should be reduced, but we don't need to go on a crash course to reduce oil consumption to do that - it could be done in relatively short order for far less money than transforming America's energy economy.

May 11, 2011

Support for Militants in Pakistan

Erik Voeten surveys some recent research:

The second paper finds that Pakistanis who are more favorable towards liberal democracy are also more favorable towards militant groups. The authors ascribe this finding to widespread beliefs among those who favor democracy that Muslim rights and sovereignty are being violated in Kashmir, although the relationship holds for support for all four militant groups.

I guess that Osama Bin Laden made a wise choice when he chose to hide in a middle class suburb.

He also links to a paper (pdf) that suggests that democratization and economic development "may be irrelevant at best and might even be counterproductive" to reversing support for militancy in Pakistan.

Maybe it's time for Plan B - or is that C?

May 4, 2011

Should Obama Have Captured bin Laden?

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This morning, both John Yoo and Michael Barone hit on the same points I hit on Sunday in more thorough detail. Barone essentially outlines the framework of a political attack on Obama for moving away from his prior promises, but I think, as Barone seems to, that such an attack would be blunted by the fact that Obama ended up closer to the country's center. Only the leftward side of his base dislikes these moves with any intensity, and it's doubtful they'd cast a vote for anyone other than him in 2012.

Besides making the same point, Yoo makes the interesting argument that one side-effect of Obama's embrace of the Bush-era policies he once opposed is a greater willingness to kill terrorists as opposed to capturing and interrogating them. He outlines an argument for why Obama should've considered a capture instead of a kill:

Mr. Obama's policies now differ from their Bush counterparts mainly on the issue of interrogation. As Sunday's operation put so vividly on display, Mr. Obama would rather kill al Qaeda leaders—whether by drones or special ops teams—than wade through the difficult questions raised by their detention. This may have dissuaded Mr. Obama from sending a more robust force to attempt a capture.

Early reports are conflicted, but it appears that bin Laden was not armed. He did not have a large retinue of bodyguards—only three other people, the two couriers and bin Laden's adult son, were killed. Special forces units using nonlethal weaponry might have taken bin Laden alive, as with other senior al Qaeda leaders before him.

If true, one of the most valuable intelligence opportunities since the beginning of the war has slipped through our hands. Some claim that bin Laden had become a symbol, or that al Qaeda had devolved into a decentralized terrorist network with more active franchises in Yemen or Somalia. Nevertheless, bin Laden was still issuing instructions and funds to a broad terrorist network and would have known where and how to find other key al Qaeda players. His capture, like Saddam Hussein's in December 2003, would have provided invaluable intelligence and been an even greater example of U.S. military prowess than his death.

White House counterterrorism adviser John Brennan said Monday that the SEAL team had orders to take bin Laden alive, "if he didn't present any threat," though he correctly dismissed this possibility as "remote." This is hard to take seriously. No one could have expected bin Laden to surrender without a fight. And capturing him alive would have required the administration to hold and interrogate bin Laden at Guantanamo Bay, something that has given this president allergic reactions bordering on a seizure.

Mr. Obama deserves credit for ordering the mission that killed bin Laden. But he should also recognize that he succeeded despite his urge to disavow Bush administration policies. Perhaps one day he will acknowledge his predecessor's role in making this week's dramatic success possible. More importantly, he should end the criminal investigation of CIA agents and restart the interrogation program that helped lead us to bin Laden.

Yoo's argument is probably the best that can be made, philosophically, on this point. But there's little question in my mind that Obama made the right decision. Osama bin Laden is more valuable to the future interests of the United States - and as a statement about our approach to enemies - not as a captured target, legal controversy and living symbol, but as a corpse in the bottom of the sea.

(AP Photo)

May 2, 2011

After bin Laden

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In an effort to organize my own thoughts on the killing of Osama bin Laden, I find myself returning over and over again to Peter Beinart's take on the terror mastermind's demise:

President Obama now has his best chance since taking office to acknowledge some simple, long-overdue truths. Terrorism does not represent the greatest threat to American security; debt does, and our anti-terror efforts are exacerbating the problem. We do not face, as we did in the 1930s, a totalitarian foe with global ideological appeal. We face competitors who, in varying ways, have imported aspects of our democratic capitalist ideology, and are beating us at our own game.

Bin Laden was a monster and a distraction. It is good that he is dead, partly because the bereaved deserve justice, but also because his shadow kept us from seeing clearly the larger challenges we face. The war on terror is over; Al Qaeda lost. Now for the really hard stuff; let’s hope we haven’t deferred it too long.

The competitor Beinart alludes to, I'm assuming, is China, and I can't help but wonder if bin Laden's death marks the end of an epoch in American foreign policy. Terrorism obviously isn't going anywhere; it existed prior to 9/11, and it will continue to exist long after. The so-called Global War on Terrorism was less a global understanding than a kind of framework for How The World Works According to Washington. The American military has been and will for the foreseeable future remain the preeminent power on earth, but to justify and rationalize that hegemony there must be rules; a kind of flowchart or S.O.P. to help the Beltway make sense of American power.

The War on Terrorism provided Washington's pundits and policymakers with a handy paradigm, much as the Cold War did throughout the latter half of the 20th Century. Will this change? Will a symbolic death lead to a more substantive reappraisal of American policy? Keep in mind that bin Laden's arguably symbolic termination precedes an actual drawdown of American troops from Afghanistan later this year. So while the generals - and the bloggers, and the pundits, and the pols and the wonks - continue to fight and feud over the last war - will we employ 'COIN' or 'Offshore Balancing' in our next indefinite military campaign? - I can't help but think that the American public has already moved on.

And who can possibly blame them? My own gripe with the War on Terrorism, specifically the Afghan mission, was the apparent indefiniteness of the mission. In a decade full of 'surges' and small accomplishments, rarely has there been as decisive and certain an action as bin Laden's killing. This man attacked us, and now he's dead. Seems simple enough.

That's why I can understand last night's displays of revelry and pure emotion in Washington, New York and elsewhere. After nearly ten years of color codes, TSA molestations and frequent condescension from the intelligentsia, the American people finally got a cut and dry result - a mission truly accomplished.

But where to from here for American foreign policy? For all the shortcomings and confusion that came with the GWOT, it was, at the very least, a doctrine premised on national defense. But if, getting back to Beinart's point, the War on Terror is to be replaced by a doctrine of counter-declinism, deficit hawkishness and Chinese containment, then I fear we may be headed toward an even uglier foreign policy paradigm.

China has gradually crept onto the American radar screen, and Beijing, for its own part, has been a busy bee.

With bin Laden now dead, and U.S. withdrawal (kind of) underway in the Near East, is China the next in line to consume America's imagination and energy? And will Washington follow? What happens, in other words, when one distracted giant finally opens its eyes, only to find another right in front of it?

Update: Evan Osnos gives a rather appropriate take on Chinese reactions to bin Laden's killing.

(AP Photo)

Did Pakistan Betray Him?

Interesting thought from Tom Ricks:

What suspicious minds are asking: Why did the Pakistanis give him up? And what did we give in return?

I also think this will strongly up the pressure on the Obama Administration to end its involvement in Afghanistan. Not just politicians but the man on the street is likely to say, Hey, we got him, mission accomplished, let's go home.

If Pakistan did indeed tip the U.S. off to bin Laden's whereabouts, did they do so as a way to ease the U.S. out of Afghanistan? It doesn't sound all that crazy...

Al-Qaeda: Who's Left?

The BBC runs down the remaining high profile leaders of al-Qaeda and its affiliates.

May 1, 2011

In Osama's Death, a Vindication of Obama's Choices

In time, Osama Bin Laden will be remembered as a villain who systematically murdered thousands of innocents in an attempt to destroy the civilization he despised and break the spirit of a nation he hated. Now he is dead, in a firefight after some time spent hiding out in a mansion in Abbottabad, Pakistan. He died likely knowing the truth: that in his grand mission, he failed. The nation did not crumble; the people did not despair; and the Muslim world did not unite in a global war against the West.

There's little question that the decisions Barack Obama has made as president played a major role in bringing us to this point. As a candidate, Obama said a great many things which gave those concerned with national security pause - particularly his promises to close Gitmo, to scale back interrogation policies advanced under President Bush and, of course, his entire candidacy was in large part motivated by his strong words against continued involvement in Iraq.

Whatever you may think of Obama's domestic policies or diplomatic decisions, his approach to national security has been largely wise and overwhelmingly vindicated thus far. His reconsideration of the promise to shut down Gitmo, his shifting of the trial of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed back to a military tribunal and his reliance on several key personnel under George W. Bush who may disagree (and indeed have disagreed publicly) with him on other matters - Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Gen. David Petraeus chief among these, but hardly alone - have projected a far more stable, responsible and moderate national security approach.

This has not come without cost, mostly from Obama's left flank, where many of his supporters have criticized him for going back on his word. But it's now reported that the bin Laden raid began with the interrogation of a detainee roughly four years ago, and the CIA continued to follow this lead under Obama, in August discovering a compound which stood out in its neighborhood for a number of startling reasons. Phil Klein reports on the White House briefing:

Two years ago, intelligence officials began to identify areas of Pakistan where the courier and his brother operated, and the great security precautions the two men took aroused U.S. suspicions.

Last August, intelligence officials tracked the men to their residence in Abbottabad, Pakistan, a relatively wealthy town 35 miles north of Islamabad where many retired military officers live.

“When we saw the compound where the brothers lived, we were shocked by what we saw,” a senior administration official said.

The compound was eight times larger than any other home in the area. It was surrounded by walls measuring 12 feet to 18 feet that were topped with barbed wire. There were additional inner walls that sectioned off parts of the compound and entry was restricted by two security gates. And the residents burned their trash instead of leaving it outside for pickup. There was a three-story house on the site, with a 7-foot privacy wall on the top floor.

While the two brothers, the couriers, had no known source of income, the compound was built in 2005 and valued at $1 million. That led intelligence officials to conclude that it must have been built to hold a high-value member of Al Qaeda.

Further intelligence gathering found that there was another family who lived on the compound which had a size and makeup that matched the bin Laden members who would have most likely been with Osama.

After exploring every angle for months, they concluded that all signs pointed to this being bin Laden’s residence.

President Obama was made aware of the compound when it was discovered last year. By mid-February, the intelligence was solid and since mid-March, Obama led five meetings with the National Security Council regarding the issue.

Intelligence officials worked with the U.S. military to plan the operation and a small team accepted the risk and began to train for it.

On April 29, this past Friday, Obama gave the final go ahead.

There was a key decision to be made during this process, and it wasn't the go-ahead (which seems rather obvious given the nature of the information). Given Obama's frequently expressed tendency to favor broad-based global partnerships, he had to decide whether to include other nations in the background on this approach - particularly Pakistan. Without advance warning, the potential for an embarrassing international incident was higher, but by sharing this information, Obama could have destroyed the entire effort through inevitable leaks, stalling or international disagreements.

Instead, "No other country, not even Pakistan, was informed of any of this intelligence until after the raid to protect operational security." The intel stayed secret. The operation stayed locked down. And the Navy Seals got their man.

While cooperation is not always a bad thing, in this case Obama chose to go it alone. It was the right choice, and he should be applauded for it.

One final note on bin Laden's passing: it's impossible for any reasonable person to begrudge anyone who rejoices in the vengeance of this moment, when a villainous man who embraced death as a mission is embraced by it, with the assistance of brave Americans whose names we'll likely never know. But the mission to capture or kill bin Laden was always about more than vengeance; about more than avenging the blood that cries out from the ground. It was about the fact that America is not satisfied simply to endure. Rather, we are prepared to do whatever it takes to destroy those who threaten us, and to ensure our children will grow up to live in a just, free and decent world.

Alone, bin Laden's death will not bring that about. But it is a powerful symbol, and a vindication of several difficult choices President Obama and President Bush made, often risking their own political capital on what they believed to be right.

April 14, 2011

Did the U.S. Just Flip Off Pakistan?

Barely a day after being issued a public warning about CIA activity in Pakistan, the U.S. went ahead and bombed the country anyway. Now, maybe we're back to the tacit understanding whereby Pakistan's leaders publicly denigrate the U.S. and privately allow us to prosecute the drone war. If not, this strike seems deliberately provocative and reckless. It would be one thing if the administration had bin Laden in its sites and had to take the shot (totally justifiable, in my view), but here's how the New York Times described the targets:


The targets of the attack were militants commanded by Maulvi Nazir, a Taliban leader from South Waziristan who is closely allied to the Haqqani network, the main Afghan Taliban group supported by the Pakistani military. American and Pakistani intelligence officials say Mr. Nazir is known to harbor Arabs affiliated with Al Qaeda. The Haqqani network and fighters associated with it are also responsible for many of the attacks against American and Afghan troops in eastern Afghanistan.

The drones struck a double-cabin pickup truck and a motorcycle as they returned from Afghanistan into Pakistan, a Pakistani military official said. Seven fighters were killed and six others were wounded in the attack just south of the village of Angor Adda on the border between the two countries.

Bombing a few Taliban fighters vs. undermining and embarrassing a crucial ally against al-Qaeda. Stoking anti-Americanism in Pakistan is just a monumentally short-sighted thing to do if you want to retain the country's cooperation and ensure that its citizens (and, crucially, expats living in places like the UK) don't fill the ranks of al-Qaeda. But such are the wages of nation building in Afghanistan.

April 6, 2011

Al-Qaeda Back in Afghanistan?

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The Wall Street Journal has an ominous report on evidence that al-Qaeda is returning to Afghanistan:

In late September, U.S. fighter jets streaked over the cedar-studded slopes of Korengal, the so-called Valley of Death, to strike a target that hadn't been seen for years in Afghanistan: an al Qaeda training camp.

Among the dozens of Arabs killed that day, the U.S.-led coalition said, were two senior al Qaeda members, one Saudi and the other Kuwaiti. Another casualty of the bombing, according to Saudi media and jihadi websites, was one of Saudi Arabia's most wanted militants. The men had come to Afghanistan to impart their skills to a new generation of Afghan and foreign fighters.

Even though the strike was successful, the very fact that it had to be carried out represents a troubling shift in the war. Nine years after a U.S.-led invasion routed almost all of al Qaeda's surviving militants in Afghanistan, Osama bin Laden's network is gradually returning.

Over the past six to eight months, al Qaeda has begun setting up training camps, hideouts and operations bases in the remote mountains along Afghanistan's northeastern border with Pakistan, some U.S., Afghan and Taliban officials say. The stepped-up infiltration followed a U.S. pullback from large swatches of the region starting 18 months ago. The areas were deemed strategically irrelevant and left to Afghanistan's uneven security forces, and in some parts, abandoned entirely.

What's notable about this al-Qaeda comeback, such as it is, is that it occurred during the troop surge, when the U.S. was supposedly breaking the Taliban's momentum. So even at the moment of maximum Western troop presence, al-Qaeda is still able to worm its way into vacant corners of the country. Obviously, some analysts will read this and conclude that we must have American forces in every square inch of Afghanistan forever to prevent small al-Qaeda camps from setting up shop, but how realistic and sustainable is that?

And while the return of al-Qaeda in Afghanistan is troublesome, it also makes them more vulnerable. As the WSJ notes, the U.S. has been conducting ground raids and bombing strikes against al-Qaeda targets in the country - something it cannot aggressively do against al-Qaeda targets in Pakistan.

(AP Photo)

U.S. Interests in the Middle East

One of the consequences of the various uprisings gripping the Middle East will be a forced reappraisal of what American interests are in the region. No one is quite sure what will replace the old order that is in the process of either being swept away or seriously rattled, but I think it's clear that what follows will entail a rethink of U.S. policy.

In that light, a new Pew Research poll asked Americans to rank their Middle Eastern priorities:

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That terrorism tops the list is interesting, because you could argue that the best thing the U.S. could do to blunt the spread of terrorism is to disentangle itself from the Middle East - something which may become a fait accompli if more democratic governments emerge in the Middle East. The flip side, however, is that chaos in the region (especially in Yemen) makes it more likely that terrorist cells can set up shop, making an attack against the U.S. more, not less, likely. Steps to reduce America's exposure to terror in the long run could produce a spike in short-term risk.

April 5, 2011

Khalid Sheikh Mohammed: Back to Gitmo After All

After all the political sturm und drang stretching back, the White House tells us that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed is getting a military tribunal trial after all.

Beyond the fact that Senator Obama voted against the Military Commissions Act of 2006, and Candidate Obama criticized the commission system as "flawed" and "failed" (he routinely described it as such throughout the 2008 campaign), we are left with the uncomfortable irony that this move comes on the same day that now-President Obama announced his re-election campaign. Needless to say, this was an item of some note on the far left blogs today, and the words they used were hardly kind.

Let's consider for a moment how foolish it was to have this debate at all. From the beginning, the idea of civilian court trials for those detained at Gitmo was a disastrous and dangerous idea, opening them up to the ability to claim a whole host of rights under the protections of American law, bequeathed by a Constitution they sought to destroy, not as soldiers on the battlefield, but terrorists in hiding, slaughtering innocent citizens city streets. Obama's argument in 2008 that his alternate method would work seemed based more on a professorial - one might even say fantastical - view of how lawyers behave in court.

As NPR's Frank James notes, Obama's promise in 2007 was as clear-cut as it gets:

I have faith in America's courts, and I have faith in our JAGs. As President, I will close Guantanamo, reject the Military Commissions Act, and adhere to the Geneva Conventions. Our Constitution and our Uniform Code of Military Justice provide a framework for dealing with the terrorists.

Yet as with so many other policies upheld before taking office, this one proved just too difficult for the president to employ. The shame is that it took them so long to recognize it - more than 500 days, in fact. Now that it's done, expect Obama to say as little about this as possible, and sweep one more way he's essentially adopted the Bush approach as his own under the rug.

He may succeed in this aim. Without a realistic and vocal opponent on the issue in his own party (beyond Dennis Kucinich), and with Republicans essentially lauding the president's view, I wouldn't expect him to be confronted on the matter until next year's debates, at the earliest. I will be interested in what he has to say about the decision then - and I await John Yoo's victory lap.

March 29, 2011

Bin Laden on the Move

Syed Saleem Shahzad reports that Osama bin Laden has been quite mobile of late and parses the implications:

After a prolonged lull, the United States Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) has launched a series of covert operations in the rugged Hindu Kush mountains of Pakistan and Afghanistan following strong tip-offs that al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden has been criss-crossing the area in the past few weeks for high-profile meetings in militant redoubts....

The development has fueled speculation in intelligence circles that al-Qaeda could be planning another major attack along the lines of the September 11, 2001, assault on New York and Washington, and the July 2007 foiled bomb attack in London.

However, extensive investigations by Asia Times Online, including exchanges within al-Qaeda's camps, point in another direction: given the nature of Bin Laden's meetings, this appears to be the beginning of a new era for a broader struggle in which al-Qaeda, through its Laskhar al-Zil (Shadow Army), will try to capitalize on the Arab revolts and the Palestinian struggle and also revitalize and redefine its role in Afghanistan.

The whole piece is worth a read. The upshot appears to be that al-Qaeda number two, Ayman al-Zawahiri has lost an internecine ideological battle and as a result al-Qaeda may be changing strategy. Either way, hopefully a more mobile bin Laden means a more vulnerable one.

March 2, 2011

The U.S. and Terror

Following up on yesterday's post, Larison puts terror and U.S. foreign policy in context:

It isn’t that the threat is huge. The threat isn’t huge. What matters is that it is avoidable. When calculating the costs and benefits of U.S. policies, it becomes important then to consider whether these policies are doing enough to serve the national interest that they merit the risk of incurring regular attacks on Americans at home and around the world. Whether the threat is relatively large or small, there is no reason to expose the United States to needless dangers. The threat is nowhere near as dire as warmongers make it out to be, but it is much greater than it has to be, and the threat exists in no small part because the people demagoguing and exaggerating the threat frequently prevail in seting policy.

And apropos of this, via Yglesias, some new research on U.S. foreign policy and terrorism:

Applied to the US case, our theory predicts that more anti-American terrorism emanates from countries that receive more US military aid and arms transfers and in which more American military personnel are stationed, all relative to the country’s own military capacity. Estimations from a directed country dyad sample over the period 1978 to 2005 support the predictions of our theory for both terrorist incidents involving Americans and terrorist killings of Americans as dependent variables. These results are robust to a wide range of changes to the empirical research design.

March 1, 2011

Terrorism: A Small - Or Huge - Threat?

Cato's Malou Innocent makes the case that U.S. policy is driving radical recruitment:

As a 2006 Government Accountability Office report noted, "U.S. foreign policy is the major root cause behind anti-American sentiments among Muslim populations." A 2004 Pentagon Defense Science Board report observed, "Muslims do not hate our freedom, but rather, they hate our policies."

At times it takes humor to shed light on such weighty and controversial issues. Writing about the motivation of Islamist radicals, American comedian Bill Maher once opined, "They hate us because we don't know why they hate us."

For far too long, politicians and pundits have danced around these uncomfortable truths. But it is well past time for American leaders to thoroughly explore the notion that U.S. policies contribute directly to radicalization. Reigning in the West's interventionist foreign policy will not eliminate the number of people and organizations that seek to commit terrorist attacks, but will certainly diminish it..

In this respect, terrorism can no longer be attributed to ignorance and poverty—conditions that exist in foreign conflict zones, but in and of themselves do not generate attacks against the West. Viewing poverty and underdevelopment as an underlying cause of extremism makes the mistake of stereotyping terrorists and their grievances. It also commits the error of ignoring the unintended consequences of past actions and very real dangers right within our borders.

I'm of the mind that, in general, a less interventionist foreign policy would serve American interests well in part because it would serve to reduce the terror threat. But sometimes I think that those advocating a less interventionist policy lean too heavily on that rationale. So in the spirit of subjecting our beliefs to scrutiny, it is worth asking if terrorism should cause a major rethink of where and when the U.S. intervenes in a foreign country. Sticking just with Cato analysts, Benjamin Friedman has argued that the threat from terrorism is in fact rather small and manageable (or as Stephen Walt, another non-interventionist, put it, more people are at mortal risk from nut allergies and bathtub drownings) and that hysteria over the threat is usually far more damaging than the threat itself:

It’s been six or seven years since people, including me, started pointing out that al Qaeda was wildly overrated. Back then, most people used to say that the reason al Qaeda hadn’t managed a major attack here since September 11 was because they were biding their time and wouldn’t settle for conventional bombings after that success. We are always explaining away our enemies’ failure.

The point here is not that all terrorists are incompetent — no one would call Mohammed Atta that — or that we have nothing to worry about. Even if all terrorists were amateurs like Shahzad, vulnerability to terrorism is inescapable. There are too many propane tanks, cars, and would-be terrorists to be perfectly safe from this sort of attack. The same goes for Fort Hood.

The point is that we are fortunate to have such weak enemies. We are told to expect nuclear weapons attacks, but we get faulty car bombs. We should acknowledge that our enemies, while vicious, are scattered and weak. If we paint them as the globe-trotting super-villains that they dream of being, we give them power to terrorize us that they otherwise lack. As I must have said a thousand times now, they are called terrorists for a reason. They kill as a means to frighten us into giving them something.

So is radicalization a major issue that warrants the U.S. to think twice before pursuing a preferred policy, or is it a small threat that doesn't warrant sweeping government changes? It seems to me you can't argue that on the one hand, the threat from terrorism is rather small and manageable, and on the other that it is so grave that we need to make major changes to American foreign policy.

February 15, 2011

Doing bin Laden's Work?

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Michael Scheuer isn't enthused about the overthrow of Mubarak:

Bin Laden, his lieutenants, and their allies know that after the Western media returns to what it does best -- isn’t Lindsey Lohan due in court? -- Muslim Egyptians will be reaching for Allah’s rope, not Facebook’s self-deification. And the Islamists also will know the stout wall of U.S.-and-Israeli-supported Arab tyranny they have long attacked is cracking.

When the West sees pious Egyptians moving toward Islam, not secular democracy, bin Laden will have thanked God for His gifts to the mujahedin. Having designated Arab police states and Israel as Islam’s main enemies -- brain-dead America simply being in the way due to its money and guns -- bin Laden et. al. now see the ruins of the strongest Arab tyranny, as well as the most loyal, least demanding ally secured by Washington‘s relentless intervention in the Muslim world. They know whatever regime follows Mubarak will be weaker, more influenced by those demanding a form of Sharia law -- including General Clapper’s Kiwanis-in-waiting, the Muslim Brotherhood -- and, being a democracy, more representative of Egyptians’ deep, abiding hatred for Israel.

I think it's true that in the near-term, the goals of U.S. democracy promoters and bin Laden have overlapped. Both want the old Middle Eastern order swept away. Scheuer seems to think that in doing so, more of the Middle East will move in bin Laden's direction, but is that true? A Middle East that's less receptive to the U.S. and Israel is still a far cry from a Middle East that wages open war against the U.S. and Israel (which is presumably the bin Laden program).

The old order is what created bin Laden's jihad in the first place. If the Obama administration cheered on a Mubarak crack down, wouldn't that do wonders for al-Qaeda recruitment?

(AP Photo)

February 11, 2011

Not Getting It

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Charles Krauthammer lays out a series of principles he believes the U.S. should adhere to in micro-managing supporting freedom in the Middle East. The list itself is rather anodyne but the rationale looks rather problematic:

We are, unwillingly again, parties to a long twilight struggle, this time with Islamism - most notably Iran, its proxies, and its potential allies, Sunni and Shiite. We should be clear-eyed about our preferred outcome - real democracies governed by committed democrats - and develop policies to see this through.

One thing that's important to keep in mind when reading geopolitical advice of this sort is to recognize that during the 1990s, when al-Qaeda was metastasizing, Krauthammer et. al. were more concerned with Saddam Hussein. Having misread the Sunni jihadist threat in favor of a state-based menace, we're now told that Iran represents the head of the Islamist menace. And again, it's wrong.

The signature Islamist threat to the United States does not come from Iran but from Sunni groups aligned with or fighting under the banner of al-Qaeda. Those groups may or may not be helped by the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, but Iran is neither here nor there. It's the Sunni groups with the demonstrated willingness and capacity to travel into the United States to slaughter innocent people. They're the ones attempting to kill Western civilians with toner cartridge bombs. They're the ones attacking mosques and military bases inside Pakistan. This is not a movement controlled by Iran - it's laughable to even suggest that when Pakistan, the outright sponsors of Sunni terrorism, can't even reign in all of its various tentacles.

Yes, Iran may fund or arm portions of this movement to bloody the U.S. in Afghanistan and Iraq, but that's a far cry from trying to use them as the tip of a global Islamist spear against the United States. These groups view Iran and Shia Islam in general as apostate, which is why they've gone to great lengths in both Iraq and Pakistan to butcher Shiites.

Iran poses a geopolitical challenge to U.S. influence in the Middle East. Al-Qaeda wants to kill you. One can make a solid case that American foreign policy needs to be more concerned with the former, but conflating the two isn't helpful.

(AP Photo)

February 9, 2011

The Taliban and al-Qaeda

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Michael Cohen isn't happy with Max Boot's brusque treatment of a recent report on the prospects of splitting the Taliban from al-Qaeda:

But the worst part here is Boot's simplistic and unsupported reasoning for why this carefully researched report is wrong. He claims there is no doubt the Taliban and al Qaeda are closely linked - but actually provides no evidence, except the bizarre notion that Taliban thinking remains unchanged over the past ten years. He bemoans the fact that Mullah Omar won't trade away the chit of collaboration with al Qaeda - but why would he do such a thing before any serious negotiations with the US and/or the Karzai government?

By this argument America's enemies are not only incapable of strategic and pragmatic behavior, but should unilaterally disarm and rely on the good graces of the United States and its allies. Lastly, is it really impossible to recognize that the Taliban might have reason to turn on al Qaeda if they are returned to power - especially since the limitations on the use of US force that existed pre-9/11 certainly do not exist today and because al Qaeda would provide almost no benefit to the Taliban. At the very least isn't this a potential cleavage that we should be trying to exploit instead confidently declaring that the relationship between two organization with very different orientations and grievance structures is inviolate for all time?

I think this question of whether the Taliban can be "split" from al-Qaeda is ultimately neither here nor there. Afghanistan and Pakistan are large countries with a lot of mountainous, rural and lawless areas. Even if the "Taliban" formerly forswears ties to al-Qaeda, it's not as if the group can't stick around under the good graces (or intimidation) of another tribe in some out-of-the-way village.

The effort to get some members of the Taliban to say publicly that they won't support al-Qaeda is fine, as far as face-saving methods of extracting U.S. forces go, but who would really believe that? And even if it were true, how could you verify that? Our government doesn't want al-Qaeda operating in the U.S. - but they do. We're talking about small groups of people here, not armed divisions.

(AP Photo)

February 3, 2011

U.S. Confident in War on Terror

According to Rasmussen:

There's little change in the number of U.S. voters who think the United States and its allies are winning the war on terror, but the number who feel the terrorists are winning has fallen to its lowest level in nearly two years.

The latest Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey finds that 39% of Likely Voters say the United States and its allies are winning the War on Terror, consistent with findings over the past couple months. Yet only 19% say the terrorists are winning that war, down 11 points from early January and the lowest level measured since July 2009. Thirty-two percent (32%) feel that neither side is winning, the highest that finding has been in several years of tracking.

January 18, 2011

Hearts and Minds

Max Boot lauds America's counter-insurgency effort:

That is the way good counterinsurgency works. It is a slow, agonizing, costly process, but if skillful soldiers or Marines stick to their mission, they will gradually drive the insurgents away, as the Marines are doing in Sangin.

Boot is right to praise the bravery and skill of U.S. and coalition forces operating in Afghanistan, but the counter-insurgency effort there is not always about winning 'hearts and minds' and we shouldn't lose sight of the strategic goals we're trying to accomplish here.

To that end it's worth examining a pair of photos, courtesy of Paula Broadwell, writing on Thomas Ricks' blog, about a recent mission in Afghanistan:

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According to Broadwell's account, the town was riven with Taliban booby traps and a danger to U.S. troops, so it was more or less leveled. The commander of U.S. forces responsible for the attack goes on to lament that the "reconstruction would consume the remainder of my deployed life."

It's worth reflecting on this dynamic as it relates to the broader question of American strategy in Afghanistan and how best to spend American resources to protect the country from international terrorists. Take the costs of blowing up this Afghan village, add to that the cost of rebuilding this Afghan village, throw in the intangible but no less significant damage to Afghans who used to live there and the risks to coalition forces, then ask whether this and other operations like it are the most important thing we can do to prevent a terrorist attack against U.S. soil or U.S. interests globally. Broadwell's piece did not suggest al-Qaeda members were hiding in the village - indeed the word "al-Qaeda" never appears in her post.

January 17, 2011

U.S. Focused on Domestic Issues

According to a new Gallup poll, Americans rank terrorism as the 7th most important priority for the federal government, behind a host of domestic issues. The war in Afghanistan comes in at number 10. Iraq, a distant 14th.

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December 28, 2010

What Dominates al-Qaeda Propaganda?

Thomas Joscelyn does a keyword search through 34 translated speeches:

To illustrate this point, consider the results of some basic keyword searches. Guantanamo is mentioned a mere 7 times in the 34 messages we reviewed. (Again, all 7 of those references appear in just 3 of the 34 messages.)

By way of comparison, all of the following keywords are mentioned far more frequently: Israel/Israeli/Israelis (98 mentions), Jew/Jews (129), Zionist(s) (94), Palestine/Palestinian (200), Gaza (131), and Crusader(s) (322). (Note: Zionist is often paired with Crusader in al Qaeda’s rhetoric.)

Naturally, al Qaeda’s leaders also focus on the wars in Afghanistan (333 mentions) and Iraq (157). Pakistan (331), which is home to the jihadist hydra, is featured prominently, too. Al Qaeda has designs on each of these three nations and implores willing recruits to fight America and her allies there. Keywords related to other jihadist hotspots also feature more prominently than Gitmo, including Somalia (67 mentions), Yemen (18) and Chechnya (15).

December 14, 2010

Drivers of Suicide Terrorism

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I've pointed out in the past the work of Robert Pape on how military occupations promote suicide terrorism, so I think it's worthwhile to point out that in his suicide note, the Swiss bomber Taimour al-Abdaly credited offensive cartoons as the reason he attempted to slaughter innocent Swedes out shopping for the holidays.

That doesn't mean the U.S. and the West shouldn't expect blow-back if it plunges military forces into the Middle East, but that there's more to the phenomena of suicide terrorism than attempts to drive infidels off of holy soil.

(AP Photo)

December 6, 2010

Muslim Public's View of Hezbollah, Hamas, al-Qaeda

Pew Research highlights this surveys Muslim publics for their views on Hezbollah, Hamas and al-Qaeda:

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It's worth noting here that Turkey is the least receptive to these groups. In a later question from Pew, on the whether Islam in politics is a good or bad thing, Turks had the lowest percent of respondents (45 percent) suggesting it was a good thing.

November 17, 2010

Bin Laden & Our Junk

Somewhere in Waziristan, I have to think Osama bin Laden is getting a chuckle out of this.

UPDATE: And this.

November 15, 2010

Countries Most at Risk from Terrorism

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The risk consulting firm Maplecroft has released its Terrorism Risk Index for 2010, which tracks the frequency and intensity of terrorism attacks around the world. The most dangerous countries from a terrorism perspective are:

1. Somalia
2. Pakistan
3. Iraq

The firm ranks a total of 16 countries as being under "extreme risk" - a list that includes Colombia, Thailand, Philippines, Yemen, Russia, and Israel.

Greece has moved the most in the index, from 57th on the list to 24th and is now considered the European country most at risk from a terrorist attack. The U.S. is ranked 33th.

(AP Photo)

October 26, 2010

U.S. Views on Combating Terrorism

According to a new Pew Research poll, Americans give the federal government good marks for combating terrorism:

About seven-in-ten (69%) say the government is doing very (15%) or fairly well (54%) in reducing the threat of terrorism, numbers that have changed only slightly since January. Still, 30% say the ability of terrorists to attack the U.S. is now greater than it was on 9/11, while 41% think it is about the same. Just a quarter (25%) say the ability of terrorists to attack is less now than it was in 2001. These numbers also are little changed since the start of the year.

Not surprisingly, there's been a partisan shift:

Democrats are now more likely than Republicans to say the government is doing very or fairly well in reducing the threat of terrorism. Fully 84% of Democrats give the government positive ratings compared with 64% of Republicans.

October 21, 2010

Saudi Arms Sale

On September 11, 2001, 15 Saudis, one Egyptian, one Lebanese and two citizens of the United Arab Emirates crashed hijacked airliners into American targets, murdering close to 3,000 people. All 19 were Sunni Muslims, followers of a puritanical strain of Islam developed in Saudi Arabia and Egypt. The ideology of jihad that lures recruits from the suburbs of London to the hinterlands of Waziristan is promulgated by Sunni Imams and financed overwhelmingly (if indirectly) by the Persian Gulf monarchies.

The two architects of 9/11 and the masterminds of the global jihadist movement - Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri - are Saudi and Egyptian, respectively. The captured "enemy combatants" that were locked away in Guantanamo Bay hail from Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Syria and even Australia. There is not a single Iranian among them. Nor have there been any Iranians implicated in the recent terrorist plots uncovered in Europe and the U.S.

If there is going to be a terrorist attack inside the U.S. it will almost certainly originate either from Pakistan or the Persian Gulf. It will almost certainly not be sponsored or perpetrated by the government of Iran.

So naturally, we need to help defend Saudi Arabia.

And look, it's preferable to starting a war with Iran, but the trajectory of America's relationships with the countries that had the most direct role in incubating and fomenting the terrorism that slaughtered thousands of Americans and continues to threaten the West is an enduring curiosity. To put it mildly.

October 18, 2010

Costs and Constraints of Suicide Attacks

It should come as no surprise that Kori Schake would dissent from Robert Pape's policy recommendations on Off-Shore Balancing. Professor Pape has already posted a response, as has Chad Levinson , a contributor to Cutting the Fuse. Pape is also fortunate enough to have two confederates in Greg Scoblete and Daniel Larison.

There are really a few arguments going on here. The first is whether or not the locations that the United States currently has troops stationed serve American interests. The second is whether or not we can accomplish our objectives with a less intrusive military policy. A third discussion, which is more common within blogs and groups that focus more on domestic politics, is what the data actually means. I feel, however, that a change in the way we think about this data (which I had no hand in collecting) would be very helpful in resolving the third question, and will allow us to move on to a more useful discussion of potential policy, even if we do not yet agree on the first two questions.

First, there's the finding of extremely strong correlation between occupation and suicide attacks. This is not a causal relationship. Professor Pape elaborates on secondary variables that explain when suicide attacks might not occur during an occupation, but I believe that the correlation is the key point. It is stretching the finding to extrapolate statements about terrorist motivation, culpability or rationality of actors.

I see the Logic of Suicide Terrorism (LST) as imposing costs on powerful actors and constraints on weaker ones. Powerful actors are usually the targets of suicide terrorism, either directly or indirectly, and suicide attacks are a very effective tool of the weak.

Continue reading "Costs and Constraints of Suicide Attacks" »

The Benefits of Off-Shore Balancing

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By Robert Pape

Robert A. Pape is Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago specializing in international security affairs. He currently serves as Director of the Chicago Project on Security and Terrorism. This analysis first appeared on the CPOST blog.

Kori Schake, a valuable participant in our Capitol Hill conference on “Cutting the Fuse,” raises a number of important issues with the policy of off-shore balancing. I am delighted to respond and believe our exchange is an example of thoughtful thinking about how to move beyond the War on Terror.

Schake is right that U.S. policy makers are well-meaning; sending our ground troops overseas to advance our interests. But she overlooks how our ground forces often - and inadvertently - produce the opposite of what they intend: more anti-American terrorists than they kill. In 2000, before the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, there were 20 suicide attacks around the world and one (against the USS Cole) was anti-American. In the last 12 months, by comparison, 300 suicide attacks have occurred and over 270 were anti-American. We simply must face the reality - no matter how well-intentioned, our current war on terror is not serving American interests.

Schake is also right that, once we know that nearly all suicide terrorism occurs in response to military occupations by democracies, it is perfectly reasonable to ask "why some occupations and not others?" And, this has been a core element of my research, as readers will see in Chapter 1 of Cutting the Fuse and in my 2008 article in the American Political Science Review, among other publications.

In a nutshell, two factors matter.

The first is social distance between occupier and occupied, because the wider the social distance, the more the occupied community may fear losing its way of life. Although other differences may matter, research shows that occupations are especially likely to escalate to suicide terrorism when there is a difference between the predominant religion of the occupier and the predominant relation of the occupied.

Religious difference matters not because some religions are predisposed to suicide attack - indeed, there are religious differences even in purely secular suicide attack campaigns, such as the LTTE (Hindu) against the Sinhalese (Buddhists).

Rather, religious differences matter because it enables terrorist leaders to claim that the occupier is motivated by a religious agenda that can scare both secular and religious members of a local community – which is why bin Laden never misses an opportunity to describe U.S. occupiers as “Crusaders” – motivated by a Christian agenda to convert Muslims to Christianity, steal Muslim oil and resources, and change the local population’s way of life whether they liked it or not.

This first factor of religious difference explains why some occupations escalate to suicide terrorism, but not others – not only in recent times, but also in the past – such as why the Japanese started kamikaze attacks in October 1944 to defend their home islands from U.S. occupation, while the Germans did not.

The second factor is prior rebellion. Suicide terrorism is typically a strategy of last resort, often used by weak actors when other, non-suicide methods of resistance to occupation fail. This is why we see suicide attack campaigns so often evolve from ordinary terrorist or guerrilla campaigns, as in the cases of Israel and Palestine, the PKK in Turkey, the LTTE in Sri Lanka, etc. So, if the South Koreans ever began to resist American military presence in a serious way, this would be more worrisome than it may at first appear.

On the next issue she raises, Schake is simply wrong that “an offshore balancing approach means that we will not be engaged with military forces on the ground.” As readers will see in throughout my book, working with local allies is a core element of off-shore balancing. And, America has used the strategy of off-shore balancing to great benefit numerous times and often in concert with local allies - in the Persian Gulf in the 1970s and 1980s, in 1990 to kick Saddam out of Kuwait and in 2001 to topple the Taliban (it controlled 90 percent of Afghanistan and 50 U.S. troops, U.S. air and naval power, and U.S. economic and political support for the Northern Alliance kicked them and al-Qaeda out of the country!).

Finally, I agree that replacing mass boots with mass drones would be a mistake - since vast numbers of air strikes could inflict more than enough collateral damage to incite terrorism in response - which is exactly what Cutting the Fuse explains, and it's also why off-shore balancing means responding with stand-off military forces against significant size terrorist camps like Tarnak Farms (a military base larger than the Pentagon), and not every third ranking cadre in individual houses in Quetta, where more selective or even non-military means may well be more effective.

I hope Ms. Schake will have an opportunity to read Cutting the Fuse and to consider the research behind it. Governor Thomas Kean and Lee Hamilton - both heads of the 9/11 Commission - have, as did Thomas Schelling (Nobel laureate in Economics) and Adm. Gary Roughhead (the current Chief of Naval Operations). They too raised the issues Schake did (and more), and found convincing answers in the book.

(AP Photo)

October 14, 2010

Suicide Terrorism & the U.S. Military

Robert Pape, a University of Chicago political science professor and former Air Force lecturer, will present findings on Capitol Hill on Tuesday that argue that the majority of suicide terrorism around the world since 1980 has had a common cause: military occupation.

Pape and his team of researchers draw on data produced by a six-year study of suicide terrorist attacks around the world that was partially funded by the Defense Department's Defense Threat Reduction Agency. They have compiled the terrorism statistics in a publicly available database comprising some 10,000 records on some 2,200 suicide terrorism attacks, dating back to the first suicide terrorism attack of modern times — the 1983 truck bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut, Lebanon, which killed 241 U.S. Marines.

"We have lots of evidence now that when you put the foreign military presence in, it triggers suicide terrorism campaigns, ... and that when the foreign forces leave, it takes away almost 100 percent of the terrorist campaign," Pape said in an interview last week on his findings. - Laura Rozen

It's always struck me as a bit odd that the U.S. is willing to blithely assume huge costs in Afghanistan and elsewhere in the name of fighting terrorism while resolutely refusing to consider reducing our military footprint in the Middle East for fear of the costs. Perhaps Pape's research will help balance the ledger a bit.

October 13, 2010

Radical Germany

Michael Slackman reports on how Germany is a hotbed for home grown Islamic radicalism:

Although Germany has been spared the terrorist attacks that have hit the United States, Britain and Spain, Hamburg — and Germany in general — remains a breeding ground for Islamic radicals, security officials acknowledge. A spate of recent arrests and terrorism warnings in Europe and Afghanistan has underscored the risk that a small number of German citizens are under the sway of terrorist groups determined to stage new attacks, either in Germany or elsewhere in Europe.

Officials in Hamburg emphasized that the vast majority of its Muslim population — which they put at 130,000 — rejected violence. But a Hamburg intelligence official said there were 2,000 residents who embrace radical ideology and another 45 who accept the ideology of Al Qaeda and global jihad.

“That’s what we all experience in America and in other countries and also here, that this phenomenon of the homegrown terrorist increases rapidly,” said the intelligence official, who spoke recently on the condition that he not be identified because of the secrecy of his work. “This is an extremism which grows right here. The recruiting, the radicalization happens right here, not in other countries.”

This again underscores a dubious argument often floated with respect to terrorism (and usually as a post-hoc justification for the invasion of Iraq): that democracy is an antidote to radicalism. But if German citizens, including those born and raised in the country, can turn to terrorism it's obvious that democracy isn't sufficient to quell their radicalism.

October 12, 2010

Obama & Eisenhower

Will Inboden has an interesting post comparing the two:

While both presidents commissioned major strategic reviews upon taking office, Eisenhower's "Project Solarium" assessed the U.S. grand strategy for the entire global Cold War, in contrast to Obama's strategic review(s) of just one theater: Afghanistan-Pakistan. An accurate analogy would be if the Obama White House had done such a strategic review of the entire Global War on Terror (other than just giving it a new acronym). The Obama administration instead largely adopted wholesale the Bush administration's strategic framework for the war on jihadist terrorism: pre-emptive attacks, holding states accountable for terrorist actions, renditions, law-of-war detainees, support for reformist and peaceful Muslim leaders, and promoting governance and development as long-term antidotes to Islamist ideology.

I'm not sure if the Obama administration has embraced the "holding states accountable" paradigm (and in truth, President Bush didn't either, as such a standard would have plunged the U.S. into many more ground wars) but in general, the administration has indeed refrained from a wholesale overview of American strategy with respect to Islamic terrorism. But why?

October 6, 2010

Drones and Radicalization

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Glenn Greenwald argues that U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan are counter-productive, approvingly noting a Jim White post claiming that "Drone Strikes Provoke Terrorists Who Provoke More Drone Strikes." Greenwald writes:

What a surprise: bombing Muslims more and more causes more and more Muslims to want to bomb the countries responsible. That, of course, has long been the perverse "logic" driving the War on Terror. The very idea that we're going to reduce Terrorism by more intensively bombing more Muslim countries is one of the most patently absurd, self-contradicting premises that exists. It's exactly like announcing that the cure for lung cancer is to quadruple the number of cigarettes one smokes each day. But that's been the core premise (at least the stated one) of our foreign policy for the last decade: we're going to stop Terrorism by doing more and more of exactly the things that cause it (and see this very good Economist article on the ease with which drones allow a nation's leaders to pretend to its citizenry that they are not really at war -- as we're doing with Pakistan).

I think this is a bit glib, but the New America Foundation recently conducted an extensive poll in the Federally Administered Tribal Area (FATA) where U.S. drone strikes occur and the findings do corroborate this dynamic, to a degree. What they found is that FATA residents overwhelmingly opposed U.S. military action and supported attacks against U.S. troops in Afghanistan. But the majority were not supportive of the Taliban or al-Qaeda and indeed supported the Pakistani army's attacks on both groups. (which, presumably, involve bombings and killings). A large majority of FATA residents also said that suicide attacks against Pakistani police and army were never justified.

But the terror threat is more diffuse and complex than angered Pakistanis emerging from the ruin of their bombed-out homes in the tribal area to seek revenge against the West. Is Islamic solidarity really sufficient to explain why an Algerian, for instance, would wish to slaughter civilians in Europe on behalf of Pakistani tribesman?

(AP Photo)

September 16, 2010

Al-Qaeda vs. Iran

The United States seems on the verge of okaying the biggest arms deal in American history to the country that provided 15 of the 19 9/11 hijackers, much of the critical funding for al Qaeda and was home to Osama bin Laden. This is a sign of something more than just the passage of time or our acceptance of the manifold official statements that there was no linkage between the terrorists and the Saudi government. (After all, such arguments hardly seem necessary as we know that the hijackers were backed both by elements of the Pakistani secret service and the Taliban and these days we seem willing enough to cut deals with them or, the case of "good" Taliban, at least contemplate it.)

No, the reason that the U.S. government -- that would not have done a deal like this in the years right after 9/11 -- is willing and even a little eager to move ahead with the deal now is that the War on Terror is being overtaken among top U.S. concerns by the advent of a nuclear Iran....

So while we might describe this new era a "smaller" version of the face-off with the Soviets, a Mideast Cold War or Containment 2.0, it could well be much more complex and present new challenges. In any event, it will certainly be even more dangerous than the "War on Terror" era that it is following and that -- due to the misplaced priorities it provoked from leaders like Blair and Bush -- helped contribute to this new and worrisome period of escalating risks. - David Rothkopf

It's a good point but it's worth raising the question of which is the bigger danger to Americans: al-Qaeda or a nuclear Iran. If we accept the premise that Iran is not going to launch a nuclear attack against the United States (a premise I think is fairly sound), who has the more pronounced tendency to kill American civilians? Clearly al-Qaeda. But al-Qaeda cannot pose a strategic threat to the United States while Iran could, potentially, cause the price of oil to rise.

Expensive oil could seriously impair the U.S. economy, with all the attendant human costs associated with that. But as Rothkopf suggests, containing the threat of a nuclear Iran is going to mean empowering the very regimes and reinforcing the very dynamic (U.S. support for Gulf autocrats) that help propel al-Qaeda into a global menace in the first place.

Alex Massie has a worthwhile take:

More problematically still, this kind of support for the Saudis ensures that different strands of American policy are working at cross-purposes to the point, perhaps, where different American objectives become mutually exclusive. Washington would like a totally transformed middle east; deep down it suspects this isn't possible and, anyway, nothing is so terrifying as instability and change guarantees instability so change is not a Good Thing.

Admittedly, the Obama administration has dialled-back on the human rights and liberty agenda that was, at least fitfully, a part of the Bush administration's long-term, optimistic, vision for the wider Middle East. Nevertheless, Washington continues to talk a lot about values (while forgetting that the rest of the world can hear this) and then demonstrates the worth of those values by buttressing and arming disgusting regimes whose repressive policies help produce extremism and, in the end, anti-Americanism.

The US isn't simply meddling in the middle east, it supports the very people it acknowledges (at least sometimes) are a large part of the problem.

Is there a way to break this cycle?

The Yemen Alternative

As the terrorism network’s Yemen branch threatens new attacks on the United States, the United States Central Command has proposed supplying Yemen with $1.2 billion in military equipment and training over the next six years, a significant escalation on a front in the campaign against terrorism, which has largely been hidden from public view.

The aid would include automatic weapons, coastal patrol boats, transport planes and helicopters, as well as tools and spare parts. Training could expand to allow American logistical advisers to accompany Yemeni troops in some noncombat roles.

Opponents, though, fear American weapons could be used against political enemies of President Ali Abdullah Saleh and provoke a backlash that could further destabilize the volatile, impoverished country. - New York Times

One tendency among those who are skeptical about a counter-insurgency approach in Afghanistan is to yell "Yemen!" and hope that settles it. I'm certainly guilty of this. But those who would support more of a "counter-terrorism" approach to Afghanistan should grapple honestly with how that would work. In Yemen it appears the Obama administration is wrestling with two approaches - put a large "made in America" stamp on Yemen's military forces to make them more effective at fighting al-Qaeda (so we don't have to) or taking a less overt approach which may yield a less effective indigenous force but will also help insulate the U.S. from any blowback if the Yemeni regime uses its American tools for internal repression.

I think both approaches are better, in the long run, then the kind of massive counter-insurgency under way in Afghanistan, but I wonder if the desire to build local capacity won't inexorably lead to a much deeper U.S. involvement. After all, if some terrorist plot from Yemen does wind up succeeding, the call for America to push aside its weak local partner and take care of the problem itself will only grow louder.

The other issue, as Paul Pillar notes well, is whether America's involvement in Yemen (and elsewhere) is being driven by unrealistic expectations of perfect security:

One reason for the oversimplifying, military-heavy approach toward Yemeni terrorism is that Americans in general like to view their enemies in oversimplified terms and to favor simple, direct, forceful ways of dealing with them. Another reason is specific right now to Yemen and is related to an observation that my friend Steve Simon made in a panel discussion (in which I also participated) on Wednesday at the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies. The attempted attack of an airliner last December by the underwear bomber coming from Yemen, had the attack been successful, would have been a catastrophic political blow to the Obama administration. This effect would have reflected the way Americans expect perfection in counterterrorism, along with the partisanship that causes political opponents to pounce enthusiastically on any failure, regardless of its causes or how much it was or was not avoidable. So there is a strong impetus not only to do whatever possible to avoid another Yemen-originated attack, but also to be perceived to be doing that. This is an example of a demonstrable pursuit of perfection in securing Americans from terrorism working against well-considered adoption of policies that, while perfection is impossible to achieve, are apt to be more successful than the more demonstrable alternatives.

You couldn't find a better example of this than Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napalitano saying she couldn't "guarantee" that al-Qaeda wouldn't pull off another terrorist attack. But why on Earth would we expect her to make such a guarantee in the first place?

September 13, 2010

If At First You Don't Succeed

A report in the Indian paper Rediff details how Pakistan asked the Bush administration not to overthrow the Taliban following 9/11 and tried to avoid capturing bin Laden themselves so as to "avoid the fallout" -

The ISI's proclivity with Taliban and Al Qaeda is well known. The recently released wikileaks and now these documents extracted from National Security Archive Electronic Briefing speak volumes about the deep running alliance.

Ironically, nine years down the line, Pakistan is again pushing hard to reconcile with the Taliban, and this time, the US and NATO are supporting it.

U.S. Views on Terrorism

According to Gallup, just one percent of Americans mention terrorism as the nation's most important problem, identical to what it was when the polling firm asked the question during a Sept. 7-10, 2001 polling session:

From that point on, terrorism slowly faded as a response to this question. At the one-year anniversary of the attacks, in September 2002, 19% of Americans mentioned terrorism as the country's top problem, already eclipsed by the economy at the top of the list. By the five-year anniversary of the attacks in September 2006, 11% of Americans mentioned terrorism. Terrorism continued to drop from that point, albeit with an uptick to 8% mentions in January of this year, reflecting the widespread news coverage of the "Christmas Day bomber" who allegedly attempted to detonate explosives on a Northwest Airlines plane headed for Detroit.

Meanwhile, a Rasmussen poll finds that people expect another 9/11 style attack in the next ten years:

71% of Americans think it’s at least somewhat likely another event this devastating will happen within the next decade. This includes 39% who say it's Very Likely.

A new Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey finds that only 22% of Adults believe it’s not very or not at all likely another 9/11 will take place in America in the next 10 years.

The number of adults who feel another terrorist attack is possible is up five points from last year when 66% of Americans felt that way.

September 7, 2010

Playing into Bin Laden's Hands

Upset that President Obama wants to curtail America's costly and open-ended commitment to nation building and counter-insurgency in Iraq and Afghanistan, Marc Thiessen invokes a letter from bin Laden outlining his strategy for bleeding America in a long insurgency, to argue in favor of.... staying and bleeding:

The talk of withdrawal was damaging, but this pivot to domestic priorities was the most dangerous part of Obama's speech -- because what our enemies heard was that their strategy to defeat America is working. In a letter to Taliban leader Mullah Omar, uncovered by coalition forces in 2002, Osama bin Laden explained that the way to get the United States to quit Afghanistan is to convince Americans "that their government [will] bring them more losses, in finances and casualties." As this message takes hold, bin Laden told Mullah Omar, it will create "pressure from the American people on the American government to stop their campaign against Afghanistan." Bin Laden calls this his "bleed until bankruptcy" strategy, and he has expressed confidence it will work, because the Taliban and al-Qaeda possess something that President Obama clearly lacks -- strategic patience. As bin Laden explained a 2004 video, time is on his side: "We . . . bled Russia for 10 years, until it went bankrupt and was forced to withdraw in defeat. . . . So we are continuing this policy in bleeding America to the point of bankruptcy. Allah willing, and nothing is too great for Allah." What bin Laden heard last Tuesday was that the "bleed until bankruptcy" approach is having its intended effect. America, bin Laden heard, has tired of the costs of war and is beginning to pull back -- first from Iraq and eventually from Afghanistan -- so we can focus on rescuing our teetering economy.

I am assuming Thiessen is citing this account of al-Qaeda files discovered in Afghanistan shortly after the Taliban fell. From that, it's clear that the U.S. played rather directly into bin Laden's hand (particularly in Iraq) - getting itself stuck in large, conventional ground wars with insurgent forces that dragged on for years. We played to their strengths, and not ours. And, as bin Laden predicted, it has been costly. Even if you don't accept the $3 trillion-plus figure floated by Joseph Stiglitz over the weekend, the costs in blood and treasure have been steep.

Look, I'm no Sun Tzu, but usually when your enemies express a desire for you to do X, shouldn't you avoid doing X?

September 6, 2010

The Long War

In the course of arguing why Osama bin Laden remains relevant, Peter Bergen draws attention to some conflicting currents in America's counter-terrorism strategy:

Al Qaeda and like-minded groups have attracted dozens of U.S. citizens and residents as foot soldiers. According to a count by Andrew Lebovich of the New America Foundation, in 2009 at least 43 American citizens or residents aligned with Sunni militant groups or their ideology were charged with terrorism crimes in the United States or elsewhere, the highest number in any year since 9/11. So far in 2010, at least 18 have been similarly charged or convicted.

And then:

While bin Laden himself may have vanished like a wraith, intelligence about other militant leaders in the Pakistani tribal areas has markedly improved in the past couple of years. In 2007 there were just three drone strikes reported there; in 2008 there were 34; the Obama administration has already authorized more than 100. Those drones have killed at least a dozen mid and upper-level leaders of Al Qaeda or the Taliban.

While I think we need to be careful about drawing too tight a casual link between the uptick in U.S. military activity in Pakistan and the increase in American citizens signing up for jihadism, this phenomena should give us pause. The U.S. has been waging large scale military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq for approaching a decade. If the pattern continues into the next, will more and more Americans become seduced by bin Laden's siren song?

August 13, 2010

The Evolving Terror Threat

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Paul Rogers analyzes the recent terror attack against a Japanese oil tanker in the Persian Gulf:

Now, after the attack on the M. Star, the activities of the United States navy in both the Persian Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz will almost certainly be expanded. But the full implications of the operation are far from being met by this likely military response.

These can better be grasped by putting three developments that mark the current situation into a common frame:

* the re-emergence of al-Qaida affiliates in Iraq

* the increasing influence of the movement in Yemen

* the attack on the M. Star itself - which was most likely mounted from yet another state.

The emphasis of many counter-terror analysts on events in Afghanistan and Pakistan - including the revival of the Taliban and its broadening Pushtun and/or nationalist appeal, and the impact of drone-attacks in killing or disabling al-Qaida leaders in Pakistan - has tended to reinforce the argument that the core al-Qaida movement is in decline.

The flaw in this perspective is that it ignores the larger lesson of the evolution of al-Qaida over a decade: that the movement is less a tightly organised and rigidly hierarchical group cohering around a clear and unified strategy, and much more a loose cluster of like-minded networks in many different countries, linked by a shared worldview and by diverse financial, technical and human connections.

If this is indeed the case, someone should ask the Obama administration why a massive counter-insurgency directed at Afghanistan is the proper antidote to the terror threat.

(AP Photo)

August 9, 2010

Terrorism in Hormuz

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I'm surprised this hasn't caught a lot of attention:

Investigators from the United Arab Emirates have determined that a Japanese oil tanker damaged in the Straits of Hormuz last month was struck by an explosive-filled boat in an act of terrorism, the Emirati state news agency WAM reported Friday.

“A responsible source at the UAE Coast Guard said that investigations and an examination carried out by specialised teams had confirmed that the tanker had been the subject of a terrorist attack,” WAM writes.

The report came after an al-Qaeda-linked group, the Brigades of Abdullah Azzam, claimed responsibility on its website for the suicide attack, the AP reports.

Al-Qaeda hasn't had too much luck pulling off a successful attack recently, but a few more stabs at blowing up an oil tanker in Hormuz and insurance rates on shipping through the strait are going to increase, which means additional pressure on the global economy and potentially greater energy prices. Two things we don't exactly want right now.

(AP Photo)

July 25, 2010

Where Is al-Qaeda Safest?

Describing Pakistan's lawless tribal belt near Afghanistan as the "global headquarters" of Al-Qaeda, top American military commander Mike Mullen has said the US believed that the terror network's chief Osama bin Laden and his deputy Aiman al-Zawahiri are in this country.

The presence of these terrorist leaders in the region is a reason why "a principal part of the overall Af-Pak strategy is focussed on elimination of safe havens" for them, Mullen told reporters in Islamabad last night.

His comments came days after US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton ruffled feathers in Islamabad by making a similar statement. - Hindustan Times

One recurring fear that advocates of a counter-insurgency in Afghanistan invoke to press their case is that if the U.S. changes its strategy, al Qaeda will pull up stakes from Pakistan and move into Afghanistan to reclaim their former safe haven. This doesn't make much sense on the face of it: Pakistan seems like a much safer place for al Qaeda's leadership to reside than Afghanistan. Could you imagine the top U.S. diplomat and military leader waxing so ineffectual if bin Laden was in a country we could attack with impunity?

July 8, 2010

What Norway Tells Us About Terrorism

Norway announced the arrests of three people it believes are linked to an al Qaeda plot to bomb the U.S. and UK:

Two were arrested in Norway and one in Germany. Officials would not say what country or site was the target of the latest terror threat, or even whether they believed the men had selected a target.

Those arrested in Norway included a 39-year-old Norwegian of Uighur origin who has lived in the country since 1999 and a 31-year-old citizen of Uzbekistan who had a permanent Norwegian residency permit, said Janne Kristiansen, head of Norway's Police Security Service. The man arrested in Germany was a 37-year-old Iraqi with a Norwegian residency permit, Kristiansen said.

She did not say exactly where the arrests took place but said all three men "had connections to Oslo."

It should be obvious by now that people with links to the West are vastly more dangerous than provincial Taliban militants scattered between Afghanistan and Pakistan, and it will take police and intelligence work, not nation building in Afghanistan, to thwart that particular threat.

July 1, 2010

U.S. Puts Number on Al Qaeda

The New York Times reports:

Michael E. Leiter, one of the country’s top counterterrorism officials, said Wednesday that American intelligence officials now estimated that there were somewhat “more than 300” Qaeda leaders and fighters hiding in Pakistan’s tribal areas, a rare public assessment of the strength of the terrorist group that is the central target of President Obama’s war strategy.

Taken together with the recent estimate by the C.I.A. director, Leon E. Panetta, that there are about 50 to 100 Qaeda operatives now in Afghanistan, American intelligence agencies believe that there are most likely fewer than 500 members of the group in a region where the United States has poured nearly 100,000 troops.

And it's not like these 100,000 troops are dedicated to finding and rooting out the 500 odd al Qaeda operatives in Pakistan. Instead, they're hunting down mid-level Pashtun Taliban commanders and attempting to extend the writ of the government in Kabul.

June 28, 2010

Misplaced Priorities?

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Robert Haddick has an interesting article in the American sketching out the costs of any potential Iranian containment regime. Haddick writes:

Left alone, the likely response would be a nuclear and missile arms race between Iran and the Persian Gulf’s Arab states. During the Cold War, U.S. security guarantees, backed up by U.S. military forces and theater nuclear weapons, allowed U.S. allies in Western Europe and East Asia to avoid having to develop their own nuclear weapon programs. Now, once more, Cold War-style deterrence over the Persian Gulf, bolstered by a United States security guarantee and military deployments, may seem an appealing option. But a security guarantee has its costs and risks, for which U.S. policy makers and the American public must prepare.

I tackled this issue a bit here, and Haddick provides a good tour of the horizon of some of the challenges and risks of a containment regime - but he overlooks the huge elephant in the living room when it comes to containing Iran - the threat of Sunni terrorism.

Any Iranian containment regime would, as Haddick writes, see the U.S. strengthening its forward military presence in the Middle East and its partnership with the sundry autocrats of the region. This is the very dynamic that propelled al Qaeda in the 1990s. It stands to reason that such a dynamic will funnel recruits to the movement in the future.

What makes this situation rather perverse is that Iran's nuclear program poses no threat to the U.S. homeland, while al Qaeda terrorism most assuredly does. Iran's nuclear program is clearly a threat to U.S. military deployments in the Middle East and is threatening to other nations in the region. You can make a plausible case that a nuclear Iran will become a hegemonic Iran and that the result would be a sharp spike in the price of oil. But you cannot claim that a nuclear Iran will lead to the deaths of U.S. citizens inside the United States. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the threat from al Qaeda.

The typical counter-argument here is that the geopolitical consequences of a nuclear Iran (higher oil prices, greater regional terrorism, etc.) trump concern for however many Americans wind up being slaughtered by al Qaeda terrorists. And it's not like declining to erect a militarized containment regime around Iran would prevent al Qaeda terrorism - that genie is long out of the bottle. But we need to be mindful of what the Cold War taught us about containment - there are a multitude of unintended consequences, especially with respect to terrorist movements and once-useful proxies. Reasonable people can weight these costs and arguments differently - but it's important to acknowledge them up front.

It's also worth pointing out that after years of living under the American defense umbrella, Germany, South Korea and Japan developed strong market economies and democratic institutions. Their citizens may have resented various American policies, but never got it into their heads to plow commercial airliners into American office buildings and launch an international terrorist war against Western interests. Can we say the same for our protectorates in the Middle East?

(AP Photo)

June 24, 2010

Who's at Fault for Child Soldiers in Somalia?

Thomas Barnett takes a shot at non-interference with respect to Somalia's child-soldiers:

When people say it's not our role to do the SysAdmin work in these places, they just need to understand who gets pressed into service when Core great powers don't show up.

Take a good look at the kid's face, because he's working for you.

Feel any holier about our non-interference?

I don't quite understand this. We are - by definition - interfering by sending arms into Somalia, so it's not correct to pin the existence of Somalia's child soldiers on American "non interference." Furthermore, it strains credulity to suggest that were it not for American interference, Somalia would be free of child soldiers. (And I say this as someone who believes arming Somalia is deeply problematic.)

The implication of Barnett's post is that the Great Powers should avoid the moral stain of supporting dubious proxies in Somalia and just go about the work of policing the country themselves. How did that work out the first time?

June 23, 2010

McChrystal and the COINdinistas

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Analyzing the potential outcomes of Gen. Stanley McChrystal's termination, COINdinista extraordinaire Andrew Exum concludes that:

In the end, your opinion on whether or not Gen. McChrystal should be dismissed might come down to whether or not you think the current strategy is the correct one for the war in Afghanistan. My own prediction is that Gen. McChrystal will be retained. As much as critics of counterinsurgency like to blame Gen. McChrystal (and nefarious think-tankers, of course) for the current strategy, the reality is that the civilian decision-makers in the Obama Administration conducted two high-level reviews in 2009 and twice arrived at a national strategy focused on conducting counterinsurgency operations in Afghanistan. I suspect the president will not replace the man he has put in charge of executing that strategy with just 12 months to go before we begin a withdrawal.

I suspect Exum is probably correct, but I don't know that one's position on COIN must necessarily determine their verdict on the general. Frankly, I read the Rolling Stone piece, and I found most of the stuff - while no doubt in violation of some military etiquette regulations - to be somewhat benign; the kind of water cooler griping that goes on inside every organization. Of course McChrystal erred in his media judgment, and I'm agnostic really on his fate, but I don't know, as Exum notes, if firing him makes sense while the country is so invested in his strategy.

And that's really the problem here. As Spencer Ackerman rightly points out, there's a kind of irony to this whole hubbub: while there's plenty of debate to be had over McChrystal, we mustn't expect too much debate over McChrystal's strategy. The White House has already reiterated its commitment to COIN in Afghanistan, and that, to me, is the end of the story. Though I take more of a realisty position on the war there, I don't know that demanding my pound of flesh makes much of a difference here.

Exum mistakenly assumes that anti-COIN = anti-McChrystal, but I think any critic of COIN would expect these kinds of internal flareups and frustrations when one country attempts to occupy and subsequently engineer the society of another. Power struggles; civilian vs. military personnel; arguments with the host government; bruised egos and hurt feelings over leaked memos and misplaced quotes; etc. This stuff seems par for the course.

Were there an actual debate about options in Afghanistan, then maybe you'd see more of an analytical uprising from the anti-COIN camp, but that debate had already been settled by COIN advocates long ago. Take this argument from Blake Hounshell, for example:

The thing is, though, it's not as if there is a viable alternative strategy out there. For years, the U.S. more or less tried Vice President Joe Biden's preferred approach of keeping a light footprint and limiting U.S. military operations to going after bad guys, while de-emphasizing nation building. That didn't work either. So I think it's worth giving COIN more time to succeed, whether or not McChrystal is the man implementing it.

There are actually a multitude of options in Afghanistan, but none of them will ever appear viable so long as we cling to an amorphous definition of "victory" there. To my recollection, what the Bush administration did in Afghanistan was not at all "light footprint," but rather, under-resourced occupation. They wanted to keep troop casualties low, but they also wanted to pacify the country. They pushed for elections, but then provided no sustainable security arrangement to actually guarantee a democratic Kabul's legitimacy.

This policy - which even the Bush administration would later scrutinize - is not what Biden had proposed last fall. His suggestion was to contain Afghan radicalism, draw down forces and continue drone strikes on militant targets throughout the greater Af-Pak region. If you support such a strategy (as I do, albeit reluctantly), then you certainly aren't concerned about dressing Afghanistan up as a functional democracy, because it clearly isn't one.

But critics can't live in a counterfactual dream world where the White House actually engages the public in a serious debate over the War on Terror, because that moment has passed. While we all question the job security of one general, we should at least, in fairness, congratulate the COINdinistas for what appears to be a vise-like grip on U.S. foreign policy thinking.

(AP Photo)

June 16, 2010

Somalia 2035

It’s tempting to defend President Obama’s persistence in foreign policy fiascos by saying that he inherited them from George Bush and can’t wind them down overnight. But in some ways Obama is out-Bushing Bush. He’s radically increased the use of drone strikes and is expanding “covert” military operations that can wind up backfiring much the way America’s support for the Ethiopian intervention in Somalia backfired. In some of these cases he is taking radical Muslims with essentially local grievances and turning them into America’s enemies.

And he’s failing to heed the most fundamental lesson of Somalia and for that matter Afghanistan and Iraq: No matter how bad things are, trying to make them better can always make them worse. - Robert Wright

Wright is reacting to the New York Times' story two days ago on the use of child soldiers by America's ally in Somalia.

You don't need to be especially clairvoyant to guess that this is going to end badly for the U.S. An al Qaeda cell or two in Somalia is not ideal, but implicating ourselves in the country's internecine warfare is a recipe for long-term disaster. You would think, given the Obama administration's present troubles in Afghanistan, that they would be far more sensitive to the argument that short-term tactical interventions can lead to significant long-term problems.

What is the more likely scenario: that Washington is going to be able to sufficiently arm and equip its favored faction in Somalia to deal a decisive blow to al Qaeda and stabilize the country or that we'll eventually lose interest or become frustrated with the lack of progress and try to extricate ourselves? And what happens when these child soldiers grow up (if they grow up)? What will they think of the U.S.?

June 1, 2010

More Barbarity Needed?

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Reflecting on the flotilla incident, Michel Rubin thinks it's time to junk the idea of proportionality:

Likewise, when terrorists seek to strike at the United States, why should we find ourselves constrained by an artificial notion of proportionality when responding to those terrorists or their state sponsors?

Ultimately, it may be time to recognize that, in the face of growing threats to Western liberalism, strength and disproportionality matter more to security and the protection of democracy than the approval of the chattering class of Europe or the U.N. secretary general, a man whose conciliatory policies as foreign minister of South Korea proved to be a strategic disaster.

I think the idea of "proportionality" is far too vague a standard to establish in war time. That said, I'm not so sure how Rubin's advice works in practice, when the principle enemies faced by the West are non-state actors. Take Afghanistan. The U.S. is applying force in a judicious manner not because it wants to earn the approval of the "chattering class of Europe" (whoever they are) but because of the belief that killing large numbers of Afghans indiscriminately is going to result in a much larger problem and deal Western security a much larger set-back. Why is that mistaken?

To take Israel's case specifically, it has, in almost every confrontation with terrorists group, enjoyed a disproportionate outcome - racking up higher body counts and more infrastructure damage than it has suffered. Has this "disproportionality" improved their fortunes vis-a-vis Hamas in Gaza or Hezbollah in Lebanon? It seems to me that these are groups that welcome a disproportionate response precisely for its radicalizing effects.

Waging a "disproportionate" campaign against non-state actors means deliberately widening the targets to include killing non-combatants and destroying civilian infrastructure, or taking no steps to minimize such "collateral damage." The West has embraced this ethos before, but during a world war. In the context of the lower intensity conflict against terrorist groups, such a strategy can only really succeed if you make a desert and call it peace.

(AP Photo)

May 28, 2010

A Losing Strategy

Counter-terrorism expert Bruce Hoffman has a real eye-opener on al Qaeda in the current issue of the National Interest. The piece really casts doubt on the wisdom of waging a huge counter-insurgency in Afghanistan. Hoffman notes how al Qaeda is getting increasingly better at reaching into the U.S. to find and radicalize individuals to carry out attacks. While we focus on one theater - first Iraq, then Afghanistan - al Qaeda retains resiliency by keeping a global footprint. The administration's touting of drone strikes is also misguided, Hoffman writes:

The operable assumption, like the infamous body counts that masqueraded as progress during the Vietnam War in the 1960s, is that we can kill our way to victory. Long ago, David Galula, a French army officer and arguably still today the world’s preeminent expert on counterinsurgency and counterterrorism, wrote about the fallacy of a strategy that relies primarily on decapitation. In Pacification in Algeria, 1956–1958, first published by the RAND Corporation in 1963, Galula explains how the capture in 1957 of the top-five leaders of the Algerian National Liberation Front, the terrorist-cum-guerrilla group that the French battled for eight long years before giving up in exhaustion, “had little effect on the direction of the rebellion, because the movement was too loosely organized to crumble under such a blow.” Half a century later, he could just as easily be talking about al-Qaeda...

The above examples are not meant to imply that killing and capturing terrorists should not be a top priority in any war on terrorism. Only that such measures—without accompanying or attendant efforts to stanch the flow of new recruits into a terrorist organization—amount to a tactical holding operation at best. That is not the genuinely game-changing strategic reversal that attrition of terrorist leaders in tandem with concerted counter-radicalization efforts to hamper recruitment can ultimately achieve.

Unfortunately, while Hoffman acknowledges the need to stem the supply of recruits, there aren't many specifics about how that should actually be done. What Hoffman does make clear is that reforming the Karzai kleptocracy is not going to impede al Qaeda to any great extent.

May 18, 2010

Joining the Jihad

Mary Habeck has an interesting post on why there's been a spike in attempted terror attacks:

Now that administration officials have announced that the Pakistani Taliban (the TTP) were behind the recent attempted bombing of Times Square, we can turn to the question of why there have been so many threatened and actual attacks on the United States inspired by, or actually emanating from, places where the United States is not involved in an active war. A look at arrests in the United States from May 2009 to the present shows dozens of such cases -- many involving multiple suspects -- linked to places like Somalia, Yemen, and of course Pakistan. Four of the plotters (Abulhakim Mujahid Muhammad (Yemen), Nidal Malik Hasan (Yemen), Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab (Yemen), and Faisal Shahzad (Pakistan) managed to carry out attacks, although only two were "successful."

Her answer is actually quite interesting but there's something amiss with the description above. First, while it's technically correct that we're not actively at war with Pakistan, we're pretty clearly waging a war inside Pakistan that's killing a fair number of Pakistanis. Second, it could be the that Yemen and Somalia are opportunistic and accessible stopovers for terrorists (and their radicalizers), just as Afghanistan and Sudan served as incubators of jihad in the 1990s even though the U.S. was not at war with them, either.

Still, Habeck's point is that bin Laden may finally be achieving what he set out to do years ago, which was (is) to unite various groups of jihadists and convince them to direct their fire toward the U.S. homeland. The fact that several American citizens have recently been lured by the call is certainly cause for alarm.

May 4, 2010

Times Square Bomb Attempt & Linkage

This is a guess, but I don't think that Faisal Shahzad, if he is indeed a terrorist, was radicalized solely by the construction in East Jerusalem of apartment buildings for Jews. This suggests the limited relevance of the "linkage" argument. - Jeffrey Goldberg.

Agreed. But if it Shahzad was not a member of Hamas or Hezbollah, it also suggests that the U.S. and Israel don't face the same terrorist enemy.

May 3, 2010

Times Square Car Bomb


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I'm pretty surprised how some commentators are taking at face value claims made by the Pakistani Taliban that they had a hand in the amateurish attempt to blow up a car in Times Square. Here's Mary Habeck:

This attempted attack is also a reminder that the administration's conviction that "solving" the Israel-Palestine conflict will end the terrorist threat to the United States is mistaken. We cannot negotiate away or mollify the desire by al Qaeda, the Taliban, or other Salafi-jihadis to kill us, because the men who subscribe this ideology do not want a just peace between Israel and Palestine with two states living side by side: they want the destruction of Israel. They also do not have reasonable demands for the United States, e.g., a desire that the U.S. stop "meddling" in the affairs of the Muslim-majority world: they want the United States destroyed.
The truth is we can draw absolutely no insight from this attack until the facts are in. And in any event, whichever group (or individual) hatched this plot is certainly not going to "destroy" the U.S. with M80s and gas cans.

(AP Photo)

April 14, 2010

Americans Fear Terror Attack

A new poll from Angus Reid:

Many adults in the United States foresee an act of terrorism taking place on U.S. soil in the next year, according to a poll by Angus Reid Public Opinion. 69 per cent of respondents think an attack carried out by foreigners is likely to happen, while 58 per cent feel foresee an act of terrorism carried out by Americans.

Full results from the poll here - it's mostly focused on domestic militia and the likelihood of civil unrest in the U.S.

Could al Qaeda Launch a Nuclear Attack?

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What did President Obama achieve during the just-concluded nuclear summit? Max Bergmann says a lot:

Bilateral deals were struck with the Ukraine, Chile, Canada, Mexico — all agreeing to give up their stockpiles of highly-enriched uranium. Furthermore, Russia agreed to eliminate 68 tons of weapon grade plutonium, enough for 17,000 nuclear weapons. Other countries agreed to additional steps to improve port security and to address nuclear trafficking.

Additionally, the final communique from the summit achieves a consensus on the dangers of nuclear terrorism and it gets nations to make commitments to secure all their vulnerable nuclear materials within four years. Importantly, it lays out a “work plan” for countries to follow and to ensure countries live up to these pledges, South Korea will hold a follow-up nuclear summit in two years to put pressure on countries to follow through.

All very sensible achievements in my view. But consider the scope of the conference. According to the Times, it was "the biggest gathering of heads of state by a US leader since the founding of the UN in 1945." Was a similarly historic agreement hammered out? It doesn't appear so.

I do think there was an unfortunate element of hysteria that pervaded the summit - what Spencer Ackerman might disparage as "the politics of fear." Obama invoked Albert Einstein to the effect that the world was "drifting toward a catastrophe beyond comparison."

So what are the chances that al Qaeda could acquire, transport and detonate a nuclear weapon into the continental United States? We know they have tried in the past (and have been scammed in the process) and presumably are trying to do so now, but some things may simply be beyond the means of even the most motivated terror organization. Consider, as RCW contributor Todd Crowell highlighted recently, the experience of the Japanese terror cult Aum Shinrikyo. They had a large facility for producing chemical weapons, a nuclear lab in Australia and were well funded and the best they were able to do was the 1995 Tokyo subway attack which killed 13 people with Sarin nerve gas. A tragedy, yes, but not a "catastrophe beyond comparison."

And, as Michael Brenner observes the al Qaeda threat today is not what it once was:

Obama made this the leitmotif of the conference in his public remarks yesterday to the effect that terrorism is the most important nuclear threat we face. That is simply untrue. An accurate statement designed to educate rather than to play on emotions would say that the seizure of nuclear materials by ‘al-Qaeda’ would create a vitally dangerous situation BUT it is not an urgent concern because the likelihood of such an eventuality coming to pass is close to zero. The old al-Qaeda is a weak, fragmented grouping able to do little more than survive physically. This is the outfit that, over the past 8 + years, has been capable of organizing nothing of great consequence. The London and Madrid bombing were essentially local operations; the Christmas bomber incident rank amateurism. Trying to blow a plane out of the sky once every several years is not a laughing matter; but to cite it to stoke fears of nuclear terrorism is rank scare-mongering with no evidential basis. Right out of the Bush-Cheney playbook. An outfit that cannot manage to get its hands on fire-retardant underwear will not be able to build or steal a nuclear warhead.

The fact that al Qaeda is a shell of its former self is no reason not to lock up loose nuclear materials. They could still surprise us, there could be other organizations similarly determined to cause havoc, or even deranged individuals that might want to get their hands on fissile material. But if we truly want to reduce the chances of a terrorist group getting their hands on nuclear weapons, you'd have to do more than lock-up unsecured stockpiles. You'd also have to eliminate nuclear weapons (which is impossible) but perhaps more importantly, dramatically curtail the use of civilian nuclear power, which seems unlikely.

(AP Photo)

April 6, 2010

A Qaddafi in Sheep's Clothing

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Michael Totten suggests that the West hit the brakes on embracing the Libyan president:

Libya, like Syria, is no longer ruled by one of the region’s “conservative” monarchies. Both are revolutionary regimes founded by leaders who came to power with ambitions beyond their own borders. Both are well-practiced in the art of using terrorism abroad as instruments of their foreign policies. Qaddafi formally renounced the practice to get back onto speaking terms with the West, but he and Assad together encouraged Palestinians to resume violent attacks against Israel just a few days ago. He hasn’t changed as much as he’d like us to think.

Totten also points us to an interesting Michael Moynihan dispatch from Libya.

(AP Photo)

April 1, 2010

Papism

Alex Alexiev writes in National Review about the wave of Russian terror:

As clear-cut a case of Islamist barbarism as it is, though, it is difficult to make sense of the spiraling violence in Russia without reference to Vladimir Putin’s disastrous anti-terrorism policies.

Unlike his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, President Putin from the very beginning of his tenure in the Kremlin showed himself completely unwilling to consider any negotiated settlement with the Chechens and pursued a strictly military solution and a puppet regime in Grozny instead -- an attitude characterized by his vulgar promise to the resistance to “rub them out in the latrine.” He had no interest in exploring let alone exploiting the deep gulf between the resistance’s hard-line, Saudi-supported Islamists and its secular nationalists, who had little in common except their vehement dislike of Moscow’s heavy-handed domination.

Could it be that National Review has succumbed to Papism? Or is realism only useful when it can be used to criticize Russia?

March 30, 2010

They Hate Us for Lady Gaga

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The Wall Street Journal's Bret Stephens argues that Lady Gaga and America's sexualized culture are vastly more responsible for jihadism than any of this business about America's foreign policy in the region for the past thirty years.

Justin Logan objects:

Dangerously, though, Stephens veers back toward falsifiability by writing that “the core complaint that the Islamists from Waziristan to Tehran to Gaza have lodged against the West” is that we’re too sexed-up. This is, of course, not accurate. Bin Laden’s 1996 fatwa, after all, was not titled “Declaration of War against the Americans with their Supple Buttocks and Protuberant Breasts.” Instead, it was called “Declaration of War against the Americans Occupying the Land of the Two Holy Places.” Or you can take a look at the second fatwa, released in 1998. The three big claims made against us in there were

1. Our presence in Saudi Arabia and support for the Saudi government, which he hates;
2. Our sanctions regime against Iraq and its alleged effects on Iraqi civilians; and
3. Our support for Israel.

There’s a lot you can do with this information, up to and including supposing that bin Laden would not be satisfied even if these three conditions were somehow removed. You can also read the actual fatwas and conclude that the Israel stuff was far from the centerpiece of the argument and seemed sort of tacked on at the end for good measure. I actually think both these arguments are good ones. But actually thinking about what’s in those texts should cause you to ask why, of all the grievances he could have lodged, including our reverence for Josephine Baker, did he pick those three issues? The answer that presents itself is that he is not an idiot and he thinks the three points he made will be most effective in recruiting people to the cause. [Emphasis mine.]

Larison piles on:

The recent Moscow subway bombings are instructive on this point. The bombings are outrageous atrocities for which there is no excuse or justification, but one would have to be a blind fool to say that Chechen grievances, which outside jihadists have been exploiting for the last decade, are based in morally offensive Russian pop culture. It is acceptable for hegemonists to acknowledge this when Russia is the target of terrorist attacks, but when it comes to acknowledging U.S. and allied policies as important contributing factors we are treated instead to these sweeping cultural arguments and close readings of Sayyid Qutb.

Larison also points out the Qutb penned his anti-Western diatribes in 1948. So why wasn't the West besieged with jihadist attacks since then? The answer, of course, is that whatever inchoate loathing radical Muslims felt toward the modern West did not galvanize into a violent reaction against us until we began to move militarily into the Middle East.

Again, I don't believe this can be reduced to an either/or proposition. It's obvious that Islamic radicals have no love for democracy or any culture besides their own puritanical brand of Islam. The Bamyan Buddhas had nothing to do with American foreign policy or the West, and the Taliban blew them up anyway. No doubt there are those who would kill simply to purge the world of Western/infidel cultural influences.

But this impulse has become a mass movement (to the extent that al Qaeda can be said to be a mass movement) precisely because it has hitched itself to a set of political grievances and objectives which are held by people who don't give a fig about Lady Gaga or Brittany Spears or who have no interest in living under retrograde Taliban rule.

As Logan notes:

For example, public opinion scholars Andrew Kohut and Richard Wike drew on six years of survey data in the Islamic world and concluded in 2008 that while “America’s image in much of the Muslim world remains abysmal,” “most of the story is opposition to American foreign policy rather than value divides or religious-based enmity.” Or look at the U.S. Defense Department’s reporting on the issue: “American direct intervention in the Muslim World has paradoxically elevated the stature of and support for radical Islamists, while diminishing support for the United States to single-digits in some Arab societies…Muslims do not ‘hate our freedom,’ but rather, they hate our policies.” [.pdf] Basically everybody who’s studied this question in any detail agrees with this general argument.

(AP Photo)

Black Widows, Ctd.

As Russian security services hunt down the cell of female terrorists believed responsible for yesterday's metro bombings in Moscow, Brian Palmer delves a bit deeper into the role of women in Jihadist organizations:

Women in the al-Qaida family are frequently used as marriage fodder. Many top terrorists marry their daughters off to colleagues abroad as a way to strengthen ties between regional or international terrorists organizations, just as old-school European monarchs once did. Osama Bin Laden and Mullah Omar appear to be married to each other's daughters. Indonesian terrorist Haris Fadhilah gave his daughter to Omar al-Faruq, a major al-Qaida operative. These arranged marriages are thought to enhance collaboration and communication among terrorist groups, but there's little indication that the women wield any real power. (Many female Chechen fighters gained their status through marriage, as well. The "Black Widows" are a group of bombers who try to complete the missions begun by their martyred husbands, fathers, or brothers.)

There are a handful of role models for women looking to climb terrorism's corporate ladder, but they operated in a different era. Palestinian fighter and terrorist pin-up Laila Khaled planned and executed a plane hijacking in 1969. She captured the word's attention with her brashness, making the pilot fly over Haifa—the birthplace from which she had been exiled—and demanding that air traffic control refer to the plane as "Popular Front Free Arab Palestine" rather than TWA 840. But Khaled belonged to the Marxist-leaning Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and she didn't have to struggle with a patriarchal Islamic hierarchy to become one of the most famous terrorists of the 20th century.

Read the rest here.

March 29, 2010

Video of the Day

Today's video of the day focuses on one of the few terrorist or insurgent organizations that claims to be Christian, the Lord's Resistance Army in central Africa:

To learn more about the Lord's Resistance Army, you can read a summary of the organization, a summary of the Ugandan Civil War, a summary of the Human Rights Watch Report, and the report itself.

For more videos on topics from around the world, check out the RealClearWorld videos page.

Black Widows

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Bob Ayers offers his analysis on the culprits behind today's suicide bombings in Russia:

The use of women as suicide bombers or "Black Widows," is one way in which the struggle in Chechnya is different from al Qaeda and more analogous to the military campaign waged by the IRA in Northern Ireland, says Ayers.

"This war is politically motivated, it is not about a religious ideology as in the case of al Qaeda, so everyone participates and it is ultimately irrelevant if you are a man or a woman," said Ayers.

"They are not like al Qaeda who might say women should be hidden away and have no role in attacks."

The "Black Widows" are believed to be made up of women whose husbands, brothers, fathers or other relatives have been killed in the conflict. The women are often dressed head-to-toe in black and wear the so-called "martyr's belt" filled with explosives.

The subtle distinctions and differences in the Global War on Terror will no doubt be fodder for commentary in the coming days. Stay tuned to RealClearWorld for the latest updates from Moscow, and be sure to check out our Russia homepage throughout the week for the latest opinion and analysis on the attacks.

The UK Guardian is also running a live blog on the metro bombings worth checking out.

UPDATE: Charlie Szrom of AEI adds his own thoughts on the attacks, and counters Ayers.

(AP Photo)

March 24, 2010

Poll: Americans Feeling Vulnerable

Rasmussen Reports has a new poll out on the war on terror:


Confidence that America is winning the war on terror is down slightly this month, and belief that the United States is safer today than it was before 9/11 has hit its lowest level ever.

A new Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey finds that just 35% of voters think America is safer now than it was before the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. That’s down from 39% last month.

Thirty-eight percent (38%) say the United States is not safer today, and 27% more are not sure.

Confidence has been steadily declining since the Christmas Day terrorist attempt to blow up an airliner landing in Detroit.

March 18, 2010

CIA: al Qaeda on the Ropes

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CIA Director Leon Panetta gave an interview to the Washington Post claiming that the "secret war" of drone assaults in Pakistan is having a major impact on al Qaeda:

So profound is al-Qaeda's disarray that one of its lieutenants, in a recently intercepted message, pleaded with bin Laden to come to the group's rescue and provide some leadership, Panetta said. He credited improved coordination with Pakistan's government and what he called "the most aggressive operation that CIA has been involved in in our history," offering a near-acknowledgment of what is officially a secret war.

"Those operations are seriously disrupting al-Qaeda," Panetta said. "It's pretty clear from all the intelligence we are getting that they are having a very difficult time putting together any kind of command and control, that they are scrambling. And that we really do have them on the run."

Obviously the CIA has a vested interest in claiming success, but the headlines of late certainly seem to corroborate the program's effectiveness. Which again begs the question of why we're investing a considerable amount of blood and treasure trying to build a state from scratch in Afghanistan if our counter-terrorism objectives are being met more effectively over the border.

(AP Photo)

March 17, 2010

The Strategic Logic of Terrorism

If you didn't get a chance to watch the live-streams yesterday, the New America Foundation hosted the University of Chicago's Robert Pape. Pape authored the book Dying to Win: the Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism and has just unveiled a massive database of all the suicide attacks in the world since the 1980s.

At New America, Pape presented the new database and also discussed his research into suicide terrorism. In contrast to the popular assertions that terrorists "hate freedom" or want to build a 21st century Caliphate, Pape documents the true driver of suicide attacks: to compel a democracy to remove combat forces from territory the terrorists prize and/or want to liberate. It is not primarily a function of Muslim extremism, even if Muslim terrorists have embraced the tactic. Before 2003, the largest perpetrator of suicide terrorism was the Tamil Tigers, a Marxist group. It's also used by the PKK, a Kurdish/Marxist terror outfit. Suicide terrorism is popular, Pape argues, because it is lethally effective.

This doesn't mean that terrorists don't despise Western values or don't, in their minds, hope to restore Islamic rule, it just means that those things don't matter nearly as much as is presumed and don't figure centrally into the history of suicide violence.

His entire presentation is worth a watch:

Continue reading "The Strategic Logic of Terrorism" »

March 16, 2010

Glassman and Pape at New America

There are two great events happening today at the New America Foundation, and we have 'em both live right here at RealClearWorld.

The first event, starting at 12:15 pm EST, will be a discussion with former Undersecretary of State James Glassman on "the role strategic communications can play in helping the United States in Iran."

The second event, set to kick off at 3:30 pm EST, will be a discussion with Professor Robert Pape on the rise of suicide terrorism in Afghanistan.

Steve Clemons will be moderating the day's events, and you can watch them both at either The Washington Note or right here on The Compass following the jump:

Continue reading "Glassman and Pape at New America" »

March 11, 2010

A New Plan for Somalia

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Over the weekend, the New York Times reported on a covert U.S. effort to aid the Transitional Federal Government in Somalia in its battle to establish control over the country. As the fighting intensifies, the Council on Foreign Relations' Bronwyn E. Bruton has a new report out calling for a new approach. From the summary:


Bruton argues that the current U.S. policy of supporting the TFG is proving ineffective and costly. The TFG is unable to improve security, deliver basic services, or move toward an agreement with Somalia’s clans and opposition groups that would provide a stronger basis for governance. She also cites flaws in two alternative policies—a reinforced international military intervention to bolster the TFG or an offshore approach that seeks to contain terrorist threats with missiles and drones.

Instead, Bruton advances a strategy of “constructive disengagement.” Notably, this calls for the United States to signal that it will accept an Islamist authority in Somalia—including the Shabaab—as long as it does not impede international humanitarian activities and refrains from both regional aggression and support for international jihad. As regards terrorism, the report recommends continued airstrikes to target al-Qaeda and other foreign terrorists while taking care to minimize civilian casualties. It argues for a decentralized approach to distributing U.S. foreign aid that works with existing local authorities and does not seek to build formal institutions. And the report counsels against an aggressive military response to piracy, making the case instead for initiatives to mobilize Somalis themselves against pirates.

I think we need to set the bar for military support much higher, especially when it comes to civil wars in failed states. The threat of an al Qaeda safe haven is serious, but as the recent "JihadJane" revelations make clear, we're going to face a terrorist threat with or without failed states. And the rush to try and deny al Qaeda a foothold might very well create worse problems down the road, specifically new sets of enemies in the states where we're pouring in guns and enabling certain factions to prevail over others.

(AP Photo)

March 10, 2010

The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

Walter Russell Mead has another long post up about Israel and anti-Semitism which touches on some of the questions I raised here. It's well worth reading in full and again, he makes a number of points I agree with. To wit:

I’m not trying to grade the incommensurable suffering of people around the world, but if we compare the attention and care that the international community has extended to the Palestinians with our attention and support for other victims in other places, a disturbing pattern emerges. Whatever the wrongs of Israel’s occupation policy — and I agree that there are some — the Palestinians, especially in the West Bank but even in Gaza, live much better than many people in the world whose suffering attracts far less world attention — and whose oppressors get far less criticism. I would much rather be a Palestinian, even in Gaza, than a member of a minority tribe in the hills of Myanmar, or almost anyone in the Eastern Congo or Darfur. Millions of children in Pakistan and Indonesia have less food security, less educational opportunity and less access to health services than Palestinians who benefit from UN services (to which the United States is historically the largest single contributor) that poor people in other countries can only dream of.

This is obviously true. It's especially in the Arab world, where the treatment of the Palestinians is subjected to no end of scrutiny while the grotesque human rights abuses of Arab regimes, Sudan, etc., are studiously ignored or minimized. Sri Lanka recently experienced a massive humanitarian catastrophe following a campaign against Tamil insurgents, and few people worked up much outrage about it (something that miffed Kevin quite a bit).

But I think there's a very important distinction here that Mead skips right over: by virtue of its aid and diplomatic support, the U.S. is implicated in Israel's behavior in a way that it simply is not with other countries. So one can agree with Mead, as I do, that Israel's treatment of the Palestinians does not rise to the world-historical level and nonetheless still argue that American policy toward Israel needs to be considered on the basis of that treatment (or more accurately, the ramification that that treatment has for American security).

This of course leads to the question of whether Israel's actions with respect to the Palestinians are having any negative impact on American security. This isn't physics, where cause and effect are as clear as billiard balls bouncing off one another, but there is a sufficient body of thought that does posit a direct link that it's worth taking seriously. Supporters of Israel - such as Dennis Ross and David Makovksy - acknowledged in their book that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a major grievance in the Arab world and contributes to the terrorist threat we face, which is why attempting to solve the conflict is such an urgent priority. The 9/11 Commission referenced the radicalizing effect of the conflict. Other analysts, such as Peter Bergen, who have studied terrorism have cited the existence of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a contributing factor to the rise of anti-American terrorism. And clearly, the conflict is a staple of al Qaeda propaganda. To take one recent example, Humam al-Balawi the Jordian bomber who killed 7 CIA officers in Khost, Afghansitan cited the war in Gaza as a catalyst of his radicalism.

At a minimum it suggests to me that violence in the Congo - which, we all agree, is objectively worse than the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in terms of the humanitarian toll - is nonetheless not as relevant to American security as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is. And I think that fact goes much further than anti-Semitism to explain the disproportionate emphasis given to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, at least in the United States.

Mead has promised some further posts on the subject but he notes that:

The core points I want to make aren’t about whether American foreign policy toward Israel is a good thing or not, but this debate is so politicized that if you criticize the thesis that American policy toward Israel represents the power of American Jews people assume that you are part of the lobby.

But why exempt a critical issue here? Isn't it just as important to debate the actual merits of our policy and not only whether people hold anti-Semitic views about its origins? I agree that it's important to root out and expose anti-Semitism wherever it rears its ugly head. But as Mead acknowledged in his post, one can be critical of aspects of U.S. policy towards Israel and not be an anti-Semite. So why not address the arguments of those critics too? If all you're going to do is flag the anti-Semitic critics and arguments and pass lightly over the ones that aren't, you set up a debate that defacto paints all critics of American policy toward Israel as anti-Semites.

March 8, 2010

Video of the Day

We thought we had this guy for a bit on Sunday:

As it turns out, we did not. I must confess that I was a little bit disappointed, because Adam Gadahn is the first person indicted for treason in years, and watching this video he is not helping his case.

For more videos on topics from around the world check out the Real Clear World videos page.

March 6, 2010

Is the U.S. Helping or Hurting In Somalia?

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In Afghanistan, the United States has chosen to combat an insurgency with connections to al Qaeda with a 100,000 troop strong counter-insurgency (not counting the tens of thousands of troops contributed by NATO allies and local Afghan forces). In Somalia, the Obama administration has taken a different approach to much the same problem:

Most of the American military assistance to the Somali government has been focused on training, or has been channeled through African Union peacekeepers. But that could change. An American official in Washington, who said he was not authorized to speak publicly, predicted that American covert forces would get involved if the offensive, which could begin in a few weeks, dislodged Qaeda terrorists.

“What you’re likely to see is airstrikes and Special Ops moving in, hitting and getting out,” the official said.

Over the past several months, American advisers have helped supervise the training of the Somali forces to be deployed in the offensive, though American officials said that this was part of a continuing program to “build the capacity” of the Somali military, and that there has been no increase in military aid for the coming operations.

The Americans have provided covert training to Somali intelligence officers, logistical support to the peacekeepers, fuel for the maneuvers, surveillance information about insurgent positions and money for bullets and guns.

The Obama administration is reportedly worried about a Yemen-Somalia axis where al Qaeda fighters flow between the two countries, setting up training camps and a staging area for international attacks. It's a legitimate worry, and if the choice is between an Afghan-style counter-insurgency/nation building effort, and the kind of assistance the administration is offering, I think the Somalia template is preferable, because it puts Somalis and not Americans, on the front lines.

But we have to be on guard here as well. If we wind up enabling a government takeover, and that government is corrupt and brutal, it will not only galvanize further revolts, but it will direct the ire of Somalis against the U.S. That kind of blowback would take a bad situation and potentially make it much, much worse.

(AP Photo)

February 24, 2010

Hamas Leader's Son - an Israeli Spy

The Mossad's been getting beat up these past few days but this is pretty astounding:

The son of one of Hamas’s founding members was a spy in the service of Israel for more than a decade, helping prevent dozens of Islamist suicide bombers from finding their targets, it emerged today.

Codenamed the Green Prince by Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security service, Mosab Hassan Yousef, the son of Hamas co-founder Sheikh Hassan Yousef, supplied key intelligence on an almost daily basis from 1996 onwards and tracked down suicide bombers and their handlers from his father’s organization, the daily Haaretz said.


There was a piece in the Atlantic a while back on British efforts to penetrate the IRA that had similar high-level double agents.

Targets and Tactics, Ctd.

Israeli opposition leader Tzipi Livni on the Dubai hit:

“Every terrorist must know that no one will support him when a soldier, and it doesn’t matter what soldier, tries to kill him, whether it is in the Gaza Strip, Afghanistan or Dubai,” Livni said. “I don’t expect the world to welcome the killing of terrorists, but I do expect the world to not criticize it.”

Livni said she did not know who was responsible for the killing of Mabhouh. She mocked the criticism Israel has taken from the international community for the assassination.

“What was disproportionate this time?” she asked. “Was there a disproportionate use of passports?"

And were every terrorist of equal value or consequence, Ms. Livni might have a valid point here. But as Larison explained a few days ago, Hamas is in fact a political reality that Israel must accept. If this assassination actually brought Israel closer to a political resolution in Palestine, then I'd say the consequences of stealing passports and carrying out a hit with total disregard for its allies were well worth it for Israel.

But what has this assassination actually accomplished? Will it deter Iranian weapons sales to Hamas? Not likely. Does it deter Hamas? Not likely. Has it created yet another martyr for Hamas to parade around the Gaza Strip? You bet.

George Friedman of STRATFOR explains:

We are not writing this as pacifists; we do not believe the killing of enemies is to be avoided. And we certainly do not believe that the morally incoherent strictures of what is called international law should guide any country in protecting itself. What we are addressing here is the effectiveness of assassination in waging covert warfare. Too frequently, it does not, in our mind, represent a successful solution to the military and political threat posed by covert organizations. It might bring an enemy to justice, and it might well disrupt an organization for a while or even render a specific organization untenable. But in the covert wars of the 20th century, the occasions when covert operations - including assassinations - achieved the political ends being pursued were rare. That does not mean they never did. It does mean that the utility of assassination as a main part of covert warfare needs to be considered carefully. Assassination is not without cost, and in war, all actions must be evaluated rigorously in terms of cost versus benefit.

In short, actions have consequences, and thus the benefits of those actions had better outweigh the consequences. I see no evidence that this murder, while no doubt gratifying, has actually gained Israel much of anything.

But then again, Washington is as much to blame for this, as we provide no serious oversight or regulation to go along with the tremendous sums of money and military aid we provide to Israel. The cost/benefit of leaving one terrorist dead in Dubai likely never factored into the calculation, because why should it? Who cares what the United Arab Emirates thinks? The UK? Whatever, they'll fall in line.

Of course, a truly global war against asymmetric enemies indifferent to borders and conventional conflict cannot be prosecuted in this fashion. If this is, as Ms. Livni argues, all one big war of good against evil, then the good guys need to talk to each other. They need to trust each other. They need to grow their own ranks. None of that was accomplished in Dubai.

A true War on Terror requires allies and principles. The United States learned this lesson the hard way in Iraq, but it's one Israel refuses to ever learn.

February 22, 2010

Targets and Tactics

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Max Boot writes:

Funny how no one seriously objects when U.S. Predators carry out similar hits on al-Qaeda operatives but the whole world is in uproar when the Israelis target members of Hamas — an organization that is morally indistinguishable from al-Qaeda. The Dubai uproar only highlights once again the double standard to which Israel is constantly subjected. But Israel cannot and should not use that double standard as an excuse to avoid taking vital action in its self-defense. The leaders of terrorist organizations are legitimate military targets, and Israel should spare itself the agonizing and hand-wringing over this targeted killing.

Daniel Larison pounces:

As atrocious and appalling as their past and present conduct is, Hamas still retains in much of the non-American West some minimal legitimacy as a major faction in Palestinian politics. Hamas and Al Qaeda may be morally indistinguishable, but politically they have very different standings in the eyes of many other states. Israel’s major regional ally Turkey has a ruling party that is somewhat sympathetic to Hamas, while it is resolutely hostile to Al Qaeda and its affiliates. These are rather obvious political distinctions that Boot ought to understand, and the Israeli government must also understand these things. It is pointless to pretend that these distinctions don’t exist and to complain that the different reactions to drone strikes and the Dubai assassination prove a double standard. Whether or not there should be a double standard, Israel’s government has to take for granted that there is one. If Israel’s patron and the global superpower can get away with something, however misguided it may be, it does not always follow that it can act with the same impunity.

Well put, but let me take it a step further and dismiss the notion that any double standard exists at all in this case. It's a convenient rhetorical crutch I suppose to scream hypocrisy every time a critique is made of Israeli behavior, but this time around it just doesn't pass muster.

Since he doesn't say, I'm left to assume Mr. Boot means predator strikes in Pakistan, and not Afghanistan. These strikes are the product of U.S.-Pakistani coordination spanning two administrations and two regimes in both Washington and Islamabad, respectively. The predators are likely based inside Pakistan, and the strikes are carried out with approval - albeit quiet and reluctant - from Islamabad.

Larison disapproves of the drone strikes, and I certainly won't deny him that right. Personally, I consider them the least bad alternative to a bad policy of prolonged regional occupation. If we're going to maintain a military presence in the region, then we should be targeting specific al-Qaeda-Taliban operatives and taking them out with limited civilian casualties. The drones accomplish this, which is why Pakistani concerns have been less about the civilian casualties involved and more about who gets to pull the trigger.

And there certainly has been debate in the West over these attacks, both public and private ones within the administration itself. Moreover, I cannot think of one pro-drone argument in the last two years that didn't involve a kind of resigned acceptance of the program's relative effectiveness. Who are these predator pom-pom wavers Boot alludes to? Name names, please.

One could go on at length about the differences between drones and Dubai, but let me try to sum it up in one word: sovereignty. What actually makes the drones controversial is the political backlash they create for our allies in Pakistan. Our presence in the country is a shadowy one, and the cost/benefit balance is rather sensitive. Washington views Pakistan as an important ally in an important war, and thus can't do too much to create domestic tensions for said ally. But these are considerations made in conjunction with that government, just as the strikes are ultimately approved and enabled by that government. Just imagine how much harder it would be if Western operatives went into Pakistan, unapproved, and carried out such strikes. The backlash would be both tremendous and justified. Now imagine how the UAE must feel.

The targets in each case may be "morally indistinguishable," but the tactics are not, and that's why Israel - if responsible - is in the wrong here.

(AP Photo)

February 18, 2010

Fighting & Fanning the Flames of Terrorism

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Is the Obama administration working at cross purposes in its battle with Islamic terrorism?

On the one hand, we have U.S. forces battling the Taliban in Helmand Province as part of an overall strategy to stabilize Afghanistan before a U.S. draw down begins in 2011. Thus far, the operation appears successful and is being complimented by a number of high-profile Taliban arrests in cooperation with Pakistan. India and Pakistan are engaged in peace talks. By all appearances, the administration's approach to South Asia is bearing (provisional) fruit.

Yet move to the Middle East and the position looks quite different. The administration failed - spectacularly and publicly - in its early efforts to jump start the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. More importantly, it is moving to bulk up its forward military forces in the region in an effort to contain Iran.

It is a well documented fact that the presence of foreign military forces in the Middle East is a driver of terrorism. American forces stationed in Saudi Arabia to contain Iraq were a staple of al Qaeda propaganda throughout the 1990s so much so that former Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz (hardly one to "blame America") cited their removal as one of the salutary effects of the Iraq invasion (never mind that that move injected orders of magnitude more troops into the region). It would be foolish to believe that the U.S. could undertake a similar buildup to contain Iran and not court the same wrath. But that is what the Obama administration is doing. It is fighting and hopefully winning a tactical battle in Afghanistan (and perhaps more if it does reorient the geopolitics of Pakistan and India) while entrenching the dangerous status quo in the Middle East that has driven Arab jihadists into the Pakistani hinterlands in the first place.

Hopefully the terrorist threat is now small enough that even with the negative dynamic in place in the Middle East we can contain it through intelligence work and homeland security. But such a reactive posture is bound to fail on occasion.

(AP Photo)

February 16, 2010

Dubai Releases "Hit Squad" Video

Two weeks ago a Hamas commander was killed in his hotel room in Dubai. Now the authorities have released CCTV video showing the assassins tracing the man's movements:

The assassins had passports from a variety of European countries and now that their faces have been plastered all over Dubai, the awkward diplomacy begins. Here's the Daily Telegraph:

The Foreign Office was investigating how the identities of six innocent Britons — at least three of whom lived in Israel — came to be used by the alleged hit team...

As police in Dubai released CCTV footage of the suspects yesterday, some of the Britons whose identities were stolen voiced their anger after waking up to discover that they had been named in the plot.

"I have not left Israel for two years and I certainly have not been to Dubai recently," said Kent-born Paul Keeley, 42, a builder who has lived on a Kibbutz in northern Israel for the past 15 years.

"When I first heard about this I immediately looked to make sure my passport was still there and it was. It has not been stolen, so I don’t know what on earth has happened.


I'm obviously in no position to tell what's going on, but it does strike me as extremely problematic to steal an innocent person's identity to carry out an assassination. Of course, there's almost certainly a lot more to this story.

February 9, 2010

Al-Qaeda, Yemen

An unfortunate name for one village in Yemen.

February 8, 2010

DADT and the GWAT

Danny Kaplan, writing on Israeli policy in the pages of Foreign Policy, is puzzled by the American debate over gays in the military:

In Israel, military authorities have kept gay enlistment a minor concern by sticking to a minimal strategy: officially acknowledge the full participation of gays and at the same time ignore them as a group that may require special needs. Gay soldiers do not receive, and do not expect to receive, any special treatment in combat settings. It is simply a non-issue. If the U.S. government will adopt a similar course, it could enjoy not only a more liberal military, but also, perhaps, a more combat-effective one where the focus is on defeating the enemy rather than questioning fellow soldiers.

At a time when Americans are attempting to lead a campaign against terror and foreign dictatorships in the name of democracy, they should be more apprehensive of what is happening in their own military backyard.

I'd rather leave the domestic components of this debate to the Politics side of things, but I can't help but feel that DADT proponents are missing a great opportunity to accentuate the values Americans are fighting for in the so-called Global War Against Terrorism. If such a war does exist on a global scale, and it's indeed a societal conflict, what then does a stated policy of hiding gay servicemen and women say to our enemies about the sincerity of Western values? If radical Islamists advocate the torture of homosexuals in public squares, what then is the Western response?

February 4, 2010

U.S. Views on What Causes Terrorism

Pollster James Zogby takes to the pages of Forbes to highlight some recent data:

Our questions about the motivations of terrorists to attack the U.S. found the right and left with very different perceptions on all of the choices we offered except one, our support for Israel. Fifty-eight percent said it was a significant factor in terrorist motivation, and that percentage varied little across all demographic groups, including political ideology. It was cited somewhat more by First Globals (69%).

Support for Israel ranked third among the seven possible motivations. Here are the results for how many overall thought each was a significant factor:

69% - Resentment of Western power and influence;

58% - Making Islam the world's dominant religion;

58% - Support for Israel;

34% - Death and damage caused by the U.S. military;

32% - Western freedoms;

27% - Poverty;

19% - Psychological disorders.

12% - Others

Zogby goes onto note how widely divergent the views are between Democrats and Republicans:


For example, making Islam dominant was called significant by 84% of Republicans, but only 35% of Democrats. On the impact of casualties caused by our military, 52% of Democrats said it was significant, compared with 11% of Republicans.

It's pretty shocking how widely divergent and politicized these views are. Personally, I don't understand why people insist on creating an "either/or" dynamic with respect to what's driving Islamic terrorism. It's a complicated problem. Why can't it be driven by both a desire to spread a fundamentalist religious belief and as a reaction to military actions that kill Muslims? The interplay of both issues, I think, is at the root of the problem.

January 29, 2010

Tony Blair's 9/11 Defense

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Appearing before the Chilcot Inquiry, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair defended his decision to join the U.S. invasion of Iraq:


Looking greyer than when he was in office, Blair told the inquiry that the British and American view changed "dramatically" after 9/11.

"Here's what changed for me: the whole calculus of risk," he said. "The point about this terrorist act was over 3,000 people had been killed, an absolutely horrific event. But if these people, inspired by this religious fanaticism, could have killed 30,000, they would have [done].

Blair went on to argue that Saddam's WMD program was an intolerable risk after 9/11. This is a fairly common line of argument regarding Iraq but it doesn't hold up logically. What 9/11 demonstrated was precisely the opposite - that no state would dare run the risk of attacking the United States directly, or providing aid to a terrorist group with the purpose of striking such a blow. The only government al Qaeda could count on for any official support was the Taliban and to call them a government is a fairly charitable description.

Al Qaeda proved to be such a lethal menace precisely because it had no state sponsor and no territorial vulnerability. The idea that 9/11 proved that deterrence was futile is erroneous, if anything, 9/11 confirmed that deterrence is still a viable concept, at least when dealing with states.

But there is also an element of the absurd in pointing to Iraq as a potential source of WMD for al Qaeda. Shortly after 9/11, we learned that Pakistani nuclear scientists had met with bin Laden. We learned further that Pakistan's chief nuclear engineer had created an extensive black market peddling nuclear material and blueprints for constructing nuclear weapons. We knew for a fact that Pakistan was a nuclear weapons state, while no one seriously believed that Saddam had a nascent, let alone functional, nuclear program.

If there was any state where one could make a plausible claim about the potential for WMD to be slipped to al Qaeda, it would have been Pakistan, not Iraq.

(AP Photo)

January 27, 2010

Off Shore vs. Counter-Insurgency

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The Washington Post reports:


U.S. military teams and intelligence agencies are deeply involved in secret joint operations with Yemeni troops who in the past six weeks have killed scores of people, among them six of 15 top leaders of a regional al-Qaeda affiliate, according to senior administration officials.

The operations, approved by President Obama and begun six weeks ago, involve several dozen troops from the U.S. military's clandestine Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), whose main mission is tracking and killing suspected terrorists. The American advisers do not take part in raids in Yemen, but help plan missions, develop tactics and provide weapons and munitions. Highly sensitive intelligence is being shared with the Yemeni forces, including electronic and video surveillance, as well as three-dimensional terrain maps and detailed analysis of the al-Qaeda network.

This is, in rough outline, what George Will, Robert Pape and others had advocated for Afghanistan as an alternative to nation building. I guess we're going to get a real life experiment in which is the most effective.

(AP Photo)

January 26, 2010

Bin Laden & the Palestinians

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Osama Bin Laden's recent invocation of the Palestinian's plight has led a number of people (Bruce Riedel, Marc Lynch, Daniel Larison, among others) to argue that this underscores the need to bring the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to a conclusion and deny al Qaeda a potent propaganda tool. Here's Matt Duss:


Failure to move the parties toward a just resolution hurts U.S. credibility in the region, and constantly refills a propaganda well from which our enemies continue to draw.

And Andrew Sullivan:


It would not remove or emasculate the more irredentist factions, the Qaeda core, the Saudi nutjobs, and the Mumbai maniacs. But it would help shift the paradigm in which they can use the daily humiliations of Arabs in the West Bank or the horror of the Gaza attack as ways to move the Muslim middle.

There are numerous problems with this approach, starting with the pretty obvious point that none of the relevant parties are interested in making peace. The U.S. has demonstrated, for decades, that it is unable (or unwilling) to bring the two parties to a settlement and the Obama administration has just provided us with a case study in the futility of trying. No matter where you place blame for this state of affairs, the fact of the matter is that the U.S. has not been able to bridge the gap between the Israelis and Palestinians and nothing about the current peace process overseen by George Mitchell should give us any confidence that this is about to change.

But I think the focus on trying to end the conflict is looking at the problem the wrong way. For the United States, the basic issue is not the lack of peace - there are lots of places around the world that are not at peace but are nonetheless not a source of anti-American propaganda and jihadist recruitment. Rather, it is our involvement in the conflict that is ultimately the issue.

At the end of the day the U.S. has a limited ability to control what the Israelis and Palestinians do. But we can control what we do. If we are seriously concerned that sustained hostilities pose a direct threat to our security (and many people obviously don't believe this), then it seems to me the more sensible thing to do is to disentangle ourselves from the mess and not try in vain to clean it up.

(AP Photo)

January 12, 2010

How Does This End?

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The Cable's Josh Rogin passes along a report from the State Department that warns that Yemen, Somalia, Nigeria could be the next terrorist safe haven:

As the United States widens its understanding of the terrorism threat to include countries like Yemen and Somalia, its neighbor across the Gulf of Aden, the State Department inspector general's office is warning about another potential breeding ground for insurgents: Nigeria.

Of course, the underwear bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab hailed from there, but his case is seen as an aberration because he grew up in the most advantageous of circumstances. But according to a new report made public Monday, Nigeria is at risk of becoming the same type of breeding ground for violent extremism that America is now battling in so many other places around the globe.

As many people have said repeatedly, you could break the back of al Qaeda in Af-Pak and still have a global terrorism problem on your hands.

Perhaps more importantly, as Matthew Yglesias intimates, we've now defined our national security interests in such a way that we cannot feel secure in the world so long as their are pockets of insecurity anywhere. That is not a rational view of defense but paranoia. Unfortunately, it's a view promoted as assiduously by progressives - including the Obama administration - as neoconservatives.

It's also worth asking just how much more expensive it would be to eschew global nation building and instead invest the money in developing an energy economy that does not rely overwhelmingly on petroleum.Having influence over the Middle East is great and all, but in a world where the U.S. economy wouldn't grind to a halt without oil, I don't see a lot of downsides to letting China enjoy the fun of wielding influence in the region.

(AP Photos)

January 11, 2010

Applying COIN to the Global War on Terrorism

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In an interview with Der Spiegel, General Stanley McChrystal lays out the general theme of counter-insurgency:

At the end of the day, a counter-insurgency is decided by people's perceptions and by how people feel. I think any war like this is not a battle between material. It's not about destroying the enemy's cities. It's not even about destroying their army, their fighters. You have to weaken the insurgency. But it's really about convincing the people that they want it to stop and they ultimately will. The most effective way for us to operate is to be really good and effective partners with our Afghan counterparts, because it's not a technical problem, it's a human problem.

I think McChrystal is correct here. But what's troubling is that Washington has not extrapolated this understanding to the global war on terrorism. After all, al Qaeda is reportedly in 60 countries. The failed Christmas Day bomber was a Nigerian, schooled in London and equipped in Yemen. The threat we face is global in nature and while we've embraced counter-insurgency doctrine in one theater, we seem to be indifferent to its precepts in others:


For now, however, the U.S. has chosen to meet the global threat of Islamic radicalism with what some would dub (in the Afghan context) a "narrow counter-terrorism" approach. We use intelligence to pick off al-Qaeda operatives on the battlefield, or police and investigative work to derail plots already set in motion, while mostly ignoring the psychological and political milieu from which radicalization occurs. To date, though, such an approach has been fairly effective. Terrorists have managed to kill scores in Europe (Madrid and London) but have yet to reprise a 9/11-scale atrocity inside the United States.

While al-Qaeda is infamously known for spacing its attacks out over several years, it has also been faced with unprecedented pressure since 9/11. U.S. and allied efforts may have permanently crippled al-Qaeda's ability to launch mass casualty attacks on American interests. (Of course, if that's true, it would severely undermine the counter-insurgent's case for a stepped up commitment to Afghanistan). On the other hand, we may simply be in a lull before the next massacre.

Unfortunately, we won't know until it's too late.

What we do know is that technology will only advance, allowing smaller groups of individuals to perpetrate ever more lethal attacks. The Internet ensures that even if physical safe havens such as Afghanistan become inhospitable, like-minded holy warriors can still find support and perhaps technical training in "virtual safe havens." We know too that while targeted military action and investigative work can yield tactical successes, America could well remain behind the strategic curve if broad swaths of the Middle East or pockets of Western Europe's Muslim community remains sympathetic to bin Laden's narrative.

Ironically - while there is a broad cross-section of elite opinion willing to countenance a truly massive investment in Afghanistan to win ordinary Afghans away from the Taliban - there is scant discussion, much less the political will, to embark on a strategic reorientation of America's Middle East policy and apply some basic precepts of counter-insurgency to that wellspring of jihadism.

(AP Photos)

January 8, 2010

The Garrison State

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David Shorr makes a good point regarding President Obama's insistence that America won't "hunker down" in the face of the jihadist threat:


The policy questions have to do with the dangers of making ourselves a garrison state; as a matter of political worldview, it has to do with how the terrorists ("THEM") loom in our consciousness. When it comes down to it, the essence of Cheneyism is that you can never overstate the threat from the terrorists, never be too dark in your assmptions, never do too much to counter them.

What's interesting here is that for decades now, Washington has (at least partially) justified an interventionist foreign policy as vital to avoid turning America into a garrison state. The idea was that we would erect a "defense in depth" and intervene abroad to forestall developments which could, eventually, close off the world to the United States and thus force a change in the American way of life.

But now a lethal, transnationalist terrorist group is bringing us the Garrison State through the back door.

When an earlier era generation of policy-makers were confronted with the prospects of the Garrison State, they oriented American foreign policy in such a way to avoid that. Clearly, the threat today pales in comparison to the international threats of the 1930s and 1940s, so a similarly sweeping change is almost certainly not going to happen.

Instead, as Shorr implies, we're going to have to learn to live with terrorism as a persistent feature of our society.

(AP Photos)

January 4, 2010

Admitting You Have a Problem

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Stephen Walt sounds off on the crotch-bomber:

Second, most of the commentary about the attack focused on the breakdown in security procedures and possible intelligence failures, but for me the real issue is to ask why groups like al Qaeda want to attack us in the first place. With a few exceptions, this is a question that rarely gets much scrutiny anymore; pundits just assume "terrorists" are inherently evil and that’s why they do evil things. (And some American extremists recommend that suspects like the Gitmo detainees be summarily executed without trial. I kid you not). But we really do need to spend some time asking why terrorists are targeting us, and whether we could alleviate (though not eliminate) the problem by adjusting some aspects of U.S. foreign policy.

In particular, I'm struck by the inability of most Americans to connect the continued risk of global terrorism with America's highly interventionist global policy. One can have a serious debate about whether that policy is the right one or not; my point is that we are kidding ourselves if we think we can behave this way and remain immune from any adverse consequences.

This is a point I've harped on as well and it's important to emphasize that the "most Americans" Walt refers to also includes senior officials in the previous and current administrations responsible for counter-terrorism policy. From Peter Baker's big piece in the Times today:

And so perhaps the biggest change Obama has made is what one former adviser calls the “mood music” — choice of language, outreach to Muslims, rhetorical fidelity to the rule of law and a shift in tone from the all-or-nothing days of the Bush administration. He is committed to taking aggressive actions to disrupt terrorist cells, aides said, but he also considers his speech in Cairo to the Islamic world in June central to his efforts to combat terrorism. “If you asked him what are the most important things he’s done to fight terrorism in his first year, he would put Cairo in the top three,” Rahm Emanuel, his chief of staff, told me....

....Yet even some of the Bush appointees were ready for change, appealing to Obama to revamp the struggle. “Mr. President-elect, we’re doing things very well, but we’re losing the messaging war,” Michael Leiter, the director of the National Counterterrorism Center, told him a week after the election, according to an official informed about the session. A significant share of the global population thought America was at war against the rest of the world, Leiter maintained. “You have an opportunity to change that message, to change how the struggle is perceived,” he said.

Obama was receptive to that mandate. “We’re going to do that,” he replied....

The entire subtext of the Obama administration argument is that the principle U.S. policies that catalyze Islamic terrorism were implemented circa 2001. True, those policies poured gasoline on the fire, but the fire was burning before George W. Bush took office. The kindling was American support for autocratic Middle Eastern governments, its support for Israel, and stationing of combat forces in the Middle East. Combine that with Islamic fundamentalism and you have the combustion that is the global terrorist threat. It is frankly delusional to think that a mere speech, however well intentioned, can suppress these flames.

The basic problem, as Walt eludes to, is that Washington has zero interest in re-examining these policies in light of the terrorist threat associated with them. And so instead we pretend that the two are fundamentally disconnected. It's not a matter of American policy making people angry, the Obama administration seems to be saying, it's a matter of them not understanding American intentions. We're "losing the messaging war" - and so a good speech can shore things up.

This mindset is not only patronizing to its intended subjects in the Arab and Muslim world, it's patronizing to Americans.

What the Obama administration cannot, apparently, do, is have an adult conversation with the American people about U.S. policy in the Middle East. Why not simply say that on balance the threat from international terrorism is a small price to pay to maintain American hegemony in the Middle East? It's what they obviously believe. And not without merit - American hegemony not only contributes to oil's safe transit to world markets but ensures that other states - particularly potential competitors such as China - have to rely on America to keep the flow going, thus giving us crucial leverage in the zero-sum world of international politics. They could argue that the costs imposed on the U.S. by terrorism are less than those that would result from a policy change in the Middle East. Given the mix of motivations that propel someone to actually become a terrorist, they could also argue that the causal links between American policy and Islamic terrorism are so diffuse (and the problem already so widespread) that an American policy change at this late stage wouldn't even work to reduce the threat.

None of that would be very difficult for President Obama, who is, if nothing else, an effective communicator. But instead, this is all ignored in favor of a self-serving and infantilizing narrative that it's all a big misunderstanding - that we have a "communications" problem.

(AP Photos)

Through a Partisan Haze

Former Bush administration homeland security official Frances Townsend offers her take on how to handle the burgeoning jihadist threat from Yemen:

The Obama administration needs to take a clear, tough line with Yemen: Take care of the terrorism problem within your borders so you are no longer a threat to the United States and our allies in the region, or allow the international community to come in and clean it up for you. The time for polite diplomacy is long past.

Matthew Yglesias isn't impressed:

But is excessive politeness really the reason Barack Obama hasn’t threatened a full-scale invasion of Yemen unless the Yemeni government undertakes unspecified measures to “take care of the terrorist problem”?

It seems to me that just 18 months ago the President was one George W Bush, a discredited and unpopular figure who liked to go out of his way to be rude to foreign countries, and even there these tactics weren’t being employed. Why? Well because when the right was in power a “Yemen hawk” inside the administration would have had to say what, exactly, she wanted done and what the risks and tradeoffs might be. But from an out of power perspective, it’s party time. On to Yemen!

While this is unquestionably true, I don't think sketching out maximalist "solutions" has anything to do with being a "hawk" per-se but being a partisan operative. If you are primarily motivated by a desire to wound political opponents, position yourself for a future job in an administration or protect your legacy, you will make arguments in the fashion that Townsend does above. (And in her defense, the format was not the place for a long discourse on "what should be done with Yemen." Perhaps her specific ideas have a lot more merit than a few paragraphs can reveal.)

We saw this with much of the Democratic party and Afghanistan in the 2008 election. There was a lot of enthusiasm for fighting on the "central front" of the war on terrorism when it was convenient to burnish Obama's Commander in Chief credentials. When it came to actually making the decision, there was considerably less enthusiasm for a troop surge. Ditto Sudan, where there was a lot of tough talk before the Obama administration took office about stopping the genocide, and not much since.

Partisanship puts demands on our foreign policy debate that are hard for the subject to bear: it reduces complexities to Manichean certainties and it offers easy solutions to problems that can't be solved - and that's when it's not being blatantly dishonest. There's no escaping it, it's just the way the political incentives work.

January 3, 2010

The Point of Terrorism

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Mark LeVine reminds us that terrorism is asymmetric warfare:

Think about it. One angry young man with about three ounces (around 80 grams) of explosive material, $2,000, and a pair of specially tailored underwear has completely disrupted the US aviation system.

It does not even matter that he failed to blow up the plane.

The costs associated with preventing the next attack from succeeding will measure in the tens of billions of dollars - new technologies, added law enforcement and security personnel on and off planes, lost revenues for airline companies and more expensive plane tickets, and of course, the expansion of the 'war on terror' full on to yet another country, Yemen.

And what happens when the next attacker turns out to have received ideological or logistical training in yet another country? Perhaps in Nigeria, which is home to a strong and violent Salafi movement, or anyone of a dozen other African, Gulf, Middle Eastern or South East Asian countries where al-Qaeda has set up shop?

Will the US ramp up its efforts in a new country each time there is an attempted attack, putting US "boots on the ground" against an enemy that is impossible to defeat?

Such a policy would fulfill al-Qaeda's wildest dreams, as the US suffers death by a thousand cuts, bleeding out in an ever wider web of interconnected and unsustainable global conflicts.

If the Obama administration wants to win the war on terrorism, it seems a good first step is to not play into our enemy's hands.

(AP Photos)