Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

September 11, 2014

What the President said about evil and counterterrorism

Filed under: Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Philip J. Palin on September 11, 2014

Thirteen years ago this morning nineteen young men carried out a horrific attack on the United States.

The 911 Commission wrote it “was a day of unprecedented shock and suffering.”

Our shock might have been less if we had given greater collective attention to a range of precursor events, including the October 2000 attack on the USS Cole, the 1998 East Africa embassy bombings,  the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, the Bojinka plots of the early 1990s.

If — most of us would say, when — we are attacked again we may suffer as much, but it will not be a shock.

Last evening the President of the United States spoke to us for a bit more than thirteen minutes.  He explained that we will, once again, take action in Iraq — and this time in Syria too — to preempt another attack here at home.

Here are two aspects of the President’s message worth highlighting, especially for those with a particular interest in homeland security.  Each serve to frame the President’s strategic understanding — accurate or not — regarding the threat at hand.  Last night the President said,

… we continue to face a terrorist threat.  We can’t erase every trace of evil from the world, and small groups of killers have the capacity to do great harm.  That was the case before 9/11, and that remains true today.  And that’s why we must remain vigilant as threats emerge.  At this moment, the greatest threats come from the Middle East and North Africa, where radical groups exploit grievances for their own gain.  And one of those groups is ISIL — which calls itself the “Islamic State.”

Please notice the problem originates with evil in the world.  The problem is set-in-motion by small groups (plural) of killers. The problem is amplified by the ability of these small groups to manipulate unjust situations for their evil purposes.

Yesterday I heard John Brennan, the CIA director, call ISIL “evil incarnate.”  The President also said, “ISIL is a terrorist organization, pure and simple.  And it has no vision other than the slaughter of all who stand in its way.”

Our current problem-focus is only one of many such groups.  We ought expect that whatever our success in this case, there will be future cases requiring our response.

The President outlined a multilateral, collaborative, and regionally-oriented approach that involves both US leadership and considerable, even preconditional, US restraint.  All of this is worth further analysis.  I will let foreign policy and national security bloggers, reporters and pundits do most of this.

For our purposes the second aspect worth particular attention is when the President said, “Our objective is clear:  We will degrade, and ultimately destroy, ISIL through a comprehensive and sustained counterterrorism strategy.”

He might have offered the same operational descriptions without applying the label.  The label is important.

To really hear last night’s meaning, we need to study the speech given at West Point on May 28.  In those more extended remarks the President said,

For the foreseeable future, the most direct threat to America at home and abroad remains terrorism. But a strategy that involves invading every country that harbors terrorist networks is naïve and unsustainable.  I believe we must shift our counterterrorism strategy — drawing on the successes and shortcomings of our experience in Iraq and Afghanistan — to more effectively partner with countries where terrorist networks seek a foothold.

And the need for a new strategy reflects the fact that today’s principal threat no longer comes from a centralized al Qaeda leadership.  Instead, it comes from decentralized al Qaeda affiliates and extremists, many with agendas focused in countries where they operate.  And this lessens the possibility of large-scale 9/11-style attacks against the homeland, but it heightens the danger of U.S. personnel overseas being attacked, as we saw in Benghazi.  It heightens the danger to less defensible targets, as we saw in a shopping mall in Nairobi.

So we have to develop a strategy that matches this diffuse threat — one that expands our reach without sending forces that stretch our military too thin, or stir up local resentments.  We need partners to fight terrorists alongside us… Our actions should meet a simple test: We must not create more enemies than we take off the battlefield.

What we are hearing and beginning to see is the most dramatic execution yet of this “comprehensive and sustained” CT strategy. It has already been unfolding in Yemen, Somalia, Mali and elsewhere.  I perceive it has important — and to date, not much discussed — domestic corollaries.

Evil persists.  Small groups caught up in evil can do great harm.  Terrorist potential is amplified by authentic injustice, oppression, and grievance.  We ought take care that our response does not gratuitously inflame this potential.  But we are called to act, as best we can, against sources of evil.

If this is true in Raqqa, is it true in Rockford?  If it is true in Mosul, is it true in Memphis?

In another post — or more than one — it is worth thinking together about the accuracy of this worldview. Is it helpful?  Is it skillful?  But this is what I have heard.  What about you?

September 10, 2014

Preparing to listen to the President

Filed under: Radicalization,Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Philip J. Palin on September 10, 2014

Raqqa_Rump Map

At 9PM Eastern tonight — Wednesday, September 10 — the President is scheduled to outline plans to engage a radical religiously-inspired insurgency sometimes known as Islamic State (IS) or Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) or the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).

The confusing labels reflect a fractured reality.  I am inclined to call it the Raqqa Rump.  The wanna-be capital of the self-styled caliphate is at Raqqa (Syria).  As you know, I have a weakness for alliteration.  And the phrase signals my own view of their fundamental character.

To better hear what is being said — and not said — by the President, following is some background.

The BBC provides an overview of the group.

The Telegraph provides another summary.

Back in June START generated a fact-sheet that situates my Raqqa Rump among other terrorists, insurgents, freedom-fighters, violent extemists… whatever.

On August 27 the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point published an analysis of the current military-political context in Syria and Northern Iraq.

On Saturday (September 6) a Chatham House middle east expert published a thoughtful commentary in The Guardian.

Some further analysis and commentary from the Rand Corporation.

British Prime Minister Cameron has warned that ISIL, especially potential British returnees from the fighting along the Euphrates, are a direct threat to British and European security.  In a mid-August commentary, the Prime Minister painted a rather nightmarish picture:

We are in the middle of a generational struggle against a poisonous and extremist ideology, which I believe we will be fighting for the rest of my political lifetime. We face in Isil a new threat that is single-minded, determined and unflinching in pursuit of its objectives. Already it controls not just thousands of minds, but thousands of square miles of territory, sweeping aside much of the boundary between Iraq and Syria to carve out its so-called caliphate. It makes no secret of its expansionist aims. Even today it has the ancient city of Aleppo firmly within its sights. And it boasts of its designs on Jordan and Lebanon, and right up to the Turkish border. If it succeeds, we would be facing a terrorist state on the shores of the Mediterranean and bordering a Nato member. This is a clear danger to Europe and to our security. It is a daunting challenge.

The immediate implications for the United States posed by those claiming Raqqa as home are a bit more ambivalent.  Obviously they are a deadly threat to any Americans they encounter in Syria or Iraq.  There has also been talk of attacks on the United States.  Some number of Americans have made a pilgrimage — horribly misguided summer break? — to Raqqa.  The numbers are estimated at between a dozen and hundreds.

There is an intent to hit the US.  There is some level of capability.  The so-called caliphate’s extra-regional capacity is, however, not thought by most informed observers to be significant — at least not yet.  Strong action now is intended to be effectively preemptive.

But whatever the reality in and around Raqqa, an opinion survey conducted last weekend found a significant majority of Americans perceive a clear and present danger.  “Seventy-one (71) percent of respondents said that members of the militant group ISIL have the capability and resources to carry out terrorists plots in the U.S. The same poll found that 53 percent of those interviewed are “very concerned” about the threat ISIL poses to national security, while 34 percent are “somewhat concerned.””

As noted in a previous HLSWatch post, the President has recently determined to “degrade and destroy” the current threat of “systemic and broad-based aggression” by the group.  The US delegation left last week’s NATO summit with several commitments to support such an effort. Later today we should hear more about why and how.

Prime Minister Cameron is not alone among European leaders in his concern.  Tuesday the editor-in-chief of Deutsche Weld argued:

The “Islamic State” (IS) does not have to be contained. It has to be destroyed: militarily at first, but then politically, by breaking the allure of jihadism and drying up the sympathy for it. Foremost, the IS terror militia has to be fought. As if of their own accord, expectant eyes have turned to the United States for that task – and then to the entire West. NATO has, in any case, established a ten-party coalition of the willing to combat IS forces.

(Approximately 400 Germans are estimated to currently be fighting in Syria and potentially in Northern Iraq.)

On Sunday during a Meet The Press interview President Obama emphasized that the mission against the Raqqa Rump would depend on ground forces from the region — principally Iraqi military, Kurdish peshmerga and perhaps the Free Syrian Army — supported by an international coalition including Anglo-American air power.

The tactical/operational implications of Sunday’s decision by the Arab League to confront ISIS are not clear, at least to me.  A Thursday summit scheduled for Jeddah may be clarifying.

SecDef Hagel has been in Turkey for consultations.  Other than Iraqi Shias and Kurds, the Turks are probably the most important regional partner in the anti-Raqqa coalition.  So far Turkey’s involvement sounds rather restrained. (More)

It is not at all clear how Iraqi or other Sunnis will respond to this international intervention.  Ultimately it is their response that is likely to determine if this is all just another tactical clash or something more strategically significant: positive or negative.

Secretary Kerry has arrived in Baghdad.  It is not clear the new — still incomplete — Iraqi government can earn any credibility with Sunnis (or even the Kurds).  Much may depend on the radicals from Raqqa becoming so offensive as to generate (temporary) common-cause among various Iraqi factions. This is, after all, the same group that AQ-core considers crazy.

But what should be very clear is that neither the tactical nor strategic horizon is clear at all.

Homeland security will be a leading justification for expanded operations in Iraq and presumably Syria.  The immediate threat to the United States will probably, if anything, be slightly increased by more robust US engagement.  Our renewed military operations along the Euphrates and Tigris will increase the desire of some to directly target the United States.

Longer-term disruption and deterrence of attacks on Western targets depends a great deal on how the military operation and its consequences are perceived by a wildly incoherent — and so-far really rather small — cross-section of disaffected, often casually religious, volatile, violently-inclined young men in the region, in Europe, and here in the United States.

Late afternoon Tuesday the President met with Congressional leadership at the White House to discuss US military options.  According to The Hill, “None of the four leaders present in the meeting mentioned the need for congressional action following the meeting, nor did they offer many clues as to what new strategy elements Obama might announce.”

It is also worth noting that while we are — necessarily — focusing a great deal of attention on Raqqa and related, the situation in Afghanistan, Libya, and possibly in Yemen seems to be reaching a critical juncture.

Some analysis of this context — and the President’s message — here on Thursday morning… I’m not promising by when.

September 9, 2014

Brush with national preparedness month

Filed under: Preparedness and Response — by Christopher Bellavita on September 9, 2014

The Yellow Point Fire is one of the fires burning in Oregon today.  It’s about 25 miles from where I live. The Oregon Department of Forestry (ODF) is doing a good job keeping people affected by this comparatively small fire aware of what’s going on. It is also posting information on a blog , Facebook,  and Twitter. The information helps people like me who want to know what’s going on.  It also got my wife to finally see the value of using Twitter. Maybe more importantly, the ODF social network efforts help the families of the people fighting the fires know what their family members are doing.

None of this is remarkable. In less than a decade, social media is as integral a part of disaster response as, well…responders.

My family is in three different parts of the country this week.  Since September is National Preparedness Month, the fire reminded me maybe it was time to review my family communication plan.  I did that and discovered I actually did not have a family communication plan.  I had one “in theory.” But not in reality.

I found this DHS website and advice  basic, succinct and helpful.

Identify a contact such as a friend or relative who lives out-of-state for household members to notify they are safe. It may be easier to make a long-distance phone call than to call across town, so an out-of-town contact may be in a better position to communicate among separated family members. 

Be sure every member of your family knows the phone number and has a cell phone, coins or a prepaid phone card to call the emergency contact. If you have a cell phone, program that person(s) as “ICE” (In Case of Emergency) in your phone. If you are in an accident, emergency personnel will often check your ICE listings in order to get a hold of someone you know. Make sure to tell your family and friends that you’ve listed them as emergency contacts.

Teach family members how to use text messaging (also known as SMS or Short Message Service). Text messages can often get around network disruptions when a phone call might not be able to get through.

Although I should have known about the other homeland security “ICE”, I didn’t.  I do now, however. My family also has a written emergency communication plan.

Thanks, Ready.gov

September 5, 2014

Friday Free Forum

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Philip J. Palin on September 5, 2014

On this day in 1996 Hurricane Fran comes ashore killing 27 and causing over $3 billion in damages.

On this day in 1666 the Great Fire of London is brought to a close.  Over 10,000 buildings were destroyed.  Fewer than ten people are thought to have died.

On this day in 1972 the Black September terrorist group attacks the Munich Olympics taking hostage Israeli athletes and coaches.  Eleven of the hostages, one German police officer, and five members of Black September would eventually be killed.

What’s on your mind related to homeland security?

September 4, 2014

Proactively managing a chronic condition

Filed under: Radicalization,Strategy,Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Philip J. Palin on September 4, 2014

A decade ago the Afghanistan mission was seen as giving a possibly moribund post-cold war NATO new relevance, scope, and purpose.

At a summit meeting today and tomorrow NATO will consider a scheduled withdrawal from a still-divided, dysfunctional, and vulnerable Afghanistan, endeavor to respond effectively to Russian aggression in Ukraine, and review a deteriorating international security environment across wide areas of North Africa and the Near East.

While the current threat may be less existential, I perceive Europe has not confronted an equally complex security context since perhaps 1949. The implications for the United States are also complicated and multi-layered.

Yesterday — on his way to the NATO summit — the President met with his Lithuanian, Estonian, and Latvian peers in Tallinn. These three Baltic states constitute the Northeastern frontier of the alliance.

Given the venue (Tallinn is 230 miles from St. Petersburg, 650 miles from Moscow, and 780 miles from Kiev), the President’s formal remarks needed to focus mostly on the Russian threat. Given the reality of this threat — and the institutional DNA of the alliance — today’s NATO consultations are also likely to be dominated by Putin’s provocations.

But Wednesday afternoon (local time) the President answered reporters questions on how NATO might take up what is happening just outside the southeastern corner of the alliance. Here are his most extended comments:

Even before ISIL dominated the headlines, one of the concerns that we have had is the development of terrorist networks and organizations, separate and apart from al Qaeda, whose focus oftentimes is regional and who are combining terrorist tactics with the tactics of small armies. And we’ve seen ISIS to be the first one that has broken through, but we anticipated this awhile back and it was reflected in my West Point speech.

So one of our goals is to get NATO to work with us to help create the kinds of partnerships regionally that can combat not just ISIL, but these kinds of networks as they arise and potentially destabilize allies and partners of ours in the region.

Already we’ve seen NATO countries recognize the severity of this problem, that it is going to be a long-run problem. Immediately, they’ve dedicated resources to help us with humanitarian airdrops, to provide arms to the Peshmerga and to the Iraqi security forces. And we welcome those efforts. What we hope to do at the NATO Summit is to make sure that we are more systematic about how we do it, that we’re more focused about how we do it.

NATO is unique in the annals of history as a successful alliance. But we have to recognize that threats evolve, and threats have evolved as a consequence of what we’ve seen in Ukraine, but threats are also evolving in the Middle East that have a direct effect on Europe… We know that if we are joined by the international community, we can continue to shrink ISIL’s sphere of influence, its effectiveness, its financing, its military capabilities to the point where it is a manageable problem. And the question is going to be making sure we’ve got the right strategy, but also making sure that we’ve got the international will to do it. This is something that is a continuation of a problem we’ve seen certainly since 9/11, but before. And it continues to metastasize in different ways.

And what we’ve got to do is make sure that we are organizing the Arab world, the Middle East, the Muslim world along with the international community to isolate this cancer, this particular brand of extremism that is, first and foremost, destructive to the Muslim world and the Arab world and North Africa, and the people who live there. They’re the ones who are most severely affected. They’re the ones who are constantly under threat of being killed. They’re the ones whose economies are completely upended to the point where they can’t produce their own food and they can’t produce the kinds of goods and services to sell in the world marketplace. And they’re falling behind because of this very small and narrow, but very dangerous, segment of the population. And we’ve got to combat it in a sustained, effective way. And I’m confident we’re going to be able to do that.

The foregoing sets-out the institutional (NATO) and international (North African and Near Eastern) context.  Action is signaled.  But in terms of US strategic objectives for actions taken within this context, I found the following comments from earlier in the press conference to be most helpful:

Our objective is to make sure that ISIL is not an ongoing threat to the region.  And we can accomplish that. It’s going to take some time and it’s going to take some effort. As we’ve seen with al Qaeda, there are always going to be remnants that can cause havoc of any of these networks, in part because of the nature of terrorist activities.  You get a few individuals, and they may be able to carry out a terrorist act.

But what we can do is to make sure that the kind of systemic and broad-based aggression that we’ve seen out of ISIL that terrorizes primarily Muslims, Shia, Sunni — terrorizes Kurds, terrorizes not just Iraqis, but people throughout the region, that that is degraded to the point where it is no longer the kind of factor that we’ve seen it being over the last several months.

We will shrink it.  We will degrade it.  We will over-time and with deliberate effort eliminate its capacity for systematic and broad-based aggression. We can reduce it to a manageable problem. But there are always going to be remnants that can cause havoc. The threat of violent extremism will continue to metastasize for the foreseeable future. New groups — new “its” — will emerge.  The long-term solution will arise — or not — within the host cultures, within Arab and Muslim and other social constructs.  Working with a broad alliance of committed and mobilized partners we can mostly contain the threat to us. We will try to facilitate more creative engagement of the problem by locals. But it is beyond the capacity of the United States alone to solve this problem. It will continue to be with us for a long time. We will continue to be targeted and sometimes they will hit us where it hurts.

Perhaps the President cannot — ought not — be quite as clear as the previous paragraph. Though he seems clear enough.  Isn’t this a reasonable “translation” of what he is saying? Isn’t this consistent with prior comments and behavior?

His tone is more reminiscent of Eisenhower’s farewell than Kennedy’s inaugural.  More inclined to elusive balance than heroic gesture.

If my paragraph accurately channels the President, doesn’t this authoritatively frame the counter-terrorism element of the homeland security mission?  Certainly it would communicate a current commander’s intent.  It also seems — to me — to effectively describe the strategic reality.

–+–

Today’s Times of London (paywall) has published a joint op-ed by Prime Minister Cameron and President Obama. (Draft available at Prime Minister’s website.)  Reflecting the themes suggested above, here is one of their –no doubt, carefully vetted — paragraphs.

We know that terrorist organisations thrive where there is political instability and weak or dysfunctional political institutions. So we must invest in the building blocks of free and open societies, including the creation of a new genuinely inclusive Government in Iraq that can unite all Iraqis, including Sunni, Shia, Kurdish, Christian and other minority populations. When the threats to our security increasingly emanate from outside the borders of our Alliance, we must do more to build partnerships with others around the globe who share our values and want to build a safe, tolerant and peaceful world – that includes supporting the partners who are taking the fight to ISIL on the ground, as we have done by stepping up support for Kurdish and Iraqi Security Forces. And we should use our expertise to provide training and mentoring to forces elsewhere, whether in Georgia or the Middle East, strengthening the capacity of forces there to tackle local threats.

September 3, 2014

DC Event: “Lessons in Resiliency from the Civilian Front in Israel: Operation Protective Edge”

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Arnold Bogis on September 3, 2014

Just a heads up. If you are in the DC area, this Friday, September 5, the George Washington University’s Homeland Security Policy Institute is hosting an event on Israeli lessons for resilience:

Featuring Meir Elran of the Institute for National Security Studies, Tel Aviv, who will discuss the successful resilience demonstrated by the Israeli civilian front during Operation Protective Edge. Elran will discuss the factors which contributed to this success and how they are applicability to future threats including active and passive defense, the performance of the IDF Home Front Command and local government as well as public reactions and conduct during emergencies.

If interested, you can RSVP here: http://events.r20.constantcontact.com/register/event?oeidk=a07e9qapd2m6c713350&llr=mysjo9cab

I’d like to expect the best, but I fear that ultimately the Boston Marathon bombing response will come up.  Through the Israeli lens, closing down the city in an attempt to apprehend the suspects was the wrong thing to do. Yet the difference in experience is rarely brought up in terms of lessons learned.

The Israeli experience included a campaign of terrorist attacks on a temporal scale the U.S. hasn’t seen.  Combined with a small geographic area the effort to minimize the impact on the community in Israel took a very problem-specific approach.  However, that does not mean that it will or should work in the U.S.  Conditions are different.  Social constructs and relations with government at all levels is different.  What appears to be foolish choices by U.S. authorities in the minds of Israeli officials can actually be quite efficient and appropriate to the American context.

That is long way around to saying that at this particular event if the idea that Bostonians are less resilient for the actions of one particular Friday then the speaker in question HAS NO IDEA OF WHAT HE HIS TALKING ABOUT.

And I stand by that statement.  Friends in Boston kept living their lives during that period and in fact look upon that Friday as an event that brought the community even closer together.

Boston is stronger due to the choices made during that eventful week. I hope voices forged in a different fire do not influence what should be perceived as a victory here at home.

September 2, 2014

On climate change, TSA medications, bitcoin, hackers, social media, cell phones and the future

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Christopher Bellavita on September 2, 2014

Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (interesting name) tries to bring rationality and evidence into a senate climate change debate this summer by using data to counter another senator’s alternative reality. But to no avail. The Senate did not take a position on the question of whether climate change threatens the nation.

Is TSA confiscating medications? The TSA News blog (which points out that it is not affiliated with TSA) describes confusion about how nitroglycerin pills and other medication is treated by screeners.

Big Think  goes against the mainstream bitcoin current and offers one man’s reasons why bit coin may be the best form of money we have ever seen.

Security Watch unscientifically surveyed some hackers trying to learn why they did what they did. Few of them hack for monetary reasons. Most do it because they are bored. Almost 90 percent of the hackers think their own personal information is at risk. As far as I could tell, no terrorists or state-sponsored hackers were included in the survey.

On the Homefront notes that DHS’ Science and Technology directorate is looking for  ideas about what the future might look like. The public is asked

to ponder and think of solutions to questions such as, “Based on what we know today, what do you think the homeland security environment will look like in 20 to 30 years? What challenges will DHS components, responders, and our other end users face? How should the homeland security community change in order to best respond to these challenges? What should S&T plan for now to ensure the nation is more resilient and secure in the future?”

Small Wars Journal  points readers to J.M. Berger’s list of “ten things you need to know about reporting on terrorists on social media.”  Number 7: Random people tweeting specific threats is not [ISIS] making specific threats against America.

Bruce Schneier worries about the unintended side effects of California’s mandatory cell phone kill switch law .

“The law raises concerns about how the switch might be used or abused, because it also provides law enforcement with the authority to use the feature to kill phones. And any feature accessible to consumers and law enforcement could be accessible to hackers, who might use it to randomly kill phones for kicks or revenge, or to perpetrators of crimes who might—depending on how the kill switch is implemented—be able to use it to prevent someone from calling for help.”

The Scientific American investigates how hot the 2014 US summer was. Was it hotter than average? Colder? About in the middle? The answer is . . . yes….

Apparently looking at temperatures for a single year doesn’t tell you much. According to the people at Scientific American the warming trend the U.S. Senate can’t agree about is only obvious when you look at lots of years, like 100: http://www.climatecentral.org/news/the-heat-is-on

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