Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

September 27, 2012

Remembering our mission

Filed under: International HLS,Legal Issues,Strategy — by Philip J. Palin on September 27, 2012

I am in New York for a few days.  I arrived Wednesday for private sector meetings on supply chain resilience, catastrophe preparedness, and related. The city is packed for the opening of the United Nations.

When I checked in the guy in front of me asked the desk clerk, “How many Presidents do you have staying here?”  ”Too many,” she replied.

My President’s speech on Tuesday received considerable media attention, but most of  the coverage I saw, heard, or read focused on either the Iranian nuclear issue or domestic political implications.  Following are a few consecutive paragraphs that have — at least for me — important homeland security implications.

Before these remarks the President held up Ambassador Chris Stevens as an example, condemned the attacks on US diplomatic facilities,  and called the video that catalyzed — or justified or created cover for — the violence “crude and disgusting.”  Then he offered an explanation of the American right of free speech blending principle with pragmatism:

I know there are some who ask why we don’t just ban such a video.  And the answer is enshrined in our laws:  Our Constitution protects the right to practice free speech.

Here in the United States, countless publications provoke offense.  Like me, the majority of Americans are Christian, and yet we do not ban blasphemy against our most sacred beliefs.  As President of our country and Commander-in-Chief of our military, I accept that people are going to call me awful things every day and I will always defend their right to do so.

Americans have fought and died around the globe to protect the right of all people to express their views, even views that we profoundly disagree with.  We do not do so because we support hateful speech, but because our founders understood that without such protections, the capacity of each individual to express their own views and practice their own faith may be threatened.  We do so because in a diverse society, efforts to restrict speech can quickly become a tool to silence critics and oppress minorities.

We do so because given the power of faith in our lives, and the passion that religious differences can inflame, the strongest weapon against hateful speech is not repression; it is more speech — the voices of tolerance that rally against bigotry and blasphemy, and lift up the values of understanding and mutual respect.

Now, I know that not all countries in this body share this particular understanding of the protection of free speech.  We recognize that.  But in 2012, at a time when anyone with a cell phone can spread offensive views around the world with the click of a button, the notion that we can control the flow of information is obsolete.  The question, then, is how do we respond?

It’s a question that is very much alive in the United States.   When more control of information is advocated, the justification usually involves some aspect of homeland security.  As Chris Bellavita recently reminded us, “the Preamble to the Constitution is especially relevant to homeland security.  It offers – in 29 words – a majestic vision of the homeland security mission.”   There can be trade-offs between security and liberty.   But the homeland that matters most is secured by preserving liberty.

September 15, 2012

Key questions and some early answers

Filed under: International HLS,Radicalization,Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Philip J. Palin on September 15, 2012

Friday morning just as mid-day prayer was beginning across the heart of the Muslim world Mike Hayden, retired Air Force General, former Director of the National Security Agency and former Director of the CIA, appeared on CBS This Morning.

At the top of the interview he set out a helpful framework for observing what would unfold.  Hayden offered,

“How many people demonstrate in how many cities?”

“How close to American installations are they allowed to get?”

“How violent are they?”

“What do these governments… do to protect Americans and American installations?”

“We are going to learn an awfully lot about how much power, how many legs this movement has.”

I might want to edit Mr. Hayden’s comment to reference “these movements have”, but otherwise let’s look at how his questions were answered.

How many people demonstrate in how many cities?

The  Friday demonstrations were quite wide-spread, ranging from Morocco to Indonesia.   There were related protests in Australia and elsewhere on Saturday morning.  Precise numbers are difficult.  But media reports most often estimated hundreds rather than thousands.  In Cairo Bloomberg News report “more than 1000 people” joined the protests. By Saturday morning Egyptian police out-numbered protesters in Tahrir Square.

How close to American installations are they allowed to get?

In Tunis and Khartoum the embassy perimeters were temporarily penetrated during clashes with security forces.   But even in these two cases host governments demonstrated considerable commitment to containing the demonstrations (more below).

How violent are they?

The “protests” ranged from signs and shouts, to throwing rocks, to petrol bombs, to looting a school, to a sustained attack by the Taliban on Camp Bastion in Southern Afghanistan.   Other than the Taliban attack and raids on Sinai peacekeepers, there was apparently no repeat of the para-military operations that seems to have characterized the capture of the US Consulate in Benghazi and the death of diplomats there. (I heard rumors of an organized after-sundown attack in Sana, but cannot find it confirmed.)

Below is a map developed by Max Fisher at The Atlantic.  He explains, “I’ve charted the violent protests in red and the protests that did not produce violence in yellow. It’s an imperfect distinction; I’ve counted the stone-throwers in Jerusalem as a violent protest but the flag-burners in Lahore as non-violent. But it gives you a somewhat more nuanced view into who is expressing anger and how they’re doing it…”

 

What did the (host) governments do?

Police and security forces were effectively deployed.  Attacks were condemned.  Arrests were made.   In Egypt — allegedly after a push by the White House — significant steps were successfully taken by both the government and the Muslim Brotherhood to dampen demonstrations.  Despite the domestic political risk from Salafists, the current Islamist government decided to deploy its political and religious legitimacy to fulfill international — and some would say, religious — obligations.  They have also been proactive in framing the issue by having State media highlight condemnations of the offending video by Secretary Clinton and others.

What did we learn?

Well… you tell me.

September 12, 2012

Four are killed in Libya: An epidemic of idiots, an etymology of idiocy

Filed under: International HLS,Radicalization,Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Philip J. Palin on September 12, 2012

Sam Bacile is very sure of himself (and smart enough to use a pseudonym).  He is sure that the Prophet Mohammed was a fraud and worse.   Mr. Bacile is sure “Islam is a cancer” that threatens the world.  He has made a (bad) film to share his certainties.

Toward the scorners He is scornful, but to the humble He shows favor. (Hebrew Bible, Proverbs 3:34)

In recent days the film became available in an Arabic translation.  Some who have now seen the film’s trailer — or heard rumors of it — are sure the film reflects official American disdain for Islam.   In response they have protested, rioted, and murdered.

When the suffering reached them from Us, why then did they not call Allah in humility? On the contrary, their hearts became hardened, and Satan made their sinful acts seem alluring to them. (Quran, Al-Anaam 6:42-43)

An idiot in Los Angeles shares his idiosyncratic notions.  Once only a few neighbors would have been annoyed.  Today his ravings or their echoes are heard 7000 miles away.  Most appropriately ignore the ignorance.  But some other idiots take offence and respond with violence.

On a day dedicated to the memory of murdered innocents,  my representatives — the representatives of my nation and my values — are killed.  I am offended.  I am angry.  I hunger for  retaliation (literally “return like for like”, especially evil for evil).  The President promises, “Make no mistake, justice will be done.”

But with each permutation this idiocy threatens to make idiots — violent idiots — of more and more.

For the ancient Greeks an idiot (idiotes) was — among other things — a man who neglected civic obligations to focus on private affairs.   The term could also be applied to those who were patently self-interested in how they engaged civic life.

Aristotle argued, “The citizen in an unqualified sense is defined by no other thing so much as by sharing in decision and office.” (Politics, Book III, 1275a22) An idiot does not know how to share. An idiot does not know how to ask an authentic question. An idiot does not know how to listen sympathetically to an answer with which s/he disagrees. An idiot does not know how to frame, shape, and make a decision that will be shared by others. The idiot is blinded by and bound to the limits of self.

Idiots are sure of themselves in a way that is possible only for those lost inside themselves.

Timothy McVeigh was an idiot.  Anders Breivik is an idiot.  Mohamed Atta was an idiot.  James Holmes is an idiot.   Last night a gang of idiots committed murder in Benghazi.  These are each extreme examples of a global epidemic of self-absorbed, self-justifying, self-referential, self-assertive idiocy.

I am not immune.  I too can be an idiot.  Too often I mistake my own belief as the Truth.   I am strongly inclined to assume my personal experience as universal.  I conflate and confuse private and public realities.   I am unable or unwilling to honestly engage the different reality of another… and for this failure I often blame the other.  Regular readers have seen me make all these mistakes.  In my obsession with etymology I am probably being an idiot here and now.

There is disagreement on effective therapy. But many agree the typical rhetoric of  policymaking, strategizing, and analyzing  feeds the disease with self-assertion (and talking points).  Especially in matters of life and death a purposeful stepping out of  our selves is an essential discipline.  Take a walk, get a coffee, bum a smoke, tell a joke…

I read poetry. Reading poetry requires a patience and attention outside-the-self. I am not advocating poetry instead of policy.  I’m advocating the poetic as a complement to the political, practical, and policy-oriented thinking that dominates our professional lives.   Intentionally step outside the box before you decide.

The situation of our time
Surrounds us like a baffling crime.
There lies the body half-undressed,
We all had reason to detest,
And all are suspects and involved
Until the mystery is solved
And under lock and key the cause
That makes a nonsense of our laws.
O Who is trying to shield Whom?
Who left a hairpin in the room?
Who was the distant figure seen
Behaving oddly on the green?

… Delayed in the democracies
By departmental vanities,
The rival sergeants run about
But more to squabble than to find out,
Yet where the Force has been cut down
To one inspector dressed in brown,
He makes the murderer whom he pleases
And all investigation ceases.
Yet our equipment all the time
Extends the area of the crime
Until the guilt is everywhere,
And more and more we are aware,
However miserable may be
Our parish of immediacy,
How small it is, how far beyond,
Ubiquitous within the bond,
Of one impoverishing sky,
Vast spiritual disorders lie.
Who thinking of the last ten years,
Does not hear howling in his ears…

There are two atlases: the one
The public space where acts are done,
In theory common to us all,
Where we are needed and feel small,
The agora of work and news
Where each one has the right to choose
His trade, his corner, and his way,
And can, again in theory, say
For whose protection he will pay,
And loyalty is help we give
The place where we prefer to live;
The other is the inner space
Of private ownership, the place
That each of us is forced to own
Like his own life from which it’s grown,
The landscape of his will and need
Where he is sovereign indeed,
The state created by his acts
Where he patrols the forest tracts
Planted in childhood, farms the belt
Of doings memorised and felt,
And even if he find it hell
May neither leave it nor rebel.
Two worlds describing their rewards,
That one in tangents, this in chords;
Each lives in one, all in the other,
Here all are kings, there each a brother…

Our news is seldom good: the heart,
As ZOLA said, must always start
The day by swallowing its toad
Of failure and disgust. Our road
Gets worse and we seem altogether
Lost as our theories, like the weather,
Veer round completely every day,
And all that we can always say
Is: true democracy begins
With free confession of our sins.

Excerpts from New Year Letter (January 1, 1940) by W.H. Auden

Auden dedicated this poem to Elizabeth Mayer.   I dedicate these thoughts to two men and a woman who I know did not sleep last night and may not sleep again this night.  To you and your colleagues, best wishes dealing with the idiots.

March 27, 2012

Fixated by “Nuclear Terror” or Just Paranoia?

Filed under: International HLS,Radiological & Nuclear Threats — by Alan Wolfe on March 27, 2012

President Obama visited Seoul, South Korea, for a three-day nuclear security summit that involved discussions with officials from 53 countries and four international organizations, following up on actions initiated at the 2010 nuclear security summit hosted in Washington DC.

The Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation has this fact sheet that describes the event and its agenda.

  • Cooperative measures to combat the threat of nuclear terrorism
  • Protection of nuclear materials and related facilities
  • Prevention of illicit trafficking of nuclear materials

These are all worthy goals, although I might quibble with the idea of “combating the threat of nuclear terrorism” since many other people have pointed out the foolishness of trying to conduct a “war on terror.” It doesn’t really work any better for liberal internationalists who want to fight their own “war on terror” than it does for the neoconservatives who created the slogan. But I digress.

What I dislike about these summits is the inevitable rhetoric that flows out of the politicians and is dutifully repeated by journalists who understand how to sensationalize a story with just a few quotes.

Stephen Collinson of Agence France-Presse (AFP) has this article online with the racy headline, “US still fixated by nuclear terror.”

“What we have seen is increasing evidence of intentions… it is not just Al-Qaeda, it is other organisations as well,” said Sharon Squassoni, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“It is pretty shocking how much material is out there. 1440 tonnes of highly enriched uranium, 500 tonnes of separated plutonium (which is) weapons ready.”…

You have dozens of nations coming together behind the shared goal of securing nuclear materials around the world, so that they can never fall into the hands of terrorists,” said Ben Rhodes, a deputy national security advisor.

Failure, he said, would result in “frankly, … the gravest national security threat that the American people could face.”

Now it is an election year, and there is bound to be the usual ridiculous rhetoric coming from the offices of those who are intent on becoming a political leader. That’s to be expected. But the fixation isn’t on the actual capability of terrorists to cause a nuclear incident; rather, the fixation is on the possibility that it could someday happen.

This is the difference between fact-based risk management on existing hazards and paranoid overreaction to perceived threats.

If one were to read the most recent unclassified report to Congress on the acquisition of technology relating to weapons of mass destruction and advanced conventional munitions, it does have a section on CBRN terrorism (note, not WMD terrorism).  The intelligence community has a very toned down statement that says “several terrorist groups … probably remain interested in [CBRN] capabilities, but not necessarily in all four of those capabilities. … mostly focusing on low-level chemicals and toxins.”

They’re talking about terrorists getting industrial chemicals and making ricin toxin, not nuclear weapons. And yes, Ms. Squassoni, it is primarily al Qaeda that the U.S. government worries about, no one else.

The trend of worldwide terrorism continues to remain in the realm of conventional attacks. In 2010, there were more than 11,500 terrorist attacks, affecting about 50,000 victims including almost 13,200 deaths. None of them were caused by CBRN hazards. Of the 11,000 terrorist attacks in 2009, none were caused by CBRN hazards. Of the 11,800 terrorist attacks in 2008, none were caused by CBRN hazards.

And yet, somehow, the United Kingdom’s government now believes that there is a significant likelihood that “some day,” terrorists will acquire CBRN weapons.

“Al Qaeda has a long-held desire to obtain and use CBRN devices. Without continued global efforts to reduce vulnerabilities in the security of material and information, there is a significant likelihood that terrorists will at some point acquire CBRN capability,” the document, approved by Britain’s National Security Council, said.

“Nuclear terrorism is now a real and global threat,” British Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, who will lead Britain’s delegation in Seoul, said in a statement.

No, Mr. Clegg, it is not a “real and global threat.”

Yes, nuclear terrorism could happen, and certainly there are logical steps that responsible governments need to take in order to reduce that possibility. But it’s disingenuous to say that nuclear terrorism is the “gravest national security threat” or a “real and global threat” when there are zero indications that terrorist groups are succeeding in obtaining any fissile material or in building an improvised nuclear device.

It’s just not that great a threat, when one considers the very real threat of nuclear weapon states that have actively developed and deployed weapon systems that could be used against United States or United Kingdom security interests.

I’m all in favor of securing nuclear material and cooperating with other nations on the issue of terrorism in general. It’s a responsible thing to do. But I suggest that it can be done without overly hyping the threat to be a virtual sword of Damocles hanging over our heads.

It just isn’t that significant a threat as compared to public health threats or the dangers of conventional warfare and terrorism.

And if President Obama is serious about securing nuclear materials, I would love to see him start at home – by opening up the Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Repository and securing the spent nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste that currently exists at more than a hundred nuclear power plants within the United States.

March 12, 2012

Remembering the Madrid Bombings

Filed under: International HLS,Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Arnold Bogis on March 12, 2012

The focus, of both the homeland security community and general news media, over the last week has been on the anniversary of the earthquake-tsunami-radiation disaster that struck Japan one year ago.  Numerous reports timed to this remembrance have been released. Pre-and-post photo galleries abound on the web.  All for good reason.  A terrible event with horrible consequences that serves as an almost perfect example of a Maximum of Maximums (MOM to you EMA folks) event or “Complex Catastrophe” to those more DOD inclined.

Before this terrible tragedy, this past weekend would have marked yet another anniversary: the Madrid train bombings.  I thought it important to at least bring that particular event up again and ask a few questions (that in all honesty I don’t expect answers to…):

  • I’m guessing that the whole “see something, say something” campaign was inspired by this event.  Bombs were left by terrorists who exited the targets in question.  Yet the London Tube/Bus bombings should have reminded officials that not every terrorist aims to survive the event.  Seeing something and saying something may (or may not) have saved people in Spain, but the situation would not have been altered in London.
  • Talking about Mass Transit security, many ideas have been put forth.  In particular, the idea of randomness appeals to many.  Most likely because it allows a small group of mission dedicated individuals to be seen as doing something about the threat.  Yet I can’t help but think that every time I’ve encountered the heavily armed police at stations randomly checking bags, I could have turned around and left.  Perhaps walking to the next station.  Perhaps altering the attack pattern.  Yet not really preventing the attack itself.
  • Since we haven’t seen an attack on mass transit in the United States, should we assume that our counter-terrorism efforts are to credit?  Is it not as soft a target as we thought?  Or perhaps we shouldn’t worry at all?

I can’t say where I think the security/prevention implications of the 3/11 (and London Tube) bombings will eventually come out.  Just because I can’t fathom a guess.  However, this terrible incident did at least provide the impetus for a serious review of U.S. medical surge plans in the event of a similar incident.

A small example of relevant documents:

A collection of BBC articles on the Madrid bombings:

http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/in_depth/europe/2004/madrid_train_attacks/

An “on the ground” perspective of the response:

http://www.taleofourcities-houston.com/presentations/Fernando%20Turegano_Madrid-November-2011.pdf

And the U.S. government review of the incident:

http://emergency.cdc.gov/masscasualties/pdf/surgecapacity.pdf

March 5, 2012

Increased chances of Iranian conflict does not equal increased radiation threat

Filed under: International HLS,Radiological & Nuclear Threats,Risk Assessment — by Arnold Bogis on March 5, 2012

Normally I would welcome any reason to extol the virtues of brushing up on your nuclear and radiological-related preparedness planning. However, I strangely find myself wanting to push back on some nuclear-alarmism that I’ve come across lately from usually professional and restrained quarters.

To be clear before I begin: I believe nuclear terrorism has been and remains a real threat; that a dirty bomb is a question of when and not if; and that the two are entirely different animals that look similar in the same manner that one’s house cat may occasionally remind you of a lion in the wild…but not really.

The meme I suspect is emerging is that heightened tensions in the Middle East, in particular the increased threat of conflict with Iran over it’s nuclear program, is increasing the chances that the U.S. will either be the victim of a nuclear or radiological attack or that we may be involved in treating radiation-related casualties originating from hostilities in the Middle East. The mistaken perceptions involve current Iranian capabilities and the results of any possible attack on Iranian nuclear facilities, particularly by Israeli forces.

First capabilities: no evidence has been made public that Iran has enriched uranium beyond 20%.  While that gets them a lot closer to having the material for nuclear weapons (it is a strange fact, but enriching uranium up to 20% is more difficult than taking it from 20% to 90% and above, which is generally considered weapons grade; as Harvard’s Graham Allison has put it: “In effect, having uranium enriched at 20 percent takes Iran 90 yards along the football field to bomb-grade material.”), it does not give them a nuclear capability at this moment.  Barring work at a secret enrichment facility, this means that Iran does not have a nuclear weapon to use (whether directly or through allied terrorist groups) against any potential attacker.

Yes, this could change in the future through any number of potential scenarios.  Yes, there are serious concerns for U.S. national security if Iran was to become a nuclear state.  The most likely of these would not involve Iran directly attacking the U.S with a nuclear weapon.  Many others have sunk their teeth into this topic and debated various outcomes.

A dirty bomb could be a possibility, but in taking stock of that particular threat the pieces don’t point toward any special Iranian capability. Neither the low-enriched or high-enriched uranium that Iran is producing, or any of the stages of pre-enriched material, would make particularly effective dirty bomb material.  Uranium is not highly radioactive, in fact one can handle highly enriched uranium with nothing more than a simple gloved hand. In other words, the Iranian nuclear program does not add to their capability to carry out or assist others in carrying out a dirty bomb attack.

An Israeli or U.S. attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities could potentially embolden, radicalize, or otherwise incentivize terrorists to carry out a dirty bomb attack.  One can imagine a desire to carry out some sort of event involving radiation in retaliation.  Yet the particulars of Iran’s nuclear program do not affect the odds of this occurring, nor would the products be particularly helpful.

If homeland security officials at all levels want to prevent a dirty bomb attack, in addition to planning and exercising to respond and recover from any such incident (deterrence through denial of goals), they can take stock of the radioactive sources in their own jurisdictions and connect with the owners and licensees about security and safety. Every big city has potential dirty bomb ingredients without the necessity of terrorists attempting to smuggle in Iranian radioactive sources.

The second layer of concern seems to center on the possibility that hostilities between Iran and Israel, and maybe the U.S., would involve populations being exposed to high levels of radioactivity.  However, at this point in Iran’s nuclear development that is also unlikely.

Despite the bluster out of some corners, Israel is not going to use nuclear weapons it does not officially acknowledge having to destroy a nascent nuclear capability the goal of which is contested by various world powers.  Nuclear weapons are political weapons that are best used to deter nuclear attack and invasion.  It is often pointed out that a reason Iran might want to either develop a breakout capability or the weapons themselves is that they witnessed what happened to Iraq and Libya and what has not happened to North Korea.

An Israeli nuclear strike on Iran without direct nuclear provocation would likely result in their achieving North Korean-like pariah status.  Instead, if they decided it was in their national security interest to strike the Iranian nuclear program it would involve conventional weapons.  These bombs may cause dispersion of nuclear material, but as I mentioned before the uranium involved would not be highly radioactive and the effects would be more toxic and less radioactive.

Would there be detectable raised levels of radiation in the surrounding areas  following such an attack?  Likely. Are we talking about an Iranian Fukushima?  Probably not.

Israel could decide to bomb the nuclear reactor at Bushehr, but this would do little to stop any weapons program as light water power reactors are poorly suited for the production of plutonium for bombs and this particular one is under stringent IAEA safeguards.  In addition, it would earn the ire of potentially sympathetic Gulf nations who may bear the brunt of the radiation released.

Following any strike by Israel on its nuclear program, Iran is judged likely to attack Israel with missiles.  Whether launched from Iranian territory or by allied groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas, some of these weapons may be targeted at the Israeli nuclear reactor at Dimona.  It is possible that the reactor would sustain enough damage to release radiation, but these facilities are not soft nor large targets.  The relatively unsophisticated missiles involved would have to be lucky in both hitting the target and achieving enough damage to release any radiation.  Only in the worst case might there be a call to evacuate any casualties to the United States due to radiation injury.

So to end this already too long foray into predicting the results of events that may never occur, let me just reiterate:

  • homeland security officials at all levels should worry about the security of radioactive sources within their jurisidcitions and make sure that they are prepared to respond and recover from any dirty bomb attack;
  • yes Dorothy, a nuclear terrorist attack is possible, if not likely, and should be regarded as a national catastrophic event planned for on a regional basis including non-traditional partners (in FEMA-speak this is a MOM event requiring a WOC response);
  • in the short-to-medium term, events regarding Iran’s nuclear program will not directly impact the risks of a radiological or nuclear attack upon the U.S.

March 2, 2012

Cuban oil drilling: preparedness with both hand tied behind our backs

Filed under: Catastrophes,International HLS — by Arnold Bogis on March 2, 2012

Have you ever done something in a particular way for so long that you just can’t imagine changing your habits?  Even if new developments in your life suggest that maybe it’s time for a change?

Well….Cuba is opening up it’s waters for oil drilling, we don’t talk or do business with Cuba, and in light of the BP oil spill some people are rightly getting pretty nervous.

As the Washington Post reported yesterday:

As energy companies from Spain, Russia and Malaysia line up to drill for oil in Cuban waters 60 miles from the Florida Keys, U.S. agencies are struggling to cobble together emergency plans to protect fragile reefs, sandy beaches and a multibillion-dollar tourism industry in the event of a spill.

Drawing up contingency plans to confront a possible spill is much more difficult because of the economic embargo against Cuba. U.S. law bars most American companies — including oil services and spill containment contractors — from conducting business with the communist island. The embargo, now entering its 50th year, also limits direct government-to-government talks.

As one oil industry executive put it:

“This is a case of Cold War ideology colliding with 21st-century environmental policy, and it is the environment that is at risk,” said Lee Hunt, president of the International Association of Drilling Contractors.

To put it in a bit of monetary perspective:

The Deepwater Horizon liabilities could exceed $43 billion. Containing the oil in Louisiana employed 5,000 vessels. Cuba’s total gross domestic product is $50 billion. Pinon said that Cuba, with a tiny navy and a thin coast guard, has only 5 percent of the resources needed to contain a spill approaching the size of the Deepwater Horizon disaster.

“The U.S. Coast Guard is terrified,” he said.

The company first on (in?) the ground is Repsol, an apparently well respected Spanish firm. As former DHS Assistant Secretary Juliette Kayyem puts it (who, by the way, was all over this story last October):

Hopefully, the 2010 BP oil spill has terrified the industry enough that sheer self-preservation will make oil drillers ultra-cautious. Repsol, for its part, is a publicly traded powerhouse, with operations in 29 countries. But so, of course, was BP.

Other than the Coast Guard, Juliette sees others “worried” about these developments:

The real story here is how little these developments seem to matter to our lawmakers. The usual anti-Cuba congressional contingent, many from Florida, wrote a letter to the president of Repsol, expressing their serious concern with Repsol’s plans to “partner’’ with the “Castro regime.’’ The operations will provide “direct financial benefit to the Castro dictatorship.’’

Surely, that can’t be right?  A sovereign country has the right to drill for oil in waters internationally recognized to be it’s own, correct?  The important thing in this case would be to ensure that the best companies are unimpeded in their work and that contingencies are worked out in advance?  Back to the Post:

“This is a disaster waiting to happen, and the Obama administration has abdicated its role in protecting our environment and national security by allowing this plan to move forward,” said Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

Ros-Lehtinen and her colleagues sponsored legislation to deny visas to anyone who helps the Cubans advance their oil drilling plans. They have also sought to punish Repsol.

“We need to figure out what we can do to inflict maximum pain, maximum punishment, to bleed Repsol of whatever resources they may have if there’s a potential for a spill that would affect the U.S. coast,” Rep. David Rivera (R-Fla.) told in January a congressional subcommittee that oversees the U.S. Coast Guard.

Well so much for that reasoning. Thankfully, overcoming obstacles through creative diplomacy, some preparedness work is being accomplished:

Because of the embargo, the talks between Cubans, Repsol and the Coast Guard are taking place in the Bahamas and Curacao — not Havana or Miami — under the auspices of the U.N. International Maritime Organization, paid for by charitable donations from environmental groups and oil industry associations.

It seems to me that the U.S. has been trying to get rid of the Castros since President Eisenhower.  How has that worked out?  Perhaps it is time to let bygones be bygones and concentrate on the real threats to our safety and security.

February 23, 2012

Seeing Syria

Filed under: International HLS,Radicalization,Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Philip J. Palin on February 23, 2012

Screenshot of inteview with a reporter in Homs who has since been killed

Today both the New York Times and USA Today give above-the-fold attention to Syria:

Ghastly Images Flow From Shattered Syrian City (New York Times)

Activists ensure that the world sees Syria’s bloodbath (USA Today)

Each newspaper is also running related stories.

This week, for the first time, I perceive American media is beginning to give the situation in Syria the attention it deserves.  If and how this might influence American public opinion and policy is yet to be seen.

Beginning last May I have made regular references to Syria in this blog.  At first I was restrained.  This is a homeland security blog, after all. Since September I have been less and less restrained.  For the last few weeks I have been preachy and insistent.  Some have complained.

Last week Arnold Bogis asked the obvious question, “What would you have the U.S. do?” (See last two comments in the linked chain for his question and my answer.) A short version of my answer:  We should at least pay attention.  We dare not fail-to-notice the murder of thousands.

Finally our media has begun to notice.  As a result, I will again adopt a more restrained approach to referencing Syria at HLSWatch.

Arnold did not follow-up on my answer, but he could have — quite fairly — asked again, “But what would you have us do?”

I do not have an adequate response.  Some self-righteous bluster would, probably, make me feel better.   But that would help no one else, certainly not those being bombarded in Homs.

It is helpful that more will now see what is happening.  I hope wiser, perhaps braver men and women will find an effective way to really help.

February 21, 2012

Who are the Mujahideen e-Khalq?

Filed under: International HLS — by Christopher Bellavita on February 21, 2012

What do Tom Ridge, Andrew Card, Howard Dean, Alan Dershowitz, Louis J. Freeh, Rudolph Giuliani, Porter Goss, Michael B. Mukasey, Edward Rendell, and Hugh Shelton have in common?

In January 2012, they were among 21 senior US leaders who signed a letter to Secretary Clinton asking the State Department to rule that the Mujahideen e-Khalq (also known as MEK)

is not a terrorist organization and there is no rational factual or legal basis to maintain it on the FTO [Foreign Terrorist Organization list] —where it was placed in 1997 as a political accommodation to the regime in Iran, NOT because it ever engaged in any terrorist activity or had an intent to do so against the US.

A friend brought my attention to the Mujahideen e-Khalq’s situation, to a place in Iraq called Camp Ashraf where they are being held, and to another location in Iraq called Camp Liberty where they are supposed to be moved.

I had never heard of MEK or their plight. But I do know my friend is not prone to hyperbole.  He chooses his words and his political positions carefully.  I paid attention when he wrote me:

For more than a year, I [had some responsibilities associated with] this group [MEK]; a potential tragedy unfolding at the hands of the US.

So, what’s the story? Who are the Mujahideen e-Khalq, and is there any reason why the homeland security community should care about them?

——————–

Global Security describes the MEK this way:

Mujahedeen-e-Khalq (MEK) is the largest and most militant group opposed to the Islamic Republic of Iran. Also known as the People’s Mujahedeen Organization of Iran, MEK is led by husband and wife Massoud and Maryam Rajavi. MEK was added to the U.S. State Department’s list of foreign terrorist groups in 1997.

MEK was founded in the 1960s by a group of college-educated Iranian leftists opposed to the country’s pro-Western ruler, Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. Although the group took part in the 1979 Islamic revolution that replaced the shah with a Shiite Islamist regime, MEK’s ideology, a blend of Marxism and Islamism, put it at odds with the post-revolutionary government. In 1981, the group was driven from its bases on the Iran-Iraq border and resettled in Paris, where it began supporting Iraq in its eight-year war against Khomeini’s Iran. In 1986, MEK moved its headquarters to Iraq where it received its primary support to attack the regime in Iran. During the 2003 Iraq war, U.S. forces cracked down on MEK’s bases in Iraq, and in June 2003 French authorities raided an MEK compound outside Paris and arrested 160 people, including Maryam Rajavi.

Several years ago, the Council on Foreign Relations wrote this about MEK:

During the Iraq war, U.S. forces cracked down on the MEK. About 3,400 people were disarmed at Camp Ashraf, surrendering two thousand tanks, armored personnel carriers, and heavy artillery pieces, according to the 2006 report. Those living at Camp Ashraf are designated as “protected persons” under Article 27 of the Fourth Geneva Convention which prevents extradition or forced repatriation to Iran as long as the United States maintains a presence in Iraq. [emphasis added] The Unites States has no plans to charge and prosecute people living in this camp. The “protected persons” designation applies solely to those living at Camp Ashraf, not other members of the group, nor does it affect the MEK’s listing on the State Department terrorist list.

——————–

Not everyone is buying the idea that the MEK are the oppressed and forgotten little guys.  Last August, Christina Wilkie of the Huffington Post, wrote a detailed description of MEK and the lobbying effort of its supporters under the less-than-flattering headline: “Former U.S. Officials Make Millions Advocating For Terrorist Organization.”

One minor part of the article describes how former Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell considered declining an invitation to speak at an MEK conference because “I don’t know hardly anything about this subject …[and] I don’t think I’m qualified to come.” He eventually decided to participate in the conference attended by other national leaders.  The outcome?

“It’s been a great learning experience for me,” he told the crowd [at the conference]. “As a result of what I’ve learned [from the MEK supporters], on Monday I will send a letter to President Obama and to Secretary Clinton telling them [first], that the United States is morally bound to do everything we can to ensure the safety of the residents of Camp Ashraf. And two, if Director Freeh and General Shelton and General Conway and Governor Dean and the rest of these great panelists say that MEK is a force for good and the best hope we have for a third option in Iran, then, good Lord, take them off the terrorist list! Take them off the terrorist list!”

As Rendell’s applause died down, he added that he had never heard of Camp Ashraf until the group invited him to speak.

A few days after Christina Wilkie’s article appeared, Allen Gerson criticized her analysis.

What is an organization deemed by the US State Department to be dedicated to terrorism… supposed to do when it believes the charge is spurious? Clearly, the consequences of such a determination are enormous …. So naturally, such an organization will try to do whatever it can to exercise its legitimate rights to correct the record, refute erroneous charges and seek de-listing.

This burden to act is especially acute if an organization placed on the FTO list happens to have thousands of its members situated in a foreign country where they stand to be forcibly removed to a truly terrorist regime where the fate of those “repatriated” will likely be death by firing squad or the hangman’s noose. And, where the US State Department FTO listing is manipulated as justification for random acts of violence against members of that particular organization coupled with continued threats of forced deportation, the compulsion to use all legitimate means to remove the unwarranted terrorist label is overwhelming.

This is precisely the situation the Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK) finds itself in today. The surprise is that it would be vilified for its efforts in a recent article in the Huffington Post by Christina Wilkie

Mr Gersen is described as “the Chairman of AG International Law in Washington D.C. He is presently involved with other attorneys in representing the PMOI/MEK in its efforts to be removed from the State Department List of Foreign Terrorist Organizations.”

It would be odious to describe this as a “she said, he said” argument, particulary with lives at stake.  How is one to decide what to think about this issue?

——————–

In January of this year, former Pennsylvania governor and DHS Secretary Tom Ridge, published an impassioned plea in favor of the MEK: (Although I have to say the writing style was very different from the way Governor Ridge sounded in his 2009 memoir, The Test of Our Times.)

The Obama administration should support the democratic aspirations of the people of Iran and their most effective opposition movement, the Mujahedin-e-Khalq (MEK).

Regrettably, and without justification, the State Department continues to maintain that MEK … on its list of “Foreign Terrorist Organizations” even though it meets none of the criteria.

Secretary Ridge then reviews the history of the MEK’s designation as a Foreign Terrorist Organization since 1997, concluding

The unjust designation was maintained by subsequent administrations in an effort to persuade Iran to abandon their nuclear program.

Sadly, we now see the results of that failed policy: Iran is no closer to moderation, having recently plotted to assassinate, in full view of the world, the Saudi ambassador on U.S. soil; The IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency] warns that Iran’s nuclear ambitions are actually closer to fulfillment, and the failure to de-list MEK, absent any legal or factual basis, continues to stymie prospects for democratic change in Iran.

This folly has given Iran and its proxies a license to kill thousands of MEK members, including a massacre on April 8 of last year that killed or wounded hundreds of unarmed members of the MEK living in Camp Ashraf, Iraq—each and every one of whom was given written guarantees of protection by the U.S. government.

Now that U.S. troops have left Iraq, Iran is determined to extend its influence in the region and has justified its brutality by categorizing them as “terrorists.”

Whatever way Tehran’s propagandists characterize MEK’s political prospects, culture, or history, it is clear to me that the defenseless Iranian dissidents at Camp Ashraf are committed to non-violent regime change and a democratic, nuclear-free Iranian future.

[On the other hand, on February 9, 2012, NBC News reported

Deadly attacks on Iranian nuclear scientists are being carried out by an Iranian dissident group that is financed, trained and armed by Israel’s secret service, U.S. officials tell NBC News, confirming charges leveled by Iran’s leaders.

The report claims the Iranian dissident group is the Mujahideen e-Khalq -- aka MEK]

Back to Governor Ridge’s essay:

Courts throughout the United Kingdom, the European Union and the United States have concluded that there is no legal justification [to] maintain MEK on the foreign terrorist list.

Every one of the residents of Camp Ashraf was interviewed by the FBI and by U.S. military services and there has never been a scintilla of evidence anyone in that camp was motivated by, interested in, or capable of conducting acts of terrorism against this country. Remember, they surrendered all means of self-defense in exchange for America’s promise to provide their safety and security.

[For more on this part of the issue, see the December 2011 talk Brigadier General David Phillips gave in February in support of MEK.  My friend said :

BG Phillips is no goober or anyone’s fool.  General Petreaus ... hand-picked him to be on his staff as part of the “Surge” campaign in Iraq and then called him back again to be on his staff in Afghanistan.]

Back to Governor Ridge’s essay:

Some 100 members of Congress, in a bipartisan initiative, have called for MEK to be de-listed. The unfounded MEK designation only serves as a license to kill for both the Iraqi forces and the kangaroo courts in Iran, who regularly arrest, torture, and kill people on the basis of MEK affiliation.

It shames the State Department designation process that has wrongly maintained the blacklist for misguided political reasons. Consider this: the MEK is on the list — the Taliban is not….

As an emboldened Iran moves ever-closer to nuclear breakout, MEK’s unfounded designation is a lynchpin in the critical test of wills between Iran and the West — a test the Obama administration can ill afford to fail….

Unshackling the MEK from an unjust blacklist and living up to U.S. guarantees to protect the Iranian opposition at Camp Ashraf will send the mullahs’ terrorist regime in Tehran exactly the message it needs to hear: The mullahs do not run foreign policy in the United States and America keeps its promises.

——————–
The former leaders of the Department of Homeland Security, the Federal Burea of Investigation, The Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Central Intelligence Agency — among others — say a great injustice is being done to the Mujahideen e-Khalq.

In this issue I know nothing about I have to either decide these public servants are willing to rent their voices to a cause they do not believe in exchange for 20,000 dollar speaking fees, or they are correct about what is happening to the Mujahideen e-Khalq.

That is not a difficult decision for me to make.

——————–
I ask my friend whether he thinks this is a homeland security issue:

I think it does boil down to a HLS issue. They are most certainly a group of individuals that but for the FTO moniker, would already have been placed or accepted by countries anywhere around the world, i.e. the threat of harm for returning to their home Iran is so great they cannot be forced to go back. So presumably, the US is afraid to remove them from the FTO list or accept any of them b/c they pose a threat to our security.

Mix in the current situation with the Iranian regime and it really is a mess.

——————–
Add presidential politics to this.

Edward Luce predicts in Sunday’s Financial Times that during tomorrow’s Republican presidential candidates debate, there will be a commercial “calling on Mr. Obama to remove the MEK – the Mujahideen e-Khalq, the armed Iranian opposition group – from the US list of foreign terrorist organizations.”

 

February 18, 2012

Syria on Saturday

Filed under: International HLS,Radicalization,Strategy,Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Philip J. Palin on February 18, 2012

Earlier today several thousand residents of Damascus participated in a funeral procession as an act of defiance aimed at the Assad regime. As of 0600 (Eastern) there are several breaking news stories of mourners being killed. According to the Associated Press:

Syrian troops have fired on mourners taking part in a massive funeral procession in the capital… Several people were wounded by gunfire in the Damascus neighborhood of Mazzeh. Tear gas was also fired on the Saturday procession mourning three people killed by security forces following protests in the area a day earlier. An eyewitness who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals said the procession numbered around 15,000.

Thursday the United Nations General Assembly voted to condemn human rights violations by Syrian authorities. The resolution was passed with 137 nations in favor, 12 against, and 17 abstentions.

According to a UN statement:

The Assembly called on Syria to abide by its obligations under international law, and demanded that the Government, in line with the 2 November 2011 Action Plan of the League of Arab States, and its decisions of 22 January and 12 February 2012, without delay, stop all violence and protect its people, release all those detained during the unrest, withdraw all armed forces from cities and towns, guarantee peaceful demonstrations and allow unhindered access for Arab League monitors and international media.

The language of the resolution closely mirrored that of a text vetoed by China and the Russian Federation in the Security Council two weeks earlier…

By other terms of the text adopted today, the Assembly expressed its full support for the Arab League’s decision to facilitate a Syrian-led political transition to a democratic, pluralistic political system, including through a “serious political dialogue between the [Syrian Government] and the whole spectrum of the Syrian opposition”. Reaffirming its strong commitment to Syria’s sovereignty, independence, unity and territorial integrity, it further reaffirmed that all Member States “should refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any State”.

Perhaps in response to the United Nations action, on Friday Syrian forces seemed to step up their action. According to The Daily Star (Lebanon):

Syrian troops intensively shelled rebel-held neighborhoods in the restive central city of Homs Friday and killed at least five people, activists said… Activist groups said tens of thousands of protesters poured into the streets after Friday prayers from Daraa in the south to Aleppo and Idlib in the north and Deir el-Zour in the east to areas around the capital Damascus. The Local Coordination Committees said security forces opened fire on some protests.

According to the Sydney Morning Herald (Australia), “Syria has become a magnet for foreign fighters, with al-Qaeda aligned jihadists streaming across the border from Iraq and rebel soldiers from the Libyan city of Misrata crossing in from Turkey…”

In testimony on Thursday to the Senate Armed Services Committee, Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, said, “We believe that Al Qaeda in Iraq is extending its reach into Syria.”

During a British-French summit held in Paris on Friday there was considerable nostalgia for the entente cordiale that contributed so much to toppling Qaddafi. But Prime Minister Cameron and President Sarkozy were also clear on preconditions to any military intervention in Syria. According to The Guardian, “Cameron said the situation in Syria was “appalling” and said the government was “butchering and murdering its own people”. He said that Syria was different to Libya in three ways: in Libya the west had a UN resolution, the Arab League was calling for action, and the opposition represented the whole country, he said.”

From The Telegraph’s report on the Paris summit:

They did not rule out joint military action in Syria but said the current circumstances were not right. “The main obstacles are not to do with such and such country’s attitude at the UN,” Mr Sarkozy said. “The fact is we cannot bring about a revolution without the Syrian people. We cannot bring this about if the Syrian opposition does not unite and organise to help us help them.”

There is increasing international discussion of a “protected zone” in Northwest Syria to incubate a more unified opposition. Many are pointing to Idlib province immediately adjacent to Turkey. The Free Syrian Army has had more freedom of movement in Idlib than in most other venues.

But Turkey — essential to the survival of any such enclave — has made it clear it prefers what it calls a “Mediterranean corridor.” According to the Sabah newspaper (Turkey):

Foreign Affairs Minister Davutolu has already relayed his concerns to U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Ankara is in favor of a humanitarian aid corridor being established via the Mediterranean and suggests that instead of designating a route through Turkey, the British base in Cyprus be used for this purpose.

In this morning’s edition of Hurriyet (Turkey) Illan Tanir writes,

One of the biggest obstacles preventing the international community from giving a decisive outside push to overthrow Bashar al-Assad is its inability to see a viable, unified alternative for the post-Assad period… The U.S. in particular has played a significant role in attempting to unify the Syrian opposition, by conditioning their recognition of the SNC as the legitimate government of Syria on providing more assurances towards minority groups. The U.S. has been engaged in facilitating talks to unify the Syrian opposition since before the SNC’s formation, and it was the main organizer of the talks between the SNC and KNC last month. The U.S. appears to be the only power with interest in pulling this off in a non-sectarian manner, as especially Qatar and Saudi Arabia, in one way or another, have interests in supporting Sunni Islamist groups.

On February 24 Tunisia will host a meeting of the “Friends of Syria”. Much will depend on how effective these friends are in convincing the various Syrian enemies of Assad to be friends with each other.

February 13, 2012

Syria on Monday

Filed under: International HLS,Radicalization,Strategy,Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Philip J. Palin on February 13, 2012

Earlier today the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights made a report to the General Assembly regarding the situation in Syria.  Below is a small bit from the start of the report.  Please access the link for her full comments.

The violent Government crackdown on peaceful protests demanding freedom, dignity and social justice in Syria has continued unabated for eleven months now. While no exact figures can be provided due to our lack of access to the country, credible reports indicate that Syrian security forces killed well above 5,400 people last year, including civilians as well as military personnel who refused to shoot civilians.

Due to extreme difficulties in substantiating the events on the ground, it has become almost impossible for my Office to update the death toll in the past two months. However, we are certain that the number of dead and injured continues to rise every day. Tens of thousands, including children, have been arrested, with more than 18,000 reportedly still arbitrarily held in detention. Thousands more are reported missing. 25,000 people are estimated to have sought refuge in neighbouring and other countries. And more than 70,000 are estimated to have been internally displaced.

While the protests have remained largely peaceful, reports of armed attacks by anti-government fighters against Syrian forces have increased, also with consequences on civilians. According to the Government, some 2000 military and security personnel have been killed.

I am particularly appalled by the ongoing onslaught on Homs. Since 3 February, in further escalation of its assault, the Government has used tanks, mortars, rockets and artillery to pummel the city of Homs. According to credible accounts, the Syrian army has shelled densely populated neighborhoods of Homs in what appears to be an indiscriminate attack on civilian areas. More than 300 people have reportedly been killed in the city since the start of this assault ten days ago. The majority of them were victims of the shelling.

The full report is available from the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.

–+–

Even as Syrian artillery continued to fire into residential areas of Homs and other cities, there was a noticeable lack of enthusiasm for the Arab League’s proposal to deploy UN peacekeepers.   Initial reactions by the United States, United Kingdom and Russia all noted that “peacekeepers” require peace as a precondition.

February 12, 2012

Syria on Sunday

Filed under: International HLS,Radicalization,Strategy,Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Philip J. Palin on February 12, 2012

Emerging from consultations in Cairo on Sunday, the Arab League is calling for a joint Arab-UN peacekeeping mission to end the 11-month conflict in Syria.

In a resolution seen by the BBC but not yet officially released, the Arab League scrapped its observer team, suspended last month, and said it was ending all diplomatic co-operation with Syria.

Damascus “categorically rejected” the resolution, a Syrian envoy said.

The League’s moves come a week after a UN Security Council resolution on Syria was vetoed by Russia and China.

The BBC’s Jeremy Bowen in Cairo says the resolution contains the toughest language on Syria by the Arab League so far and makes it much more likely that the issue will return to the Security Council.

Continue reading the BBC story

UPDATE (1435 Eastern):

An English text of the resolution is available at the Arab League website, but the site is unstable and pages are not fully loading.  I expect this is due to significant demand.  Worth checking later this evening.

MONDAY UPDATE:

The English text has disappeared.  The original Arabic text is available at: http://arableagueonline.org/wps/wcm/connect/dbd065804a2433d984769c526698d42c/7446.pdf?MOD=AJPERES

Following is the best English language summary  I have found of the Arab League resolution:

At the conclusion of its meeting in Cairo, the Council issued Resolution No. 7446 on the “follow-up developments of the situation in Syria,” which  rejected and condemned the continued killings and violence in Syria and the continued retention of the military option, which is contrary to the obligations set forth in the resolutions of the Council of the League of Arab States and the Arab Plan of Action. (Palin note: The reference to the “military option”  is ambiguous and I don’t have the Arabic to confidently clarify.)

The Council of the League of Arab States calls on the United Nations Security Council for a resolution to form an Arab peace-keeping forces jointly with the UN to oversee the implementation of a ceasefire. It was also decided to stop all forms of cooperation with the diplomatic representatives of the Syrian regime in each member state and in international bodies and conferences.

The Ministers of Foreign Affairs agreed to end the monitoring mission of the Arab League, due to problems under the protocol signed between the Syrian government and the Secretariat of the League, and drew the call to the Secretary-General to name a special envoy to pursue the political process proposed in the framework of the Arab initiative.

The Council welcomed the offer of the Tunisian Republic to host the Conference of Friends of Syria to be held on 24.02.2012, and decided to open channels of communication with the Syrian opposition and provide all forms of political and material support to it. The Council also call on the Syrian opposition to unite and engage in serious dialogue to advance its coherence and effectiveness prior to the Tunis conference.

The resolution emphasized the validity of the economic boycott with the Syrian regime, except those directly affecting the Syrian citizens in accordance with the decisions of the Council of the League on this issue.

February 8, 2012

Real-time coverage of Syrian situation

Filed under: International HLS,Radicalization,Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Philip J. Palin on February 8, 2012

Map is reposted from BBC

Emboldened by Saturday’s non-decision by the United Nation’s Security Council some perceive the Syrian government is ready to do “whatever it takes” to shut-down further protests, especially in the hot-house of Homs.

The question now being asked in many world capitals is whether intervention is prudent or even possible if the Syrian government undertakes an all-out massacre.

Just in case you want to know more, both The Telegraph and The Guardian are blogging real time coverage.

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/middleeast/syria/9064047/Syria-uprising-live.html

http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/middle-east-live/2012/feb/08/syria-assad-siege-homs-live

THURSDAY MORNING UPDATE

The Telegraph’s Alex Spillius has spoken to a US State Department official who warns the international community may be forced to “militarise” the crisis. (The story is near the top of Thursday’s “Most Viewed.”)

He writes:

The official from the State Department told The Daily Telegraph that while the White House wants to exhaust all its diplomatic options, the debate in Washington has shifted away from diplomacy and towards more robust action since Russia and China blocked a United Nations resolution condemning Syria.

While I don’t know what Mr. Spillius was told in the hallway, here’s what the State Department spokesman said at Wednesday’s regular State Department briefing:

QUESTION: Are you able to tell us whether or not the Pentagon is part of this conversation on the U.S. side?

MS. NULAND: We often have asked the Pentagon to use its assets in certain circumstances, both consensual circumstances and more difficult circumstances, but I really don’t want to speculate on exactly how this might be moved. But as we’ve said repeatedly, we are not looking for military options, if that’s what you’re getting at, in Syria.

For further background on why military intervention is unlikely see a post by Scott Clement in The Cable:

Don’t Count on a Syria Intervention: In the end, Americans just aren’t interested in getting involved in promoting democracy overseas.”

January 13, 2012

Nigeria and Egypt: two flashpoints, two alternate paths, two prospects for the next decade and beyond

Filed under: International HLS,Radicalization,Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Philip J. Palin on January 13, 2012

Aftermath of Christmas Day attack on St. Theresa’s Church near Abuja, Nigeria

On December 25 an attack on a Christian church in Nigeria killed 37,  related attacks since have killed another thirty-four and potentially more. Credit has been claimed by Boko Haram, an organization calling for the expulsion of Christians and the expansion of Islamic sharia law in Northern Nigeria. (Boko Haram can be translated as “Western education is a sin.”)

On December 28 the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) released a statement including:

Having reviewed the pattern trend and frequency with which these terror crimes occur, it fits into the profile of Islamic Jihad over the years on the Christian community, which are properly contextualised. It is considered as a declaration of war on Christians and Nigeria as an entity.

The Christian community has found the responses of the Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs and other Islamic bodies on this matter to be unacceptable and an abdication of their responsibilities over their extremist members. It is on record that most religious, traditional and political leaders in the North have not come out openly to condemn the extremist activities of Boko Haram. We hold them responsible for what is happening, because they have not taken concrete steps to check the excesses of their members.

The Christian community is fast losing confidence in government’s ability to protect our rights to religious liberties and life. The consensus is that the Christian community nationwide would be left with no other option than to respond appropriately if there are any further attacks on our members, churches and properties.

Sectarian conflict is not new to Nigeria. In the past the Christian “response” has included attacks on Muslims. But Bako Haram has increased the stakes by launching what appears to be a sustained and organized anti-Christian campaign that also targets Muslims who reject  Boko Haram.

According to the BBC several Islamic leaders who have criticized previous attacks by Boko Haram have been assassinated.  Still, last week  Alhaji Muhammad Garba, a Muslim political leader from Northern Nigeria, said, “Boko Haram is not recognised by genuine Muslims… Why should such a group be asking Muslims to bomb churches and fight Christians? It is wrong for any group to wage war against other faith. Such people are not true believers of God.”

Boko Haram is seen by some as part of a much wider movement.  According to the Daily Telegraph, Boko Haram “is believed to be morphing into a new pan-African jihadist franchise, forging links with both al-Qaeda in the Islamic Magreb, which operates in the vast Sahara region north of Nigeria, and al-Shebab in Somalia.”

In September the General who leads U.S. Africa Command told the Associated Press that the three movements pose a “significant threat” not only in the areas in which they operate but also to the United States.

Those three organizations have very explicitly and publicly voiced an intent to target Westerners and the U.S. specifically,” Gen Carter Ham said. “I have questions about their ability to do so; I have no question about their intent to do so, and that to me is very worrying… So if left unaddressed, you could have a [terrorist] network that ranges from East Africa through the center” and into the Sahel, an area of north-central Africa south of the Sahara desert, Ham said. To varying degrees, these groups are affiliated with or inspired by al-Qaida’s central organization in Pakistan.

The Nigerian President has declared a State of Emergency in four northern States and mobilized military forces to take action against Boko Haram.  According to Radio France, “Hundreds of people fled their homes in Potsikum, north-east Nigeria, Saturday following all-night gun battles between Islamists and the security forces… Residents of the Dogo Tehbo and Dogo Nini areas fled their homes Saturday, telling reporters they feared that soldiers would attack their homes, as they have been accused of doing in Maidiguiri.”

–+–

An Egyptian woman joins other Muslims as “human shields” for celebration of Coptic Christmas mass

Christmas was welcomed on a different date — and with a different tone — in strife-torn Egypt.

Coptic Christians celebrated the birth of Jesus on January 7.  According to Al-Ahram:

Egypt’s majority Muslim population stuck to its word. What had been a promise of solidarity to the weary Coptic community, was honoured, when thousands of Muslims showed up at Coptic Christmas eve mass services in churches around the country and at candle light vigils held outside. (see photo gallery) From the well-known to the unknown, Muslims had offered their bodies as “human shields” for last night’s mass, making a pledge to collectively fight the threat of Islamic militants and towards an Egypt free from sectarian strife.

According to The Guardian:

At the start of the festive celebrations in Egypt, prominent figures from across the political spectrum, including leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood and members of the ruling military council, attended Friday night mass at Cairo’s main Coptic cathedral.

The Coptic pope, Shenouda III, commended their presence and appealed for national unity for “the sake of Egypt”.

He said: “For the first time in the history of the cathedral, it is packed with all types of Islamist leaders in Egypt. They all agree … on the stability of this country, and in loving it and working for it, and to work with the Copts as one hand for the sake of Egypt.”

The call for unity follows an escalation in violence against the Christian minority, an estimated 10% of Egypt’s 85 million people, over the past year.

In October at least 25 Christians were killed by Egyptian military and para-military forces. Violence against Christians in Egypt has escalated since the opening of the Arab Spring.

–+–

There are advocates of violence in Egypt.  There are many voices for reconciliation in Nigeria.  Which alternative will emerge stronger is not clear.  Some level of sectarian violence will persist.

In any case, near-term prospects for Muslim-Christian conflict in Nigeria and Egypt — and in much of northeast Africa, central Asia, southern Philippines, and in many pockets of urban Europe — are trending higher.  Dozens, likely hundreds, will be killed in an effort to preserve someone’s narcissistic sense of God. So-called Muslims will specifically target Christians.  So-called Christians will specifically target Muslims.

This is a different dynamic than has marked the last decade.

Al-Qaeda has mostly been trying to reform Islam.  AQ has used “Crusaders” as an anvil against which to sharpen its sword of intra-Islamic transformation.  The Taliban are mostly religiously motivated Pashtuns who are most concerned about preserving communal values.  Wahhabis are principally concerned about purity of Islamic practice.  The Shia clerical establishment can be preoccupied with differentiation from Sunnis, a mind-set mirrored by Wahhabis.

Monday in his remarks to the Vatican diplomatic corps Pope Benedict XVI specifically called out his concern for violence against Christians in Nigeria and elsewhere.  On January 2, Open Doors — “serving persecuted Christians worldwide” — announced, “Islamic-majority countries top 2o12 watch list.” There is increasing concern, clamor and sympathy for Christians under attack.

Accusations of Christian attacks on Muslims are as abundant.  Tuesday a Muslim mosque and school in mostly-Christian southern Nigeria was attacked.  At least five were killed.

–+–

I do not have a neatly packaged policy prescription.  I doubt anything the United States government can do will have more than glancing influence. Not adding fuel to the fire would be helpful. Containing or resolving the conflict depends mostly on those people of good will standing athwart the sectarian fault lines.

As important as US policy is probably the behavior of Americans who identify with those on one side or the other of the fault lines.

This is complicated enough that I feel justified drawing on another’s complicated diagnosis.   Here’s how Martin Buber describes our embrace of self and otherness and its implications.

The It-world hangs together in space and time.

The You-world does not hang together in space and time.

The individual You must become an It when the event of relation has run its course.

The individual It can become a You by entering into the event of relation.

These are the two basic privileges of the It-world. They induce man to consider the It-world as the world in which one has to live and also can live comfortably — and that even offers us all sorts of stimulations and excitements, activities and knowledge. In this firm and wholesome chronicle the You-moments appear as queer lyric-dramatic episodes. Their spell may be seductive, but they pull us dangerously to extremes, loosening the well-tried structure, leaving behind more doubt than satisfaction, shaking up our security — altogether uncanny, altogether indispensable. Since one must after all return into “the world,” why not stay in it in the first place? Why not call to order that which confronts us and send it home into objectivity? And when one cannot get around saying You, perhaps to one’s father, wife, companion — why not say You and mean It? After all, producing the sound “You” with one’s vocal cords does not by any means entail speaking the uncanny basic word. Even whispering an amorous You with one’s soul is hardly dangerous as long as in all seriousness one means nothing but experiencing and using.

One cannot live in the pure present: it would consume us if care were not taken that it is overcome quickly and thoroughly. But in pure past one can live; in fact, only there can a life be arranged. One only has to fill every moment with experiencing and using, and it ceases to burn.

And in all the seriousness of truth, listen: without It a human being cannot live. But whoever lives only with that is not human.

(Martin Buber, Ich und Du, as translated by Walter Thompson)

For anything resembling our current It-world to truly hold together, Christians and Muslims (and others as well) will need to more often relate as You’s rather than It’s.

There is also a simpler — and even less likely — solution.  Another Buber quote suggests the way: “The atheist staring from his attic window is often nearer to God than the believer caught up in his own false image of God.”

January 5, 2012

Defense strategy and homeland security

Earlier today the President signed out and the Secretary of Defense released new strategic guidance for the Department of Defense. Following are my quick-takes on those aspects of the document  most closely related to homeland security.

Page 1:

The demise of Osama bin Laden and the capturing or killing of many other senior al-Qa?’ida  leaders have rendered the group far less capable. However, al-Qa?’ida and its affiliates remain active in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia, and elsewhere. More broadly,violent extremists will continue to threaten U.S. interests, allies, partners, and the homeland.The primary loci of these threats are South Asia and the Middle East. With the diffusion of destructive technology, these extremists have the potential to pose catastrophic threats thatcould directly affect our security and prosperity. For the foreseeable future, the UnitedStates will continue to take an active approach to countering these threats by monitoring theactivities of non-state threats worldwide, working with allies and partners to establishcontrol over ungoverned territories, and directly striking the most dangerous groups and individuals when necessary.

Page 2:

In the Middle East, the Arab Awakening presents both strategic opportunities and challenges. Regime changes, as well as tensions within and among states under pressure toreform, introduce uncertainty for the future. But they also may result in governments that,over the long term, are more responsive to the legitimate aspirations of their people, and aremore stable and reliable partners of the United States.Our defense efforts in the Middle East will be aimed at countering violent extremists anddestabilizing threats, as well as upholding our commitment to allies and partner states.

Page 3:

To enable economic growth and commerce, America, working in conjunction with allies and partners around the world, will seek to protect freedom of access throughout the globalcommons ?– those areas beyond national jurisdiction that constitute the vital connective tissue of the international system. Global security and prosperity are increasingly dependent on the free flow of goods shipped by air or sea. State and non-state actors pose potential threats to access in the global commons, whether through opposition to existing norms orother anti-access approaches. Both state and non-state actors possess the capability and intent to conduct cyber espionage and, potentially, cyber attacks on the United States, with possible severe effects on both our military operations and our homeland. Growth in the number of space-faring nations is also leading to an increasingly congested and contested space environment, threatening safety and security. The United States will continue to lead global efforts with capable allies and partners to assure access to and use of the global commons, both by strengthening international norms of responsible behavior and by maintaining relevant and interoperable military capabilities.

Page 4:

Acting in concert with other means of national power, U.S. military forces must continue to hold al-Qa?’ida and its affiliates and adherents under constant pressure, wherever they may be. Achieving our core goal of disrupting, dismantling, and defeating al-Qa?’ida and preventing Afghanistan from everbeing a safe haven again will be central to this effort. As U.S. forces draw down in Afghanistan, our global counter terrorism efforts will become more widely distributedand will be characterized by a mix of direct action and security force assistance. Reflecting lessons learned of the past decade, we will continue to build and sustain tailored capabilities appropriate for counter terrorism and irregular warfare. We will also remain vigilant to threats posed by other designated terrorist organizations, such as Hezbollah.

Page 5:

Accordingly, DoD will continue to work with domestic and international allies and partners and invest in advanced capabilities to defend its networks, operational capability, and resiliency in cyberspace and space….

U.S. forces willcontinue to defend U.S. territory from direct attack by state and non-state actors. We willalso come to the assistance of domestic civil authorities in the event such defense fails or in case of natural disasters, potentially in response to a very significant or even catastrophic event. Homeland defense and support to civil authorities require strong,steady?–state force readiness, to include a robust missile defense capability. Threats to the homeland may be highest when U.S. forces are engaged in conflict with an adversary abroad.

Page 6:

The nation has frequently called upon its Armed Forces to respond to a range of situations that threaten the safety and well-being of its citizens and those of other countries. U.S. forces possess rapidly deployable capabilities, including airlift and sealift, surveillance, medical evacuation and care, and communications that can be invaluable in supplementing lead relief agencies, by extending aid to victims of natural or man-made disasters, both at home and abroad. DoD will continue to develop joint doctrine and military response options to prevent and, if necessary, respond to mass atrocities. U.S. forces will also remain capable of conducting non-combatant evacuation operations for American citizens overseas on an emergency basis.

You may see more.   The document includes considerable attention to WMD and cyber threats not excerpted above.

July 11, 2011

Brennan in Yemen (again)

Filed under: International HLS,Strategy,Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Philip J. Palin on July 11, 2011

Sunday John Brennan, Assistant to the President for Counterterrorism and Homeland Security, was in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia seeing (still) President Saleh of Yemen who is recuperating from injuries suffered in an early June attack.  I don’t know when the trip was planned, but I expect a late Thursday speech by Saleh was somehow related.

In the speech, President Saleh said nothing about stepping down from office.  A White House statement on Brennan’s trip includes, “During the meeting, Mr. Brennan called upon President Salih to fulfill expeditiously his pledge to sign the GCC-brokered agreement for peaceful and Constitutional political transition in Yemen.” (You say Saleh, I say Salih.)  In other words, Saleh should resign the presidency and stay out of Yemen.

Tens of thousands — possibly hundreds of thousands — of Yemenis filled the streets in protest after Saleh’s speech was broadcast.

Today Brennan is in Yemen.  According to the Wall Street Journal:

Brennan met with Vice President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi in a bid to revive a power-transfer deal proposed by Yemen’s neighbors. Mr. Hadi has headed the government since embattled President Ali Abdullah Saleh left for neighboring Saudi Arabia to be treated for wounds he suffered in a June 3 attack on his compound in San’a, Yemen’s capital… Mr. Hadi briefed Mr. Brennan on his previous meeting with the opposition groups regarding the transition plan, which envisions presidential elections two months after the initial handover of power… Mr. Brennan’s visit also appeared to reflect Washington’s concerns about the growing strength of Islamic militants in Yemen, which is close to the Gulf’s vast oil fields and strategic shipping lanes in the Arabian and Red seas. U.S. officials say Washington has increased its security presence and operations in Yemen amid the turmoil.

I can’t keep up with Mr. Brennan.  On June 29 while I was offline for some personal obligations Mr. Brennan introduced the new National Strategy for Counterterrorism. Watch Brennan’s SAIS speech or read his prepared remarks on the new strategy.

More on the new Strategy coming up.

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