Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

June 4, 2015

What do you know and how do you know it?

Filed under: General Homeland Security,Legal Issues,Privacy and Security,Radicalization,Strategy — by Philip J. Palin on June 4, 2015

Monday the Supreme Court remanded for further consideration Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. Abercrombie & Fitch Stores, Inc.   In 2008 the Company decided not to hire an otherwise well-suited prospective employee because it is her religious practice to wear a hijab (below).

The EEOC sued on behalf of Samantha Elauf under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  The Act “prohibits a prospective employer from refusing to hire an applicant in order to avoid accommodating a religious practice that it could accommodate without undue hardship.”

A Federal District Court jury originally found on behalf of the EEOC and awarded damages to Ms. Elauf, but the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the decision finding that Ms. Elauf had not explicitly informed the Company that her head-covering is an act of religious devotion.  Without this “actual knowledge” of a need for religious accommodation the Tenth Circuit found that the Company was within its rights to stand-by a dress-code that does not allow employees to wear “caps”.

The Supreme Court disagrees.

The 8-to-1 decision written by Justice Scalia strikes me as narrowly framed to discern the law’s intent.  The decision is, nonetheless, being hailed as a victory for inclusion, tolerance, and respect for religious practice.  The Executive Director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations commented, “We welcome this historic ruling in defense of religious freedom at a time when the American Muslim community is facing increased levels of Islamophobia.”

Samantha Elauf and her mother

Samantha Elauf with her mother

Title VII establishes what Justice Scalia characterizes as “favored treatment” for ” all aspects of religious observance and practice, as well as belief, unless an employer demonstrates that he is unable to reasonably accommodate to” a “religious observance or practice without undue hardship on the conduct of the employer’s business.”  On remand the lower courts will take up whether or not accommodation in this case would cause undue hardship.

Meanwhile, Congress struggles to determine what constitutes an undue hardship on personal privacy, especially in collection of meta-data and other often prosaic but powerful tools of digital tracking.  Can the National Security Agency reasonably accommodate citizens varied expectations of privacy?  Or has any such expectation become an unreasonable delusion?

Meanwhile, a DHS red team encountered barely any hardship at all penetrating TSA security protocols.  ABC News reports, “According to officials briefed on the results of a recent Homeland Security Inspector General’s report, TSA agents failed 67 out of 70 tests, with Red Team members repeatedly able to get potential weapons through checkpoints.”  Overly accommodating?

Meanwhile, how well can the US economy reasonably accommodate continued drought in California, recurring floods in Texas and Oklahoma, and the accelerating financial and human costs of natural hazards around the globe?  As the escalating controversy regarding federal flood insurance demonstrates (and Bill Cumming has explained), even measures meant to help accommodate individuals to risk can actually end up causing undue hardship.

In their consideration of EEOC v A&F, I hear the Supremes offering some wisdom that can extend well-beyond the religious significance of our fashion choices.

This wisdom, at least for me, is amplified by the paradoxies — some would say, absurdities — of Samantha Elauf’s situation.   As devout, even pious, as many of her fellow citizens of Oklahoma, Ms. Elauf regularly covers her head to symbolize her obedience to God and as an expression of personal modesty.  As an all-American girl — evidenced by her Instagram account — Ms. Elauf is at ease blending this religious sensibility with the merchandising strategy of Abercrombie and Fitch.  One sample immediately below.

A&F Merry Christmas

For its 2012 calendar A&F kept the Christ in Christmas

This is a profoundly American — some adversaries would insist, satanic — tendency to accommodate what many, perhaps most, of the world could perceive as irreconcilably dueling realities.  We are being challenged again and again to appear on a supposed field of honor to kill or be killed defending this convergence of contradictions.

The brief Supreme Court opinions — Scalia for the majority: 7 pages, Alito concurring: 6 pages, Thomas dissenting: 10 pages — are examinations of applied epistemology.  What do we know and how do we know it?  And applied ethics: what is our obligation to act in accordance with what we know?

According to our magistrates, knowledge is often implicit, typically contingent on context, and, when involving humans, requires a careful assessment of intention. Knowledge is applied rightly and wisely when it recognizes contending values, honors diversity, and is especially solicitous regarding the role of individuals as moral agents.

This is a radical view of the world and our place in it that is considered naive and/or heretical and/or threatening by many millions.  It is also the great attraction of the American experience for millions more.

When we look to our most contentious homeland security issues — for example, privacy v. intelligence-operations, liberty v. security, individual v. community  — are the epistemological principles articulated in EEOC v A&F the rule or the exception?  Are we predisposed to accommodate or insist?  Are we exclusive or inclusive? How much are we tempted to the dogmatism of our critics?

When challenged to a duel do we have sufficient knowledge of self and other to select the most appropriate weapon: sword, plowshare, or pie shell (whipped cream or lemon custard)?

Non sequitur_Messing with Absolutists

Is this heresy, comedy, or serious commentary? (Non Sequitur by Wiley Miller)

June 3, 2015

Erroll Southers reminds us that not all terrorism is related to Islam

Filed under: General Homeland Security,Radicalization,Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Arnold Bogis on June 3, 2015

Recent and not so recent events in Boston notwithstanding, I think it is important to be reminded that the definition of terrorism does not include “Islam,” “Islamic,” “radical Islam,” etc.  That is obviously not to say that there is no such things as Islamic terrorists, but it also means that you can have a wide range of actors such as Christian terrorists, racist terrorists, anti-government terrorists, environmental terrorists…well, you get the point.

However, I often worry that many in the media and even homeland security professionals have missed or forgotten this concept.  Earlier today the folks at Security Debrief pointed out a recent TED talk by homeland security expert Erroll Southers where he deftly makes the case for recognizing the wider nature, and danger, from homegrown violent extremism.  You can catch the highlights at Security Debrief or watch his entire talk below.

Just my opinion, but I would recommend sharing this with any colleagues, friends, and/or family that might think that if it ain’t related to Islam it’s not terrorism.


April 30, 2015

Homeland security: YES or NO?

On Monday night someone torched the Youth Empowered Society (YES) drop-in center in a tough section of Baltimore.  According to Kevin Rector, writing in the Baltimore Sun,

The clashes that left at least 144 vehicles and 15 structures on fire also claimed much of the center’s space, sometime between 2 a.m. and 3 a.m. in the 2300 block of North Charles, Law said. Video surveillance showed no one entering the building, so Law believes someone “threw something burning through the front windows.” Firefighters who responded had to hack down the front door with an ax to gain entry. On Tuesday, the drop-in center – a safe space for homeless youth during the day and a hub of information for them to connect with other service providers – was a sad sight. It’s front office space had a layer of thick black sludge from ash and water to smother the flames.

YES is a youth-led, organization being incubated by the not-for-profit Fusion Partnership.  YES describes itself as follows:

YES Drop-In Center is Baltimore City’s first and only drop-in center for homeless youth. YES Drop-In Center is a safe space for youth who are homeless and between the ages of 14-25, to get basic needs met and establish supportive relationships with peer staff  and allies that help them make and sustain connections to long-term resources and opportunities… YES develops the leadership and workforce skills of homeless and formerly homeless youth through our peer-to-peer model: providing training, coaching, and employment so youth staff can effectively serve their peers and achieve meaningful, livable-wage employment after their time with YES. YES employs seven homeless and formerly homeless youth (three who serve full-time, and four part-time) and four staff who are allies…

Statistics on homelessness are unreliable, but on any single day it is estimated at least 600 Baltimore youth are homeless.  In any one year more than 2000 students enrolled in Baltimore City schools experience some period of homelessness.  Last year YES claimed to have served about one-third of this population.

Is any of this a homeland security issue?

If an emergency management agency was trying to serve “vulnerable populations” or enhance the resilience of the “whole community”, I expect YES would be a meaningful organization to engage.

If YES was serving a mostly Somali, Yemeni, or several other immigrant communities, would it be on some sort of intelligence scan?  If it was serving the educational and employment needs of undocumented immigrants to the United States, would a couple of DHS components be interested in YES?

I think reasonable people can disagree on whether or not the issue of youth homelessness is a homeland security issue.  There is an even stronger case, at least in my mind, for it not being a Homeland Security issue.

But I also suggest that what we have seen happen in Baltimore — and in Minneapolis, Paris, Birmingham (UK and US), Hamburg, and elsewhere — provides plenty of evidence that these social issues are not unrelated to Homeland Security.

This evidence also points to the role that civic enterprises — such as YES — can perform at the seams between individuals, communities, and the public sector. Boundaries are important in the public sector.  Carefully observed — and enforced — limits are especially important in a field like counter-terrorism.  For a whole host of reasons from fiscal to constitutional, we don’t want public sector agencies blithely stepping outside their statutory roles.

But there are also profound problems that messily spill over these important boundaries.

For too long, it seems to me, we have viewed smaller civic enterprises as peripheral, charitable, one-offs.  The evidence is accumulating that they are, instead, crucially important contributors to any systemic and sustainable strategy for engaging a wide-range of social challenges… including several regularly featured at this blog.

February 19, 2015

Bending the narrative

Filed under: Radicalization,Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Philip J. Palin on February 19, 2015

Here is what I consider the center-of-gravity in the argument made by the President in closing yesterday’s White House summit. His full remarks are available from the White House website.


… We are here today because of a very specific challenge  — and that’s countering violent extremism, something that is not just a matter of military affairs.  By “violent extremism,” we don’t just mean the terrorists who are killing innocent people.  We also mean the ideologies, the infrastructure of extremists –the propagandists, the recruiters, the funders who radicalize and recruit or incite people to violence.  We all know there is no one profile of a violent extremist or terrorist, so there’s no way to predict who will become radicalized.  Around the world, and here in the United States, inexcusable acts of violence have been committed against people of different faiths, by people of different faiths — which is, of course, a betrayal of all our faiths.  It’s not unique to one group, or to one geography, or one period of time.

But we are here at this summit because of the urgent threat from groups like al Qaeda and ISIL.  And this week we are focused on prevention — preventing these groups from radicalizing, recruiting or inspiring others to violence in the first place.  I’ve called upon governments to come to the United Nations this fall with concrete steps that we can take together.  And today, what I want to do is suggest several areas where I believe we can concentrate our efforts.

First, we have to confront squarely and honestly the twisted ideologies that these terrorist groups use to incite people to violence.  Leading up to this summit, there’s been a fair amount of debate in the press and among pundits about the words we use to describe and frame this challenge.  So I want to be very clear about how I see it.

Al Qaeda and ISIL and groups like it are desperate for legitimacy.  They try to portray themselves as religious leaders — holy warriors in defense of Islam.  That’s why ISIL presumes to declare itself the “Islamic State.”  And they propagate the notion that America — and the West, generally — is at war with Islam.  That’s how they recruit.  That’s how they try to radicalize young people.  We must never accept the premise that they put forward, because it is a lie.  Nor should we grant these terrorists the religious legitimacy that they seek.  They are not religious leaders — they’re terrorists.  And we are not at war with Islam.  We are at war with people who have perverted Islam.

Now, just as those of us outside Muslim communities need to reject the terrorist narrative that the West and Islam are in conflict, or modern life and Islam are in conflict, I also believe that Muslim communities have a responsibility as well.  Al Qaeda and ISIL do draw, selectively, from the Islamic texts.  They do depend upon the misperception around the world that they speak in some fashion for people of the Muslim faith, that Islam is somehow inherently violent, that there is some sort of clash of civilizations.

Of course, the terrorists do not speak for over a billion Muslims who reject their hateful ideology.  They no more represent Islam than any madman who kills innocents in the name of God represents Christianity or Judaism or Buddhism or Hinduism.  No religion is responsible for terrorism.  People are responsible for violence and terrorism.

And to their credit, there are respected Muslim clerics and scholars not just here in the United States but around the world who push back on this twisted interpretation of their faith.  They want to make very clear what Islam stands for.  And we’re joined by some of these leaders today.  These religious leaders and scholars preach that Islam calls for peace and for justice, and tolerance toward others; that terrorism is prohibited; that the Koran says whoever kills an innocent, it is as if he has killed all mankind.  Those are the voices that represent over a billion people around the world.

But if we are going to effectively isolate terrorists, if we’re going to address the challenge of their efforts to recruit our young people, if we’re going to lift up the voices of tolerance and pluralism within the Muslim community, then we’ve got to acknowledge that their job is made harder by a broader narrative that does exist in many Muslim communities around the world that suggests the West is at odds with Islam in some fashion.

The reality — which, again, many Muslim leaders have spoken to — is that there’s a strain of thought that doesn’t embrace ISIL’s tactics, doesn’t embrace violence, but does buy into the notion that the Muslim world has suffered historical grievances  — sometimes that’s accurate — does buy into the belief that so many of the ills in the Middle East flow from a history of colonialism or conspiracy; does buy into the idea that Islam is incompatible with modernity or tolerance, or that it’s been polluted by Western values.

So those beliefs exist.  In some communities around the world they are widespread.  And so it makes individuals — especially young people who already may be disaffected or alienated — more ripe for radicalization.  And so we’ve got to be able to talk honestly about those issues.  We’ve got to be much more clear about how we’re rejecting certain ideas.

So just as leaders like myself reject the notion that terrorists like ISIL genuinely represent Islam, Muslim leaders need to do more to discredit the notion that our nations are determined to suppress Islam, that there’s an inherent clash in civilizations.  Everybody has to speak up very clearly that no matter what the grievance, violence against innocents doesn’t defend Islam or Muslims, it damages Islam and Muslims.

And when all of us, together, are doing our part to reject the narratives of violent extremists, when all of us are doing our part to be very clear about the fact that there are certain universal precepts and values that need to be respected in this interconnected world, that’s the beginnings of a partnership.

As we go forward, we need to find new ways to amplify the voices of peace and tolerance and inclusion — and we especially need to do it online.  We also need to lift up the voices of those who know the hypocrisy of groups like ISIL firsthand, including former extremists.  Their words speak to us today.  And I know in some of the discussions these voices have been raised: “I witnessed horrible crimes committed by ISIS.”  “It’s not a revolution or jihad…it’s a slaughter…I was shocked by what I did.”  “This isn’t what we came for, to kill other Muslims.”  “I’m 28 — is this the only future I’m able to imagine?”  That’s the voice of so many who were temporarily radicalized and then saw the truth.  And they’ve warned other young people not to make the same mistakes as they did.  “Do not run after illusions.”  “Do not be deceived.”  “Do not give up your life for nothing.”  We need to lift up those voices.

And in all this work, the greatest resource are communities themselves, especially like those young people who are here today.  We are joined by talented young men and women who are pioneering new innovations, and new social media tools, and new ways to reach young people.  We’re joined by leaders from the private sector, including high-tech companies, who want to support your efforts.  And I want to challenge all of us to build new partnerships that unleash the talents and creativity of young people — young Muslims — not just to expose the lies of extremists but to empower youth to service, and to lift up people’s lives here in America and around the world.  And that can be a calling for your generation.


February 18, 2015

Penitence at the White House

Filed under: Radicalization,Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Philip J. Palin on February 18, 2015

On Fat Tuesday and Ash Wednesday — according to some calendars — the White House is hosting its Summit on Countering Violent Extremism.   The sessions are being live-streamed.  I was airborne most of Tuesday, but was able to see/hear some of this morning’s.  You might still be able to catch this afternoon’s, including remarks by the President.

Summit planning has been underway for a long-while.  The meeting is a follow-on to a similar 2011 set of sessions.  This week’s dates were set after the Charlie Hebdo attacks.

Tuesday there were mostly presentations by Boston, Los Angeles, and the Twin Cities (MN) on pilot programs they have run to counter violent extremism.  According to a “Senior Administration Official” the Wednesday session covers:

… The comprehensive “whole of nation” approach that we’re applying to the challenge.  Again, this is not about government, especially the federal government. The federal government doesn’t have all the answers.  This is about building a comprehensive network to fight back against violent extremism.  And we are explicitly recognizing the role that civil society plays, the private sector plays, and that families, et cetera, can play in countering violent extremism. During Wednesday’s agenda, we will have remarks by the President; by the Secretary of Homeland Security; by Lisa Monaco, the Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism, in addition to the presentations from the three cities, from around the world, and from some private sector partners.

When I landed at Dulles Tuesday evening and turned off airplane mode my smartphone nearly exploded. Several dozen folks had sent me links to either (both): Graeme Wood’s piece on What ISIS Really Wants in The Atlantic or Roger Cohen’s op-ed in the Tuesday New York Times (which I had read on the plane).  There were also two links to comments made by Pope Francis regarding the Coptic “martyrs” killed by IS provincials in what many still call Libya. There was also yet another link to the video of the Sunni grandmother condemning ISIS fighters and urging them to turn from darkness. (If you haven’t seen it, probably should, especially given what I write below.)

Many of those sending me these links complain the White House summit is working too hard to gloss the religious — really Islamic — character of extremist violence.  Wednesday’s USA Today includes a similar complaint. For what it’s worth, what I have heard on the live-stream does not discount the religious dimension.  Rather the religious dimension is treated as correlation rather than causation.  This is a valid — valuable — post-Enlightenment distinction.

Moreover when I read  what I can find about our most recent murderers in Boston, Ottawa, Sydney, Paris, and Copenhagen, I perceive motivations much more related to self-aggrandizing popular media than the self-abnegation of most religious traditions or the specifically Islamic emphasis on submission.

Still… I will  admit, that as a person of faith, I recognize an especially pernicious religious dimension to much of our violent extremism.  Self-righteousness is not restricted to the religious, but it does seem deeply correlated.  There can be a specifically religious tendency to conflate our own desires with those of God.  There can be a specifically religious tendency to exclude from God’s love and mercy those with whom I happen to disagree.

Then with my self wrapped as God and others excluded, it is all too easy to mistake profound sin for religious devotion. Of course, this is idolatry.  But most modern versions come cleverly disguised.

Happy Mardi Gras.  May you have a holy Lent.



Here’s today’s Op-Ed on the summit’s topic in the Los Angeles Times by President Obama.  Here’s a critique of the Op-Ed from the American Spectator.  Here’s a more general critique by The Federalist.

Here’s the CSPAN coverage of the President’s remarks at today’s White House Summit. Some other related links are also available.

January 29, 2015

Epidemiology of violence

Filed under: Biosecurity,Public Health & Medical Care,Radicalization,Strategy,Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Philip J. Palin on January 29, 2015

About this time last year I first heard about a few cases of Ebola in the Guinea Highlands.  It was, I thought , a bit strange.  A long way from the Congo River basin, with which Ebola is usually associated.

But I was busy finishing a big project.  Infectious disease is not my specialty. The occasional human contraction of Ebola has typically produced a rapid and effective professional response.  As previously outlined, I also missed some other important connections that could have enhanced my attention.

I was not alone.

Fast-forward to today.  According to the most recent WHO situation update, in mid-January, 148 new cases of Ebola have been confirmed in Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia. Compared to August and September this is good news.  At any other time and at any other place, this level of Ebola transmission would be the epidemiological equivalent of a three alarm fire.

This is not a disease we want to treat as a chronic condition.  We ought not allow it to become endemic.  It is too deadly. The current transmission cycle must be fully, wholly stopped.  Then we must each and all do better with early identification and elimination of future animal-to-human and the first human-to-human transmissions.

This is the way with networks and we are — technically and socially — increasingly a networked world.

It would be easy to move to measles or seasonal influenza.  But I want to try a more audacious analogy.

Last week Secretary Kerry spoke to the World Economic Forum.  The whole speech was better than the sound-bites I had been fed.  Following is the whiff of epidemiology I noticed in his remarks.

We have to do more to avoid an endless cycle of violent extremism, a resupplying on a constant basis. We have to transform the very environment from which these movements emerge. And that’s why we are committed to enlarging our strategy in ways that respond effectively to the underlying causes, as well as the visible symptoms of violent extremism. That’s why we’re developing an approach that extends far beyond the short term, and which cannot be limited to the Middle East or to any other region.

We need – all of us – to take these steps so that a decade or two in the future, when the economic forum meets and you hear from leaders, they’re not standing up here responding to a new list of acronyms to the same concept, but different players. We cannot have our successors come back here to face the same questions and the same challenge. The terror groups may have those different acronyms in the future and they may be targeting different countries, but if we don’t do what is required now, then I guarantee you the fundamental conflict will either stay the same or get worse.

We were very late, nearly too late, in the West African Ebola outbreak.  Thousands have — potentially will — die needlessly.  My too-simple — but not necessarily inaccurate — analysis:  When the usual professional methods were distracted and delayed, the contagion multiplied reaching an extent beyond the capacity of professionals alone.

Sierra Leone applied significant command-and-control techniques.  In retrospect, these were entirely ineffective.  Liberia — more by accident than intention — came to depend on an extraordinary network of neighbors working with neighbors. Eventually this whole community approach was adopted in Sierra Leone as well. This mostly spontaneous bottom-up engagement became the essential foundation on which current containment was achieved.

Professionals have certainly been needed at every stage.  Coordination, collaboration, communication, and clinical care have been built upon the foundation.  Spontaneous beginnings have been systematically reinforced. But until the community — really multiple communities — mobilized the deadly disease was quickly spreading.

This is the way with networks.

January 22, 2015

“Countering violent extremism”

Filed under: International HLS,Radicalization,State and Local HLS,Strategy,Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Philip J. Palin on January 22, 2015

Wednesday the French Prime Minister and other ministers announced several “exceptional” counter-terrorism measures. (Complete remarks in French) (Summary in English) (Reporting by The Guardian)

  • Increased protective services, especially of Jewish and Muslim places of worship.
  • Increased staffing of intelligence functions and a new legal framework for domestic intelligence operations.
  • Increased investments to counter radicalization, especially in prisons, via the Internet and in the community.
  • Increased measures to target and track specific individuals convicted or “accused” of terrorism.
  • Increased efforts, in coordination with the European Union and its member states, to implement effective border controls for the Schengen area.

The summary of the ministerial briefing provided by the French embassy in Washington DC notes, “a file containing the names of all individuals convicted or accused of terrorist acts will be created. These individuals must provide proof of their address at regular intervals and provide notification of any change of address or trips abroad. Failure to comply with these provisions will constitute an offence.” Please note convicted or accused.

Also highlighted at the ministerial briefing — though not actually discussed in any detail — was a government report released on Monday: “Une école qui porte haut les valeurs de la République” (A school that promotes the values of the Republic).

This begins to suggest “soft power” tools the French government will attempt to strengthen to counter radicalization.  The “School of the Republic” concept goes back to the 1789 Revolution and is especially associated with the Third Republic (1870-1940).  The focus has always been on unifying France around core Republican values.

According to the report, included in the priorities for a school that “carries the banner” for the Republic are (my translation):

  • First, secularism with new content related to moral and civic education, but also lay teaching about religions; with a massive effort of continuing education for teachers and operational support to teams in difficulty.
  • Second, reducing educational inequalities: to strengthen the sense of belonging to the Republic by all students, this will require new measures in favor of diversity and social mobility.
  • Finally, the mobilization of all national education partners, and primarily the parents of students: measures to develop school democracy, learning a culture of commitment…

Neither the process nor the principles articulated in the report are exportable to the United States.  But it is interesting to see the explicit connection made between counter-terrorism  — or more accurately, anti-terrorism — and public education.


Related — at least in my fevered brain — is the rather extraordinary dust-up emerging over the “summit” to be hosted by the White House on February 18.  This is part of the ongoing Countering Violent Extremism effort by DHS, State, and “The Interagency”.

In the White House statement on the upcoming session (almost the only detail available so far), it is explained:

Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) efforts rely heavily on well-informed and resilient local communities.  Boston, Los Angeles, and Minneapolis-St. Paul have taken the lead in building pilot frameworks integrating a range of social service providers, including education administrators, mental health professionals, and religious leaders, with law enforcement agencies to address violent extremism as part of the broader mandate of community safety and crime prevention.  The summit will highlight best practices and emerging efforts from these communities. At the same time, our partners around the world are actively implementing programs to prevent violent extremism and foreign terrorist fighter recruitment.  The summit will include representatives from a number of partner nations, focusing on the themes of community engagement, religious leader engagement, and the role of the private sector and tech community. 

The too often contorted  lingo — and bureaucratic behavior — around CVE has been a fair target from the beginning.  It was not surprising when Victor Davis Hanson at the National Review took aim at the summit.  Or when his NR colleague Rich Lowry did so in Politico’s magazine (I can’t quickly find an online link).  But in yesterday’s  New York Times, Thomas Friedman piled on big time.

Some of the critiques are constructive.  Failing to differentiate between nearer-term counter-terrorism and longer-term anti-terrorism is not constructive.  Both are needed.  Well-conceived, the measures of each are complementary.  But in conception and practice they are two very different undertakings.

January 8, 2015

Counterterrorism as social judo

Filed under: Radicalization,Strategy,Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Philip J. Palin on January 8, 2015

paris-je suis charlie

(Above: Crowd in Paris expressing solidarity with the magazine Charlie Hebdo. Photograph from The Telegraph (London), photographer not identified)

The post below had been mostly drafted before the attack in Paris. Reading it in the aftermath of that assault, seven-hundred words have seldom seemed so superficial. Yet I also perceive in this atrocity evidence for the essential argument. As a result — and out of time — I have not revised it. But my argument absolutely deserves your critique given the present context. 


In response to last Thursday’s Happy New Year post a colleague wrote privately that I ought be more worried about ISIS than my brief reference last week implied.

If I lived anywhere west of the Tigris River in what many maps still label Iraq or Syria, I would be more than worried.  The tactical threat is significant and the resilience of this threat suggests a strategic risk that is very much worth our attention.  There will, almost certainly, be ISIS-sponsored or inspired attacks in Europe, the United States, and Australia.

But ISIL, ISIS, Daesh is also a threat that strikes me as self-subverting and susceptible to our mindful action… if we are reasonably self-aware, other-aware, and strategically shrewd.  In regard to dangerous adversaries, I am always ready to celebrate the other’s deficiencies.

Perhaps you read Eric Schmitt’s front-page New York Times story on the current effort to understand “what makes I.S. so magnetic, so inspirational?”

One of those recruited to answer the question is Scott Atran.  In a September essay for The Guardian, Dr. Atran, a French-American anthropologist, summarized part of his answer:

The moral worldview of the devoted actor is dominated by what Edmund Burke referred to as “the sublime”: a need for the “delightful terror” of a sense of power, destiny, a giving over to the ineffable and unknown.

Western volunteers for Isis are mostly youth in transitional stages in their lives – immigrants, students, between jobs or girlfriends, having left their homes and looking for new families. For the most part they have no traditional religious education and are “born again” to religion. They are self-seekers who have found their way to jihad in myriad ways: through barbecues or on the web; because they were perhaps uncomfortable with binge-drinking or casual sex; or because their parents were humiliated by form-checking bureaucrats or their sisters insulted for wearing a headscarf.

As I testified to the US Senate armed services committee, what inspires the most lethal terrorists in the world today is not so much the Qur’an or religious teachings as a thrilling cause and call to action that promises glory and esteem in the eyes of friends. Jihad is an egalitarian, equal-opportunity employer: fraternal, fast-breaking, glorious and cool. (MORE from Atran)

Especially among twenty-somethings who are cognizant of the empty consumerism, cynical politics, and social isolation that characterizes so much of post-modern culture, it is the West that presents the most heinous threat to our essential humanity.  In confronting global culture’s zealotry for individuality, the next new thing, ironic nonchalance, and disregard for those who seek a different way, there are a visionary, courageous few who offer themselves as guardians.  This is how they see themselves.

The young terrorists’ critique of contemporary culture is acute and often more accurate than we prefer to acknowledge.  The need to resist this sometimes deadly culture and offer a more humane alternative is real and urgent. If Atran’s research and analysis is accurate, those attracted to the Syrian fight are not nihilists but misdirected idealists.  Many searching to make a positive contribution have been tragically tempted into self-righteous violence rather than self-sacrificing resistance.

I suggest that in many cases, the young terrorists’ analysis is right.  But their answer is wrong.  This is the self-subversion.  This is the fundamental delusion that undermines our adversary.  This is a weakness for our strategic exploitation, if we can recognize and embrace it.

We have the positive opportunity to offer a clearly better alternative, both for them and ourselves. How to do this systematically is beyond the scope of this post and today.

But to suggest how the alternative might emerge, here’s a New Year’s resolution to consider: Don’t be bland or banal or a bureaucrat.  Do reach-out to others, listen carefully, ask questions, think-first, speak boldly but kindly, and give some serious thought to what it means to love. To be even more preachy, pretentious, ridiculous: What does it mean to love one’s enemy?  None of this is easy. Really, what could be harder?  But who claimed counter-terrorism would be uncomplicated?

Who said bequeathing a bit better world to the next generation could be anything but a profound moral challenge?


Emerging information on the Paris attack: Several reports suggest the terrorists may be related to Al Qaeda in Yemen, not the self-styled Islamic State.  The Yemeni beast is very different from its Mesopotamian alter-ego, but in terms of what initially attracts and their fatal flaw, what Atran has found still mostly applies… it seems to me.

Update on Sunday, January 11:  A video has been made available on the Internet that shows Amedy Coulibaly, the hostage-taker at the Paris Kosher grocery, as pledging loyalty to the Islamic State.  Most news outlets continue to report that two other terrorists, tied to the Charlie Hebdo massacre, self-identified with the Yemen-based  Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

December 21, 2014

In Memoriam

Filed under: Radicalization,State and Local HLS,Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Philip J. Palin on December 21, 2014

Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu

From Commissioner Bratton’s Saturday evening press conference:

Today, two of New York’s Finest were shot and killed, with no warning, no provocation. They were, quite simply, assassinated – targeted for their uniform, and for the responsibility they embraced: to keep the people of this city safe.

At approximately 2:47 PM today, Police Officer Wenjian Liu and Police Officer Rafael Ramos were assigned to a Critical Response Vehicle, CRVs as we refer to them, in the confines of the 79 Precinct.

While CRV is traditionally used for counterterrorism operations, this past May we also assigned some vehicles to Housing Developments throughout the city, Developments that has seen an increase in violence in the early part of the year, like the Tompkins Houses where the officers were stationed.

While sitting in a marked NYPD police car, in full uniform, both were ambushed and murdered in front of 98 Tompkins Avenue in the Bedford Stuyvesant area of Brooklyn, New York City.

Both officers are assigned to 84 Precinct, but were posted at this location as part of a Department crime reduction strategy to address the complaints of violence in the area of the Housing Developments in that area. Officer Ramos was in the driver seat, and Officer Liu was in the front passenger seat beside him.

According to witness statements, the suspect, who has been identified as 28-year-old Ismaaiyl Brinsley, walked up to the police car. He took a shooting stance on the passenger side and fired his weapon several times through the front passenger window striking both officers in the head.

Officer Liu and Officer Ramos never had the opportunity to draw their weapons. They may never have actually seen their assailant, their murderer.


November 16, 2014

Not in my name

Filed under: Media,Radicalization,Social Media,Strategy,Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Philip J. Palin on November 16, 2014

Early Sunday morning a web-based video claimed to show the dead body of Peter Kassig, age 26, a US citizen. The army veteran had started a small humanitarian not-for-profit operating in Syria, Lebanon, and Turkey providing basic medical services and supplies to refugees. In 2013 he was captured by Syrian insurgents. The group claiming responsibility for his execution is the self-proclaimed Islamic State (IS).

If confirmed, this would be the fifth beheading of a Western captive by the group.  The Islamic State (or ISIL or ISIS or Da’ish) has become notorious for using an extensive toolkit of organized violence: beheadings, crucifixions, and mass executions.  Thousands of Syrians and Iraqis have been killed using means clearly designed to engender fear and compliance.

The Kessig video is the longest IS production yet.  While it includes a warning to Western — especially US and British — leaders, the propaganda is designed mostly to advance the IS brand-strategy and to recruit young men. The beheadings are a hook to ensure Western media attention that will prompt the target audiences to seek out the videos (they are not that difficult to find) where the rest-of-the-story is persuasively pitched as an answer to their search for adventure and meaning.

It seems to be working.   Most recent intelligence estimates find at least 15,000 foreign fighters from up to 80 nations are currently attached to a variety of insurgent groups — not just IS — in the Syrian civil war and its overflow into Iraq. (Potentially an interesting comparison:  During the Spanish Civil War of 1936-1939 the total number of international volunteers serving with Republican forces is estimated have totaled 35,000.)

But it may also be emerging that even as IS is achieving some tactical success among a very small slice of disaffected — mostly — young people, it is prompting a blow-back by many others that could have significant strategic implications.

As was the case with David Haines and Alan Henning, British aid workers previously beheaded, the evidence seems overwhelming that Kessig was only involved in delivering compassionate care to those displaced by the Syrian civil war.  There is also no evidence that the two journalists who have been dramatically beheaded had any particular animus toward the Syrian insurgency.  The killings have not only been brutal.  They have, to most minds, been innately unjust.  For most Muslims this is a perversion of their faith.

The video above was developed — apparently independently — by a group of mostly young British Muslims following the execution of David Haines.  It crystalizes a movement that has spontaneously emerged  and is growing online very much contrary to the purposes of IS.

See more at  https://twitter.com/hashtag/notinmyname. Social media — not so much YouTube — is where most of the activity is taking place.

A shared revulsion to IS is also prompting others to perceive, conceive, and act in ways previously unseen.  On Friday, probably while the terrorists were putting finishing touches on their snuff video, Muslims, Christians, Jews, and others were gathering for an unprecedented Muslim prayer service hosted by the Episcopal National Cathedral in Washington DC. The sermon by Ebrahim Rasool included, “We come to this cathedral with sensitivity and humility but keenly aware that it is not a time for platitudes, because mischief is threatening the world. The challenge for us today is to reconstitute a middle ground of good people… whose very existence threatens extremism.”

As the American experience with war has too often  demonstrated, tactical skill can seldom overcome a strategic deficit.  How ought our anti-IS strategy reflect the strategic vulnerability of our adversary?

October 24, 2014

The Homegrown Jihadist Threat Grows

Filed under: Radicalization — by Philip J. Palin on October 24, 2014

In today’s — October 24 — Wall Street Journal, former Senator Joseph Lieberman and former senior Senate staffer, Christian Beckner (this blog’s founder) share the byline in the top-of-the-page op-ed.  They focus particular attention — as each has for many years — on the role of online radicalization.

October 2, 2014

Evil as a non-integrated gap

Filed under: Radicalization,Strategy,Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Philip J. Palin on October 2, 2014

Pentagon's New Map

The Pentagon’s New Map by Thomas P.M. Barnett (click to open larger version)

This is the fifth — and probably penultimate — post on the use of “evil” in homeland security rhetoric. (Prior posts: as referenced on September 10, as otherwise used by President Obama, as self-assertion, and at the United Nations.)

Six quotations on evil, classical to contemporary:

For no man is voluntarily evil; but the evil become so by reason of an ill disposition of the body and bad education, things which are hateful to every man and happen to him against his will.  (Plato quoting Socrates, Timaeus)

Evil in itself has neither being, goodness, productiveness, nor power of creating things which have being and goodness… thus evil has no being, nor any inherence in things that have being. Evil is nowhere qua evil; and it arises not through any power but through weakness… And, in a word, evil (as we have often said) is weakness, impotence, and deficiency of knowledge (or, at least, of exercised knowledge), or of faith, desire, or activity as touching the Good. (Dionysius the Areopagite, On the Divine Names and The Mystical Theology)

I became evil for no reason. I had no motive for my wickedness except wickedness itself. It was foul, and I loved it. I loved the self-destruction, I loved my fall, not the object for which I had fallen but my fall itself. My depraved soul leaped down from your firmament to ruin. I was seeking not to gain anything by shameful means, but shame for its own sake. (Augustine of Hippo, Confessions)

Whence then come my errors? They come from the sole fact that since the will is much wider in its range and compass than the understanding, I do not restrain it within the same bounds, but extend it also to things which I do not understand: and as the will is of itself indifferent to these, it easily falls into error and sin, and chooses the evil for the good, or the false for the true. (Rene Descartes, Meditations on the First Philosophy)

Evil needs to be pondered just as much as good, for good and evil are ultimately nothing but ideal extensions and abstractions of doing, and both belong to the chiaroscuro of life.  In the last resort there is no good that cannot produce evil and no evil that cannot produce good (Carl Gustav Jung, The Religious and Psychological Problems of Alchemy)

Most of us perceive Evil as an entity, a quality that is inherent in some people and not in others. Bad seeds ultimately produce bad fruits as their destinies unfold. . . Upholding a Good-Evil dichotomy also takes ‘good people’ off the responsibility hook. They are freed from even considering their possible role in creating, sustaining, perpetuating, or conceding to the conditions that contribute to delinquency, crime, vandalism, teasing, bullying, rape, torture, terror, and violence. (Philip Zimbardo, The Lucifer Effect)


Evil as an active and intentional otherness is predominant in many Western language and culture systems.  When  most Americans — perhaps most Westerners — hear a reference to “evil” it implies an aggressive force contending with good.   According to one 2013 survey fifty-seven percent of all Americans believe in the Devil as a personification of evil.

As the quotes above suggest, however, this is not the only perspective. Long-time and respected philosophical, religious, and socio-psychological arguments exist for evil emerging from absence of good or distortion of good.  In this view, rather than aggressively active, evil is a contingent experience of disintegration and disorder.  Other surveys find that up to fifty-nine percent of practicing US Christians perceive that Satan, “is not a living being but is a symbol of evil.”

To the extent evil is and continues in the lexicon of homeland security — and especially counter-terrorism — these differences matter.  Clearly it matters in terms of rhetoric.  What does a President or Prime Minister or wanna-be Caliph mean when s/he references “evil”?  What is heard?  Is it possible to better calibrate what is said with what is heard?

It can also matter in terms of long-term strategy.  Absence is arguably non-activity.  Anemia is treated differently from a virus. A deficiency of B12 and an over-abundance of Lewey Bodies can produce the same symptoms, but respond to very different therapies.  Managing a chronic disease is very different than responding to an acute illness.  Executing a war is different than carrying-out a long-term counter-terrorism strategy.

Thomas P.M. Barnett’s insights regarding the world’s “non-integrated gap” are a contemporary policy approach coherent with Dionysius the Areopagite.  Some of us remember The Pentagon’s New Map.  Barnett wrote that.  In 2005 he also wrote:

We need to end the disconnectedness that defines danger in our world. We need to shrink the gap and all its pain and suffering  — right out of existence.  We need to make globalization truly global in a just manner… This process of economic, political, and social integration among many of the world’s states is the defining characteristic of our age, and as such, it defines conflict in this era…

Barnett describes the dysfunction and eventual conflict that emerges from an absence of connectedness.  Tighten the full suite of connections, he argues with considerable credibility, and the risk is reduced for the worst sorts of conflict.  I am arguing — or really just renewing the classical and orthodox argument — that it is the connections we consciously and creatively cultivate that most effectively and happily connect us to reality.  Leonardo Da Vinci’s observation that “Everything is connected to everything else,” can be threat or opportunity depending on how we engage (or not) the connections.

For nearly three years thousands have been horribly killed in Syria.  The pictures of gassed and bombed and starved children have proliferated.  We have observed the increasing power of the most extreme forces on every side.  As this has unfolded we — the supposed demos of the democratic and prosperous “core” (Barnett’s term) — have neglected, perhaps rejected, any meaningful sense of connection.

Then videos are distributed of two, then three (now more) Americans and Europeans being beheaded.  The balaclava-clad executioner with a British accent emerges as a personification of evil. Suddenly we perceive a clear-and-present connection. Warships are dispatched. Jets are scrambled.  Missiles are launched.  A multinational coalition is assembled.

What might have been achieved with more careful attention at an earlier date?  What if we were able to recognize the evil potential of absence — even our own thoughtlessness — rather than waiting for absence to unravel into disintegration, discord, and the fully demonic?

And if absence-of-connection — the non-integrated gap — is the breeding ground for evil in Syria, something analogous is as possible in Seattle.

The suppression of evil is and will probably continue as a prominent justification for domestic and international counterterrorism. But for many — potentially most English-speakers — evil is not understood as related to absence.  Evil is misunderstood as a sudden irrational eruption of accelerated entropy.  This misunderstanding — or very partial understanding — of evil overly constrains our strategic, operational, and tactical engagement with evil. Our orientation-toward-evil colors our observations which inform our decisions that shape our actions.

Recognizing the crucial role of connectedness — and absence of connectedness — allows for much wider and potentially accurate observation.


Next Thursday:  Some personal conclusions.

September 25, 2014

Evil at the United Nations

Filed under: Radicalization,Strategy,Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Philip J. Palin on September 25, 2014

Yesterday President Obama addressed the United Nations General Assembly.  Given the importance of counterterrorism in the homeland security portfolio, the entire speech is worth your consideration.

Given our recent attention to the use of “evil” to characterize our homeland security challenge, I highlight the following few lines:

Mr. President, Mr. Secretary General, fellow delegates, ladies and gentlemen: we come together at a crossroads between war and peace; between disorder and integration; between fear and hope…

There is a pervasive unease in our world – a sense that the very forces that have brought us together have created new dangers, and made it difficult for any single nation to insulate itself from global forces. As we gather here, an outbreak of Ebola overwhelms public health systems in West Africa, and threatens to move rapidly across borders. Russian aggression in Europe recalls the days when large nations trampled small ones in pursuit of territorial ambition. The brutality of terrorists in Syria and Iraq forces us to look into the heart of darkness.

Each of these problems demands urgent attention. But they are also symptoms of a broader problem – the failure of our international system to keep pace with an interconnected world. We have not invested adequately in the public health capacity of developing countries. Too often, we have failed to enforce international norms when it’s inconvenient to do so. And we have not confronted forcefully enough the intolerance, sectarianism, and hopelessness that feeds violent extremism in too many parts of the globe…

As an international community, we must meet this challenge with a focus on four areas.  First, the terrorist group known as ISIL must be degraded, and ultimately destroyed.

This group has terrorized all who they come across in Iraq and Syria. Mothers, sisters and daughters have been subjected to rape as a weapon of war. Innocent children have been gunned down. Bodies have been dumped in mass graves. Religious minorities have been starved to death. In the most horrific crimes imaginable, innocent human beings have been beheaded, with videos of the atrocity distributed to shock the conscience of the world.

No God condones this terror. No grievance justifies these actions. There can be no reasoning – no negotiation – with this brand of evil. The only language understood by killers like this is the language of force. So the United States of America will work with a broad coalition to dismantle this network of death. 

The other three action areas set out by the President are as strategically important and — indirectly — as helpful to hearing what he means by evil.  It is, I perceive, a highly Niebuhrian notion of evil… as I try to explain in the next post, finished about 24 hours before the President’s speech in New York.

Evil as self-assertion of “absolute will”

Filed under: Radicalization,Risk Assessment,Strategy,Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Philip J. Palin on September 25, 2014

… for evil is always the self-assertion of some self-interest without regard to the whole, whether the whole be conceived as the immediate community, or the total community of mankind, or the total order of the world.  The good is, on the other hand, always the harmony of the whole on various levels. (Reinhold Niebuhr, Children of Light and Children of Darkness)


Over the last few years we have encountered the now self-styled Islamic State.  If we were paying attention, we have seen them murder thousands, abuse many more, and threaten even more. In recent weeks considerable attention  has been given to a series of sweeping attacks and specific beheadings. Videos of these individual atrocities — much more than the mass attacks — have produced a widely shared judgment.

President Obama, Prime Minister Cameron, and others have communicated their own judgment that this is a manifestation of evil.  Canadian Prime Minister Harper said of the Islamic State, “It is evil, vile, and must be unambiguously opposed.”  The Australian premier has noted, “We have got a murderous, terrorist organisation – a death cult no less, which doesn’t just do evil, (but) exults in doing evil…”(Perhaps reflective of socialist secularism, I cannot find an example of President Hollande using a French equivalent of evil, but he has called the Islamic State odious, base, and cowardly.)

I’m not entirely sure how to hear “evil” in each of these English-speaking voices. But I have decided the choice of this word reflects the authentic judgment of these political leaders.  This is not a cynical manipulation of language to achieve hidden purposes. Rather, to proclaim this “it” as evil is an honest effort by four elected leaders — reflecting a rather broad ideological spectrum and distinct personalities — to communicate the nature of a threat as they understand it.

But while authentic, I’m not sure how accurately their assessment is being heard.  Moreover, whether this particular symbolic summary — evil — is helpful to further thought and thoughtful action is worth consideration.

I am well-acquainted with the evil potential of banality, bureaucracy, and petty pride.  But I have encountered the profoundly wicked on very rare occasions.  No more, perhaps, than many of our Presidents or Prime Ministers or others who have evaded the concentration camps, the killing fields, the warping  brutality of a parent, priest, or other particularly intimate power.

But my brief bouts have been bad enough.  The most compelling aspect of each encounter being the mirroring, echoing, physical resonance of the external with my own sense-of-self.  I perceive evil as insidious: combining both ambush and self-subversion.  Whatever is strong becoming a potential synaptic pathway for evil’s advance.

It has been widely noted that Reinhold Niebuhr is one of President Obama’s favorite thinkers. (More on the Niebuhr/Obama link here.)  Here and in the quote at the start is a summary of Niebuhr’s own angle on evil and how this reality plays out far beyond the individual:

The children of darkness are evil because they know no law beyond the self.  They are wise, though evil, because they understand the power of self-interest. The children of light are virtuous because they have some conception of a higher law than their own will.  They are usually foolish because they do not know the power of self-will. They underestimate the peril of anarchy and chaos on both the national and international level of community.  Modern democratic civilization is, in short, sentimental rather than cynical.  It has an easy solution for the problem of anarchy and chaos on both the national and international level of community, because of its fatuous and superficial view of man.  It does not know that the same man who is ostensibly devoted to the “common good” may have desires  and ambitions, hopes and fears, which set him at variance with his neighbor. It must be understood that the children of light are foolish not merely because they underestimate the power of self-interest among the children of darkness.  They underestimate this power among themselves.

What I perceive in the most committed terrorists is an expectation of reality that rejects any constraint: no law beyond the self.  Ultimate reality — AKA God — is conceived as unlimited freedom, unfettered self-assertion, absolute willfulness.  George Weigel argues that this is a “defective hypervoluntarist concept of the nature of God.” It rejects the reality of the whole and the varied relationships that constitute the whole.  It is irrational and predisposed to nihilism.

Strains sympathetic to contemporary terrorist thought can be recognized in the primacy of will-to-power found arising in William of Occam and reaching flood-stage in Schopenhauer and Nietzsche. (“All the cruelty and torment of which the world is full is in fact merely the necessary result of the totality of the forms under which the will to live is objectified.” Schopenhauer)  In popular form this worldview can be heard in extreme expressions of American individualism. Everything-Is-Possible-With-God and Anything-Is-Possible-With-Grit share a conception of reality without limits, without pattern, without interdependent relationships. Evil is privation of good, Augustine argued.

Many Americans share with many terrorists a confidence that with the right attitude anything is possible.  This is self-interest on steroids.  This is a synaptic pathway wide open to self-delusion. We underestimate our self-interest, allowing it to reject many of the relationships from which the true self emerges.

Last week a New York Times/CBS News poll found that, for the first time since 2008, more Americans disapprove than approve of the President’s handing of terrorism.  One survey participant was quoted in the Times as saying of the President, “He is ambivalent, and I think it shows.”

Ambivalence is a recognition of contending strengths. It is an acknowledgment of complexity. It is to concede something may exist beyond our full understanding or control.

No one becomes President of the United States without stupendous self-will.  No one becomes Prime Minister of Canada, Australia, or the (still) United Kingdom without considerable self-regard and tactically adroit self-interest. In a healthy democratic system such self-interest is grafted onto — or emerges from — some substantial branch of the whole. The greatest leaders become personifications of the whole.  They are important agents of influence — even attractors of meaning — in a complex adaptive system.

They are not Übermensch transforming chaos into reflections of capricious personal preference.

Precisely because of their well-practiced self-interest and will-to-power, our politicians may be more intuitively attuned to evil potential than the rest of us.  They recognize evil from prior encounters in the mirror.  They likewise know — we hope, perhaps pray — the crucial virtue of self-restraint.

So… with considerable trepidation, hesitation — ambivalence — I have decided that evil can be a helpful characterization of what concerns us along the Euphrates (and well-beyond).  But to be of practical help, this assessment must coincide with a fuller recognition our own tendencies toward evil.  This self-knowledge and thereby deeper understanding of the threat is essential to any hope of effective engagement.


Next Thursday: Evil as absence: Recognizing what is missing.

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 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.

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