Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

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.

MORE

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.

August 7, 2014

Deterrence: Prospect of pain and pleasure

Filed under: Radicalization,Risk Assessment,Strategy — by Philip J. Palin on August 7, 2014

We seek to deter:

  • Russian adventurism (or worse) in Ukraine
  • Chinese nationalism in the Western Pacific
  • Cyberattacks
  • Drug cartels
  • Children at our doorstep
  • Domestic terrorism
  • Violent extremism
  • Building and rebuilding in flood plains
  • Driving Under the Influence
  • Boating Under the Influence
  • Tanning
  • Texting while Driving
  • Much more

Effective deterrence involves the suggestion or projection or conjuring or crafting — even the verb is situational —  of a context where others will not do what you do not want them to do without requiring that you fully invest in stopping them.  Deterrence is targeted at motivation and intention as much as behavior.

In May The Economist scanned a very troubled global context and asked, “Under what circumstances will America act to deter troublemakers? What, ultimately, would America fight for?”  As the questions imply, deterrence is usually most effective when another party perceives you are ready and willing to fully invest in stopping them.

Since early in the Cold War we have characterized deterrence mostly in terms of the prospect of American military power applied. (Earlier understandings of deterrence were more expansive.) More recently — currently — we have experimented with the application of economic power as a deterrent.  In each case deterrence is coercive.

The downing of MH17 pushed the European Union to impose much tougher economic sanctions on Russia than were otherwise likely to have emerged.  The actual deterrent effect of these actions — combined with coordinated action by the US and others — is uncertain, especially in the near-term.  But there is increasing evidence that over the long-term economic sanctions can have an influence — if they are consistently and comprehensively enforced.  Big if and long-term can sometimes take too long.

On July 25 President Obama, hosting the Presidents of Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador, said, “I emphasized that the American people and my administration have great compassion for these children…but I also emphasized to my friends that we have to deter a continuing influx of children putting themselves at risk.”

In this context that “we” focused on that target suggests something more than the application of US military force or economic sanctions.

Deterrence is usually characterized in terms of increased risk.  Do X and we will do Y.  You won’t like Y. This is an important part of the story.  It is not — should not be — the whole story.

In the case of children-at-the-border deterrence is most often discussed in terms of quick-capture-and-return. By doing so many suppose the motivation of risking illegal entry would be widely discouraged.

Risk is perceived through cognitive frames.  This has been demonstrated empirically.  Most of us know this as a matter of personal experience. We are especially motivated to avoid losing what we have. Some hypothesize the more we have the more disinclined we are to lose it: the more susceptible we are to deterrence.

Does this predisposition work in reverse: The less one has, the greater readiness to risk it on a big win?  At least one study by Cornell University scholars found that “desperation motivates lottery consumption by the poor”.  The odds of successful illegal entry to the United States are much better than most lottery likelihoods.

Is desperation — financial, political, spiritual, existential — resistant to deterrence?  Yes, in my experience.

Several recent analyses have suggested Vladimir Putin is “cornered” in regard to Ukraine and more. Writing in the New Republic, Julia Iolffe, comments, “This is Putin today: a brash and unpredictable man backed into a corner with little, if any, way out. And it’s not a good Putin to be faced with.”  When, where, and how will he seek to break-out?

Putin is desperate to survive politically.  Survival is less abstract for hundreds of millions. Desperation may be the most common characteristic of a global tribe of young males. (Related academic study) Several demographic trends are discouraging for a significant proportion of this volatile group. Mass migration is only one symptom.

Despair — the absence of hope — is as susceptible to irrational risk-taking as it is resistant to rational deterrence. Humans will risk a great deal to reclaim hope.

To effectively deter almost always involves dampening desperation.

American military or police power can deploy a credible prospect of pain. What are our tools for generating the prospect of pleasure?  To fight is not our only investment option.  If deterrence is the investment goal, both pain and pleasure — carrot and stick — are needed to make real progress… along the Dnieper and the Tigrus and the Rio Grande.

–+–

I posted what’s above early on August 3.  I am told that this week I am unlikely to be able to access the Internet.  Depending on what transpires, this post may seem especially irrelevant or entirely inappropriate.  If so, I apologize.

July 3, 2014

Hope, fear, and prospect theory

CBP and 8 year old

Photograph by Jennifer Whitney  for the New York Times

Chris Bellavita hopes the QHSR  will advance homeland security.  I fear too few will engage the QHSR to produce a sufficient effect. (Chris, btw bases his hope on evidence from the first QHSR while I deploy mostly worry and cynicism.)

Parents in Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, and elsewhere hope their children will find a better life in the United States. Others in Virginia’s Seventh Congressional District, Murietta, California, and elsewhere fear these children will unravel the rule of law.

Some Sunni Salafist fighters hope they are creating the foundations of a just and righteous society across what is now Northern Syria and Iraq, eventually the whole world.  Many Shia faithful and others fear they are numbered among the unrighteous to be converted or killed.

Google, Facebook, Yahoo, Twitter and many geeks still unknown, hope to bring the whole world into our hand-helds, opening exciting opportunities for meaningful relationships and untold riches.  Some of us fear our credit-scores — and more substantive identities — are being delivered into the hands of criminals, terrorists, con-artists, corporate voyeurs, NSA spooks and more.

The current Executive hopes to establish and consistently apply a rigorous set of principles and due process by which evil can be prevented and sacred values preserved (while sources and methods are protected).  Senators Paul and Wyden among others fear that any hidden act claimed as lawful is a hot-house of hubris where the very best intentions will be incrementally reversed.

They want to retire to the beauty of the shore or mountainside or river or forest or such.  The prospect of hurricane, flood, earthquake, and fire prompt some second-thoughts.

We are tempted — especially those of us in homeland security — to treat risk as something that might be measured as accurately as an average shoe-size… if only we can gather enough shoes.  Imelda where art thou?

But the risk that matters most may be imagined more than measured.  Big hirsute Hobbit feet may be the common heuristic, no matter how many ballerinas bounce about us.

Over thirty years ago Tversky and Kahneman showed us, “Decision making under risk can be viewed as a choice between prospects or gambles.”  It is how we frame our expectations that decide our perspective on risk and thereby determine what choices seem rational.

For most our frame-on-reality is decided by a reference point: typically an expectation of the status quo persisting.  If we are more-or-less satisfied (or psychologically risk-averse) we worry more over the prospect of losing than embrace an opportunity to gain.  This can apply even if we have little to lose.  We  tend  to over-weight the downside and under-estimate positive likelihood.

Unless we are risk-seeking. As is typical with criminals, terrorists, and teenage boys. By the early 1990s Tversky and Kahneman had found, “Risk-seeking choices are consistently observed in two classes of decision problems. First, people often prefer a small probability of winning a large prize over the expected value of that prospect. Second, risk seeking is prevalent when people must choose between a sure loss and a substantial probability of a larger loss.”

There are other variations of human rationality that do not square with “expected utility” (rationality according to economists).  But risk-seeking has particular relevance for homeland security.

When my great-grandfather returned to England from another colonial war and had the audacity to marry a Scots seamstress of another (Christian) faith, they faced the disdain of family and very constrained prospects. Perceiving only losses to lose, he and she set out for Philadelphia.  The risk was real, but seemed less to them than remaining in Newcastle.

Nineteenth century Newcastle had a murder-rate considerably less than today’s Tegucigalpa (10 per million versus 1690 per million).  Who says the parent of the eight-year-old in the picture above has not made a reasonable calculation?

Today I will purchase a lottery ticket with a small probability of winning a large prize.  Early this week a new Caliphate was proclaimed.  Was the self-styled Caliph’s reasoning all that different than mine?

There are too many whose reference point is a land-of-loss, especially loss of hope.  The risks they are willing to take — heroic or demonic depending on taste — are worth our notice, a touch of fear, and some courageous creativity.  If reduction of risk-seeking is a goal, our target is their prospective imagination.

June 23, 2014

Legal opinion supporting extrajudicial execution of a citizen

Filed under: Legal Issues,Radicalization,Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Philip J. Palin on June 23, 2014

In response to a FOIA-related court order a key Justice Department legal opinion has been released. The July 2010 memo was the basis for the government’s extrajudicial killing of an American citizen, Anwar al-Awlaki, in 2011. The Washington Post provides a PDF of the memo here.

June 19, 2014

Warlords, tribes, contending gods, battles and a besieged city

Filed under: Radicalization,Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Philip J. Palin on June 19, 2014

mask_of_agamemnon

In the midst of mayem and deep uncertainty, as nations tremble and empires flail, it may be worth revisiting the Iliad.

But if you do, resist (briefly) the poetic allure.  Instead give more attention to the convoluted plot, human psychology, and social anthropology of the Great Tale. (I prefer Robert Fagles translation.)

Is Abu-Bakr al-Bagdadi our new Agamemnon? Is ISIS the Mycenaean wedge at the fore of loosely assembled Sunni tribes? Is Maliki a misunderstood Priam or is Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani more analogous? Who is your Hector? Who is the Paris we can all agree to blame.

Instead of playing Baghdad for Troy, you might want to consider Kabul or Bangui or Bamako.  Dare we imagine Islamabad or Abuja?  Damascus or Jerusalem?  Some shining city on a hill. Maybe Troy is Kurdish. Your hometown?

Who are your heroes?  Your villains? In Homer’s telling every god and mortal — Greek and Trojan — is capable of conceit, self-delusion, and brutality… and their opposites.

Are we so different now?  There are many more of us. Our weapons are surely more horrible.  Has our heroic capacity matured with our capability to kill?  Achilles is the best known of Homer’s so-called heroes.  But he spends much of the war sulking. When vengeance pushes him furious into battle he sadistically sullies his win; as we have seen this week in Mosul and many places before.

That this story has in some form persisted these — what, 3000? — years must reflect some realism and recurring relevance of the text.

Especially in its current form the Iliad is a product of the Axial Age. Looking back five (or 30) centuries the supposed casus belli — Helen’s kidnapping — is as absurd as the assassination of an Archduke. Battle is opportunity for personal valor, compelling comradeship, and even stirring pageantry.  But warring is also reduced to the reality of individual encounter and inglorious gore, any alleged greater purpose somehow receding.  Socrates fights valiantly at Delium, but Sparta still wins the war.  Socrates saves the life of Alcibiades at Potidaea and he, who will drink hemlock rather than depart his homeland, becomes teacher, friend, perhaps lover, of that most ambiguous of men. Awareness of — even comfort with — such ambiguity Homer offers as civilizing: probably a Fifth Century theme added to older, less self-critical verse.

The Axial Age, at least as conceived by Karl Jaspers, brings us greater integration and more alignment of belief and behavior.  Quarreling gods, random warlords and associated violence are gradually supplanted by purposeful principles and imperial command: Cyrus, Ashoka, Alexander, Qin Shi Huang, Augustus and their successors.  Certainly we continue to pillage, rape and murder. But we are rather more organized about it. Boundaries —  political, physical, philosophical — are put in place (with significant exceptions, some extending over thousands of miles and centuries).

According to Stephen Pinker, Joshua Goldstein, Norbert Elias and others we can measure — despite all the bloody brutality — real long-term reductions in violence. The Westphalian consensus retrieved and strengthened Axial values. The survivors of the European wars of religion deciding  that violence ought be a State monopoly has been especially hard on warlords.  Until recently.

Maybe it is the result of that Archduke’s assasination, but however it happened we seem to have entered a transaxial, post-Westphalian period.  Era or interlude?

By transaxial I mean the once-upon stand-alone axes which cultures use to mitigate internal strife now intersect and conflict and — so far — no Frank Gehry is emerging to transform multiple axes into beautiful torque (think Bilbao Guggenheim or LAs Disney concert hall).  The contradicting lines are dramatic just now along the Tigris, Indus,  Niger  and Nile rivers.  But something similar can erupt even along the Danube or Ohio or Dnieper or James.

This crossing of axes made more dangerous as violent capabilities are more widely distributed.  In many cases, the State being only one of many deadly players.

All of which is difficult enough.  But what — even in this long-view — has recently caused me particular concern is for transaxial and post-Westphalian to merge with what might be neo-Manichean.

At the heart of the Axial transformation was a rough sense of shared humanity.  Whether it was Buddha, Zoroaster, Confucius, Deutero-Isaiah, or Socrates/Plato each recognized in others a reality deserving respect.  In the Treaty of Westphalia the signatories pledge to honor their heretical adversaries and solemnly undertake “Universal Peace, and a perpetual, true, and sincere Amity.”  Whatever they felt toward lousy Lutherans or corrupt Catholics, they were encouraged in what came to be known as Humanism.  It could and did fail, but as Pinker might say, “It could have been — had been — much worse.”

Today with Boko Haram, the Anti-Balakas, ISIS, and others — some closer to home — there is a growing conception of being engaged in cosmic conflict between “us” and “them” — Good and Evil — that justifies, even galvanizes mass murder.  This is not just ancient tribalism, but apocalyptic wish-fulfillment.  This is an ideology of annihilation.  It is Achilles mocking Hector’s offer of mutual honor.  It is a shrill chorus of pre-historic savagery.  It must be rejected… especially if noticed in ourselves.

–+–

Overpowered by memory
Each man gives way to grief.
Priam weeping for man-killing Hector
Throbbing crouching before Achilles’ feet
As Achilles himself also weeps
Now for his father
And again for Patroclus
Their sobs rising and falling throughout the house.

(Book XXIV)

May we be able to share, even with our enemies, more than grief.

June 12, 2014

Foxes, hedgehogs and homeland security

“The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.”

                                                                                         Archilochous

PART I: COUNTERTERRORISM

On May 21 the Secretary of Homeland Security affirmed that counterterrorism is the primary mission of the Department.  But speaking to a large crowd of mostly state and local officials, Mr. Johnson evidently felt compelled to — or did not have the energy to do more than — review the many activities of the Department and, at least to my ears, focused particular attention on the challenge of illegal immigration (See Part II below).  The DHS website does not provide a transcript.  I wonder if whoever prepared the read-out was actually there.

On May 28 the President told West Point graduates:

For the foreseeable future, the most direct threat to America at home and abroad remains terrorism.  But a strategy that involves invading every country that harbors terrorist networks is naïve and unsustainable.  I believe we must shift our counterterrorism strategy…  So we have to develop a strategy that matches this diffuse threat — one that expands our reach without sending forces that stretch our military too thin, or stir up local resentments.  We need partners to fight terrorists alongside us.  And empowering partners is a large part of what we have done and what we are currently doing in Afghanistan. 

The domestic analog of this strategy also needs to empower its partners.  Our homeland security framework should be especially attentive to vulnerabilities and creative regarding strengths. This is certainly important in terms of counterterrorism, but applies across most other hazards as well… if we will take the opportunity to notice.

Neither this White House nor its predecessor has given anything close to the same quality of attention to partnering with the private sector or the states or other crucial domestic players that is given to collaborating with NATO or the G-7 or key individual allies. The diplomatic-military-intelligence triad enjoys an advantage of clout, connections, and intellectual capital that far exceeds what we call homeland security.  Counterterrorism and cybersecurity are just about the only aspects of HS that earn any sustained attention by policy elites.

And this is no longer the elite of yore: foxes ala Isaiah Berlin moving from investment banking to the OSS to the Herald-Tribune to an embassy or two and then decamping for a few years at the Ford Foundation.  More and more our modern masters are process managers, mathematicians, and other rather wonky hedgehogs “who know one big thing”.  And they are inclined to leave other big things — if any might emerge — to someone else.  They notice what they know.

Since mid-May I have had two separate conversations with recently retired senior counterterrorism guys.  One has been out for about a year.  The other just retired last month.  They sounded alot alike.  Most of what they said you already know.  What struck me was what they did not say — seemed unwilling to seriously address — even in an informal setting and with their official duties behind them.  (But then again, look what I am doing with the conversations.)

The potentially meaningful silence I observed related to terrorist motivation. Americans currently fighting in Syria were mentioned by both.  Domestic terrorist trends were discussed. Recent events in the Sahel were reviewed.  In each exchange there were similar references to “behavioral indicators” and “spatial analysis” and “antecedent conduct” and “heuristics” and “covariance” and “probability”.   There was considerable reluctance to engage any questions related to ideology, religion, tribal-identity, grievance, or social, economic, and political “co-indicators”.  When these questions were asked both experts bridged-back to statistics as quickly as possible.

Speaking of statistics, an N of 2 is seldom significant.  But still the similarity was striking.  Rather than discussing fleshy and potentially very bloody human beings, my conversation partners might have been describing Brownian physics: The random motion of particles suspended in flux.

PART II: IMMIGRATION

I considered Secretary Johnson’s May 21 remarks misaligned with his audience.  He had a crowd with rather specific priorities.  He gave a generic speech.  Lost opportunity.

The somewhat greater focus I heard him give immigration may have been more the result of narrative punch than proportion or intention.  The Secretary mentioned that on Mother’s Day his wife joined him to visit a hosting center in Texas for detained unaccompanied minors (UAMs in trade-talk).  I was not taking notes, but his brief description was sufficient to imagine the kind of purgatorial scenes widely reported this week.

Immigration Center

Holding area for unaccompanied minors in Nogales, Arizona (USAToday).  Please note portable toilets in the far ground. Those are cots in the fore ground.

Mr. Johnson shared being profoundly affected and having since taken several steps to mitigate the troubling situation. This was more than three weeks ago.  I have wondered how much the Secretary’s action might be cause of (or only coincident with) this week’s media blitz.  I also wonder if our attention to this issue will be any more long-lasting or effectual than that given the kidnapped Nigerian school girls.  The crucial difference may be that Secretary Johnson is paying attention and has the authority to ensure others notice and act as well.

In the case of both Nigeria and Nogales a “policy problem” has been personalized.  In each case the “others” — even the “its” — who are victims have reclaimed their humanity. Or more accurately many of us have acknowledged what was always the case, but we had neglected to notice.

We are usually as effective depersonalizing victims as we are dehumanizing terrorists.

III. (IN)ATTENTION, INTENTION, AND INFLUENCE

Behavioral indicators and other more objective analytic techniques have emerged, in part, to discourage unthinking, unhelpful, misleading, gross profiling of potential terrorists; such as most Muslims or at least those with beards… or Sikhs who wear beards and turbans (but are not Muslim and at least in the United States have only been the target — not the source — of terrorism).

I am in favor of science, social science and statistics. I very much depend on hedgehogs and have tried to be better at burrowing into a hedge myself.

But this need not — ought not — exclude the knowledgeable, mindful, insightful application of the humanities (e.g. languages, literature. art, philosophy, religion, history).  We should especially avoid excluding our humanity.

In dealing with homeland security problems we need to recognize cause and effect.  This can often be done with a decidedly disinterested stance.  But there are other contexts when subjective human insight can play an important role. There is a place for empathy even in counterterrorism.

At West Point the President also said, “We must not create more enemies than we take off the battlefield.”  We might begin by recognizing that many of our most precious values are disruptive to more traditional societies… as well as some neighbors down the street.  Being disruptive is often — even accurately — perceived as threatening.  Living our values with integrity while defusing the unintended threat to others is a task requiring both fox and hedgehog, as many as we can get with eyes and ears wide open to the unexpected.

In Philadelphia Secretary Johnson saw a thousand state and local leaders and he didn’t seem to fully recognize their potential.  In the particular moment he was unable to differentiate this crowd from other crowds. He only saw what he was prepared to see. But fortunately when Secretary Johnson saw a thousand illegal immigrants crowded into a detention center in McAllen, Texas he recognized: these are children.  Not just UAMs. His observations and  actions were informed by being a father as well as a cabinet secretary.  Solutions will remain elusive, but much more likely when the problem is engaged as a whole.

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