Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

November 24, 2015

Fear and loathing

Filed under: Radicalization,Refugee Crisis,Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Philip J. Palin on November 24, 2015

Saturday the Washington Post reported, “Americans more fearful of a terrorist attack, poll finds”.  The article claimed that fear has “risen sharply” since the Paris attacks on November 13.

The actual survey question asked on November 19 was, “How likely do you think it is that in the near future there will be a terrorist attack in the United States causing a large number of lives to be lost?”  The identical question has been asked periodically since December, 2001. Last week eighty-one percent of respondents considered the prospect “very” or “somewhat” likely.  This is the second highest result since the question has been asked, surpassed only by the 85 percent net likelihood found after the July 2005 London bomb attacks.

The survey did not ask respondents anything about fear.

Last week I had three friends check in on canceling their holiday trips to New York.  I received one of their calls while walking across Times Square.  A related email arrived while I was getting off the subway at Herald Square.  That morning many newscasts were leading with the ISIS video-threat against New York.

Clearly my friends were apprehensive.  I don’t perceive they were afraid.  Rather, each of them was probably contacting me precisely to strengthen their predisposition to persist with their plans.  My work has very little to do with counter-terrorism, but one of my friends wrote, “You make me feel safer, because I know you know more than most…”

My responses were variations on the theme: risk is persistent, death is inevitable, New York is a very big place, I’m having a great time.  This does not assert any special knowledge.

The Old English word (fær) from which fear is derived means “sudden attack” or “ambush”.  If I had been at or near the Bataclan I would have been fearful.  I am not confident I have the courage or grace to perceive the profound love reported, even there, by one of those trapped in harms way (thank you Vicki).

But fear is not an accurate description for what I currently feel or what prompted my friends to contact me.  Fear may be what Mr. Trump is trying to sell.  But it is not, necessarily, what the survey respondents were channeling.  Perception of an increased likelihood of terrorist attacks may not translate directly into increased fear of the same.

Yet… I have difficulty explaining inflexible and craven notions regarding “outsiders” unless many are afraid or feel themselves on the sharpest edge of fear and are desperately trying to avoid falling further into what they see as a imminent maelstrom.

How do we constructively deal with such wide-spread anxiety?

It is difficult to think aloud about these issues.  Objective analysis helps, but in another way misses the point entirely.  This is mostly about subjective projection.

A few lines cherry-picked from Auden’s long poem The Age of Anxiety:

All war’s woes I can well imagine.
Gun-barrels glint, gathered in ambush
Mayhem among mountains…
Ruins by roads, irrational in woods,
Insensitive upon snow-bound plains,
Or littered lifeless along low coasts…

Numbers and nightmares have news value.

A crime has occurred, accusing all.

The world needs a wash and a week’s rest.

Better this than barbarian misrule.
History tells more often than not
Of wickedness with will, wisdom but
An interjection without a verb,
And the godless growing like green cedars
On righteous ruins…

But the new barbarian is no uncouth
Desert-dweller; he does not emerge
From fir forests; factories bred him;
Corporate companies, college towns
Mothered his mind, and many journals
Backed his beliefs. He was born here. The
Bravura of revolvers in vogue now
And the cult of death are quite at home
Inside the City…

Do we learn from the past? The police,
The dress-designers, etc.,
Who manage the mirrors, say–No.
A hundred centuries hence
The gross and aggressive will still
Be putting their trust in patron
Saint or a family fortress,
The seedy be taking the same
Old treatments for tedium vitae,
Religion, Politics, Love…

Both professor and prophet depress,
For vision and longer view
Agree in predicting a day
Of convulsion and vast evil,
When the Cold Societies clash
Or the mosses are set in motion
To overrun the earth,
And the great brain which began
With lucid dialectics
Ends in a horrid madness…

We would rather be ruined than changed,
We would rather die in our dread
Than climb the cross of the moment
And let our illusions die.

Auden wrote this between July, 1944 and November, 1946.  I have lived my entire life in the shadow he so powerfully projects.  There is also evidence of such dread being fully confirmed: Between April and November 1944 585,000 Jews were deported to Auschwitz.  On August 6, 1945 an atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima incinerating at least 100,000.  Listing one dreadful example for each year since would not be difficult. Choosing only one would be the challenge.

Yet this is not the whole story.  Auschwitz was liberated, Japanese and Americans reconciled, in the last seventy years many ancient sources of oppression have withered. In the midst of these dreadful years, have you loved someone? Known the love of another? Experienced joy?

Reality taken as whole helps.  Reality is both brutal and beautiful (and more).  It is important not to deny its multiplicity.

Yesterday, Monday, the Washington Post had another story: Voters’ fear of terrorism changes the campaign.  This time individuals are quoted expressing specific fears.  In these explanations I hear something other than visceral reaction.  I hear self-interested choices.

November 20, 2015

Clinton at CFR

Filed under: Border Security,Immigration,Radicalization,Refugee Crisis,Strategy,Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Philip J. Palin on November 20, 2015

Yesterday Hillary Clinton gave a speech and answered questions at the Council on Foreign Relations.  A transcript and video is available at the CFR website.

Here’s how she set up her remarks:

ISIS is demonstrating new ambition, reach, and capabilities. We have to break the group’s momentum, and then its back. Our goal is not to deter or contain ISIS but to defeat and destroy ISIS.

But we have learned that we can score victories over terrorist leaders and networks only to face metastasizing threats down the road. So we also have to play and win the long game. We should pursue a comprehensive counterterrorism strategy, one that embeds our mission against ISIS within a broader struggle against radical jihadism that is bigger than any one group, whether it’s al-Qaida or ISIS or some other network.

An immediate war against an urgent enemy and a generational struggle against an ideology with deep roots will not be easily torn out. It will require sustained commitment in every pillar of American power. This is a worldwide fight, and America must lead it.

Our strategy should have three main elements: one, defeat ISIS in Syria, Iraq, and across the Middle East; two, disrupt and dismantle the growing terrorist infrastructure that facilities the flow of fighters, financing arms, and propaganda around the world; three, harden our defenses and those of our allies against external and homegrown threats.

Mrs. Clinton proceeds with detailed, balanced, and well-argued analysis and recommendations.  Even one well-known conservative commented, “Candidate Clinton laid out a supple and sophisticated approach.”  It is worth reading — or at least listening — carefully.

While she did not give major attention to the issue of the US receiving Syrian refugees, given the political climate the presidential candidate’s comments could even be characterized as courageous. Below is part of what she said:

Since Paris, no homeland security challenge is being more hotly debated than how to handle Syrian refugees seeking safety in the United States. Our highest priority, of course, must always be protecting the American people. So, yes, we do need to be vigilant in screening and vetting any refugees from Syria, guided by the best judgment of our security professionals in close coordination with our allies and partners. And Congress needs to make sure the necessary resources are provided for comprehensive background checks, drawing on the best intelligence we can get. And we should be taking a close look at the safeguards and the visa programs as well.

But we cannot allow terrorists to intimidate us into abandoning our values and our humanitarian obligations. Turning away orphans, applying a religious test, discriminating against Muslims, slamming the door on every Syrian refugee—that is just not who we are. We are better than that. And remember, many of these refugees are fleeing the same terrorists who threaten us. It would be a cruel irony indeed if ISIS can force families from their homes, and then also prevent them from ever finding new ones. We should be doing more to ease this humanitarian crisis, not less. We should lead the international community in organizing a donor conference and supporting countries like Jordan, who are sheltering the majority of refugees fleeing Syria.

And we can get this right. America’s open, free, tolerant society is described by some as a vulnerability in the struggle against terrorism, but I actually believe it’s one of our strengths. It reduces the appeal of radicalism and enhances the richness and resilience of our communities.


A personal addendum: I have always wondered — worried, really — what I might have done (or perhaps not done) if I had been in Germany when the Nazis began their fear campaign against the Jews (and others), or if I could have encouraged the United States to accept more European refugees in the late 1930s, or if I had been in California when Americans placed fellow citizens of Japanese descent in our own concentration camps.  Right and wrong is so much easier retrospectively.

The House of Representatives has already voted to reject the victims of tyranny, hatred and war.  This is not surprising.  It reflects popular fear and the House was designed to mirror such sentiment.  We are certainly no better than our grandparents. I hope the Senate will act with wider and wiser consideration. But it will, apparently, be a close vote.  Courage and conscience are not major voting blocks.

In regard to receiving refugees, fear and concern ought not be dismissed.  But these are not our only or best options. American neglect and rejection of victims did not help avoid World War II and may have even encouraged those intent on the massacre of innocents.  The victimization of our own citizens was simply unnecessary and profoundly wrong.  In the current context, much of the ISIS strategy depends on the US and rest of the West rejecting the refugees and intimidating our Muslim citizens.

A world in which the stranger, widow and orphan are rejected is a place where none of us are safe.

November 19, 2015

Naming the enemy

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

Karen Armstrong and others have argued that great religions and ethical systems — Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Confucianism, classical Greek philosophy and more — arose in the Axial Age as universalist efforts to contain increasingly deadly tribal conflict. The goal was to extend common values across tribal boundaries. Christianity, Islam, and others have emerged from similar need.

The Westphalian Consensus might be summarized as European elites deciding their wars of religion — outbreaks of tribalism within a universalist construct — were entirely too costly.  An increasingly fractured universal claim was succeeded by cults of dynastic and/or national sovereignty. Confessional diversity and various tribal identities would be tolerated if subordinated to the State. While never entirely successful, the risks seemed manageable until 1914-1945, when the mitigation process dramatically failed.

Emerging from this failure, two large post-Westphalian States competed to offer alternate visions of universalist ascendance: capitalism or communism.  (Each offer complicated — occasionally enhanced — by tribal particularities of the USA and USSR.)

Since the end of the Cold War, various kinds of capitalism — rarely pure, sometimes state-sponsored, usually mixed — have made their bid for universal influence. It is typically a creed of consumption, near-term gratification, supply chain efficiency, creative destruction, constant change, the next new thing. Many have benefited.  Millions have been pulled out of poverty.  But costs, both direct and indirect, are steep and are accumulating.

I am a Capitalist and an alleged Christian. I am an active citizen of a post-Westphalian nation-state that has proudly (at times earnestly) aspired to be post-tribal. Universalism is my cultural and personal comparative advantage.  But from time to time, even I feel the litany and logic of universalism to be manipulative, inhumane, and vulgar. Others, for whom tribe is source of identity and sustenance, — and those with no meaningful identity — often find my universalist values unnatural and frightening.

Some have credibly demonstrated our species emerged no less than 60,000 years ago and can be traced even further back.  For at least two-thousand generations tribe has been hearth, health, and all that is holy; universalism a very recent, comparatively abstract addition. Tribal relationships continue to enrich. A drought of tribal connections and continuity leaves many thirsty.

ISIS, al-Qaeda and similar movements — Islamic and not — attempt to fuse the promise of tribal roots and universal relationship. Despite the stonings, beheadings, bombings and mayhem their ultimate goal is said to be comprehensive peace and fraternity, within reassuring boundaries of their own tribal traditions.

Rather than atomistic consumers competing for the greatest new thing, they promise a global community of loving faithful no longer tempted by Satanic notions of self-indulgent, ephemeral, and empty consumption. With the wholeness of creation re-formed, peace will characterize the inner and outer lives of all, they promise.

In the specific case of ISIS, members of the cult are self-persuaded that Jews and Christians — and hypocritically modern Muslims — destroy and defile traditional truths and obscure the path of Ultimate Reality with gross materialism and a pernicious tolerance of evil.  To overcome this challenge ISIS has been explicit regarding a strategy to unify Muslims by causing the West to exclude and abuse them.  The Paris attack was designed specifically to prompt such responses.  The National Front and others — including governors of several of these United States — are ready to oblige.

ISIS has also communicated it desires to battle the Crusader nations, especially the United States, France, and Britain, in Northern Syria specifically at Dabiq.  Many in the ISIS leadership understand that this military encounter will initially bring it considerable success, followed by enormous losses, but in any case will inaugurate the end-days, the second-coming of Jesus, and divinity’s direct rule.  Once again several, including Senators Sanders, Graham and Cruz and President Hollande, seem ready to make a date for Dabiq.

ISIS, like al-Qaeda before it, is expert in manipulating tribal tendencies to its particular notion of strategic advantage.

The attacks in Paris were horrific. As we have seen in Mumbai and now again, a small team very modestly organized can do terrible harm. I expect we will see similar attacks in other cities: Rome, Istanbul, and London are at the top of my list.  ISIS has apparently called out Washington DC and New York as targets.

These sort of attacks do not reflect an existential threat to a great nation. But it is very difficult to imagine any government so disciplined and stoical as to make this argument.  A more robust military response, one way or another, eventually will come.

Despite the Dabiq prophecy, I expect a coalition of regional and Western forces will “destroy” the current Raqqa regime.  Given their threats, demonstrated capability, and bloody ambition this probably will now happen sooner than later. Given what we have heard from inside the self-styled Caliphate, maybe this time victorious troops will actually be greeted as liberators. (Probably not.)

But what then?

We can transfer, try to proactively avoid, and reduce the risk posed by ISIS.  But we live in an era when, I suggest, the risk itself will persist. The underlying threat will not be destroyed. Whether the West and/or modern Muslims wage war or peace, the perceived divide is too great to be reconciled any time soon. Given global proximity, even intimacy, the conflict will continue and probably escalate… regardless of what we do or don’t.

The risk cannot be destroyed and must be ruefully accepted because ISIS is merely the most recent reflection of a 2500 year plus contention between forces of tribalism and universalism.  Across all these centuries and most of our cultures there has been a recurring effort to contain the deadly pride of tribe versus tribe.  In many times and places universalism has claimed the cultural high ground.  But tribal insurgencies have always retained the emotional commitment of many.

Tuesday I complained that our current threat had been reduced to an indefinite plural pronoun.  I have heard many insist that we must be explicit regarding the proper noun.  But most of the names offered have been those of a weaker progeny of a primordial power that the best men and women of our species — some would claim an authority even greater than this — have failed to destroy and seldom enough contained.

What then, shall we do?

I have just exceeded my thousand word limit, so I will conclude with three questions that may be worth regularly asking:

  • Does my (our, this nation’s, this culture’s) action inflame or contain tribe-vs-tribe tendencies?
  • Is my action coherent with some version of the other-as-self ethic of reciprocity?
  • Will my action increase or decrease the likelihood of future pain and suffering, for me and for most others as well?

November 18, 2015

Protection and Recovery

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

November 17, 2015

Terrorism and the global war against indefinite pronouns

Filed under: International HLS,Radicalization,Strategy,Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Philip J. Palin on November 17, 2015


The word-cloud was generated from a transcript of Saturday’s debate in Des Moines.

The “debate” was originally intended to focus on the economy. Given Friday night’s attack in Paris, the first twenty-five minutes were focused on the implications of that attack. The word-cloud pulled only from this initial portion. I also excised participant names and prepositions to highlight substance.

A contemporary political debate is not a graduate seminar.  It is not even a blog that can, if it decides, allow a couple of days for review, reflection, and revision.

But given the importance of this issue, with barely 24 hours elapsed between attacking and talking, the experience and aspirations of the three candidates, and the chance for an authentic exchange of views among them, Saturday night may be the best we get to assess how a large slice of the American political class frames the challenge.

What issue?  What challenge?  This remains unclear.

ISIS (not ISIL, btw) was the specific concern on Saturday.  Secretary Clinton said, “we have to look at ISIS as the leading threat of an international terror network.” Senator Sanders said, “Together, leading the world this country will rid our planet of… ISIS.”

Governor O’Malley did not disagree and emphasized, “ISIS, make no mistake about it, is an evil in this world.”   Mrs. Clinton was a bit more programmatic in her characterization, referring to “radical jihadist ideology.” Mr. Sanders offered, “I agree with much of what the secretary and the governor have said.”  He added (and then Mr. O’Malley piled on) that ISIS is the bastard child of the US invasion of Iraq.  Well, actually he said, “I don’t think any sensible person would disagree that the invasion of Iraq led to the massive level of instability we are seeing right now.”

I’m not sure that Mrs. Clinton disagrees, but she was keen to point to other contributing factors: “The Shia– Sunni split, the dictatorships that have suppressed people’s aspirations, the increasing globalization without any real safety valve for people to have a better life. We saw that in Egypt. We saw a dictator overthrown, we saw Muslim Brotherhood president installed and then we saw him ousted and the army back. So I think we’ve got to understand the complexity of the world that we are facing and no places more so than in the Middle East.”  There was even a point where the former Secretary of State may have been about to diagnose the origins of “jihadi extreme terrorism”, but I perceive she thought better of it and rather awkwardly turned another way.

This admittedly apophatic analysis is reinforced by a question the moderator, John Dickerson, posed to Mrs. Clinton a few minutes later: “You gave a speech at Georgetown University in which you said that it was important to show– quote– respect even for one’s enemy. Trying to understand and in so far as psychologically possible empathize with their perspective and point of view. Can you explain what that means in the context of this kind of barbarism?”

Given the context, I do not blame the candidate for choosing to emphasize, “… it’s very difficult when you deal with– ISIS and organizations like that whose–whose behavior is so barbaric and so vicious–that it doesn’t seem to have any purpose other than lust for killing and power.”  Indeed, given the context, I have some reluctant respect for her use of lawyerly qualifiers.


I could continue.  Linguistic analysis is a weird personal pleasure.  But if you did not inherit the gene, I recognize it soon becomes tedious. So some resulting judgments:

  • My initial impression of the Saturday performance was deep disappointment, almost disgust.
  • But careful sifting and reading exposed more coherence than a first hearing found.
  • In reading what was said it is possible to conceive — though seldom to confirm — presuppositions and predispositions that enlarge what was said.   In these between-the-line harmonies I encountered something much more complicated than the bombastic melody.
  • Nonetheless it remains a war march.  Whether the United States is leading or supporting and how differs with the specific composer.  But — as we see in the word-cloud — the consistent theme is: The World is at War with ISIS.
  • Moreover, this is — it seems to me — a rather old-fashioned composition:  Good versus Evil, us versus them, unconditional surrender, total victory, the score reaching a satisfying C major climax.  As Senator Sanders said, “they are a danger to modern society. And that this world with American leadership can and must come together to destroy them.”

I perceive this statement — which many other candidates Republican and Democrat echo — demonstrates a dangerous lack of understanding regarding the plural pronoun; something I have found treacherous in every language I have ever attempted. On Thursday I will try to make better sense of this indefinite.


On Monday at Versailles President Hollande sang a song very similar to Senator Sanders’.  After which the French Parliamentarians also sang. A less than stirring chorus, to my ear.

November 14, 2015

Immigrant Terror Threats: Imported Time Bombs in an Age of Poses

Filed under: Immigration,Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Nick Catrantzos on November 14, 2015

Certain vulnerabilities are emerging in the wake of the attacks on Paris.

1. IMMEDIATE: Inability to vet hence screen assassins mixed among incoming refugees. A universal precept in safeguarding the people and assets of any organization is to begin by denying access to known or likely enemies. Thus the bank shies away from hiring convicted embezzlers, the liquor store from alcoholics, and the daycare center from child molesters. Before an organization can vet such people to make some intelligent decision about who gets in, it must begin with the most rudimentary of first steps: establish the person’s identity. This, sadly, is not possible when incoming droves hail from war-torn, hostile countries that are not about to do anything but impede attempts to trace a given individual’s pedigree and criminal record. Thus we have no way of vetting people like this, and our adversaries know it. The temptation to infiltrate adversaries agents into such migrant waves must be irresistible. It is such a windfall for those who would destroy us, that to not exploit such an opportunity would be jihadi malpractice.

2. EVENTUAL: The tendency of a succeeding generation to succumb to radicalization. A Western country can do everything right in extending humanitarian relief across its borders to welcome oppressed refugees, supplying them opportunities and civil liberties never before available, only to find the gratitude of the first wave of immigrant families turn into a tsunami of resentment for succeeding generations. Perhaps nowhere is this phenomenon better portrayed than in The Islamist, Ed Husain’s 2009 story of how he grew up in a diaspora community in Britain only to be radicalized in a process that began with a longing for a mother country he first saw through the rosy, airbrushed accounts of disgruntled relatives other than his parents. His parents, after all, having emigrated to find a better life, wanted to assimilate, to regard themselves British citizens. But as a youngster, Husain felt estranged, neither fish nor fowl, as he didn’t look or feel British on the one hand and didn’t have a strong Muslim identity on the other. Into this vacuum came recruiters capitalizing on alienation and holding out the allure of a welcoming cultural identity, a sense of purpose, a call to battle for a radical vision of an imagined greatness ideally experienced in snapshots and trickle charges of brief visits to an exotic mother land and to secret meetings of radicals at home. The pattern is revealing: it isn’t the first or true refugees who turn on their host; they are grateful. It’s the succeeding generations, the ones born in relative safety and comfort, the ones who have the luxury of growing up resentful, wanting more and, hence, malleable in the hands of radicals who dangle before them dreams of greatness attained via the express route of jihad rather than the long road of hard work and gradual ascendancy.

3. SYSTEMIC: The unchecked erosion of cohesive elements of the host society under the banner of tolerance to the point of enabling the rise of saboteurs from within. This phenomenon stands out with the demonization of the melting pot. There was a time, remembered more vividly perhaps by first generation children of immigrants whose parents fled countries in tatters in the wake of occupation and civil war, when assimilation wasn’t a dirty word. It was an objective to be pursued with pride and a sense of achievement. The émigrés landing successfully in the New World had to earn their keep and were only too happy to do so. They learned the language and conformed to the laws and customs of the new land providing them opportunities denied them back home. Only now, they were in a new and better home, and they knew it. Thus they thought themselves Americans or Canadians, and they insisted that their children take on the traditions and culture of their new home, sometimes even if this meant diluting the ties to the Old World. When law or custom of the new country conflicted with those of the old country, then the default choice was to go with the new land. After all, this was the source of opportunity, the current home, the place which gave the immigrants the chance they most desired and thus, by extension, the place that deserved their allegiance in return. Sure, it was fine to respect old ways, language, and tradition, but the old folks weren’t kidding themselves. “I enjoy the music and the food and the occasional festivals,” my mother’s kid brother once told me, “but I see myself as an American more than a Greek. This is my country and I put it first.” This was from a man who, like my parents, was in Greece during the Second World War, when the population starved in record numbers as the Nazis and their Italian allies plundered it. Uncle John didn’t remember that part; he was in a Nazi concentration camp at the time, having been rounded up as a low-level courier while a kid working for the Resistance.

Today, the melting pot of yesteryear is regarded an insult, an offense to sustaining cultural identity. Instead, to the extent any kind of nod to assimilation is even considered, the preferred metaphor is the salad bowl. This allows theoretical mixing without loss of identity. Instead of blending in a melting pot, people are supposed to remain distinct “chunks” that tumble in the bowl, coated by some light but not too sticky vinaigrette, such as the shared watching of situation comedies and reality TV shows, instead of shared traditions or, heaven forbid, open profession of allegiance to country or national traditions. Mix together minimally but remain distinct. That’s the mantra. It preserves whatever one wants held inviolate in one’s particular “chunk.” And this distinctness also proves handy in clutching resentments.

We make it worse. By bending over backwards today to open borders unconditionally to people without demanding of them both assimilation and self sufficiency, we load a pistol of cultural castration, cock it, aim it at our own national body parts, and then, perhaps, in a fleeting moment of hesitant misgiving cry out, “Don’t move!”

No Easy Answers

Diagnosing a malady does not necessarily mean offering a cure in the same breath. Doesn’t proper diagnosis at least uncover enough about root causes to suggest that there are things the patient should stop doing in order to prevent the situation from getting worse? If so, then some remedies based on the foregoing analysis would begin with a tenet traceable to both the Hippocratic Oath and emergency management circles: Don’t make it worse.

Places to Start

To counter the immediate problem of vetting incoming hordes, prudence would suggest taking a more cautious view to opening floodgates to people whose only qualification is a hard luck story. People value what they earn, and this applies to immigrants as much as to students or workers of any kind. If citizenship and its rights are to be valued, the country conferring them must treat them as valuable, not as candy to be tossed to win smiles and demonstrate humanitarian impulses in front of cameras. It would make sense to demand of immigrants that they meet some conditions as a ticket for admission. These include fluency in a national language, conversance with the laws and history of their new home country, and a pledge to both abide by the host country’s laws and traditions even when those are in conflict with those of the emigre’s country of origin. Otherwise, why import any avowed malcontent?

To counter the eventual and systemic problems, there needs to be serious recalibrating of institutions to promote and transmit some unifying vision of what it means to be a good citizen without demonizing patriotism. It is fine to maintain a fondness for and recognition of ancestral traditions and culture, but if one is leaving a place for greener pastures, there must be a recognition that the laws of the host country take precedence and deserve respect. For Muslims, this means no, you can’t run your community by Sharia law in defiance of the laws of the land. For others, you can’t insist on having government forms in your native language or fly any flag other than that of your host. Nor can you have your own schools or distinct enclaves designed to self-segregate. If you want to be here, blend. If you don’t, then rethink coming over in the first place.

Too often an otherwise advanced society, losing sight of its cohesive elements, can embark on self-defeating measures, such as a misguided, unchecked immigration policy under the banner of humanitarian relief. It takes level thinking and a weighing of consequences to realize that a nation’s first duty is to protect its citizens and that impetuous opening of floodgates to near term or nascent saboteurs is no way to perform this duty.

November 13, 2015

Open Thread on the Paris Terrorist Attacks

Filed under: General Homeland Security,International HLS,Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Arnold Bogis on November 13, 2015

Obviously, the facts regarding the multi-site attacks tonight in Paris tonight are fluid and it will take days to definitively understand and describe what has occurred.

I am not going to make an effort to replicate news outlets efforts at updating information.  Instead, I thought it might be useful to open a thread on this attack, specifically, or this type of threat, in general, to allow any interested parties to share their expertise, opinions, or general thoughts.

Update: For those looking for information online, the New York Times is providing free digital access to all of their coverage online.

Update 2: For news closer to the source see France 24, an English language French TV station. You can watch their live feed here: http://www.france24.com/

November 12, 2015

Proactively professional and non-partisan

Filed under: Resilience,State and Local HLS,Strategy,Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Philip J. Palin on November 12, 2015

First proposition: Terrorism is the strategic application of opportunistic violence to achieve political purposes.

Second proposition: The political purposes of several radical Salafist groups are advanced when terrorist attacks are made against the United States.  The perceived success of such attacks enhance the recruiting potential of the group that can claim credit and serves to improve the power-position of that group vis-a-vis other radical groups.

Third proposition: The political purposes of several radical Salafist groups are advanced when United States military force is deployed in Muslim-majority territories.  This enhances the ability of such groups to portray themselves as legitimate defenders of Islamic peoples under attack and/or occupation.

[Readers are encouraged to utilize the comment function to raise objections to any or all of these propositions.]

First observation: To the extent the foregoing propositions are broadly accurate (if inevitably reductionist), it is reasonable to anticipate that one or more radical Salafist groups are actively engaged in motivating and/or coordinating a terrorist attack on the United States.  An especially sophisticated group would try to choose a time and target designed to prompt new or increased US military operations in Muslim-majority territory. Given prior patterns of behavior, a dramatic attack late in the US election season or early in the new President’s administration might be conceived as having particular potential. (Al Qaeda, in any of its surviving forms, might be especially motivated to launch a well-coordinated attack to differentiate and resuscitate its brand in competition with the more free-lance ISIS approach.)

Second observation: Barring a significant terrorist event, it seems unlikely the US presidential campaign will give substantive attention to terrorist threats, counter-terrorism, or other aspects of homeland security.  Nor is there evidence any current candidate is especially well-qualified on these issues. As a result, any well-timed and creatively targeted terrorist attack might well produce significant surprise and — especially when surprised — American political processes are predisposed to dramatic responses.

Recommendation:  To the extent these observations are plausible, there would be potential benefit if homeland security professionals in the United States would be proactive during the presidential election season communicating the “draw-play” potential of terrorist attacks and discussing a wide range of US strategic options.  Such activity would be designed to 1) reduce the surprise factor associated with any such attack and 2) discourage US responses that play into the political purposes of radical Salafist groups.

[If the observations and recommendations survive reader scrutiny, it would be especially interesting to hear suggestions about how homeland security professionals could engage in this process.]


The principal author of the prior 400 words does not want to be identified. Let’s call him “Paul Brown”.  He is a self-described homeland security professional currently employed by a State.  Philip Palin has helped shape the language above and will — sometimes in conversation with the author, sometimes not — attempt to respond to reader comments, critiques, and suggestions.

November 5, 2015

The worst of all possible worlds

Filed under: Congress and HLS,Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Philip J. Palin on November 5, 2015

Since June the majority staff of the House Homeland Security Committee has produced a monthly Terror Threat Snapshot.  The November edition, released on Monday, is ten pages long.

It is a pithy, fact-packed, well-linked overview of “the Islamist Terror Threat”.  Seven key takeaways are highlighted in this week’s product:

  • “ISIS is fueling an unprecedented tempo for law enforcement authorities combating the homegrown Islamist extremist threat.”
  • “ISIS’s global expansion has unleashed a wave of violence around the world – including against Western targets.”
  • “Al Qaeda and its affiliates are regenerating their terror networks and capitalizing on power vacuums.”
  • “Foreign fighters converging on the battlefields in Syria and Iraq pose a continuing threat to the United States and our allies.”
  • “The massive refugee flows out of Syria remain vulnerable to terrorists seeking to exploit the crisis to infiltrate the West.”
  • “Guantanamo Bay detainees transferred overseas continue to pose a threat to U.S. national security interests.”
  • “The world’s leading state sponsor of Islamist terror, Iran, continues to sow instability and is poised to gain additional resources in the coming months as a result of sanctions relief.”

I hope this gives you a fair sense of the document’s scope and tone.  If so, this is a comparatively quiet preface for what becomes a portentous cascade of approaching doom.

Earlier versions of the Snapshot have been sent to me.  I have, however, previously chosen not to reference here.  My reticence has been more aesthetic than anything else.  The information provided is credibly-sourced.  The cumulative effect can be powerful.

But I also feel manipulated.  There is a sense of complexity concealed, complicated networks converted to straight lines, some dots connected by erasing other dots, whole categories expectorated.

Given that this is a report of the “Majority (Republican) Staff” there are certainly partisan points being scored.  But most of us are now adept at filtering such obvious self-interest.

Much more troublesome, at least to me, is a pattern of facts being selected and framed (and excluded?) per a preexisting construct.  Dogmatics instead of discovery.

But so what, isn’t this always true of all of us? Some sort of intellectual scaffolding is needed just to organize otherwise exploding experience. We are required to exclude in order to minimally comprehend.

Perhaps the problem — and this Snapshot is only one minor example — is that we can surreally confuse our tools (frames, concepts, theories) for the ground of being the tools are meant to plow, seed, cultivate, and harvest.  We are as farmers so enamored of powerful high-tech tractors that we  now challenge others to noon-time races, rather than tend our fields dawn to dusk.

Rather than ask, we insist.  Rather than wonder, we disguise doubt. Rather than observe carefully, we argue loudly. I will confess, the sound of these engines roaring — the anger false or real, snide swipes, insistent self-righteous certainty —  is for me less and less tolerable.


From near the close of Candide:

“Let us work,” said Martin, “without disputing; it is the only way to render life tolerable.”

The whole little society entered into this laudable design, according to their different abilities. Their little plot of land produced plentiful crops. Cunegonde was, indeed, very ugly, but she became an excellent pastry cook; Paquette worked at embroidery; the old woman looked after the linen. They were all, not excepting Friar Giroflée, of some service or other; for he made a good joiner, and became a very honest man…

Out of context these lines are easy to misconstrue.  In  the very full context of Voltaire’s novel, to work together without disputing is to (at least) put aside intellectual preconceptions for honest observation and caring relationships, making our best effort to learn and do good on the basis of what we observe and with whom we are in relationship.

September 14, 2015

Self-interest and self-subversion

Filed under: Border Security,Immigration,International HLS,Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Philip J. Palin on September 14, 2015

This morning the hotel left a USA Today outside my door. On the opinion page the editors call for  the US to accept more Syrian refugees.  I perceive the editors’ position is prompted primarily by ethical concerns, but they feel compelled to make a strategic argument.  They fail, in my judgment, to make a strong argument.

The newspaper has, as usual, recruited an opposing view.  Today Congressman Peter King has authored what is pasted below in-full.  The Congressman is being reasonable.  If security is your top priority, his is a persuasive argument.

From an ethical perspective it is a deeply mistaken argument.  It tells us we are allowed to dismiss the present pain of another because of a possible risk to ourselves.

Most ethical systems: Stoic, Judeo-Christian, Confucian, Islamic, even Epicurean are skeptical of narrowly self-interested choices.  We are in relationship with each other and when — by commission or omission — we do harm to another, we do harm to ourselves (this is, I suppose, the nub of the strategic argument the newspaper editors are circling about).  Plato has his Socrates say, “Of these two then, inflicting and suffering wrong,  we say it is a greater evil to inflict it, a lesser to suffer it.” (Gorgias)

In most situations where others are in desperate need, we cannot be of assistance without assuming some risk to ourselves.  This is true for individuals — lifeguards, firefighters, or bystanders — and for societies.

Too often in an attempt to avoid suffering, we inflict it on others.  When we do, it ought not be a surprise that others view us as hypocritical or much worse.


The following was published on the Opinion Page of USA Today on September 14, 2015.  The author is Peter King.

We have seen the tragic footage of Syrian refugees fleeing the Assad regime and ISIL.

While the United States and international community must respond, I have very serious concerns about how refugees coming here will be vetted, since we know that ISIL will attempt to infiltrate its members into the United States with these refugees. It is vital that we measure our humanitarian beliefs against the security risks of bringing in thousands of unknown individuals. Since the beginning of the year, the FBI has arrested more than 50 individuals connected with ISIL and plotting attacks in the homeland; we cannot afford to compound this threat.

With the lack of stable foreign governments and on-the-ground intelligence in Syria, our ability to vet refugees is significantly degraded. The White House announcement that 10,000 additional Syrian refugees will be admitted next year is contrary to the advice of law enforcement and intelligence professionals.

The United States has already experienced the danger of flawed refugee vetting, as well as the potential for refugees to be radicalized once they are here. In 2011, two Iraqi refugees were arrested in Kentucky for conspiracy to kill U.S. nationals abroad in support of al-Qaeda in Iraq, the predecessor to ISIL. Other cases include “blind Sheikh” Omar Abdel Rahman; 1993 World Trade Center bomber Ramzi Yousef; Mir Aimal Kasi, the 1993 CIA headquarters shooter; the Tsarnaev brothers; and the 20-plus cases of Somali Americans who left the U.S. to join al-Shabaab; and the dozen or so who have joined ISIL.

None of us wants any more of these threats or attacks.

To start, we need to do more to work with Jordan, where we have a good intelligence-sharing relationship. Additionally, we need to review U.S. laws regarding what data are collected from refugees and how U.S. law enforcement and intelligence agencies can use and retain that data. Above all, the United States needs to have a clear policy on the need to remove the Assad regime and defeat ISIL.

America has a long and proud history of providing safe harbor for refugees. We must continue to do so, but in a way that keeps America safe.

Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., chairs the counterterrorism and intellegence subcommittee of the Homeland Security Committee.


Recently my non-blogging life has become more complicated.  I need to give it fuller attention.  I will as a result be taking another indefinite hiatus beginning when I push the publish button for this post.

September 10, 2015

September 10 Thinking

Filed under: Resilience,Strategy,Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Philip J. Palin on September 10, 2015

When someone is accused of “September 10 thinking” it is usually meant to suggest attitudes that under-estimate the terrorist threat. Before September 11 we understood terrorism mostly as a matter of criminal investigation and prosecution.  After September 11, the critique strongly implies, any clear-thinking person must recognize that terrorism requires waging war to make peace.

On this tenth day of September we have experienced fourteen years of war. Thousands have been killed in the crossfire. Millions have been displaced.  There has been a militarization of domestic governance fraught with unintended consequences. Has there been a coarsening of American culture?  Perpetual war has a reputation for producing this outcome.  But Americans can be proudly rough-hewn.  Perhaps this is an effect with deeper cause.

In any case, I perceive very little prospect for peace.  If anything the terrorist threat to the United States – and many others – seems more pronounced, even more complicated than fourteen years ago.

Since 9-11 there has not been a successful “strategic” attack on the United States. Several attempts have been preempted by a combination of effective intelligence, policing, criminal prosecution, and military operations. Several mostly free-lance terrorist operations have been carried out, but the damage done pales in contrast to US mass-murders perpetrated by non-terrorists.

This is not to deny the continuing – perhaps increasing – terrorist threat.  We have seen in London, Madrid, Paris, and elsewhere what is possible.  Those we call terrorists do not obscure their ambitions.

The cause of current threats is complicated. It is not a straight line from American military operations to the rise of the self-proclaimed Islamic State. But this is one of several converging lines. Our failure to shape a more inclusive and stable post-occupation in Iraq is another of these lines.  We share with many others the failure to avert Syria’s humanitarian catastrophe. There are even more twists and knots and weird webs, not all of which can be traced to an American source. It is, however, often impossible to distinguish our lines from these others.

It was never a binary: war-fighting or policing. It has always been much more complicated.  Most police officers and military personnel are quick to agree that deadly force is best-used only when better options have proven ineffective.

But we have given the vast majority of our attention and resources to these two counter-terrorism tools.  While we can commend certain CT competencies, our current strategic situation suggests other investments are needed.

If you are expecting a comprehensive answer from me, don’t hold your breath.  But I will highlight three issues beyond fighting and prosecuting which I perceive need sustained attention if we are to be in a better place fourteen years from now.

Demographic density – There are twice as many of us as in 1965. There will be even more of us.  We are coming together closer in cities.  We are interacting more and more through communications, commerce, and culture.  The simple mathematical likelihood of conflict increases as our interactions proliferate.  If predicted shortages of water and food unfold, it could be an especially ugly century.

Proximate diversity – Conflict often arises over real or perceived differences.  What is interesting at a distance may be irritating close at hand.  What seems reasonable to me, strikes you as crazy. Economic inequality, while perpetual, was once less obvious. Until 200 years ago many of our cultural differences were buffered by various sorts of distance. Many physical, temporal, and cultural aspects of distance are experiencing compression (see supra).  This compression can encourage intentional expressions of differentiation. Such expressions escalate proximate differences that might be insignificant at a distance. One person’s creative cosmopolitanism is another’s satanic confusion.

Interdependent networks—I most often use these words to reference the electrical grids, telecommunications networks, and supply chains that facilitate and sustain the two prior issues.  If these fail, preexisting tensions may escalate. But in this context the challenge – and opportunities – of interdependence also extend to social, economic, and political networks.  Separation is increasingly difficult and usually delusional.  Relationships across various divides are real and can be constructive, even affectionate. But whatever the affect, the connections are increasingly fundamental, spreading good and bad with equal alacrity.

These are issues that seem innately to prompt either-or, yes-no, right-wrong reactions. But I worry it is precisely this analytic predisposition that threatens mutual annihilation.

Hegel used a German word that Marx allowed to be translated into English as suggesting the old way is destroyed to make way for the new. But the original word — Aufheben — can, depending on context, mean destroy or transcend or retrieve or renew. The implication, at least for me, is how prior meaning can be constructively adapted to present reality. Or how contending worldviews can be resolved. Or how thesis and antithesis might constructively coexist. Can we develop the interpersonal skills and social systems to deploy contending energies for the common good?


A program that has roots in traditional counter-terrorism, but is trying to stretch into the issues noted above is outlined in a September 9 story in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune.

August 6, 2015

Danger: It is clear. Is it present?

Filed under: Immigration,International HLS,Strategy,Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Philip J. Palin on August 6, 2015

Manu_Brabo_San Salvador Arrest

Above: Photograph by Manu Brabo (AP) of an arrest in San Salvador from the Executioners of El Salvador in The New Yorker.

Until the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the United States did not attempt to control immigration as a matter of policy. Other late 19th Century restrictions attempted to limit entry by Japanese, lunatics, anarchists, and carriers of infectious diseases.  From 1921 to 1965 various laws and Executive actions served to set an upper limit on total immigration and set quotas for the national origin of immigrants.

The Immigration and Nationality Act Amendments of 1965, the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act, and the 1990 Immigration Act put in place the basic architecture of contemporary immigration policy. Since 9/11 there have been several attempts to significantly revise immigration laws, most of these efforts have failed.

Each year roughly 700,000 legal immigrants enter the United States.  Illegal immigration is tough to track, but net inflows — number entering minus number returning — are credibly estimated to have plunged below 100,000 since the Great Recession (2007).   According to the Pew Research Center, since 2012 it is possible that more Mexicans living in the United States have returned to Mexico than have crossed north.

If so, this would restore a long-time pattern of Mexican and Central American migration.  According to Madeline Zavodny with the American Enterprise Institute:

It is worth noting that historically many unauthorized immigrants did not settle permanently in the United States. Instead, they worked here temporarily, saved some money and returned home; many repeated this on a seasonal basis for years but ultimately retired at home, where their family members had remained. Since the 1980s, however, there has been a gradual shift toward unauthorized immigrants settling in the United States and reuniting with family members here. One reason for this was the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) legalization program, which enabled some 2.7 million unauthorized immigrants to receive permanent legal status. Another reason is the increased difficulty in crossing the U.S.-Mexico border due to tighter border security. As it has become harder to re-enter the United States, unauthorized immigrants have increased their length of stay here.

Increased economic opportunity in Mexico — strongly tied to a declining birth-rate — is one of several factors that have shifted migration patterns. “The immigration debate seems to be stuck around the year 2006, and before then,” says Alex Nowrasteh, an immigration analyst at the libertarian Cato Institute.

Japan or New Zealand can conceivably manage their immigration policy with a border strategy.  Most large, affluent, culturally diverse nations (or regions, ala the European Union) will find a border strategy to be about as effective as the Maginot Line.  To be effective much more attention is required to shape the strategic context for migration… as distant from the border as possible.

For example, last week Refugees International released a new report on violence in El Salvador.  In the last six months, there have been over 3000 murders in this nation of 6 million.   According to the report:

More children are killed in El Salvador per capita than in any other country. Two gangs are largely responsible for this increasing violence. These gangs, the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and Barrio 18 (18th Street) originated in Los Angeles, but after 1996, thousands were deported to El Salvador in a process that has been described as “unintentional state-sponsored gang migration.” By 2005, El Salvador had 10,000 active gang members, and this number has only grown in the intervening years. Currently, there are 70,000 members of the MS-13 and 18th Street gangs operating in El Salvador…

Does this situation present a potential immigration challenge to the United States? Last summer we had a dramatic example of the possibility.  Since then the situation in Central America has only gotten worse. Does the strength of Central American gangs and their contacts with US and international criminal/terrorist organizations present a potential threat beyond immigration?  Is the US national interest our only concern in this context?  Should it be?

Where would you prefer to engage the potential threat?  How would you prefer to reduce the potential threat? When is the right time to engage?  The Refugees International Report offers some answers.

June 26, 2015

A message from Charleston?

Filed under: Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Philip J. Palin on June 26, 2015

By most definitions terrorism is the use of violence to achieve political objectives.

Given what we currently understand, the murder of the Emanuel Nine was a terrorist act.

Since June 17, which was also the first night of Ramadan, have we encountered the most effective anti-terrorism strategy? (Something different than counter-terrorism.)

There was prompt and effective police action.  But even more substantive — in terms of extended impact — we have experienced fearless expressions of grace that have honored the victims, while simultaneously wholly discrediting the political intentions of the murderer.

How many future terrorist actions have been prevented by the courageous integrity of the survivors?

Surely we have also seen the sort of relationships, mind-sets, individual initiative and community engagement that are essential to true resilience.

I have been in Charleston since Tuesday.  I wish you could have been here too.

June 25, 2015

Security Mom Podcasts: Michael Chertoff on risk communication and Jessica Stern on radicalization

Filed under: General Homeland Security,Media,Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Arnold Bogis on June 25, 2015

These are a little bit old, but interesting enough to share nonetheless.

Juliette Kayyem’s podcast “Security Mom” in the not-so-distant-past (a few weeks ago), focused on crisis communication with former DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff and radicalization/ISIS recruitment with terrorism expert Jessica Stern.

The Chertoff conversation I found especially interesting.  It took what seems like an old issue, the color coded homeland security threat level system, and turns it into a serious discussion of risk communication.  You can find it here:


From the show’s website, here is a bit of the transcript with Chertoff explaining his issues with the color scheme:

Green was a theoretical baseline of world in which there’s no terrorism. That’s not gonna happen. So then you had yellow and orange. Yellow being kind of some level of threat, orange being a heightened threat. And then you had red. And the problem is it was very difficult to define to define what red was. Did red mean an attack is literally gonna happen like tomorrow? Did it mean an attack already happened? Once you’re at red, how do you come down from red? So, we realized pretty quickly that essentially you’re really dealing with two states. Yellow is your base. And orange is your elevated. And then we tried to be focused on, again, particular regions or particular types of threats.

In an other episode, Juliette talks with Jessica Stern about radicalization, in general, and ISIS in particular. It is a wide ranging conversation, but I’ll share one of her conclusions regarding the threat that ISIS poses to Americans here at home that gets back to risk communication from the Chertoff discussion:

For a police officer, for the FBI, for the president, for people working in government — this should be keeping them up at night. But for a person sitting at home in Brighton or Cambridge —  for any given individual, you’re more likely to die from a beesting than you are in a terror strike. You’re probably more likely to die in your bathtub.

You can listen to it herehttp://wgbhnews.org/post/inside-minds-isis-members

Or by clicking on this link:

Stern ISIS MIX 1

June 3, 2015

Community Policing at Work in Boston

Obviously, there are still a lot of unanswered questions regarding the Boston Police and FBI shooting of a suspected ISIS sympathizer. Recent reporting indicates he and co-conspirators were planning on attacking Boston police personnel, after discarding an earlier plot to behead anti-Islam political activist Pamela Geller.

Putting aside the details of a quickly evolving case (the specifics of which will likely take some time to become clear and final), what I found interesting about today’s development’s was the vivid dividends of Boston Police’s community outreach efforts.

Police showed a surveillance video of the shooting to Boston-area religious leaders Wednesday. They said in a news conference that they did not see Rahim shot in the back or talking on the phone.

“What the video does reveal to us very clearly is that the individual was not on a cell phone, was not shot in the back, and that the information presented by others not on the case was not accurate,” Darnell Williams, president of the Urban League of Eastern Massachusetts said.

Other faith leaders said the video was not high quality, but that they could tell Rahim was pursuing the Boston police officer and FBI agent who had approached him.

Imam Abdullah Faaruuq of the Mosque for the Praising of Allah called the video “vague,” but said that at least part of the investigators’ account was supported.

This outcome is not a happy coincidence or random gathering of community leaders.  Instead it is the result of years of engagement by the Boston Police with various communities.  It is work that takes time, leads to little immediate results, but is vitally important in the long run for situations such as this.  A video of a portion of this press conference:


You can watch more of Boston Police Commissioner William Evans in the following talk on “Latest Trends in Big City Policing,” recently given at a conference hosted by Rave Mobile Safety. While I should warn you it is not the most succinct presentation, it manages to be both informative and funny.  Commissioner Evans talks a lot about community policing, sharing stories about Occupy Boston, the Marathon Bombings, and sharing his opinion on issues such as the use of body cameras.  He also might mention casing Patriot owner Robert Kraft’s house with the current Mayor of Boston, Marty Walsh…


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.


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