Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

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?

November 13, 2014

Immigration: Prepping the bowl game

Filed under: Border Security,Congress and HLS,Immigration,Strategy,Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Philip J. Palin on November 13, 2014

It appears our end-of-year celebrations and contests will include a sustained play-by-play on immigration policy.  USA Today warns of “political war” on the issue.  We will probably see the gaming continue deep into basketball season.  Baseball? The 2016 World Series?

Despite the clear importance of immigration policy and practice to the Department of Homeland Security (where it can be seen as consuming the majority of resources), I have not given much space to immigration in my own working concept of homeland security.

Given the perpetrators of 9/11 it makes some narrative sense why immigration, border, and related agencies were brought together in the new DHS.  I will not resist that how we facilitate flows of goods and people into the nation has some sort of security implication. (Though Prohibition and the drug trade and human trafficking and mass migrations across all of human history suggest how tough it is for a big place to be anything close to impermeable.)

In terms of a terrorist threat, while we can make it more complicated and — with unusually good intelligence or vigilance or luck — actually stop some threats at the border, I have never met a professional who thought any of our immigration and border apparatus to be equal to a well-planned terrorist operation.  Much more effective is to disrupt the planning in Yemen or Af-Pak or Raqqa or wherever.  Border protection is like football’s free safety.  If that is what’s left, it’s already been a very tough play. You really want to stop them at the line of scrimmage or farther back.

When it comes to other aspects of homeland security: preparedness, mitigation, resilience, response, recovery, etc., etc….  immigration has seemed to me tangential.  There are issues of communicating in languages other than English.  Some immigrant communities — or areas where they tend to live — are considered more vulnerable.  But there are also studies that find the tight social connections of recent immigrants to generate a resilience-advantage compared to wealthier but more isolated neighbors.

There are a few cases where immigrant communities have become flash-points for radicalizing clusters of (mostly) alienated second-generation young men.  But to view this as an immigration or border issue strikes me as, again, giving too much attention to the free safety and not enough attention to the front line. (If you can’t tell, more than forty years and thirty pounds ago I was a defensive tackle.)

But whatever the actual homeland security implications, Secretary Johnson and his senior staff are going to be plenty focused on immigration in the weeks ahead.

So… an attempt to frame the issue for our future dialogue:

I have already acknowledged a personal prejudice on this topic.  But I will attempt to listen and learn from those with alternative points-of-view.

There is a plethora of expert — and advocacy — resources available.  Just a few:

Migration Policy Institute

Bipartisan Policy Center: Immigration Task Force

Cato Institute: Immigration Studies and Commentary

American Immigration Council

Texans for Sensible Immigration Reform

Brookings Institution: Immigration Workstream

Immigration Reform Law Institute

Federation for American Immigration Reform

Heritage Foundation: Immigration Workstream

US Chamber of Commerce: Immigration Resource Collection

If you have other sources of information, please include them in your comments.  At some point I will try to develop an annotated list of sources.

Trying the football analogy again, the two teams that are coming onto the field this season strike me as having very different strategies and styles of play:

Pragmatists versus legalists

Economic offense versus economic defense

Passing strategy versus ground strategy

Maybe Oregon versus Alabama?  Perhaps suggesting comparisons that go well beyond the gridiron.

The differences between the contestants are, in any case, so profound that I expect it may not be much of a game to watch.  The ducks may just sort of ride the tide.

I’ve never been a big fan of purist approaches to just about anything.

FRIDAY UPDATE: LOCKER-ROOM TALK

After I posted on Thursday the two teams started sending pre-game signals to each other.  Actually it sounded more like set-ups for a boxing match than most football games.  Anyway…

The Washington Post gives Capitol Hill trash talk top-of-the-fold prominence: Before immigration action, sides dig in.

Politico leads with Defiant Obama: I will use my power.

The Hill also calls the President defiant.

Roll Call quotes Senator Cornyn warning Presidential action on immigration could lead to a failure to fund the government.

Defiance abounds.

Our English word “defy” has its origin in a vulgar Latin term fidere meaning to trust, to have fidelity. That de on the front reverses the meaning.  Defiance emerges from mistrust.

October 30, 2014

Follow the money

Filed under: Border Security,Budgets and Spending,General Homeland Security,Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Philip J. Palin on October 30, 2014

DHS BUDGET VISUAL

The graphic shows the rough 2014 budget proportions for the Department of Homeland Security.  The $45 billion figure for the DHS budget is based on an analysis by the Congressional Research Service.

Late last week I was showing this pie chart to some graduate students who are exploring homeland security. They are on the edge of completing their law degrees, PhDs, or graduate studies in other fields. But they are interested enough in homeland security to have competed for and been selected for a Graduate Fellowship program at Rutgers University.

I asked, “What do you see?”

“It’s mostly about the border,” said one.

“Excluding the other,” said another

“Fear of the other.”

“Fear of each other.”

A young lawyer suggested this was a narrative theme — an analytical predisposition — that frames how we experience and make sense of reality. He and most of his peers agreed there was some evidence to support the  narrative. But we allow it to shape our orientation well beyond the evidence.

This is not where I was planning to take the discussion.  I was better prepared for a wonky consideration of incremental budgeting, legacy missions, Congressional oversight, etc., etc…

But I did not try to redirect.  We went with “otherness” as a homeland security problem.  Look again, you will see what they saw. Even if you can see other things and offer other explanations, I suggest their fresh eyes are not inaccurate.

It’s an interesting angle on reality, especially coincident with enhanced security being announced — despite the lack of specific threat intelligence.

Toward the end of Jean-Paul Satre’s play “No Exit”, a character proclaims, “So this is hell. I’d never have believed it. You remember all we were told about the torture-chambers, the fire and brimstone, the “burning marl.” Old wives’ tales! There’s no need for red-hot pokers. HELL IS OTHER PEOPLE! (“L’enfer, c’est les Autres.”)

Most of us have experienced this unhappy truth. But many of us have also experienced, “without a you and an I, there is no love, and with mine and yours there is no love but “mine” and “yours”… This is indeed the case everywhere, but not in love, which is a revolution from the ground up. The more profound the revolution, the more complete the distinction…” (Søren Kierkegaard). Without the other we are profoundly diminished.

Two antithetical intuitions equally true, depending on our attitude and the situation. A wicked problem? If so, extending well beyond homeland security.

How can we reason together through this paradox? Without the skill, discipline, and ethic of social reasoning we must defer to the mercy of randomness. I have often found randomness quite generous. But I aspire to — and have experienced — much more.  I know something about social reasoning in small groups.  Elinor Ostrom and others have told me interesting things about social reasoning in larger groups.  Is facilitation of social reasoning an appropriate tool of homeland security?

October 22, 2014

The Response

Filed under: Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Philip J. Palin on October 22, 2014

National War Memorial

The National War Memorial in Ottawa, Canada is also known as The Response. It was originally designed and constructed in memory of Canadians who served in the First World War.  It has since been adapted to honor those serving in subsequent conflicts.  The surmounting sculptures symbolize spirits of peace and liberty. Earlier today, Cpl. Nathan Cirillo, standing guard at the memorial was shot and killed.  The attacker was killed when he continued by shooting his way into the nearby Parliament building.

October 9, 2014

Retrospectively, it is often so clear

The Ebola outbreak is, almost certainly, a precursor for a future pandemic that will be much worse.

The current California drought is, almost certainly, a precursor of more to come.

The recent series of cyber-attacks are, almost certainly, a precursor of many more — and much worse — to come.

The intention of Australian terrorists to undertake random attacks is, almost certainly, a precursor for such attacks there and elsewhere.

In each case a current threat-vector is amplified by human behavior, especially increased population density and mobility.  Ebola is naturally occurring. Until the last four decades its natural range was isolated from humans and, especially, human networks.  Drought is naturally occurring in the American West and Southwest. Until the last six decades, this region was sparsely populated. Never before has so much monetary value been so concentrated and (at least virtually) proximate. Violence is naturally occurring in human populations, its mimetic mutations now facilitated by many more of us in communication, contact, and perceived competition.

In the case of Ebola, the rapidly increasing population of Guinea (Conakry) —  up 220 percent since 1960 —  has created substantial ecological and economic stress.  This has been especially the case in the forested uplands of Eastern Guinea neighboring Liberia where the current outbreak first emerged.  With about 70 people per square kilometer this region has twice the density of the Virginia county where I live.  It’s less than 300 miles to Monrovia, the capital of Liberia, which has a population density of 600 per square kilometer.  No wonder Monrovia has been hit so hard.

Macenta Epicenter

We don’t know precisely when or how the virus was transferred to humans in this epidemic, but consumption of bushmeat infected with the virus is a good guess.  That has been the origin in several previous — but much smaller — outbreaks in Congo and Gabon.

Mid-March is when I first read about what has unfolded into the Ebola outbreak:

(Reuters) – An outbreak of hemorrhagic fever has killed at least 23 people in Guinea’s southeastern forest region since February when the first case was reported, health authorities in the West African nation said on Wednesday.

At least 35 cases have been recorded by local health officials, said Sakoba Keita, the doctor in charge of the prevention of epidemics in Guinea’s Health Ministry.

“Symptoms appear as diarrhea and vomiting, with a very high fever. Some cases showed relatively heavy bleeding,” Keita said.

“We thought it was Lassa fever or another form of cholera but this disease seems to strike like lightning. We are looking at all possibilities, including Ebola, because bushmeat is consumed in that region and Guinea is in the Ebola belt,” he said. No cases of the highly contagious Ebola fever have ever been recorded in the country. (March 19)

Well into summer I assumed this Ebola outbreak would be contained as others have been contained.  I neglected to notice that this  time the threat had emerged in a region much more densely populated than previous outbreak zones (and with much easier access to even more densely populated areas).  I overestimated the vigilance and capacity of the World Health Organization. I underestimated the power-amplifiers of human need and social interaction and fear… multiplied exponentially as the vector penetrates more deeply into the matrix.

This is how it happens.  Prior success encourages undue confidence.  And maybe you’re  a bit distracted. The threat morphs and emerges into — then out of — a different context.  So it may not initially be recognized. The critical contextual cues are unnoticed.  The threat is given time and space to strengthen.  This is especially likely to happen with places or people already neglected.

What worked last time is not quite calibrated with the new context.  Besides, for many of those engaging this threat, this is their first time.  Former lessons have not been learned, are being re-learned.  This threat in this place is in many respects unique — at least in the experience of those who confront it this time.

It is a threat that, if recognized early-on, might be quickly suppressed or contained. But instead it proliferates, filling the void opened by neglect. Thus amplified the threat is much more likely to find and exploit vulnerabilities; even those that until the threat’s  emergence were seen as strengths. Which is typically how tragedy unfolds, when what had been strong makes us weak.

October 5, 2014

Deadly serious but not existential

Filed under: Strategy,Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Philip J. Palin on October 5, 2014

Last week the Vice President gave a speech at Harvard’s Kennedy School.  The speech was mostly a quick skim of global issues and US priorities.  Not much new.  But as is Mr. Biden’s tendency, he can with tone or particular emphasis, give an old song new life.

Below are his remarks on counter-terrorism.  I have highlighted some elements with which I agree and, in my judgment, are too seldom emphasized.

The fourth element of our strategy is countering violent extremism.  As you know, we’ve engaged in a relentless campaign against terrorists in Afghanistan, in the so-called FATA, in Pakistan, Somalia and elsewhere.  This campaign against violent extremism predates our administration, and it will outlive our administration.  But we’ve made real progress against al Qaeda’s core and its affiliates since 9/11.  But this threat of violent extremism is something we’re going to have to contend with for a long time. 

Today, we’re confronting the latest iteration of that danger, so-called ISIL; a group that combines al Qaeda’s ideology with territorial ambitions in Iraq and Syria and beyond, and the most blatant use of terrorist tactics the world has seen in a long, long time.  But we know how to deal with them.

Our comprehensive strategy to degrade and eventually defeat ISIL reflects the lessons we have learned post-9/11 age about how to use our power wisely.  And degrading them does not depend upon an unsustainable deployment of hundreds of thousands of boots on the ground.  It’s focused on building a coalition with concrete contributions from the countries in the region.  It recognizes outside military intervention alone will not be enough.  Ultimately, societies have to solve their own problems, which is why we’re pouring so much time and effort into supporting a Syrian opposition and Iraqi efforts to re-establish their democracy and defend their territory.  But this is going to require a lot of time and patience.

The truth is we will likely be dealing with these challenges of social upheaval not just in Iraq and Syria, but across the Middle East in the wake of the Arab Spring, which will take a generation or more to work itself out. 

We can’t solve each of these problems alone.  We can’t solve them ourselves.  But ultimately — and we can’t ultimately solve them with force, nor should we try.  But we can work to resolve these conflicts.  We can seek to empower the forces of moderation and pluralism and inclusive economic growth.  We can work with our partners to delegitimize ISIL in the Islamic world, and their perverse ideology. 

We can cut off the flow of terrorist finance and foreign fighters, as the President chaired the hearing in the United Nations Security Council on that issue just last week.  We can build the capacity of our partners from the Arab world to Afghanistan to solve their security problems in their own countries with our help and guidance.  The threat posed by violent extremists is real.  And I want to say here on the campus of Harvard University:  Our response must be deadly serious, but we should keep this in perspective.  The United States today faces threats that require attention.  But we face no existential threat to our way of life or our security.  Let me say it again:  We face no existential threat — none — to our way of life or our ultimate security.

You are twice as likely to be struck by lightning as you around to be affected by a terrorist event in the United States.

And while we face an adaptive, resilient enemy, let’s never forget that they’re no match for an even more resilient and adaptive group of people, the American people, who are so much tougher, smarter, realistic and gutsy than their political leadership gives them credit for.

We didn’t crumble after 9/11.  We didn’t falter after the Boston Marathon.  But we’re America.  Americans will never, ever stand down.  We endure.  We overcome.  We own the finish line.  So do not take out of proportion this threat to us.  None of you are being taught to dive under your desks in drills dealing with the possibility of a nuclear attack.  And I argue with all of my colleagues, including in the administration, the American people have already factored in the possibility that there will be another Boston Marathon someday.  But it will not, cannot — has no possibility of breaking our will, our resolve, and/or our ultimate security.

That “And I argue… ” is interesting.  I hope he does and I hope he’s right.  Anticipating more freelance threats would be realistic — and resilient — behavior.

October 2, 2014

Another execution

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

samira_al-nuaimiSamira Salih al-Nuaimi

Over the last week, did you read or hear about this execution?  I assume HLSWatch readers are watching more carefully than most.  But did the report get to you?  Here’s the Associated Press blurb:

Militants with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) group publicly killed a human rights lawyer in the Iraqi city of Mosul after their self-styled Islamic court ruled that she had abandoned Islam, the U.N. mission in Iraq said Thursday (September 25).

Samira Salih al-Nuaimi was seized from her home on Sept. 17 after allegedly posting messages on Facebook that were critical of the militants’ destruction of religious sites in Mosul.

According to the United Nations Assistance Mission in Iraq, al-Nuaimi was tried in a so-called “Sharia court” for apostasy, after which she was tortured for five days before the militants sentenced her to “public execution.”

She was killed on Monday (September 22), the U.N. mission said.

Here’s the official US response.

Here’s the Washington Post piece.

I have wondered about our potentially evolutionary preference to personalize threats. Does it now take a real-time snuff video?  Has our imagination become so anemic?  Or does it require a shared “tribal” identity with the victim?  Is empathy dependent on some sort of perceived cultural or national proximity?  Or perhaps in a promiscuously proximate world we purposefully keep our emotional distance?

In any case, I will admit I did not see a report until a week after her execution. But I will also note, this execution captured my subconscious more than any previous.  Given what seems to be the paucity of reporting, this is not the anticipated response.  Or perhaps I was just distracted.  You tell me.

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.

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

Other rhetoric: Abu Muhammad al-Adnani

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

On September 22  Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, the sometime moniker of a spokesman for the Islamic State, released an online video encouraging freelance actions to kill citizens of any nation involved in the anti-IS coalition.  Toward the close of his remarks (11 pages) al-Adnani comments — ironically — on the Islamic State being declared as evil. Here is what I am told is a reasonably accurate version:  English_Translation of al-Adnani Statement.

September 18, 2014

How what was said at CENTCOM could have implications for Chicago

Filed under: Strategy,Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Philip J. Palin on September 18, 2014

As we prepare to intensify our struggle with a prospective threat, it is important to acknowledge the very present threat of drought and fire, flooding, and plague.  There is, though, only so much time in any day.

So here is an extended excerpt from the President’s speech to the women and men at MacDill Air Force Base. (About noon on Wednesday.) Per our recent discussions — and today’s third post below — the President makes no reference to fighting evil in these remarks.

 Because of you, this 9/11 Generation of heroes has done everything asked of you, and met every mission tasked to you.  We are doing what we set out to do.  Because of you, Osama bin Laden is no more.  Because of you, the core al Qaeda leadership in Afghanistan and Pakistan has been decimated.  Because of you, Afghans are reclaiming their communities; Afghan forces have taken the lead for their country’s security.  In three months, because of you, our combat mission will be over in Afghanistan, and our war in Afghanistan will come to a responsible end.  That’s because of you.

You and our counterterrorism professionals have prevented terrorist attacks.  You’ve saved American lives.  You’ve made our homeland more secure.  But we’ve always known that the end of the war in Afghanistan didn’t mean the end of threats or challenges to America…

In a world where technology provides a small group of killers with the ability to do terrible harm, it is America that has the capacity and the will to mobilize the world against terrorists –- including the group in Syria and Iraq known as ISIL.  Our intelligence community, as I said last week, has not yet detected specific plots from these terrorists against America.  But its leaders have repeatedly threatened America and our allies.  And right now, these terrorists pose a threat to the people of Iraq, the people of Syria, the broader Middle East — including our personnel, our embassies, our consulates, our facilities there.  And if left unchecked, they could pose a growing threat to the United States.

So, last month, I gave the order for our military to begin taking targeted action against ISIL.  And since then, our brave pilot and crews –- with your help -– have conducted more than 160 airstrikes against these terrorists.  Because of your efforts, we’ve been able to protect our personnel and our facilities, and kill ISIL fighters, and given space for Iraqi and Kurdish forces to reclaim key territory.  They’ve helped our partners on the ground break ISIL sieges, helped rescue civilians cornered on a mountain, helped save the lives of thousands of innocent men, women and children.  That’s what you’ve done.

Now going forward, as I announced last week, we’re going to degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL through a comprehensive and sustained counterterrorism strategy.  And whether in Iraq or in Syria, these terrorists will learn the same thing that the leaders of al Qaeda already know:  We mean what we say; our reach is long; if you threaten America, you will find no safe haven.  We will find you eventually.

But — and this is something I want to emphasize — this is not and will not be America’s fight alone.  One of the things we’ve learned over this last decade is, America can make a decisive difference, but I want to be clear:  The American forces that have been deployed to Iraq do not and will not have a combat mission.  They will support Iraqi forces on the ground as they fight for their own country against these terrorists.

As your Commander-in-Chief, I will not commit you and the rest of our Armed Forces to fighting another ground war in Iraq.  After a decade of massive ground deployments, it is more effective to use our unique capabilities in support of partners on the ground so they can secure their own countries’ futures.  And that’s the only solution that will succeed over the long term.

We’ll use our air power.  We will train and equip our partners.  We will advise them and we will assist them.  We will lead a broad coalition of countries who have a stake in this fight.  Because this is not simply America versus ISIL — this is the people of the region fighting against ISIL.  It is the world rejecting the brutality of ISIL in favor of a better future for our children, and our children’s children — all of them.

But we’re not going to do this alone.  And the one thing we have learned is, is that when we do things alone and the countries — the people of those countries aren’t doing it for themselves, as soon as we leave we start getting into the same problems.

So we’ve got to do things differently.  This is why we’ve spent the past several weeks building a coalition to aid in these efforts.  And because we’re leading in the right way, more nations are joining us.  Overall, more than 40 countries so far have offered assistance to the broad campaign against ISIL.  Some nations will assist from the air — and already France and the United Kingdom are flying with us over Iraq, with others committed to join this effort.

Some nations will help us support the forces fighting these terrorists on the ground.  And already Saudi Arabia has agreed to host our efforts to train and equip Syrian opposition forces.  Australia and Canada will send military advisors to Iraq.  German paratroopers will offer training.  Other nations have helped resupply arms and equipment to forces in Iraq, including the Kurdish Pershmerga.

Arab nations have agreed to strengthen their support for Iraq’s new government and to do their part in all the aspects of the fight against ISIL.  And our partners will help to cut off ISIL funding, and gather intelligence, and stem the flow of foreign fighters into and out of the Middle East.

And meanwhile, nearly 30 nations have helped us with humanitarian relief to help innocent civilians who’ve been driven from their homes — whether they are Sunni, or Shia, or Christian, or Yazidi, or any other religious minority.  MORE

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Depending on how the issue is framed or the question is asked, the Administration is describing a range of possible contingencies.  When I read the words above and very similar words going back to West Point in May or even the 2013 National Defense University speech,  I hear a consistent strategy being described by the President.  A shortened — politically stupid — version might be something like:

There are several small groups of very bad folks out and about.  Because of modern mobility and technology these small groups can have outsized impact.  They almost certainly do not represent an existential threat to the United States, but they are brutal killers.  They are already doing horrific things where they currently operate.  We need to disrupt and degrade — if we can, destroy — their violent potential before they have a substantial ability to target us.  To do this with any long-term effectiveness we’ve got to mobilize the communities that are already suffering to defend themselves and go after these killers. We can help and others can help in a variety of ways.  But whether we’re talking about Iraq or Syria or Yemen or Libya or Afghanistan or Somalia or Mali or plenty of other places, meaningful security for us and for them will only emerge when people in the immediate neighborhood are vigilant, courageous, consistently engaged and have realistic capabilities to advance their long-term self-interest.  Our self-interest is advanced by advancing the self-interest of those already suffering at the hands of ISIL and other violent extremists.

This is framed as an international counterterrorism strategy.  I perceive that essentially the same argument can be made for domestic counterterrorism and other aspects of homeland security. Key elements:  Community-based, regionally engaged, collaborative, and whenever possible preventive or preemptive.  We can debate whether or not this is wise strategy, but it strikes me as a prima-facie reasonable strategy that is worth a more serious listen than it seems to be receiving.

We have — perhaps, I have — become distracted by issues of labels and tone and style as opposed to examining the action being taken and proposed.

Johnson testimony: Worldwide threats to the homeland

Yesterday — Constitution Day BTW — the Secretary of Homeland Security testified before the House Committee on Homeland Security.  He was joined in giving testimony by FBI Director James Comey and director of the National Counterterrorism Center, Matt Olson. (Video and transcripts here)

Below is most of Secretary Johnson’s opening statement.  I hear a domestically-focused harmonic to the main counterterrorism melody performed by the President at MacDill (see prior post, immediately above).

Counterterrorism is the cornerstone of the DHS mission. And thirteen years after 9/11, it’s still a dangerous world. There’s still a terrorist threat to our homeland.

Today the terrorist threat is different from what it was in 2001. It is more decentralized and more complex. Not only is there core al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan, there is al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula – which is still active in its efforts to attack the homeland – al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, al Shabaab in Somalia, the al Nusrah Front in Syria, and the newest affiliate, al Qaeda in the Indian subcontinent. There are groups like Boko Haram in Nigeria, which are not official affiliates of al Qaeda, but share its extremist ideology.

The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL, previously known as al Qaeda in Iraq, is now vying to be the preeminent terrorist organization on the world’s stage. At present, we have no credible information that ISIL is planning to attack the homeland of the United States.

But that is not, by any means, the end of the story.

ISIL is an extremely dangerous organization. It has the elements of both a terrorist organization and an insurgent army. It kills innocent civilians, and has seized large amounts of territory in Iraq and Syria, which it can utilize for safe haven, training, command and control, and from which it can launch attacks. It engages in 30-40 attacks per month, has more than 20,000 fighters, and takes in as much as a million dollars a day from illicit oil sales, ransom payments, and other illicit activities. Its public messaging and social media are as slick and as effective as any I’ve ever seen from a terrorist organization.

Though we know of no credible information that ISIL is planning to attack the homeland at present, we know that ISIL is prepared to kill innocent Americans they encounter because they are Americans – in a public and depraved manner. We know ISIL views the United States as an enemy, and we know that ISIL’s leaders have themselves said they will soon be in “direct confrontation” with the United States…

From the homeland security perspective, here is what we are doing:

First, to address the threats generally emanating from terrorist groups overseas, we have in recent weeks enhanced aviation security. Much of the terrorist threat continues to center around aviation security. In early July, I directed enhanced screening at 18 overseas airports with direct flights to the U.S. Several weeks later, we added six more airports to the list. Three weeks ago we added another airport, and additional screening of carry-on luggage. The United Kingdom and other countries have followed with similar enhancements to their aviation security. We continually evaluate whether more is necessary, without unnecessarily burdening the traveling public.

Longer term, as this committee has heard me say before, we are pursuing “pre-clearance” at overseas airports with flights to the U.S. This means inspection by a U.S. Customs and Border Protection officer and enhanced aviation security before a passenger gets on the plane to the U.S. We now have pre-clearance at airports in Ireland, the UAE, Canada and the Caribbean. I regard it as a homeland security imperative to build more. To use a football metaphor, I’d much rather defend our end-zone from the 50-yard line than our 1-yard line. I want to take every opportunity we have to expand homeland security beyond our borders.

Second, the Department of Homeland Security, the FBI, NCTC and other intelligence agencies are making enhanced and concerted efforts to track Syrian foreign fighters who come from or seek to enter this country. The reality is that more than 15,000 foreign fighters have traveled to Syria over the last three years, including approximately two thousand Westerners. We estimate that more than 100 Americans have traveled or attempted to travel to Syria to join the fight there one way or another. We are concerned that not only may these foreign fighters join ISIL or other violent extremist groups in Syria, they may also be recruited by these violent extremist groups to leave Syria and conduct external attacks. The FBI has arrested a number of individuals who have tried to travel from the U.S. to Syria to support terrorist activities there.

Third, we are working with European and other governments to build better information sharing to track Syrian foreign fighters. Whenever I get together with my European counterparts, this topic is almost always item number one on the agenda. The importance of this issue is also reflected by the fact it will be a singular topic of discussion at a U.N. Security Council summit that the President will chair in two weeks. In the history of the U.N., this is only the second time a U.S. President has personally chaired a Security Council summit.

We are increasing efforts to track those who enter and leave Syria, and may later seek to travel to the United States from a country for which the United States does not require a visa from its citizens. There are in fact a number of Visa Waiver Program countries that also have large numbers of citizens who are Syrian foreign fighters. Generally, we have strong information-sharing relationships with these countries. But, with their help, we will enhance this capability. We need to ensure that we are doing all we can to identify those who, by their travel patterns, attempt to hide their association with terrorist groups.

We are encouraging more countries to join the United States in using tools like Advance Passenger Information and Passenger Name Record collection, which will help to identify terrorist travel patterns.

Fourth, within the U.S. government, DHS and our interagency partners in law enforcement and the intelligence community, are enhancing our ability to share information with each other about suspicious individuals.

Fifth, we are continually on guard against the potential domestic-based, home-grown terrorist who may be lurking in our own society: the independent actor or “lone wolf” who did not train at a terrorist camp or join the ranks of a terrorist organization overseas, but who is inspired here at home by a group’s social media, literature or violent extremist ideology. In many respects, this is the hardest terrorist threat to detect, and the one I worry most about.

To address the domestic “lone wolf” threat, I have directed that DHS build on our partnerships with state and local law enforcement in a way that enhances community relationships. The local police and fire departments are the first responders to any crisis in our homeland. The local police, more than the federal government, have their finger on the pulse of the local community from which a domestic terrorist may come.

To address the home-grown terrorist who may be lurking in our midst, we must also emphasize the need for help from the public. “If You See Something, Say Something” is more than a slogan. For example, last week we sent a private sector advisory identifying for retail businesses a long list of materials that could be used as explosive precursors, and the types of suspicious behavior that a retailer should look for from someone who buys a lot of these materials.

Within DHS, we have outreach programs with communities who themselves are engaging youth in violence prevention. I have directed that we step up these programs and I personally participate in them. In June I met with a Syrian-American community group in a Chicago suburb. Next week I will meet with a Somali community in Columbus, Ohio. In October, the White House will host a summit on domestic efforts to prevent violent extremism, and address the full lifecycle of radicalization to violence posed by foreign fighter threats. The efforts highlighted at this summit are meant to increase the participation of faith-based organizations, mental health providers, social service providers, and youth-affiliated groups in local efforts to counter violent extremism.

Over the last 13 years, we have vastly improved this Nation’s ability to detect and disrupt terrorist plots overseas before they reach the homeland. Here at home, federal law enforcement does an excellent job, time and again, of identifying, investigating, arresting and prosecuting scores of individuals before they commit terrorist acts. But we continue to face real terrorist enemies and real terrorist threats and we must all remain vigilant.

Community-based, regionally — even globally — engaged, collaborative efforts to prevent, protect, prepare, mitigate, and respond.  Recovery and resilience are implied, but — as usual —  given a bit less attention.

More listening: What is meant by evil?

Filed under: Strategy,Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Philip J. Palin on September 18, 2014

Last Thursday, September 11, several of us exchanged a wide range of opinions on evil as an aspect of the challenge presented by terrorists.

The discussion spilled into Friday and the weekend as well.  In my judgment, it is a discussion that shows some potential to actually — eventually — elucidate an innately murky topic.

What is meant when we use the word “evil”?  When our political leaders use the word does their meaning generally accord with a widely shared meaning?  Does evil — in any form similar to common concepts — actually exist?  Is any concept of evil practically helpful to engaging terrorists and related threats?

These questions are prompted by the President’s reference to evil in his September 10 remarks announcing expanded operations against the so-called Islamic State.  He said in part, “We can’t erase every trace of evil from the world, and small groups of killers have the capacity to do great harm.  That was the case before 9/11, and that remains true today.”

I heard President Obama saying that evil — specifically the evil of terrorism — is perpetually emergent.  If he is correct, this has important implications for homeland security.  Even if he is wrong this belief — as long as he is President — has important implications for homeland security.

In the weeks ahead I intend to give these questions some extended consideration.  I hope you will contribute to the process.

To start I have tried to discern the full meaning that may be embedded in the President’s choice of words. If you search for “evil” on WhiteHouse.gov over 12,000 possibilities are spawned.  I have not examined each.  But below are several comments on evil by President Obama.

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We must begin by acknowledging the hard truth:  We will not eradicate violent conflict in our lifetimes.  There will be times when nations — acting individually or in concert — will find the use of force not only necessary but morally justified. I make this statement mindful of what Martin Luther King Jr. said in this same ceremony years ago:  “Violence never brings permanent peace.  It solves no social problem:  it merely creates new and more complicated ones.”  As someone who stands here as a direct consequence of Dr. King’s life work, I am living testimony to the moral force of non-violence.  I know there’s nothing weak — nothing passive — nothing naïve — in the creed and lives of Gandhi and King. But as a head of state sworn to protect and defend my nation, I cannot be guided by their examples alone.  I face the world as it is, and cannot stand idle in the face of threats to the American people.  For make no mistake:  Evil does exist in the world.  A non-violent movement could not have halted Hitler’s armies.  Negotiations cannot convince al Qaeda’s leaders to lay down their arms.  To say that force may sometimes be necessary is not a call to cynicism — it is a recognition of history; the imperfections of man and the limits of reason. (Nobel Prize Lecture, December 10, 2009)

But at a time when our discourse has become so sharply polarized -– at a time when we are far too eager to lay the blame for all that ails the world at the feet of those who happen to think differently than we do -– it’s important for us to pause for a moment and make sure that we’re talking with each other in a way that heals, not in a way that wounds.  Scripture tells us that there is evil in the world, and that terrible things happen for reasons that defy human understanding. In the words of Job, “When I looked for light, then came darkness.”  Bad things happen, and we have to guard against simple explanations in the aftermath. For the truth is none of us can know exactly what triggered this vicious attack.  None of us can know with any certainty what might have stopped these shots from being fired, or what thoughts lurked in the inner recesses of a violent man’s mind.  Yes, we have to examine all the facts behind this tragedy.  We cannot and will not be passive in the face of such violence.  We should be willing to challenge old assumptions in order to lessen the prospects of such violence in the future.  But what we cannot do is use this tragedy as one more occasion to turn on each other.  (Tucson Memorial Service, January 12, 2011)

Even as we come to learn how this happened and who’s responsible, we may never understand what leads anyone to terrorize their fellow human beings.  Such evil is senseless – beyond reason.  But while we will never know fully what causes someone to take the life of another, we do know what makes that life worth living. (Weekly Media Message focused on the Aurora shootings, July 21, 2012)

For here we see the depravity to which man can sink; the barbarism that unfolds when we begin to see our fellow human beings as somehow less than us, less worthy of dignity and of life.  We see how evil can, for a moment in time, triumph when good people do nothing, and how silence abetted a crime unique in human history. Here we see their faces and we hear their voices.  We look upon the objects of their lives — the art that they created, the prayer books that they carried.  We see that even as they had hate etched into their arms, they were not numbers.  They were men and women and children — so many children — sent to their deaths because of who they were, how they prayed, or who they loved. And yet, here, alongside man’s capacity for evil, we also are reminded of man’s capacity for good — the rescuers, the Righteous Among the Nations who refused to be bystanders.  And in their noble acts of courage, we see how this place, this accounting of horror, is, in the end, a source of hope. (House of the Children, March 22, 2013)

As the sun rose that Easter Sunday, he put on that purple stole and led dozens of prisoners to the ruins of an old church in the camp.  And he read from a prayer missal that they had kept hidden.  He held up a small crucifix that he had made from sticks.  And as the guards watched, Father Kapaun and all those prisoners — men of different faith, perhaps some men of no faith — sang the Lord’s Prayer and “America the Beautiful.”  They sang so loud that other prisoners across the camp not only heard them, they joined in, too — filling that valley with song and with prayer. That faith — that they might be delivered from evil, that they could make it home — was perhaps the greatest gift to those men; that even amidst such hardship and despair, there could be hope; amid their misery in the temporal they could see those truths that are eternal; that even in such hell, there could be a touch of the divine.  Looking back, one of them said that that is what “kept a lot of us alive.” (Medal of Honor presentation, April 11, 2013)

You’ve shown us, Boston, that in the face of evil, Americans will lift up what’s good. In the face of cruelty, we will choose compassion. In the face of those who would visit death upon innocents, we will choose to save and to comfort and to heal. We’ll choose friendship. We’ll choose love. (Cathedral of the Holy Cross, Boston, April 18, 2013)

So America is at a crossroads.  We must define the nature and scope of this struggle, or else it will define us.  We have to be mindful of James Madison’s warning that “No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.”  Neither I, nor any President, can promise the total defeat of terror. We will never erase the evil that lies in the hearts of some human beings, nor stamp out every danger to our open society.  But what we can do — what we must do — is dismantle networks that pose a direct danger to us, and make it less likely for new groups to gain a foothold, all the while maintaining the freedoms and ideals that we defend.  And to define that strategy, we have to make decisions based not on fear, but on hard-earned wisdom.  That begins with understanding the current threat that we face. (National Defense University, May 23, 2013)

All these shootings, all these victims, she said, “this is not America.” “It is a challenge to all of us,” she said, and “we have to work together to get rid of this.” And that’s the wisdom we should be taking away from this tragedy and so many others — not accepting these shootings as inevitable, but asking what can we do to prevent them from happening again and again and again. I’ve said before, we cannot stop every act of senseless violence. We cannot know every evil that lurks in troubled minds. But if we can prevent even one tragedy like this, save even one life, spare other families what these families are going through, surely we’ve got an obligation to try. (Marine Barracks, Washington DC, September 22, 2013)

If the memories of the Shoah survivors teach us anything, it is that silence is evil’s greatest co-conspirator.  And it’s up to us — each of us, every one of us — to forcefully condemn any denial of the Holocaust.  It’s up to us to combat not only anti-Semitism, but racism and bigotry and intolerance in all their forms, here and around the world.  It’s up to us to speak out against rhetoric that threatens the existence of a Jewish homeland and to sustain America’s unshakeable commitment to Israel’s security.  And it is up to us to search our own hearts — to search ourselves — for those stories that have no place in this world.  Because it’s easy sometimes to project out and worry about others and their hatreds and their bigotries and their blind spots.  It’s not always as easy for us to examine ourselves.  (USC Shoah Foundation Dinner, May 7, 2014

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What do you hear in these comments?  What does he mean?  Does his use of the term — perception of the concept — roughly accord with yours?  If not, how not? I’ll join you in the comment section for discussion and analysis.

September 12, 2014

Counterterrorism capitulates to war

Filed under: Media,Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Philip J. Palin on September 12, 2014

As you have probably already seen/heard unfold over the day, the Administration has decided not to argue terms-of-reference related to its current and anticipated action against the so-called Islamic State.

Here’s how the Daily News framed the fast-moving rhetorical controversy:

The U.S. is at war with ISIS, the White House and Pentagon said Friday, a day after Secretary of State John Kerry stubbornly declined to use the ‘W’ word.

“In the same way that we are at war with al Qaeda and its affiliates around the globe, we are at war with ISIL,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said, using another acronym for ISIS, also known as the Islamic State.

Pentagon spokesman John Kirby offered a similar reaction Friday.

“Make no mistake, we know we are at war with ISIL in the same way we’re at war and continue to be at al Qaeda and its affiliates,” Kirby said.

In a Thursday evening (US time) interview with CNN the Secretary of State said: “We’re engaged in a counterterrorism operation of a significant order. I think ‘war’ is the wrong reference term with respect to that, but obviously it involves kinetic military action.”

Secretary Kerry could have more effectively advanced understanding of CT by being just a bit more diplomatic. But his fussy language does reflect consistent Administration policy.

If I was in the West Wing I too would have sacrificed the high ground of maintaining the meaningful distinction.  It was high ground totally exposed to the worst sort of ideological artillery.  Given today’s reality the hill would have been over-run no matter what was done to defend it.

But the distinction is meaningful.  Since the mid-Nineteenth Century Americans have come to  expect wars to end in victory and the unconditional surrender of our enemies.  This has not always been the case, but our expectations persist.

This expectation is wildly inappropriate — entirely unrealistic — regarding the sort of adversary that has emerged (again) along the Euphrates.  We can degrade it.  We can even, in many meanings of the word, destroy it.  We will not receive a surrender.  We would be foolish to declare victory.

Americans would benefit from better understanding the difference between “war” as we typically choose to understand it and the counterterrorism operations we are actually executing.  Two very different activities.  Confusion regarding them may generate all sorts of mischief.

September 11, 2014

What the President said about evil and counterterrorism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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