Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

May 12, 2015

The Evolving Islamic State Threat

Filed under: Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Mike Walker on May 12, 2015

Note: The following is based on a May 11, 2015, series of tweets by Mike Walker who tweets as @New_Narrative

Former CIA acting director Mike Morell says it is only a matter of time until the Islamic State (IS) attempts another 9-11.  He is correct. It is also past time for policymakers to level with Americans about the true nature of the IS threat.

Last year, when the IS took a swath of territory in Iraq & Syria the size of the UK, analysts said we had nothing to fear here in the United States.  They believed IS to be a regional Middle Eastern threat focused solely on advancing their so-called “caliphate”.  Based on that analysis, policymakers embarked on a slow-motion air war that would not defeat IS for years.

Unfortunately the analysts were wrong.  The IS group is not only focused on building and sustaining their caliphate; they are especially focused on creating an apocalyptic clash of civilizations.  Last August, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said IS leaders have an “end of days” strategic vision.

Based on centuries-old prophecy, IS leaders foresee a coming final battle with “infidel” forces at Dabiq in northern Syria.  They even named their English language magazine “Dabiq” to emphasize their commitment to this apocalyptic vision.

In recent months, IS has rapidly expanded outside their self-proclaimed caliphate, establishing cells in more than a dozen countries.  They are even challenging the Taliban in Afghanistan; and growing strength in Libya from where they plan to attack Europe.

Here at home, in just the last 4 months, more than 30 people have been arrested on IS terror-related charges.  Analysts who earlier said IS was only focused on building its caliphate are now saying “lone wolves” are the problem.

The DHS secretary warned Sunday that lone wolf attackers could strike the US at any time without warning.  No doubt, there will be more Garland-type attacks.  The IS has been promoting homegrown terror in the US for some time.  In fact, the FBI director says IS recruiters could now be in touch with thousands of potential followers inside the US.

But promoting self-starting lone wolves is only one aspect of an evolving Islamic State threat.  Jihadist ideologue Abu Mus’ab al-Suri wrote the blueprint for a global jihadist movement in 2005.  Central to his voluminous doctrine was a message to the West that “you cannot defeat us if we are everywhere”.  It is clear the IS group is unleashing an “everywhere” strategy.

Al-Suri also said that encouraging self-starters was only part of a global plan for violent jihadist victory.  He also supported accelerating the apocalypse, and criticized bin Laden over 9-11 because the attack wasn’t big enough.

Today, Western policymakers have wisely decided not to put our own “boots on the ground” against the IS.  The IS group wants the West to intervene on the ground so they can fulfill that prophecy.  No doubt IS leaders have looked at the history of global violent jihad and concluded that 9-11 was a watershed event.  They may now believe the US would respond to another 9-11 with boots on the ground like we did in 2001.

Yet, Western analysts insist the real threat to the US homeland continues to be al-Qaeda (AQ) and its affiliate, AQAP.  No doubt AQ would like to be the main threat to the United Stays, but they are way short of financial resources and talent.  And our counter-terrorism war against AQ overseas has greatly diminished their capacity to effectively attack.

Today, it must be acknowledged that the terrorist threat is far more complex than it was after 9-11.  In 2015, it is the IS that is well funded and has captured the imagination of a new generation of eager violent jihadists.  Thousands of Western Europeans and perhaps hundreds of Americans have already joined the IS cause.

Last week, the IS claimed to have sleeper cells in 15 American states poised to strike.  That’s IS propaganda for sure, but a well-financed group with a growing cadre of Westerners cannot be discounted.

In recent weeks we have also been seeing an IS social media campaign entitled #WeWillBurnAmericaAgain.  Words are cheap, but you don’t have to be an analyst to understand they are talking about another 9-11.

Of course, the next 9-11 doesn’t have to be a spectacular attack like 2001, but could be simpler attacks in many locations.  All terrorists need today are assault rifles and a little luck.  Would such a terrorist swarm equal another 9-11?

The FBI has honestly reported they worry about what they don’t know.  It is a matter of resources.  The reality is that “thousands of contacts” cannot be monitored in real time as we saw in Garland, Texas.

Rumor has it that the IS leader, al-Baghdadi, has been severely injured and has named a temporary successor.  If true, it demonstrates the continuing durability of the IS group, not its fragility.  And if the interim leader is indeed Abu Alaa Afri, the future of the IS group could become even more interesting.

Not much is known about Afri, but he is believed to have had the confidence of Osama bin Laden himself.  Bin Laden is revered in the IS group as he is in al-Qaeda.  In fact, IS insists AQ’s leaders have betrayed bin Laden.

Few believe a merger between al-Qaeda and the IS group is very likely.  Some very hard feelings have yet to soften.  IS may not need such an alliance, anyway, as they are gaining supporters from even AQ’s closest affiliate, AQAP.  But analysts cannot completely rule out some sort of an alliance, perhaps with AQ’s al-Nusra in Syria.

Some say the IS threat to the US homeland is being overblown, despite IS’ ability to attract thousands of followers.  Many believe the IS cannot pull off the equivalent of another 9-11, and that they are already being rolled back in Iraq.  Yet, most analysts do agree on one thing: the IS group will not be defeated in Iraq for years, if ever in Syria.  As long as the IS group holds territory and maintains the facade of a caliphate, they will represent a growing threat.

If the FBI is maxed out, will state and local law enforcement be able to prevent an Islamic State 9-11?

More broadly, how do we defeat the IS group without putting “boots on the ground” as IS leaders want us to do?

And if we defeat IS militarily overseas, how do we prevent another al-Qaeda or Islamic State from rising up again?

Policymakers should address these important questions before the next successful attack.

(Mike Walker is a former acting secretary of the Army and former deputy director of FEMA)







April 30, 2015

Homeland security: YES or NO?

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

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

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

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

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

Is any of this a homeland security issue?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

April 19, 2015

April 19

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

On this day in 1775 irregular militia and spontaneous volunteers, eventually numbering almost 4000, confronted British infantry at the Massachusetts towns of Concord and Lexington.  After several engagements British troops retreated into Boston which then remained under siege into the summer.  Insurgent forces lost nearly fifty dead.  At least 73 British troops were killed.

On this day in 1995, Timothy McVeigh parked a rental truck packed with self-made explosives in a drop off zone just beside — and slightly beneath — the structural curtain of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City.  The date was chosen by McVeigh to coincide with the battles of Lexington and Concord (and the 1993 Waco siege that ended on April 19 with the death of 76). One-hundred sixty-eight were killed by the Oklahoma City blast.  More than six hundred were injured.

The annual Boston Marathon is part of a wider celebration of Patriots’ Day which celebrates the battles of Lexington and Concord. Since 1969 Patriots’ Day has been observed on the third Monday in April.  In 2013 three were killed in two bombings near the marathon’s finish line.  Over 260 were injured.

An excerpt from Concord Hymn by Ralph Waldo Emerson:

By the rude bridge that arched the flood,
Their flag to April’s breeze unfurled,
Here once the embattled farmers stood,
And fired the shot heard round the world.

The foe long since in silence slept;
Alike the conqueror silent sleeps;
And Time the ruined bridge has swept
Down the dark stream which seaward creeps.

April 16, 2015

Ordinary boys, extraordinary rage

Filed under: Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Philip J. Palin on April 16, 2015

Four Boys

Timothy McVeigh (far left) was the principal actor in the April 19, 1995 bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City.  He killed 168 and injured over 680.  The almost twenty-seven year old was assisted by Terry Nichols, but it seems unlikely the bombing would have happened without McVeigh.

A native of western New York state, McVeigh had been awarded the Bronze Star Medal for meritorious service in the First Gulf War. After discharge he held several part-time jobs and bought and sold on the gun-show circuit.  He was often described as soft-spoken and affable.

A best selling biography of McVeigh — American Terrorist — was written with his cooperation.  Just before McVeigh’s 2001 execution one of the biography’s co-authors answered the following question posed by a BBC correspondent:

NEWSHOST:  A lot of people have asked me in conversations how does someone go from being a veteran in the US Army to becoming someone who can carry out the greatest act of terrorism on American soil?

DAN HERBECK:  Part of it started when he was a boy and he was picked on by bullies in his school. Part of it was when his parents had a difficult divorce and he was very hurt by that and part of it was when he was taught to kill in the US Army. And then a big part of it was that he really fights for gun rights and he believes that everyone should have the right to own guns and when he felt the US Government was trying to take that away from him he snapped and he decided he was going to take action against our government.

The book offers a more complicated answer, but quite late in his book tour, the co-author is willing to deploy this reduction.

Anders Brevik (second from the left), was in his early thirties when he bombed government offices in Oslo.  While McVeigh’s murder of children in a day care center was unintended “collateral damage,” Breivik  quite purposefully gunned down over sixty young people on Utøya Island.

There is a new biography of the Norwegian terrorist, the English language title is One of Us.  Reviewing the book for The Guardian, Ian Buruma wrote, “It is a ghastly story of family dysfunction, professional and sexual failure, grotesque narcissism and the temptation of apocalyptic delusions.” With modest adjustments the same diagnosis can be found in most biographies of McVeigh, including a long Washington Post profile published in 1995 titled, “An Ordinary Boy’s Extraordinary Rage.”  Breivik was raised by a single parent, bullied in school, mildly maladroit. Like McVeigh. But while their back-stories are troublesome, nothing seems extraordinary. Each of them: just one of us.

A biography of the Tsarnaev brothers has been published to coincide with the survivor’s verdict and sentencing.  The Brothers was featured on the front-page of last Sunday’s New York Times Book Review, assessed by none other than Janet Napolitano.

The author, Marsha Gessen, mostly avoids the Freudian frames of the previous biographers.  Yes, the brothers were born into an increasingly dysfunctional family. Certainly there was a share of professional failure, especially for the father and older brother. Yes, there was cultural and personal narcissism.  But Gessen is reluctant to see any of these as explaining the apocalyptic delusions or violent rage that exploded on Boylston Street.

Last week the author of the Tsarnaev book was a guest on Fresh Air with Terry Gross.  An excerpt from the transcript:

GROSS: The defense is saying that Dzhokhar (above, far right) was following his brother, Tamerlan (above, second from the right), but unlike his brother, Dzhokhar was not a self-radicalized terrorist. What does the expression self-radicalized mean?

GESSEN: Nobody knows. Nobody knows what self-radicalized means, and that’s one of the weird things about the way that we talk about terrorism. We talk about radicalization as though it were a thing, as though you could sort of track it and identify it, and that’s not the case. And then we’ve added this other layer, which is self-radicalization. Originally, radicalization was supposed to mean that there was an organization that sort of took you through the stages, and then when it turned out that some people just came to terrorism by themselves, this new thing called self-radicalization showed up. No one knows what it means.

Well, some claim to know.  And I have seen some reasonable claims.  But Gessen’s critique is a helpful rejoinder to quickly applying a convenient label that mostly obscures all that we do not know.

Whatever their origins and experience, the four boys seem to have arrived at a similar nexus where rather than accept what can not be known, they sought certainty in a baptism of blood.


Despite mixed reviews, I have ordered Gessen’s biography. It has not yet been delivered.  So my imagination has full-rein.  The title suggests to me  The Brothers Karamasov, where Dostoyevsky has the father of the three brothers being warned:

Above all, do not lie to yourself. A man who lies to himself and listens to his own lie comes to a point where he does not discern any truth either in himself or anywhere around him, and thus falls into disrespect towards himself and others.Not respecting anyone, he ceases to love, and having no love, he gives himself up to passions and coarse pleasures, in order to occupy and amuse himself, and in his vices reaches complete bestiality, and it all comes from lying continually to others and to himself. A man who lies to himself is often the first to take offense. It sometimes feels very good to take offense, doesn’t it? And surely he knows that no one has offended him, and that he himself has invented the offense and told lies just for the beauty of it, that he has exaggerated for the sake of effect, that he has picked on a word and made a mountain out of a pea — he knows all of that, and still he is the first to take offense, he likes feeling offended, it gives him great pleasure, and thus he reaches the point of real hostility. (Book XI, translated by Volokhonsky)

What are the lies I use in self-construction?  What offenses do I construe to give me pleasure?

Nothing out-of-the-ordinary, I assure myself.

April 13, 2015

Twenty years from Oklahoma

Filed under: Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Christopher Bellavita on April 13, 2015

On April 19th, 1995 I was walking around the muddy fields of the Georgia International Horse Park in Conyers, Georgia when the rented Ryder truck exploded outside the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. It was 10:02 in Georgia. 9:02 in Oklahoma.

One hundred and sixty-seven people were murdered that day. More than 600 were injured.

This Sunday marks 20 years.

I was part of an Olympic security exercise.  My memory is partial, but I think the main exercise event promised ATF would blow up a car. Twenty years ago that was a big deal.

FBI agents were the first ones to tell us about the Oklahoma events. About a dozen federal agents were participating in the exercise. Most of the time those agency representatives — like rabid football fans – could not stand the people from other agencies.  But on that day, when they heard the news their first concern – to a man (they were all men) – was who from their agency, from anyone’s agency, was in that building.

I think that was the first time I saw public safety agencies come together as a community.

I’ve seen it happen a lot since then, but that was the first time.

I remember almost everyone knowing with all but moral certainty that Muslims were behind the attack.

The betting here is on Middle East terrorists,” declared CBS News‘ Jim Stewart just hours after the blast (4/19/95). “The fact that it was such a powerful bomb in Oklahoma City immediately drew investigators to consider deadly parallels that all have roots in the Middle East,” ABC‘s John McWethy proclaimed the same day.“It has every single earmark of the Islamic car-bombers of the Middle East,” wrote syndicated columnist Georgie Anne Geyer (Chicago Tribune, 4/21/95). “Whatever we are doing to destroy Mideast terrorism, the chief terrorist threat against Americans, has not been working,” declared the New York Times‘ A.M. Rosenthal (4/21/95)….  “Knowing that the car bomb indicates Middle Eastern terrorists at work, it’s safe to assume that their goal is to promote free-floating fear and a measure of anarchy, thereby disrupting American life,” the New York Post editorialized (4/20/95)….. An op-ed in New York Newsday by Jeff Kamen (4/20/95) complained that officials had ignored “a sizable community of Islamic fundamentalist militants in Oklahoma City,” and urged that military special forces be used against “potential terrorists”: “Shoot them now, before they get us,” he demanded. Syndicated columnist Mike Royko wrote (Chicago Tribune, 4/21/95): “I would have no objection if we picked out a country that is a likely suspect and bombed some oil fields, refineries, bridges, highways, industrial complexes. . . . If it happens to be the wrong country, well, too bad, but it’s likely it did something to deserve it anyway.”

Except for Twilight Zone episode Number 22, called The Monsters are Due on Maple Street, I believe that was the first time I saw so many opinion leaders go so uniformly crazy, so quickly.

I’ve seen it happen many times since.  I expect it to happen again.

Edye Lucas was a 22 year old single mother of two boys, Chase (2 years old)  and Colton (3 years old). Lucas worked in the Murrah Building IRS office.

[She] only intended on being up at the office for a little bit to celebrate her upcoming birthday with co-workers. So, she dropped Chase and Colton at the American Kids daycare, planning on only keeping them there part of the day. She remembered walking to the conference room to blow out the candles on her birthday cake when the bomb went off….

“I look back now and I think why didn’t I just stay home,” said Lucas [two weeks ago]. “ Why? Could have, would have, should have – and I didn’t. And what happened, happened.”

“The outpouring of love and compassion from everyone was amazing.” Lucas said that is what helped her and others heal and move on. And to remind them that they are not alone, and that their loved ones will never be forgotten.

She said both the [Oklahoma City National Memorial]…and the museum are a testament to that. And Lucas said she often finds little tokens left behind along the fence or on the chairs for Chase and Colton. And that makes her smile.

“It’s sacred ground,” said Lucas. “And it’s such an honor to have that to memorialize my children forever and ever because it’s going to be there forever.”

Somerset Maugham told this story sometime in the 1930s.  The speaker is Death:

There was a merchant in Bagdad who sent his servant to market to buy provisions and in a little while the servant came back, white and trembling, and said, Master, just now when I was in the marketplace I was jostled by a woman in the crowd and when I turned I saw it was Death that jostled me. She looked at me and made a threatening gesture, now, lend me your horse, and I will ride away from this city and avoid my fate. I will go to Samarra and there Death will not find me.

The merchant lent him his horse, and the servant mounted it, and he dug his spurs in its flanks and as fast as the horse could gallop he went.

Then the merchant went down to the marketplace and he saw me standing in the crowd and he came to me and said, Why did you make a threating getsture to my servant when you saw him this morning?

That was not a threatening gesture, I said, it was only a start of surprise. I was astonished to see him in Bagdad, for I had an appointment with him tonight in Samarra.

March 31, 2015

Germanwings as mediated terrorism

Filed under: General Homeland Security,Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Christopher Bellavita on March 31, 2015

I listened – if that’s the right word – to a social media conversation last week about the Germanwings Flight 9525 crash.

The discussants were four colleagues who have been around homeland security for over a decade. The discussion took place at various times on March 26th and 27th, as news and speculations about what happened and why trickled through the Internet.

Here’s some of that discursive conversation, lightly edited


Person A. So, the French procureur just said that crashing a plane to the ground and killing more than 100+ innocent people is not an act of terrorism….thoughts? ( I know, I know… I am opening the can of worms of “define terrorism” but this seems to be a good reason to open it.)

Person B. This is easy! If he’s Muslim it’s terrorism. If he’s Christian it’s mental illness.

Person C. Can an act be deemed terrorism if the affected population isn’t terrorized? Any reports of Europeans en masse opting not to fly for fear on inadequate pilot screening procedures?

B. The first 19 Aum Shinrikyo attacks failed to terrorize the population too.

C. Yet, that incident is widely referred to as an act of terrorism…at least by the host government officials.

A. This just happened: ggreenwald It’s the definition. RT @AliAbunimah BBC just said Germanwings pilots “was German. Not a known terrorist.” They really do go by ethnicity.

A. Parents are still sending kids to school after sandy hook…..  But it is scary as hell!

C. Two things strike me as odd about this latest plane crash. 1) if the lone pilot was pursuing a murder-suicide plot, why fly the plane on into a mountain? Major urban areas were nearby and he had a near full load of fuel to get him to these areas. 2) why hasn’t AQ or ISIS claimed credit for the incident. Even if they had nothing to do with the pilot it could cause short-term terror in some.

A. I guess the question that troubles me here is, why do we need a big political motif as motivation? The imbecile in Santa Barbara killed 6 people because he could not get a date. That does not make his bullets less real. 100+ people are dead in an aviation suicide attack. Why are their deaths less “terrorist related” than those of the victims of 9/11?

B. Because the political motivation impacts the funding steam.  Did you know that the Santa Barbara shooter shot one of our colleague’s daughters through the hoody? He also shot her boyfriend.

A. Did both survive? (say yes).

B. Yes

B. Are you saying violence = terrorism?

A. Violence with an audience to send a message (even if the message is trivial) = terrorism.

B. Those impacted are just as traumatized.

A. Ritualized killings to provoke a reaction in an audience = terrorism. It does not have to be about Palestine. It may be about getting laid, or telling the department of veteran affairs “fuck you” or, whatever sick excuse.

C. What is the motivation of the perpetrator? Killers of people to scare other people that others are pursuing a like agenda = terrorism. Kill lots of people because you are having a difficult time adjusting to societal norms = mass murder.

B. But you aren’t saying it’s an excuse. You are saying it is the motivation. Some violence is good right? When we do the violence to send a message. Right?

A. It is its public nature.

B. When the state says fuck you and uses violence that is legit.

A. Carpet bombing Dresden or the Blitz killed a lot of people, but it was not a ritualized act.

B. My ass it wasn’t.

A. Instead, it had a strategic objective.

C. Violence may not be good but it is necessary.

B. It may have been less personal but it sent the message intended

A. (it was also a ritualized act) but not only. The objective was to limit the military capacities of the other to kick my butt.

B. And Hiroshima and Nagasaki did exactly what it was to do re: Russia? Really?

A. I had written something about Big Boy, and I deleted it, because the bomb was a ritualized act!

B. That may have been an additional benefit but our violence is often intended to send a message, take for instance the conventional fire bombings in Japan. Or Doolittle’s raid.

A. So, if I am pissed off with the IRS (I am not) and go and kill 40 accountants, in an IRS building, that is not terrorism?

B. Yep I’d say it definitely is terrorism.

A. So, if I am pissed off with girls because I cannot get a date, and I go and kill 10 girls is that terorism?

B. Refer to my initial statement about Muslim v Christian: If he’s Muslim it’s terrorism. If he’s Christian it’s mental illness.

C. Why is it terrorism?

A. That is my question, why is it not? Students in Santa Barbara are scared to go back to college.

A. And clearly there was an audience, and he even has a crappy manifesto.

C. Finals exams are due to start soon.

B. This is nature’s terrorism…now I’m afraid of the sky
nature's terrorism

A. Suicide: I jump from the golden gate. Got it. Terrorism: I kill 3000 to send a political message .

C. Was he trying to change the policies of the country or simply exacting revenge for a perceived wrong?

A.Who says that terrorism is about changing policies? That is, I think, the core of the divergence. Not all political acts are about changing policies.

C. Agreed.

B. Political or social change influence …

A. Fear.

B. Not necessarily policies.

A. To produce fear among those I despise.

B. Or just a broader audience beyond those directly impacted by the violence.

C. Correct. Just as not all mass killings are terrorism.

A. Fear, audience, death. I can agree with those.

B. But I believe there is state terror too. Not just sponsorship terror

C. So there must be death for it to be deemed an act of terrorism?

B. David Claridge made a great argument for this (even though I’m not a fan, he was right about this).

C. What about maiming or the threat of death?

B. No, threat is ok too.

A. Pain and suffering work too. Torture.

A. Ok. if we cannot agree on a definition, I’ll take the “keywords” we did agree on as a common denominator.


C. Okay, let me get this straight. We are fighting alongside Iran in Iraq, fighting against Iran (proxy) in Yemen, and negotiating with them regarding acceptable nuclear capabilities?

A. I don’t know anymore against who we are fighting in the middle east. :)

C. Everyone is the correct answer

A. I think this answers your question about who are we fighting in the middle east :) http://thedailyshow.cc.com/videos/1xg427/wait–whose-side-are-we-on-again-?xrs=synd_facebook_032715_tds_2

[The link connects to a Daily Show episode whose conclusion is the US has finally found a way to fight a proxy war against itself.  But back to the other topic.] 

Person D. [joining the conversation] Terrorism = violence or the threat of violence that is perceived as undermining state sovereignty or the ability of the economy and/or society to function. I.e., Germanwings was not terrorism but rather an act of mass murder and a terrible tragedy.

A. Another definition throws its hat to the ring! :) Only a credible challenge to the state sovereignty?

D. Why can’t these guys who want to off themselves just do it without murdering innocents in the process?

A. Given the fact that my mother in law is terrorized to fly right now, I will still call Germanwings a case of terror.

D. It doesn’t have to actually be credible, just perceived as such. Terrorism produces exaggerated fear.

A. So, is Aurora or Sandy Hook not terror?

D. Not perceived as a threat to sovereignty, society, and the economy. Now a wave of mass shootings at movie theaters or schools could then be perceived as such. But it would also need to be seen as non-random.

A. I see in our future a post where [everyone who works here] answers the question: what is terrorism? I know we will get as many answers as we have [people who think about this], and that will add to the concert of others who have also answered the question. Still…..

D. Ok by me as long as you all agree in the end that I am right!

A. We are not aiming for consensus, but to look for the edges of the debate. That said, once we have X definitions, we may want to see if they can be “merged” in a lower common denominator, ala wikipedia, or if they can’t, to see where the deal breakers are. Could be a nice exercise. And it does not need to be permanent. We could update every time our thoughts on the topic evolve. I know that what I think terror and terrorism is today is different to what I used to think about the topic a few years ago.

A. I’m also having a similar conversation with [other people on a different social network platform]. We came to a conclusion…. :) instead of ruling out terrorism, as this seems to be a point of debate, we could agree (if that is the case): “at this point, the attack does not seem to have a political or religious motif.”

C. Agreed. All signs point to the co-pilot having diagnosed emotional issues. So how many other post 9/11 security fixes can or could lead to unintended consequences? http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/comment/andreas-lubitz-kneejerk-reaction-to-911-enabled-mass-murder-10137173.html

[This link leads to a story that starts with: “A leading aviation security expert has condemned the rules on cockpit access as a “knee-jerk reaction to the events of 9/11” – which, he says, enabled the Germanwings co-pilot to commit the mass murder of the 149 other people on Flight 4U 9525.]

A. It is terrorism, right? :-) http://speisa.com/modules/articles/index.php/item.1086/the-co-pilot-of-the-germanwings-airbus-was-a-convert-to-islam.html

You can’t make this stuff up.

[This link — from one of the wondrous universes that inhabit the Internet – says (in an English translation of German), “All evidence indicates that the copilot of Airbus machine in his six-months break during his training as a pilot in Germanwings, converted to Islam and subsequently either by the order of “radical”, ie. devout Muslims , or received the order from the book of terror, the Quran, on his own accord decided to carry out this mass murder. As a radical mosque in Bremen is in the center of the investigation, in which the convert was staying often, it can be assumed that he – as Mohammed Atta, in the attack against New York – received his instructions directly from the immediate vicinity of the mosque.”]

C. He was converted posthumously.

A. So, is it terrorism now? http://www.liberation.fr/monde/2015/03/27/crash-a320-le-copilote-voulait-que-tout-le-monde-connaisse-son-nom_1230090
“One day everybody will know my name, I am going to change the system and everybody will remember me?” the pilot said to his girlfriend.
Is he trying to build a caliphate? No. But as we discussed before, killing 150 is hardly a suicide. He knew he was broadcasting to an audience, and he wants to make his mark in history books.
This is a powerful motivator…. A huge one actually among hackers, for example. A 17 year old who can hack a nuclear reactor will do it to prove he can….and kill somebody in the process.

March 26, 2015

Yemen: Some fundamentals

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

This week the disintegration of Yemen appears nearly complete.

Long-time home of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), Yemen has been an important area of operations for US, Saudi, and other counter-terrorist services.  Earlier this week both US and British military advisers were withdrawn in the face of escalating violence.

Many in the CT community consider AQAP the most direct threat to the US homeland. Since 9/11 AQAP has been implicated in several successful and unsuccessful attacks against the United States.

The collapse of the Yemeni central government, which has cooperated in operations against AQAP, will — at least in the near-term — likely enhance the terror group’s freedom of operation.  But AQAP may also be distracted by adversaries closer-at-home.

The current situation is fast-moving.  Following is some background information that may be helpful to your consideration of how the emerging outcomes could impact US homeland security.



The maps above were developed by The Fanack Foundation of the Netherlands.  Other information on Yemen is available from the Fanack Chronicle.

February 19, 2015

Bending the narrative

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


February 18, 2015

Penitence at the White House

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy Mardi Gras.  May you have a holy Lent.



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

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

February 16, 2015

New Defense Secretary Ash Carter on “Catastrophic Terrorism”…from 1998

Filed under: Terrorist Threats & Attacks,WMD — by Arnold Bogis on February 16, 2015

You know how sometimes someone in the meeting comes off as the “smartest person in the room?”  On occasion, it is the truth.  Which is often the case with the newly confirmed Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter.

Recently, and randomly, I came across an old Foreign Affairs article that he co-wrote with (past) CIA Director John Deutch and (future) 9/11 Commission Executive Director Philip Zelikow.

Terrorism is not a new phenomenon. But today’s terrorists, be they international cults like Aum Shinrikyo or individual nihilists like the Unabomber, act on a greater variety of motives than ever before. More ominously, terrorists may gain access to weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear devices, germ dispensers, poison gas weapons, and even computer viruses. Also new is the world’s dependence on a nearly invisible and fragile network for distributing energy and information. Long part of the Hollywood and Tom Clancy repertory of nightmarish scenarios, catastrophic terrorism has moved from far-fetched horror to a contingency that could happen next month. Although the United States still takes conventional terrorism seriously, as demonstrated by the response to the attacks on its embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in August, it is not yet prepared for the new threat of catastrophic terrorism.

American military superiority on the conventional battlefield pushes its adversaries toward unconventional alternatives. The United States has already destroyed one facility in Sudan in its attempt to target chemical weapons. Russia, storehouse of tens of thousands of weapons and material to make tens of thousands more, may be descending into turmoil. Meanwhile, the combination of new technology and lethal force has made biological weapons at least as deadly as chemical and nuclear alternatives. Technology is more accessible, and society is more vulnerable. Elaborate international networks have developed among organized criminals, drug traffickers, arms dealers, and money launderers, creating an infrastructure for catastrophic terrorism around the world.

The bombings in East Africa killed hundreds. A successful attack with weapons of mass destruction could certainly take thousands, or tens of thousands, of lives. If the device that exploded in 1993 under the World Trade Center had been nuclear, or had effectively dispersed a deadly pathogen, the resulting horror and chaos would have exceeded our ability to describe it. Such an act of catastrophic terrorism would be a watershed event in American history. It could involve loss of life and property unprecedented in peacetime and undermine America’s fundamental sense of security, as did the Soviet atomic bomb test in 1949. Like Pearl Harbor, this event would divide our past and future into a before and after. The United States might respond with draconian measures, scaling back civil liberties, allowing wider surveillance of citizens, detention of suspects, and use of deadly force. More violence could follow, either further terrorist attacks or U.S. counterattacks. Belatedly, Americans would judge their leaders negligent for not addressing terrorism more urgently.

The danger of weapons of mass destruction being used against America and its allies is greater now than at any time since the Cuban missile crisis of 1962. It is a national security problem that deserves the kind of attention the Defense Department devotes to threats of military nuclear attack or regional aggression. The first obstacle to imagination is resignation. The prospects may seem so dreadful that some officials despair of doing anything useful. Some are fatalistic, as if contemplating the possibility of a supernova. Many thinkers reacted the same way at the dawn of the nuclear age, expecting doom to strike at any hour and disavowing any further interest in deterrence as a hopeless venture. But as with nuclear deterrence, the good news is that more can be done.

The 9/11 attack, though conventional, did accomplish exactly what the authors’ warned of in stating:

“Such an act of catastrophic terrorism would be a watershed event in American history. It could involve loss of life and property unprecedented in peacetime and undermine America’s fundamental sense of security, as did the Soviet atomic bomb test in 1949. Like Pearl Harbor, this event would divide our past and future into a before and after. The United States might respond with draconian measures, scaling back civil liberties, allowing wider surveillance of citizens, detention of suspects, and use of deadly force. More violence could follow, either further terrorist attacks or U.S. counterattacks. Belatedly, Americans would judge their leaders negligent for not addressing terrorism more urgently.”

Unfortunately, their conclusions I feel have still gone unheeded. Especially as we as a nation get wound up about an insurgent force highly proficient in propaganda but yet still lacking in strategic strength.  Though it would still be wise to ask, can we do something better with the hindsight of 14 years?

Catastrophic terrorism poses an eminent threat to America’s future. But the United States can fight back only if it sets the right goals. In 1940 and 1941, the U.S. government pondered what kind of forces it would need to wage a global war. The answers went so far beyond the imagination that wry smiles and shaking heads in Washington offices greeted the planning papers as they made their rounds. The Cold War saw a similar pattern of disbelief. The notion of an intelligence system founded on photographic surveillance from the upper atmosphere or outer space seemed outrageously far-fetched in 1954, when the U-2 program was born. The films and cameras alone seemed an overwhelming hurdle. A few years later the U-2s were flying; six years later satellites were in place. Similar stories could be told about the remarkable history of intercontinental missile guidance or the fast deployment of more than a half-million troops and thousands of armored vehicles to the Persian Gulf in 1991 and 1992. America can meet new challenges, but it must first imagine success. Only then can it organize itself to attain it.

You can read the entire article here.

February 2, 2015

Which is harder to defeat – Ebola or ISIS?

Filed under: Biosecurity,International HLS,Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Arnold Bogis on February 2, 2015

That is the question that Graham Allison, Director of Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, tackled in a short opinion piece for Time magazine. It was originally published last December when attention on Ebola was high due to the presence of a few cases cases inside the U.S. (in contrast to the thousands in West Africa), but Phil’s post this past Thursday on “Epidemiology of Violence” reminded me of Allison’s take on the same general concept.

His conclusion:

About Ebola, the world knows a lot and is doing relatively little. About ISIS, we know relatively little but are doing a lot.

But that doesn’t answer which is the harder to defeat.  His analysis:

Finally, we should acknowledge the fact that for the foreseeable future, there may be no permanent cure for Islamic extremism. Against Ebola, researchers are racing toward a vaccine that could decisively prevent future epidemics. But the past decade has taught us that despite our best efforts, if and when the ISIS outbreak is controlled, another strain of the virus is likely to emerge. In this sense, violent Islamic extremism may be more like the flu than Ebola: a virus for which we have no cure, but for which we can develop a coherent management strategy to minimize the number of annual infections and deaths.

Not to give too much more away from the article, but it is interesting that a political scientist looks at ISIS through the lens of public health:

Over recent centuries, medicine has made more progress than statecraft. It can be useful therefore to examine ISIS through a public-health lens. When confronting a disease, modern medicine begins by asking: What is the pathogen? How does it spread? Who is at risk? And, informed by this understanding, how can it be treated and possibly prevented?

About Ebola, we know the answers to each. But what about ISIS?

I haven’t given away all the good stuff here, so if you’re interested you can read the entire article at: http://time.com/3618049/viral-threats/

January 29, 2015

Epidemiology of violence

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

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

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

I was not alone.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is the way with networks.

January 22, 2015

“Countering violent extremism”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

January 15, 2015

There is a tide in the affairs of men, Which taken at the flood, leads on to fortune. Omitted, all the voyage of their life is bound in shallows and in miseries. On such a full sea are we now afloat. And we must take the current when it serves, or lose our ventures.

Filed under: Strategy,Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Philip J. Palin on January 15, 2015

New York Post cover

The Kouachi brothers’ assassination attack on the editorial meeting at Charlie Hebdo killed twelve.

The next day with the Kouachi’s on the run, Amedy Coulibaly assassinated a French policewoman and subsequently took hostages at a kosher grocery in Paris.  Four hostages were killed.

The Kouachi brothers and Coulibaly were well-acquainted with each other.  Based on statements made by the murderers it would seem the Kouachis self-identified with Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula while Coulibaly, at least most recently, had pledged loyalty to the Islamic State.

The connections between these three men and their relationships with AQAP, IS, or other extremist organizations will take time to carefully trace.  It is not yet clear, for example, if others had any operational control, or even prior knowledge, of the attack.

“Is this a Mumbai or a Boston?” We don’t know yet. (Though some early signals lean toward a more-connected, less free-lance relationship with terrorist nodes.)

All three assailants were well-known to French police and other Western security agencies.  All had criminal records.  All had publicly expressed sympathy with terrorist organizations and ideology. At some point, all had been under surveillance.  So are over 1600 French citizens.  The potential threats far exceed the resources reasonably available to maintain some balance between security and due process.

I am surprised we have not seen more Mumbais and Bostons (or we might say, Bed-Stuys and Utoyas).  These lone-wolf or small wolf-pack attacks are very difficult to prevent. For twisted egos they practically guarantee mass-media validation. Jim Bittermann at CNN commented: Chérif Kouachi was a failed soccer player and a failed rap artist who finally found a way to claim our attention.

As long predicted, one of the blow-backs of the Syrian civil war will almost certainly be some increase in deadly events of this sorts. Several thousand egos are being simultaneously abused and inflamed.  But — none of those killing and finally killed last week were veterans of that conflict. There is even evidence that close encounters with the self-styled Caliphate have disillusioned many Western volunteers.

Intelligence operations, border controls, law enforcement vigilance and prosecutorial attention can help contain these threats.  The mid-December Lindt Cafe hostage taking in Sydney probably could have been prevented under new legislation that took effect on New Years Day.  Coulibaly could have still been in prison for his last offense, but he was released early. There is, however, no full-proof way to prevent these sort of small-scale operations.  Bigger more complicated efforts are much more likely to “leak” in a way we will notice. Even then to recognize the risk we require considerable expertise and just about as much luck.

In calendar year 2002, 1119 people were murdered in France. In 2012 the number had fallen to 665.  Last week was horrific.  Last week’s number was not — sadly — significantly outside historical proportions. On the same day of the Charlie Hebdo attack thirty-seven Yemeni police recruits were killed by what is widely assumed to be an AQAP vehicle bomb.  But this other mass-murder does not surprise us.

Of course it is not just the number of dead that matters.  We are horrified by how the targets were selected and the manner in which they were killed. The French Premier, Manuel Valls, proclaimed, in most English translations, “We are at War.”  But here is the complete quote (and my personal translation).

Nous faisons une guerre, pas une guerre contre une religion, pas une guerre de civilisation, mais pour défendre nos valeurs, qui sont universelles. C’est une guerre contre le terrorisme et l’islamisme radical, contre tout ce qui vise à briser la solidarité, la liberté, la fraternité. 

(We make war, but not a war against a religion, not a war of civilizations, but to defend our values, which are universal. It is a war against terrorism and radical Islam, against everything that aims to shatter solidarity, liberty, fraternity.)

Next month the United States will host a long-planned — but just calendared — international conference on counter-terrorism. The purpose of the February 18 session is to “better understand, identify, and prevent the cycle of radicalization to violence at home in the United States and abroad,’’ the White House said.  Even if we could fully understand the root causes, I’m not persuaded this knowledge would allow us to consistently identify and/or prevent.  Besides, the root causes are complicated, even by-the-textbook complex.

It seems to me that humanity is trying to adapt to a broad-based social revolution that began more or less four centuries ago and has been accelerating, gyrating, imploding and exploding ever since.  Some places and people have adapted reasonably well, others quite badly.

All of the great religions (inherently conserving institutions) have been challenged and changed by this great transformation. Islam has been undergoing its own “reformation” for at least the last century.  The contemporary convulsion in many Muslim states and between strands of Islam can be compared to the collision of a great flood with a great rock.  The flood does not stop.  The rock persists.  The water may swamp the rock or be diverted by the rock or build-up behind the rock until spilling over it.   The rock may even be carried with the flood until it is deposited far downstream.  In any case, big rocks and fast water are a dangerous combination.

We are —  especially if we are weird (western educated industrial rich democratic) — a part of this flooding.   Those less-weird who are threatened by the flooding may view us as the cause of their distress.  There are also some who have attempted to ride the waves of this cascade, nearly drowned, and were barely saved by a last-chance grasp for edges of the rock. These are especially inclined to curse us and attempt to change the course of this flooding. (Shakespeare puts the lines used as today’s title in the mouth of Brutus, friend and assassin of Caesar. A very complicated character.)

Is this war?  Both war and guerre (the French term) are derived from the Old High German werra meaning confusion, perplexing, disarray, strife, and quarrel.  So yes, we all make war.

But I will also share that last Friday a French friend wrote me, “It is just terrorism.”

I thought she might be saying something in English that had a nuanced meaning in French. But when I asked, she wrote, “No, this phrasing has nothing to do with French at all. I said this on purpose but I didn’t have time to explain why. I feel that it is very important to reduce those thugs to what they are, terrorists. This isn’t Islam, this isn’t a cause.  This is nothing. Nothing but sheer terrorism in the name of absolutely nothing. When put in such a context we can make different moral judgments and we can rebound more easily. It doesn’t change the course of anything. It is murder for the sake of murder.”

January 13, 2015

Charlie Hebdo Attack and One-Sided War

Filed under: Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Nick Catrantzos on January 13, 2015

Comparing it to recent attacks in Ottawa and Sydney misses important differences. The Paris assassinations of 12 people at the offices of the French periodical, Charlie Hebdo, involved more than a single attacker. These attackers were heavily armed and made a getaway, unlike the so-called lone wolves to whom they are being compared.

There will be no workplace violence discussions here, in part because certain features of workplace violence cases are altogether absent. Disturbed individuals who bring carnage to a workplace tend to be seeking not so much victory as relief. Consequently, they give little thought to escape and often die after carrying out their attacks, whether by their own hand or via suicide by cop. Clearly, the Paris attack was bereft of such elements.

Cries of Allahu Akbar are becoming a unifying thread running through attacks by armed killers against unsuspecting and unarmed victims. This common feature does appear to salute the effectiveness of the public relations arm of violent radical Islam that promotes murder stewed in the brine of antipathies legitimized — whether through propaganda, casuistry, or xenophobic bigotry — through a religious imprimatur.

The bottom line is that violent radical Islam and its adherents are waging a declared war against Western culture, institutions, and citizenry. In doing so, they are taking calculated advantage of civil liberties and freedom of maneuver that the radicals never see in their own countries of origin, where dissent is suppressed and deviation from ecclesia and state-enforced orthodoxy becomes freedom- and life-threatening.

We are neck-deep in a war with one self-imposed, knee-capping disadvantage: The adversary recognizes this situation, while we refuse to acknowledge it. Instead, we go to great lengths to discount violent radical Islamist terrorism. The net result is the kind of self-hobbling that limits the ability to conceive of let alone implement meaningful response.

Otherwise, what form might some kind of meaningful response take?

We, in the West, could begin by defining as a renunciation of citizenship any direct linkage to such terror groups and supporters. Want to link arms with ISIS and fight against the infidel?

Fine. Just don’t expect to be allowed to return to the country that has hosted you in your formative years of fostering resentments.

Refuse to assimilate by learning the language and adhering to the laws of the free country you inhabit but hate?

Fine, but you don’t get to stay there to defame and undermine and attack it.

A slow awakening is costly, but it can still avail. Ask the British, who took a long time to realize that the thugs and thugee were an existential threat in India during another century. Once the British finally awoke to this realization, however, they named the threat, studied it, and took severe measures to wipe out in six years a threat that had gone unchallenged and unabated for three hundred years until that point.

This success required closing exploitable gaps in the legal system, implementing harsh measures to contain and bring thugs to justice, and demonstrating the unrelenting resolve to pursue these measures until the threat was extinguished. Then, despite whatever fears of a new totalitarian state there may have been, the British returned to a permissive legal and societal order that had existed before the existential fight had begun. (For a study of this case, consult John Coloe’s 2005  master’s thesis, Government actions in the demise of the Thugs [1829-1835] and Sikh terrorists [1980-1993] and lessons for the United States.)

We, in the West, can do the same, but before there can be resolve, there must be clarity. We have little hope of winning a war if the only one who knows we are in mortal combat is the adversary but not the defender.

The author was a contributor to a security industry study on workplace violence response after having had a workplace violence practice while a consulting security director for Kroll Associates. His area of interest is insider threats, on which he has published a text, Managing the Insider Threat: No Dark Corners. He has also developed curricula and taught in homeland security programs for the University of Alaska and Colorado Technical University. Views expressed here are solely his own.

January 8, 2015

Counterterrorism as social judo

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

paris-je suis charlie

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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