Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

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.

[break]

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.

February 23, 2015

Cyber: making national security personal

Filed under: Cybersecurity — by Arnold Bogis on February 23, 2015

David  Sanger writes in today’s New York Times of the escalating cyber conflict between the United States and Iran:

A newly disclosed National Security Agency document illustrates the striking acceleration of the use of cyberweapons by the United States and Iran against each other, both for spying and sabotage, even as Secretary of State John Kerry and his Iranian counterpart met in Geneva to try to break a stalemate in the talks over Iran’s disputed nuclear program.

With all the talk about the threat of cyber theft, attack, and even warfare, we should remember that it isn’t a one way street.  Or, in other words, something only done to us:

It detailed how the United States and Britain had worked together to contain the damage from “Iran’s discovery of computer network exploitation tools” — the building blocks of cyberweapons. That was more than two years after the Stuxnet worm attack by the United States and Israel severely damaged the computer networks at Tehran’s nuclear enrichment plant.

The United States is undeniably the sole superpower.  Unsurpassed in military and economic might. Yet, apparently, we are still seduced by tools that seem to promise big bang for the buck:

“The potential cost of using nuclear weapons was so high that no one felt they could afford to use them,” said David J. Rothkopf, the author of “National Insecurity,” a new study of strategic decisions made by several American administrations. But the cost of using cyberweapons is seemingly so low, Mr. Rothkopf said, that “we seem to feel we can’t afford not to use them” and that “many may feel they can’t afford ever to stop.”

The problem is, unlike nuclear weapons, other states and non-state actors are similarly not restrained in employing cyber tools.  Even if, for the time being, they aren’t particularly sophisticated:

The main targets were the websites of Bank of America and JPMorgan Chase. By 2015 standards, those were relatively unsophisticated “denial of service” strikes that flooded the banks with data, so overloading them it was impossible for a time for customers to access their accounts.

What struck me about this article was that last bit. Sure, there are a lot of issues in the cyber domain involved with deterrence, attribution, escalation, and other issues of doctrine.  However what is new, to the United States at least, is that this form of conflict may connect national security and other foreign policy decisions with the everyday lives of Americans in a way that probably hasn’t existed for decades.

For so long, perhaps even during the Cold War but definitely following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the United States has acted with relative impunity around the world. The costs of our involvement in far flung engagements ranging from special forces deployments in Africa to full on war in the Middle East have not been transferred to the American population writ large.  Reasons for this range from our practical conventional military invincibility (at least when it comes to state actors, not insurgencies…) to an enormous nuclear deterrent (which keeps us out of serious conflicts with Russia and China) to an all volunteer force that has become an incredibly lethal and capable machine, but one removed from most Americans’ everyday lives. Even the reluctance of our elected leaders to pay for these actions through anything but borrowing against the future, rather than taxing in the present.

What’s different about cyber is that the U.S., or any other nation, has yet to demonstrate or develop dominance in this space.  We haven’t yet figured out how to deter various levels of cyber incidents.  We haven’t yet been able to articulate, never mind enforce or coerce acceptance, of “rules of cyber war” or their equivalent.  So what has resulted is an ever shifting landscape where Iran can (for now simply) inconvenience U.S. citizens in retaliation for our cyber attack on their uranium enrichment equipment. But how far off in the future is it when they can do more than simply inconvenience us?  Was that their current limit of capability or simply a warning shot across our cyber bow?  How soon until they are able to mine our systems for personal data that can be sold or simply given to malicious third party actors?

This potential to affect the lives of U.S. citizens in such a manner could very well bring into sharper focus our nation’s national security and foreign policy choices for a much broader audience than is currently engaged. Sure, the public likes the veneer in foreign policy of both competence (usually defined as the perception that every other country is doing what the U.S. wishes it would do, regardless of their own national interests) and strength (usually defined as talking tough/occasionally dropping bombs on other countries).

What changes when they perceive they have a lot more skin in the game?  Will elected officials be pressed as to what really are U.S. national security interests vis-a-vis an Iranian nuclear program?  Today, it sounds scary – Iranians are crazy, developing missiles, and want to wipe Israel off the map.  But if you, your parents’, and your neighbors’ financial or medical security and privacy are at stake, what will be identified as the most important threat – an unrealized nuclear program halfway across the world or loosing control of your own personal life?

After that threshold is crossed, what events or global security situations will be reconsidered in the same light?

National security is about to get personal very soon.

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.

MORE.

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.

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.

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

–+–

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.

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?

September 10, 2014

Preparing to listen to the President

Filed under: Radicalization,Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Philip J. Palin on September 10, 2014

Raqqa_Rump Map

At 9PM Eastern tonight — Wednesday, September 10 — the President is scheduled to outline plans to engage a radical religiously-inspired insurgency sometimes known as Islamic State (IS) or Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) or the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).

The confusing labels reflect a fractured reality.  I am inclined to call it the Raqqa Rump.  The wanna-be capital of the self-styled caliphate is at Raqqa (Syria).  As you know, I have a weakness for alliteration.  And the phrase signals my own view of their fundamental character.

To better hear what is being said — and not said — by the President, following is some background.

The BBC provides an overview of the group.

The Telegraph provides another summary.

Back in June START generated a fact-sheet that situates my Raqqa Rump among other terrorists, insurgents, freedom-fighters, violent extemists… whatever.

On August 27 the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point published an analysis of the current military-political context in Syria and Northern Iraq.

On Saturday (September 6) a Chatham House middle east expert published a thoughtful commentary in The Guardian.

Some further analysis and commentary from the Rand Corporation.

British Prime Minister Cameron has warned that ISIL, especially potential British returnees from the fighting along the Euphrates, are a direct threat to British and European security.  In a mid-August commentary, the Prime Minister painted a rather nightmarish picture:

We are in the middle of a generational struggle against a poisonous and extremist ideology, which I believe we will be fighting for the rest of my political lifetime. We face in Isil a new threat that is single-minded, determined and unflinching in pursuit of its objectives. Already it controls not just thousands of minds, but thousands of square miles of territory, sweeping aside much of the boundary between Iraq and Syria to carve out its so-called caliphate. It makes no secret of its expansionist aims. Even today it has the ancient city of Aleppo firmly within its sights. And it boasts of its designs on Jordan and Lebanon, and right up to the Turkish border. If it succeeds, we would be facing a terrorist state on the shores of the Mediterranean and bordering a Nato member. This is a clear danger to Europe and to our security. It is a daunting challenge.

The immediate implications for the United States posed by those claiming Raqqa as home are a bit more ambivalent.  Obviously they are a deadly threat to any Americans they encounter in Syria or Iraq.  There has also been talk of attacks on the United States.  Some number of Americans have made a pilgrimage — horribly misguided summer break? — to Raqqa.  The numbers are estimated at between a dozen and hundreds.

There is an intent to hit the US.  There is some level of capability.  The so-called caliphate’s extra-regional capacity is, however, not thought by most informed observers to be significant — at least not yet.  Strong action now is intended to be effectively preemptive.

But whatever the reality in and around Raqqa, an opinion survey conducted last weekend found a significant majority of Americans perceive a clear and present danger.  ”Seventy-one (71) percent of respondents said that members of the militant group ISIL have the capability and resources to carry out terrorists plots in the U.S. The same poll found that 53 percent of those interviewed are “very concerned” about the threat ISIL poses to national security, while 34 percent are “somewhat concerned.””

As noted in a previous HLSWatch post, the President has recently determined to “degrade and destroy” the current threat of “systemic and broad-based aggression” by the group.  The US delegation left last week’s NATO summit with several commitments to support such an effort. Later today we should hear more about why and how.

Prime Minister Cameron is not alone among European leaders in his concern.  Tuesday the editor-in-chief of Deutsche Weld argued:

The “Islamic State” (IS) does not have to be contained. It has to be destroyed: militarily at first, but then politically, by breaking the allure of jihadism and drying up the sympathy for it. Foremost, the IS terror militia has to be fought. As if of their own accord, expectant eyes have turned to the United States for that task – and then to the entire West. NATO has, in any case, established a ten-party coalition of the willing to combat IS forces.

(Approximately 400 Germans are estimated to currently be fighting in Syria and potentially in Northern Iraq.)

On Sunday during a Meet The Press interview President Obama emphasized that the mission against the Raqqa Rump would depend on ground forces from the region — principally Iraqi military, Kurdish peshmerga and perhaps the Free Syrian Army — supported by an international coalition including Anglo-American air power.

The tactical/operational implications of Sunday’s decision by the Arab League to confront ISIS are not clear, at least to me.  A Thursday summit scheduled for Jeddah may be clarifying.

SecDef Hagel has been in Turkey for consultations.  Other than Iraqi Shias and Kurds, the Turks are probably the most important regional partner in the anti-Raqqa coalition.  So far Turkey’s involvement sounds rather restrained. (More)

It is not at all clear how Iraqi or other Sunnis will respond to this international intervention.  Ultimately it is their response that is likely to determine if this is all just another tactical clash or something more strategically significant: positive or negative.

Secretary Kerry has arrived in Baghdad.  It is not clear the new — still incomplete — Iraqi government can earn any credibility with Sunnis (or even the Kurds).  Much may depend on the radicals from Raqqa becoming so offensive as to generate (temporary) common-cause among various Iraqi factions. This is, after all, the same group that AQ-core considers crazy.

But what should be very clear is that neither the tactical nor strategic horizon is clear at all.

Homeland security will be a leading justification for expanded operations in Iraq and presumably Syria.  The immediate threat to the United States will probably, if anything, be slightly increased by more robust US engagement.  Our renewed military operations along the Euphrates and Tigris will increase the desire of some to directly target the United States.

Longer-term disruption and deterrence of attacks on Western targets depends a great deal on how the military operation and its consequences are perceived by a wildly incoherent — and so-far really rather small — cross-section of disaffected, often casually religious, volatile, violently-inclined young men in the region, in Europe, and here in the United States.

Late afternoon Tuesday the President met with Congressional leadership at the White House to discuss US military options.  According to The Hill, “None of the four leaders present in the meeting mentioned the need for congressional action following the meeting, nor did they offer many clues as to what new strategy elements Obama might announce.”

It is also worth noting that while we are — necessarily — focusing a great deal of attention on Raqqa and related, the situation in Afghanistan, Libya, and possibly in Yemen seems to be reaching a critical juncture.

Some analysis of this context — and the President’s message — here on Thursday morning… I’m not promising by when.

September 4, 2014

Proactively managing a chronic condition

Filed under: Radicalization,Strategy,Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Philip J. Palin on September 4, 2014

A decade ago the Afghanistan mission was seen as giving a possibly moribund post-cold war NATO new relevance, scope, and purpose.

At a summit meeting today and tomorrow NATO will consider a scheduled withdrawal from a still-divided, dysfunctional, and vulnerable Afghanistan, endeavor to respond effectively to Russian aggression in Ukraine, and review a deteriorating international security environment across wide areas of North Africa and the Near East.

While the current threat may be less existential, I perceive Europe has not confronted an equally complex security context since perhaps 1949. The implications for the United States are also complicated and multi-layered.

Yesterday — on his way to the NATO summit — the President met with his Lithuanian, Estonian, and Latvian peers in Tallinn. These three Baltic states constitute the Northeastern frontier of the alliance.

Given the venue (Tallinn is 230 miles from St. Petersburg, 650 miles from Moscow, and 780 miles from Kiev), the President’s formal remarks needed to focus mostly on the Russian threat. Given the reality of this threat — and the institutional DNA of the alliance — today’s NATO consultations are also likely to be dominated by Putin’s provocations.

But Wednesday afternoon (local time) the President answered reporters questions on how NATO might take up what is happening just outside the southeastern corner of the alliance. Here are his most extended comments:

Even before ISIL dominated the headlines, one of the concerns that we have had is the development of terrorist networks and organizations, separate and apart from al Qaeda, whose focus oftentimes is regional and who are combining terrorist tactics with the tactics of small armies. And we’ve seen ISIS to be the first one that has broken through, but we anticipated this awhile back and it was reflected in my West Point speech.

So one of our goals is to get NATO to work with us to help create the kinds of partnerships regionally that can combat not just ISIL, but these kinds of networks as they arise and potentially destabilize allies and partners of ours in the region.

Already we’ve seen NATO countries recognize the severity of this problem, that it is going to be a long-run problem. Immediately, they’ve dedicated resources to help us with humanitarian airdrops, to provide arms to the Peshmerga and to the Iraqi security forces. And we welcome those efforts. What we hope to do at the NATO Summit is to make sure that we are more systematic about how we do it, that we’re more focused about how we do it.

NATO is unique in the annals of history as a successful alliance. But we have to recognize that threats evolve, and threats have evolved as a consequence of what we’ve seen in Ukraine, but threats are also evolving in the Middle East that have a direct effect on Europe… We know that if we are joined by the international community, we can continue to shrink ISIL’s sphere of influence, its effectiveness, its financing, its military capabilities to the point where it is a manageable problem. And the question is going to be making sure we’ve got the right strategy, but also making sure that we’ve got the international will to do it. This is something that is a continuation of a problem we’ve seen certainly since 9/11, but before. And it continues to metastasize in different ways.

And what we’ve got to do is make sure that we are organizing the Arab world, the Middle East, the Muslim world along with the international community to isolate this cancer, this particular brand of extremism that is, first and foremost, destructive to the Muslim world and the Arab world and North Africa, and the people who live there. They’re the ones who are most severely affected. They’re the ones who are constantly under threat of being killed. They’re the ones whose economies are completely upended to the point where they can’t produce their own food and they can’t produce the kinds of goods and services to sell in the world marketplace. And they’re falling behind because of this very small and narrow, but very dangerous, segment of the population. And we’ve got to combat it in a sustained, effective way. And I’m confident we’re going to be able to do that.

The foregoing sets-out the institutional (NATO) and international (North African and Near Eastern) context.  Action is signaled.  But in terms of US strategic objectives for actions taken within this context, I found the following comments from earlier in the press conference to be most helpful:

Our objective is to make sure that ISIL is not an ongoing threat to the region.  And we can accomplish that. It’s going to take some time and it’s going to take some effort. As we’ve seen with al Qaeda, there are always going to be remnants that can cause havoc of any of these networks, in part because of the nature of terrorist activities.  You get a few individuals, and they may be able to carry out a terrorist act.

But what we can do is to make sure that the kind of systemic and broad-based aggression that we’ve seen out of ISIL that terrorizes primarily Muslims, Shia, Sunni — terrorizes Kurds, terrorizes not just Iraqis, but people throughout the region, that that is degraded to the point where it is no longer the kind of factor that we’ve seen it being over the last several months.

We will shrink it.  We will degrade it.  We will over-time and with deliberate effort eliminate its capacity for systematic and broad-based aggression. We can reduce it to a manageable problem. But there are always going to be remnants that can cause havoc. The threat of violent extremism will continue to metastasize for the foreseeable future. New groups — new “its” — will emerge.  The long-term solution will arise — or not — within the host cultures, within Arab and Muslim and other social constructs.  Working with a broad alliance of committed and mobilized partners we can mostly contain the threat to us. We will try to facilitate more creative engagement of the problem by locals. But it is beyond the capacity of the United States alone to solve this problem. It will continue to be with us for a long time. We will continue to be targeted and sometimes they will hit us where it hurts.

Perhaps the President cannot — ought not — be quite as clear as the previous paragraph. Though he seems clear enough.  Isn’t this a reasonable “translation” of what he is saying? Isn’t this consistent with prior comments and behavior?

His tone is more reminiscent of Eisenhower’s farewell than Kennedy’s inaugural.  More inclined to elusive balance than heroic gesture.

If my paragraph accurately channels the President, doesn’t this authoritatively frame the counter-terrorism element of the homeland security mission?  Certainly it would communicate a current commander’s intent.  It also seems — to me — to effectively describe the strategic reality.

–+–

Today’s Times of London (paywall) has published a joint op-ed by Prime Minister Cameron and President Obama. (Draft available at Prime Minister’s website.)  Reflecting the themes suggested above, here is one of their –no doubt, carefully vetted — paragraphs.

We know that terrorist organisations thrive where there is political instability and weak or dysfunctional political institutions. So we must invest in the building blocks of free and open societies, including the creation of a new genuinely inclusive Government in Iraq that can unite all Iraqis, including Sunni, Shia, Kurdish, Christian and other minority populations. When the threats to our security increasingly emanate from outside the borders of our Alliance, we must do more to build partnerships with others around the globe who share our values and want to build a safe, tolerant and peaceful world – that includes supporting the partners who are taking the fight to ISIL on the ground, as we have done by stepping up support for Kurdish and Iraqi Security Forces. And we should use our expertise to provide training and mentoring to forces elsewhere, whether in Georgia or the Middle East, strengthening the capacity of forces there to tackle local threats.

August 1, 2014

Friday Free Forum

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Philip J. Palin on August 1, 2014

On this day the Great Flood of 1993 is thought to have peaked along the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers.  Thirty-two died.  Over $15 billion in damages.

On this day in 2007 the I-35W Bridge in Minneapolis collapsed, killing thirteen and injuring over 140.

On this day in 2013 the Department of State closed several US diplomatic missions across the Middle East and North Africa.  The official announcement noted, “Current information suggests that al-Qa’ida and affiliated organizations continue to plan terrorist attacks both in the region and beyond, and that they may focus efforts to conduct attacks in the period between now and the end of August.”

What’s on your mind related to homeland security?

July 29, 2014

“Reflections on the Tenth Anniversary of the 9/11 Commission Report” – a disappointing sequel

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Christopher Bellavita on July 29, 2014

“Nobody pays any attention to these reports. But you still keep printing them.”

The quote is from a prominent (former) intelligence official. He was talking about the Quadrennial Homeland Security Review. But he could have been referring to the “Reflections on the Tenth Anniversary of the 9/11 Commission Report” released last week (available at this link: http://bipartisanpolicy.org/library/report/rising-terrorist-threat-9-11-commission)

One wishes to be fair to the people who wrote the Reflections. No doubt it was as well intentioned as any sequel. But in my opinion it doesn’t come anywhere close to being a worthwhile read. The assertions and arguments in Reflections are as fatigued as the authors claim the America people are.

And that’s unfortunate.

The Commission missed an opportunity to help reinvigorate the homeland security project they were instrumental in shaping.

——————————

The 9/11 Commission Report (available here: http://www.9-11commission.gov/report/) starts with the most memorable sentence of any government report I’ve ever read:

“Tuesday, September 11, 2001, dawned temperate and nearly cloudless in the Eastern United States.”

Here’s the opening sentence in Reflections:

“With temperatures in the low 50s, April 15, 2013, promised to be an almost ideal day for the 23,000 runners competing in the 117th Boston Marathon.”

This artless effort to draw a parallel between the Boston Marathon and the September 11 2001 attacks comes off sounding, at best, tone deaf. At worse, offensive.

But it’s only the start.

Instead of the thoughtfulness, balance, and bipartisanship of the original 9/11 Commission Report, we get a repetitive rehash of banal assertions: The terrorists are coming and they are really dangerous. Cyber threats are growing and they also are really dangerous. Congress is dangerous too. Their refusal to reduce the number of homeland security oversight committees is making the country less safe.

And by the way, the Director of National Intelligence (not dangerous) should control the budget of the Intelligence Community.

——————————

Unlike the hundreds of thorough and informative endnotes supporting the claims in the 9/11 Commission Report, Reflections backs up its assertions with a handful of anecdotes, a few charts, some quotes from unnamed experts and eight seemingly haphazardous endnotes.

The 9/11 Commission Report did not shy away from discussing at length alternative interpretations of “facts” they uncovered. See, for example, the extensive discussion of the intelligence wall.

That balance and realism is missing in Reflections on every significant issue discussed.

Is there no credible argument that the nation continues to overblow the terrorist threat? How about this one: http://www.amazon.com/Terror-Security-Money-Balancing-Benefits/dp/0199795762

Assuming the nation will not take the cyber threat seriously until we have a cyber version of the 9/11/01 attack, what can we do now to mitigate that attack?

Is there a case for having 92 congressional committees looking at homeland security issues? Are all those committees unnecessary?  Did Reflections speak with anyone who defends the current congressional oversight structure? Could it be an example of the messiness that is republican democracy? Is DoD really the efficiency model to be emulated by homeland security?  Are there no substantial downsides to having only a handful of committees looking at Defense matters?

——————————

I appreciate this was not supposed to be another 9/11 Commission Report. But I’m guessing – hoping? – it was supposed to be a serious analysis.

The commission members were “struck by how dramatically the world has changed” in a decade.

Struck? When was the last time a decade went by without dramatic world changes?

What about the current terrorist threat? It’s evolving, says Reflections.

“The forces of Islamist extremism in the Middle East are stronger than in the last decade…. The absence of another 9/11-style attack does not mean the threat is gone: As 9/11 showed, a period of quiet can be shattered in a moment by a devastating attack.”

Reflections continues to press the importance of connecting dots, even if one has to wait years. They ask,

Is the April 2013 rifle attack on an electrical substation in Metcalf, California, a harbinger of a more concerted assault on the national electrical grid or another component of critical infrastructure? What might we be missing today that, three years from now, will prove to have been a signal, a piece of a larger mosaic?

What if it’s not? Or is this report only reflecting things to be afraid of?

——————————

If you stop reading after the first two dozen pages of Reflections you’d think the nation is hanging by an existential thread, worse off now then it was ten years ago.

You have to get to page 25 of the 44 page report before learning:

There is no doubt that the country is better equipped to prevent and respond to terrorist attacks than in 2001. …The mass-casualty attacks many feared in the wake of 9/11 did not materialize. Today, in large part because of … many [security-related] reforms, the United States is a much harder target.

Senior leaders agree that America’s layered approach to homeland defense, which recognizes that no single security measure is foolproof, has improved our security….  At its best, a layered system integrates the capabilities of federal, state, and local government agencies. America’s resilience has improved as well. Federal, state, and local authorities have absorbed and applied the lessons of 9/11 over the last decade…. The country must continue to prepare for the unforeseen, but it appears to be moving in the right direction….

I think that’s called “burying the lede.”

Later:

There is a consensus among the senior officials with whom we spoke that information-sharing has improved significantly since 9/11.

And right before Reflections concludes (page 37):

As we reflect on the last ten years, we believe the government’s record in counterterrorism is good. Our capabilities are much improved, while institutional vigilance and imagination are both far better than before 9/11. Good people in government have absorbed the lessons of the 9/11 attacks, are tracking the evolving threat, and are thinking one step ahead in order to prevent the next attack.

Lest one think that gives us permission to be complacent, Reflections ends with this less-than-upbeat anecdote:

One former senior national security leader told us recently that he expects that his children and grandchildren will be carrying on this fight.

I wonder if there is another former senior national security leader, somewhere, who thinks about his children and grandchildren the way John Adams did:

I must study … war, that our sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. Our sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history and naval architecture, navigation, commerce and agriculture in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry and porcelain.”

If there are any such national security leaders, they were not interviewed for Reflections.

Young Americans need to know that terrorism is not going away. And they need to know that many of our military personnel, intelligence officers, and diplomats on the front lines in the most dangerous parts of the world are like them—young people with dreams of bright futures.

——————————

In addition to the full court press strategy (that includes a congratulations-9/11-Commission youtube video from tired-looking President Obama: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zIA2iiWkvKY), how are young Americans and the rest of the nation to learn “how dramatically the word has changed?”

It’s simple, says Reflections.

Senior leaders, including the President, have to make the case about terrorism and cyber threats and all the myriad things that go (or might go) bump in the night “in specific terms, not generalities.”  

One hoped Reflections would model some of the transparent specificity they want others to provide. Instead, what we get are statements like this one:

“If the American people hear what we have heard in recent months, about the urgent [cyber] threat and the ways in which data collection is used to counter it, we believe that they will be supportive.”

——————————

Don Marquis wrote that “a sequel is an admission that you’ve been reduced to imitating yourself.”

I found Reflections to be a disappointing sequel.

June 16, 2014

Monday Musings

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Arnold Bogis on June 16, 2014

Just a couple of random thoughts for a Monday.

  • Why is the discussion around preparedness framed in such a binary manner? Personal preparedness is important, both for one’s self and loved ones regardless of the situation as well as to lessen the burden on any official response in the immediate aftermath of a disaster. However, I am just wondering if it should be thought of as such a zero-sum situation. The standard frame is that if we (i.e. citizens/non-professionals) are not prepared to take care of ourselves for some period of time following a disaster than we shouldn’t expect immediate help and are responsible for placing additional burden on the government or other dedicated professional responders (such as the Red Cross or other trained volunteers).Yet we live in a democracy.  So should it be us/them rather than just simply we? Those professionals are our neighbors, friends, relatives, and fellow Americans.  Would it be at all useful if instead the frame is a discussion about the social compact involved in preparedness, response, and recovery rather than personal responsibility vs. big government? I’m thinking along the lines of the debate about healthcare.  Here it is predominately about personal choice vs. socialized medicine or government intervention, while in most other democratic, rich, industrial nations  it has long been decided as a community that some above basic-level of care is a responsibility of the entire society and the questions involve what form and how to pay for it. Bad stuff happens.  Let’s not focus on assigning blame or roles but rather collective responsibility.

 

  • There are a whole mess of issues wrapped up in the ISIS/Iraq/Syria/Middle East situation goings on. One that I find particularly interesting is the conventional wisdom that if ISIS is somehow able to carve out an independent area from land formerly part of Iraq and Syria that the odds of a 9/11-scale attack on the United States would dramatically increase. Putting aside questions about the possibility of them winning, holding on to the land, the short to medium term viability of such a state, etc., why is it such accepted dogma that Bin Laden living in Afghanistan made the attacks on 9/11 possible?  Does it matter that the pilots were trained in U.S. flight schools?  Or that vital planning took place in Germany and Malaysia? Or the plan was hatched by KSM, who had previously traveled the globe planning and attempting various terrorist attacks? Bin Laden at the time had refuge in Afghanistan, but I don’t believe that was central to the viability of the plot. Failed states and ungoverned spaces can lead to increased chaos and provide refuge for terrorists and other bad actors.  However, they are not essential to any large scale plot against the U.S. homeland or any other nation for that matter.

 

  • Despite today’s U.S. World Cup victory against Ghana, I wonder why are we so (comparatively) bad at soccer?  Putting aside the more American-centric sports for the moment, we still do well at the Summer and Winter Olympic sports that aren’t usually celebrated nightly on SportsCenter. Why hasn’t this translated to the football pitch yet? Oh well…go U.S.A.!

 

 

 

May 28, 2014

President Obama’s West Point Commencement Address

Filed under: General Homeland Security,International HLS,Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Arnold Bogis on May 28, 2014

Earlier today President Obama gave the commencement address at West Point, describing his vision for U.S. foreign policy. Here are some of the homeland security-related points.

But the world is changing with accelerating speed. This presents opportunity, but also new dangers. We know all too well, after 9/11, just how technology and globalization has put power once reserved for states in the hands of individuals, raising the capacity of terrorists to do harm.

 

It is absolutely true that in the 21st century, American isolationism is not an option. We don’t have a choice to ignore what happens beyond our borders. If nuclear materials are not secure, that poses a danger to American citizens.

As the Syrian civil war spills across borders, the capacity of battle-hardened extremist groups to come after us only increases.

 

The United States will use military force, unilaterally if necessary, when our core interests demand it — when our people are threatened; when our livelihoods are at stake; when the security of our allies is in danger.

In these circumstances, we still need to ask tough questions about whether our actions are proportional and effective and just. International opinion matters, but America should never ask permission to protect our people, our homeland or our way of life.

 

This leads to my second point. 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 naive 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-Qaida leadership. Instead it comes from decentralized al-Qaida affiliates and extremists, many with agendas focused in the 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. And empowering partners is a large part of what we have done and what we are currently doing in Afghanistan. Together with our allies, America struck huge blows against al-Qaida core and pushed back against an insurgency that threatened to overrun the country.

But sustaining this progress depends on the ability of Afghans to do the job. And that’s why we trained hundreds of thousands of Afghan soldiers and police. Earlier this spring, those forces — those Afghan forces — secured an election in which Afghans voted for the first democratic transfer of power in their history. And at the end of this year, a new Afghan president will be in office, and America’s combat mission will be over.

Now that was an enormous achievement made because of America’s armed forces. But as we move to a train and advise mission in Afghanistan, our reduced presence there allows us to more effectively address emerging threats in the Middle East and North Africa. So earlier this year I asked my national security team to develop a plan for a network of partnerships from South Asia to the Sahel.

Today, as part of this effort, I am calling on Congress to support a new counterterrorism partnerships fund of up to $5 billion, which will allow us to train, build capacity and facilitate partner countries on the front lines. And these resources will give us flexibility to fulfill different missions, including training security forces in Yemen who’ve gone on the offensive against al-Qaida, supporting a multinational force to keep the peace in Somalia, working with European allies to train a functioning security force and border patrol in Libya and facilitating French operations in Mali.

A critical focus of this effort will be the ongoing crisis in Syria. As frustrating as it is, there are no easy answers there, no military solution that can eliminate the terrible suffering anytime soon. As president, I made a decision that we should not put American troops into the middle of this increasingly sectarian civil war, and I believe that is the right decision. But that does not mean we shouldn’t help the Syrian people stand up against a dictator who bombs and starves his own people. And in helping those who fight for the right of all Syrians to choose their own future, we are also pushing back against the growing number of extremists who find safe haven in the chaos.

So with the additional resources I’m announcing today, we will step up our efforts to support Syria’s neighbors — Jordan and Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq — as they contend with refugees and confront terrorists working across Syria’s borders. I will work with Congress to ramp up support for those in the Syrian opposition who offer the best alternative to terrorists and brutal dictators. And we will continue to coordinate with our friends and allies in Europe and the Arab World to push for a political resolution of this crisis and to make sure that those countries and not just the United States are contributing their fair share of support to the Syrian people.

Let me make one final point about our efforts against terrorism. The partnerships I’ve described do not eliminate the need to take direct action when necessary to protect ourselves. When we have actionable intelligence, that’s what we do, through capture operations, like the one that brought a terrorist involved in the plot to bomb our embassies in 1998 to face justice, or drone strikes, like those we’ve carried out in Yemen and Somalia.

 

Keep in mind, not all international norms relate directly to armed conflict. We have a serious problem with cyberattacks, which is why we’re working to shape and enforce rules of the road to secure our networks and our citizens. In the Asia Pacific, we’re supporting Southeast Asian nations as they negotiate a code of conduct with China on maritime disputes in the South China Sea, and we’re working to resolve these disputes through international law.

That spirit of cooperation needs to energize the global effort to combat climate change, a creeping national security crisis that will help shape your time in uniform, as we are called on to respond to refugee flows and natural disasters, and conflicts over water and food, which is why, next year, I intend to make sure America is out front in putting together a global framework to preserve our planet.

 

I believe in American exceptionalism with every fiber of my being. But what makes us exceptional is not our ability to flout international norms and the rule of law; it is our willingness to affirm them through our actions.

And that’s why I will continue to push to close Gitmo, because American values and legal traditions do not permit the indefinite detention of people beyond our borders. That’s why we’re putting in place new restrictions on how America collects and uses intelligence — because we will have fewer partners and be less effective if a perception takes hold that we’re conducting surveillance against ordinary citizens.

 

The full transcript of the speech can be found here.

The video of his remarks, courtesy of PBS NewsHour:

 

May 16, 2014

Friday Free Forum

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Arnold Bogis on May 16, 2014

Sylvia Mathews Burwell, the Administration’s nominee to be the new Secretary of Health and Human Services, testified this week and last. While all the attention is obviously on “Obamacare,” do not forget that if/when confirmed she will be in charge of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) as well as the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Preparedness and Response (ASPR) that has the lead for ESF #8 as well as civilian medical countermeasure development through the office of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA).  This is an important homeland security-related position.

Speaking of public health issues, cases of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) are popping up at an alarming rate outside of the Middle East, including the U.S.

These are the issues I’ve been thinking about.

What’s on your mind related to homeland security?

April 30, 2014

Renewed use of chemical weapons in Syria challenges inaction

Filed under: International HLS,Radicalization,Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Philip J. Palin on April 30, 2014

WEDNESDAY AFTERNOON UPDATE:  Today the U.S. Department of State submitted its annual Country Reports on Terrorism to Congress.  The Strategic Assessment includes:

Some of the thousands of fighters from around the world who are traveling to Syria to do battle against the Asad regime – particularly from the Middle East and North Africa, Central Asia, and Eastern and Western Europe – are joining violent extremist groups, including al-Nusrah Front and ISIL. A number of key partner governments are becoming increasingly concerned that individuals with violent extremist ties and battlefield experience will return to their home countries or elsewhere to commit terrorist acts. The scale of this problem has raised a concern about the creation of a new generation of globally-committed terrorists, similar to what resulted from the influx of violent extremists to Afghanistan in the 1980s.

– +–

ORIGINAL POST:

Late Tuesday evening Greenwich Mean Time, The Telegraph, a leading British newspaper, published an exclusive story claiming to prove Syria has continued to use chemical weapons.

According to The Telegraph’s report,”…soil samples from the scene of three recent attacks in the country were collected by trained individuals known to this news organisation and analysed by a chemical warfare expert. Our results show sizeable and unambiguous traces of chlorine and ammonia present at the site of all three attacks.”

Just last week President Obama said, “Eighty-seven percent of Syria’s chemical weapons have already been removed.”  The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) has been working under an international agreement to relocate and destroy the Syrian stockpile.

The chlorine and ammonia assets allegedly used in recent weeks were not part of the chemical weapons inventory which the OPCW has been working to remove.  There is informed speculation that industrial chemicals have been crudely repurposed to replace the more sophisticated chemicals (including sarin and mustard) that have been removed.

Late last summer and into the autumn, the United States was dissuaded from military operations against Syrian chemical stockpiles when Russia brokered a “last-minute” deal to remove the weapons from Syria.  The decision by the US to not undertake military action disappointed the Saudis, surprised the French (who were prepared to join in the action), and precipitated a months-long reversal of progress achieved by the Syrian opposition.

As evidence accumulates of recent use of chemical weapons, there will be renewed pressure for US military intervention against the Assad regime.  For example, The Telegraph’s Defense Editor comments the new findings, “must serve as a wake up call to the West that it can no longer ignore a brutal conflict that has so far cost an estimated 150,000 lives.”

The Syrian Civil War is also a violent flash-point in Sunni-Shia antipathy, a proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia, and a training ground for a new generation of international terrorists.

Whatever we do — or decide not to do — will have homeland security consequences.

April 9, 2014

House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing on “Is al-Qaeda Winning? Grading the Administration’s Counterterrorism Policy”

Filed under: Congress and HLS,Risk Assessment,Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Arnold Bogis on April 9, 2014

Yesterday, the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Subcommittee on Terrorism, Nonproliferation, and Trade held a hearing on “Is al-Qaeda Winning?”

I’m going to say no.  No, they are not.

It seemed more an opportunity to critique the Administration on the concept of a “pivot toward Asia” and keeping us (too?) engaged in the Middle East rather than a honest attempt at assessing this difficult question.

However, the participants are well qualified to address this issue:

Panel I

The Honorable Joseph Lieberman
(Former United States Senator)
[full text of statement]
[truth in testimony form]

The Honorable Jane Harman
Director, President, and Chief Executive Officer
The Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars
(Former Member of Congress)
[full text of statement]
[truth in testimony form]

Panel II

Seth Jones, Ph.D.
Associate Director
International Security and Defense Policy Center
RAND Corporation
[full text of statement]
[truth in testimony form]

Frederick W. Kagan, Ph.D.
Christopher DeMuth Chair and Director
Critical Threats Project
American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research
[full text of statement]
[truth in testimony form]

Mr. Benjamin Wittes
Senior Fellow
Governance Studies
The Brookings Institution
[full text of statement]
[truth in testimony form]

One would think this would be a well attended hearing, but notice the empty seats around the 2:00 minute mark in this video (unfortunately I couldn’t find a video of the entire hearing that I could post):

For the full hearing, go here.

 

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