Tag: Al Qaeda

Bipartisan Wishful Thinking on Syria

Despite bitter partisan controversies on foreign policy issues such as the Iran nuclear agreement and the normalization of relations with Cuba, there is one issue where liberals and conservatives share a common delusion.  That issue is policy toward Syria.  The Obama administration persists in wanting to oust Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and at the same time crush the ISIS insurgents.  Washington continues to flirt with establishing a no-fly zone in northern Syria to protect supposedly moderate rebels, and it is moving forward with its much- mocked scheme to train a moderate insurgent force that would oppose both Assad and ISIS.  The latter plan is hopelessly behind schedule and has thus far produced only a handful of graduates from the training program.

Conservatives are no more realistic than the Obama foreign policy team.  Presidential candidates and conservative pundits alike routinely talk of escalating the fight against ISIS, but then, in almost the same breath, stress the need to defeat Assad and his principal ally, Iran.  I had the “pleasure” of witnessing such illogic in two major broadcasts within the past week.  The first occurred in a September 5 segment on CNBC, in which Larry Kudlow, a prominent economist and possible candidate for the U.S. Senate, raged against the Obama administration’s alleged unwillingness to conduct a concerted campaign against the twin evils of ISIS and Iran.  On Labor Day, the Fox News program “The Five” featured a discussion in which nearly all of the participants adopted arguments that echoed Kudlow’s rant.

What is striking about all of these episodes—and many others like them—is that the advocates of decisive, simultaneous U.S. action against both ISIS and the Assad-Iran alliance are in denial that those two goals are hopelessly contradictory.  Like it or not, the principal forces arrayed against ISIS are Assad’s “coalition of religious minorities” in Syria together with Iran and its Shiite allies in Iraq. The Syrian Kurds have their own agenda, seeking to create a de facto independent Kurdish state in northeastern Syria akin to the self-governing Kurdish region next door in Iraq.  

More Terrorism Isn’t Necessarily More Danger

Diane Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Mike Rogers (R-Mich) made news Sunday when they both insisted on CNN that the terrorist threat to Americans has grown in the last couple of years. Feinstein’s evidence: “The statistics indicate that, the fatalities are way up.” Rogers agrees and argues that al Qaeda has been “metastasizing” into more groups that engage in smaller attacks.

It’s true that global terror attacks and fatalities increased in 2011 and 2012, according to the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism. And, several new jihadist groups have emerged of late. But, as Marian Tupy showed here Monday, the fact remains that terrorism has for decades been becoming less deadly.

We should also be skeptical that the recent increase in terrorism means more danger for Americans. The cause of terrorism’s recent increase is civil wars and political unrest in Africa, the Middle-East and South Asia, where the vast majority of recent terrorist attacks have occurred.

Meanwhile, terrorists killed fifteen, seventeen, and ten private U.S. citizens (that is, non-military) in 2010, 2011, 2012, respectively. That means the danger to Americans either did not grow or that they mostly avoided it.

The real problem then is not al Qaeda, but the fractured political order in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Yemen, Pakistan, Somalia, Nigeria and the like. Feinstein is conflating those problems to frighten us. As John Mueller notes:

When terrorism becomes really extensive, we generally no longer call it terrorism, but war. But people are mainly concerned about random terror, not sustained warfare.

Rogers’ claim that the al Qaeda threat is “metastasizing” into smaller, deadlier cells resembles old arguments that al Qaeda was a hierarchical organization that cleverly decentralized when the gig was up in Afghanistan. But as I explained at greater length here, even in its 1990s heyday, al Qaeda was a fragmented and unmanageable movement.

Its scattered remnant in Pakistan controls little locally and less abroad. Its “affiliates” are either bunches of guys with little capability or Islamist insurgents trading on the name’s cachet to organize their corner of a rebellion. Most of those insurgents target local enemies, not Americans. Those tragic struggles do not necessarily threaten U.S. security.

The fact that the jihadists that do target Americans are now focused on small-scale attacks is a consequence of their limited ability to pull off complex plots. And even the simpler sorts have mostly failed. Given the devastation our leaders tell us to expect from al Qaeda, what Rogers calls metastasis seems like good news.

DHS Fusion Centers: Small Part of Homeland Security Waste

Fusion centers are “pools of ineptitude, waste and civil liberties intrusions.” That’s the Washington Post’s summary of a report, two years in the making, released Tuesday by the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs permanent subcommittee on investigation.

With all due respect to the Senate investigators, who did thorough and commendable work here, it does not take two years and 140 pages to reach their conclusion. Along with the ACLU, Cato scholars have made similar arguments for years.

Fusion centers grew from the revelation in the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks that federal security agencies, states governments, and local law enforcement were failing to share information about terrorists. Although the attacks resulted as much from the difficulty of distinguishing pertinent information from the rest as from impediments in information-sharing, it was reasonable to address the second problem. But whether that required physical spaces devoted to information sharing—let alone the 70-plus of them we now have spread across the country—is another story.

The wisdom of that spasm of bureaucratic creation turned largely on the truth of the official insistence in the panicky aftermath of the attacks that the United States was rife with thousands of hidden al Qaeda operatives and that mass casualty attacks would occur with the regularity of extreme hurricanes. Predictably, there weren’t enough terrorists to go around. And it doesn’t take Max Weber to see that their dearth wouldn’t cause the searchers to slacken their efforts. Fusion centers became a classic solution in search of a problem.

One way to justify fusion centers was to expand their enemy to “all hazards.” A second was to exaggerate the terrorist menace, for example by insisting that its quiescence indicated that it was not weak or absent, but well-hidden and patient (note: the absence of evidence is evidence of absence, especially when you are searching a lot; it’s just not proof of absence). Of course, advocates overstated the fusion centers’ contribution to terrorism arrests. And even without arrests, they could conflate activity with success, by pointing to, for example, leads pursued and cases opened as if they were security itself. That last technique continues today in the pushback  to the Senate report.

Keep in mind that fusion centers, which cost federal taxpayers at most a few hundred million a year, are symptoms of a larger problem. The entire national security apparatus has grown by leaps and bounds since 2001 thanks to a threat that has, thankfully, proved vastly weaker than most thought.

Did the Surge End the Chance for Peace in Afghanistan?

As Afghan forces continue to turn their guns on their U.S. partners, so-called “green-on-blue” attacks, the coalition’s patience has reached a breaking point. On Sunday, General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said insider attacks have become a “very serious threat” to the mission. On Tuesday, NATO issued orders to curb joint training operations on front-line missions temporarily.

With the coalition’s managed transition running into serious problems, it is necessary to question whether Obama’s surge of over 30,000 troops is closer to achieving a core objective: pressuring the Taliban to accept the conditions for reconciliation. I addressed that issue in an article published this week on GlobalPost.com:

The Taliban has always been amorphous and fragmented. But paradoxically, aspects of the surge may have both weakened the movement’s operational leadership and breathed new life into its grassroots fighters.

In their chilling assessment of the conflict, Kandahar-based researchers Alex Strick van Linschoten and Felix Kuehn conclude in An Enemy We Created: The Myth of the Taliban-Al Qaeda Merger in Afghanistan, that the coalition’s kill and capture campaign against mid-level commanders has weakened the leadership’s grip on the chain of command. Some of these higher-ups, however, were more open to peace talks. Younger insurgents opposed to a political settlement are now moving into leadership positions and are increasingly influenced by Al Qaeda’s worldview.

Given the complex nature of Afghan society and politics, forging a power-sharing deal between the insurgency and the Afghan government composed of its enemies was always going to be difficult. But if, as reports suggest, a generation of neo-Taliban are refusing to reconcile, and Taliban higher-ups who are less opposed to peace are having the rug ripped out from under them, then something about the surge went terribly wrong.

In addition, the surge brought a massive uptick from US forces in misdirected firepower, kicked in doors, and controversial incidents of perceived cultural insensitivity, all of which sowed discontent among the population and affirmed the worst insurgent propaganda. The kill and capture campaign in particular was never popular among Afghans.

In other parts of the article, I further address how the makeup of the insurgency is likely to result in less of a chance for reconciliation. I hope I’m wrong. You can read the rest of my article here.

The Deadly Violence, Protests in Libya, Egypt

Virulent identity politics are swirling across post-revolutionary North Africa, as seen on full display in Libya and Egypt. Some reports now point to a pro-al Qaeda group or other extremist elements as responsible for the attack in Libya, planned in advance and unrelated to the anti-Islam video. The protestors in Libya may have been acting separately. There are still many unknown details.

But the idea that a derogatory and clownish internet video justifies mob violence or murder can only be described as barbaric.

The U.S. government should make crystal clear to its Libyan and Egyptian counterparts that if they wish to have any relationship, let alone a functional relationship, with the United States in the future, we expect the perpetrators of these acts to be brought to justice swiftly and for sufficient measures to be undertaken to ensure they cannot be repeated. Apologies are not enough.

For its part, the United States needs to figure out what went wrong in terms of operational security, and how the U.S. ambassador to Libya was killed and the Cairo embassy overrun. The past 10 years have blurred the line between warfighters and diplomats, but this experience is a reminder that the two are still distinct.

Finally, although their rights to free speech are sacrosanct and must be defended by all means possible, the filmmakers ought to consider the dangerous game that they are playing. The filmmaker’s statement to the Wall Street Journal that he raised $5 million from 100 Jewish donors to make the film threatens to fuel hatred, and a consultant to the film’s admission that “we went into this knowing this was probably going to happen” are both cold comfort to the deceased’s families and reminders that possession of a right is not an argument for the prudence of every possible exercise of that right.

The United States is a free society in which free speech is respected, but not every American enjoys every exercise of that right. The work of Andres Serrano and Robert Mapplethorpe infuriated and offended millions of Americans, but the right to free speech was protected and survived. One hopes that this standard can be reached by the citizens and governments of Libya and Egypt soon.

What 9/11 Should Teach Us

As a fan of comedian Dennis Miller, I was astonished to discover that he became a supporter of U.S. government policies in fighting terrorism after the September 11th attacks. Perhaps I am in the minority on this issue, but the 9/11 attacks were what helped to erode my faith in government.

Few people bring this up, but in 2004, a CIA Inspector General report found a number of weaknesses in the Intelligence Community’s pre-9/11 counterterrorism practices, many of which “contributed to performance lapses related to the handling of materials concerning individuals who were to become the 9/11 hijackers.” Two al Qaeda terrorists who later became 9/11 hijackers, Nawaf al-Hazmi and Khalid al-Mihdhar, had attended a meeting of suspected terrorists in Malaysia in early 2000. The Inspector General probe uncovered that the CIA had learned that one of the operatives had a U.S. visa, and the other had flown from Bangkok to Los Angeles.

Yet, the Agency failed to forward that relevant information by “entering the names of suspected al-Qa’ida terrorists on the ‘watchlist’ of the Department of State and providing information to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) in proper channels.” Some 50 to 60 individuals—including Headquarters personnel, overseas officers, managers, and junior employees—had read the cables containing the travel information on al-Hazmi and al-Mihdhar.

The report said in a stark assessment, “The consequences of the failures to share information and perform proper operational follow-through on these terrorists were potentially significant.” Indeed. Had the names been passed to the FBI and the State Department through proper channels, the operatives could have been watchlisted and surveilled. In theory, those steps could have yielded information on financing, flight training, and other details vital to unraveling the 9/11 plot.

Corroborating these findings was a Joint Inquiry Report by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. It found “persistent problems” with the “lack of collaboration between Intelligence Community agencies.” About the FBI in particular, the report went so far as to say as late as December 2002 that “…the Bureau–-as a law enforcement organization–-is fundamentally incapable, in its present form, of providing Americans with the security they require against foreign terrorist and intelligence threats.” Now that is a ringing endorsement of our government’s ability to protect us.

We often hear that the failure of 9/11 was government-wide. But few observers delve into why it failed, especially on 9/11 anniversaries, when, one would think, such explanations would be most helpful. A number of structural factors impede effective collaboration. For instance, many intelligence agencies operate under different legal authorities. Many of them have distinct customers and cultures, and jealously guard their turf, budgets, sources, and methods. Individuals within various agencies also share information by relying on trust and personal relationships.

Yet, dispersed knowledge made it so that there was no single person or “silver bullet” that could have enabled intelligence agencies to prevent the 9/11 attacks. As the CIA Inspector General report made clear, neither the U.S. government nor the Intelligence Community had a comprehensive strategic plan to guide counterterrorism efforts. Amid the pre-9/11 flurry of warnings, intelligence cables, and briefing materials on al Qaeda’s plot to hijack airliners and ram them into our buildings, a significant failure, concluded the 9/11 Commission, was one of imagination.

After 9/11, many Americans were quick to cede yet more power to government. While much has changed in eleven years, with agencies less reluctant to share critical data, a February 2011 Government Accountability Office report noted that the government “does not yet have a fully-functioning Information Sharing Environment,” that is, “an approach that facilitates the sharing of terrorism and homeland security information”:

GAO found that the government had begun to implement some initiatives that improved sharing but did not yet have a comprehensive approach that was guided by an overall plan and measures to help gauge progress and achieve desired results.

Over the decade, while our government focused narrowly on the problem of terrorism, it also embraced ambitious, wasteful, and counterproductive programs and policies that drained us economically and spread our resources thin. After 9/11, excluding the invasions and occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, American taxpayers have shelled out over $1 trillion dollars for their sprawling counterterrorism-industrial-complex, replete with its thousands of federal, state, and local government organizations and the private companies that work with them.

Perhaps it is unsurprising that our government expanded after an attack that called into question its primary constitutional function: protecting our country. What is more remarkable is that the public continues to accept humiliating pat-downs and invasive full-body scans for airline travel, costly grant programs rolled out by the Department of Homeland Security, and reckless politicians who advocate endless wars against predominately-Muslim states that play directly into al Qaeda’s hands.

Now, many Americans ask: Are we safer? Certainly, but marginal increases in safety have come at an exceptionally high cost, have far exceeded the point of diminished returns, and have encouraged a terrorized public to exalt a government that failed them.

Eleven Years after 9/11, Terror Effects Persist

A couple of years ago, Cato published a book, Terrorizing Ourselves, that critically examined American counterterrorism efforts.

Since that time, the United States was able to put Osama bin Laden to rest. But even this dramatic and yearned-for development, already the stuff of fable, hasn’t been able to temper the level of self-terrorization in the American public.

I’ve been sorting through poll data about terrorism from 9/11 to the present day. Although there are some temporary bumps and wiggles in reaction to events during the course of those 11 years, there has been very little, if any, decline in the degree to which Americans express anxiety about terrorism.

That is, for the most part there has been little change since late 2001 in the numbers who say they are worried that they will become a victim of terrorism, consider another major attack in the near future to be likely, are willing to trade civil liberties for security, have confidence in the government’s ability to prevent or to protect them from further terrorism, or think the United States is winning in the war on terrorism.

I have written a fuller account here in Sunday’s Philadelphia Inquirer. And there are some more extensive ruminations on what I call the “terrorism delusion” in the current International Security. That article deals with the exaggerations of the threat presented by terrorism and with the distortions of perspective these exaggerations have inspired—distortions that have in turn inspired a determined and expensive quest to ferret out, and even to create, the nearly nonexistent. It also supplies a quantitative assessment of the costs of the terrorism delusion.

Several of the poll trends I use for my conclusions are posted here.

As the Inquirer piece points out, the lack of change is quite remarkable given that no Islamist terrorist has been able to detonate even the simplest of bombs in the United States, there has been no sizable attack in the country, bin Laden is dead, alarmist hype coming out of Washington has declined (though Harvard continues to give it the old college try), and an American’s chance of being killed by a terrorist is about one in 3.5 million per year.

I conclude in the Inquirer piece that it seems to suggest that the public is

likely to continue uncritically to support extravagant counterterrorism expenditures including incessant security checks, civil liberties intrusions, expanded police powers, harassment at airports, and militarized forays overseas if they can convincingly be associated with the quest to stamp out terrorism.

Both pieces use a quote from anthropologist Scott Atran: “Perhaps never in the history of human conflict have so few people with so few actual means and capabilities frightened so many.” Much of that fright, it appears, has proven to be perpetual.