Tag: jihadists

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.

Whither the Assad Regime?

The bombing of Syria’s national security headquarters, which killed key figures in the government, is evidence of expanding instability, but not of a regime on the verge of collapse. The attack and others like it have not significantly altered the Syrian uprising’s most enduring challenge: the inability of its fragmented opposition to congeal. This challenge, coupled with the rebellion’s lack of an inclusive vision for Syria’s minorities, and the troubling developments today, should give proponents of intervention pause.

America, Russia, Turkey, and the Gulf Arab states have all called on Syria’s fractured opposition to unify. A commitment to inclusion today could break down tomorrow, and such divisions could set the stage for an even bloodier ethno-sectarian civil war in a post-Assad Syria. Discord persists despite rebel attacks on regime officials and security forces. In fact, conflicting reports about the most recent bombing in Damascus—whether it was carried out by the Free Syrian Army, which claimed responsibility, or a cabinet member’s personal bodyguard—points to the difficulty of discerning the exact nature of the opposition.

Islamists, for instance, seem intent on hijacking the struggle for a democratic Syria. In May, the Washington Post’s Karen DeYoung and Liz Sly reported that despite U.S. hopes that minorities would unite under the Sunni-led Syrian National Congress, Syria’s Christians, Kurds, Druze, and Alawite sect, “All have resisted what they say is the group’s domination by the Muslim Brotherhood.”

That same month, Pentagon spokesperson Navy Captain John Kirby told reporters that defense officials believe “al-Qaida has some presence inside Syria and interest in fomenting violence in Syria.” He added, “We do not believe they share the goals of the Syrian opposition or that they are even embraced by the opposition … The sense that we get is that it is primarily members of [al-Qaida in Iraq] that are migrating into Syria.”

Similarly, U.S. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper warned earlier this year that al Qaeda-aligned forces coming from neighboring Iraq—a country that the United States occupied for nearly a decade—had carried out explosions in Damascus:

The two bombings in Damascus in December … and then the two additional bombings in Aleppo, both of which were targeted against security and intelligence buildings … had all the earmarks of an al Qaeda-like attack.  So we believe that al Qaeda in Iraq is extending its reach into Syria.

Rather than exercise restraint, the rise of Syria’s Islamists has encouraged Washington to intervene. Last month, the New York Times reported that U.S. officials had ordered a small number of C.I.A. officers to help funnel “automatic rifles, rocket-propelled grenades, ammunition and some antitank weapons,” across the Turkish border through intermediaries in Syria who include the Muslim Brotherhood, all paid for by Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar. The justification was to keep weapons out of the hands of al Qaeda-allied groups, which is not reassuring. The most infamous instance of planners in Washington assisting the arming of rebels was in the 1980s in Afghanistan—a country that years later turned into an al Qaeda sanctuary.

The Syrian opposition’s failure to unite, combined with the ascendance of Islamists and al Qaeda-linked jihadists, complicates, among other things, the Western response to the Assad regime’s continued massacre of its people. For now, these divisions will prove more damaging to the Syrian uprising than the uprising’s attacks on the regime’s iron-fist.

‘The Dumbest Terrorist In the World’?

Businessweek has a story quoting a former federal prosecutor in Brooklyn, Michael Wildes, speculating that Faisal Shahzad, the would-be Times Square bomber, made so many mistakes (leaving his house keys in the car, not knowing about the vehicle identification number, making calls from his cellphone, getting filmed, buying the car himself) that he may be the “dumbest terrorist in the world.” But Wildes can’t accept the idea that an al Qaeda type terrorist would be so incompetent and suggests that Shahzad was “purposefully hapless” to generate intelligence about the police reaction for the edification of his buddies back in Pakistan.

Give me a break. This incompetence is hardly unprecedented. Three years ago Bruce Schneier wrote an article titled “Portrait of the Modern Terrorist as an Idiot,” describing the incompetence of several would-be al Qaeda plots in the United States and castigating commentators for clinging to image of these guys as Bond-style villains that rarely err.  It’s been six or seven years since people, including me, started pointing out that al Qaeda was wildly overrated. Back then, most people used to say that the reason al Qaeda hadn’t managed a major attack here since September 11 was because they were biding their time and wouldn’t settle for conventional bombings after that success. We are always explaining away our enemies’ failure.

The point here is not that all terrorists are incompetent – no one would call Mohammed Atta that – or that we have nothing to worry about. Even if all terrorists were amateurs like Shahzad, vulnerability to terrorism is inescapable. There are too many propane tanks, cars, and would-be terrorists to be perfectly safe from this sort of attack. The same goes for Fort Hood.

The point is that we are fortunate to have such weak enemies. We are told to expect nuclear weapons attacks, but we get faulty car bombs. We should acknowledge that our enemies, while vicious, are scattered and weak. If we paint them as the globe-trotting super-villains that they dream of being, we give them power to terrorize us that they otherwise lack. As I must have said a thousand times now, they are called terrorists for a reason.  They kill as a means to frighten us into giving them something.

The guys in Waziristan who trained Shahzad are probably embarrassed to have failed in the eyes of the world and would be relieved if we concluded that they did so intentionally. Likewise, it must have heartened the al Qaeda group in Yemen when the failed underwear bomber that they sent west set off the frenzied reaction that he did.  Remember that in March, al Qaeda’s American-born spokesperson/groupie Adam Gadahn said this:

Even apparently unsuccessful attacks on Western mass transportation systems can bring major cities to a halt, cost the enemy billions and send his corporations into bankruptcy.

As our enemies realize, the bulk of harm from terrorism comes from our reaction to it.  Whatever role its remnants or fellow-travelers had in this attempt, al Qaeda (or whatever we want to call the loosely affiliated movement of internationally-oriented jihadists) is failing. They have a shrinking foothold in western Pakistan, maybe one in Yemen, and little more. Elsewhere they are hidden and hunted. Their popularity is waning worldwide. Their capability is limited. The predictions made after September 11 of waves of similar or worse attacks were wrong. This threat is persistent but not existential.

This attempt should also remind us of another old point: our best counterterrorism tools are not air strikes or army brigades but intelligence agents, FBI agents, and big city police.  It’s true that because nothing but bomber error stopped this attack, we cannot draw strong conclusions from it about what preventive measures work best. But the aftermath suggests that what is most likely to prevent the next attack is a criminal investigation conducted under normal laws and the intelligence leads it generates. Domestic counterterrorism is largely coincident with ordinary policing. The most important step in catching the would-be bomber here appears to have been getting the vehicle identification number off the engine and rapidly interviewing the person who sold it. Now we are seemingly gathering significant intelligence about bad actors in Pakistan under standard interrogation practices.

These are among the points explored in the volume Chris Preble, Jim Harper and I edited: Terrorizing Ourselves: Why U.S. Counterterrorism Policy is Failing and How to Fix It – now hot off the presses. Contributors include Audrey Kurth Cronin, Paul Pillar, John Mueller, Mia Bloom, and a bunch of other smart people.

We’re discussing the book and counterterrorism policy at Cato on May 24th,  at 4 PM. Register to attend or watch online here.

Making Enemies in Afghanistan

Yaroslav Trofimov’s article in Wednesday’s Wall Street Journal explains how Ghulam Yahya, a former anti-Taliban, Tajik miltia leader from Herat, became an insurgent. The short answer: because the American master plan in Afghanistan required the retirement of warlords. The trouble is that in much of Afghanistan “warlord” is a synonym for “local government.” Attacking local authority structures is a good way to make enemies.  So it went in Herat. Having been fired from a government post, Ghulum Yahya turned his militia against Kabul and now fires rockets at foreign troops, kidnaps their contractors, and brags of welcoming foreign jihadists.  Herat turned redder on the color-coded maps of the “Taliban” insurgency.

That story reminded me of C.J. Chivers’s close-in accounts of firefights he witnessed last spring with an army platoon in Afghanistan’s Korangal Valley. According to Chivers, the Taliban there revolted in part because the Afghan government shut down their timber business. That is an odd reason for us to fight them.

One of the perversions of the branch of technocratic idealism that we now call counterinsurgency doctrine is its hostility to local authority structures.  As articulated on TV by people like General Stanley McChrystal, counterinsurgency is a kind of one-size-fits-all endeavor. You chase off the insurgents, protect the people, and thus provide room for the central government and its foreign backers to provide services, which win the people to the government. The people then turn against the insurgency.  This makes sense, I suppose, for relatively strong central states facing insurgencies, like India, the Philippines or Colombia.  

But where the central state is dysfunctional and essentially foreign to the region being pacified, this model may not fit. Certainly it does not describe the tactic of buying off Sunni sheiks in Anbar province Iraq (a move pioneered by Saddam Hussein, not David Petraeus, by the way). It is even less applicable to the amalgam of fiefdoms labeled on our maps as Afghanistan. From what I can tell, power in much of Afghanistan is really held by headmen — warlords — who control enough men with guns to collect some protection taxes and run the local show. The western idea of government says the central state should replace these mini-states, but that only makes sense as a war strategy if their aims are contrary to ours, which is only the case if they are trying to overthrow the central government or hosting terrorists that go abroad to attack Americans. Few warlords meet those criteria. The way to “pacify” the other areas is to leave them alone. Doing otherwise stirs up needless trouble; it makes us more the revolutionary than the counter-revolutionary.

On a related note, I see John Nagl attacking George Will for not getting counterinsurgency doctrine. Insofar as Will seems to understand, unlike Nagl, that counterinsurgency doctrine is a set of best practices that allow more competent execution of foolish endeavors, this is unsurprising. More interesting is Nagl’s statement that we, the United States have not “properly resourced” the Afghan forces.  Nagl does not mention that the United States is already committed to building the Afghan security forces (which are, incidentally, not ours) to a size – roughly 450,000 – that will annually cost about 500% of Afghanistan’s budget (Rory’s Stewart’s calculation), which is another way of saying we will be paying for these forces for the foreseeable future.

It probably goes too far to say this war has become a self-licking ice-cream cone where we create both the enemy and the forces to fight them, but it’s a possibility worth considering.

Mueller on Afghanistan

John Mueller, who has been helping out with Cato’s counterterrorism project, has a short essay in Foreign Affairs questioning the premise behind continuing the war in Afghanistan. That is: Al Qaeda would gain haven in Afghanistan absent a U.S. ground presence and use it to attack us here.

Mueller says that the Taliban would not be dumb enough to again offer aid and comfort to the wackos whose attacks brought the U.S. intervention that swept them from power before. I think this overstates the extent to which our enemy in Afghanistan is a singular entity with one way of thinking about its interests, rather than an amalgam of militias that view the utility of cooperation with foreign jihadists in varying ways. But the general point is mostly right.  Advances in UAV technology alone make a replay of the 1990’s impossible.

Mueller’s argument is badly needed in official places like Foreign Affairs where the “failed states are always terrorist havens” thesis is gospel. One can usefully export it to Somalia. The al-Shabab group’s loose ties to Al Qaeda are producing calls for U.S. intervention, despite the lack of evidence that international terrorists are using Somalia as a training ground or could.