Tag: terrorism

Quelling Overreaction Is Part of the Job

On Sunday’s Meet the Press, David Gregory pressed a trio of federal officials about how comments on swine flu like Vice President Biden’s have caused overreactions across the country, such as the diversion of a plane because a passenger had flu-like symptoms, the cancellation of a rap concert, and a variety of other dislocations in American life.

Acting director of the Centers for Disease Control Dr. Richard Besser said:

Well, y’know, everybody is going to deal with their concerns in different ways, and that’s the nature of people. What we can do is try and tell them what the risks are - what do we know - share information as we have it, and continue to hit the messages of those things that can be really effective.

Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius lamely used the fact that people are flooding emergency rooms as an opportunity to promote health care reform … So that panicked insured people would flood doctors’ offices?

If government officials are going to manage a situation like this - and doubts have been raised that they should - their obligation is not just to report, but to actually manage. Allowing a cacophony of government voices to drive erratic behavior by people across the land is harmful to the country for all the resources it wastes.

The Obama Administration should have a disciplined plan for handling situations like this. The administration’s disorganized response here is a signal of the truly awful reaction we could expect should something serious happen, like a terrorist attack. Terrorism, of course, works by inducing self-injurious overreaction on the part of the victim state, so overreaction must be avoided.

This incident reveals that the country is exceedingly vulnerable to terrorism because communications plans are evidently not in place.

(The administration’s plan for any terrorist attack should prioritize moving Vice President Biden to an undisclosed location. Not for his security or for continuity of government - so he won’t appear in the media!)

Al-Marri Pleads Guilty

Ali Saleh Kahlah al-Marri pleaded guilty to conspiring with al Qaeda leaders to commit acts of terrorism yesterday.  He could be sentenced up to 15 years in prison, though he has spent nearly half that awaiting trial and may get credit for the time already served.

Al-Marri was an exchange student who arrived in the United States on September 10th, 2001 as an al Qaeda sleeper agent.  Read the government’s declaration of facts used to detain him.  This is the stuff of movies; the FBI took a dangerous man off the streets when it arrested him.

Unfortunately, the government took him out of the criminal justice system and asked that the charges against him be dismissed with prejudice (meaning that they cannot be re-filed in the future).  He became a domestically detained enemy combatant and the test case for future domestic military detentions.  Just as attorneys seek sympathetic plaintiffs to overturn unjust laws, the government can find unsympathetic defendants to justify overbroad claims of power.  Al-Marri is about as unsympathetic as you can get.

The real tragedy is that al-Marri will serve a relatively short sentence.  Had the government prosecuted him on the seven charges alleged the first time around, he would have been put away for decades.  Related posts here, here, here, and here.

Withdrawing from Afghanistan

Oh, the war in Afghanistan. The more I learn, the more I’m convinced that we need to get out.

As I described the situation to my Cato colleague Chris Preble, for lack of a better analogy, the Afghanistan–Pakistan border is like a balloon: pushing down on one side forces elements to move to another — it doesn’t eliminate the threat.

The fate of Pakistan — a nuclear-armed Muslim-majority country plagued by a powerful jihadist insurgency — will matter more to regional and global stability than economic and political developments in Afghanistan. But if our attempts to stabilize Afghanistan destabilize Pakistan, where does that leave us? Like A.I.G., is Afghanistan too big to fail? No.

President Obama earlier this month issued a wide-ranging strategic review of the war and the region, and declared “the core goal of the U.S. must be to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda and its safe havens in Pakistan, and to prevent their return to Pakistan or Afghanistan.” But al Qaeda, as we very well know, is a loosely connected and decentralized network with cells in over 60 countries. Amassing tens of thousands of U.S. and NATO troops in one country — or any country — is unnecessary.

Until Pakistan’s intelligence agency, the ISI, changes priorities, this is a stalemate and we are throwing soldiers into a conflict because policymakers fear that, if we leave, it will get worse. Sound familiar?

The only military role necessary in Afghanistan is trainers and assistance for the Afghan military, police, and special forces tasked with discrete operations against specific targets. The bulk of the combat forces can and should be withdrawn.

As for Pakistan’s impulsive act of gallantry in Buner this week, that’s certainly welcome news. But Mukhtar Khan, a Pakistani freelance journalist whom I’ve talked to on numerous occasions, records here that last year in Buner, a lashkar (tribal militia) successfully beat back the Taliban’s incursions.

Thanks to the Swat Valley peace deal between pro-Taliban TNSM founder Sufi Mohammad and the Pakistani government, militants have spilled back into Buner, killing policemen and terrorizing locals. What’s especially troubling this time around is that the spread from Swat into Buner brings militants closer to Mardan and Swabi, which leads directly to the four-lane motorway running from Peshawar to Islamabad. (I took the picture above when I was on the motorway to Peshawar last August.)

Overall, I’m not optimistic that the Pakistani government’s effort in Buner changes the grand scheme of things. Unless the intervention is coupled with a comprehensive shift in Pakistan’s strategic priorities, which means a move away from allowing its territory to act as a de facto sanctuary for militants undermining U.S. and NATO efforts in Afghanistan, then these sporadic raids tell us nothing about their leaders’ overall commitment to tackling terrorism.

For instance, Pakistan’s Supreme Court recently ordered the release of hard-line cleric Maulana Abdul Aziz on bail. Aziz was a leading figure from the Lal Masjid (Red Mosque) massacre of July 2007 and faces several charges, including aiding militants. For an idea of how pervasive militant sympathies go, when the Islamist political party Jamiat-Ulema-e-Islami was in power in North-West Frontier Province, a Pakistani territory adjacent to the ungoverned tribal areas, its leaders proselytized in mosques about the need for jihad in Afghanistan. In addition, when Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the head of al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, was killed in Iraq, their parliament observed a two-minute moment of silence.

If leaders within Pakistan’s military and intelligence establishments are serious about combating extremism, it will take more than periodic military moves into restive areas. We will not know for the next several months whether they have abandoned their lackadaisical attitude toward extremism.

Bob McDonnell Wants to Scare You and Take Your Money

Though I’m not a Virginia resident or voter, nor a donor to politicians, Virginia gubernatorial candidate Bob McDonnell (whose party affiliation I’m not aware of) has added me to his email list. His name is similar to a past roommate, and that affinity has caused me to open more of his emails than I ordinarily would.

Today’s is worth writing about: It’s a political candidate transparently trying to scare voters and use their fear for fundraising.

Dear Jim,

Terror suspects could be headed to Virginia…

With the closing of the detention center at Guantanamo Bay the federal government must find new locations in which to house and try the roughly 240 terrorist suspects currently held 90 miles from our shores. Recent news reports indicate that the Department of Justice is considering transferring a number of the detainees to the Commonwealth of Virginia. One specific location: Alexandria. And other Virginia locations could be possibilities as well.

There are security details to be worked out when prisoners are transferred out of Guantanamo Bay, but the prisoners themselves are not dangerous as such. They’re prisoners, and they will always be under heavy guard. Terrorists are not radioactive, and they do not have lasers built into their eyes.

The problems with housing prisoners in the past have been over-the-top security precautions that make a great show but don’t necessarily meet actual security problems associated with housing terror suspects.

Bills have been introduced to bar detainees from being transferred to various states.

A precious few Americans have exhibited cool in this fear-of-detainees brouhaha. Alexandria Sheriff Dana A. Lawhorne is quoted in this Washington Post article, at least saying “he would do what he can: ‘You can’t run the other way when your country calls.’”

But McDonnell, the politician seeking a prominent leadership position in the state, would “lead” by pretending that captured terrorists are too big a security risk for Virginia. It’s shameful fear-mongering meant to capitalize on the ignorance and weakness of Virginians who don’t understand terrorism. The only links in the text of the email are to the fundraising page on McDonnell’s Web site.

McDonnell exhibits leadership malpractice with this kind of campaigning.

What Is a “Fifth Column” Anyway?

@RadleyBalko points to a Washington Examiner column in which Jim Kouri, Vice President and Public Information Officer of the National Association of Chiefs of Police, says that Obama administration policy changes with regard to the “global war on terrorism” allow “suspected Fifth Column-type groups … to make symbolic demands on agencies such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Central Intelligence Agency.” He says the Council on American-Islamic Relations has called on the FBI to confirm or deny that a number of Long Island mosques are under law enforcement surveillance.

It’s hard to find the answer to the first question this raises: “So what?” Kouri does not make the case he implies: that something sinister lurks because this group, having a suspicion of something they see as wrongdoing, asks the agency in question whether it’s happening or not.

But the piece raised another question for me: “What’s a ‘Fifth Column,’ anyway?” The expression has been around forever, but what does it really mean?

Ahead of the Siege of Madrid in the Spanish Civil War, a general under Francisco Franco claimed that he would take the city with the four columns of troops under his command and a “fifth column” of nationalist sympathizers inside the city.

The city never fell to the nationalists, but fear of this “fifth column” caused the Republican government under Francisco Caballero to abandon Madrid for Valencia and it led to a massacre of nationalist prisoners in Madrid during the ensuing battle.

So a “fifth column” is not so much an insidious group of spies or traitors as it is the threat of such a group which causes the incumbent power to miscalculate and overreact. That doesn’t clear up what Kouri is trying to get across, but it does have the air of unintended confession.

Iklé on Pirates

The are a number of statements to take issue with in Fred Iklé’s oped on piracy in today’s Washington Post. Let’s focus on one. He writes:

Terrorists are far more brutal than pirates and can easily force pirates – petty thieves in comparison – to share their ransom money. We already know that Somalia is an ideal fortress and headquarters for global terrorist activity.

Lots is possible, but the fact is that there is no connection between the Somalia pirates and terrorists, as I discussed here.

Terrorism “experts” have been heralding Somalia as the next big terrorist haven for years, and few, if any, have arrived. That is because the idea that violent political chaos is generally conducive to terrorism is wrong. Even in Afghanistan, Al Qaeda got comfortable only once there was a somewhat coherent government that allied with them, not amid total chaos. Civil wars are not, it turns out, ideal locales to hatch international terrorist plots.

While we’re here, it’s worth noting the current level of American concern about piracy is overblown. As Peter Van Doren pointed out to me the other day, the right way to think about this problem is that pirates are imposing a tax on shipping in their area. They are a bit like a pseudo-government, as Alexander the Great apparently learned. The tax amounts to $20-40 million a year, which is, as Ken Menkhaus put it in this Washington Post online forum, a “nuisance tax for global shipping.”

The reason ships are being hijacked along the Somali coast is because there are still ships sailing down the Somali coast. Piracy is evidently not a big enough problem to encourage many shippers to use alternative shipping routes. In addition, shippers apparently find it cheaper to pay ransom than to pay insurance for armed guards and deal with the added legal hassle in port. The provision of naval vessels to the region is an attempted subsidy to the shippers, and ultimately consumers of their goods, albeit one governments have traditionally paid. Whether or not that subsidy is cheaper than letting the market actors sort it out remains unclear to me.

These considerations are worth keeping in mind when we discuss the costs and benefits of particular counter-piracy proposals. Iklé suggests blockading Somalia ports, which would require a massive naval force. Condi Rice suggested a UN peacekeeping force on shore, a far more expensive and risky proposition.

Iklé does make one more promising suggestion, which is to create an international law against paying ransom to pirates. In practice this would require member states to enforce the law against payments, probably making it unenforceable, but it is an interesting idea.