Tag: terrorism

Washington Post Defines Worst Fears Down

“Al-Qaeda bombmaker represents CIA’s worst fears.”

That’s the headline of a Washington Post story on Yemeni terrorists’ attempt to down a U.S. bound flight by placing a bomb on the body of an operative that turned out to be a CIA and Saudi agent. By straining to alarm readers about the bomb-maker, Ibrahim Hassan al-Asiri, the story makes three errors.

First, by defining the CIA’s “worst fears” as “a highly skilled terrorist determined to attack the United States,” the Post underestimates the imaginative capacity of intelligence officials and overrates Asiri’s prowess. The article uncritically quotes House Homeland Security Committee chairman Peter King’s claim that “Asiri is an evil genius. He is constantly expanding, he is constantly adjusting.” Whatever King means by “expanding,” “failing” would have been a better choice of words. In just one of the four Asiri plots mentioned in article did his bomb detonate properly. That one killed only its bearer, al-Asiri’s brother. The nearby target, Saudi’s Prince Nayef, suffered only minor wounds.

Second, the article dubiously claims that two of those plots nearly wreaked great damage:

If it were not for a technical problem (Abdulmutallab’s device failed to detonate) or solid intelligence tips (Saudi counterterrorism officials alerted authorities in Dubai and Britain to intercept the cargo planes), Asiri would have succeeded in staging a catastrophic disaster in American skies.

It is, however, questionable whether Abdulmutallab’s bomb, had it properly detonated, was powerful enough to cause his plane to crash. Even if it opened a hole, the plane might not have crashed.

In the second case, where bombs were hidden in printer cartridges on cargo planes, authorities tell us the detonators probably would have worked and could have downed the planes. But there remains a decent chance that detonation would have occurred while the planes were on the ground. Also, one reason that the devices made it on to cargo planes without detection is that they contain few people and thus justify less security. The death of a crew would have been tragic, of course, but “catastrophic disaster” is a stretch.

The likely success of terrorist plots can’t be assessed simply by looking at the stage of the plot that caused its failure. As Jim Harper argues, plots require success in a series of tasks, each of which drives down the odds of overall success. Bombs that are both difficult to detect and easy to detonate are tough to make, and competent bombers are hard to find. Borders have guards. Intelligence services employ double agents.

The article’s third error is its assertion that the Yemeni branch of al Qaeda has “taken advantage of Yemen’s political turmoil and seized large swaths of territory in the south.” That language conflates the terrorist group with a broader insurgency, confuses their goals, and overstates the group’s potency. The misperception invites a broad U.S. campaign against Yemen’s southern Islamists, which could heighten their enthusiasm for attacking Americans, creating the menace we feared.

Let’s review the record of the bombmaker who is labeled our “worst fear.” His organization has made no discernible progress towards its murky political objectives—though its Islamist protectors have gained territory amid a power vacuum. He has never produced mass violence nor apparently come close, and his most successful act of terrorism was to help his brother blow himself up. His next best effort resulted in a severe crotch burn for the bomber, who survived, talked to U.S. authorities for months, and is serving a life sentence.

That is “success” only under an exceedingly capacious definition. Bin Laden and his acolytes are being grandiose when they talk about bankrupting us. But their boasts show that “terrorism” remains a good label for their misbegotten efforts. They sustain their endeavors by imagining that violence, by generating fear and cost, will cause their enemy to fold and to accommodate their goals. By hyping their menace, we help them cling to that fantasy.

Cross-posted from the Skeptics at the National Interest.

Security Pact Ensures America’s Presence in Afghanistan

President Obama’s arrival in Afghanistan and signing of the strategic partnership agreement with President Karzai supposedly represents yet another corner turned in our nearly eleven year (and counting) war. The commander-in-chief’s arrival in secrecy, under darkness, and without live coverage of the signing is reminiscent of Bush the Younger’s many trips to war-torn Iraq and displays just how bad security is in Afghanistan. Indeed, despite the administration’s talk about drawing-down, the strategic partnership agreement signed today in Kabul extends Washington’s military and financial support to the endemically corrupt Karzai regime well beyond 2014.

The Taliban’s most powerful narrative is that foreigners are occupying Afghanistan and supporting its corrupt centralized government. That is more than mere propaganda. It is reality. Transparency International was correct—save for North Korea and Somalia, Afghanistan is the most corrupt country in the world. The Karzai cartel and its band of thugs and warlords are the embodiment of social injustice. The nation-building mission in Afghanistan is a failure not of democracy promotion, but the result of bringing injustice and crony capitalism to a desperate and war-ravaged people.

As America climbs out of the worst financial crisis in a generation, the American people pour tens of billions a year into a poverty-stricken narco-stateaccording to the late-Richard Holbrooke—while the Karzais and their cronies build mansions in Dubai. The American people’s hard-earned tax dollars are funding Afghanistan’s “1%.” As I said last week about the agreement, it is nation building by another name. The American people have come to realize that the nation-building mission in Afghanistan is a needless waste of blood and treasure and unnecessary for our vital security interests. U.S. officials should recognize this and expedite our withdrawal, rather than continue to tread water in a desperate attempt to stave off disaster.

A senior administration official today warned of repeating the mistake of allowing the Taliban to reemerge in Afghanistan. In the process, however, the United States is repeating a mistake that experts contend helped to contribute to the devastating terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001unwavering economic support and political cover to the Muslim world’s most corrupt and illegitimate regimes. Some will argue that America has a moral obligation to prevent the reemergence of reprehensible groups like the Taliban. But America never made a substantive policy shift toward or against the Taliban’s misogynistic, oppressive and militant Islamic regime when it controlled Afghanistan in the 1990s. Thus, the present moral outrage against the group can be interpreted as opportunistic. Sadly, Washington’s current embrace of the kleptocratic Karzai regime not only contradicts the basic moral principles that America purports to impose on the rest of the world, but also does little to advance our security, drives foreigners to commit terrorist acts, and is detrimental to our long-term goal of advancing our country’s most cherished values.

Obama Visits Afghanistan, Perpetuates Misguided Policy

President Obama’s surprise visit to Afghanistan shows that he is determined to use the bin Laden killing to his political advantage. He also hopes to win points for ending two unpopular wars.

That is understandable. If nothing else, it allows him to draw distinctions between both his predecessor, who failed to find bin Laden, and the eventual GOP nominee, Mitt Romney, who argues against withdrawing U.S. troops from Afghanistan.

But the policy that President Obama is pursuing in Afghanistan is still at odds with what most Americans desire. The strategic partnership agreement signed by Obama and President Hamid Karzai embodies this policy.  He chose to expand the U.S. presence in Afghanistan in 2009, and will now draw down to levels at or near those when he took office. That doesn’t go far enough: a majority of Americans want all U.S. troops out of Afghanistan within a year, and a large-scale military presence isn’t needed to continue to hunt al Qaeda. The organization is a shadow of its former self, and has shifted its operations and tactics to many other places. We are still spending tens of billions of dollars in a desperate nation-building mission; this money could be spent much more effectively elsewhere, including here in the United States.

Moreover, President Obama lacks the authority to make the promises that he has extended to the Afghan government and people. For example, he pledges to leave some unspecified number of troops in the country until well past the end of his second term (if there is a second term), but Congress determines funding for overseas military operations, including troop deployments, and there is no reason to believe that future Congresses (or future presidents) will feel bound by Barack Obama’s promises.

After 9/11, the American people rightly demanded that the U.S. government hunt down Osama bin Laden, and perhaps even to move heaven and earth to do it. It made sense to punish al Qaeda and degrade the organization’s ability to carry out another attack. Those tasks have been fulfilled. The mission of preventing the Taliban from rising again in Afghanistan is a hopelessly quixotic crusade, and one that we would be wise to abandon.

Bin Laden’s Death, One Year On

The killing of Osama bin Laden marked a significant achievement in America’s long war against al Qaeda. Yet, following last year’s Navy SEAL raid in Abbottabad, Pakistan, it became clear that disrupting, dismantling, and defeating al Qaeda did not require the occupation of distant lands. Indeed, even in the absence of the terrorist leader’s death, the sad and simple truth was that the protracted wars of occupation waged in 9/11’s name were an enormous drain on American taxpayers and counterproductive to the goal of stopping terrorism.

Certainly, bin Laden’s killing does not mean the end of al Qaeda, but it does provide another reason to bring our ongoing sacrifice in blood and treasure in Afghanistan to a swift end. Moreover, Americans should be circumspect about planners in Washington expanding the War on Terror to distant enemies in Pakistan, Yemen, the Horn of Africa, and elsewhere. Al Qaeda and its associates have always been manageable security problems, not existential threats to America that require endless war by remote control.

The lesson of 9/11 and its Saudi terrorist financier is that would-be terrorists have reduced their dependence on specific base camps and physical havens. They can plan, organize, and train from virtually anywhere in the world, from Kandahar and Hamburg to Malaysia and Los Angeles. Indeed, the very al Qaeda terrorists responsible for 9/11 not only found sanctuary in poverty-stricken Afghanistan, but also in politically free and economically prosperous countries like Germany, Spain, and the United States. In this respect, policymakers and prominent opinion leaders must stop conflating the punishment of al Qaeda with the creation of stable societies, particularly when propping up corrupt and illegitimate foreign governments and waging counterinsurgency campaigns distracts from the conceptually simpler task of targeted counterterrorism measures to find and eliminate terrorist threats.

“…the American homeland is the planet”

For years, my colleagues and I have been arguing that disrupting, dismantling, and defeating al Qaeda does not require the occupation of Afghanistan or anywhere else. Wars are incredibly wasteful and counterproductive to the goal of stopping terrorism. Would-be terrorists, moreover, have reduced their dependence on “base camps” and “physical havens” because they can plan, organize, and train from virtually anywhere in the world.

Mike M. from Paradigm Cure ably sums up the broader problem from which our post-9/11 mindset stems:

That is the notion that it is the responsibility of the US government to keep Americans safe from all terrorist attacks, at all times; the insistence that one attack amounts to failure, that the standard for homeland security is perfection.

[…]

We await an American political leader who will tell us the Whole Truth:  That in the emerging connected and networked world, we cannot be made totally safe.  That despite their level efforts, life—and strategy—are full of choices, and tradeoffs.  In so many ways, American public life these last few decades has been all about the avoidance of truth, and choice, and tradeoff, the promise that we could have everything and avoid the bill.  Many bills are now coming due; long-delayed tradeoffs are being foisted.  And one of them, sooner or later, will be the simple, unalterable fact:  We cannot dominate the earth, and so we must accept some risk at home.

Indeed, we are not perfect. In fact, as foreign policy planners were ordering American soldiers to invade and occupy two foreign countries simultaneously, back at home their fellow Americans were exposed to the shoe bomber, the underwear bomber, the Times Square bomber, the Ft. Hood shooter, and other failed and foiled terrorist plots and near misses. Clearly, these terrorists did not get the memo that we were supposed to be fighting them “over there.”

Unfortunately, U.S. officials remain hostage to the outdated notion that a specific territory matters—they remain possessed by a sort of safe haven syndrome. But perhaps even more crucial is that government officials also remain fixated on heading off every conceivable hazard through greater government action.

I must admit, however, that the belief that America must stop any and all terrorist attacks by controlling the world’s ungoverned spaces makes sense if one believes what the 9/11 Commission wrote on page 362 about warding off al Qaeda.

In this sense, 9/11 has taught us that terrorism against American interests ‘over there’ should be regarded just as we regard terrorism against America ‘over here.’ In this same sense, the American homeland is the planet. [Emphasis added]

Osama’s Feckless Plot against Obama

In three recent colums for the Washington Post, David Ignatius reveals bits of two letters found in Osama bin Laden’s compound after the raid that killed him. One is a 48 page letter from bin Laden to Ilyas Kashmiri, a senior al Qaeda operative since killed in a drone strike. In the letter, bin Laden dispenses advice and dreams up potential terrorist acts, including a suggestion that al Qaeda teams shoot down planes carrying President Obama or General Petraeus, then the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan.

Ignatius is doing some excellent reporting here, providing insight in bin Laden’s last days. But he inflates bin Laden’s stature, calling him a “terrorist CEO” and his feckless hope to kill Obama a “plot” that we should find “chilling.”

As I wrote in a letter published in Wednesday’s Post, Ignatius’s article reveals something closer to a fantasy than a “plot.” Ignatius notes that al Qaeda probably lacks the weapons to down standard military aircraft, let alone Air Force One. Additionally, it’s not clear that Kashmiri had the men to pull off the plan. We should not assume that he took these suggestions seriously rather than simply listening to bin Laden with strained patience, as with a cranky uncle. Perhaps the most absurd element of the letter is bin Laden’s political analysis. He argues that elevating Joe Biden to the presidency would somehow lead the U.S. into crisis rather than creating a massive rally-around-the-flag-effect.

This is a happy reminder of al Qaeda’s incompetence, not a chilling one. As John Mueller recently noted, the materials revealed about al Qaeda since bin Laden’s death are more evidence that the cunning, disciplined al Qaeda of popular imagination is a myth. Al Qaeda consists of disjointed groups of guys dodging drones and desperately trying to live up to their inflated reputation to terrorize. There is no true central command. That is clearly true today, and was likely the case even the al Qaeda’s 1990s heyday. That disorganization helps explain why most terrorism, even al Qaeda terrorism, is homegrown—mostly organized by small groups of people in the country where it occurs with little help from abroad. That gets you awful tragedies, as we saw this week in France, but hardly the apocalyptic nightmares we’ve been told to expect.

On April 13, Cato is holding a morning conference to explore homegrown terrorism, with one panel focusing on the United States and one on other western states. The panelists (including Mueller, Risa Brooks, Brian Jenkins, Glenn Carle, Michael Kenney and Mitchell Silber) will discuss, among other things, how al Qaeda’s lack of hierarchy affects its capacity to kill and terrorize. You can sign up here.

Cross-posted from the Skeptics at the National Interest.

Attorney General Holder and Executive Power

AG Eric Holder gave an address on Monday where he offered a legal rationale for the power of the president to kill American citizens who are outside of the United States and who are suspected of terrorist activity.  George Washington University Law Professor Jonathan Turley responds:

On Monday, March 5, Northwestern University School of Law was the location of an extraordinary scene … U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder presented President Barack Obama’s claim that he has the authority to kill any U.S. citizen he considers a threat. It served as a retroactive justification for the slaying of American-born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki last September by a drone strike in northeastern Yemen, as well as the targeted killings of at least two other Americans during Obama’s term.

What’s even more extraordinary is that this claim, which would be viewed by the Framers of the U.S. Constitution as the very definition of authoritarian power, was met not with outcry but muted applause. Where due process once resided, Holder offered only an assurance that the president would kill citizens with care. While that certainly relieved any concern that Obama, or his successor, would hunt citizens for sport, Holder offered no assurances on how this power would be used in the future beyond the now all-too-familiar “trust us” approach to civil liberties of this administration.

Read the whole thing.

Previous coverage here.   And Colbert’s segment, “Due or Die,” is here.