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Countering threats as a growth industry.

datePosted on 18:15, July 23rd, 2010 by Pablo

News that the US has a network of over one thousand agencies employing more than 800,000 people involved in counter-terrorism efforts comes as no surprise. The post 9/11 reaction to the threat of armed Islamicist extremism by the US government was as visceral as it was knee-jerk, with a blanket call put out to increase every aspect of the country’s counter-terrorism capability. From intelligence gathering to emergency response and everything in between, counter-terrorism agencies proliferated from the local to the state to the federal level, as did the number of private firms engaged in direct counter-terrorism efforts as well as support roles.

But there are problems with this expansion, and it is not just the waste of resources associated with the duplication of functions and overlapping of roles that comes with it. Nor are the problems confined to the US. Let me list a few.

Around the world concerns about terrorism has seen the expansion of government security apparatuses dedicated to fighting it. Intelligence agencies, police forces and the military of virtually all Western states, to say nothing of those in the Sunni Arab world, Africa, Asia and the Antipodes, have increased the amount of resources directed towards countering potential terrorist threats (South America is the exception to the rule because traditional inter-state rivalries and the lack of Islamicist grievances in the region have led authorities to focus attention elsewhere). In New Zealand, for example, both the Combined Threat Assessment Group (an inter-agency combine that analyses intelligence flows and threat assessments from such as the SIS, Police, NZDF, MoD, Immigration, Customs and Foreign Affairs) and the Counter Terrorism Tactical Assault Group (CTTAG, a combined military and police specialist unit trained to respond to terrorist incidents) were created after 9/11. Similar agencies now litter the state security landscape throughout the world.

Along with the proliferation of agencies comes increases in their funding and personnel, and more perniciously, the scope of their responsibilities. Again, in New Zealand this is evident in the Terrorism Suppression Act (TSA), which is modeled on similar legislation in the UK and US and which gives broad powers to the government to infringe on basic civil liberties in its efforts to detect and stop suspected terrorism-related activities on NZ soil. The same goes for the Search and Surveillance bill now before parliament. In the US the so-called Patriot Act, which is still in force, grants US security agencies broad powers of arrest and detention on the mere suspicion of terrorism-linked behaviour. The expansion in both the number and legal authority of counter-terrorism agencies has been facilitated by politicians who, in an effort to not look weak on the issue of terrorism, approve budgetary increases and laws that fuel the growth of the counter-terrorism industry. In the post 9/11 rush to promote security, only a few brave politicians have attempted to resist the trampling of civil rights that the expansion of the security apparatus inevitably entails.

Besides the obvious problems that come with the “squeezing” of civil society by the security state (since the expansion of the state’s counter-terrorism powers come at the direct expense of the right to privacy and presumption of innocence), there is another downside that needs to be considered: the construction of threats in order to justify the existence of counter-terrorism networks. What is more, this phenomena extends beyond government security agencies and into private enterprise and academia.

In order to justify their existence, security agencies have to be able to identify and counter threats. In some countries the threats are real, as is the need to thwart them. But in much of the world the threat of terrorism is no more than it was in the 1990s, 1980s or 1970s. One such place is NZ. In these countries security agencies have a bureaucratic self-interest in identifying “threats,” because if there are no new threats then the rationale for their role and resource expansion goes out the window. Thus in 2005 the NZSIS identified “home grown jihadis” as the gravest security threat to NZ. A year later it dropped all reference to local Islamic extremists and highlighted foreign espionage networks operating on NZ soil. The following years have seen it highlight foreign-based computer hacking and industrial espionage as sources of concern. Each year appears to bring with it a new threat, even as the others are quietly dropped from annual reports.

Along with state security agencies conjuring up or exaggerating threats, so has an army of private security firms, including open source intelligence providers, security guard outfits and private military corporations sprung up to take advantage of the post 9/11 climate of fear. They bandwagon with state security agencies to emphasize the dangers of terrorism and other threats so as to nurture a client base for their services. The infamous Blackwater (now known as XE) private military corporation is an example of a “one-stop” private contractor that has its own intelligence, airborne, naval and ground units ready to serve both public and private clients for handsome fees (one of their latest ventures is in anti-piracy operations).  Thousands of other such firms now dot the global security landscape, all emphasizing the dangers of  the threat environment in the pursuit of profit. Not only does this industry work neatly with state security agencies’ agendas, but it further squeezes civil society in the measure that its surveillance capabilities and quasi-police powers increase as well.

Even academia is not immune from this trend. Over the last decade “counter-terrorism” centres have sprung up in dozens of universities world-wide. They receive their funding from governments, hold conferences, and churn out reports, books, even specialised journals that are dedicated to the subject (including “Perspectives on Terrorism” and “Terrorism and Political Violence,” although my favorite journal along these lines is “Small Wars and Insurgencies”). Here too the push is on to identify threats so as to justify continued funding. Places like Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, home of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, have dozens of highly paid researchers working on counter-terrorism and threat analysis projects (including one analyst at RSIS who declared that NZ faced a domestic Islamicist threat without ever having been to the country). Since funding for its facilities and personnel is directly related to its threat analyses, NTU has a vested interest in helping ensure that the perception of the global and regional threat environments is that they are variegated and “dense.” NTU is certainly not alone in pursuing the counter-terrorism dollar–this is a world-wide trend.

And of course, there are the countless terrorism “experts” that have sprung up as analysts and talking heads in the corporate media. No matter how tenuous their qualifications for discussing issues of threat posed by terrorism and irregular warfare groups, these pundits materially benefit from the exposure afforded to them by the sound-bite crowd.

Which brings up the thought for the day. Threats to international and national security do exist and terrorism is real. But pragmatic threat assessment and better use of extant security agencies and criminal law to counter terrorism have been overwhelmed by the urge to manipulate the impression of threats for individual, corporate, bureaucratic or political gain. That in turn has seen a shrinking of the civic space and private sphere in inverse proportion to the expansion of integrated (private-public) national security networks.

When money combines with a climate of fear, impressions of threat can be manipulated (if  not invented) in order to pursue profit or bureaucratic power. Threat manipulation in pursuit of corporate self-interest and the expansion of state security apparatuses poses a serious risk to democratic society. In another life long before 9/11 I participated in actual threat assessment exercises for the US government. The ethos then was to call things as they were, objectively, so as to not allow political agendas or ideological bias to divert resources away from real dangers. Now that logic has been reversed: threat mitigation is seen as a potential source of income and power, with the more threats identified the more resources will be directed towards them by political elites and a fearful public. By that logic, counter-terrorism is the mother of all cash cows, and as NZ prepares to host the Rugby World Cup, we can assume that there will be plenty of interested parties working hard to milk it regardless of the real threat environment in which the tournament is held.

9 Responses to “Countering threats as a growth industry.”

  1. Tom Semmens on July 24th, 2010 at 10:01

    I have always thought the best way of dealing with terrorists like Osama Bin Laden is to send a policeman to arrest him. Now, I know Mr. Bin Laden is not likely to come along quietly if confronted by an overweight constable on a bicycle. But it is the principle that is sound – Bin Laden is first and foremost a common criminal who needs to be laid low by the law and dealt with by the law in all its procedural majesty. Treating these people as if they are a shadowy parallel state simple lends them a credibility and gravitas they should not have and don’t deserve – they are just nihilistic, homicidal fanatics who got lucky once, and even then – they could never repeat it, because as the passengers of United Airlines Flight 93 showed the citizens of democracies are capable of almost instantaneous response and account managers can be just as brave in the face of death as trained Islamist extremists.

    If one looks at security apparatus from that perspective, it seems to me a good neighbourhood watch scheme of empowered, trained and thoughtful citizens would be at least as effective an anti-terrorist weapon as the entire Department of Homeland Security, and probably much better. It seems to me (if you are the USA) a thoroughly enabled Interpol would be at least as cost effective as any number of missile armed drones and XE Corporations.

    From 1990 to 2001 the West got a holiday from global threat that it population’s embraced with relief (I am personally convinced there is a link between this and the fact that the 1990’s was the era of popular, ecstasy fuelled rave culture, there has to be a dissertation about this out there somewhere!) but which it’s militaries simply were unable to adapt to. The fact that the size of the democratic nation’s peace time armed forces during the cold war was a grotesque anomaly has been obscured by the generational length of that confrontation, and the opportunity to urgently dismantle the military-industrial complex was lost. 9/11 gave the military-industrial complex a new legitimacy and even better, a whole new market – suppression and surveillance of their deadly enemy, the peaceful democracy. The rest, to my mind, has just been business as usual.

  2. JD on July 24th, 2010 at 18:01

    Treating these people as if they are a shadowy parallel state simple lends them a credibility and gravitas they should not have and don’t deserve – they are just nihilistic, homicidal fanatics who got lucky once, and even then

    Osama seeks credibility in the eyes of muslims. What non-muslims think of him is largely irrelevant to his purpose.

    Treating Al Queda as nothing but homicidal fanatics it probably the wrong way to deal with them since it infers that if you kill them the problem will just disappear. They have a philosophic justification for their actions that resonates with millions. If you want to discredit them then it will be on this level and therefore sending policemen to arrest them will be useless.

  3. Hugh on July 24th, 2010 at 19:47

    JD, I’d say treating them as common-or-garden crooks no different from home invaders or rapists is a much more effective way of discrediting them than any other.

  4. Pablo on July 24th, 2010 at 20:25

    Although I see JD’s point, I tend to side with Tom and Hugh on the issue of how to deal with terrorists. Or better said, I know how NOT to deal with them, which is to create a separate body of legislation covering politically motivated acts of violence, and then create a web of dedicated intelligence, paramilitary and military units whose sole job is to hunt down the bad guys under said legislation.

    The latter approach is wrong for two reasons. First, because it giving politically motivated violence special status with special penalties, it elevates the cause of the perpetrators in the eyes of their followers as well as others. In treating them as more than common murderers or conspirators they are rendered “special” because of their beliefs.

    For the state, the cause being espoused should not matter. What should only matter is the acts committed or planned. That way ideologically motivated irregulars can be treated as part of an armed conspiracy using or planning to use violence to pursue criminal objectives (as short term goals), without having to delve into issues of motivation or cause (as the underlying rationale and long-term objectives of the conspirators). In this approach the only thing that differentiates them from triads, the Mafia and local NZ gangs is the nature of the immediate objective.

    Since the legal focus is on their actions not their beliefs, criminal law is sufficient to deal with their prosecution (and if not, criminal law can be tweaked to better handle armed conspiracies). This would, of course, require legal redefinition of the “defense of right” defense.

    Secondly, creating independent specialised counter-terrorism units, rather than creating dedicated counter-terrorism cells within existing security agencies, runs the risk of these newly formed outfits seeking out targets and inventing terrorist threats in order to justify their existence and, concurrently, of their employing channels for authorising actions and methods that are not part of the normal chain of command and operational procedures (as the US example illustrates). There are already in place in most developed countries (including NZ) security agencies that have the ability to dedicate a portion of their resources to counter-terrorism duties without having to create a whole new network of shadow warriors.

    Instead, what is needed is a dedicated counter-terrorism focus within existing security agencies and better inter-agency coordination in uncovering and tracking irregular warfare threats rather than a new set of security agencies solely focused on counter-terrorism. Special forces with real-time intelligence liaison capabilities, or intelligence agencies with para-military capabilities, are one means of doing so. As things stand, the NZSAS is a good example of the former.

    Which brings me back to the original thrust of the post, which has to do with the negative influence of power and profits on threat assessment and civil liberties.

  5. JD on July 24th, 2010 at 20:41

    The latter approach is wrong for two reasons. First, because it giving politically motivated violence special status with special penalties, it elevates the cause of the perpetrators in the eyes of their followers as well as others. In treating them as more than common murderers or conspirators they are rendered “special” because of their beliefs.

    So you think that locking up members of the IRA such as Bobby Sands as common criminals would have some reduced their legitimacy in the eyes of the catholic in Northern Ireland?

    If the Chinese govnt passes a law against ‘splitist’ who advocate an independent Tibet or Xinjing making such activity a criminal offence do you think imprisoning Ughiers and Tibetans will discredit them in your eyes?

    If Al Quedas actions are aimed at muslims do you think having them tried and punished in western courts and prisons will have much of an effect in reducing sympathy for them in the muslim world?

  6. Pablo on July 24th, 2010 at 21:44


    You are now derailing the thread off topic, and besides, you should try not to outsmart yourself here. But I will indulge you just one more time.

    My simple answer to all three of your case example questions is “yes.”

    My slightly longer simple answer is that via isolated incarceration of militants and offering alternative channels for expressions of grievance and redress, support for ideological extremism can and will diminish. They key is to not incarcerate extremists with kindred spirits and to provide legitimate alternative vehicles for collective expression and redress for the groups they purport to represent. Absent access to comrades and a constituency, and with alternative means of expression available to those who would otherwise continue their fight, the symbolism of incarceration wears thin in a world populated by people that are risk adverse and more material than spiritual in orientation (and that is especially true for those at the subsistence end of the living condition).

    Put another way: how do you think Richard Reed and Jose Padilla are doing in US federal prisons, where the cause they champion runs counter to the skinhead, African and Latino gang cultures that dominate the inner workings of the system? From what I read, they are both someone’s, ahem, “partner.”

    The approach I prefer will not eliminate terrorism but it will mitigate it better than turning the pursuit, killing, capture, prosecution and imprisonment or execution of armed ideological extremists into a–dare I say it–an institutionalised Crusade.

    Since you seem to sure of the correctness of your views (which I assume comes from ample personal experience in dealing with ideological extremists or at a minimum a significant amount of study and writing on the issue), I shall end this reply with a simple question: how would you deal with terrorists? Treat them as a cop problem, treat them as a military (irregular warfare) problem or treat them as an existential threat so grave that we need to curtail basic democratic freedoms in order to be saved from it? On this, I give you the floor….

  7. JD on July 24th, 2010 at 23:55

    Actually at this point in the discussion I probably should issue a disclaimer. I have read and pondered about this situation indepth but my view doesn’t really come from reading books and intellectual abstracting. Although I don’t see myself as a muslim, having never stepped foot in a mosque nor agree with their particular world view I was born from a muslim parent and thus in the eyes other muslims am seen as a muslim. Although I can’t say for certain but the conversations amongst muslims regarding Bin Ladin probably differs substantially from how they would talk to non-muslims about him. These were not people who were uneducated but university students (studying at your former institute actually). I was previously an adherent of the ‘kill, capture and persecution’ school but I can’t see how treating terrorists as criminals or even killing them was going to change my friends minds about how they viewed Bin Ladin.

    After all the Israelis have taken this to the extreme but are they any closer to winning the hearts and minds of the people of Gaza over Hamas?

    Absent access to comrades and a constituency, and with alternative means of expression available to those who would otherwise continue their fight, the symbolism of incarceration wears thin in a world populated by people that are risk adverse and more material than spiritual in orientation

    Last time I looked most of those involved in terrorist attacks in the west were not afghans goat herds but those who were educated (being doctors and architects) and had an abundence of material wealth which they rejected. Others have also undergone imprisonment in their own countries where I suspect the authorities are more robust than the US in dealing with terrorists.

    Firstly point I’m making is so what if you kill and imprison a few terrorists. If the fundamental causes for their radicalization still exist e.g. brutal middle eastern dictatorship which engage in gross violations of human rights that are backed by the U.S, then is it too much much of a stretch of the imagination to consider that other terrorist may appear?

    Secondly something like this may be more effective in the long term:

    Given that Al Queda’s legitimacy is derived from religion wouldn’t it be an obvious that the solution could partially be found in religion?

    All in there may be no one solution.

    BTW do you really think prison and the denial of consumer durables will somehow dissuade people that are prepared to blow themselves up in a shopping mall? Maybe if as you allude that they’d be somebody’s ‘bitch’ for the duration then it could work but institutionalized rape not much of a policy response is it.

    Since you’re in Singapore what do you think of Thailand’s response of imprison and kill instead of seeking a political solution to legitmate grevinces in respect to the insurgency in Southern Pattani province? Their strategy seems to have had the effect of intensifying the violence.

  8. JD on July 25th, 2010 at 00:26

    PS Sorry for going off topic but your post is basically unanswerable since to actually offer any valuable insight one would have to be employed at a high level at MFAT, NZSIS, GSCB and the like. All we can do is offer idle uninformed speculation although I did have one friend who worked in such an area but he was a bit of a nutjob so I’m not about to give any currency to his views.

  9. Pablo on July 25th, 2010 at 01:06

    Excellent penultimate response JD (the last one was a bit odd), and I appreciate the transparency in your comments.

    My general reply is simply this: the West has to kill or isolate the armed extremists from the general Muslim population at the same time it gives Muslim constituencies a “major party” or institutionalised channel to the corridors of power (in the West). That means that Western imperialism has to at least change, or convert (a dangerous word) to something more equitable (at least in the eyes of subject peoples). In turn, that means a Western push against Muslim authoritarianism. Since the dictatorial roots of Islamic authoritarianism are rooted in Scripture, that is a a hard mountain to climb, especially for infidels. In other words, the West may be imperialistic and ignorant of cultural difference (and I generalise here), but the root cause of the extremist problem lies within Islam itself. So no matter its democratising initiatives, the change as to come from within subject populations themselves. That is where the “hearts and minds” are won or lost.

    As for the Muslim dictatorships, I believe that is for Muslims to decide how to move against them, with or without assistance from the West, but I also believe that a retreat back to medieval logics is a no-go given the heteorogeneity of modern culture and voices. Latin America and Sub-Saharan Africa offer some comparative examples of potential transitional “paths” that fall short of violence, much less revolution.

    The secular West already gives respect for religious difference. The problem, as I see it, is the prosletizing ambitions of Whabbaists and Salafists.

    Put another way, the problem of Islam is equivalent to the Catholic Church having a lockhold on Christianity, with Opus Dei playing the role of Whabbists/Salafists or, dare I say it, Shiia. The point being that it is always dangerous, no matter how legitimate the grievance, when authoritarian extremists come to dominate the inter-faith discourse. Within Islam, that is the situation today.

    With all due respect I suggest that you read Tariq Ali on the matter.

    As for specific points. I did not say that commodity fetichism ruled over religious belief. I actually noted that it is the necessities of survival that overcome spirituality when material reward is offered (as in food and shelter, not bling). I agree that the Auckand University type militants are good fodder for extremism, but also know from up close and personal experience that most of them are cowards who are rhetorically militant but personally bourgeois in taste and preference. Perhaps it is different in Turkey, Malaysia, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, but the division between the political and the personal in these sort of two-faced people is eminently exploitable by smart security agencies.

    With regard to Israel, all I can say is that you seriously underestimate its ability to divide and conquer without using the strategy that I advise. The Fatah-controlled West Bank, as much as they may be seen as sell-outs to the Jews, is proof of the utility of that strategy. Hamas is an exercise in collective martydom at the behest of others–if their sole source of sustenance was their own people free from coercion they would be in a coalition government ruling an independent state by now. Israel is bad; Hamas is worse; Fatah is a corrupt lap dog and the Israeli government is headed down the same corrupt path (look at the degeneration from Golda Meir through Ariel Sharon to Benjamin Netenyahu and you can get the drift). That sucks for everyone concerned. But at the end of the day Israel is unmovable, to the Muslim world’s public consternation, so their countervailing methods work in the main.

    With regard to Pattani Thailand. The issue is complex but two things stand out–1) the ongoing provision of safe havens to Islamic insurgents by Malaysia is due to its own internal political disputes and is what allows the insurgents to survive; 2) the use of the insurgency by the Thai military to justify its armament, budgets and “arbitrator” role in Thai politics (as well as massive US aid, equipment and advisors). If the situation was really serious the insurgents would be crushed and Malaysia would have to accept the diplomatic embarrassment, but as things stand they serve the role of useful fools for actors on both side of the common border. They are no threat to Thai sovereignty or national integrity.

    I could continue but this reply is already too long. Thanks for the debate and goodbye to the digression.

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