Archive for ‘January, 2015’

Fighting terrorism is a matter of law enforcement.

datePosted on 08:35, January 20th, 2015 by Pablo

The post 9/11 security environment has been dominated by the spectre of terrorism, mostly if not exclusively of the Islamic-inspired sort. In most liberal democracies the response to the threat of this type of extremist violence has been the promulgation of a raft of anti-terrorism laws and organisational changes in national security agencies, the sum total of which has been an erosion of civil liberties in the pursuit of  better security. Some have gone so far as to speak of a “war” on terrorism, arguing that Islamicist terrorism in particular is an existential threat to Western societies that demands the prioritisation of security over individual and collective rights.

Although ideological extremists see themselves at war, this response on the part of democratic states, and the characterisation of the fight against terrorism as a “war” marshalled along cultural or civilisation lines, is mistaken. The proper response is to see terrorism not in ideological terms, with the focus on the motivation of the perpetrators, but in criminal terms, where the focus is on the nature of the crime. Seeing terrorism as the latter allows those who practice it to be treated as part of a violent criminal conspiracy much like the Mafia or international drug smuggling syndicates. This places the counter-terrorism emphasis on the act rather than the motivation, thereby removing arguments about cause and justification from the equation.

There is no reason for Western democracies to go to war. Whatever its motivation, terrorism poses no existential threat to any stable society, much less liberal democracies. Only failed states, failing states and those at civil war face the real threat of takeover from the likes of the Islamic State or al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. For Western democracies under terrorist attack, the institutional apparatus of the State will not fall, political society will not unravel and the social fabric will to tear. But there is a caveat to this: both the democratic state and society must beware the sucker ploy.

As an irregular warfare tactic terrorism is a weapon of the militarily weak that is not only a form of intimidation but a type of provocation as well. It has a target, a subject and an objective. Here is where the sucker ploy comes into play. Terrorist attacks against defenceless targets are designed to lure democratic states into undertaking security measures out of proportion to the real threat involved. The weaker adversary commits an atrocity or outrage in order to provoke an overreaction from the stronger subject, in this case from Western liberal democracies. The overreaction victimises more than the perpetrators and legitimises their grievances. In doing so, the democratic state plays into the hands of the terrorist objectives by providing grounds for recruitment, continuation and expansion of their struggle. When democratic societies, panicked by fear, begin to retaliate against domestic minority populations from whence terrorists are believed to emanate, then the sucker ploy will have proven successful.

The sucker ploy has been at the core of al-Qaeda’s strategy from the beginning. Enunciated by Osama bin Laden, the idea behind the attacks on the World Trade Centre and Pentagon, then the Bali, Madrid and London bombings, was to cause the entire West to overreact by scapegoating all Muslims and subjecting them to undemocratic security checks, to include mass surveillance, warrantless searches and arrest and detention without charge. With the majority supporting such moves, the Muslim minorities in the West become further alienated. That serves to confirm the al-Qaeda narrative that the West is at war with all of the Muslim world, which bin Laden and his acolytes hoped would generate a groundswell of conflict between Muslims and non-Muslims on a global scale.

The US and UK duly obliged by using 9/11 as one pretext for invading Iraq, which had nothing to do with the events of that day and which had no Islamic extremists operating in its midst at the time. It does now.

After the possibility of staging spectacular large scale attacks like 9/11 became increasingly difficult due to Western counter-measures, al-Qaeda 2.0 emerged. Its modus operandi, as repeatedly outlined and exhorted by the on-line magazine Inspire, is to encourage self-radicalised jihadis born in the West to engage in low-level, small cell (2-5 people) or so-called “lone wolf” attacks by single individuals on targets of opportunity using their local knowledge of the cultural and physical terrain in which they live.

In recent years the Syrian civil war and rise of the Islamic State have provided recruits with the opportunity to sharpen their knowledge of weaponry, tactics and combat skills with an eye towards future use at home in the event that they survive the foreign adventure (although less than 50 percent of them do). With reportedly 15,000 foreign fighters joining Syrians and Iraqis in the Islamic State ranks and a number of Westerners gravitating towards al-Qaeda, that leaves plenty of returning jhadis to be concerned about.

Shopping malls, sports venues, transportation hubs, entertainment venues, non-military government offices, media outlets, houses of worship, schools and universities–all of these present soft targets with significant symbolic value where a relatively small criminal act of violence can generate waves of apprehension across the larger population, thereby prompting a government overreaction as much in an effort to calm public fears as it is to prevent further attacks. The range and number of these targets makes guarding all them very difficult, and if the perpetrators plan in secret and maintain operational secrecy up until the moment of engagement, then they are impossible to stop regardless of the security measures in place. Short of adopting a garrison state or open-air prison approach to society as a whole, there is no absolute physical defense against determined and prepared low level operators, especially when they have access to not only to weapons but common household or industrial products that can be used to untoward ends.

Although it risks detection because of the coordination and numbers involved, one variant of the low-level, decentralised terrorist strategy is the so-called “swarm” attack, whereby several small cells engage multiple targets simultaneously or in rapid sequence, even in several countries if possible. This is designed to stretch the security apparatus to its limits, thereby causing confusion and delays in response while demonstrating the attacker’s capability to strike at will virtually anywhere. At that point the military–ostensibly used for external defense–is often  called in, thereby giving all the appearance of a nation at war. Such is now happening in Belgium and France.

The evolution of terrorist tactics notwithstanding, if we strip away all the ideological gloss what is left is a transnational criminal enterprise. The response required is therefore more police than military in nature, and requires increased intelligence sharing and police cooperation amongst nations. The legislative response should be not to create a separate body of political crimes deserving of increased (and undemocratic) coercive attention from the state, but to bolster criminal law to include hard penalties for carrying out, financing, supporting or encouraging politically motivated violence. All of this can be done without militarising the state and compromising basic democratic values regarding the freedoms of speech, assembly and movement.

What is not needed but unfortunately has been the majority response in the West, is expanded anti-terrorist legislation and sweeping powers of search, surveillance and seizure that cover the entire population rather than those suspected of harbouring extremist tendencies. This violates the presumption of innocence as well as the right to privacy of the vast majority of citizens, to which can now be added restrictions on freedom of movement for those who, even without criminal backgrounds, are suspected of planning to travel to join extremist groups abroad.

Worse yet, such measures are not entirely effective, as the Boston Marathon bombings, Sydney hostage crisis (the work of a lone mentally ill individual with delusions of Islamic grandeur who was out on bail for sexual crimes and accessory to murder) and the Charlie Hebdo attacks have shown (Australia, the US and France have very strong antiterrorism measures, to include the Patriot Act and NSA/FBI mass surveillance in the US, overtly authoritarian security legislation dating back to the Fifth Republic in France–which was a response to the Algerian Crisis of 1958– and increasingly hard anti-terrorist legislation in Australia).

There is a clear need to upgrade police intelligence gathering, sharing and operational procedures in order to combat the terrorism threat. The main impediment to that has not been a public lack of cooperation or the inadequacy of extant criminal law (which needs regular upgrading in any event due to the evolution of crime–for example, 30 years ago cyber security and cyber crime were not issues that needed to be covered by law). Instead, it has mainly been due to inter-agency rivalries between domestic security and intelligence agencies and a lack of international cooperation on ideologically charged matters such as Islamic terrorism (for example, between Israel and its Arab neighbours and the US and China). Given advents in telecommunications technologies, there has to be a priority focus on social media intelligence gathering, particularly of platforms that use encryption to shield criminal behaviour. But all of that can be done without the mass curtailment of civil liberties, and without militarising the response to the point that it gives all the appearances of cultures at war.

It should be obvious that the underlying causes of terrorism in the West need to be addressed as part of a comprehensive strategy for dealing with the problem. These involve a host of socio-economic and cultural policy areas and a willingness by politicians to broach debate on sensitive topics related to them (such as the question of assimilation of migrants, minority youth unemployment etc.). But in the narrow sense of security counter-measures, the key is to not exaggerate the terrorist threat, to strip it of its political significance and to use more efficient policing and intelligence gathering backed by criminal law to treat it not as a special type of (political) crime but as just the violent acts of criminal conspirators.

Although its threat environment (including terrorist threats) is far less menacing than that of its major security partners, New Zealand has adopted antiterrorist and search and surveillance legislation that is more appropriate for the threats faced by India or Pakistan than by a small isolated democratic island state. Other small democracies outside of Europe like Costa Rica, Portugal or Uruguay have not seen the need to adopt such legislation, and Uruguay in fact has accepted released Guantanamo detainees for re-settlement. Thus the question begs as to why New Zealand has chosen to privilege security over freedom when the threat environment does not warrant it? So far, in spite of crying wolf about the spectre of home grown jihadists and returning foreign fighters, the New Zealand authorities have not provided any concrete evidence of plots or other indicators of terrorists at work that would justify the expansion of what is now a full-fledged security and surveillance state.

One can only hope that as part of the forthcoming intelligence agency review an honest discussion of terrorism and other threats can be had so that perspective can be gained and the proper response undertaken. That may well mean rolling back some of the security legislation passed during the last decade while refining specific provisions of the Crimes Act and attendant legislation so that the balance between security and civil liberties can be re-equilibrated in more even fashion.

For an interesting take on the subject, here is an article by a US security academic with clear pro-establishment views.

This week I attended a talk by Kiwi journalist Yasmine Ryan, currently based in Tunis. Yasmine previously worked for al-Jazeera and now freelances from her Tunisian base. Her talk was about the state of affairs in the Arab world, and more specifically, North Africa.

She had many interesting things to say but I garnered three main points from her talk. First, the the so-called Arab Spring has failed to open Arab politics in any meaningful way. Second, levels of corruption in the Arab world are so high and so pervasive that reform is virtually impossible, especially when foreign interests back the entrenched power elites. Third, state capacity (measured by public infrastructural development, enforcement of norms beyond simple repression and provision of goods and services) is woefully lacking throughout the region, something that contributes to pervasive discontent amongst disempowered groups.

Her bottom line was that although Tunisia is touted as an Arab Spring success story, it is in fact not and yet is the best of a sorry lot of post-dictatorial regimes now governing in North Africa.

As Yasmine spoke, I found myself pondering her use of words. She referred to the Tunisian “revolution” and to the “democratisation” of Arab politics. Her use of these terms reflects standard journalistic practice although she knows well that nothing of the sort has happened in North Africa. Let me explain why.

“Revolutions” properly conceived are popular uprisings that lead to the armed overthrow of the state and the imposition of a paradigmatic change on society under a new political regime in the wake of the overthrow. The first key to revolutionary success is victory over the repressive apparatus, either as a result of combat or because the repressive apparatus switches its allegiances to the new sovereign contenders. The second key to revolutionary success is the scope of paradigmatic change covering political society, civil society and the economic structure of the nation-state. Needless to say, none of this happened as a result of the so-called Arab Spring.

So what did happen? Well, if revolution does not eventuate and democracy does not obtain, then other outcomes are possible. The regime being challenged can use its repressive superiority to reassert its authority and crack down on dissent, thereby quashing the seeds of popular uprising. This occurred in Bahrain, although it took Saudi Arabian troops to help repress the mostly Shiia uprising against the Sunni elite in that country. To a lesser extent it occurred in the 2009-10 election protests and the 2011-12 Arab Spring-inspired “Day of Rage” protests in Iran.

Another alternative outcome is a civil war where the challenged regime is forced into an armed struggle with rebel groups or in which the old regime is overthrown but new power contenders fight each other in order to establish their claim to being the new sovereign. The former is happening in Syria and the latter is happening in Libya.  Iraq is a variation on this, with foreign intervention rather than popular unrest being the gateway (if not cause) for post-authoritarian internecine violence marshalled along sectarian lines.

A third option is for the authoritarian regime being challenged to engage in what is known as a “passive revolution.” “Passive revolution” is where the regime elite adopts cosmetic changes and engages in reform-mongering to appease popular discontent but does not fundamentally alter the power elite or the institutional bases of their power.  One of the cosmetic changes is electioneering rather than democratisation (which involves more than elections and encompasses institutional, social and economic life). This, sadly, is what has happened in Tunisia after the fall of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and in Egypt after the respective ousters of Hosni Mubarak and Mohamed Morsi. In both cases the power elite underpinning the ousted authoritarian leaders regrouped under an electoral facade that allowed them to cloak their rule in a mantle of “democratic” legitimacy. In Egypt’s case the scenario had a twist in that Morsi was allowed to become the first freely elected president in Egyptian history, but when his Muslim Brotherhood government pushed its Islamicist-backed constitutional project and Morsi granted himself unlimited executive powers not subject to judicial or parliamentary review, they were deposed in a military coup. The leader of the coup and then head of the Egyptian military, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, is now president of Egypt.

However, for a passive revolution to work it must, along with continuing to selectively repress dissent, deliver goods otherwise not obtained by the discontented masses. Be it as a short term or longer term strategy, the passive revolutionary approach is more than political window dressing because it hinges on giving the appearance of progressive change by providing public goods and services, and material benefits, that previously were unavailable. Yet, in Egypt as well as Tunisia, none of that has occurred because of rampant corruption, lack of state capacity, and an absence of economic opportunity under the power elites that ruled before the regime changes and who continue to rule today. What has occurred is the resumption of repression of those who wish to push for a further and more substantive political opening.

This means that the root causes of popular discontent remain unaddressed, which makes the passive revolutionary approach inherently weak. It is akin to putting a sticking plaster on an arterial bleed–it may staunch some short term dissent but it cannot contain the surge of discontent over the long term.

But there is a twist to the story. It turns out that Tunisia has supplied the largest contingent of foreign fighters to the Islamic State. Egypt also has proved to be a fertile recruiting ground for jihadists, and Libya is overrun with them fighting to overthrow the central government in Tripoli. Why would alienated individuals in Tunisia and Egypt opt to join a foreign war rather than continue to fight for progressive political change at home?

I believe the answer is that those who choose to leave to fight for IS or al-Qaeda see the results of the Arab Spring for what they really are: a reassertion of the traditional status quo under different guise. Understanding the impossibility of affecting significant political, social and economic change at home, these disaffected fighters migrate to foreign conflicts in which the enemy is clear (be it the West, Israel, Iran or Shiia Islam in general) and in which their skills in the management of organised violence can be honed for future use at home should they survive combat. Should they not, they will have died for what they believe to be a good cause.

That is the crux of the “returning jihadi” problem. They pose no existential threat to the West or even stable authoritarian regimes (barring an overreaction by the state and society that makes it appear as if there is in fact a “war” between Islam as a whole and the non-Islamic world). They do not pose an existential threat to stable Muslim dominant societies such as Indonesia and Malaysia. But they do pose a potential existential threat to the passive revolutionary regimes in North Africa as well as in failing or failed states such as Yemen, Somalia and/or those in which civil war is occurring (to include Nigeria even if Boko Harum is comprised of indigenous fighters who for the most part have not traveled abroad).

That is why I see al-Qaeda  and the Islamic State as regional rather than global problems–they may have a world wide impact given the decentralised nature of terrorist tactics outside of the Middle East, but their real strategic impact stems from the existential threat they pose to the Middle East itself. After all, even if they use the US, the West, Israel and/or Iran as foils for their violent ambitions, al-Qaeda and IS have their eyes focused squarely on the Gulf petrolarchies as much if not more than they do on any other territorial and political objective.

In the end, it has been the failure of the Arab Spring to deliver on its theoretical promise and popular expectations for real change that has led to the rise of IS and the spreading wave of violent unrest throughout the Arab world. After a moment that promised a thawing of old political structures and the germination of new ideas about the relationship between state and society, the region has proven yet again to be barren ground for peaceful, progressive and lasting social change.

PS: Here is something I wrote in 2011 about Tunisia and other Middle Eastern transitions. Although I do not claim any particular expertise on the Middle East or Arab world, I think that by and large my observations of four years ago have stood the test of time.

Wishing you the best for the upcoming year.

datePosted on 11:45, January 1st, 2015 by Pablo

Another year has come and gone and KP idles along in its small corner of the blogosphere.  For a year in which social media was touted as emerging as a significant competitor to the corporate press as framers of political discourse and debate in NZ, we had little impact outside of a dedicated core of readers.

KP published 55 posts in 2014. All but ten were written by me. Anita did not contribute this year and Lew wrote the ten that I did not (including all of June’s posts). His posts covered important domestic issues and were, as is always the case, the most read and had the most impact in terms of generating larger debate. I spent a bit more time on domestic related issues than I usually do and started adding links to other commentary that I have done, mostly in the fields of intelligence, security and NZ foreign policy. As has been the trend from the beginning, these received less attention than “purely” domestic or party politics related posts, and my posts on global affairs and international relations received the least amount of hits (and in some cases no comments). Having said that, my posts on the dire state of the NZ Left in January, May and September did generate some interesting responses in the comments and a couple of ripostes from Chris Trotter, and proved to be sadly prophetic in the wake of the election. They also elicited some gleeful coverage among Right leaning blogs, which was unfortunate.

We received around 3500 reads per month, with the high being 12000+ in September. The number of comments varied considerably but consistently averaged between 10-15 per post. No one was banned although one individual was warned off (see below). Other than the latter’s, most commentary was intelligent and civilised.

Most of our referrals came from other social media, especially twitter, although any mention in the Herald or NBR brought a relative flood of readers.  We also received traffic from other NZ political blogs, mostly on the Left. The cross-pollination is regular and welcome.

Traffic came predominantly from NZ, although there is a dedicated group of readers from overseas. I had a problem with trolling on a couple of my posts (primarily about Eastern Europe), including some ad hominum attacks from a NZ based clown who works for a NZ government agency and who used deliberately misdirected email servers to cover his tracks. To say the least he is not welcome here and if he persists I will be forced to out him by name. Let’s just say that we know each other from a past life.

Otherwise it was business as usual. KP is not out to make a splash or turn its authors into notorieties. We do not toe a party line, try not to be hysterical and although very critical of those in power most definitely reject the very concept of “attack” blogging. We leave that for others with darker inclinations. I cannot speak for Anita and Lew, but for me blogging on KP fills a space that is somewhere between academic writing, editorial writing, business analysis and personal reflection. In that measure it serves its purpose.

We shall see how this year goes. Without countervailing input from my other colleagues and with the press of my business commitments growing while I share parenting duties of a toddler (at an age normally associated with grandparenting), I foresee less time to write for KP and consequently a diminished number of posts. But one never knows what the future may bring, so I shall use the theme of embracing uncertainty as my motto for the next 12 months.

All the best to our readers for a healthy and happy 2015.