Archive for ‘Democracy’ Category
I had the opportunity some time go to be interviewed by the one of the director/producers of the documentary “Operation 8″ for a forthcoming film about the GCSB and its role in the 5 Eyes signal intelligence network. These good people are part of the grassroots network that attempts to keep those in power accountable to the folk they supposedly serve, and while I may not agree with them on a number of issues I have no doubts about their sincerity, commitment and interest in the common good.
In order to finish the new documentary, titled “The 5th Eye,” there is a crowdsourcing effort underway that is well worth supporting. The details are here. Besides information about donating, there is a short video trailer included on the page as well as updates and other valuable information. By all means check it out and help this film on its way to fruition.
If you support truly independent film-making in Aotearoa, this is an excellent opportunity to not only talk the talk, but to walk the walk.
Posted on 10:16, May 14th, 2015 by Pablo
So, it turns out that the much vaunted review of New Zealand’s intelligence community is going to undertaken by Michael Cullen and corporate lawyer Patricia Reddy. Both are consummate Wellington insiders and Ms. Reddy has no apparent experience in dealing with intelligence matters. She is, however, the Chair of the NZ Film Commission and sits on a number of boards so obviously must be the best person suited for the job. For his part Mr. Cullen has been a Deputy Prime Minister and sat on the Parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee that among other things did nothing when Ahmed Zaoui was falsely accused of and detained for being a supposed terrorist by the SIS. It is clear he knows how bread is buttered.
The terms of reference for the review cover two main areas: the legislative framework governing NZ intelligence agencies; and the mechanisms responsible for overseeing them.
I have serious doubts that as constituted this review panel will do little more than maintain the status quo on both agenda items. I believe that the review panel should have incorporated more people, including people from outside the Wellington “beltway” and some drawn from overseas. As things stand the review has all the makings of yet another exercise in whitewashing under the guise of critical scrutiny. I hope not, but am not holding my breath in any event.
I outline my thoughts in this Radio New Zealand interview.
For those interested in the terms of reference of the “review,” they can be found here.
So the Herald on Sunday published an article by a business lecturer from some obscure university in the UK (now apparently visiting at Auckland University) in which she claims that NZ is a “sitting duck” for an attack on a shopping mall (I will not link to the article because the fool does not deserve any more attention). She compares the NZ terrorism risk level to that of the US, UK an Australia and says that we should emulate them when it comes to mall security, to include bag and ID checks before entering. The Herald on Sunday then followed up the same day with an editorial and a couple of other articles hyping the terrorist threat in NZ.
I will not go over the levels of idiocy marshalled up in this sorry excuse for reportage. Instead I will rephrase a comment I left over at The Standard:
“ …(T)he lecturer who penned the scare-mongering hysterical piece has no demonstrable experience with terrorism or counter-terrorism, much less the broader geopolitical and ideological context. She makes a false comparison with the US and UK, acting as if the threat environment here is equivalent to those of these countries and Australia, and states that NZ should emulate them when it comes to mall security. That is simply not true.
Moreover, just because al-Shabbab carried out one successful mall attack in Kenya and called for others in the US, UK and Canada does not mean that they have the capability of doing so anywhere else. In reality, those calls have gone unheeded and security authorities in those states have not appreciably increased their warnings about attacks on malls as a result.
Let us be clear: no mall in the US (and the UK as far as I know) requires bag and ID checks in order to go shopping. So the claim that they do is a lie. I mean, really. Can you imagine the reaction of the average US citizen to being asked to produce an ID before being allowed into Walmart or any one of the thousands of malls that exist in the US? Heck, they might pull out a firearm and say that their name is Smith and Wesson!
Anyway, the costs of of engaging enhanced security measures will be prohibitive for many businesses and even if adopted will be passed on to the consumers, which in turn could drive away customers in an age when they can shop on line. So it is not going to happen. The use of CCTV, coordination with local security authorities and hiring of private security guards suffices in the US and UK, so it surely can suffice here.
I will leave aside the democratic principles at stake, one of which is that you do not restrict the freedom of movement of everyone on the pretext of stopping a potential act of mass violence. And even if you were do do so, who is to say that evil doers would not switch targets to, say, transportation hubs or entertainment districts in downtown areas. Are we going to then go on to lock down every place where people congregate? Lets get real.
In sum, what we got from the Herald was an article that used a false comparison from someone who is clueless but who somehow got interviewed by a rube reporter as if she was an expert in order to justify a call for a hysterical and impractical overreaction, which the Herald then used to write a fear-mongering editorial that contradicts what our own intelligence agencies are saying about the risk of terrorist threats on home soil. Geez. Perhaps hyping up security and sacrifice in the lead-in to the Anzac Day commemorations has something to do with it?
There is only one indisputable fact when it comes to terrorism and NZ. Joining the fight against IS/Daesh increases the threat of terrorist attack on Kiwis and NZ interests, not so much here at home but in the Middle East where IS/Daesh has a broad reach. Although the Gallipoli commemorations will likely not be affected due to the security measures put in place by the Turks (who do not fool around when it comes to security), the risks to individual or small groups of Kiwis in the ME–say, tourists, aid workers, diplomats or business people– are increased as a direct result of NZ involvement in the anti-IS/Daesh coalition. The emphasis should be on their safety, not on that of local malls.
An absolutely wretched effort by the Herald.”
The problem is bigger than the Herald going overboard with its scare-mongering in the build up to the Anzac Day commemorations. Since 9/11 we have seen the emergence of a plethora of security and terrorism “experts” (including a few here in NZ such as the poseur who featured in the Herald article) as well as an entire industry dedicated to “countering” extremism, terrorism and a host of other potential or imaginary threats. Likewise government security agencies have pounced on the spectre of terrorism to justify expansion of their budgets, personnel, powers and scope of search, surveillance and detention.
There is, in effect, an entire terrorism growth industry hard at work conjuring up threats and scenarios not so much as to safeguard their fellow citizens but to enrich themselves via fame, fortune or power. In this they are abetted by a compliant when not reactionary and sensationalist media that does not bother to fact check the claims of many of these fraudulent experts (such as the Fox News contributor Steve Emerson, who falsely claimed that there are non-Muslim “no go” zones in the UK and France, or the charlatan Rohan Gunaratna, who claimed that there were jihadi cells in NZ ten years ago without ever having visited here, and who has now had to pay serious money in damages for defaming a Tamil community group in Canada).
Together, these various branches of the terrorism industry work to mutually profit by promoting fear and distrust while curtailing the rights of the majority in the ostensible interest of securing against the potential harm visited by a purportedly violent domestic minority. And they are selective when they do so: notice that all the hype is about Islamic extremists when in fact a large (if not THE largest) amount of political violence in Western societies, including NZ, is meted out by white, Christian extremists. Yet we do not hear dire warnings about neo-Nazis and white supremacists even though they have a proven track record of politically or racially motivated violent acts.
“Esoteric pineapples,”a commentator on the Standard thread that I made my remarks on, provided this very useful and informative link on the phenomenon. Read it and weep.
It is a sad day that NZ’s leading newspaper stoops to this type of tabloid rubbish. Shame on them. But at least it seems that many of its readers are not taken in by the ruse, which augers slightly better for informed debate on the true nature of the NZ threat environment.
PS: For the record, I do not consider myself to be a terrorism or security expert. I have a background in counter-insurgency, unconventional warfare and strategic analysis among other things, and have written extensively on those and other topics. But I have largely been pigeon-holed in the NZ media as one or the other in spite of my repeated requests to be identified correctly, which is another example of shoddy journalism.
Last year I wrote a series of posts outlining what in my view were the reasons the NZ Left was in major if not terminal decline. The posts began before and concluded after the 2014 election and can be found in chronological order here, here and here. There were plenty of people who disagreed with my take on things, with the most vocal detractor being that doyenne of the NZ Left, Chris Trotter. The second of my posts answered his original critique (link to his critique in the post) and he followed up some time later with another post in which he takes me to task for saying that the Left should not resort to Dirty Politics style tactics in order to prevail. He chided me for my idealism and noted that he dealt in pragmatics and pragmatism dictated that the Left should play dirty if it was to defeat the forces of darkness now reigning triumphant in this land.
Given that I have a fair bit of past practical experience with direct action politics, albeit not in NZ, I found the charge of idealism a bit odd. Given what he said previously about the Left’s continued viability and strength, even odder was Chris’s admission that Dirty Politics works and needs to be used by the Left if it is to succeed in the contemporary political arena. If the NZ Left were truly viable would it need to resort to playing dirty? I thought that was the province of pro-capitalist parties whose policies hurt the masses and have little popular appeal due to their elite focus.
Be that as it may, imagine then my surprise when I read this from the redoubtable Mr. Trotter. Therein Chris draws the parallel between the “clever and artistic” denizens of cabaret society in the Weimer Republic and what Dave Brown (in a comment on the post) pointedly calls the “chatterati” assembled to watch a panel discussion of media types–not all of them of the Left–gathered at a restaurant part owned by Laila Harre in order to to lament the demise of Campbell Live. Beyond noting that a well placed bomb would have eliminated the “cream” of Auckland’s chattering Left, he goes on to note the distance between them and the “very different New Zealand” that exists outside of Ms. Harre’s fine dining establishment and whose TV viewing preferences may not be akin to those sipping chardonnay’s inside. His tone is implicitly insulting of those he broke bread with as the media commentators opined about Mr. Campbell, other talking heads, themselves and the state of the NZ media landscape.
Now, I am not one to gleefully point out contradictions or reversals by others, such as that done by some Left commentators on the subject of the Urewera Raids. And I must confess that I am little more than a chatterer myself these days. But given the thrust of Chris’s latest post in light of what he has said before about the NZ Left, I have just one question to ask:
Is he still steering by the real?
Because if he is, then it appears that he has joined my side of the argument about the NZ Left and for that I salute him. Belated as it may be, it was time to wise up.
The issue now is how to move beyond the parlour talk of the chattering Left and into organizing a counter-hegemonic project grounded in effective praxis. As I have said before that is a very big task and needs to be oriented around a discernible class line. The UNITE union is a small beacon of hope in this regard, but there is much more that needs to be done if anything remotely close to a Left resurgence is to translate into contestable politics. Labour and the Greens are too committed to centrist politics and working within the system as given to be anything other than reformists and passive revolutionaries. Real change can only come from the grassroots and rank and file, and those need to be cultivated via ideological appeals that feel immediate and achievable and which transcend the diversionary rubbish pushed by popular culture, corporate media and a government hell bent on dumbing down the quality of political and social discourse.
What is needed, in other words, is a legitimate war of position, however incremental it may have to be fought.
That is something the chattering Left simply cannot do.
Posted on 08:32, March 15th, 2015 by Pablo
In recent days there have been claims that there has been both more and less spying by New Zealand intelligence agencies. Proponents and opponents of the intelligence community have seized on one or the other claim to argue in favour or against NZ’s involvement in the 5 Eyes signals intelligence network and the expansion of powers awarded the NZ intelligence community under amendments to various security Acts during the past few years. Given that there is a forthcoming parliamentary review of the NZ intelligence community, it is worth cutting to the gist of the issue of “balance” between civil liberties and intelligence operations.
Monitoring and intercept technologies available to signals and technical intelligence agencies today are superior to those of ten years ago, especially in the field of telecommunications. This allows signals and technical intelligence agencies to do much more than was possible before, something that legal frameworks governing signals and technical intelligence collection have had difficulty keeping pace with. It would therefore seemingly defy credulity to claim that that spy agencies are doing less spying now than in the past, especially given what is known about the 5 Eyes network from the Snowden documents currently being introduced into the public domain.
But perhaps there is a way to reconcile the opposing claims. Can spy agencies actually be doing less with more?
The assertion that there is less spying by NZ intelligence agencies now than seven years ago can be reconciled with the recently released GCSB annual report stating otherwise by understanding that under the intelligence community’s interpretation, “mass collection” is not equivalent to “mass surveillance.” Although the 5 Eyes and other national signals intelligence agencies use systems like PRISM to grab as much meta-data as possible as it passes through nodal points, that data has to be mined using systems like XKEYSCORE to obtain collectable information. Bulk “hovering” of all telecommunications in specific geographic or subject areas by agencies like the GCSB still has to be searched and analysed for it to become actionable intelligence. That is where the use of key words and phrases comes in, and these are not just of the usual “jihad” or “al-Qaeda” variety (since the bulk of intelligence collection is not focused on terrorism).
Although the GCSB may be doing more bulk collection of electronic data, it claims to be analysing proportionately less of what is collected than during the last year of the Fifth Labour government. So it is doing less with more. But a fundamental problem remains when it comes to intercepting telecommunications in democracies.
That problem is that whether it is analysed or not, mass collection of so-called meta-data of everyone’s personal and professional telecommunications presumably violates the democratic right to privacy as well as the presumption of innocence because it is obtained without there being a particular suspicion or specific reason for its collection (much less a warrant for its collection). Bulk intercepts can then be data-mined after the fact using classified search vehicles in order to build a case against individuals or groups.
That runs against basic tenets of democratic jurisprudence. Moreover, indefinite storing of meta-data that has not been analysed but which could be in the future in the event target (and key word) priorities change is something that is the subject of legal argument at this very moment.
There are therefore fundamental principles of democratic governance at stake in the very collection of meta-data, and these cannot be easily set aside just because the threat of terrorism is used as a justification. The issue is constitutional and needs to be resolved before the issue of “balance” can effectively be addressed.
However, for the sake of argument let’s accept that bulk collection is not mass surveillance and that the former is legal. How does one balance civil liberties and security under such circumstances?
The implementation of balance under such conditions starts at the point where data mining begins. What are the key phrases and words that identify targets for closer scrutiny? What are legitimate targets and what are not? Some search terms may be easy to understand and broadly accepted as necessary filters for the acquisition of more precise information about threats. Others might be more controversial and not widely accepted (say, “opposition leader sex life” or “anti-TPPA protest leaders”).
That is where the issue of effective intelligence oversight comes into play and on that score NZ is sorely wanting. There have been some cosmetic changes in the workings of and a slight extension of the powers of the Inspector General of Intelligence and Security, and the process of issuing domestic security warrants made more robust with the participation of the Commissioner of Security Warrants. Yet any honest assessment of the oversight mechanisms of the NZ intelligence community will show that they are inadequate when it comes to providing effective and transparent proactive as well as retroactive oversight and review of our intelligence community’s activities given the range and scope of the latter.
These mechanisms are fewer and less effective than those of most liberal democracies (including our 5 Eyes partners), which means that NZ’s intelligence partners may well ask it to do things that they cannot do themselves due to the restrictions imposed by their own oversight mechanisms. That possibility should be of concern and needs to be addressed. Relying on the good faith of NZ intelligence agencies involved is not enough, especially given their history of playing loose with the rules when it suits them.
Therein lies the core problem with regard to balancing civil liberties and intelligence operations. If there is effective intelligence oversight before the fact (“proactive” in the sense that oversight mechanisms dictate was is permissible data-mining before it occurs) as well as after the fact (“retroactive” in the sense that oversight mechanisms hold intelligence officials to account for their use of bulk collection and data-mining), then balance can be achieved. However, if such effective oversight is lacking–again, both proactive and retroactive in nature–then the “balance” will be skewed heavily in favour of unaccountable intelligence collection and usage. That is not acceptable in a democracy but is in fact the situation at present in New Zealand.
Then there are the issues of how national security is defined and what role intelligence agencies play in its defense, on whose behalf NZ intelligence agencies engage in espionage, and with who the intelligence obtained by human, signals and technical means is shared. This matters because trying to achieve balance between civil liberties and intelligence operations without addressing the larger context in which the latter occur is much like putting the cart before the horse.
Posted on 17:06, March 1st, 2015 by Pablo
There has been a fair bit of public debate about the decision to send NZ troops to Iraq. I have had my say on this so will not go over the pros and cons. What has struck me is the clear divide between those who see NZ as a global actor that needs to “play the game” in accordance with its international commitments and obligations, and those that maintain that NZ needs to steer clear of foreign entanglements at any cost.
Let me start with the latter. The isolationist wing of NZ public opinion has a fair dose of pacifism layered in it, often tinged with strong anti-Americanism (especially amongst the activist Left). But isolationism in NZ is rooted in more than pacifism or anti-imperialism, and appears to be born of the idea that being small and far away from the world’s major conflict zones, NZ simply has no dog in those fights and invites unwanted attention should it join them. It should therefore steer clear of messy involvement in places like Iraq and pay more attention, if at all, to its nearest neighbours.
There appears to be a fair bit of isolationist sentiment on the political Right as well as the Left, particularly amongst those of a Libertarian persuasion that value non-interference in the sovereign affairs of others as strongly as the pacifist Left does.
However, for a country that is utterly dependent on trade and long-cultivated international diplomatic, cultural and political ties for its material and social well-being, this would seem to be a bit of a contradiction. It is hard to determine if it is born of popular ignorance of the linkages between trade, diplomacy and security (“issue linkage” in the academic parlance), or because there is simply a “cannot be bothered” attitude amongst the general public (especially the young, as my university teaching friends point out to me).
What does seem clear is that, as in many other countries, the lower one descends the socio-economic totem pole in NZ, the more likely is the prevalence of isolationist views. My reckon is that this is due to the fact that lower class (defined as subsistence wage labourers) or disadvantaged sectors of society are too busy with the rigours and trials of everyday existence to find time to ponder the intricacies of foreign policy, especially when these do not have a discernible and immediate impact at home (in another manifestation of what I have called “survivalist alienation” in other writings).
On the other hand there are two types of internationalists in NZ: so-called multilateralists who believe that all international problems require collective solutions preferably brokered by international organisations such as the UN; and traditionalists who maintain that NZ is bound to join and support its traditional (Western) allies when push comes to shove in the international arena. This latter stance has been complicated by NZ’s increasing trade dependence on Asia, and the PRC in particular, but as of yet the “traditional” focus on Western alliances and forms of international exchange appear to continue to dominate the public imagination.
I am not sure that the thought processes that distinguish multilateralists from traditionalists have filtered down into the public consciousness to the point that such distinctions are made on a general level. Instead, it seems that these viewpoints exist only in the minds of the informed public and political society (to include public bureaucracies and private firms) rather than the “average” Kiwi, especially in non-Pakeha populations. I say the latter because if one looks at the composition of the foreign policy-making elite, it has an extremely strong Pakeha demographic that reflects the economic, political and social values of the upper classes from which it is recruited.
I do not wish to be controversial about this last reflection and am happy to stand corrected if in fact NZ’s internationalist foreign policy perspectives are significantly (as opposed to symbolically) informed by maori, Pacifika and other non-Pakeha voices. It is clear that Asian perspectives have begun to temper the traditionally Anglo-centric views of the foreign policy elite, but I am not sure if that translates into the full embrace of multilateralism over traditionalism , or whether it trickles down to the level of the Kiwi Asian “street.”
Whatever the distribution of isolationists and internationalists in NZ society, the absence of public debate on most issues of foreign policy and the disingenuous approach taken by successive governments to the subject of foreign policy in general and to sensitive subjects like military adventures in particular have not helped clarify where the NZ public stands on matters that are, again, fundamental to the country’s well being over the long-term. For that to happen there has to be a critical media and a curious public that demands of politicians that they address honestly and openly where they stand on NZ’s international position and role. Only then can the weight of public opinion genuinely influence what is to date an elite conversation conducted with minimum popular consultation.
That is not likely to happen anytime soon.
It turns out that nearly 5 months after getting re-elected, the government has decided on the composition of the Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC). Besides himself as Chair of the ISC, the Prime Minister gets to select two members from the government parties and the Opposition Leader gets to select one member from opposition parties. In both cases the respective Leaders are expected under Section 7 (1) (c,d) of the 1996 Intelligence and Security Committee Act to consult with the other parties on their side of the aisle before selecting the remaining members of the committee. The language of the Act is quite specific: “c) 2 members of the House of Representatives nominated for the purpose by the Prime Minister following consultation with the leader of each party in Government: (d) 1 member of the House of Representatives nominated for the purpose by the Leader of the Opposition, with the agreement of the Prime Minister, following consultation with the leader of each party that is not in Government or in coalition with a Government party.” (1996 ISCA, pp. 6-7).
Not surprisingly the government has nominated two National MPs, Attorney General Chris Finlayson and Justice Minister Amy Adams, for membership on the ISC. It is not clear if ACT, the Maori Party and United Future were consulted before their selection. What is more surprising is that Andrew Little nominated David Shearer and did not consult with opposition parties before making his selection. While Shearer is a person with considerable international experience and has been a consumer of intelligence (as opposed to a practitioner) during his career, Mr. Little has been neither. In fact, it can be argued that Mr. Little has the least experience of all the proposed members when it comes to issues of intelligence and security, which means that he will have to lean very heavily on Mr. Shearer if he is not not be overmatched within the ISC.
Moreover, in past years Russell Norman, Peter Dunne and Winston Peters have been on the ISC, so the move to re-centralise parliamentary oversight in the two major parties represents a regression away from the democratisation of representation in that oversight role. Since these two parties have been in government during some of the more egregious acts of recent intelligence agency misbehaviour (for example, the Zaoui case, where intelligence was manipulated by the SIS to build a case against him at the behest of or in collusion with the 5th Labour government, and the case of the illegal surveillance of Kim Dotcom and his associates by the GCSB in collusion or at the behest of the US government under National, to say nothing of the ongoing data mining obtained via mass electronic trawling under both governments), this does not portend well for the upcoming review of the New Zealand intelligence community that this ISC is charged with undertaking.
The Greens have expressed their disgust at being excluded and have, righty in my opinion, pointed out that they are the only past members of the ISC that have taken a critical look at the way intelligence is obtained, analysed and used in New Zealand. But that appears to be exactly why they were excluded. According to John Key, Labour’s decision was “the right call” and he “totally supports it.” More tellingly, Mr. Key said the following: “A range of opposition voices from the minor parties could railroad the process. I don’t think the committee was terribly constructive over the last few years, I think it was used less as a way of constructing the right outcomes for legislation, and more as a sort of political battleground” (my emphasis added).
In other words, Russell Norman took his membership on the ISC seriously and did not just follow along and play ball when it came to expanding state powers of search and surveillance under the Search and Surveillance Act of 2012 and GCSB Act of 2014.
That is a very big concern. Mr. Key believes that the “right” outcomes (which have had the effect of expanding state espionage powers while limiting its accountability or the institutional checks imposed on it) need to be produced by the ISC when it comes to the legal framework governing the intelligence community. Those who would oppose such outcomes are not suitable for membership, a view with which Andrew Little seems to agree.
This is so profoundly an undemocratic view on how intelligence oversight should work that I am at a loss for words to explain how it could come from the mouth of a Prime Minister in a liberal democracy and be tacitly seconded by the Leader of the Opposition–unless they have genuine contempt for democracy. That is a trait that W. Bush, Tony Blair and John Howard shared as well, but what does that say about the state of New Zealand democracy?
Mr. Little has given his reason to exclude Metiria Turei of the Greens from ISC membership as being due to the fact the Mr. Norman is stepping down in May and Mr. Little wanted “skills, understanding and experience” in that ISC position. Besides insulting Ms. Turei (who has been in parliament for a fair while and co-Leader of the Greens for 5 years), he also gave the flick to Mr. Peters, presumably because that old dog does not heel too well. As for Mr. Dunne, well, loose lips have sunk his ship when it comes to such matters.
The bottom line is that Mr. Little supports Mr. Key’s undemocratic approach to intelligence oversight. Worse yet, it is these two men who will lead the review of the NZ intelligence community and propose reform to it, presumably in light of the debacles of the last few years and the eventual revelations about NZ espionage derived from the Snowden files.
As I said last year in the built-up to the vote on the GCSB Amendment Act, I doubted very much that for all its rhetorical calls for an honest and thorough review process that led to significant reform, Labour would in fact do very little to change the system as given because when it is in government it pretty much acts very similar to National when it comes to intelligence and security. If anything, the differences between the two parties in this field are more stylistic than substantive.
What I could not have foreseen was that Labour would drop all pretence of bringing a critical mindset to the review and instead join National in a move to limit the amount of internal debate allowable within the ISC at a time when it finally had an important task to undertake (in the form of the intelligence community review).
As a result, no matter how many public submissions are made, or how many experts, interest groups and laypeople appear before the ISC hearings, and how much media coverage is given to them, I fear that the end result will be more of the same: some cosmetic changes along the margins, some organisational shuffles and regroupings in the name of streamlining information flows, reducing waste and eliminating duplication of functions in order to promote bureaucratic efficiency, and very little in the way of real change in the NZ intelligence community, especially in the areas of oversight and accountability.
From now on it is all about going through the motions and giving the appearance of undertaking a serious review within the ISC. For lack of a better word, let’s call this the PRISM approach to intelligence community reform.
Posted 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.
Posted on 15:25, January 15th, 2015 by Pablo
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.
Amid the flurry of media interviews I did as a result of the Sydney hostage crisis, this one may not have received the attention other outlets have received.