Archive for ‘Intelligence and Security’ Category
Posted on 15:46, June 1st, 2016 by Pablo
I was invited to speak at a forum in Wellington on the “Privacy Security Dilemma.” It included a variety of people from government, the private sector, academia and public interest groups. The discussion basically revolved around the issue of whether the quest for security in the current era is increasingly infringing on the right to privacy. There were about 150 people present, a mixture of government servants, students, retirees, academics, foreign officials and a few intelligence officers.
There were some interesting points made, including the view that in order to be free we must be secure in our daily lives (Professor Robert Ayson), that Anglo-Saxon notions of personal identity and privacy do not account for the collective nature of identity and privacy amongst Maori (Professor Karen Coutts), that notions of privacy are contextual rather than universal (Professor Miriam Lips), that in the information age we may know more but are no wiser for it (Professor Ayson), that mass intrusions of privacy in targeted minority groups in the name of security leads to alienation, disaffection and resentment in those groups (Anjum Rahman), and that in the contemporary era physical borders are no impediment to nefarious activities carried out by a variety of state and non-state actors (various).
We also heard from Michael Cullen and Chris Finlayson. Cullen chaired the recent Intelligence Review and Finlayson is the current Minister of Security and Intelligence. Cullen summarised the main points of the recommendations in the Review and was kind enough to stay for questions after his panel. Finlayson arrived two hours late, failed to acknowledge any of the speakers other than Privacy Commissioner John Edwards (who gave an encouraging talk), read a standard stump speech from notes, and bolted from the room as soon as as he stopped speaking.
Thomas Beagle gave a strong presentation that was almost Nicky Hageresque in its denouncement of government powers of surveillance and control. His most important point, and one that I found compelling, was that the issue is not about the tradeoff between security and privacy but between security and power. He noted that expanded government security authority was more about wielding power over subjects than about simply infringing on privacy. If I understand him correctly, privacy is a commodity in a larger ethical game.
Note that I say commodity rather than prize. “Prize” is largely construed as a reward, gain, victory or the achievement of some other coveted objective, especially in the face of underhanded, dishonest, unscrupulous and often murderous opposition. However, here privacy is used as a pawn in a larger struggle between the state and its subjects. Although I disagree with his assessment that corporations do not wield power over clients when they amass data on them, his point that the government can and does wield (often retaliatory) power over people through the (mis) use of data collection is sobering at the very least.
When I agreed to join the forum I was not sure exactly what was expected from me. I decided to go for some food for thought about three basic phrases used in the information gathering business, and how the notion of consent is applied to them.
The first phrase is “bulk collection.” Bulk collection is the wholesale acquisition and storage of data for the purposes of subsequent trawling and mining in pursuit of more specific “nuggets” of actionable information. Although signals intelligence agencies such as the GCSB are known for doing this, many private entities such as social media platforms and internet service providers also do so. Whereas signals intelligence agencies may be looking for terrorists and spies in their use of filters such as PRISM and XKEYSCORE, private entities use data mining algorithms for marketing purposes (hence the targeted advertisements on social media).
“Mass surveillance” is the ongoing and undifferentiated monitoring of collective behaviour for the purposes of identifying, targeting and analysing the behaviour of specific individuals or groups. It is not the same thing as bulk collection, if for no other reason than it has a more immediate, real-time application. Mass surveillance is done by a host of public agencies, be it the Police via CCTV coverage of public spaces, transportation authorities’ coverage of roadways, railroads and airports, local council coverage of recreational facilities and areas, district health board monitoring of hospitals, etc. It is not only public agencies that engage in mass surveillance. Private retail outlets, shopping centres and malls, carparks, stadiums, entertainment venues, clubs, pubs, firms and gated communities all use mass surveillance. We know why they do so, just as we know why public agencies do so (crime prevention being the most common reason), but the salient fact is that they all do it.
“Targeted spying” is the covert or surreptitious observation and monitoring of targeted individuals and groups in order to identify specific activities and behaviours. It can be physical or electronic (i.e. via direct human observation or video/computer/telephone intercepts). Most of this is done by the Police and government intelligence agencies such as the SIS, and most often it is done under warrant (although the restrictions on warrantless spying have been loosened in the post 9/11 era). Yet, it is not only government security and intelligence agencies that undertake targeted spying. Private investigators, credit card agencies, debt collectors, background checking firms and others all use this as a tool of their trades.
What is evident on the face of things is that all of the information gathering activities mentioned here violate not only the right to privacy but also the presumption of innocence, particularly the first two. Information is gathered on a mass scale regardless of whether people are violating the law or, in the case of targeted spying, on the suspicion that they are.
The way governments have addressed concerns about this basic violation of democratic principles is through the warrant system. But what about wholesale data-gathering by private as well as public entities? Who gives them permission to do so, and how?
That is where informed consent comes in. Informed consent of the electorate is considered to be a hallmark of robust or mature democracies. The voting public are aware of and have institutional channels of expression and decision-making influence when it comes to the laws and regulations that govern their communal relations.
But how is that given? As it turns out, in the private sphere it is given by the phrase “terms and conditions.” Be it when we sign up to a social media platform or internet service, or when we park our cars, or when we enter a mall and engage in some retail therapy, or when we take a cab, ride the bus or board a train, there are public notices governing the terms and conditions of use of these services that include giving up the right to privacy in that particular context. It may be hidden in the fine print of an internet provider service agreement, or on a small sticker in the corner of a mall or shop entry, or on the back of a ticket, but in this day and age the use of a service comes attached with it the forfeiture of at least some degree of privacy. As soon as we tick on a box agreeing to the terms or make use of a given service, we consent to that exchange.
One can rightly argue that many people do not read the terms or conditions of service contracts. But that is the point: just as ignorance is no excuse for violation of the law, ignorance of the terms of service does not mean that consent has not been given. But here again, the question is how can this be informed consent? Well, it is not.
That takes us to the public sphere and issues of governance. The reality is that many people are not informed and do not even think that their consent is required for governments to go about their business. This brings up the issue of “implicit,” “implied” or inferred” consent. In Latin American societies the view is that if you do not say no then you implicitly mean yes. In Anglophone cultures the reverse is true: if you do not explicitly say yes than you mean no. But in contemporary Aotearoa, it seems that the Latin view prevails, as the electorate is often uninformed, disinterested, ignorant of and certainly not explicitly consenting to many government policy initiatives, including those in the security field and with regards to basic civil liberties such as the right to privacy and presumption of innocence.
One can argue that in representative democracy consent is given indirectly via electoral processes whereby politicians are elected to exercise the will of the people. Politicians make the laws that govern us all and the people can challenge them in neutral courts. Consent is given indirectly and is contingent on the courts upholding the legality if not legitimacy of policy decisions.
But is that really informed contingent consent? Do we abdicate any say about discrete policy decisions and legislative changes once we elect a government? Or do we broadly do so at regular intervals, say every three years, and then just forget about having another say until the next election cycle? I would think and hope not. And yet, that appears to be the practice in New Zealand.
Therein lies the rub. When it comes to consenting to intrusions on our privacy be they in the private or public sphere, we are more often doing so in implicit rather than informed fashion. Moreover, we tend to give broad consent to governments of the day rather than offer it on a discrete, case by case, policy by policy, law by law basis. And because we do so, both public authorities and private agencies can collect, store, manipulate and exchange our private information at their discretion rather than ours.
Posted on 14:49, March 29th, 2016 by Pablo
I have had a professional interest in torture since my days doing human rights work in Latin America. As part of that work I talked to victims as well as perpetrators of state terrorism and subsequently wrote professionally about its usage in Argentina. Later on I consorted with members of the US counter-intelligence community who were responsible for interrogations of suspected spies and other bad people. They helped me understand the difference between coercive (as opposed to passive or sympathetic) interrogations and torture. The combination of experiences made clear to me that torture is more about punishment and collective deterrence through fear than it is about timely and sensitive information-gathering.
When the US started using its “enhanced interrogation techniques” after 9/11, descending into the medieval weirdness of Abu Ghraib and camp X-Ray at Guantanamo Bay, I tried to make sense of it.
In recent years the US Congress and the CIA have conducted investigations into the enhanced interrogation program. The bottom line is twofold: enhanced interrogations did not work any better than “normal” interrogations in extracting valuable information from terrorism suspects; and the justifications for using them was specious and deceptive at best. The best way of garnering valuable intelligence, as it turns out, is through a combination of timely signals collections working in concert with old fashion human intelligence gathering on the ground.
Now along comes Donald Trump claiming that not only does torture work but that he would “do worse” to suspects than water boarding in order to extract information from them. By now it should be clear that he is a blithering idiot on foreign relations, military affairs, intelligence operations, and pretty much everything else when it comes to public policy, to say nothing of being a serial liar with the purest case of narcissistic personality disorder seen since Narcissus himself (and were it that he could only suffer the same fate).
Heck, he makes Al Gore’s claim about inventing the internet look like a child’s fib in comparison!
In any event, Trump is dangerously wrong.
In an interview with a NZ business publication, this is what I had to say bout Trump’s remarks.
I wrote a short opinion piece in the Herald outlining some of my thoughts about the Brussels terrorist attacks. Unless the root causes of the problem are addressed, there will be no end to them. Even if they overlap in the form of foreign fighters, those root causes primarily reside in the disaffection and alienation produced by socio-economic and cultural grievances at home rather than in the conflicts of the Middle East. The solution is to be proactive as well as reactive to the threat posed by domestic radicalisation, and that involves social reform as well as better human intelligence collection in the communities from which home-grown jihadists emerge.
In last Monday’s press briefing, the Prime Minister took my name in vain. Responding to questions from a reporter I had talked to, he said that my concerns about the apparent illegality of undercover intelligence operations were “fundamentally wrong.” Instead, he said that although intelligence agencies could not break laws (tell that to Kim Dotcom), they might require “different laws.”
I beg to differ.
Before delving deeper, let’s address the PM’s remark about the need for “different laws” governing undercover intelligence operations. What does he mean by “different?” Is he proposing that there be one set of laws for regular citizens and another set of laws governing undercover intelligence work? How does that sit with the “equal rights under the law” premise that is at the heart of democratic jurisprudence? And if there is no provision for “different laws” governing undercover intelligence operations today, then what is there in extant law that makes otherwise illegal acts legal? How often and under what circumstances are these illegal-but-legal acts allowed and are they only allowed or legal under warrant? Something tells me that the answers to the last two questions are “frequently and routine” and “no” respectively.
The question about undercover intelligence operations was raised because during the course of conversations with a couple of reporters about the Intelligence Review in general, I pointed out that the most interesting items were buried at the back of the report. Reporters tend to read the executive summaries of official government documents but seldom have the time or inclination to read through 179 pages of dense prose and legal jargon.
But since I have the time and inclination, I did. Plus, in my former life as a US government official I actually helped draft such reports so know that the best way of reading them is from back to front. That way one can get to the meat of the report, often found in annexes, before wading through the fluff.
I should point out that my overall take on the report is this: given who was on the Review committee, the report was inevitably going to have a bias towards institutional continuity and incrementalism with regard to reforms. That is indeed what happened. The report reflects as much if not more of the spy agencies’ concerns than it does that of external parties or stakeholders like the civil society organisations and individuals that were consulted by the Committee. The result is bound to be disappointing to those who wanted a major overhaul of the intelligence community or wanted parts of it disbanded altogether, such as the Greens, but to my mind it is a small but acceptable step towards greater transparency and accountability in the NZ intelligence community and its main collection agencies, the GCSB and SIS.
Even so, there are several problematic areas in the report that are worth considering, and here I will focus on the undercover operations that the PM thinks I have interpreted so fundamentally wrong. Rather than present my views without context, here are (cut and pasted) the recommendations regarding undercover operations as listed in the Report:
163 Annex C: Full list of recommendations (abridged).
Cover for operations and employees
78.The legislation should explicitly provide for the Agencies to obtain, create and use any identification information necessary for the purpose of maintaining the secret nature of their authorised activities. This should include the ability to create cover for anyone authorised to undertake activity for the Agencies.
79. “Identity information” should include anything that could be used to establish identity – such as credit cards and shell companies in additional to traditional forms of identification (such as passports and driver licences).
80. The Agencies should also have the ability to obtain, create and use identification information necessary to keep the identity of their employees confidential.
81. The use of these powers should be covered by a tier 3 authorisation (policy statement) to ensure they are exercised only where necessary and proportionate.
82. There should be corresponding immunities from civil and criminal liability for reasonable acts done in good faith to create or maintain cover as part of an authorised operation or to keep the fact of a person’s employment with the NZSIS or GCSB secret.
83. These powers and immunities should be incorporated through general provisions in the legislation governing the Agencies, rather than by inserting specific exceptions in other legislation as is currently the case.
84. The same immunities should apply to both agencies, in line with our recommendations that the Agencies share functions and an authorisation regime.
85. Immunities should also apply to anyone required to assist the Agencies, such as telecommunications companies, or to human sources or agents acting at the Agencies’ request or direction.
86. The legislation should provide that no person should be subject to criminal liability for acts carried out in good faith and in a reasonable manner that are necessary to give effect to a tier 1 or tier 2 authorisation.
87. Employees of the Agencies should also have immunity from criminal liability for acts carried out in good faith, in a reasonable manner and in accordance with the purposes of the Act to obtain a tier 1 or tier 2 authorisation.
88. The immunities for employees of the Agencies should also extend to any relevant minor offences or infringements that may need to be committed in the course of investigations carried out under a tier 3 authorisation (such as breaches of road user rules).
89. Employees of the Agencies and any person acting at the request or direction of the Agencies should be protected from civil liability for acts or omissions in good faith in the pursuance or intended pursuance of the Agencies’ duties, functions or powers. This is the same protection as is provided to public sector employees under the State Sector Act 1988.
90. Where the GCSB or NZSIS is assisting another agency to perform its functions, any immunities that apply to the agency being assisted should also apply to the GCSB and/or NZSIS.
Readers can form their own conclusions about what these recommendations imply. But here are some thoughts. It appears that undercover operations conducted by the SIS (and to a lesser extent the GCSB) do not have specific legal cover as things currently stand. There are no provisions in the SIS or GCSB Acts that explicitly refer to a legal framework under which otherwise criminal acts undertaken by undercover intelligence agents may occur. That means, in effect, that until now undercover intelligence operations are essentially illegal except for the fact that they are conducted by agents of the State at its behest under exceptions to existing legislation (outside of the GCSB and SIS Acts or even the State Sector Act). But even then there is apparently nothing in the law that explicitly authorises undercover intelligence operations that otherwise would be criminal acts (say, burglary, forgery or credit fraud). Yet the recommendations speak directly to such acts so clearly they have been happening.
The problem is not just that SIS agents have no specific legal cover for what they do covertly, something that individually places them at considerable risk in the event that they are caught or detected. There also are no specific provisions on what they cannot do. Where is the line drawn as to what is permissible when acting as an undercover agent of the State. Murder? Arson? Extortion? Blackmail? Kidnapping? Credit card fraud? Money laundering? Burglary? Home invasions? Tail-gating? (I include this because recommendation 88 specifically mentions breaches of road user rules). If an agent is recklessly tail-gating a surveillance target and wrecks while doing so, killing or injuring passerby, is that agent immune from prosecution or liability because s/he was in the service of the State?
These questions are not frivolous. From my personal experience, I know that among other things covert or undercover agents are taught how to pick locks and conduct “traceless” break-ins and burglaries (they are even provided with the tools to do so). Cyber-hacking to install malware or to steal sensitive information is a stock in trade of signals intelligence agencies. Clandestine surveillance of all sorts is the bread and butter of most human intelligence agencies. The CIA has its own lethal drone program and paramilitary branch, as do several other spy agencies. The Mossad is, among many other things, a brutally efficient assassination machine. So where does one draw the line when it comes to otherwise criminal acts carried out by intelligence agents of the NZ state?
The recommendations repeatedly speak about acting in “good faith.” But how is “good faith” defined? The SIS agents who broke into activist Aziz Chowdry’s home in 1996 were probably acting in “good faith” when they committed what otherwise would be a crime, but how is it that stealing documents from activists is justified on national security grounds? Moreover, the person who caught the SIS agents in the act of breaking and entering, David Small, had his home raided, ostensibly to search for bomb-making materials, by the Police a week later, after making the initial complaint (he was able to record the SIS get away car’s registration plate number, which was traced back to an SIS front company). How was the raid on Dr. Small done in “good faith” and at whose behest? The government was eventually forced to settle with Mr. Chowdry for a six figure amount and, worse yet, forced to apologise to him for the break in (you can read a summary of the case here).
Dr. Small also received compensation for “unreasonable search.” If we accept that an apology implies recognition of wrong doing and that “unreasonable searches” may be part of the SIS repertoire, then how and where does “good faith” come into the picture? Add to that events such as SIS break-ins at Auckland University in the late 1990s (if I am not mistaken Jane Kelsey’s office was a target), and one gets the idea that the SIS engages in otherwise illegal acts not so much for national security reasons but because it simply can under a de facto “good faith” immunity clause. So the effect of the current recommendations would be to codify what is already informal usage and practice.
The issue of “good faith” extends beyond New Zealand’s borders. Inspector General of Intelligence and Security Cheryl Gwyn is currently investigating whether the SIS was complicit in the CIA extraordinary rendition and black site program. For those unaware of these, the program involved kidnapping or detaining suspected Islamic extremists and “rendering” them to clandestine detention centres in a number of countries (Poland, Thailand and Egypt, among others). There they were subject to euphemistically labeled “enhanced” interrogation techniques (some of which are more properly classified as torture). Although some of those “rendered” by this program turned up in Guantanamo Bay or in prisons operated by US allies, many others have never been seen again. All of this was conducted off the books and outside of legal guarantees or protections for the detainees.
Assuming that Ms. Gwyn does find that in fact the SIS knew about or was complicit in the extraordinary rendition/black site program in contravention of NZ commitments to international conventions against torture and arbitrary detention, can the SIS turn around and claim that it was doing so in “good faith?” Is “good faith” nothing more than a get out of jail card for the intelligence services?
The bottom line is two-fold. First, undercover intelligence operations to date have been conducted under very porous and somewhat dubious legal cover that allows a multitude of operational sins to occur under what seems to be a wink and nod agreement with other agencies such as the police and Crown.
Secondly, the recommendations in the report about legal cover for undercover intelligence operations are very vague and broad, which allows the possibility for agents to go “rogue” so long as they can claim that they are acting in “good faith.” Neither is acceptable in a liberal democracy.
I agree that a comprehensive legal framework is needed governing the circumstances and permissible activities conducted during undercover intelligence operations. But this framework has to specify as much what is not permissible as what is, and has to ensure clear lines of responsibility as well as authorisation before and during the conduct of said operations. Otherwise we run the risk of allowing State-sanctioned criminal enterprise to masquerade as intelligence gathering.
It seems that a fair share of people are concerned about the Intelligence Review Committee’s recommendation that the GCSB be allowed to spy on the private communications of NZ citizens and residents, most often with a warrant adhering to a three tiered process that requires the signature of the Attorney General and Judicial Commissioner for the most intrusive searches of private individual’s communications and, under highly exceptional circumstances (involving the combination of imminent threat and the need for immediate real time information), accessing private individual’s communications without a warrant.
This essentially codifies what is already being done in practice under the GCSB’s “assist” role whereby it can offer its technological capabilities under warrant to other government agencies when asked and can engage in warrantless spying on NZ citizens and residents if they reside abroad or work for or are associated with foreign-based entities like NGO’s, IO’s embassies, corporations, charities and CSO’s. Remember: this is targeted eavesdropping and signals intercepts, not mass (meta-) data collection or mass surveillance. The argument goes, and I tend to agree in part with it, that the NZ threat environment has become increasingly “glocal” or “intermestic,” meaning that the boundaries between global or international affairs and domestic and local concerns are increasingly blurred thanks to advances in telecommunications, transportation and economic transaction. Hence the need for targeted GCSB involvement in matters of domestic espionage when warranted.
In any event my first question is this: why, if people are concerned about the publicly-debated legal extension of the GCSB’s de facto “assist” role, are they not concerned about the use of military assets (specifically, the deployment of light armoured vehicles, a helicopter and troops) to assist the police in the Kawerau police shooting and siege? After all, the use in a police operation of combat designed equipment and soldiers trained and equipped for external combat would seem to be stretching the proper, legally defined role of the NZDF even if we consider its civil defense responsibilities (which, if I am not mistaken, would only apply to armed intervention in instances of civil war or insurrectionist (read: Maori) upheaval). Should there not be a clear separation of NZDF missions and police matters delineated in law? Pardon my ignorance, but is there? Is there a legally outlined “assist” role for the NZDF in armed confrontations like this latest incident and the Napier siege of a few years ago? Or is the operational relationship between the NZDF and Police more ad hoc, informal and circumstantial in nature?
Then there is the suggestion by Michael Cullen that future Intelligence Reviews could consider merging the GCSB and SIS. This would be akin to merging the NZDF and NZ Police. So my next question is: would we ever consider merging the NZDF and Police? If not, why would we consider merging a signals intelligence collection agency with a human intelligence collection agency?
There is more to ask. Most of what the GCSB does is foreign intelligence collection on behalf of the 5 eyes network. The domestic side of its targeted spying is relatively small in comparison and again, done in service of or in concert with domestic agencies such as the SIS and Police, most often under warrant or given the exceptions listed above. Otherwise and for all intents and purposes, the GCSB is a branch of the 5 Eyes on NZ soil, not a fully independent or autonomous NZ spy agency. Think of the amount of money that the GCSB receives from 5 Eyes, amounts that are believed to be well in excess of its NZ government-provided budgetary allocations (the exact figures are classified so are what is known as “black” allocations under he “reciprocity agreement” that binds the GCSB to the rest of the 5 Eyes partners). Think of the highly sensitive technologies it employs. When the GCSB was first established, was the equipment and personnel used completely Kiwi in nature? Is the equipment used today completely Kiwi in nature and are the people manning the listening posts at Waihopai and Tangimoana today all NZ citizens?
Given the network resources at its disposal, were the GCSB to merge with the SIS it is possible that the latter would be subject to institutional “capture” by the former. That would mean that the intelligence priorities and requirements of 5 Eyes could come to dominate the human intelligence priorities of the SIS. I am not sure that is a good thing. And if we consider that the separation of powers concept that is at the core of democratic practice should institutionally extend beyond the tripartite structure at the apex of the state apparatus (executive, legislature, judiciary), then centralising the most intrusive spying powers of the state in one agency answerable almost exclusively to the executive branch seems to be antithetical to that premise.
It could be the case that the possibility of a merger is being floated so that the SIS and GCSB can concentrate on external espionage and counter-espionage, with the domestic intelligence function reverting wholly to the police (who already have their own intelligence units). But even then the GCSB will continue to have a role in domestic signals collection, so the result of the merger would mainly impact the focus and organisation of the SIS.
I was fortunate to have a private audience with the Review Committee. From what I have read in the report so far, much of what I recommended was ignored. Even so, I do believe that the committee tried to balance civil liberties with security requirements and take what is a hodgepodge of disparate intelligence legislation and craft a uniform legal framework in which the iNZ intelligence community can conduct its operations. Heck, they even have recommendations about the legal cover given to undercover agents, both in terms of the process of assuming false identities as well as in terms of their immunity from liability when discharging their undercover tasks (apparently no such legal cover exists at the moment or is patchy at best).
Although I was disappointed that much of what I recommended to the committee did not appear in the final report, I am satisfied that their recommendations are a step forward in terms of transparency, accountability and oversight. I realise that this sentiment is not shared by many observers (for example, Nicky Hager was scathing in his appraisal of the report), but to them the questions I posed above are worth considering. To wit: If you are comfortable with the military getting involved in domestic law enforcement in exceptional (yet apparently regular) circumstances, then what is the problem with the GCSB getting more publicly involved in domestic espionage in similar circumstances?
There is much more to discuss about the Report and I may well do so as I wade through it. For the moment, here is a good critical appraisal worth reading.
Posted on 06:35, January 7th, 2016 by Pablo
The US has asked New Zealand to provide special operations troops to the anti-Daesh coalition. The government has said that it will consider the request but both the Prime Minister and the Defence Minister have qualified the response by stating that they do not think that NZ will increase its contribution beyond the company sized infantry training complement currently deployed at Camp Taji outside of Baghdad.
The Ministers’ caution has more to do with domestic political concerns than the practical or diplomatic necessities of the conflict itself. With a thin majority thanks to Winston Peter’s by-election victory in Northland, National cannot risk parliamentary defeat on the issue. But Opposition leader Andrew Little has signaled that Labour is willing to consider sending SAS troops to the fight, so the ground is clearing for authorization of a new phase of the NZDF mission.
This was predictable from the moment the NZDF first deployed to Iraq last May. It was clear then and it is now that training Iraqi soldiers is not enough to turn the tide against Daesh. The training is good and the troops that graduate have improved professional skills, but according to a report prepared by the US Defense Department immediately before Mr. Key travelled to Taji in October for his meet-and-greet photo op with the troops, they were no better in battle than they were before the training mission began.
The problem lies with the Iraqi Army leadership. Iraqi field rank officers are not included in the training program and are unwilling or unable to demonstrate the type of leadership skills under fire that are required to make best use of the training received by their soldiers from the NZDF and its allies.
That is where special operations troops like the NZSAS are useful. Among many other roles they serve as leadership advisors on the battlefield. Because of their exceptional skills and hardened discipline, SAS teams serve as force multipliers by adding tactical acumen, physical resilience and steadfastness of purpose to the fight. They lead by example.
NZ’s major allies already have special operations troops on the ground in Iraq, Libya and Syria. Although all of the nationally-badged SAS units roam the region, the Australian SAS is heavily involved in Iraq (and is present at Camp Taji). Not only do Australian SAS troops serve as forward spotters for RAAF FA-18s undertaking ground attack missions in Iraq. They have fought alongside Iraqi troops attempting to re-take the city of Ramadi, provincial capital of the Sunni heartland that is Anbar Province (119 kilometers from Camp Taji and 90 kilometres from Baghdad). The Australian role is considered to have been essential in the initial re-occupation of Ramadi, in which NZDF trained Iraqi troops participated. US, UK and Canadian special operators are currently conducting advisory, forward targeting, search and destroy and long-range intelligence missions against Daesh in north and western Iraq in conjunction with Kurdish and Iraqi forces. Russian, Iranian and Turkish special operators are on the ground in Iraq and Syria as well, and the contested spaces in which Western special forces are now actively involved in the Middle East extends to Libya, Saharan and Sub-Saharan Africa.
The Anglophone special forces are the allies that the NZSAS trains with regularly and works the closest with when on foreign missions. Like its counterparts, NZSAS tend to spend much time in or near overseas conflict zones whether that is publicized or not, usually following the typical military rotation pattern of threes: a third overseas, a third preparing for deployment, and a third on home duty after deployment. It is fair to assume that their attention when overseas has recently been focused on Iraq, Syria and perhaps other conflict zones in the Middle East.
The PM has hinted as much, stating that the NZSAS could be involved in roles other than combat. Since one of its primary missions is long-range patrol and intelligence gathering (rather than active engagement of the enemy), it could well be that the NZSAS is already playing a part in the targeting of Daesh assets.
With around 130 SAS troops in A and B Squadrons (Air, Boat, Mountain), that leaves a minimum of two troops’ or a platoon sized group (30-40 soldiers excluding officers) available for foreign deployment at any given time. Since the NZSAS operates in squads of 3 to 6 men depending on the nature of the mission (4-5 squads per troop), this leaves plenty of room for tactical flexibility, operational decentralization and role diversification.
Reports dating back to early 2015 already put the NZSAS in theater in small numbers, something the government does not deny. They may not be based in Iraq (which gives the government plausible deniability when asked if there are NZSAS troops on the ground in Iraq), but the main focus of their mission certainly is. Given the logistics involved it would be unusual if the NZSAS has not been working behind the scenes for their eventual participation in more active combat roles beyond what it may already be engaged in.
It will be odd if NZ refuses to send its most elite soldiers when asked for them by its major allies in a UN sanctioned multinational military coalition. Troops like the NZSAS need regular combat experience to sharpen and maintain their skills and they cannot do that at home. Since part of their specialness is versatility in a wide range of combat environments, the NZSAS would be keen to test its troops in the mixed urban/desert, conventional and unconventional battlefields of Iraq, Libya and Syria. The kinetic environment in the fight against Daesh is highly complex and multi-faceted so it stands to reason that our elite soldiers would want exposure to it.
Leaving the NZSAS in NZ is akin to leaving a Bugatti in the garage. Much has been invested in their combat readiness. They are trained to fight autonomously and lead others in combat (such as during the anti-terrorist mission in Afghanistan). To keep their specialist skills they need to experience live hostile fire. It would therefore be counterproductive for them to be idling in Papakura when there is a just cause to be fought against real enemies of humanity who commit atrocities and wreak misery on those they subjugate.
Whether one likes it or not, thanks to the Wellington and Washington Agreements NZ is once again a first tier military partner of the US, standing alongside Australia, Canada and the UK in that regard. Most of NZ’s major diplomatic partners are members of the anti-Daesh coalition and some, like Norway and Denmark, have also contributed special operations troops to it. NZ ‘s major trade partners in the Middle East are part of the coalition. As a temporary member of the UN Security Council, NZ has been vocal in its condemnation of Daesh and in calling for a united diplomatic and military response against it. It consequently has no real option but to accede to the request for the NZSAS to join the fight. It may be mission creep but this was mission creep that was foreseeable (and arguably has been planned for and implemented in spite of the government’s obfuscations).
Critics will say that NZ has no dog in this fight, that it is neo-imperialist foreign intervention on behest of corporate interests that only serves to show how subservient governments like National’s are when it comes to pleasing the US. If so, then there are 59 other countries in that category, to which can be added Iran (and its proxies in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon), Russia and the newly formed (if at this stage only on paper) Sunni Muslim anti-terrorism coalition that includes Malaysia, Indonesia and Pakistan. Critics will also point out that NZ is being selective about when and where it chooses to join foreign military adventures, and they would be right in that regard. But given its military resources, NZ pretty much has to be selective every time that it deploys troops, especially in combat roles. So there is nothing new, unusual or unethical in doing so.
Pacifists will say that the conflict with Daesh cannot be resolved by military means. It is true that military force alone is not sufficient to defeat Daesh, but removing it from the territory it occupies in Iraq, Libya and Syria is essential to that project. Not only is Daesh not prone to negotiating with its adversaries or sitting down with those that it disagrees with in order to settle differences. The very nature of its rule is based on coercion and imposition–of its puritanical values, of its medieval authority, of its rape and sex slave culture and of its harsh discriminatory treatment towards all who are not Sunni Arab men (and even the latter are not immune from its violence). Its removal is therefore justified on humanitarian grounds although disputed opinion polls claim that it enjoys some measure of public support in Anbar Province and Mosul. Yet even if the polls are correct–and that is very much questionable given the environment in which they are conducted–the hard fact is that there is no objective measure to gauge whether Daesh enjoys the informed consent of those that it governs, and until it does its reign is illegitimate because rule without majority consent is tyranny. Add to that the innumerable crimes against humanity Daesh has committed and its exportation and exhortation of terrorism across the globe, and the case against the use of force loses foundation.
Re-taking the ground lost to Daesh removes the main areas in which its leadership is located, from which it profits from oil production and where it trains jihadists from all over the world (some of whom return to commit acts of violence in their home countries). That in turn will lessen its appeal to prospective recruits. Thus the first step in rolling back Daesh as a international irregular warfare actor is to win the war of territorial re-occupation in the greater Levant.
The military objective in Iraq is to push Daesh out of Anbar Province and the Nineveh Governorate in which Mosul is located and force it to retreat back into Syria. At that point it can be subjected to a pincer movement in which the European/Arab/Antipodean/North American anti-Daesh coalition presses from the South and East while Russian, Iranian, Turkish and Syrian forces press from the North and West. The endgame will involve four milestones: first the capture of Ramadi, then the re-taking of Falluja, followed by the freeing of Mosul, and finally the seizure of the northern Syrian city of al-Raqqah, the capital of Daesh’s self-proclaimed caliphate.
Arab states will need to contribute more to the fight, including ground forces. Resolving the impasse over what to do with Assad is critical to establishing a united front between his military, Russia’s, Iran’s, Turkey and the anti-Daesh coalition. Both requirements are fraught and need to be the subject of delicate negotiations made all the more complicated by the Saudi-Iranian confrontation occasioned by the Saudi execution of a Shiia cleric. But for the negotiations to advance, much less to succeed, there needs to be battlefield gains against Daesh in Iraq that reverse its march towards Baghdad and which break the strategic stalemate currently in place. Once the prospect of victory over Daesh becomes possible, more countries will feel comfortable putting additional resources into the campaign against it.
There is room to be optimistic in that regard. In 2015 Daesh lost approximately 30-40 percent (+/- 5000 square miles) of the territory that it controlled in Iraq and Syria. Most of these losses were to Kurdish Peshmerga forces working in concert with Western special operations units. Significantly aided by its coalition partners and tribal militias, the Iraq Army has re-taken Tikrit (November) and the oil refinery town of Baiji (October) and is in the process of clearing the last pockets of Daesh resistance in Ramadi. Preparations for the re-taking of Falluja are well underway, and the battle for Mosul–Daesh’s biggest conquest in Iraq–is scheduled to begin within months. Key Daesh supply lines between Iraq and Syria are under near-constant aerial attack. In sum, the tide of Deash victories may not have completely turned but it does appear to have ebbed.
John Key does not do anything out of moral or ethical conviction, much less altruism. Instead he relies on polling and self-interest to drive policy. His polling may be telling him that it is getting politically less difficult to sell the NZSAS deployment to domestic audiences. But even if not, he has in the past ignored public opinion when it suits him (e.g. asset sales and the TPPA). With Labour warming to the idea of an NZSAS deployment, his political risk is reduced considerably regardless of public opinion. It is therefore likely that, weasel words notwithstanding, the train has been set in motion for that to occur.
Once the deployment is announced it is likely that the NZ public will support the decision and wish the troops Godspeed and success in fulfilling their mission. But even if the majority do not, the diplomatic and military pressure to contribute more to the war effort against Daesh will be enough to convince the government that it is in NZ’s best interests to agree to the request. In a non-election year and with Labour support it is also a politically safe thing to do.
What is certain is that the mission will be very dangerous for the troops involved. It will raise NZ’s target profile amongst Islamicists and could invite attack at home. But given the position NZ finds itself in, it is a necessary and ultimately justified thing to do for several reasons, not the least of which is upholding NZ’s reputation as an international actor.
A short version of this essay appears in the New Zealand Herald, January 7, 2016 (the comments are quite entertaining).
Posted on 08:37, December 15th, 2015 by Pablo
By now it is well known that in their effort to find the source of the information upon which Nicky Hager’s book Dirty Politics was based, the NZ Police searched and seized computers, phones and personal records from Mr. Hager’s home. They also intimidated Mr. Hager’s daughter (who was home at the time) by forcing her to dress in front of an officer and relinquish her personal computer. In addition, they asked a number of service providers to give them access to Mr. Hager’s personal details without a warrant or production order. Most of the service providers refused or asked for a warrant but at least one, the financial corporation Westpac, gave up eight month’s worth of Mr. Hager’s transaction records without asking the Police for a legal instrument compelling them to do so.
News of this caused a brief furore amongst civil libertarians, privacy advocates, some journalists and a few business people. But as with much that the Police does that is borderline in terms of legality, the issue soon dropped from the public eye. Few if any follow ups have been published and for all intents and purposes the Police have emerged unscathed from yet another episode of operating with impunity and contempt for the law.
I have had opportunity to review Police documentation regarding the case released under Discovery (79 pages in total). Readers are invited to read the full dossier released by the High Court over at Scoop, which also has an interesting newspaper story detailing the genesis of the investigation into Mr. Hager.
Much in the Police documents is redacted but there is plenty to consider nevertheless. In the spirit of public interest journalism (although I am not a journalist by training, inclination or employment), I have decided to add a bit more to the public domain on this case. As it turns out, the Police did more than ask various service providers to give them access to Mr. Hager’s private information, and they got things rolling just before and then accelerated the investigation very quickly after a complaint was laid about the source of the material from which Dirty Politics was constructed (the infamous or heroic hacker known as Rawshark, depending on how you view things).
On August 22, 2014, amid the sequels to the publication of Dirty Politics and the speculation as to the identity of the hacker who accessed the information from a notorious right-wing blogger that detailed his unsavoury connections to government officials and corporate interests, Rawshark tweeted what most observers saw as a satirical or diversionary tweet saying that s/he was on vacation in Vanuatu. Rather than take it with a grain of salt, and after the blogger formally complained on August 25, 2014, the NZ Police fired up their investigative resources and on September 18, 2014 a detective constable by the name of Rachelle (I shall leave her last name out), who was assigned to the case by a superior named Simon (again, I shall leave his surname out for the moment), telephoned Immigration New Zealand (INZ) for information on all NZ residents and citizens who had traveled to Vanuatu around that time.
I should note that this very same detective Simon was the police officer who made the “enquiry” of Westpac about Mr. Hager’s financial details on September 24, 2014. In the days that followed the Police were able to obtain detailed information on Mr. Hager’s property holdings from Wellington City Council as well as full details of his Westpac bank accounts and credit cards. Although some of this information was available through the Council web site, on at least one occasion detective constable Rachelle was able to obtain information directly from the Council without a warrant or production order (this information is available on pages 25-26 of the Discovery documents that I have read. (KEB Vol 4 Part 1C file pages 1468-69).
One has to wonder what relevance Mr. Hager’s property valuations and rate payments have with regard to the search for Rawshark. If the figures were obtained for a future asset seizure in the event Mr. Hager is found guilty of a crime, we have to remember that he has not been charged, much less convicted of any such thing. A search for aspects of his worth with an eye to future seizure implies a presumption of guilt on the part of the Police before any charges have been laid against Mr. Hager. To say the least, that is a perversion of natural justice.
During the September 18, 2014 conversation with detective constable Rachelle, a female senior INZ officer replied that it would be difficult to compile a list of all New Zealanders who traveled to Vanuatu during the referenced time period because INZ only had data on those who traveled directly to Vanuatu from NZ and did not hold information on those who may have stopped off elsewhere (such as Fiji) on their way to the holiday destination. She sent the Police an OIA form to fill out (which was completed and returned that day) in order to assist the INZ side of the investigation. A day later, on September 19, 2014, she emailed detective constable Rachelle and wrote that there was nothing more that INZ could do “on their end” and suggested that the Police “might want to try Customs.”
That was a good tip. Detective constable Rachelle noted then that she would speak to someone at Customs who was working on organised crime to find out the best source for that information. On September 23, 2014, after approaching NZ Customs, the NZ Police received from them spreadsheets containing the names of 2500 NZ citizens or residents who travelled directly from NZ to Vanuatu in the two weeks prior and after August 22, 2014. The spreadsheets were then sent to an officer Nichola (again, no last name needs to be published at this time) “at intel to see what plan we can come with in relation to analysing this information.”
The passenger information was presumably sourced from Air Vanuatu and/or Air New Zealand, who code share the three weekly flights between Auckland and Port Villa. No warrant or production order was issued for the release of this information, and it is unclear as to who and how Air Vanuatu and/or Air New Zealand were approached, or whether they were approached directly at all. This information is detailed on pages 70-71 (KEB Vol 4 Part 1C file pages 1525-26) of the Police documents released under Discovery in the case Mr. Hager has brought against them.
It is unclear whether the Police ever came up with a plan to analyse the personal information of the 2500 NZ citizens and residents that flew to Vanuatu from NZ in the two weeks before and after August 22, 2014. What is clear is that it was done, at a minimum, in violation of the Privacy Act because the data was obtained without a warrant or production order. Moreover, it is not clear what was ultimately done with the information about the 2500 people whose details were obtained by the Police. Was it analysed? Did any of it lead to further inquiries or action? Was it stored? Was it destroyed? Was some records kept and others not? The bottom line is that this information was obtained based upon a “courtesy” request, not a lawful order, and was part of a trolling exercise that began before a complaint was laid and not as a result of specific or precise information related to the Hager investigation. Both procedurally and substantively, obtaining this travel-related data of 2500 NZ citizens and residents was unlawful.
Given that Rawshark appears to be a pretty savvy hacker who knows how to cover his/her tracks, it is arguable that any of the 2500 people whose privacy was violated by Customs and the Police (and perhaps Air Vanuatu and/or Air New Zealand) had anything to do with obtaining the material for Dirty Politics. Beyond the issue of what was done with their personal information, the question is whether they have been told by any of these agencies about their records being accessed. After all, they have nothing to fear if they have nothing to hide, so it would seem natural that the Police and/or the other entities involved in the privacy breach would let the 2500 travellers know that their private records are safe. That is important because these records could well be more than passport details and could include ticket purchase location details, credit card information etc. At this point we do not know the full extent of the Police handling of this private information, but the privacy breach is a pretty big one in any event so the duty to inform those affected is great.
Published information is that the senior officer in charge of the investigation into Rawshark is Assistant Commissioner Malcolm Burgess. It appears that Mr. Burgess was contacted by email by the rightwing blogger on August 19, 2014 and immediately assigned the matter to the National Criminal Investigation Group (see the NZ Herald article on November 14, 2015 by David Fisher). That is odd because at the time no formal complaint had been made–that did not happen until August 25, 2014. In fact, it appears that an investigative plan of action was drawn up before the blogger made his formal complaint, then quickly put into action once he did.
In any case, perhaps Mr. Burgess is a “hand’s off” manager who did not know what those under him were doing, particularly detective Simon. But it would be interesting to see how he feels about the way the information on Vanuatu travellers was accessed given that it appears to have shed no light on Rawshark’s identity and seems to have violated the Privacy Act. In other words, it looks like it was a useless and illegal fishing expedition, which should be a concern for him as the senior office in charge.
I understand the importance of chasing all leads and avenues of inquiry in criminal investigations. I understand the notion of professional courtesy amongst security agencies. I understand the utility of informal agreements between government offices. I understand that institutional cultures may see legal requirement more as a challenge rather than as an obligation. I understand that sometimes investigatory overkill in one case is needed to serve as a deterrent to others who might seek to pursue similar courses of action.
But I also know, from both my academic writing on democratic governance and my professional experience while working in security branches of the US government, that at its institutional core democracy is about self-limitation and the universal rule of law, to which can be added the bureaucratic axion “CYA.” Yet when it comes to the NZ Police in this case and others, it seems that an institutional culture of impunity far outweighs respect for the self-limitations imposed by law when it comes to decision-making on matters of policy and operations.
Perhaps the Privacy Commissioner and other civil rights groups might want to take another look into this case because it is not just Mr. Hager who has had his rights violated by the Police investigation into Rawshark’s identity (in what to my mind is more a case of journalistic intimidation rather than a legitimate investigation into criminal wrong-doing). As much as I would like to believe that the Independent Police Conduct Authority (IPCA) would seize the opportunity to examine the particulars that I have outlined, its track record suggests otherwise.
One thing is certain: there are 2500 people in NZ who got a lot more than they bargained for when they booked direct flights to Vanuatu in the middle of last year.
The Directors of the GCSB (Acting) and SIS appeared before the Parliamentary Select Committee on Intelligence and Security (SCIS) to deliver their respective annual reports. Those reports include national threat assessments. I was not at the meeting but here is what I gleaned from the media coverage of the event:
Did the SIS Director focus on the hundreds of gang members who see violence as a way of life, to include sexual assaults, drug dealing, gun running, property crime and assorted acts of physical mayhem that result in death and injury and whose collective behaviour intimidate and terrorise sectors of the communities in which they inhabit? Answer: No.
Did the SIS Director mention the dozens of white supremacists with track records of violence against minorities and who openly call for a race war and ethnic cleansing in NZ? Answer: No.
Did the SIS Director address the infiltration of transnational organised crime into NZ and its use of business fronts, corruption, extortion, and intimidation to extend its reach in NZ and beyond? Answer: No.
Did the Director comment on the presence of foreign espionage networks in NZ seeking to obtain sensitive corporate, diplomatic, political and security information. Answer: No.
Instead, according to the media coverage, the Director focused her remarks on the handful of NZ women who are believed to have left the country in order to join Daesh in Syria and Iraq. The Director was not sure if they left to marry or to fight (or both), and wondered about the effect the experience may have on them should they decide to return. That is interesting since few of the foreign women who have left to marry into or fight with Daesh return to their homelands, most being killed in conflict zones or while trying to escape the not-so-paradisical life of a Daesh concubine. The lucky few who have managed to get back to their homelands have not committed any acts of violence after their return.
Perhaps Director Kitteridge wanted to capitalise on the recent mass shooting in the US where one of the perpetrators was a so-called “jihadi bride” in order to focus public attention on the potential threat such women pose to NZ. But the woman in San Bernadino did not surreptitiously travel to a conflict zone, marry a Daesh fighter, then return to her homeland. Instead, she was a citizen of one US ally (Pakistan) and came from another (Saudi Arabia), who appears to have deliberately married a US citizen with the explicit intent of gaining entry to the US in order to carry out acts of politically motivated violence. Similarly, the woman who was an accomplice to the Paris mass murderers had never been to Syria and was unmarried. Neither is in any way comparable to NZ women marrying quickly and heading off to the Middle East.
That these women–again, less than a dozen by the Director’s own admission–chose to do so is certainly a tragedy for their families. It is also a small social problem in that it shows the depth of alienation and desperation of some women in NZ who see life with Daesh as a better alternative to life in Aotearoa. It can be considered to be a mental health issue because, to put it bluntly, one has to be a bit unhinged to think that life under Daesh in the killing grounds of al-Raqqa and elsewhere is an attractive proposition.
One thing is even clearer: it is not a pressing national security issue and should not have been the focus of the Director’s remarks or of the press coverage given to them.
So why so much attention given to the subject? Is this not public fear-manipulation via threat distortion? Was it the Director who was playing this game or was it the media doing so in their coverage of her remarks? Again, I was not there and only saw the coverage, but either way someone IS playing games when it comes to national threat assessments.
There is one more oddity about the mention of NZ “jihadi brides.” Western women who have travelled to join Daesh are known to be more likely than male foreign fighters to try and maintain contact with their families and/or friends back at home. They are known to be more likely than men to use social media applications as well as cell phones to communicate from Daesh-controlled territory (which speaks to the strategic, tactical and technological limitations of Daesh). This makes them a highly exploitable resource for intelligence agencies seeking to establish their locations, track their movements and those of their associates as well as get a sense of life under Daesh.
So why on earth would the Director jeopardize the ability of the SIS and GCSB to do so by publicly outing the fact that these women are being “monitored” as much as possible? This is especially perplexing given that these women are undoubtably included in the 30-40 people that the Director and PM have already said are being watched because of their Daesh sympathies, so there was no compelling reason to provide a gender breakdown of the approximately one in four who are female and who may have decided to travel in order to join Daesh.
A cynic would say that the comments by both Director Kitteridge and Acting GCSB Director Una Jagose were designed to prepare public sentiment for forthcoming security legislation allowing more intrusive powers of surveillance. The PM has now repeated his concerns about the “dark web” and spoken of the problems of decoding encrypted terrorist communications. So perhaps the stage is being set for that.
We must remember that the technologies involved in encryption and decryption, including the temporary “snapshot” encrypted communications that Western security authorities claim that terrorists are now using, all originate from military and intelligence agencies themselves. Thus the cycle of encryption/decryption, much like the previous cycles of code-making and code-breaking, has been well in progress for some time and will continue to be so for the foreseeable future. In this cycle it is security agencies who have the lead, not private sector application manufacturers.
In any event, jihadi brides are unlikely to be at the leading edge of this cycle so using them, however obliquely, as the foil for extending communications security legislation is a bridge too far.
Posted on 15:50, December 6th, 2015 by Pablo
The latest spate of mass murder in the US has again demonstrated the hypocrisy and bigotry of right-wingers on the subject. When the murderers are white Christians such as the Colorado Planned Parenthood assassin or the Charleston South Carolina church gunman, the Right speaks of them being “unstable” or psychopathic. Yet when Muslims commit acts of mass violence such as that in San Bernadino, it is always considered by the Right to be an act of terrorism.
We need to cut through the BS and see things for what they are: not all mass murders are terroristic in nature. In fact, given the easy access to firearms, mass murder is as American as apple pie and almost as common. In most cases it matters less what drives US perpetrators to murder than it is their unique yet common ability to make a statement by murdering in numbers.
Let’s begin with the definition of “problem.” A problem is something pernicious that is persistent, continual and hard to resolve, counter or ameliorate.
Mass murders can be serial, sequential or simultaneous in nature depending on the perpetrator’s intent and capabilities. Most mass murders are motivated by personal reasons–revenge, alienation, stress, and yes, mental illness. The term “going postal” was coined in the US because of the propensity for workplace conflicts to lead to mass bloodshed. In fewer numbers of mass murder cases the killers express support for or involvement in political or ideological causes, such as the Colorado, San Bernadino and South Carolina events mentioned above. In a fair number of cases personal and political motivations combine into mass murderous intent. In many cases mentally ill people adopt extremist causes as an interpretation of their plight and justification for their murderous intent. The Sydney cafe siege instigator is a case in point. Whatever the motivation, what all the US killers share is their ability to kill in numbers. Given its frequency, that is a particularly American way of death.
We need to be clear that not all politically motivated killing is terrorism. The murder of US presidents, public officials and political activists of various stripes was and is not terroristic in nature. On the either hand, the murder of blacks and civil rights workers by the Klu Klux Klan was clearly terroristic in nature because it was designed to do much more the physically eliminate the victims. Although they were all politically motivated one can argue that the Charleston killings were not terroristic but the Colorado and San Bernadino murders were. The Boston marathon bombing was terroristic, but was the bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building by Timothy McVeigh also terroristic in nature or was it just a case of lethal lashing out by a disgruntled loser? What about today’s London tube stabber and the Palestinians who kill Israelis with knives? Are they really terrorists or just lashing out in murderous anger? Could not the same be said for all of the events mentioned here?
Terrorism has a target, subject and object. The target is the immediate victims of an act of politically motivated lethal violence, the subject is the larger body politic, and the object is to influence both the general public and decision makers to bend to the will of the perpetrators. This can be done by getting the latter to desist from doing something (say, joining in a foreign conflict) or by getting them to overreact in order to exacerbate tensions or contradictions within the subject society itself. Not all mass murders extend beyond the target, and even then most are not driven by a desire to shape the will of decision-makers or public at large. If we review the cases mentioned earlier, how many of them properly fall into the category of terrorism?
The currency of terrorism is irrational fear and panic. It has a paralysing or galvanising effect depending on the nature of the subject. But the key to differentiating terrorism is that those who perpetrate it seek to manipulate panic and fear to their advantage. They may not always calculate right and and up losing, but that is their intent.
Taking that criteria, it is clear that the US has a mass murder problem, not a terrorism problem. The answer to that problem lies in effective gun control, to be sure, but also involves backing away from the culture of violence into which US citizens are socialised. That includes reducing the amount of everyday exposure to militarism, jingoism, mindless patriotism and violence glorified in popular culture.
That will be hard to do because violence and the fear that it brings sells, and selling violence and playing on fear makes money for those who know how to manipulate it in order to take advantage of the opportunity. Not only does it sell guns and increases the profits of arms manufacturers big and small. It also sells electronic games, movies, toys (!), television series and any number of other appended industries. It helps further political careers. Violence is exalted, even reified as the preferred method of conflict resolution by a mass media industry fuelled by fear mongering and funded by war-mongerers. There are many vested interests in maintaining a culture of violence in which mass murder thrives. Yet these are not terrorists, by definition.
Rather than confront this thorny issue, the US Right prefer to selectively apply the word “terrorism” to mass murders committed by Muslims whether or not they are inspired or directed by a known irregular warfare group such as Daesh. Daesh knows this and along with al-Qaeda has urged supporters in the US to take advantage of loose gun laws to commit so-called “lone wolf” or small cell attacks on everyday targets. Although it is as much an admission of Daesh and al-Qaeda’s inability to confront established states like the US or France directly, the strategy has the virtue of making the threat of Islamic terrorism in the West seem much bigger than it really is, thereby eliciting the type of response called for by the Right–bans on Muslim immigration, increased surveillance and profiling of Muslims, etc. That serves to increase the alienation between Muslims and non-Muslims in the West, which suits the Daesh narrative about a clash of civilisations to a “T.”
This is not to say that we should disregard the threat of terrorism, Islamic or otherwise. But what it does suggest is that the focus should be on the penchant for mass slaughter in the US regardless of cause. Once that is addressed the real threat of terrorism can be addressed in proper context and without the ideological opportunism that currently drives debates about guns and extremism in the US.
In summary: Mass murders are extraordinarily common in the US when compared to pretty much everywhere else (not just the “developed” world), specifically because US mass murders are carried out by individuals rather than state forces or irregular armed groups or criminal organisations. The overwhelming majority of US mass murders are not motivated by political or ideological beliefs. Of those that are, few can be properly considered acts of terrorism and should be seen instead as acts of lethal retribution, retaliation, or striking out at society and authority by individuals with personal as well as political grievances.
This does not make them any less dangerous. Yet it does help clarify the unique US mass murder phenomena in order to more sharply focus the search for preventatives that address root rather than superficial causes as well as strip that search of the normative baggage many pundits, politicians and the general public currently carry into it.
Much ether and pulp have been expended analysing the Daesh phenomenon and its consequences. The range and acuity of interpretations is broad yet often shallow or incomplete. Since it is a rainy weekend on Auckland’s west coast, I figured that I would alternate playing with the toddler with compiling a brief on the multiple interlocked layers that is the war of Daesh.
I refer to the irregular warfare actor otherwise known as ISIS, ISIL or IS as Deash because the latter is a derogatory term in Arabic and denies the group its claim to legitimacy as a state or caliphate. Plus, Isis is a common Arabic female name so it is insulting to Arab women to use it.
Much like the famed Russian dolls, the conflicts involving Daesh can be seen as a series of embedded pieces or better yet, as a multilevel chess game, with each piece or level interactive with and superimposed on the other. Working from the core outwards, this is what the conflict involving Daesh is about:
First, it is a conflict about the heart and soul of Sunni Islam. Daesh is a Wahabist/Salafist movement that sees Sunni Arab petroligarchies, military nationalist regimes such as those of Saddam Hussein, Bashar al-Asaad and Muammar al-Qaddafi, nominally secular regimes like those in Algeria, Egypt, Turkey and Tunisia, and moderate monarchies such as those of Jordan and Morocco as all being degenerate and sold out to Western interests, thereby betraying their faith. The overthrow of these regimes and the prevention of anything moderate (read: non-theocratic) emerging as their political replacement are core objectives for Daesh.
Secondly, Daesh is at the front of a Sunni-Shiia conflict. In significant measure funded by the Arab petroligarchies who opportunistically yet myopically see it as a proxy in the geopolitical competition for regional dominance with Iran and its proxies (such as Hizbollah) and allies (like the Syrian and post-Saddam Iraqi regimes), Daesh has as its second main objective eliminating the Shiia apostates as much as possible. To that can be added removing all ethnic and religious minorities for the Middle East, starting with the Levant. Because Daesh is racist as well as fundamentalist in orientation, it wishes to purge non-Arabs from its domain even if it will use them as cannon fodder in Syria and Iraq and as decentralised autonomous terrorist cells in Europe and elsewhere.
Thirdly, Daesh is engaged in a territorial war of conquest in Iraq and Syria, where it seeks to geographically situate its caliphate. This has allowed it to gain control over important oil processing facilities in Iraq and Syria and use the proceeds from the black-market sale of oil (including to the Assad regime!) to help fund its recruitment and weapons procurement efforts.
Fourth, Daesh is the source of inspiration, encouragement and sometimes training of decentralised, independent and autonomous urban guerrilla cells in Europe and elsewhere that use terrorism as the tactic of choice. The strategy is a variant of Che Guevara’s “foco” theory of guerrilla warfare whereby cadres receive common training in a secure safe haven then return to their home countries in order to exploit their knowledge of the local terrain (cultural, socio-economic, political as well as physical) in order to better carry out terrorist attacks with high symbolic and psychological impact. In this variant Daesh uses social media to great effective to provide ideological guidance and practical instruction to would-be domestic jihadis, thereby obviating the need for all of them to gain combat experience in the Middle East.
Like Lenin and Guevara, Daesh understands that its terrorism will attract the mentally unbalanced and criminally minded seeking a cause to join. Along with disaffected, alienated and angry Muslim youth, these are the new Muslim lumpenproletarians that constitute the recruitment pool for the guerrilla wars it seeks to wage in the Western world. In places like Belgium, France and arguably even Australia, that recruitment pool runs deep.
Fifth, through these activities Daesh hopes to precipitate a clash of civilizations between Muslims and non-Muslims on a global scale. It sees the current time much as fundamentalist Christians do, as an apocalyptic “end of days” moment. Its strategy is to fight a two-front war to that end, using the territorial war in the Middle East as a base for conventional and unconventional military operations while engaging in irregular war in Europe and elsewhere. The key of their military strategy is to lure Western powers into a broad fight on Muslim lands while getting them to overreact to terrorist attacks on their home soil by scapegoating the Muslim diaspora resident within them.
Daesh may be barbaric but its political and military leadership (made up mostly of Sunni Baathists from Iraq) is not stupid. It has not attacked Israel, knowing full well what the response will be from the Jewish state. In its eyes the confrontation with the Zionists must wait until the pieces of the end game are in place.
A critical component of Daesh’s strategy is the so-called “sucker ploy,” and it is being successful in implementing it. Basically, the sucker ploy is a tactic by which a weaker military actor commits highly symbolic atrocities in order to provoke over-reactions from militarily stronger actors that deepen the alienation from the stronger actor of core prospective constituencies of the weaker actor. That is exactly what has happened in places like the US, where opposition to the acceptance of Syrian refugees has become widespread in conservative political circles. It also is seen in the bans on refugees imposed by the Hungarian and Polish governments, and the clamour to halt refugee flows from conservative-nationalist sectors throughout Europe. We even see it in NZ on rightwing blogs and talkback radio, where the calls are to keep the Syrian refugees out even though no Syrian has ever done politically-motivated harm to a Kiwi (the projected intake is 750).
Sowing disproportionate fear, paranoia and the blind thirst for revenge amongst targeted populations is the bread and butter of the sucker ploy and by all indicators Daesh has done very well in doing so.
There is more to the picture but I shall leave things here and resume my asymmetric campaign versus the toddler.
One final thought. For the anti-Daesh coalition the fight must assume the form of a conventional war of territorial re-conquest in Syria and Iraq, run in parallel with a shadow urban counter-insurgency campaign in the West that is fought irregularly but which is treated judicially as a criminal matter, much like an anti Mafia campaign would be. Eliminating the territorial hold of Daesh in Syria and Iraq will remove their safe haven and training grounds as well as kill many of their fighters and leaders. That will help slow refugee flows and the recruitment of Westerners to the cause and facilitate the domestic counter-insurgency campaigns of Daesh-targeted states. The latter include better human intelligence gathering and intelligence sharing by and among erstwhile allies and adversaries in order to better counter dispersed terrorist plots.
Of course, the long-term solution to Daesh, al-Qaeda and other Islamicist groups is political reform in the Arab world and socio-economic reform in the Western world that respectively treat the root causes of alienation and resentment within them. So what is outlined in the previous paragraph is just a short-term solution.
In order for even that to happen, there has to be a tactical alliance between all actors with strategic stakes in the game: Russia, major Western powers, the Sunni Arab states and Turkey, the Syrian and Iraqi regimes, the Kurds, Iran and a host of irregular warfare actors including Hizbollah, the Free Syrian Army and assorted Islamicist groups not beholden to Daesh. It will be a hard coalition to cobble together, but the common threat posed by Daesh could just well force them to temporarily put aside their differences in favour of a workable compromise and military division of labour between them.
Of course, should that all occur and Daesh be defeated, then the old fashioned geopolitical chess game between Russia, the West, the Arabs, Kurds and Iranians can resume in Syria and Iraq. The conditions for that game depend on who emerges strongest from the anti-Daesh struggle.
Somewhere in the Kremlin Vladimir Putin is smiling.