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The supermarket stabbing spree was not a terrorist act.

datePosted on 14:33, September 8th, 2021 by Pablo

Blood had not even been mopped up from the floor after the supermarket stabbing spree when the prime minister strode to the parliamentary theatre podium and declared it to be an act of terrorism committed by an individual following an extremist ideology. Within minutes of her pronouncement the media sped to get reaction to the event. I declined nearly a dozen interviews in the first day after it occurred because I did not want to speculate on an ongoing investigation, but the terrorism studies industry jumped into action and joined the bandwagon labeling the stabbings as an act of terrorism committed by a “lone wolf,” followed by cheerleading the official line arguing that the powers of the State needed to be expanded so as to include acts of preparation and planning along with actual crimes of ideologically-motivated violence in the Terrorism Suppression Act (TSA). That several of the critically unreflective media-ordained “experts” who featured over the following days are associated with research centers that receive government (including security community) funding does not appear to have given a second of pause to the media booking agents.

I have written about terrorism on and off for 30 plus years. I have written about it in professional journals and on this blog. In a previous life I was involved with the counter-terrorism community in the US as an analyst and part of contingency planning and profiling teams, and more recently have consulted with various entities about the phenomena. I believe I have a pretty good idea of what terrorism is and is not. Because of this I would like to outline some basic facts and offer a brief defense of why I do not believe that the supermarket stabbings were terroristic in nature. I am a minority voice swimming against the current of official discourse, but have confidence in my view on this matter and ask that readers please consider what I write below.

There are several forms of terrorism. These include state terrorism (the most common form), where a State terrorizes its own people or other targets; state-sponsored terrorism, where a State uses a proxy to commit acts of terrorism against an enemy or its core interests (think of the Iranian relationship with Hamas or Hezbollah, or—dare I say it–the Saudi relationship with al-Qaeda); non-state terrorism, including criminal (for example, Mafia) and ideological terrorism perpetrated by non-state irregular warfare actors (al-Qaeda, Daesh, the IRA, Sendero Luminoso in Peru, Mano Blanca in El Salvador or “Triple A” in Argentina). The list is extensive and covers the entire ideological spectrum. The bottom line of non-state ideological terrorism is that it must have an explicitly political focus—it has a political end or endgame in mind.

There is also terrorism committed during war time and terrorism that occurs during peace. War terrorism is mainly a sub-set of state terrorism but is also found in irregular warfare. The fire-bombing of Dresden had little military purpose but was designed to have a psychological impact on the German population. Likewise, the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were done not so much because of the military importance of these targets but because of the psychological impact that a single bomb annihilation of a city would have on the Japanese. In both cases the purpose was to terrorize, not gain a military advantage per se. Likewise, beheadings and other atrocities committed by jihadists do not improve their military positions but do have a psychological impact on those who are witness or subject to them. Terrorism during peace are those that occur outside of recognized (declared or undeclared) conflicts. Again, this includes terrorism by the State against dissidents and criminal terrorism against authorities or non-compliant members of the public. As of 9/11, the focus has been on non-state ideological terrorism even if the specific ideology behind many acts of terrorism has shifted over time.

Terrorism can involve large-scale mass attacks or small cell and solo operator (“lone wolf”) attacks. The tactical logic at play is to commit acts of seemingly random and disproportionate violence against soft targets with the purpose of instilling fear, dread and a sense of powerlessness, if not hopelessness in the population. As I wrote professionally more than two decades ago, the terrorist seeks to atomise and infantilize the social subject so as to isolate and paralyze it in the face of the perpetrator’s actions. That facilitates surrender or acquiescence to the terrorist will.

Terrorism has a target, subject and an object. The target are the immediate victims of a terrorist act, the more vulnerable and helpless the better. The subject(s) is the wider audience, including the public, government and even sympathetic or like-minded groups and individuals. The object is to send a message and to bend the subject to the will of the perpetrator, that is, to get the subject(s) to do or not do something in accordance with the perpetrator’s objectives and desires.

Having said all of this, by way of illustration let us run a comparison between the Christchurch attacks and the supermarket stabbings.

The Christchurch killer meticulously planned over at least 18 months an act of mass murder, stockpiling weapons and ammunition in order to do so. He did so in secrecy and without drawing attention to his actions (or so the Royal Commission of Inquiry would like us to believe). He displayed cunning, situational awareness and observed operational security as he counted down to the attack date, which was chosen for its historical significance (the Ides of March). He wrote a lengthy manifesto detailing his ideological views and reasons for committing the attacks. As believers gathered in houses of worship on a day of prayer, his targets were highly symbolic and chosen after considerable observation and research. The acts of mass murder were carried out in a cold blooded, calculated, methodical manner, live streamed on social media and eagerly shared by his co-believers world-wide. After capture, he was determined to be sane if narcissistic in personality and interviews with those who knew him prior to March 15 said he exhibited no signs of mental illness. In fact, even though a foreigner, he had friends and socialised normally (I use the last term neutrally as opposed to differentiating between so-called “normal” and “abnormal” or “unusual” conduct).

Now consider the supermarket stabbings. By way of a broad summary, let’s note the following. The perpetrator—I will refer to him by his suppressed identity “Mr. S”– had been granted refugee status in NZ after leaving Sri Lanka in 2011 (he was Tamil) and yet for years had publicly spoken of his desire to kill infidels and his hatred of the West. He was said to be lonely and homesick, with few social contacts in NZ. After being arrested in 2015 he was assessed as being depressed, subject to wild mood swings, prone to violence as a result of having Post Traumatic Stress Disorder stemming from experiences as a Tamil in his homeland. He had come to the authorities’ attention by openly posting jihadist supportive rants online, making threats to others (including muslims) on social media, and for seemingly preparing to wage jihad in NZ or abroad. When searched his flat contained violent extremist literature and videos and hunting knives. After being arrested while trying to leave NZ on a one way ticket (which the authorities believe was to be a journey to the killing fields of Syria), he was bailed and promptly went out and bought an exact copy of a knife that had been confiscated from him, apparently from the same store that he had bought the first one. He was then re-arrested and charged with possessing an offensive weapon (charges later dropped) and with posessing objectionable materials in the form of jihadist literature and videos. 

When in court he railed against the injustices done to him, threatened the judge and openly spoke about his desire to do harm to others. But, because his refugee status was being disputed, further cases against him were pending and he had served three years already while waiting for and then during trial, he was sentenced to community supervision for a year, then released on July 16 and bailed to a mosque that, as it turns out, did not have its own Imam but did have a bed. He was ordered to undergo psychiatric evaluation but refused to do so and was never forced to comply. Then came Friday Sept 3.

Rather then the culmination of months of meticulous planning and preparation, that day we saw a spontaneous act of white hot rage (which makes suggestions that strengthening the TSA to include acts of planning and preparation would have prevented the attack utterly ludicrous). He grabbed a knife off a shelf and started stabbing other shoppers (who, fortunately, were observing social distancing rules during the Level 4 pandemic lockdown). His targets were chosen opportunistically and at random–they were simply close enough to attack. He ran through the aisles yelling and shouting, thereby alerting other potential victims to impending danger. He ran from victim to victim rather than pause to finish them off in deliberate fashion. He had no manifesto and he he did not video his actions or communicate or transmit his attack to others. He had no subject other than his immediate targets and he had no object other than to satisfy his own bloodlust and sense of being wronged by society.  His message was to himself.

He had no connections to any jihadist network because even if he once did (and that has not been alleged, much less proven) his internet access was cut off after his arrest and he was largely isolated within the Sri Lankan and Muslim communities because of his notoriety. He had no affective relationships to speak of since his family remains in Sri Lanka and he had no partner or romantic attachments. Described as normally behaved before he arrived in NZ, he descended into personal and political darkness in the years after, linking the two in his public and private utterances. In fact, although he glorified ISIS violence and fetishised bladed weapons, it is unclear how deeply rooted he was in the Salafist world view that underpins ISIS’s ideology.

After he was released in July he developed, according to media reports, an obsessive focus on someone whose identity is suppressed but who was deliberately distanced from him after concerns were raised about his behaviour towards that individual in the days before the stabbings. One can only wonder if this was a case of what is known as affective displacement or transfer in which his emotional focus shifted from jihad to something more immediate and personal, and when that object of attention was removed, he snapped. If so, his ideological focus was more an opportunistic product of his mental state than of true devotion to the extremist cause. Put another way, his homicidal ideation may not have primarily been driven by ideology, which may have been more of a convenient crutch for his grievances rather than the root cause of his sociopathy.

To be clear: I am no mental health expert and defer to them on the subject, but I have learned enough over the years to believe that something more than ideological zealotry may have been at play here.

What S did have is a constant armed police surveillance presence around him because unlike the judge who released him in the hope that he could be rehabilitated, the police had no illusions that he was anything but a danger to himself and society. They therefore devoted considerable resources to surreptitiously monitoring him. As it turns out, he received no rehabilitation as well, which meant that the police emphasis on covert surveillance from a distance was certainly not designed to be pre-emptive or preventative in nature (since an intensive rehab counselor could have given them daily updates on his state of mind). As quick as the police reaction was to the stabbings, they were at a disadvantage given the nature of their surveillance technique, which apparently did not benefit from regular psychological updates. This is no slight on the police. They did what they thought best given the difficult circumstances that they were put in, and in the end they saved lives.

Even lumping Mr. S with the Christchurch killer as “lone wolves” is problematic. The Christchurch killer clearly was such a threat, quietly stalking his prey and preparing his attacks. Mr. S, however, acted impulsively and without the type of deliberation usually associated with lone wolves. Rather than “flying under the radar” of specialised and dedicated counter-terrorism units in NZ (as the Royal Commission would like us to believe with regard to the Christchurch terrorist), he was a known, clear and present danger, at least as far as the police were concerned. Likening him to the March 15 killer as a lone wolf is , again, drawing too long a comparative bow. In fact Mr. S seems closer to the May Dunedin Countdown stabber (four wounded in that attack) than the Christchurch killer, even if the demons inside the Dunedin stabber’s head were fueled by meth rather than ideology and/or mental illness.

For those who would differentiate terrorism from other violent crimes by consequences or effects, here too Mr. S’s actions fall short of the definitional threshold. The Christchurch attacks had immediate and longer-term impacts at home and abroad. While championed by white supremacists and rightwing extremists and causing wide-spread fear in NZ society in the immediate aftermath, it had a more dramatic influence on counter-terrorism threat assessments and approaches world-wide. It occasioned considerable reflection within NZ about tolerance and community and has produced numerous government initiatives to address its root causes. Its message was heard globally, albeit in different ways by different audiences/subjects. In contrast, the supermarket attacks caused a media frenzy, some political debate, assorted commentary and much questioning of how S came to be loose in public. That focused scrutiny lasted about five days, but soon the story receded on media outlets and from the public eye, replaced by coverage of the lowering of Covid lock-down levels and the usual political and social news. Beyond the victims, immediate witnesses, some politicians, pundits, activists and police, NZ society is already moving on and the consequences of the attack outside of (and arguably even within) NZ is minimal. The Christchurch attacks had long-term and wide-ranging effect; the supermarket stabbing spree has had a relatively narrow and short term impact. In other words, in consequence it does not rise to the level of a terrorist attack.

Put another way. Although the supermarket stabbings were certainly terrifying to those who were in and around the store, they were not terroristic in intent or effect.

It is interesting to consider that Andrew Little is both the Minister of Health as well as the Minister of Intelligence and Security. While this may promote efficiency in the discharge of portfolio obligations, it meant that there was no ministerial cross-check on the decision about Mr. S. Instead it presented Mr. Little with a choice when it came to Mr. S: treat him as a mental health case or as a national security threat? The institutional bias underlying the decision about him given the portfolio arrangement is now clear. National security was the priority, not Mr. S’s mental health.

The government says that it considered ordering Mr. S into compulsory treatment under terms of the Mental Health (Compulsory Assessment and Treatment) Act, but was advised that it was not realistic to do so because he did not meet the threshold for involuntary commitment. This is presumably because even though he was diagnosed with PTSD, depression and other ailments, it did not rise to the level of a recognized clinically diagnosed disorder. Fair enough, because the bar for involuntary commitment must be set very high. But what about him being a clear and present danger to himself and society? Should that have factored into the decision as to whether he should be held for assessment and treatment? Had he not held ideological views, would have national security even entered into consideration even if the threat he presented to the public was the same? What would have been the decision then?

Because the decision was made against the mental health option, the government tried to revoke his refugee status so that he could be deported as a national security threat. That is easier said than done given international protocols governing the treatment of refugees, but what seems clear is that even though (or perhaps because) the High Court struck down prosecuting S under the Terrorism Suppression Act since “planning and preparation” is not part of the language in it, the Crown was determined to treat him as a jihadist rather than someone who was violently unwell. However coincidentally, Sept 5 fell into the government’s lap when it came to pushing under urgency amendments to the TSA that incorporated “planning and preparation” into the definition of behaviour covered by the Act, and the chorus of experts all sang in harmony the government line that the law, as it stands without the amendment, is unfit for purpose.

Three things should be noted as an aside. This is the second time that the Crown has attempted to invoke the TSA when no act of violence was committed, only to be rejected by the Court. The first was after the Urewera raids, when the not-so-merry band of activists and misfits were initially accused of being terrorists for playing Che Guevara in the bush. That attempt to lay charges under the TSA failed even though people were in fact terrorised: the innocent Tuhoe who were held at gunpoint (including children on a school bus) by Police. The second point is that even though the TSA does not allow for prosecutions for planning and preparing for a terrorist act, the Crimes Act has enough in it to do so. Just imagine if police had evidence of someone about to commit a “common” (non-ideologically motivated) murder. Would they not step in to prevent the deed by using the evidence collected under the Crimes Act? If so, what is the difference with an ideologically motivated crime that makes it only prosecutable under the TSA? As it turns out, the Crown went for six and tried to test the TSA a second time on Mr. S. And for the second time, it was given out by the Court.

The third point is that the government had a legal remedy on national security grounds that would have kept Mr. S confined indefinitely while being assessed and treated but chose not use it: issuing a Security Risk Certificate against him recommended by the Security Intelligence Service (SIS) and once used in the Ahmed Zaoui case (even though Zaoui never threatened or committed any act of violence). The Certificate calls for the preventative detention of an individual deemed to be a threat to NZ’s national security while legal processes are pending. Unlike Zaoui Mr. S was a well recognized threat to himself and others and yet, also unlike Zaoui, the Security Risk Certificate remedy was not explored or was rejected (perhaps because it too was “unreasonable” to do so). Which is odd given that he could have been subject to the strictures of the Security Risk Certificate during and after his trial regardless of sentence on lesser charges and therefore would not have been free on September 3 or required a constant resource-draining police surveillance presence in the weeks leading up to it. (Hat tip to Selwyn Manning for alerting me to this angle of inquiry).

In any event, rather than an act of terrorism or terrorist act (take your pick), what I saw on Sept. 5 was the commission of a hate crime. I recognize that NZ does not have a hate crime statute (as far as I know) and understand that hate crimes are usually designated as acts of violence committed against individuals or groups because of who they are (e.g. gays, Muslims, redheads). Here I use the phrase “hate crime” because Mr. S’s hatred and rage was directed at non-Muslim society in general and because of the lack of compliance with the definitions and description of terrorism mentioned above. It does not make the supermarket attacks any less heinous than those done deliberately as terrorist attacks with the same (thankfully non-fatal) outcome. But it does help distinguish between underlying motive and rigorousness of method, which in turn helps prevent us from being suckered into agreeing and complying with the agendas of security officials and vested “experts” alike.

Disclosure: After a day of thought and research into the case, I agreed to selective media interviews in which I outlined the views expressed above. That included raising the question as to whether invoking the Mental Health Act was considered. That was not well-received by some in the mental health community who felt, to quote someone, that I “had strayed from my lane.” I was surprised by that comment because I did not realise that I was in a lane, much less that I was “supposed” to stay in it. I still think that it was a legitimate question to ask and as it turns out the government answered it, however vaguely, shortly after I posed the question to a reporter. A few days later it turns out that I was on to something.

The price of neo-imperialist hubris.

datePosted on 14:21, August 15th, 2021 by Pablo

One adage of warfare is that when a clearly weaker actor fights a clearly stronger actor to a standstill, then the weaker actor has won the contest. This is particularly so for asymmetric, irregular warfare where one side has the advantage of disproportionate force but the other side has time and willpower in its favour. So long as the weaker actor can remain steadfast over time when resisting the superior force, then not only will stalemate be achieved but eventual victory for the weaker actor is more likely. Where the weaker actor is fighting on home territory against a foreign force, the probability of its eventually prevailing are significantly improved. For the stronger actor fighting on foreign soil, the longer the conflict is drawn out, the more likely that it will be defeated, especially if domestic support at home (political and social) for the fight wanes over time. If the foreign power is simultaneously fighting another major land war (or wars), then its chances of victory in any of them are significantly reduced. Instead, such “forever wars” become deaths by a thousand cuts for the militarily stronger foreign power.

The Vietminh/Vietcong provide a good example of this. They resisted colonial and post-colonial French and US-led Western forces for more than two decades and eventually achieved independence, then fought off Chinese aggression to consolidate their hold over what is now the Republic of Vietnam. Like the VC, the Taliban have no Air Force, have no Navy, and what sophisticated ground warfare equipment they employ (which is not much), they captured from foreign forces or were clandestinely supplied by anti-Western states such as China and Russia. They used cross-border allies to good effect in getting supplies through (Iran and Pakistan in particular but not exclusively), and used guerrilla, hit and run tactics to extend the occupiers territorially until individual units or outposts could be surrounded and overrun by highly mobile and locally massed Taliban forces using surprise and local knowledge to their advantage.

The Taliban are, in a nutshell, a resilient, extremely determined, ruthless, cunning and resourceful adversary who fights on its home turf against foreigners and foreign-backed locals who (in the case of the former) do not understand them and who (in both cases) do not have the will to continue fight without an end in sight. For the Taliban it is Allah’s will that they fight and die for him, so there is no time horizon on or particular end point to their struggle against infidels. In effect, we may not like their medieval ideology, but we must recognise their will to impose it at all costs.

That brings up another maxim of warfare: The actor who prevails is the one that is willing to suffer the most losses and continue fighting. The Taliban have shown their mettle in this regard. To that we can add the historical observation that unlike secular (say, Maoist or Marxist-Leninist) guerrilla groups, religiously-inspired irregular warfare actors are seldom fully defeated, but instead ebb and flow like the tide depending on the political and social conditions of the day and the strength of countervailing forces.

That is because of the nature of their respective ideologies. Religion is a pervasive, deeply imbued primordial cultural organizing principle that, if driven underground, continues to reaffirm commonly shared traditional social values even in modern secular societies. In contrast, secularist ideologies, particularly anti-capitalist ideologies, start as minority belief systems that run contrary and seek to undermine the traditional or “proper” way of things. That makes it more difficult for them to clandestinely sustain themselves. Religious irregular warfare actors seek to reaffirm what traditionally is and has been; secular irregular warfare actors seek to overthrow and replace what is and was. Depending on the relative depth of religious belief in a given society, the former has a much better prospect of long-term success than the latter when it comes to asymmetric conflict.

Because of their lack of ideological support in most societies, secular irregular warfare actors either win or lose, the first via protracted irregular conflict culminated by conventional military victory and the latter via short intensive kinetic campaigns waged by overwhelmingly superior military actors. Faced with unfavourable warfare conditions, religious irregular warfare actors use society’s ideological depth as a subterranean means to avoid definitive kinetic and political outcomes and instead sink into the fabric of society and pursue guerrilla warfare as a form of counter-hegemonic struggle (often using terrorist tactics). Secular irregular warfare actors also attempt to do this, but their lack of ideological depth in society exposes them to relatively quick detection and elimination. Conversely, the deeper the religious culture into which religious irregular warfare actors can dive, the more likely that they will resurface as an intact fighting force once the stronger opponent has left the battlefield. That has now happened in Afghanistan.

The price paid by the Taliban during this conflict has been enormous. They have been killed in astronomical numbers by land, air and sea. A generation and more of their leadership cadres have been decimated. They lost control of cities and then rural areas, in some cases fleeing across borders in order to avoid complete annihilation. And yet, after two decades on non-stop warfare and the inter-generational destruction of scores of fighting cadres, they have regained control of Afghanistan now that the US and its ISAF partners have left the country.

In contrast, after twenty years of foreign-led military and civilian capacity building and billions of dollars spent on infrastructure in pursuit of national unification, the ISAF/UN-backed Afghan central government’s control throughout the country collapsed with astonishing speed. In the space of two months once the foreign forces withdrawal was announced, the Taliban gained control over the majority of Afghan territory. Kabul has fallen and the foreign-backed president Ghani has fled (along with millions in cash), leaving his subordinates and foreign patron remnants to fend for themselves. Taliban patrol the capital’s streets and assassins lurk in and around the Kabul “Green Zone” where foreigners and local elites lived and worked, selectively murdering journalists, pilots, teachers and other skilled labourers seen as associated with the occupiers or opposed to Taliban rule. The spectre of a genocidal, gendered bloodbath is a real possibility and there is a mass refugee migration underway from Afghanistan into neighbouring countries, especially from non-Pashtun, non-Sunni regions. Over a quarter million people have fled their homelands in the last two months alone, and the international airport in Kabul is a scene of chaos as thousands seek airlift rescue. It is not a stretch to draw parallels with the fall of Saigon, especially after seeing scenes of Chinook helicopters evacuating people from the rooftop of the US embassy.

Even more so than the failed experiment in post-Saddam Iraq, the US-led push to democratise and secularise Afghan politics and society has fallen hard on the double swords of corruption and traditional culture. The Western-backed governments that have held power once the Taliban were overthrown in 2002 have been little more than kleptocratic distribution wheels for the favoured and connected. Modernization in the form of aid programs to foment the likes of female education, road building, health and sanitation facilities, reticulated sewage systems, electrical power grids etc. have not only been a source of corruption but have been accepted without producing the cultural shifts that were assumed by Western patrons to be the logical and inevitable end result of such efforts. As a former US military officer noted with reference to the locals, “they will smile and gladly accept our help during the day, and then they will sneak back and kill us at night.”

In other words, the physical infrastructure of the country may have been modernised, but by and large the societal value structure was not.

The hard fact is that the seeds of the latest Western defeat in Afghanistan were sown the moment the nation-building project in that country began. Had the US and its allies defeated the Taliban and then left Afghanistan to sort itself out along traditional ethno-religious and tribal lines (say, by allowing warlords and tribal militias to contest local authority with central government advocates), the process of national reunification or reorganisation would have been violent but in all likelihood shorter and more durable when it came to the distribution of and balance of power between local and central authorities. As a Pentagon colleague of mine said when surveying the wreckages of US military intervention there and in Iraq, “we should have declared victory and gone home after the bad guys were defeated, then left (them) to it.”

Instead, the US-led ISAF coalition attempted to impose “democracy” on a country with extremely limited historical or practical experience with that concept. The project was therefore bound to be a failure in form (procedure) and substance (outcomes), both of which were manipulated to serve the ends of local elites. To put it in more general terms: attempting to impose modern and post-modern Western-style political forms, social norms and cultural mores on populations dominated by pre-modern (authoritarian) social hierarchies was akin to trying to get a fish to ride the proverbial bicycle.

The irony is that the notion of “nation-building” was a bastardisation of the counterinsurgency (COIN) axiom about psychological operations, where the point is to win the “hearts and minds” of a disputed population via provision of security, health care and other amenities of civilisation in order to gain their acceptance and trust while diminishing that given to the insurgent enemy. The original COIN focus was on very localised populations for relatively short periods of time, not entire countries for long periods of time, and involved using local grievances against domestic insurgents in order to gain information that allowed for their detection and elimination as part of what came to be known as the “inkblot” strategy of incremental taking and holding of enemy social space. In other words, it was one aspect of an irregular warfare strategy used against insurgents and was not an end of itself.

This was all known before the nation-building exercise began, not only by counter-insurgency specialists in military communities, but by anthropologists and sociologists who study places like Iraq and Afghanistan and their respective sub-cultures. It was/is also known by political scientists (aka “transitologists”) who study regime change from authoritarianism to democracy and vice versa–in short, it is hard to impose from the outside unfamiliar and often unwelcome types of governance on tradition-bound and/or pre-modern societies even if improvements to material standards of living are part of the package. The reasons are many but the conclusion is clear: external imposition of foreign social norms and political structures, no matter how well-wrapped in developmental assistance, is most likely to fail.

All of this accumulated wisdom was ignored in Western capitals (including Wellington) when the macro-level dimensions of the ISAF mission were operationalised. Instead, intelligence and military organisations attempted to use social scientists to develop micro-level conceptual maps of the “human terrain” on which the military and civilian capacity-building campaigns were undertaken. Although they enjoyed some tactical success, at a strategic level these efforts ultimately failed and proved to be a harbinger of things to come.

Never has that phrase “graveyard of Empires” been spelled out in so much lost blood and treasure. But beyond the waste of Western efforts to construct a unified country in territory that is home to more than one nation, or the brutal toll taken on innocent Afghan civilians looking to live in whatever peace might come to them, what exactly has been lost? Is the impending calamity of a Taliban takeover as described by Western media and politicians really likely to come true?

As it turns out, after I started writing this post I got a call from my friend Jon Stephenson, the war correspondent and investigative reporter. Jon probably knows as much as anybody in NZ about that country, and it was fortuitous that he got in touch while I was thinking about what is written above. What follows is my distillation of some pertinent parts of our conversation.

The Taliban are not monolithic. They have moderate and militant factions and political and military wings. They exert more control and influence in the rural, less modernised countryside than they do in cities, especially the capital Kabul. The political leadership in Doha is more moderate than the military leadership on the ground in Afghanistan, and its degree of control over military commanders is comparatively looser than, say, that of the political leaders of Hezbollah or Hamas. The Taliban have been relatively well-received in Pashtun/Sunni dominant regions such as their birthplace, Kandahar Province, but have encountered local resistance in non-Pashtun/Shiia regions such as Bamiyan Province. In other words, their degree of support and control in areas outside of Kabul is uneven and at times contested by local warlords and militias. As for Kabul, the issue is pretty stark. The Taliban can infiltrate, surround, isolate and attempt to choke the capital into complete surrender in the face of significant armed resistance from foreign military forces and what is left of Afghan security units linked to them, or the capital can keep supply lifelines going by air and (perhaps, but unlikely) secure land corridors until a negotiated settlement is reached. Western military help will be needed to stave off or forestall a Taliban takeover of Kabul but if that is forthcoming (and it appears to be) a peaceful handover of power or power-sharing compromise may be possible.

In any event issues of national governance may prove problematic for the Taliban. After all, what they will have to do even if complete military victory is achieved is to build a State out of the ruins of the current one. They will need to provide public goods and services, organise a (Sharia) legal system, re-create a public bureaucracy that includes everything from health and education administration to border (immigration and customs) controls and transportation regulations, civil aviation rules, document issuance and certification, etc. For that they will need bureaucrats and other skilled labor, many of whom are fleeing the country as I write. They will need an institutional edifice–actually buildings with people and communications apparatuses in them– in order to discharge their nation-wide public service functions beyond those involved in local repression. Hence, although they may be adept at fighting and some may be willing to return to the Medieval Era when it comes to organising Afghan society, it is more likely that the Taliban will have to compromise on the extent to which Afghanistan will return to the Dark Ages and what aspects of modernity it can live with. The question is therefore how much will the Taliban be willing and able to compromise, and on what subjects and policy areas?

This is all the more true because other foreign actors, the PRC, Russia, India and Iran in particular, have their sights on mineral-rich Afghanistan as a geopolitical buffer and/or investment opportunity. Pakistan, as always, will be a major player in Afghanistan’s future because it would prefer to see Afghanistan weak and internally divided rather than unified and strong (if for no other reason than the latter encouraging cross-border irredentist sentiment in Pakistan). Islamicist groups in bordering countries and further afield may be emboldened by the Taliban’s success and seek to emulate them while looking for their support. That is bound to be of concern to the leaders of the above-mentioned countries as well as the other geographically contiguous “‘Stans,” all of which have indigenous Islamicist groups to contend with.

Getting these foreign interlocutors to invest diplomatically and economically means that the Taliban must offer self-binding assurances and guarantees and assume contractual obligations of various sorts, negotiated by people competent enough to engage with sophisticated foreign counterparts and legitimately representative enough to ensure that any deals they make or promises made are binding. That is by no means assured at this point because if one thing is certain is that Afghans are generally disposed to look at any foreign presence with suspicion and distrust. That includes non-Western foreigners as well as those from the West, who in any event will have to confront the compounded obstacles posed by corruption and traditional values.

At a minimum, besides the need to operate domestically-focused public bureaucracies, the Taliban will need a diplomatic corps capable of dealing with foreign entities. Those must include people competent to engage with aid agencies given the inevitable requests for reconstruction assistance as well as those responsible for interacting with various potential military and diplomatic partners. That requires significant levels of education and experience, which given the brain drain now underway in Afghanistan means that the Taliban cannot afford to go full Pol Pot on the country and kill all infidel locals off and in fact will likely have to employ foreign nationals in any event in order to operate their public sector, to say nothing of staffing the private interests that may establish a presence in the country.

This is not entirely unusual–Singapore would collapse in less than a week if “ang mohs” (Europeans) were withdrawn from upper and middle management ranks in all bureaucratic sectors of the Little Red Dot–but the retrograde cultural dispositions of at least some of the Taliban leadership may make that difficult to achieve and will require internecine settlements between moderate and militant Taliban factions in what may well turn out to be the “old fashioned” Afghan way of resolving conflicts. The larger point is that the world does not end with a Taliban takeover, they cannot survive as a regime governing a nation-state if they kill and repress everyone who is not an adherent of their ideology, they therefore need to know how to play nicely with a range of interlocutors, foreign and domestic, all of which means they need to get their house in order before they present a cohesive if not inclusive face to Afghan society as well as the global community.

Twenty years of foreign occupation has changed Afghan society, at least in the urban and suburban areas where Western influence and development projects were the most heavily felt. Just as the degree of religious density in a society facilitates the subterranean presence of religious irregular warfare actors, the degree to which that social fabric is imbued by new conceptions of the proper cultural order makes more difficult a return to the original Taliban past, especially when the return involves material and social deprivation for all or some of society’s component parts–say, for example, women, who are now an integral and vital part of Afghan public services.

In parallel, the Taliban of today are not exact replicas of their fathers. The intergenerational passage mentioned earlier with regard to warfare extends to how the contemporary Taliban differ in their view of how to rule post-occupation Afghanistan. As Jon Stephenson mentioned with regards to the situation in general, it is hard to predict what will happen but things have certainly changed for the Taliban when it comes to governing in coalition or alone. The society that they will now inherit is not the society that they left behind when the foreigners arrived to remove them.

In a signal of its defeat, the US has asked the Taliban not to attack its embassy in Kabul and warns that it will use aid assistance as leverage against future Taliban provocations or transgressions once it office. Both scenarios may come to pass but the truth is that the the Taliban will be looking for new international partners rather than redraw contracts with those who backed the deposed regime. For those Afghans who placed their bets on supporting the US and ISAF and worked with and for them, the moment is indeed uncertain and tragic. Like the Kurds, Iraqis and Vietnamese before them, many of those who sided with the US will lose their lives and livelihoods in the months to come. Others may find refuge in ISAF coalition member countries, including New Zealand. But the hard reality is that siding with a foreign occupier was always a fraught proposition based on significant inter-temporal (current and future) risk, and for many that dark future has arrived. What is puzzling is that even in the face of such foreboding prospects, many non-Taliban Afghans have chosen to surrender (in the case of security forces) or flee (in the case of civilians) rather than fight.

What this means is that indeed, there is a tragedy at play in the return of the Taliban. But it may not be the calamity that many in the West think that it will be because the circumstances surrounding the return mitigates against rather than in favour of wanton destruction and mass blood-letting. The Taliban need to demonstrate that they can rule over a society that is in significant ways different than the one they governed two decades ago, and they need to engage with an international community that also is different than the one that blamed them for harbouring al-Qaeda. The Taliban themselves are different in many ways, as are the foreign interests willing to engage with them on economic and diplomatic matters. Their domestic threat environment now includes co-religionists in the form of al-Qaeda and Daesh, to which can be added splinter groups from adjoining countries and local warlords and militias with foreign ties. It will not be easy for them to re-impose the status quo ante 2002 even if that is their unified desire (which it does not appear to be judging from the political leadership’s statements).

This is the basis for a glimmer of hope in the Afghanistan regime transition now underway. If not born of compromise, Taliban rule will likely be different out of necessity. It is important that the international community do all that is possible to ensure that the political necessity of the moment becomes long-term governance fact not only for the good of the Afghan people but in order to pay the fair price of making amends for what ultimately is the result of Western neo-imperialist hubris.

Postscript: What was heard from above. https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2021/08/what-i-learned-while-eavesdropping-on-the-taliban/619807/

A note on the “jihadi bride.”

datePosted on 14:40, July 28th, 2021 by Pablo

I ruffled a few feathers by referring to Gerry Brownlee as a “buffoon” during a radio interview this week. The subject in question was the involuntary repatriation of Suharya Aden and her children to NZ after Australia cancelled her citizenship. Brownlee was blathering about her being a terrorist security threat, how she jumped the que ahead of deserving Kiwis in the MIQ line and how the government needed to be more transparent about the process under which Ms. Aden was to be returned and administered. He said that NZ should adopt citizenship-stripping laws like those in Australia so as to prevent the likes of MS. Aden returning voluntarily or otherwise.

Truth be told, what I really wanted to say but could not because of time constraints was that Mr. Brownlee was/is a “racist dog-whistling, grasping-at-straws-on-the-security-angle tool.” I say so because Brownlee is the guy who ran the Christchurch earthquake “relief” efforts and sent private investigators to spy on insurance claimants and residents asking for help; who said that there were no white supremacists in Christchurch after the March 15 attacks; who hinted at dark conspiracy theories about Covid during the 2020 election; who railed about refugees during debate about the Control Order Bill last year when the Bill was strictly about returning Kiwis suspected to be involved in foreign conflicts. He was part of a government that regularly hid, misled or deliberately lied to the public on a number of issues, including those involving national security. He was an atrocious Defence Minister, more interested in junkets than full metal jackets, and a piss-poor Foreign Minister (among other failures) who was every diplomatic reception’s worst nightmare. He is long past his expiry date as a politician, so being a public buffoon is a step up. If you wish you can call him a tool, but either way, Pablo don’t suffer the fool.

As part of the debate on the Control Orders Bill (now Act) Brownlee knows that Control Orders come into effect once a person is on NZ soil and that invocation of the Act automatically triggers suppression orders on the name and case details of the person(s) targeted by the Act. His claims for more “transparency” about Ms. Aden’s case in progress are therefore disingenuous at best. Also, as a former Defence Minister, he should know something about operational and information security, so demanding to know how/when she is being returned is also a cynical ploy.

In any event enough about him. For the sake of clarity, let me outline some facts about Ms. Aden’s case, but without breeching any secrecy protocols.

Suhayra Aden was born in Mt. Roskill in 1995 of Somali refugee parents. At age six her family moved to Australia, settling in Melbourne, and took Australian citizenship. Her family is still there. in 2014, at age 19, she travelled to Turkey and from there was smuggled into Syria in order to become a so-called “jihadi bride.” How and why she became radicalised in Australia is not publicly known but likely to be known to Australian authorities. She may have been radicalised on-line. She may have been subjected to family or peer pressure. She may just wanted to see the world or get a taste for adventure. She was young, gullible, perhaps manipulable and clearly made some bad decisions. And yet she is still quite young at 26.

Two aspects of the Turkey/Syrian phase of her life are worth noting: First, according to Australian journalists who interviewed her in 2019, that she had second thoughts about the venture once she got to Turkey and tried to call her mother to seek help in escaping. She was unsuccessful and was taken by her minders/smugglers into Syria instead. This raises the possibility that everything that happened to her afterwards was done under duress, without her informed consent. Second, she was not “married” in the traditional Western sense of the word. In the medieval world view of ISIS, women are domestic servants, sex toys and breeders, that is, reproductive vessels of future fighters. They are assigned “husbands” and required to submit to them in every way. They are therefore not so much “wives” as they are domestic servants, sex slaves or, in historical terms, concubines. Concubines have interpersonal and sexual relationships with (often polygamous) men but do not hold the status of “full” wives whether or not there is a “full” wife in the picture. I have been told that my characterisation of Ms. Aden as a concubine or camp follower has been labeled as sexist by some NZ fourth wave feminists, but I suggest that they read a dictionary and get back to me on that one. Remember–it is ISIS that is medieval when it comes to gender roles, not me.

In Ms. Aden’s case, she had two “husbands,” one or both of them apparently Swedish (I have read conflicting reports on this). Both were killed in Syria, presumably fighting Western or Assad’s forces. She had three children with these men, one of whom died at an infant or toddler age of pneumonia. In 2019 she fled to the Al-Hawl refugee camp in northwestern Syria. That means that during the four years (2015-2019) she was actually in Syria, she was pregnant for 27 months of that time (2 years and 3 months). She presumably nursed her infants concurrently with and after those pregnancies. Along with the gender role assignation described above, that strongly suggests that she was not an ISIS fighter and therefore is unlikely to have been involved in committing atrocities even if her husbands were. And even if she was or knew about such things, the fact that she was likely acting against her will from the onset mitigates against accusations that she was actively engaged in terrorism. Evidence to the contrary, labelling her as a “terrorist” therefore seems to me to be smear of the most vile sort, something that many corporate and social media outlets, Gerry Brownlee and Judith Collins have all done.

In February 2021 Ms. Aden and her surviving children were caught by Turkish border authorities while attempting to cross into that country from Syria. At the time Turkish officials called her a “terrorist” but after questioning about evidence to that effect they dropped the claims. Instead, the narrative changed to her fleeing Al-Hawl in order to escape ISIS. Unlike the Kiwi “bumbling jihadist” Mark Taylor, who is in Kurdish custody, the Turkish authorities are keen to have Ms. Aden and her children deported. Lucky for her and unlucky for him, NZ feels obliged to help with that process. But how did NZ come to be involved?

In the 2019 interview with Australian journalists conducted at Al-Hawl, Ms. Aden expressed a desire to return to Australia. After the interview was made public, in early 2020 the Morrison government stripped her of her Australian citizenship under section 35 or the 2007 Australian Citizenship Act, amended in 2015 (after she had left Australia). The 2015 amendment to the 2007 Act stated that citizenship could be revoked because of “conduct inconsistent with allegiance to Australia,” although what constituted “inconsistent conduct” is not specified. What this means is that when Ms. Aden left for the fighting fields of Syria in 2014 she was doing nothing illegal, and that both the 2015 amendment to the ACT and the 2020 revocation of her citizenship were applied retroactively without due legal process or recourse.

In fact, sometime during the interim between her departure from Australia and arrest in Turkey, Australia requested that INTERPOL, the international police consortium, issue a “Blue Notice” on Ms. Aden. Unlike “Red Notices,” which are arrest warrants based on criminal charges, “Blue Notices ” are requests for information about persons of interest to the requesting party, such as missing persons. Louisa Akavi, the Kiwi nurse kidnapped and held hostage by ISIS, is also the subject of an INTERPOL Blue Notice. She is not only welcome home–she is wanted home by her whanau. Ms. Aden may also have family support in Melbourne but her country of choice has turned its back on her and her children. In NZ she has no such support and yet, as a citizen, her right of return is the same as Ms. Akavi. Therein lies the dilemma.

The Australians not only issued Ms. Aden’s non-criminal request for information to INTERPOL (how could they issue a criminal warrant since she had not committed any crime before and when she left Australia?), but they nevertheless went ahead and stripped her of her adopted citizenship after the fact based on assumptions about her agency and volition when it came to personal associations, travel and residence. Unlike the “bumbling jihadi,” she is not seen on tape calling for jihad and denouncing her home (Crusader) country. But they have called her a terrorist nonetheless.

That left NZ no other option but to return her and her children back to NZ, following international law and practice (which states that citizenship cannot be stripped from natural-born subjects and that States must recognise and assume responsibility for their subjects when asked to do so by foreign powers). Ms. Aden is a native born Kiwi and her children assumed citizenship by birthright. They have no other place to go now that Australia has rejected them. Should NZ adopt an Australian approach, as Brownlee and Collins suggest, then they would be left stateless and bereft. I would argue that whatever the sins of the mother, vesting them upon the children is a grotesquely callous act unbefitting a liberal democracy. As an international good actor and as a civilised society NZ has to make the best of a bad thing by offering them repatriation. Thankfully that is about to happen.

When Ms. Aden and her kids arrive in NZ it is likely that she will be the first person subjected to the Control Orders Act. As mentioned, that involves suppression of her name and details of her case. What is known is that the Act prescribes restrictions on her freedom of movement, communication and association. She will be monitored by security agencies and supervised by social welfare agencies, including psychological counselling services. This management program may even involve electronic bracelet usage (again, details of what is involved will likely be subject to suppression orders). She may be granted permission to engage with local civil society organisations specialised in the treatment of refugees from conflict zones and/or post-traumatic stress disorder. She and the children may receive new identities so that they can better lead “normal” and productive lives.

The need for those sort of extreme privacy measures is due to the dual nature of the security concerns involved. On the one hand, NZ security authorities must be vigilant that she pose no risk to NZ society. Were she in any way to encourage extremism in any forum or venue, she would likely be charged and prosecuted accordingly (perhaps even under proposed hate speech legislation, if not the Terrorism Suppression Act). The good news is that data from Europe suggests that returning “jihadi brides” statistically have a near-zero chance of continuing their support for Islamic extremism. Perhaps it is the traumas that they suffered, the trials that they endured, the tribulations that they encountered or the travails of their existence in war zones, but the likelihood of their returning to jihadism is very remote at best.

On the other hand, Ms. Aden and her family need to be protected from harm themselves. There are many Islamophobes in NZ who wish her (and her children) ill or worse. Some have vented in social media abut their desire to do her harm, so the threats must be taken seriously. That poses problems for the Police if her address, name or locations of schools, mosques and social service organisations that she frequents are made public. Given that there are innocent children involved, the authorities must be proactive on their behalf.

In the end, the NZ government has to make the most of a difficult situation and appears to be doing so, barking from the Opposition notwithstanding. It will be for Ms. Aden to make the most of her second (or third) chance in life, if not for herself then for the future of her children. The Opposition would be wise to cease and desist trying to score political points on the matter, less they find themselves confronted by a similar dilemma in the future when in government.

Most of all, it is time for the buffoonery to stop.

Media Link: “A View from Afar” on YouTube.

datePosted on 14:21, July 16th, 2021 by Pablo

I am glad to report that the “A View from Afar” podcast is now available on the 36th Parallel Assessments YouTube channel. As a teaser, the first video is taken from an interview done in Karekare with German TV about the scourge of white supremacism/right-wing extremism.

Selwyn Manning and I focus the discussion of the internal and external power struggles that could ensue once the US military leaves. You can find it here.

Not wanting to get into an endless debate here, but as a political person I cannot pass on making a small comment on the current Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I do not pretend to be a subject expert on the tortured history of Israeli-Palestinian relations and am not about to get into the finger-pointing and “whataboutism” surrounding the latest precipitants of collective violence, but as a student of armed conflict (yes, there is such thing), here it goes.

Among many others, there are two principles embedded in the laws of war (jus in bello): in the conduct of armed operations the use of force must be proportional and discriminate; and collective punishment of unarmed populations must be avoided. Even when not specifically phrased in these terms and whether done by state or non-state actors, behaviour that violates these principles are classified as war crimes. The legal work on this subject is voluminous.

Unfortunately, these norms continue to be regularly violated. In the desire to apply superior asymmetric force to an adversary, armed forces lacking a firm moral compass or professional ethos disregard these principles as a matter of course and yet at their peril (think of the Syrian military as a recent example). Conversely, weaker armed groups use disproportionate and indiscriminate force against non-combatants to compensate for their inability to prevail in a conventional (and rules bound) force-versus-force confrontation (think of Daesh). Whichever the reason, disproportionality and collective retribution lead to indiscriminate violence against innocents, which opens up the perpetrators to legal consequences or replies-in-kind should there be no legal consequence.

If eye-for-eye retribution is to be avoided, regardless of who they are and the cause that they espouse, those who order and carry out attacks in violation of these principles must be legally held to account. If not addressed by their own judicial means, there is a place for that to happen. It is called the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague. However, there is a problem with adjudicating justice via the ICC because it depends on it being recognised by sovereign states and objectively supported by the most powerful among them. Unfortunately, countries like Israel, Iran, Russia, the PRC, Turkey, most Sunni Arab states and the US do not recognise the ICC, so its scope of authority is limited at best.

The Palestinian Authority recognises the jurisdiction of the ICC but Israel and Hamas do not. Israel argues that Palestine is not a sovereign state in spite of its non-member observer status in the UN (the ICC is a dependency of the UN) so cannot be party to the Rome Statute that established the ICC. It also argues that Israel has its own investigative bodies so does not need ICC interference in its affairs. Hamas is not recognised as a sovereign governmental body even though it administers the Gaza Strip (in a division of authority with the Fatah-led Ramallah-based administration that is recognised as the Palestinian Authority), so is excluded from ICC jurisdiction even if its members can be prosecuted by it (as is the case with Israelis). In addition, because it is not a party to the Rome Statute, Hamas refuses to recognise the ICC as an instrument of accountability. Because of the lack of universal recognition, the ICC cannot gain UN Security Council (or even General Assembly) approval to extend its jurisdiction to non-signatory states.

Even so, the ICC has (perhaps as an aspirational rather than practical goal) on-going investigations against both Hamas and Israel dating back to 2014 and has launched another against both sides as a result of the current conflict. It is more than likely these will be fruitless unless the international community coalesces around a demand for accountability for war crimes in this ongoing tragedy. Specifically, the time has come for larger powers to use their diplomatic strength to support the ICC investigations against Hamas and Israel and thereby put on notice those on both sides who order and carry out war crimes that they will be prosecuted for their actions.

Again, this is not about who started what or re-litigating historical grievances. It is about trying to stop the commission of war crimes once armed conflict is engaged. The ICC can investigate the veracity of claims of civilian targeting and can charge commanders and political leaders on both sides for authorising attacks on them (the evidence is already available on video). It can then issue international arrest warrants for the accused that, if not enforced inside of their own territorial jurisdictions, will be enforceable if they try to leave the safety of them (think of Pinochet when he went to visit Maggie Thatcher and wound up under de facto house confinement for months because he could not leave Britain without risking arrest for crimes against humanity–in his case against his won people). This type of move is therefore a holding to account for current and past crimes and a deterrent against future crimes. The impediments to doing so are many but the need to do so is even greater.

The desire to use the ICC as an agent of justice and deterrence may be wishful thinking given contemporary realities but it seems that with enough support in the wider international community, such an ICC intervention could be a prelude to the political settlements required for peace. And even if its potential use only helps stop the current fighting, then a small defense of humanity will have been served.

Infiltrating extremism.

datePosted on 09:46, March 29th, 2021 by Pablo

Preamble

When I got my Ph.D. I was given an extraordinary opportunity to create a Latin American Studies program for US intelligence officers. My then father-in-law (a retired FBI agent and Legal Attache) knew a retired CIA guy who had links to the Naval Postgraduate School, where the program was to be housed. My father-in-law mentioned to the ex-CIA officer that he had a son-in-law who grew up in the region and that I was about to graduate with a degree in Political Science specialising in the comparative politics and international relations of Latin America. Although I was a “commie” in his eyes, he believed that I would probably pass the security clearances. I was invited to interview for the job along with a few others and lo and behold, I got it.

My task was to create a six course MA-level curriculum in Latin American Studies for civilian and military intelligence officers who would be heading into the region after taking intensive language courses at the Defence Language Institute (DLI)–conveniently located just down the road from NPS–as a requirement for graduation. I drew up syllabi for the History of Latin America, Latin American Government, Politics and Societies, Latin American Civil-Military Relations, Latin American International Relations, Latin American Economics and Latin American Insurgencies and Revolutionary Movements and taught all courses except the economics course. The students wrote a thesis in their final two quarters after being language certified at DLI, so the entire course of study lasted eighteen months (12 of course work/thesis and six of language training).

Notice the practical aspect of this curriculum. No literature offerings, no post-modern reflections on Latin American intersubjectivity, no electives in poetry or music (although there was plenty of that on offer at off-campus parties). While all of that is important and should be the stuff of civilian university offerings, this was different. The idea was to immerse the students in the realpolitik of the region, teach them proficiency in the language(s) in which they would have to operate, and then send them into the field where they would join more experienced officers for their first assignments.

I got the security clearances needed to supervise classified theses (Top Secret), which was an interesting process because even then in the mid-1980s the investigators were obsessed with whether I had ties to a communist party. They did not care about Peronists and when I told them that I was more of a Euro-Marxist along neo-Gramscian lines, they just stared blankly and asked if he had any relationship with Che Guevara. Since I did not belong to a CP and Gramsci did not travel in the same temporal or political circles as El Che, I was deemed fit for purpose.

NPS is located in Monterey, California, which is a very beautiful place. The Monterey Institute for International Studies (MIIS) is located there and I managed to secure an Adjunct Professor job at it teaching Latin American Politics. My in-laws lived in Carmel down the road, and there was blue water, open roads and clean air to run, swim and bike galore. Plus NPS has a serious gym with some very serious fitness freaks in it, so I was always able to work out and find training partners rain or shine (this privilege continued when I was in the Pentagon years later. Let’s just say that the US understands the benefits of sports and exercise quite well). My students were all around my age–late 20s and early 30s–so we played ball together even though technically I outranked them on and off the field. That made for some amusing moments when arguing with opposing players.

Student discipline, as you would expect, was superb. Many were very conservative in their political views but they understood where I was coming from given my background and also understood that they needed to comprehend why the US was opposed in many places and who opposed them (remember, these were the days of the Sandinistas, FMLN, Sendero Luminoso and assorted other leftist insurgencies). It was more than just knowing the enemy of the day. As I used to say to them, “you guys are professional security agents of a superpower but the people fighting in the insurgencies opposing the US and its client regimes are all volunteers. Why is that?” Since I had a visible distaste for military-bureaucratic authoritarians of the right as well as Lenenists and Stalinists, it was illuminating for them to hear me explain the reasons why.

I did a very good job getting that curriculum up and running (called the Western Hemisphere Area Studies program in the Department of National Security Affairs). But it was not to last. During the second Reagan administration word got out that there was a Marxist teaching at NPS and an ideological inquisitor from the Defence Department, ironically the son of a political theorist that I had studied under at Chicago, came to see what I was doing. Although no one said anything bad about me and in fact my students and colleagues were full of praise, I was ordered to start teaching Latin American maritime strategy and naval warfare even though no other area studies program had such requirements (there were already established programs in Asian, Middle Eastern and European Studies in the NSA Department).

Needless to say, although I had been studying geopolitics since undergraduate school and had a fair handle on Latin American military thinking, it was clear that, as a civilian who does not sail, I would struggle to fulfil the task. So I quit and went off to a civilian university, where two things happened: I continued to get military officers as my students because their commands were pleased with what I taught so moved them to the school I went to; and I developed a consulting relationship with various military commands and the intelligence community that was to last until I emigrated to NZ.

One of the most interesting things about that job was the unexpected and informal quid pro quo I developed with the intelligence community. Within weeks of joining NPS I was invited to give lectures around the country to military and civilian intelligence audiences (including, I must admit, the infamous School of the Americas). On one side, I was very sporty in those days and so managed to convince various military commands to allow me to run the obstacle courses on a number of military bases when visiting them to guest lecture (needless to say the military guys were suckers for putting a civilian academic through the grinder of their physical training routines). With my knowledge of the subject already established, the ability to do hard exercise in turn led to me being invited to join in various US irregular warfare activities as an observer, then advisor and consultant, something that continued until I left the US for NZ.

On the other side, I was eventually asked to participate in some leadership analysis and strategic deconstruction exercises for intelligence shops in DC and elsewhere (of ideology and tactics, such as whether guerrilla groups adopted Marighella’s two-pronged approach to irregular warfare, Guillen’s “Robin Hood” urban warfare approach or Guevara’s “foco” theory and whether they were Leninist, Maoist, Trotskyite or hybrid in ideological orientation). I had the security clearances so that was never an issue, and because I spoke both Spanish and Portuguese and lived so long in Latin America, I was very well received wherever I went because of the insights that I could offer on things like cultural mores, social do’s and don’ts, etc. Eventually the relationship with the intelligence community developed to the point that I would get invited to see aspects of how they trained human intelligence officers and even got to offer my thoughts on how to improve said training. I was told that the courtesy was simply a way of repaying me for my efforts in creating and running the Western Hemisphere Area Studies program. It was very enlightening to see how and what intelligence officers are taught before they become case officers in the field and/or subject analysts.

The exposure to both the military and intelligence sides of the coin (no pun intended for those in the know) was a luxury that few non-career people get to enjoy. It became the basis for how I approach the subjects of strategic analysis, threat assessment, intelligence collection and warfare.

The issue.

Which brings me in a much convoluted way to the point of this post: the differences between detecting, monitoring and infiltrating rightwing as opposed to to leftwing extremist groups. That was something that came up in conversation from time to time during my days in and around the US intelligence and military communities, since both types of group have historically been present in Latin America. From rightwing paramilitary death squads like Mano Blanca in El Salvador and the Triple-A in Argentina to the leftist populism of the Tupamaros in Uruguay and Bolivarians in Venezuela to the Maoism of Sendero Luminoso in Peru and FARC in Colombia to the Trotskyite tendencies of the ERP in Argentina, both sides of the ideological spectrum have armed extremist factions with violent histories.

The basic difference, and the one that makes the extremist Right easier to infiltrate than the extremist Left, is that the Right defends the capitalist class structure of society whereas the Left seeks to overthrow it. What that means is that the Right, as a defensive or restorative movement, seeks and often receives the shelter of capitalist class fractions, including some directly represented in government. Unconsciously or consciously, the extremist Right operates on behalf of the capitalist State, whereas the extremist Left seeks to confront it. The extremist Right sees itself as the ideological vanguard of a system of property-based class relations that is too weak to defend itself from assorted usurpers. It therefore offers autonomous protection to the capitalist class fractions most threatened by those groups and often receives capitalist support and cover in return.

The extremist Left has no such luxury. Dedicated to the overthrown of the capitalist system and the State that emerges from and serves it, leftist extremists cannot afford to reveal themselves to potential patrons outside of ideological fellow travellers. Back in the day, this forced many Latin American revolutionaries to seek support from Cubans, Russians, Chinese and Vietnamese even if these were not fully cognisant of the ideological and physical terrain in which the Latin Americans were fighting in (Che Guevara’s failed campaign in Bolivia being a remarkable example). Although extra-regional and foreign, they at least could be trusted out of shared ideological conviction, whereas even members of the domestic petit bourgeoisie, organised labour and public service could not be trusted due to their penchant for cooptation and hence betrayal of the class line.

Because of this, Left extremists have developed comparatively secure operational security systems in which secrecy, insularity, compartmentalisation, siloing and atomisation of cellular networks is paramount. Right extremists, on the other hand, prefer more overt displays of power tied to the classes that they support and defend. This occurs via public demonstrations such as the march on Charlottesville or the assault on the US Capitol, but the usual displays are local in nature. This can be seen in the connections between US extremists like Oathkeepers and Proud Boys with members of the Trump entourage and retrograde billionaires like Erik Prince or the Pillow Guy. It is likely to be the case with Action Zealandia, whose overt public media efforts (including Facebook and Twitter accounts) serve as a disguise for more violent planning and hint at links to funding and patronage beyond the known membership. These groups operate openly but generally conceal their violent tendencies and more extreme views in the public space while cultivating relationships with class allies and sponsors under the guise of moderation.

Such is true even when the Right moves to decentralised small cell or lone wolf tactics because unlike Left extremists, there is always a class patron in the background and a broader network of enablers and accomplices to which the extremists look for shelter and camouflage. To that can be added the more specific commonalities that cross between certain Right subgroups, including the symbology of tattoos and heraldry, interest in body-building (a trait shared by some jihadists), tenuous if not hostile relationships with females, interest in weaponry and anger at the way “things” are going in society. The combination of personality traits and collective expression of identity are the most visible signs of a penchant for extremism and lie at the core of the type of profiling that is the bread and butter of counter-terrorism operations. But this needs to be supplemented by a broader perspective in order to discern the full context in which extremists materialise and operate.

Put another way, whereas for Mao the peasantry were the sea in which the guerrilla fish swam in pre-revolutionary China, for the Right in liberal democracies it is among the (I would argue descendent) capitalist class fractions where the extremists seek to organise and hide. That is the starting point from which counter-extremist measures should be undertaken.

Broader historical context supports this view. Leftist perspectives have been the exception to capitalist rule since the end of the Cold War. Leftist extremists were mostly defeated where they engaged in armed struggle and those that did not fight, say in Europe, North America and the Antipodes in the 1960s and 70s, were coopted and bought off. What was Left into the 2000s has very little support and even less shelter for its extremist elements. Moreover, once the political Left adopted market-friendly “Third Way” policies and the activist Left splintered into identity politics and other forms of post-modern self-characterisation, the movement as a whole lost the class line unifier that could have allowed it some critical mass for revolutionary action propelled by an extremist vanguard. Today the Left are extremist in name only, running from the terms “radical” and “socialist” rather than embracing them for the emancipatory promise they contain within.

Contrarily, as a pro-capitalist movement, the ideological Right has ridden a market-oriented and -led political wave that harks to the Chicago Boys in Chile, Reaganism, Thatcherism and the pro-market reforms in NZ of the mid 1980s to become an all encompassing and largely unchallenged world view that continues to this day. It is not just a dominant theory about preferred economic organisation, policy and behaviour. It has become a holistic world-view based on principles of individualism, property and self advancement even if these principles are more mythical than real. In this cultural environment extremist Right views flow as a sub-current in the dominant ideological stream while Left extremists swim against it. One side hides in the open while the other seeks the cover of marginality. This has consequences for their respective praxis.

Because the extremist Left cannot “hide” in the capitalist class structure it is much more furtive and surreptitious in its approach to the armed struggle. Because the extremist Right sees itself as a champion of a system of property and society under siege and therefore well supported by the “silent majority,” it is more prone to let its guard down in front of kindred spirits when it comes to enunciating its plans and preparations for confrontation with those who would seek to challenge tradition, custom and class relations. When its views are repeated and shared by politicians as shared “truths” (say, by calling for NZ borders to be closed to people from “dirty” places like India or by saying that US elections were “stolen” by an evil cabal of liberal swamp people), then there is reason to believe that they are justified in assuming that their more devilish schemes will go unnoticed or be wilfully ignored. What differences may exist between more moderate Rightists and their extremist counterparts (say, on Jews), the unifying binds of capitalist class defence is what ultimately ties them together. A Leftist extremist is a threat to the system and traditional values; a Rightist extremist is a misguided or overzealous defender of that which is given and good.

This is true as much on-line as it is in the real world. That matters because on-line has become a major channel for extremist recruitment and organization. In the world of political blogs and message boards, the language of Rightwing extremism overlaps and mixes with those of economic or social conservatives, whereas the extremist Left is seldom seen or heard at all, much less in “moderate” Left conversations. After a period of supposed self-reflection and increased moderation, mainstream Rightwing blogs in NZ have reversed course and allow thinly veiled extremists back onto their threads. From my perspective this is a good thing because if intelligence agencies are worth their budgets, they will spend time using their technical and analytic skills to triangulate between the frothing blog commentators, the quietly vile ones, and the denizens of hate fests like 4 Chan’s political boards in order to determine measures of violent intent. It really is not hard if the will is there and resources are made available. To repeat: more often than not extremists on the Right are more likely to be hiding in plain sight when compared with those on the Left.

Less readers point to lone wolf attacks as evidence that I am wrong, let me state that I reject the notion that people like the Christchurch, Pittsburgh, San Diego and El Paso killers (to name a few) flew under the radar and that no one could have predicted their murderous actions. Contrary to the official narrative, all of these had on-line and physical presences that pointed, if not screamed aloud what their intentions were. But in each case they were cloaked in concentric circles of sympathy, connivence and disinterest that allowed them to move unimpeded towards their final act. Intelligence agencies with other priorities downplayed the danger posed by the extremist Right even after the 2011 Norway attacks, considering it to be a local enforcement problem rather than a global security threat even though rightwing groups and individuals were well established on-line. Official postmortems of these crimes all sought to downplay this particular fact, attributing blame to maladjusted and socially isolated individuals acting out on completely unforeseen dark fantasies.

I beg to differ. In any event I very much doubt that any Leftist could have gotten that far in this day and age. Or a radical Muslim, for that matter, even though, in spite of their conservatism, penetrating jihadist circles is harder precisely because they do not enjoy capitalist class support in the societies in which many live.

In summary, this is just one way in which intelligence analysis can help focus and allocate resource better within a given threat landscape. As I have written elsewhere, it is good to downplay the specific ideological cause behind irregular acts of violence such as that involved in terrorism, since that focuses attention on the crime rather than the motive (because doing so elevates the latter over the former in the public eye, thereby reifying the crime). But within the confines of the agencies involved in countering extremist threats there needs to be a nuanced understanding of the difference between ideological motivations as they translate into support networks, operational security and tactical opportunities presented to violent-minded extremists. That in turn allows security agencies to design proactive infiltration and monitoring strategies that seek to detect and impede extremist plots earlier rather than later with an eye towards deterring or disrupting rather than defending against or responding to them.

In other words, one must understand the breadth and depth of the socio-economic and cultural terrain if one is to move undetected within the landscape of ideological extremism.


Counterterrorism, back to the future.

datePosted on 13:04, March 23rd, 2021 by Pablo

Recently I was approached by a major media platform to help them develop story lines and questions on some terrorism related topics. These focused on the SIS Report of the Internal Review conducted in the wake of the March 15 terrorist attacks and news that a younger generation of extremists are being radicalised on-line. I ended up spending an entire afternoon talking and corresponding with two reporters and a producer about possible leads, only to find out that my research and work (about four hours worth) would not be compensated and instead would be used to frame interviews with and guide questions to others.

In my opinion, this is not acceptable. Sure, there are plenty of people who will jump at the chance to have their faces on TV or voices on radio for free. There are those in salaried positions who can afford to offer free commentary as a sidebar to their “real” jobs. But that is not me. I am not an academic who can share expertise as a form of community outreach that looks good on my performance reviews. I am not a member of a interest group that may have a cause to promote. I am not a charity. I am a political risk and strategic analysis consultant, which means that I have to earn a living based on my supposed expertise in various fields, which I use to engage in targeted research and analysis based on client interests and needs. When I get called by someone asking for advice or comment, I take it as a professional call, not a courtesy. In this instance I should have known better but I decided to help out anyway and in the end was reminded that wasting four hours of my time on a subject that is not billable is just that–a waste of time and energy.

Think of it this way: if someone has a plumbing problem that s/he cannot fix on their own, they call a plumber. Do they expect the plumber to do the fix for free? If not, then why, lacking in-house expertise, would a media outlet call a subject expert and ask him to stop his own work, address their subject of interest, help them develop story lines or questions for interviews about that subject, offer the possibility of appearing in person to explain the topic, but then take his responses, cancel the interview and act surprised when payment is mentioned? Beyond the matter of compensation for services rendered, there are issues of journalistic ethics at play as well.

In any event, I decided to collect the analyses that I worked on and organise them into a blog post. The first part deals with the SIS Internal Review. The second part address the issue of younger people being radicalised on-line, in particular the impact of gaming on extremist recruitment and radicalisation.

I. The Immediate Past.

The SIS released a heavily redacted version of the internal review of its systems and processes in the lead up to the March 15 terrorist attacks in Christchurch. The Review, whose Executive Summary was released last year, parallels that of the Royal Commission of Inquiry (RCI) into the Christchurch attacks but is limited to the SIS itself. Unsurprisingly, there is much commonality and overlap between the two Reports, which also share the attribute of not holding any agency or individual to account for anything–be it acts of commission or omission–that happened in the lead-up to the attacks. Apparently everything worked as it was supposed to given the operational parameters then in place, but the operational parameters were disoriented. There were no institutional failures because all systems worked fine. It was just that the institutional gaze was fixed in such a way that the attacks could not have been prevented.

The findings are as we already know: the components of the SIS worked as they were supposed to under the pre-March 15 system but the system as a whole was set up and focused in a way that made impossible detection and prevention of an attack of the sort carried out in Christchurch (by a self-radicalised lone wolf from the ideological right-wing). It recommends various reforms and overhauls, including more emphasis on strategic analysis because the SIS was/is too focused on immediate operational (monitoring and collection) tasks given the then identified and established agency priorities. This prevents the SIS from seeing more long-term, broader and “weak signal” threats emerging before they materialise, including those emanating from domestic rather than distant shores. For an agency that has domestic human espionage as one of its three main areas of responsibility (along with counter-espionage and foreign human espionage) that is a telling admission. In fact it is worth some serious inter-textual analysis because sometimes what is left unsaid is worth more than what is said.

The Report specifically says that there was a lack of information and data sharing with other agencies, particularly the Police. The SIS and Police both have domestic counter-terrorism and intelligence gathering functions but they apparently do not coordinate operations or share information and data (in fact, the SIS is not able to access 2 of 9 government data bases, both of those under the control of the Police). In stating that, the SIS implies that the Police might have known about or had the Christchurch killer on its radarscope during the course of its investigations, but its emphasis on “criminality” rather than ideology and the siloed nature of its intelligence operations meant that anything it might have known about the killer and other violent white supremacists was kept to itself. The SIS goes on to say that even with better data and intelligence sharing they still might not have been able to connect the dots enough to detect and prevent the terrorist from acting, but the implication is two fold: other agencies with more contacts “on the ground” might/could have known about him if their priorities were different; when it came to counter-terrorism, even after eight years of white extremist mass murders dating back to the Norway killings in 2011 and repeated warnings about the rising use of the internet as a conduit for radicalisation of all types (be it jihadist or white supremacist), the NZ security apparatus discounted, ignored or simply did not care to invest more than rhetorical resources on the non-jihadist menace emerging from within.

The Report also recommends that the SIS increase its proactive role in identifying and preventing threats, especially so-called “weak signal” or low-level rumblings that could eventuate into real dangers. As a “leads-based” monitoring and collection (as opposed to enforcement) agency under the pre-March 15 “business model,” it acted reactively to known threats within the assessment parameters of the day. That means that it did not look, much less think outside of the box or look over the immediate and accepted (status quo) threat horizon when it came to the domestic threat landscape. In other words, it saw what it wanted to see and ignored what it did not want to see or hear (such as the repeated warning by Islamic organisations they they were being targeted for individual and collective harassment, including violent threats and assaults) based on the threat scenario assumptions in vogue after 9/11.

The recommendations also suggest that the SIS work with the Police to promote legislation that criminalises a range of terrorist preparatory activity (say, explosive precursor purchases, weapons and ammunition stockpiling, social media postings etc–all of these based on the Australian counter-terrorism approach) so that the Police and SIS authorities have legal grounds to engage in preventative or pre-emptive actions currently not allowed under the law. This may eventually include designating neo-fascist groups as terrorist entities if advocating or inciting violence is included along with committing violence in future anti-terrorist legislation.

There is a lot more in the report if you read as much between the lines as you do the lines themselves. IP addresses noted but eventually not followed up on that turned out to be those of the killer (making racist comments and buying ammunition in bulk, among other things). Hints at resistance to and obstruction of the former Inspector General’s attempts at tightening oversight, transparency and accountability. Reports of his use of a drone to surveil the mosques, again not followed up on in any significant measure. Prolonged travel to conflict zones amid tourist spots by a resident foreigner with no job. And yet no organisational failures–that is, of people, processes, procedures or perspective–were found. The system worked as it was supposed to. That is troubling.

Seen through cynical eyes, the SIS Report is a way to engage in some polite fence painting and rear-end covering while discretely shifting blame onto the Police (who have yet to issue their Report, if there is any). After all, if all of their systems worked as they were supposed to be and no one is at fault in the SIS for failing to detect and prevent the massacre under the organisational priorities of the day, then the ball must have been dropped by some other agency or the entire domestic security community. The latter would be an admission of institutional incompetence or myopia on grand scale. More pointedly, if we consider that the only other agency with domestic counter-terrorism functions is the Police, then the onus appears to be on them. However, as the RCI Report noted, the Police focus on criminality, not on ideological extremism. That means that, hypothetically speaking, even if they in fact stumbled upon some skinheads talking about attacking a mosque during the course of a drugs investigation, it is possible that they failed to pass on that information to the SIS because a) that was not their operational concern; and b) they were “siloed” in their approach to information and data sharing in any event. As for other agencies helping the SIS detect extremists in a partnership role (say, Immigration) they too were siloed and silent when it came to this particular type of terrorist threat.

The major take-aways from the Report are the failure of the SIS to be proactive and failure to two-way information share with other domestic security agencies under a individual and collective “business” model that simply was not cognisant of, much less focused on emerging threats from the extremist Right even eight years and dozens of right-wing mass murder events subsequent to the 2011 attacks in Norway (which were the inspiration for all of the white supremacist mass murders that followed, including March 15). Left unknown are all of the redacted parts of the report (other than the killer’s hidden name) and who, exactly, the “independent” reviewer was (I may have overlooked this so if anyone can point me to his or her identity that would be helpful).

II. The Immediate Future.

Recent assessments by the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) and various European intelligence shops point to the growing trend of young people, including teenagers, becoming radicalised on-line. What used to be problem with regard to would-be jihadists appears to now have morphed into a problem of white supremacy and/or neo-Nazi ideology. The bottom line is that the issue of younger (mostly male) people being inclined towards ideological extremism and/or recruited into extremist groups is very real. But there is a good and a bad side to the phenomenon.

On the bad side, younger people are being desensitised and drawn into using violence as a means of conflict resolution via an increasingly sophisticated and interactive gaming world. Virtual reality (VR) interactive games not only involve multiple players but increasingly contain highly sophisticated graphics of combat and other violent scenes, many very dark in nature (including grotesque violence against women). Players can choose their villians and heros, putting themselves in one camp or the other in highly realistic real-time action scenarios that are often as ideological as they are gory. All of this can be done as if in person. One can be a modern Crusader slaughtering jihadists or vice versa. One can be a US Gi wiping out Japanese troops in WW2. One can be a torturer, prison guard, mass murderer or violent criminal targeting women of color. One can be the Christchurch terrorist streaming his murders to a live audience. And so forth–the range of violence and characters is limited only by the player’s and game creator’s imaginations. To this can be added violent pornography, again often with explicit misogynistic imagery.

Advances in personal telecommunications technologies–mobile phones, apps, etc.–have made it easier for younger people to access all aspects of the internet. While they are a feature of modern life and a symbol of the conveniences afforded to modern societies, they also bring with them readily accessible pathways into the darkness of violence and hate. In the measure younger people are afforded access to these instruments and recognizing the tremendous benefits that they bring, avoidance of or exposure to the dark side of the web is now a feature of teenage life. Add in the natural attraction of realistic games in virtual settings, and the stage is set for youth radicalisation via gaming even in places where they are not subject to socio-economic deprivation and political oppression.

It can be argued that people attracted to highly realistic and hyper-violent on-line gaming and porn already exhibit psychopathic and sociopathic personality traits. We are not talking about FIFA2020-style sports games here. We are talking about mayhem and degradation. These types of forums now attract millions of players, some of whom may be working off stress but others who may be descending into dark violent fantasies. That includes so-called “Incels,” as in “involuntarily celibate:” men who cannot find or hold physical relationships with women and who in many instances believe themselves to be too pure or righteous to pay for sex. This leaves them very sexually frustrated and very angry, often violently so. More generally, abuse of female players is a well-known pathology in the gaming community. On VR interactive gaming platforms people with these tendencies and/or other anger issues intersect and engage with racists, bigots, violent psychopaths, animal abusers and assorted other degenerates, leading to what we might call a “nexus of hate.” It is there where white supremacist recruiters, as was the case with jihadists before them, are now regularly launching their appeals to increasingly younger audiences.

It is bad enough that younger generations of (again, mostly male) people are using violent interactive games as a form of entertainment, stress relief and fantasy fulfilment. It is worrisome that the age threshold of these people, as well as those who habitually use extreme porn, appears to be lowering. These forums can be highly addictive for certain personalities, and the obsession can be detrimental to the individual as well as those around him. Some obsessions become political and ideological–fixations on who is to blame for one’s personal ills as well as the world’s problems; and on how to fix them. Now we must factor into account that both jihadists and white supremacists (and others) use interactive gaming as a recruiting device, luring people to be more extreme in their character stereotyping and urging them to carry over their on-line personas into real life. This is, to say the least, not good when imparted on impressionable teenage minds (or anyone else, for that matter, but it is the young who most often get sucked into the vortex). From there it is a short leap onto extremist forums like 4 Chan or 8Chan (and others), and from there the pathways to the dark web and serious planning of violence are just steps away–yet discoverable when one has interactive skills and some coded advice on how to get there. One can only hope that intelligence agencies know how to get there as well.

Like many other social media platforms and content providers, the gaming industry is reluctant to move beyond basic guidelines for usage such as R18 warning labels. It zealously guards the privacy of its customers. Like the porn industry it is an early adopter of new audiovisual technologies, including VR and AI, in the construction of its consumer ranges. That puts it ahead of security-intelligence agencies, which like the old military adage notes, are playing technological catch-up while preparing to fight last century’s wars with mid-century (however updated, such as with 3rd generation warfare) tactics. As I have written in more professional settings, the problem of institutional lag is very real in the NZ intelligence community (see part I above), but also world-wide in specific areas of concern such as on-line right-wing extremism.

The problem of younger people getting radicalised into extremism online and acting violently as a result is indisputably real. Other forms of radicalisation remain (say, in churches or via criminal gangs, drug networks, etc.), but these are increasingly superseded by the on-line process because the latter does not expose the recruiter or recruitee to outside scrutiny. The interaction (or what might be called the dialectic of radicalisation) occurs in a bedroom or a basement rather than a church or a private clubhouse even though the latter remain as physical spaces for the larger community and therefore may include people of more extreme persuasions within them. But physical space is more and more a secondary site for extremist radicalisation and recruitment. Gaming is the most recent but not the only source of on-line radicalisation and recruitment, which also occurs in discussion groups, political fora, video channels, twitter threads and any number of other social media.

The good news is that the young are by and large easier to catch, particularly so with this TikTok/Instagram generation. That is because teens and twenty-somethings like to boast and be recognised as a form of affirmation and self-worth validation. This makes them careless on-line as well as in person, which in turn helps security authorities to distinguish between those who talk and those who act, those who are doers and those who are not, those who are leaders and those who are followers. There are plenty of psychological profiles in the intelligence community with which to develop individual and collective threat assessments from what is canvassed on-line. 

In effect, the younger they get, the more likely ideological extremists will trip up and be discovered because they are psychologically unable to maintain the level of security required to carry out successful irregular warfare operations such as terrorist attacks. This is not 100 percent the case but the odds in favor of their pre-emptive detection by security authorities increases dramatically when compared to say, a 35 year old ex-military veteran with 10 years of service and knowledge of weapons and explosives, a serious grudge against somebody (be it a group or government agency), on-line masking skills, knowledge of basic operational security, tight lips, few friends and a murderous eye on a mall or transportation hub. THAT is a real and palpable threat.

So there is a silver lining in the move towards younger extremists, but only if security authorities are literally on top of their games. Given what the SIS Internal Review discovered, that appears to be far from being the case.

I did an interview with Jesse Mulligan at RNZ about the mixed record with regard to fighting on-line extremism in NZ and elsewhere. You can find it here.

In last week’s “A View from Afar” podcast Selwyn Manning and I discuss the failure of NZ’s security services to detect a local white supremacist openly describing on a well known on-line extremist forum how he would use car bombs to “commemorate” the March 15 terrorist attacks in Christchurch, and then we are joined by journalist Ollie Neas to hear more about the role Rocket Lab plays for the US military space program as well as some the regulatory issues surrounding that process by which military payloads are approved by the NZ government. You can find the video here.

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