Archive for ‘Terrorism’ Category

Media Link: The Paris attacks in context.

datePosted on 15:33, November 17th, 2015 by Pablo

I have spent the better part of the last few days doing assorted media interviews about the Paris terrorist attacks.  Some were no more than sound bites, others were a bit more in depth. Here is a radio interview that allowed me to elaborate a bit on the broader picture behind the attacks.

The hall echoed with the sound of apathy.

datePosted on 16:50, August 7th, 2015 by Pablo

I attended the Auckland public meeting on the Intelligence Review organised by the NZ Council on Civil Liberties and a coalition of activist groups under the “Get Smart” banner. The idea was to encourage the public to join in submitting a “People’s Review” of the NZ intelligence community that would go beyond the rather narrow terms of reference of the formal Review undertaken by Michael Cullen and Patsy Reddy. The meeting was held in a inner suburb library hall at 6:30 on a Thursday night. It had the makings of a stirring call to popular participation and civic action.

Counting myself, a total of ten people showed up to listen to the speakers and debate issues relevant to the Review. The speakers spoke about the evils and sins of the CIA, GCSB and SIS at home and abroad, about the dangers of recent expansions of spy agencies powers and related legislation such as the hastily passed foreign fighters bill, and about the patently bogus questions asked on the public submission forms for the Review (such as asking if people felt that the government should protect them from terrorism). But truth be told, the empty hall echoed with the sound of apathy. Not so much from those of us who attended and spoke, but from those who did not.

In any event it was a pretty dreary and dispiriting affair. Nowhere to be seen were those who championed Kim Dotcom’s “Moment of Truth” or the voluminous clouds of conspiracy-mongering that went with it.  From what I could tell, there was no one from UNITE, MANA, Internet Party, GPJA or any other activist group other than the Communist League. The usual assortment of Left pundits and party progressives, from the bombastic to the erudite, were nowhere to be seen. It was so bad, even Penny Bright did not show up.

I was told that meetings in Christchurch and Wellington were better attended, but from the looks of the Auckland gathering the issue of how, why and when the NZ intelligence community does what it does is no longer of import to local chattering classes, much less the fair minded among them.

I sure hope that I am wrong. I suggested at the meeting that a two pronged approach to the Review needed to be undertaken. On the one hand, the broad questioning of the intelligence community outlined in the terms of the People’s Review is necessary for framing the larger counter-narrative to the official lines spun upon us about the value and benefits of NZ’s intelligence operations. On the other hand, detailed, sophisticated and technical submissions sharply focused on the terms of reference are needed to prevent Cullen and Reddy from claiming that no practicable or actionable information was obtained from the submissions. I offered some thoughts on the need for better intelligence oversight mechanisms and how they could pave the way for further reforms of the intelligence community and legal frameworks governing it.

My comments were preceded by those of a fellow who spoke of spying on Maori at TVNZ. I was followed by a fellow from the Communist League. At that point it was time to take my 18 year old cousin in law back to dinner because even his eyes were rolling in the back of his head.

If this meeting is symptomatic of the state of the NZ Left, then it is well and truly  screwed. Or perhaps it is just a Jafa thing.

A hard rain is a’gonna fall.

datePosted on 14:16, May 22nd, 2015 by Pablo

Although I am loathe to prognosticate on fluid situations and current events, I have been thinking about how the conflict in Iraq has been going. Although I do not believe that the Islamic State (IS) is anywhere close to being the global threat that it is portrayed to be in the West, I do believe that it is an existential threat to Syria, Iraq and perhaps some of their Sunni neighbours. Unlike al-Qaeda, which has limited territorial objectives, IS is political-religious movement with serious territorial ambitions that uses a mix of conventional and unconventional land warfare to achieve them. Given that difference, below is an assessment of the situation in Iraq after the fall of Ramadi into IS hands.

Iraq’s Anbar Province, a Sunni stronghold, is now under IS control. Tikrit was occupied a few months ago, Falluja and Haditha fell some weeks ago and Ramadi was conquered a week ago. To the northeast, Mosul remains in IS hands, while Baiji (site of major oil processing facilities) and Samarra remain under siege. With dozens of smaller towns in Anbar and elsewhere under IS rule, to include a front extending south-southeast from Tikrit to the eastern Baghdad suburbs along the Tigris River basin, the advance on the capital appears inevitable. Or is it? In this post I attempt to outline the strategic situation that the NZDF has thrust itself into.

28D32BC000000578-3087517-image-a-9_1432030518818Map courtesy of the DailyMail Online (http://www.dailymail.co.uk).

First, let’s look at the positives (from the West’s perspective). There is no way that IS can physically take and occupy Baghdad. A city of nearly four million people, most of them Shiia, Baghdad is a fortress when compared to what IS has tackled so far. It has concentrated military forces, is the seat of national government and is the location of numerous foreign military and diplomatic missions. It is therefore a strategic asset that Iran, the West and Iraqi Shiites cannot afford to lose. Moreover, IS is stretched too thin on the ground in Iraq to have the numbers to engage effective urban warfare against a determined and concentrated enemy, has no air power and does not have enough Sunni support in Baghdad to make up for the lack of numbers on the ground (A digression here: IS has a Salafist ideology buttressed by Ba’athist political and military organisation. Much of its leadership is drawn from the ranks of displaced Sunni Ba’athist officials in the Saddam Hussein regime, and it enjoys considerable support in Sunni Iraq. This accounts in significant measure for its success in Anbar).

Although not located in Anbar, Mosul, Samarra and Tikrit also have Sunni majorities, so the trend has been for IS to target and conquer urban areas where its sectarian support is matched by demographic numbers. The question remains as to whether its military campaign can be equally successful in Shiia dominant areas to the east and south of Baghdad, where Iranian forces also have a presence. That appears unlikely.

On the negative side from the West’s perspective, IS appears to be engaging in a pincer movement designed to surround and isolate western and northern Baghdad from the rest of the country. If it able to control the land routes in those areas it can cut off not only supply lines between Baghdad and its allied forces in the north and west, including Camp Taji where the NZDF is supposed to be stationed (I say supposedly because I have read an unconfirmed report that the NZDF deployment are stuck in Baghdad because of the increase in IS hostilities), but it can also proceed to apply a chokehold on supplies entering Baghdad via the north and west. As part of this strategy IS will target the power grid that supplies Baghdad, the majority of which comes from its north (including the power plant at Baiji, now under siege) as well as water supplies drawn from reservoirs in the northwest and piped to Baghdad. This will not be fatal if the Baghdad government can keep its land lines of supply in the south and east open, but it certainly will hinder its ability to keep some (more than likely Sunni) neighbourhoods stocked with life essentials, which will only exacerbate their alienation from central authorities and perhaps contribute to their support for IS.

Moreover, if more difficult to achieve, IS does not need to control all of the territory to the east and south of Baghdad in order to choke it off. All it has to do is establish a thin mobile front that can gain and hold intercept points on the major highways surrounding the city (and relatively close to the city limits at that, which obviates the need to fight Shiias further afield). This includes targeting power and water supplies coming from the south and east.

In other words, IS does not have to achieve strategic depth in order to choke the arterial routes leading into the city from the south and east. Coalition airpower may be able to stave off this eventuality for a while but without ground control that allows unimpeded re-supply, Baghdad will be operating on a scarcity regime within a few months. Resupply by air, while significant, cannot substitute for land supply, and it is worth noting that Baghdad airport as well as the infamous Abu Ghraib prison (where many Sunni militants are held) lie west of Baghdad and have recently been the subject of IS attacks. In fact, in the last year both Abu Ghraib and the prison at Taji have been the scenes of major prisoner jailbreaks orchestrated by IS, with many of the escapees now thought to have joined its ranks in an effort to increase its knowledge of the local fighting terrain.

A microcosmic version of this scenario involves the city of Taji, location of Camp Taji, the huge military base that is the destination point for the NZDF contribution to the anti-IS coalition. Straddling national highway one 20 miles northwest of Baghdad west of the Tigris river, Taji is the last significant town on the run south into Baghdad. With the old Saddam-era and later US military base capable of housing a mix of 40,000 Iraqi and foreign troops (although in reality there are far less on base), and home to a 1700 meter runway and Iraqi’s armoured corps, it is now the focal point of foreign training of Iraqi troops. As such and because of its location, it is a major target for IS, which controls the territory immediately east of the Tigris (about 11 miles away from the base). Since Taji is only 30 miles from Falluja, the presumption is that IS will mass it’s force to the east, west and north of Taji, then launch offensives designed to gain control of the town and highway. That would leave the base cut off from land routes and force it to rely on air re-supply and/or fight its way out of containment. If that happens it is doubtful that the NZDF troops will hunker down “behind the wire” and do nothing else. Whatever the scenario, isolating Camp Taji from Baghdad is a primary IS objective in the next months and will be essential to any move to surround and squeeze the capital city. The good news, from the West’s perspective, is that in order to isolate the base and sever its land link to Baghdad, IS will have to mass significant numbers of fighters, artillery and armour, something that makes it vulnerable to coalition air strikes.

The bottom line is that a successful pincer movement will slowly strangle and starve Baghdad, something that it turn will force the Iraq government to seek a political settlement on terms favourable to IS. That will entail the ejection of foreign forces and partition of Iraq. IS will claim Sunni-dominant areas and merge them with the territory it holds in Syria (IS controls roughly half of Syria’s territory) to establish its caliphate. It has no real interest in Iraqi Kurdistan because it cannot defeat the Peshmerga and other than the oil facilities on its western flank, Kurdistan has no strategic assets. Likewise, Shiia dominant areas of Iraq are too large and populated for IS to occupy, plus any incursion into Iraqi Shiia border territory with Iran will invite a military response from the latter. But where IS is in control, it has already begun to provide the basic services that the Iraq and Syrian governments no longer can, which raises the possibility that partition is already a fait acompli. As stated in The Economist:

“The danger is that the IS caliphate is becoming a permanent part of the region. The frontiers will shift in the coming months. But with the Kurds governing themselves in the north-east, and the Shias in the south, Iraqis question the government’s resolve in reversing IS’s hold on the Sunni north-west. “Partition is already a reality,” sighs a Sunni politician in exile. “It just has yet to be mapped.” (“The caliphate strikes back,” The Economist, May 23. 2015 (http://www.economist.com/news/middle-east-and-africa/21651762-fall-ramadi-shows-islamic-state-still-business-caliphate-strikes-back, May 23, 2015).

Thanks to the Iraqi Army abandoning their positions and leaving their equipment behind, IS has captured significant amounts of modern US made weaponry, including the equivalent of several armoured columns. It now has anti-aircraft munitions that eventually will score hits on coalition aircraft. Its fighters are a mix of seasoned veterans and unprofessional jihadis, but IS field commanders have been judicious in their use of each (for example, employing  inexperienced foreign jihadists in first wave assaults or in suicide bombings using construction vehicles to breach enemy lines, followed by artillery fire and hardened ground forces). What that means is that IS has the realistic ability to cut off Baghdad’s land access to its near north and west, which will force the Iraq military and coalition partners to stage a counteroffensive to reclaim those lines of supply.

IS relies on mobility, manoeuvre and the selective application of mass force to achieve it ends. The fall of Ramadi was accomplished by rapidly surrounding it from the north and east and focusing firepower on one garrison in it. IS also has relatively unencumbered supply lines coming from Syria, and many suspect that supplies also come from Saudi Arabia and Turkey (Iraq has land borders with those states as well as Iran, Jordan and Kuwait. There is a strong belief–which could well be confirmed by the document retrieval made during the US Special Forces raid on a senior IS financier’s hideout in Syria– that the Saudis in particular are doing more than just financing IS as a hedge against Iran). The best check against its advances is demographic density in Shiia dominant parts of the country and the fact that any adventurous move in the east or south will be met by serious Shiia militia and Iranian military resistance (Sadr City, a bastion of Shiia militias, lies on the northeast of Baghdad and Basra, a major oil refining centre and home of the so-called (Shiia) marsh Arabs, is the capital of the south).

Sanctuary

Source: Institute for the Study of War, September 26, 2014.

For those who believe that coalition air power is enough to stem the tide of IS advances, let me simply point out that history has shown that air power alone cannot determine success in a territorial conflict, especially an irregular or unconventional one. Vietnam is a case in point. In the battle for Ramadi the coalition conducted 275 air strikes and still saw the city fall to IS in the space of days. Thousands of coalition air strikes have been launched against IS and while they slowed down many IS advances and were decisive in battles between Kurdish peshmurga and ISIS forces in Syria and northeastern Iraq, they have not proven so when the forces they are supporting are too few or lack the will to fight when things get ugly. Since IS prefers to move quickly between urban areas and stage assaults from within them, the fear of civilian casualties hampers the coalition’s ability strike surgically at them in urban settings. That leaves the coalition with the task of trying to target IS convoys and garrisons, something that has proven hard to do given the dispersed nature of their campaign outside of urban areas.

It would seem that the best way to counter IS advances is to pre-emptively launch counter-offensives using a mix of foreign and Iraq troops and militias. That involves accepting Iranian military participation in concert with Western forces and requires moving sooner rather than later to at least stall IS’s progress southward. But if we take standard basic training as a guideline, then the Iraqi Army forces that have begun to be trained by the coalition troops will not be ready to fight until mid July. That may be too late to stop IS before it reaches Taji and the western Baghdad suburbs. Thus the conundrum faced by the coalition is to commit group troops and accept Iranian military help now or wait and hope that IS will slow down its advance due to its own requirements, thereby allowing training provided to the Iraqi Army by foreigners like the NZDF enough time to strengthen it to the point that it can take back the fight to IS with only marginal foreign assistance.

At worst, the latter is a pipe dream. At best, it is a very big ask.

Fear-mongering by frauds for fame and fortune.

datePosted on 16:40, April 20th, 2015 by Pablo

So the Herald on Sunday published an article by a business lecturer from some obscure university in the UK (now apparently visiting at Auckland University) in which she claims that NZ is a  “sitting duck” for an attack on a shopping mall (I will not link to the article because the fool does not deserve any more attention). She compares the NZ terrorism risk level to that of the US, UK an Australia and says that we should emulate them when it comes to mall security, to include bag and ID checks before entering. The Herald on Sunday then followed up the same day with an editorial and a couple of other articles hyping the terrorist threat in NZ.

I will not go over the levels of idiocy marshalled up in this sorry excuse for reportage. Instead I will rephrase a comment I left over at The Standard:

 …(T)he lecturer who penned the scare-mongering hysterical piece has no demonstrable experience with terrorism or counter-terrorism, much less the broader geopolitical and ideological context. She makes a false comparison with the US and UK, acting as if the threat environment here is equivalent to those of these countries and Australia, and states that NZ should emulate them when it comes to mall security. That is simply not true.

Moreover, just because al-Shabbab carried out one successful mall attack in Kenya and called for others in the US, UK and Canada does not mean that they have the capability of doing so anywhere else. In reality, those calls have gone unheeded and security authorities in those states have not appreciably increased their warnings about attacks on malls as a result.

Let us be clear: no mall in the US (and the UK as far as I know) requires bag and ID checks in order to go shopping. So the claim that they do is a lie. I mean, really. Can you imagine the reaction of the average US citizen to being asked to produce an ID before being allowed into Walmart or any one of the thousands of malls that exist in the US? Heck, they might pull out a firearm and say that their name is Smith and Wesson!

Anyway, the costs of of engaging enhanced security measures will be prohibitive for many businesses and even if adopted will be passed on to the consumers, which in turn could drive away customers in an age when they can shop on line. So it is not going to happen. The use of CCTV, coordination with local security authorities and hiring of private security guards suffices in the US and UK, so it surely can suffice here.

I will leave aside the democratic principles at stake, one of which is that you do not restrict the freedom of movement of everyone on the pretext of stopping a potential act of mass violence. And even if you were do do so, who is to say that evil doers would not switch targets to, say, transportation hubs or entertainment districts in downtown areas. Are we going to then go on to lock down every place where people congregate? Lets get real.

In sum, what we got from the Herald was an article that used a false comparison from someone who is clueless but who somehow got interviewed by a rube reporter as if she was an expert in order to justify a call for a hysterical and impractical overreaction, which the Herald then used to write a fear-mongering editorial that contradicts what our own intelligence agencies are saying about the risk of terrorist threats on home soil. Geez. Perhaps hyping up security and sacrifice in the lead-in to the Anzac Day commemorations has something to do with it?

There is only one indisputable fact when it comes to terrorism and NZ. Joining the fight against IS/Daesh increases the threat of terrorist attack on Kiwis and NZ interests, not so much here at home but in the Middle East where IS/Daesh has a broad reach. Although the Gallipoli commemorations will likely not be affected due to the security measures put in place by the Turks (who do not fool around when it comes to security), the risks to individual or small groups of Kiwis in the ME–say, tourists, aid workers, diplomats or business people– are increased as a direct result of NZ involvement in the anti-IS/Daesh coalition. The emphasis should be on their safety, not on that of local malls.

An absolutely wretched effort by the Herald.”

The problem is bigger than the Herald going overboard with its scare-mongering in the build up to the Anzac Day commemorations. Since 9/11 we have seen the emergence of a plethora of security and terrorism “experts” (including a few here in NZ such as the poseur who featured in the Herald article) as well as an entire industry dedicated to “countering” extremism, terrorism and a host of other potential or imaginary threats. Likewise government security agencies have pounced on the spectre of terrorism to justify expansion of their budgets, personnel, powers and scope of search, surveillance and detention.

There is, in effect, an entire terrorism growth industry hard at work conjuring up threats and scenarios not so much as to safeguard their fellow citizens but to enrich themselves via fame, fortune or power. In this they are abetted by a compliant when not reactionary and sensationalist media that does not bother to fact check the claims of many of these fraudulent experts (such as the Fox News contributor Steve Emerson, who falsely claimed that there are non-Muslim “no go” zones in the UK and France, or the charlatan Rohan Gunaratna, who claimed that there were jihadi cells in NZ ten years ago without ever having visited here, and who has now had to pay serious money in damages for defaming a Tamil community group in Canada).

Together, these various branches of the terrorism industry work to mutually profit by promoting fear and distrust while curtailing the rights of the majority in the ostensible interest of securing against the potential harm visited by a purportedly violent domestic minority. And they are selective when they do so: notice that all the hype is about Islamic extremists when in fact a large (if not THE largest) amount of political violence in Western societies, including NZ, is meted out by white, Christian extremists. Yet we do not hear dire warnings about neo-Nazis and white supremacists even though they have a proven track record of politically or racially motivated violent acts.

“Esoteric pineapples,”a commentator on the Standard thread that I made my remarks on, provided this very useful and informative link on the phenomenon. Read it and weep.

It is a sad day that NZ’s leading newspaper stoops to this type of tabloid rubbish. Shame on them. But at least it seems that many of its readers are not taken in by the ruse, which augers slightly better for informed debate on the true nature of the NZ threat environment.

PS: For the record, I do not consider myself to be a terrorism or security expert. I have a background in counter-insurgency, unconventional warfare and strategic analysis among other things, and have written extensively on those and other topics. But I have largely been pigeon-holed in the NZ media as one or the other in spite of my repeated requests to be identified correctly, which is another example of shoddy journalism.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Media Links: The Sydney Hostage Crisis.

datePosted on 17:09, December 16th, 2014 by Pablo

Amid the flurry of media interviews I did as a result of the Sydney hostage crisis, this one may not have received the attention other outlets have received.

The RNZ interview is here. The TVNZ interview is here.

Repost: The torture-terror doctrine.

datePosted on 11:07, December 10th, 2014 by Pablo

Release of the US Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on the CIA “enhanced interrogation” program has once again brought to the fore arguments about the ethics and efficiency of torture when used as part of interrogations. The ethical question reduces to a lesser evil versus greater good argument: as a lesser but necessary evil torture is used to prevent a greater evil in defense of the public good. Hence, torturing someone who knows where a bomb with a fifteen minute timer is planted in a shopping mall is both necessary and good because it will save countless lives.  Torture of someone who is believed to have rigged a car bomb outside a Kabul hotel is seen as unfortunate but just if lives are saved.  The issue is one of tactical urgency, and the value is in the tactical intelligence obtained under duress: the location of the bomb.

However, even if torture might work in some instances in extracting real-time tactical intelligence that saves lives, it is of little use in obtaining strategic intelligence on longer-term of broader based events.  Given the cellular nature of irregular warfare operations, torturing someone to get information, for example, about Osama bin-Laden’s whereabouts is simply time and resource wasting. Instead, what is required is a long-term piece by piece build up of plausible scenarios based on the corroborated evidence provided by multiple sources. Torture simply cannot provide that. And as it turned out, it was old fashioned human intelligence “gumshoe” work that revealed bin-Laden’s hideout.

As for efficiency, the record on torture as an interrogation tool is poor. Hardened zealots would rather than die than betray their comrades. Innocents and weak-willed individuals will say anything to get the punishment to stop, which means wasting time and resources (and risking exposure) tracking down spurious leads.

So why did the US resort to torture after 9/l11? I have written a fair bit about this in the past but have a hunch that its use was much more about punishment than it was about obtaining information.

I have not written much about the subject here on KP. The one essay that addressed it centrally can be found here.  However, in 2005 I published an essay that explored the symmetry between torture and terror in post 9/11 US security doctrine as part of my late “Word from Afar” series in an on-line media outlet .  Although if written today I would make some modifications to the argument and the conclusions, the thrust would remain pretty much the same. Hence I have re-published it below:

“The Symmetry between Torture and Terror.”

(First published April 21, 2005 in Scoop.co.nz)

Revelations about torture of political prisoners held in US prisons in Afghanistan, Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, Iraq and the lower fifty have sparked debate about what is permissible in grey area, irregular conflicts such as the fight against Islamicist terrorism. Brutalisation of terrorist suspects and sympathisers is allowed by a raft of post 9-11 legislation that also authorises their indefinite detention without charge and the practice of “extraordinary rendition” (whereby those suspected of involvement in terrorist activities are refouled to the country of charge or origin, to be detained, interrogated and juridically administered under local conditions).

President Bush explicitly stated in the days immediately following the 9/11 attacks that the US would stop at nothing to locate, bring to justice or eliminate those who organized, sponsored, supported or in any way collaborated in the planning of those events, as well as previous assaults on US interests around the globe. He was roundly applauded at the time by the shell-shocked US public, and it was in that environment that the legal framework for handling terrorist suspects, along with the Patriot Act and Department of Homeland Security, were born.

Subsequent divisions over the use of torture in US detention centres have surfaced along the intersection of practical versus ethical considerations. Torture is considered to be a forced necessity imposed by the ungentlemanly nature of the opponent, or is seen as a moral indictment of the US approach to the “war on terror” that descends into the barbarism that it purports to fight. The subtext of the ethical debate swings both ways. Zealotry and unilateralism in the Bush administration are seen as evidence of both moral elevation or moral decay. Faith in the moral virtue of the current US leadership prevailed among its voting public in the November 2004 national elections (by 52 to 47 percent), something not that dissimilar from the vote totals received by Richard Nixon at the time of his re-election in 1972. Then and now it is comforting for the voting majority to know that the United States Government is legally justified in authorising acts that violate international conventions on the rules of engagement. For Nixon, legal justification of the secret extension of the Vietnam War into Cambodia was grounded on such a means-ends rationale, and so it is with today’s US approach to the war against Islamicist irregulars and jihadis.

Politicians, jurists and pundits are left with the unhappy task of morally justifying inhumane acts committed against suspected enemies or ideological criminals. Myriad others have reason to wax indignant about the perversity of such arguments. Yet, beyond the pressing ethical dilemmas posed by the use of torture against suspects, there are very organic reasons for doing so. These reduce to a question of symmetry in war and the reciprocal utility of torture as a weapon.

Military planners prefer their wars to be symmetrical. Symmetrical wars are those in which opponents are arrayed along a roughly comparable range of force, with similar weapons and tactics. Although contested, the political objectives of symmetrical wars, as well as the strategic rationales used in their pursuit, are grounded in shared understandings of the limited utlity of war. Generally comparable military capabilities and comon expectations of combat and post-conflict behaviour define the physical boundaries of the armed engagement. That leads to the adoption of norms governing the behavior of belligerents, resulting in, among other things, the Hague Convention on Laws of Warfare and the Geneva Convention regarding treatment of prisoners of war. It is adherence to a general set of conventions regarding the conduct of combat operations within bounded levels of force that determines the difference between so-called “conventional” and “unconventional” or “regular” and “irregular” conflicts.

The use of force is conditioned in conventional or regular wars by its relative symmetry, which serves to reduce chaos (and the reach of combat) by providing rules of the game that serve as the ethical and legal foundation for the formulation of military policy and application of armed force in pursuit of political objectives. Incremental qualitative gains and relative quantitative advantages in weapons and troops constitute the physical parameters of war. Within those lines elements of comparative resource base, collective will and technological innovation determine military victory. Adherence to ethical guidelines for wartime conduct is expected of all belligerents.

Asymmetrical wars are those in which the military capabilities of opponents, defined as weapons systems, logistical infrastructure, troop numbers and other indexes of armed might, vary markedly. One side dwarfs the other, militarily speaking. Of itself, that is not what makes such wars unconventional. What does is the combination of ideology, interest and tactics used. If the ideological motivation of opponents is diametrically opposed (say, a choice between submission to secular infidels or defeat by medieval heathens), where the weaker actor is fighting for its national, cultural, religious or ethnic survival whiles the stronger actor is not, then the strategic rationales used by military adversaries will differ considerably. This brings in issues of pure and situational ethics, and the tactics used in pursuit of them.

Guerrilla wars are the highest expression of asymmetric wars. They are fought unconventionally by highly motivated volunteer irregular troops against conventional militaries (often those of nation-states or foreign occupiers, and in many cases paid professionals). In these types of war the distinction between combatant and non-combatant, symbolic versus military targets, and offensive versus defensive operations is deliberately blurred and often reversed by the weaker party (of which there is often more than one, which requires tactical, if not strategic coordination between them–an obvious Achilles Heel). For the weaker party contestation of territory is of secondary importance. What matters is cultivation of popular support and weakening of the opponent’s determination to continue to fight in pursuit of its political interests in a given geographic area. The Iraq conflict is a microcosmic distillation of that fact.

Conventional military planners prefer that force asymmetries be in their favour, understood as superior military technology, training, organization and tactics brought to bear within a given continuum of force on an enemy that agrees to play by the “rules.” For the irregular warrior, the object of the exercise is to use time, tenacity and psychological impact as instruments to wear down the will of the militarily superior opponent. Symbolic acts figure very highly in the guerrilla strategist’s tactical priorities, and terrorism against so-called “soft” civilian targets is central among them because it is designed to produce paralysing fear and a desire to acquiesce among the enemy’s support base. This extends the conflict outside the purely military realm into the area of social cohesion.

The firebombing of Dresden and atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were designed to do more than kill the thousands that they did. The bombings were designed to demoralise the German and Japanese human reserve and erode civilian support for continuing the war. So it is with suicide bombers in vehicles or on foot, even if they operate in wars that are undeclared. The difference is that in one instance a warring nation-state utilises terror by extending the non-military reach of conflict via conventional military means, whereas in the other case a non-state actor uses non-conventional methods to do the same thing.

Against an agile and elusive opponent who refuses to fight in conventional symmetry, a militarily superior actor is muscle-bound. Naval fleets, strategic airpower, armoured divisions and thousands of troops are of little use against terrorists operating in dispersed, decentralized fashion in and among civilian populations. If used, they are overkill when confronted by the networked cells that are the organizational latticework of transantionalised terrorism. Sometimes overwhelming force is simply too much force given the character of the opponent and the contextual circumstance in which she is engaged. Should the irregular, unconventional actor refuse to be drawn out into conventional symmetry, the only option for a stronger conventional actor is to engage on her terms. This is the realm of Special Operations and Low Intensity Conflict (SOLIC), which in US practice has evolved new features in the form of CIA para-military squads and contract interrogators not beholden to the rules of engagement governing military intelligence and police.

This is what lies behind the US resort to torture. Along with the deployment of special forces teams and CIA squads in areas in which Islamicists congregate, the US is attempting to get down to the level of its Islamicist opponents in order to bring symmetry to the conflict. The operative belief is that if Islamicists want to play “dirty” by terrorising civilians world-wide, then the US government will demonstrate that it can bring to bear all of its power and resources on those terms. It does so by using the legal, military, administrative and political assets of a superpower to expand the range of allowable state and para-state violence while justifying and institutionalising extra-judicial treatment of terrorist suspects. Legal vetting of the wording of a variety of coercive interrogation techniques that require cabinet-level authorisation is emblematic of the US approach in that regard.

That the US releases many suspected terrorists without charge is beside the point. The objective is symbolic and systematic, or phrased differently, to terrorise in return. Those subjected to the new standard of detention and interrogations who gain release will inform others. They will detail the cruelty as well as the seemingly endless bureaucratic procedures required to seek redress, and they will expound upon their fear. What will be impressive about their stories is the banality of the reciprocal evil practiced in pursuit of “freedom,” and the sense of hopelessness and despair they felt while in its embrace. That condition of atomised infantilisation, whereby the subject is physically isolated, punished and scared while being powerless and utterly dependent on the whim of the captor, is a state of terror.

Torture of Muslims in US detention centres may inflame passions amongst Islamicist hard -liners (defined as those who will commit bodies to the conflict given sufficient provocation). Their mobilisation is justified as an acceptable variant on the honey trap theme, whereby an attractant (or provocation) prompts passive al-Qaeda cells to attempt further terrorist attacks. At that point they can be identified and hunted down, although some will wreak damage before doing so. In the scheme of things, that is held to be an acceptable cost of victory.

More importantly, public dissemination of the torture-terror doctrine will serve to dampen the passion of other would-be jihadis, and deter many who thought to join the Islamicist cause. The point is to demonstrate to the unconventional enemy and its supporters that the superpower, as well as other states, can well fight irregularly and systematically as well, if not better. After all, the most common–and effective–type of terrorism in history is state terror, not that practiced by today’s Islamicists.

This explains the why of using torture-terror as a combat weapon against terrorism. What it does not address is the issue of objective. If the objective of using torture on terrorist suspects is to extract valuable strategic and tactical intelligence from otherwise uncooperative subjects, the results have been poor. Sorting out the wheat from the chaff amid the hundreds of desperate stories told under duress by US detainees has been a difficult process, with relatively little valuable intelligence garnered from it. Thus, as a information gathering technique torture has not been a panacea for the US intelligence community, and given media exposure has become a public relations liability for the US–at least in the West. However, an alternative objective might better explain the rationale as well as the pragmatic criteria upon which to choose it.

If the objective is to wear down the will of jihadis to persist in their global armed challenge while at the same time removing their recruitment base, the systematic use of legally-sanctioned torture-terror by the US may bear fruit. In the measure that it achieves symmetry, it raises the costs of the engagement to the jihadists. In the measure that it turns the tables and weakens the will of the Islamicist irregulars to continue to fight, it will prevail over the long term. In the measure that it prevails it re-establishes the relationship between the West and “the Rest,” especially the Muslim world. In doing so it reconfigures the geopolitical landscape of the Middle East and elsewhere by extending the cultural boundaries of Western influence to the necessity of recognizing the need for symmetry in war. That, it seems, is the political syllogism underpinning the torture-terror doctrine.

Temporary, discriminatory and an admission of failure

datePosted on 12:16, October 30th, 2014 by Pablo

The PM says that the legislation his government proposes to pass under urgency allowing for the confiscation of passports of NZ citizens in order to combat the threat of returning foreign fighters will be “tightly focused” on those traveling to the Middle East in order to join jihadist groups. That phrase “tightly focused” is code for “Muslim Internationalists” as opposed to, say, Christian or non-religious fighters joining in foreign conflicts in the Middle East or elsewhere.  So if Kiwis of Croatian descent were to return to their homeland to fight Serbs they would be free to do so and then return without risk of having their passports confiscated. The same goes for Christian Nigerians who wish to return home to fight Boko Haram as members of community self-defence organisations.  And of course Jewish Kiwis already do so by traveling to join the Israeli Defense Forces.

To say the least, this law is by its nature discriminatory and temporary unless the government proposes to make it illegal for anyone to go and fight for any cause anywhere. And that clearly is not what it has in mind.

More tellingly, passing such “tightly focused” legislation under urgency is an admission of failure.

On the one hand, it tacitly is telling us that criminal law, including all of the anti-terrorist legislation passed in the last ten years, is inadequate to deal with this particular type of suspected criminal enterprise (or better said, intended criminal enterprise). On the other hand it implicitly recognises that the combined resources of the GCSB, SIS, Immigration, Customs, NZDF, Police and other security agencies, as well as those of NZ’s main security partners, are unable to monitor the activities of the dozen or so Kiwis who may have jihadist pretensions, this despite the fact that New Zealand is an isolated and relatively small archipelago with no land borders and limited access or egress by air or sea, with a very small Muslim community from which potential jihadists are drawn.

Reading between the lines of the PM’s statement, it seems that the extension of antiterrorism laws, powers of search, surveillance, seizure and domestic intelligence collection over the last decade, much less the existence of a vast array of criminal law statutes as currently exit on the books, have had no impact on the ability of the NZ security community to detect, deter and/or monitor a small group of  young men interested in fighting abroad. Hence the need for more “tightly focused” laws that if nothing else violate the presumption of innocence and freedom of movement that presumably are basic rights in liberal democracies.

That makes me wonder two things: what good do the expanded security powers awarded the state during the last decade serve if they cannot fulfil the basic functions of detection, deterrence and monitoring? And what does that say about the competence of the agencies whose powers have been expanded given New Zealand’s geopolitical location?

The answers are simple: none and a lot.

Beware the sucker ploy.

datePosted on 09:04, October 24th, 2014 by Pablo

A few years back I wrote about the strategic utility of terrorism. One thing I did not mention in that post was the use of a tried and true guerrilla tactic as part of the terrorist arsenal: the sucker ploy.

In guerrilla warfare the sucker ploy is a tactic whereby the weaker irregular forces stage an incident in order to provoke an over-reaction from their stronger adversaries. Examples include killing a local official so as to have the security forces engage in mass repression of the people in the locality in which he worked. Another is firing at enemy aircraft or armour from inside villages in order to have them retaliate indiscriminately against the entire village. The objective is to alienate and erode support for the enemy by the victims.

For the last five years or so, the international jihadist movement spearheaded by al-Qaeda and now the Islamic State have evolved their tactics to suit the strategic environment they are confronted with. No longer able to carry out large scale attacks such as 9/11 or the Bali, London and Madrid bombings, would-be jihadists have been encouraged to engage in self-radicalised “lone wolf” or small-cell attacks within their respective countries using their familiarity with the local terrain and knowledge of local customs and symbology. These are low level, highly independent and autonomous operations, as was seen in the Boston Marathon bombings last year.

Attacks of this nature are tactically opportune but strategically insignificant. They do not present an existential challenge to any established state. By themselves they are tragic but politically inconsequential.

The motives and desired impact of the perpetrators may differ from those of the Islamicist leadership. Perpetrators may wish to strike a blow and sow localised fear while achieving martyrdom. The Islamicist leadership desires a strategic victory. The only way that it can do so is to use these types of attacks as a sucker ploy.

If governments respond to lone wolf and small cell low level terrorism with blanket increases in mass surveillance, national threat levels, expansion of security and anti-terrorism laws and restrictions on freedoms of association, movement and speech by groups associated with the perpetrators by virtue of religion, ethnicity or the like, then the strategic objectives of the Islamicist leadership are being served. That is because such measures target innocents, not only on an indiscriminate mass scale but often because of who they are rather than anything they have done. That further alienates and marginalises previously passive but increasingly disaffected sectors of society, thereby delegitimising governmental authority while breeding new recruits to the cause.

The temptation for democratic governments responding to such attacks to engage in large scale security tightening is overwhelming, which is of course what the Islamicists are banking on. The public needs reassurance, security agencies see opportunity and conservative politicians want their pound of flesh. Few opposition politicians want to appear soft on the threat of terrorism,  much less by opposing moves to “tighten” security in the wake of lethal attacks in the West motivated by Islam. But that urge, even if given carte blanche by the media-fed hysteria of the moment, needs to be tempered with a broader perspective and deeper analysis of what is at play.

Of course security measures need to be in place in order to thwart such low-level attacks. In Ottawa they clearly were not. But this is no excuse to engage in a knee-jerk over-reaction that results in the type of divisive measures that serve the purposes of the Islamicists more than the population at large. To do so is to fall into the trap set by the Islamicst leadership when they ordered the shift in tactics towards decentralised low level operations conducted by “home-grown” jihadis.

A couple of points worth mentioning: The Canadian threat environment and exposure to Islamic terrorism is different and greater than that of New Zealand and has been for some time. IS had directly threatened Canada before the attacks because Canada has actively joined the conflict by sending ground attack aircraft and special forces troops to the fray.

The perpetrators responsible for this week’s crimes were not returning from the killing fields of Syria or Iraq. They were native born Quebecois, evidencing mental halt issues, with prior criminal records who were known to the Canadian authorities. They were recent converts to Islam, one of whom had been placed on a so-called “watch list” and had his passport revoked because of his overt Islamicist sympathies. The other, a recovering drug addict, was waiting for a passport application to be processed, was living in a half way house, and was frustrated by the delays in securing the passport.  Unable to leave Canada, both turned their murderous gaze inwards.

This should serve as a lesson on several levels. But the foremost one is simple: beware the sucker ploy.

Media Link: The revolution will not be televised.

datePosted on 15:01, October 23rd, 2014 by Pablo

I had the opportunity to do a long interview with Olivier Jutel, host of the Dunedin Radio One show “The revolution will not be televised.” It is a rare occasion when one gets to converse at length about a variety of subjects on radio or television, so this was a nice opportunity to air my views on a number of issues, to include the conflict with the Islamic state, New Zealand’s potential role in it, fear mongering as a political strategy, the impact of social media on political behaviour, etc.

The podcast can be found here.

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