Archive for ‘Terrorism’ Category

Should NZ renounce lethal drones?

datePosted on 17:32, May 25th, 2014 by Pablo

The Diplosphere event on lethal drones held in Wellington last week was a good opportunity to hear different views on the subject. The majority consensus was that legal, moral and practical questions delegitimate their use, although one defended them and I noted, among other things, that they are just one aspect of the increased robotization of modern battlefields, are only efficient against soft targets and are seen as cost effective when compared to manned aircraft.

At the end of my remarks I proposed that we debate the idea that New Zealand unilaterally renounce the use of lethal drones in any circumstance, foreign and domestic. I noted that the NZDF and other security agencies would oppose such a move, as would our security allies. I posited that if implemented, such a stance would be akin to the non-nuclear declaration of 1985 and would reaffirm New Zealand’s independent and autonomous foreign policy.

Alternatively, New Zealand could propose to make the South Pacific a lethal drone-free zone, similar to the regional nuclear free zone declared by the 1985 Treaty of Rarotonga. I noted again that countries like Australia and Chile would oppose the move (both have drone fleets and do not discount using them in anger), but that many of the Pacific Island states would likely welcome the idea.

Either declaration would in no way impact negatively on the use of non-lethal drones, whose utility is obvious. It would also leave open to interpretation whether NZ based intelligence could be used in drawing up targeting lists for foreign lethal drone strikes, a subject currently in the public eye as a result of claims that the GCSB does exactly that in places like Yemen. The PM says he is comfortable with the intelligence-sharing arrangement as well as the legitimacy of drone strikes, and added that similar intelligence was provided for ISAF drone strikes in Afghanistan (where the US and the UK deploy lethal drones on behalf of ISAF).

His confidence notwithstanding, many Kiwis are opposed to any cooperation with lethal drone programs, so the debate could be expanded to include indirect NZ involvement with them.

I think this is a debate well worth having. I realize that the security community will want to keep all options open and be very opposed to ceding any tactical advantage in future conflicts, and that extending the ban to indirect cooperation would have a negative influence on NZ’s diplomatic and military-intelligence relations with its security partners.

I am cognizant that it may be a hard thing to actually do given the balance of political power currently extant in NZ and the hurdles needed to implement it should the proposition be accepted. One of the other panelists dismissed the idea of unilateral renunciation as simply impractical and said that the proper forum in which to advance it was the UN (cue Tui ad here).

Some may say that is silly to debate something that does not exist. New Zealand does not deploy lethal drones. However, UAVs are already present in NZ skies, both in civilian and military applications. This includes geological surveys and volcanic research, on the civilian side, and battlefield (tactical) surveillance in the guise of the NZDF Kahui Hawk now deployed by the army. The military continues its research and development of UAV prototypes (early R&D worked off of Israeli models), and agencies as varied as the Police, Customs and the Navy have expressed interest in their possibilities. Since non-lethal UAV platforms can be modified into lethal platforms at relatively low cost, it seems prudent to have the debate before rather than after their entry into service.

I am aware that the revulsion voiced by many against the lethal use of unmanned aerial vehicles might as well be shared with all manned combat aircraft since the effects of their deployment ultimately are the same–they deal in death from the sky. Given that commonality, the preferential concern with one and not the other appears more emotional than rational, perhaps responding to idealized notions of chivalry in war. That is another reason why the subject should be debated at length.

Such a debate, say, in the build up to a referendum on the matter, would allow proponents and opponents to lay out their best arguments for and against, and permit the public to judge the merits of each via the ballot box. That will remove any ambiguity about how Kiwis feel about this particular mode of killing.

UPDATE: Idiot Savant at No Right Turn has kindly supported the proposition. Lets hope that others will join the campaign.

 

Something to do in Wellington.

datePosted on 11:50, May 8th, 2014 by Pablo

On May 20, 2014 from 6PM-7:30PM Diplosphere is hosting a panel discussion titled “Drone Strikes: Are They in New Zealand’s Interest?” The event will be hosted by Dr. Kennedy Graham MP-Green Party and will take place at the Theatrette, Parliament Buildings, Wellington. The hosts ask that people register for the event, which they can do by contacting Maty Nikkhou-O’Brien at the following email address: mnobrien@diplosphere.org

The panel Chair is Dr. Roderick Alley of Victoria University, who has just published a thorough examination of drone warfare. The panelists are Professor Richard Jackson of the National Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Otago, investigative journalist Nicky Hager and myself.

It should be an interesting discussion. I will try to place the emergence of drone warfare in context before debating its legality and utility.

Media Links: Kiwi killed in drone strike.

datePosted on 17:56, April 17th, 2014 by Pablo

I did interviews on TV 3 and Radio NZ about the drone strike that killed a Kiwi dual citizen in Yemen last year. There are many questions raised by the incident, but time constraints precluded addressing all of them. The headline of the TV 3 interview is misleading of what I actually said. The RNZ interview is more straight forward and has a slightly different angle.

Monitoring Syrians and Supplicants.

datePosted on 12:14, February 14th, 2014 by Pablo

The subject of spying is back in the news this week, but the coverage has been inadequate. Allow me to clarify some issues, first with regard to those who want to join the Syrian conflict and second with regard to politicians trying to ingratiate themselves with Kim Dotcom.

Contrary to the thrust of the coverage, not all those seeking to join the Syrian conflict are Syrian or descendants of Syrians. The Syrian War is a civil war between Shiia and Sunnis, where the minority Alawite-backed Assad regime is fighting to maintain its grip over a majority Sunni population (Alawites are a sub-sect of Shiia Islam). For a variety of affective and strategic reasons Iran (a very large Shiia dominant country) supports the Assad regime while Sunni-controlled Saudi Arabia and Gulf oligarchies back the armed opposition. This opposition is divided into what can be loosely called secular moderates (such as those grouped in the Free Syrian Army) and Islamicists (such as those in the al-Nusra Front and Al-Qaeda in Iraq and the Levant).

The latter have come to dominate the military side of the opposition due to their superior combat skills and determination. Their ranks include Sunni internationalists from all over the world (including New Zealand) who see joining the struggle as a religious imperative. Egyptians, Jordanians, Pakistanis, Britons, Australians and French nationals are among those fighting in Islamicist ranks. That has led to serious clashes with the moderate secularists (who do not have as many internationalists in their ranks, although there are some), to the point that the fighting between the armed opposition factions has allowed the Assad regime to re-gain the upper hand in the overall struggle after being near collapse just six months ago.

Where the armed opposition is winning, it is the Islamicists who are doing so.

In the last nine months the Prime Minister has made repeated reference to would-be New Zealand jihadis joining the fight in Syria. Some are already there and others have been barred from going. They may or may not be Syrian in origin, but his use of the “Syrian trump card” is a naked political ploy designed to use fear-mongering as a justification for extension of domestic espionage and, perhaps, as a way of pre-emptively steeling public opinion against the negative consequences of the inevitable revelations from Edward Snowden about New Zealand’s foreign espionage role within the Five Eyes/Echelon signals intelligence collection network. The trouble with the PM’s ploy is that the proclaimed threat does not match the facts.

According to the government ten New Zealand passports have been revoked since 2005 and a handful of Kiwis are in Syria fighting. The PM makes it sound as if all these have associations with extremist Islam. Perhaps they do, but the Syrian conflict only heated up as of early 2012, so the Syrian card does not explain why passports were cancelled prior to that. Moreover, the PM says that passports were cancelled in order to prevent “radicalized” Kiwis from returning and making trouble at home. That begs the question as to what the frustrated wanna-be jihadis are going to do now that their plans are thwarted and they are forced to remain in the country under heavy scrutiny.

A Syrian community spokesman has said that two brothers had their passports revoked after their parents informed authorities of their plans to travel back home to join the fight. He also accused the PM and his government of “racial discrimination.” The latter claim is ridiculous and shows a gross misunderstanding of how democratic governance works. John Key did not personally order the revocation of any passports nor does he have the power to rescind the cancellation order. New Zealand authorities did not cancel the brother’s passports because they were Syrian but because of their purported intentions. They did not target the entire Syrian community for who they are.

In fact, under current legislation the government is well within its rights to revoke passports on the grounds that the individuals involved intend to become or are part of a criminal enterprise, of which terrorism is one. Since the Islamicists fighting in Syria are considered terrorist organizations by the New Zealand government, any intent to join them could be construed as an attempt to engage in criminal activity. One might argue that the definition of terrorism is too broad (and I believe that it is), but as things stand the government’s concern about returning, combat experienced jihadis is a legitimate motive for canceling passports.

I shall leave aside the fact that the chances of survival of those joining the Syrian conflict is quite low* and they are being monitored in any event, so mitigating the potential threat posed by returning jihadis is not as formidable as Mr. Key implies. There are technical means of tracking the location of passports, and the individuals who are in Syria or want to go there have been identified already via domestic intelligence gathering. In fact, allowing suspects to travel while being secretly monitored is a standard intelligence collection method, so one can reasonably assume that the handful of Kiwi internationalists in Syria as well as their as of yet to travel brethren are the focus of both human and signals intelligence collection efforts by local espionage agencies in conjunction with foreign counterparts.

However, Mr. Key’s repeated public use of the Syrian card certainly has alerted any would-be extremists in the New Zealand Muslim community that they have been infiltrated by the Police and SIS and that there are informants in their midst. In fact, the New Zealand Muslim community is a bit of a sieve since 9/11 because personal, sectarian and financial vendettas as well as legitimate concerns about ideological extremism have seen the accusation of “terrorist” thrown around quite freely within it. This has been well known inside security circles (who have to separate bogus from legitimate accusations of terrorist sympathies), but the PM’s public disclosure has given potential jihadis a clear signal to exercise increased caution and diligence when planning future violence (should there be any).

The most important issue, however, is the selective application of the passport revocation authority. If would-be Islamic internationalists have not been convicted of crimes in New Zealand, and barring clear evidence that they intend to engage in crime abroad, then they should be allowed free passage to travel. If they engage in war crimes or crimes against humanity during a foreign conflict (be it in Syria or elsewhere), they can be charged upon their return, or even detained on the suspicion of complicity in said crimes. This is not a far-fetched speculation because both the Assad regime and its armed opposition have committed a raft of atrocities that fall under both definitions of illegal war-time behavior.

This applies equally to those who may choose to join non-Islamicist groups in other foreign conflicts (for example, by joining Christian militias in the Central African Republic), so specifically targeting those intending to go to Syria to fight is, in fact, selective if not discriminatory application of the relevant law. As far as following the Australian example and making it illegal to join a foreign conflict under penalty of imprisonment or revocation of citizenship, one can only hope not.

The simple fact is that would-be jihadis and other internationalists should be free to join any foreign conflict. They assume the risk of doing so and understand that they give up the diplomatic protections usually reserved for citizens traveling abroad. Should they be deemed a potential threat upon their return (in the event that they do), then it is the responsibility of local law enforcement and intelligence agencies to mitigate that threat within the rule of law. As I have alluded to above, that is not particularly hard to do in the New Zealand context.

As for politicians meeting with Dotcom, the issue is far more simple than sinister. Dotcom is a NZ permanent resident who is a fugitive from US justice still under extradition warrant (which is being argued in court). The authorities may well consider him a flight risk because he certainly has the means to do so. They may believe that he is continuing his criminal associations or practices while his court case is being heard (I shall refrain from making bad jokes about those who have flocked to his side during the GCSB Bill debates, or about the politicians who have knocked on his door). Given his penchant for partying and those he associates with when doing so, they may want to catch him in possession of illegal drugs.

Thus the Police would have legitimate reason to run ongoing surveillance operations on him, and can do so legally with or without the help of the SIS and now, thanks to the passage of the GCSB Bill, the GCSB. In doing so, they would monitor and record the comings and goings of visitors to his mansion, with that information passed up the chain of command.

That is why Mr Key’s version of how he came to know about Mr. Peters’ treks to the Coatesville property is odd. He claims that he got his information about Dotcom’s political visitors from Cameron Slater working with or independently from a Herald gossip columnist. That is troubling.

The Right Honorable John Key is the Minister of Intelligence and Security, so presumably he is aware of the status of security operations and the Dotcom case in particular given its history. But he claims that he received domestic espionage information about Dotcoms’s visitors from a right-wing, admittedly partisan “attack” blogger, rather than from the security agencies for which he is responsible and who have a legal right to monitor Mr. Dotcom. That is a sign of incompetence or willful ignorance on his part.

I have shares in a Bolivian gold mine I am willing to sell at a very affordable price to readers who believe a sociopath was the first source of the Dotcom visit data provided to the PM.  Perhaps I am wrong and it is simply too much for domestic law enforcement and intelligence agencies to pursue the monitoring of Dotcom for a supposed copyright infringement when so many Syrian-focused terrorists abound. But given the amount of resources expended and the reputational stakes involved, it would not be surprising and in fact legal for security agencies to do so.

I would suggest that if people like Winston Peters are concerned about being spied on when visiting Mr. Dotcom, then they should look at their own roles in allowing that to happen. Since 9/11 the legal powers and practical reach of the domestic espionage apparatus have been increased incrementally yet extensively under both Labour and National governments. Other than a relatively small number of Left activists and the Green Party (as well as ACT while Rodney Hide was still around to lead it), neither the majority public or the majority of political parties did anything to oppose this extension.

In fact, although Labour party figures and Winston Peters joined Kim Dotcom on the stage at various anti-GCSB Bill protests last year, and the bow-tied buffoon with a pompadour posing as a political party objected to having his personal communications accessed during the course of an investigation into leaks of confidential government information, Labour is responsible for the majority of the extensions and Dunne and Peters supported all of them. National has merely deepened the trend towards a surveillance society.

Hence, whatever Labour, NZ First or United Future may say now as a way of partisan point-scoring, they are full accomplices in the erosion of Kiwi privacy rights over the last decade. Any current whinging about violations of their personal and the larger collective privacy should be dismissed as cowardly rank hypocrisy.

In any event, when it comes to intrusions on basic freedoms of association, privacy and travel, not only Syrians living in New Zealand have reason to feel aggrieved.

* This is due to the immutable Buchanan rule of ground warfare: if you are firing your weapon over your head, or firing blindly around corners in the general direction of the enemy, you will not last long once s/he closes in. Should that rule be miraculously violated without consequence, the fifth Buchanan rule of asymmetrical warfare comes into effect: strapping explosives or amulets to your body in the hope of divine intervention is based on a false premise.

Some advice about travel advisories.

datePosted on 09:19, January 5th, 2014 by Pablo

The murder of Westerners, including a New Zealander in Libya, in the aftermath of the so-called “Arab Spring” of regime change in North Africa and the Levant, has raised the profile of travel advisories as effective guides to personal and institutional safety of foreign travelers in such unstable regions. Libya is classified as High Risk in an around Tripoli and Misarata extending west to the Tunisian border and Extreme Risk pretty much everywhere else in the country by most Western states, including Australia, Canada, the UK and US. Syria is, understandably, considered to be an Extreme Risk environment by virtually all Western governments. The body of the Kiwi who was murdered, a female friend of a contractor to an Italian petrochemical firm, was found 100 kilometers west of Tripoli in a High Risk area. For her and her British companion, as well as several Americans recently, the risk was terminally extreme.

Both governments and private entities issue travel advisories, which are most often associated in Western minds with unstable or undeveloped states and regions in which lawlessness is rife (the same is largely true for advisories given by non-western governments such as the Japanese, Singaporeans or Chinese). The advisories may focus on political or criminal threats to foreigners in general and citizens in particular depending on the situation (for example, ethnic Chinese are more likely to be the target of socioeconomic-based ethnic violence in Melanesia and Polynesia than ethnic Europeans, and female travelers are particularly vulnerable in many places because of local cultural mores). Yet these advisories are not always as neutral as they may appear at first glance and hence need to be treated with caution and in broader perspective.

Put bluntly, it is erroneous to assume that governments, much less many private entities, issue objective and value-free travel advisories. They do not.

Government travel advisories take into account the diplomatic, security and economic relations of the issuing state with the targeted country. As a result, taking everything into account and (however short-sightedly) thinking of the bigger picture moving forward, there is a tendency to downplay security concerns where the countries in question are allies or have good foreign relations, whereas there is an inclination to paint an adversary or hostile country in a more negative light regardless of the objective situation on the ground. States are loathe to annoy their partners and allies, or those that they wish to cultivate for diplomatic or economic reasons, by issuing alerts and advisories of high or extreme risk in them. They may be pressured by corporate actors to downplay the risk of travel to those countries. Thus, even if the situation on the ground is hazardous for tourists or business travelers, the advice offered in such circumstances often does not raise above that of a caution about medium to moderate risks to personal and institutional security.

The concern with maintaining good diplomatic relations is compounded by the failure of many Western governments to fully appreciate the fluid nature of political and social events in designated countries, specifically the impact of regime change, latent social unrest and pre-modern cleavages on mass collective action. Confusing mass acquiescence with popular consent often leads countries to overestimate the degree of political support sustaining a foreign ally or partner. That in turn leads them to formulate their travel advisories in ways the underestimate the possibility of regime failure and the attendant risks associated with it.

Given resource constraints in diplomatic and intelligence agencies in many countries, limitations on diplomatic presence and in-country expertise in foreign contexts can limit the ability of advising governments to gather accurate, time sensitive and nuanced information on local conditions. Consequently, they often rely on the host government or foreign partners for situational knowledge, which itself may be more general than specific. This is then passed on by diplomatic outposts (some which may not be located in the country under scrutiny) to the home governments, often without vetting by other security agencies. That is a problem because for a number of reasons both host governments and foreign partners may not provide accurate reads of the local conditions being assessed.

Bureaucratic in-fighting amongst government agencies responsible for offering input into official travel advisories adds to the problem of objectivity. Different foreign policy-related agencies with input authority on travel advisories may have different information from their foreign counterparts with regard to the countries being assessed (say, intelligence, police and military agencies versus diplomatic, customs, health or immigration agencies).

Look at it this way: whatever the concerns of one or more agencies, would others be willing to accept harming a fruitful diplomatic, security or economic relationship because of the particular, if valid, concern about citizen travel to a particular country? And even if the foreign affairs bureaucracies agreed to defer to the concerns of one or a few agencies, would all Ministers necessarily find it politically expedient to accept the bureaucratic judgement, be it in an election year or not?

Continuity, stability, reliability and future mutual support are the most precious commodities of foreign relations, but the interest in them often blinds governments to the inherently weak or unstable nature of the regimes that appear to offer them. It also leads to acceptance of what foreign allies depict as local reality as fact when the truth may be otherwise. Thus time and time again Western governments have been caught by surprise at mass upheavals against seemingly stable friendly (most often authoritarian) regimes, with their citizens visiting and resident in countries where popular revolts occur often victimized as a result in part because they were lulled into a false sense of security by official travel advisories that downplayed the risks to the friendly regime, and by extension, foreigners who could be construed as associated with it.

This has occurred throughout North and Sub-Saharan Africa in the past five years, SE Asia and Latin America in years before, and is evident in the moderate advisories given to Middle Eastern diplomatic, military and trading partners by Western governments in spite of clear indications of simmering restive and anti-foreign sentiment in them.

Similarly, travel agencies, tour companies, airlines and other business invested in tourism, as well as those that see profit in resource extraction and commodity export, have an inherent disposition to downplay risks because their livelihoods depend upon sustaining and increasing the number of tourists and investment dollars in such ventures. Absent an obvious and compelling threat such as a civil war like those in Syria and the Central African Republic, profit driven private entities will, like official government warnings, often couch their advisories in moderate terms. Here too they are handicapped by a lack of objective risk analysis because they often rely for their local knowledge on in-country partnerships that also depend on tourist and investment dollars for their livelihoods. In such relationships no one wants to upset the foreign traveler or investor gravy train so risk is downplayed in all but the most dire situations. As two of many examples, Kenya and Thailand offer proof of that.

NGOs and IOs tend to more pragmatic in their travel advisories and risk assessments because they have less profit at stake and more lives and reputations immediately in play. Travel guides tend to be objective but superficial in their risk advice unless the local situation is obviously dire. This is not surprising given the breadth and focus of travel guides (think Lonely Planet as an example, although to its credit it does address gender and LBTG travel issues where possible), which are not oriented towards divining risks to personal and collective security but instead focus on geographic, cultural and entertainment features of any given place.

The best risk assessments and travel advisories tend to come from insurance firms (although some of their assessments have been proven to be suspect, such as those involved in the determination of national credit ratings). Likewise, reputable international political risk and open source intelligence firms are more objective and forthright about the situation in any given country because their client’s welfare is often at stake, and maintaining client relationships is most important for the success of such firms. In fact, insurance firms regularly seek external assessments from political risk and open intelligence firms so as to limit the possibility of and mitigate their liability in the event a client disregards their in-house advice.

The difference here is that reputable political risk and open source intelligence agencies tend to canvass as wide an array of sources as possible before they put their names on any assessment, including travel advisories. Moreover, such firms can tailor their assessments and advisories to client needs, for example, but specifying the relationship of competing market actors with local political factions and (where present) criminal or political armed groups in specific foreign contexts (the relationship between irredentists and oil firms in the Niger Delta comes to mind, but also applies to resource extractive firms and indigenous militias in regions like the Southwestern Pacific and Central Africa).

Needless to say, reading news about a travel destination is a very good way of getting abreast of the local context. Many non-European countries have English, French, Italian, Spanish, German or Dutch language newspapers (many of these  a colonial legacy), and outlets like the BBC, VOA and RT radio services also provide useful updated information on local conditions. Similarly, social media may offer better awareness of tactical or real-time situations, although one should always be aware of editorial and personal bias in any news provider, so-called mainstream or not. After all, when it comes to taking advice and reading the news, a discerning traveler is a prepared traveler.

Reliable information on local conditions is as important for those who deliberately travel to unstable or conflict zones such as reporters, diplomats, military personnel, security contractors and ideological “internationalists” who join in foreign fights as it is for the casual or unwary traveler. Regardless of circumstance, one should know what they are getting into and prepare (or avoid) accordingly.

In light of the above, travelers should not rely exclusively on the advisories of governments or private entities with a direct interest in downplaying risk assessments in foreign countries. This may seem obvious but in fact is not, as many people assume that their governments and the companies that transport, house and entertain them overseas have their personal and group safety as an overriding concern.

They do not, and are insured against episodic calamity as a result.

The al-Shabaab attack in perspective.

datePosted on 18:51, September 28th, 2013 by Pablo

I was interviewed about the al-Shabaab attack in Nairobi. I have a slightly different take than the usual mainstream narrative.

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