Posts Tagged ‘Terrorism’

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.

Fighting terrorism is a matter of law enforcement.

datePosted on 08:35, January 20th, 2015 by Pablo

The post 9/11 security environment has been dominated by the spectre of terrorism, mostly if not exclusively of the Islamic-inspired sort. In most liberal democracies the response to the threat of this type of extremist violence has been the promulgation of a raft of anti-terrorism laws and organisational changes in national security agencies, the sum total of which has been an erosion of civil liberties in the pursuit of  better security. Some have gone so far as to speak of a “war” on terrorism, arguing that Islamicist terrorism in particular is an existential threat to Western societies that demands the prioritisation of security over individual and collective rights.

Although ideological extremists see themselves at war, this response on the part of democratic states, and the characterisation of the fight against terrorism as a “war” marshalled along cultural or civilisation lines, is mistaken. The proper response is to see terrorism not in ideological terms, with the focus on the motivation of the perpetrators, but in criminal terms, where the focus is on the nature of the crime. Seeing terrorism as the latter allows those who practice it to be treated as part of a violent criminal conspiracy much like the Mafia or international drug smuggling syndicates. This places the counter-terrorism emphasis on the act rather than the motivation, thereby removing arguments about cause and justification from the equation.

There is no reason for Western democracies to go to war. Whatever its motivation, terrorism poses no existential threat to any stable society, much less liberal democracies. Only failed states, failing states and those at civil war face the real threat of takeover from the likes of the Islamic State or al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. For Western democracies under terrorist attack, the institutional apparatus of the State will not fall, political society will not unravel and the social fabric will to tear. But there is a caveat to this: both the democratic state and society must beware the sucker ploy.

As an irregular warfare tactic terrorism is a weapon of the militarily weak that is not only a form of intimidation but a type of provocation as well. It has a target, a subject and an objective. Here is where the sucker ploy comes into play. Terrorist attacks against defenceless targets are designed to lure democratic states into undertaking security measures out of proportion to the real threat involved. The weaker adversary commits an atrocity or outrage in order to provoke an overreaction from the stronger subject, in this case from Western liberal democracies. The overreaction victimises more than the perpetrators and legitimises their grievances. In doing so, the democratic state plays into the hands of the terrorist objectives by providing grounds for recruitment, continuation and expansion of their struggle. When democratic societies, panicked by fear, begin to retaliate against domestic minority populations from whence terrorists are believed to emanate, then the sucker ploy will have proven successful.

The sucker ploy has been at the core of al-Qaeda’s strategy from the beginning. Enunciated by Osama bin Laden, the idea behind the attacks on the World Trade Centre and Pentagon, then the Bali, Madrid and London bombings, was to cause the entire West to overreact by scapegoating all Muslims and subjecting them to undemocratic security checks, to include mass surveillance, warrantless searches and arrest and detention without charge. With the majority supporting such moves, the Muslim minorities in the West become further alienated. That serves to confirm the al-Qaeda narrative that the West is at war with all of the Muslim world, which bin Laden and his acolytes hoped would generate a groundswell of conflict between Muslims and non-Muslims on a global scale.

The US and UK duly obliged by using 9/11 as one pretext for invading Iraq, which had nothing to do with the events of that day and which had no Islamic extremists operating in its midst at the time. It does now.

After the possibility of staging spectacular large scale attacks like 9/11 became increasingly difficult due to Western counter-measures, al-Qaeda 2.0 emerged. Its modus operandi, as repeatedly outlined and exhorted by the on-line magazine Inspire, is to encourage self-radicalised jihadis born in the West to engage in low-level, small cell (2-5 people) or so-called “lone wolf” attacks by single individuals on targets of opportunity using their local knowledge of the cultural and physical terrain in which they live.

In recent years the Syrian civil war and rise of the Islamic State have provided recruits with the opportunity to sharpen their knowledge of weaponry, tactics and combat skills with an eye towards future use at home in the event that they survive the foreign adventure (although less than 50 percent of them do). With reportedly 15,000 foreign fighters joining Syrians and Iraqis in the Islamic State ranks and a number of Westerners gravitating towards al-Qaeda, that leaves plenty of returning jhadis to be concerned about.

Shopping malls, sports venues, transportation hubs, entertainment venues, non-military government offices, media outlets, houses of worship, schools and universities–all of these present soft targets with significant symbolic value where a relatively small criminal act of violence can generate waves of apprehension across the larger population, thereby prompting a government overreaction as much in an effort to calm public fears as it is to prevent further attacks. The range and number of these targets makes guarding all them very difficult, and if the perpetrators plan in secret and maintain operational secrecy up until the moment of engagement, then they are impossible to stop regardless of the security measures in place. Short of adopting a garrison state or open-air prison approach to society as a whole, there is no absolute physical defense against determined and prepared low level operators, especially when they have access to not only to weapons but common household or industrial products that can be used to untoward ends.

Although it risks detection because of the coordination and numbers involved, one variant of the low-level, decentralised terrorist strategy is the so-called “swarm” attack, whereby several small cells engage multiple targets simultaneously or in rapid sequence, even in several countries if possible. This is designed to stretch the security apparatus to its limits, thereby causing confusion and delays in response while demonstrating the attacker’s capability to strike at will virtually anywhere. At that point the military–ostensibly used for external defense–is often  called in, thereby giving all the appearance of a nation at war. Such is now happening in Belgium and France.

The evolution of terrorist tactics notwithstanding, if we strip away all the ideological gloss what is left is a transnational criminal enterprise. The response required is therefore more police than military in nature, and requires increased intelligence sharing and police cooperation amongst nations. The legislative response should be not to create a separate body of political crimes deserving of increased (and undemocratic) coercive attention from the state, but to bolster criminal law to include hard penalties for carrying out, financing, supporting or encouraging politically motivated violence. All of this can be done without militarising the state and compromising basic democratic values regarding the freedoms of speech, assembly and movement.

What is not needed but unfortunately has been the majority response in the West, is expanded anti-terrorist legislation and sweeping powers of search, surveillance and seizure that cover the entire population rather than those suspected of harbouring extremist tendencies. This violates the presumption of innocence as well as the right to privacy of the vast majority of citizens, to which can now be added restrictions on freedom of movement for those who, even without criminal backgrounds, are suspected of planning to travel to join extremist groups abroad.

Worse yet, such measures are not entirely effective, as the Boston Marathon bombings, Sydney hostage crisis (the work of a lone mentally ill individual with delusions of Islamic grandeur who was out on bail for sexual crimes and accessory to murder) and the Charlie Hebdo attacks have shown (Australia, the US and France have very strong antiterrorism measures, to include the Patriot Act and NSA/FBI mass surveillance in the US, overtly authoritarian security legislation dating back to the Fifth Republic in France–which was a response to the Algerian Crisis of 1958– and increasingly hard anti-terrorist legislation in Australia).

There is a clear need to upgrade police intelligence gathering, sharing and operational procedures in order to combat the terrorism threat. The main impediment to that has not been a public lack of cooperation or the inadequacy of extant criminal law (which needs regular upgrading in any event due to the evolution of crime–for example, 30 years ago cyber security and cyber crime were not issues that needed to be covered by law). Instead, it has mainly been due to inter-agency rivalries between domestic security and intelligence agencies and a lack of international cooperation on ideologically charged matters such as Islamic terrorism (for example, between Israel and its Arab neighbours and the US and China). Given advents in telecommunications technologies, there has to be a priority focus on social media intelligence gathering, particularly of platforms that use encryption to shield criminal behaviour. But all of that can be done without the mass curtailment of civil liberties, and without militarising the response to the point that it gives all the appearances of cultures at war.

It should be obvious that the underlying causes of terrorism in the West need to be addressed as part of a comprehensive strategy for dealing with the problem. These involve a host of socio-economic and cultural policy areas and a willingness by politicians to broach debate on sensitive topics related to them (such as the question of assimilation of migrants, minority youth unemployment etc.). But in the narrow sense of security counter-measures, the key is to not exaggerate the terrorist threat, to strip it of its political significance and to use more efficient policing and intelligence gathering backed by criminal law to treat it not as a special type of (political) crime but as just the violent acts of criminal conspirators.

Although its threat environment (including terrorist threats) is far less menacing than that of its major security partners, New Zealand has adopted antiterrorist and search and surveillance legislation that is more appropriate for the threats faced by India or Pakistan than by a small isolated democratic island state. Other small democracies outside of Europe like Costa Rica, Portugal or Uruguay have not seen the need to adopt such legislation, and Uruguay in fact has accepted released Guantanamo detainees for re-settlement. Thus the question begs as to why New Zealand has chosen to privilege security over freedom when the threat environment does not warrant it? So far, in spite of crying wolf about the spectre of home grown jihadists and returning foreign fighters, the New Zealand authorities have not provided any concrete evidence of plots or other indicators of terrorists at work that would justify the expansion of what is now a full-fledged security and surveillance state.

One can only hope that as part of the forthcoming intelligence agency review an honest discussion of terrorism and other threats can be had so that perspective can be gained and the proper response undertaken. That may well mean rolling back some of the security legislation passed during the last decade while refining specific provisions of the Crimes Act and attendant legislation so that the balance between security and civil liberties can be re-equilibrated in more even fashion.

For an interesting take on the subject, here is an article by a US security academic with clear pro-establishment views.

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.

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.

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.

The differences between hate crime and terrorism.

datePosted on 12:18, May 27th, 2013 by Pablo

Coverage of the murder of a British soldier in London and a subsequent stabbing of a French soldier in Paris by presumably Muslim extremists demonstrates how governments and some media outlets misuse the term “terrorism.”

After 9/11 “terrorism,” and its subset “Islamic terrorism,” became the favoured terms used to describe most types of politically motivated violence. That serves the purposes of government security agencies, many of which have expanded their powers of arrest and detention without charge, warrantless search and surveillance and legal scope of authority under the rubric of anti-terrorism legislation passed in the wake of 9/11. New Zealand is no exception in this regard, and the current proposal to amend the GCSB ACT 2003 is a continuation of that trend.

Branding political violence as terrorism allows the state to ignore standard notions of civil liberties and rights under the law because of the “special” nature of the terrorist threat. It justifies the profiling of entire communities of people who share basic traits or affinities with terrorist suspects. It fuels the growth of private and public security agencies focused on thwarting unconventional attacks at the same time that it militarizes domestic security, expands intelligence networks and re-focuses the strategic orientation of the military itself. It plays on fear and uncertainty for purposes unrelated to the actual threat posed by terrorism.

For the uncritical media, labeling all acts of political violence as terrorism feeds on sensationalism in pursuit of profit. Some lump all political violence done by designated “others” (most recently, Muslims) as terrorist acts in order to promote specific political agendas. Thus the attack on the US consulate in Benghazi, which was a standard guerilla operation against a symbol of US power, is portrayed by mainstream US outlets as a terrorist assault on American existential values rather than as a low-level threat against a defended compound that was ignored prior to its materializing.

Others reproduce government narratives about terrorism without deconstructing ulterior motives. This symbiotically serves both sides but leaves the truth somewhere in between. It is therefore worth distinguishing between political violence in general, and hate crimes and terrorism in particular.

Political violence is that which is done for political or ideological reasons. It may be due to grievance, fear, opportunism, or latent tensions based on long-standing differences. It may act as a precipitant or catalyst for broader violence by igniting sectarian conflicts. There are many reasons for and many types of political violence. Not all are terrorism.

Regicide is the killing of kings (in this day and age Game of Thrones fans are the most familiar with the concept). Political fratricide is the killing of partisans by their colleagues (some of which can be done symbolically, as recent New Zealand Labour Party ructions have shown). Homicidal attacks on presidents, premiers, prime ministers and politicians of all stripes are political murders by virtue of the victim’s status as much as the perpetrator’s motives. Lethal riots and clashes between political factions are mass political violence. None of these are terrorism.

Hate crimes are crimes committed out of loathing and contempt. They are rooted in fear, ignorance and frustration or prejudice grounded in historical enmity, political conflict or cultural difference. Although they may have symbolic purpose, they are often acts of desperation and usually are highly personalized or individualistic in nature.

Terrorism is an act of symbolic violence against civilians, often in mass settings. It attempts to raise the political costs of pursuing a given policy line by undermining the will of the subject population supporting it. The objective is to impose the political will of the perpetrator by fomenting a pervasive feeling of dread and uncertainty in the subject population that renders them paralyzed in terms of response, and to reassure adherents that through such acts ideological goals can be achieved against powerful enemies.

The target is different than the subject and is chosen precisely because of the symbolism inherent in its selection. Thus the World Trade Center and Pentagon were chosen as targets by al-Qaeda because of their symbolism and the impact the attacks would have on the will of the US government and people. The attacks also sought to demonstrate to the Muslim ummah that armed resistance to Western secularism was possible. Whether or not terrorism actually accomplishes its goals (the record is mixed), the rationale of terrorism focuses on the erosion of will in a subject entity so as to undermine support for a particular stance or position on a contentious issue.

Terrorism has been used as a tactic in warfare, by States against their own people, by criminal groups, and by non-state actors. The majority of modern terrorist acts have been perpetrated by states in and out of warfare. Criminal organizations regularly terrorize individuals and communities as a form of intimidation. In this era terrorism is most often associated with non-state actors espousing anti-status quo views based upon ideological grounds.

The murder of the British soldier was a politically motivated hate crime. Two disgruntled British born Muslims (one a convert), apparently backed by a few others, committed a homicide in broad daylight because they are unhappy with British foreign policy in Muslim lands. They may also have had personal motives and grievances. Yet the Cameron government called the murder “terrorism-related,” convened an emergency meeting of its most senior anti-terrorism group, placed all security services on increased alert, and spoke of possible copycat killings.

Commentators have suggested that this represents a new phase of Islamic terrorism, whereby terrorists are home grown, grassroots, self-radicalized and decentralized small groups or “lone wolf” (individual) operators such as those involved in the Boston Marathon bombings or Fort Hood shootings.

That may be true, as the campaign against al-Qaeda has made prohibitive its ability to carry out large-scale attacks such as 9/11 or the Madrid train bombings by eliminating those who have the capability to undertake them. In response, al-Qaeda has morphed into an irregular warfare network that seeks to pursue low-level operations in the West while taking advantage of the instability in North and Sub-Saharan Africa caused by regime collapse or state failure in order to secure territorial and political gains.

The change of tactics against Western targets is a sign of desperation and futility. Such low-level acts of violence pose no existential threat to the subject populations and governments. Few have the potential to involve mass casualties in numbers that would undermine the collective will. Even if carried out repeatedly, it is arguable whether they can achieve the objective of changing the overall thrust of Western policy vis a vis Islam (less arguable is the suggestion that, in fact, al-Qaeda operations did alter the thrust of Western approaches to Islam). In other words, whether they were initially successful or not, al-Qaeda’s tactics in the West have been reduced from ideologically-based, mass-targeted terrorism to low level hate crimes.

The contrast in government approach and media coverage is remarkable when the violence is meted out against rather than by Muslims. In early May a Muslim shop keeper was hacked to death with a machete in Birmingham. CCTV caught a Caucasian suspect leaving the scene and the police labeled the murder as a hate crime. In the aftermath of the soldier’s murder there has been an upsurge in violence against British Muslims, all of which has been treated as hate crimes. Likewise, in the US targeted violence against Muslims is officially viewed as hate crimes, but Muslim violence is most often framed as terrorist-inspired.

There is certainly overlap between terrorism and politically motivated hate crimes in some instances, but the preponderance of low-level acts of politically motivated violence is the latter even if the perpetrators are Muslim. That is more so now that al-Qaeda has been decimated.

That means that such acts of political violence should be treated by the justice system as common crimes rather than as special events. Terrorism is properly understood as a criminal conspiracy to commit mass murder for ideological reasons. Hate crimes are independent acts of individual or small group violence done for ascriptive reasons. Criminal justices systems already address both.

It also means that there is no genuine justification for creating a separate body of legislation specifically designed to counter terrorism as a special sort of political violence, much less justify the intrusions on civil liberties and individual rights that such legislation entails. Whereas the large scale attacks of 9/11, Madrid, London and Bali appeared to justify in the minds of some a war-like approach by Western states to the political violence known as Islamic terrorism, that is no longer true if it ever was.

The conflation of hate crimes and terrorism serves the purposes of the perpetrators as well as the security agencies that confront them. It serves the self-interest of the corporate media, which publicizes the messages of both sides in order to generate revenue. What is not served is the common good brought about by informed consideration of the causes and effects of different types of political violence, as well as the remedies for them.


The bin-Laden legacy.

datePosted on 12:47, May 1st, 2013 by Pablo

Nearing the second anniversary of Osama bin-Laden’s death, it might be wise to pause and reflect on his legacy. The purpose is to give an objective appraisal rather than to engage in emotive debate or prejorative discourse.

Bin-Laden’s major legacy is one of ideological inspiration: he cemented in the minds of some sectors of the global Islamic community the idea that Western encroachments on Muslim societies, particularly that of the US, could be resisted with irregularly deployed armed force. These actions need not be spectacular, such as the 9/11 attacks. They could equally be low-level, localized and home-grown so long as they were persistent and unpredictable. There cumulative effect would increase the anxiety of the targeted (mostly but not exclusively Western) populations while prompting an over-reaction by their respective security authorities that impacted on basic notions of civil liberties, individual freedoms and collective rights. The sum effect would be risk aversion by non-Muslims when it came to imposing non-traditional values and interests on Muslim societies.

With regard to the US, bin-Laden’s broader strategic objective, as former CIA officer and bin-Laden profiler Michael Scheuer has pointed out, was to over-extend the US military in an ongoing global unconventional conflict unconfined to national borders or specific regions, which would result in economic bankruptcy and ensuing political polarization within the US. That in turn would prompt the resurgence of isolationist and pacifist tendencies within the US public that would erode support for foreign policies of intervention in Muslim lands.

Although the strategic concept vis a vis the US has not been fulfilled to its ideal, it seems to have been in some measure successful: the costs of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq contributed to the fiscal crisis that led to the 2008 recession and ensuing politics of austerity. Iraq was a strategic over-reach (and mistake) by the Bush 43 administration intent of demonstrating its resolve as well as its military might. Increasingly polarized over basic notions of identity and values, the US public has nevertheless become more collectively risk adverse when it comes to engagement in foreign conflicts, something reflected in the tenor of politics within the Washington beltway.

Likewise, the Afghanistan conflict went from being an attack on al-Qaeda and its Taliban protectors to a war of occupation without end under the guise of “nation-building” and “security assistance.” The material costs of both wars have been phenomenal and the human costs, if not counted in the billions, have been equivalent to those of Vietnam and the Korean Conflict. Previously dormant ethno-religious tensions have been awakened in Asia, Europe and North America with ill political and social effect. The politics of toleration, once a hallmark of Western democracy, now competes with xenophobia and religious separatism for electoral favor. Even Australia and New Zealand are not immune from the syndrome.

In terms of the armed conflict itself, there are now two broad fronts involving two very different strategies at play from a “jihadist” point of view. On the one hand, attacks in stable nation-states with minority Muslim populations have devolved into dispersed, decentralized, self-radicalized grassroots small cell operations in which elements of the Muslim diaspora use their local knowledge to conduct symbolic attacks on host societies. Modeled on Che Guervara’s “foco” (wildfire) theory of guerilla warfare as channeled by Carlos Marighella with his “two-prong” strategy of simultaneous urban and rural insurgency, the objective is not just one of symbolic protest but also to prompt a blanket over-reaction by local authorities in which many are targeted for the crimes of a few.

The lock-down in Boston during the one suspect manhunt after the marathon bombings, a clear violation of the fourth amendment to the US BIll of Rights prohibiting unwarranted searches and seizures (ostensibly done in the interest of “public safety”), is a case in point. More generally, the suspension of civil liberties under a variety of anti-terrorist legislation in a number of Western democracies, to include New Zealand, demonstrates just how successful bin-Laden’s strategy has been at eroding the constitutional pillars of these societies.

That is all the more poignant because Islamic terrorism does not constitute an existential threat to any stable society, Western democratic or not. In fact, one can argue that terrorist acts are more acts of desperation in the face of permanent value or cultural change than it is a defense of tradition or promotion of a preferred alternative (think of the attacks of armed Marxist groups in Europe in the 1970s and 1980s). It may be injurious and tragic for those involved, but in the larger scheme of things it is more akin to the last grasp of a drowning person than it is a serious challenge to the socio-econmic and political status quo.

However, in fragile or unstable states where Muslim populations are a majority or a significant minority, the strategic objective is to gain state control waging more conventional wars. The confluence of historical grievances rooted in traditional forms of discrimination superimposed on territorial or resource disputes lends popular support to jihadist attempts to wrest sovereign control away from pro-western regimes in places like Yemen, Mali, Somalia, and increasingly, Nigeria. Likewise, Muslim irredentists with local grievances engage in guerrilla wars in Chechyna, Thailand, Pakistan the Philippines and Kazakstan, among other places.

In a twist of fate, the so-called “Arab Spring” has allowed battle hardened jihadists from places such as Chechnya, Iraq and Afghanistan to exploit the window of opportunity offered by civil war in places like Libya and Syria to promote their Islamic agendas in solidarity with their local brothers. Courageous, ferocious and determined, these forces provide discipline to otherwise rag-tag resistance movements who in the absence of such help are more likely to be defeated than to prevail.

The impact of these internationalists was felt in Libya, where in spite of covert Western military assistance the jihadists gained a significant toe-hold that has yet to be dislodged. Likewise, the resistance in Syria is increasingly led by black flag fighters drawn from throughout the Sunni world. The possibility of these forces eventually securing power in both countries remains very real.

Not all has gone to plan according to bin-Laden’s dream. The use of lethal drones as a favorite anti-terrorist weapon has decimated al-Qaeda leadership ranks. The military and intelligence campaigns against militant Islamicists have prevented the organization of large-scale attacks such as 9/11 because the number of people and logistics involved invite early detection and proactive response. With the exception of Pakistan, which has strategic reasons for playing both sides of the fence in the so-called “war on terrorism,” Muslim states have largely joined the anti-Islamicist campaign (although Sunni Arab support for the fight against the Gaddafi and Assad regimes is clear). Thus the decentralization of jihadist operations was a practical necessity as much as the second part of a long-term plan.

The bottom line is that although the bin-Laden legacy is mixed, it has been indelible: the world is a changed place as a result of his actions, for better or for worse. But the world is also a different place because of the response to his actions, for better or worse. It is the latter that will determine the fundamental impact of the former long after his death.


Deconstructing the US Terrorism Meta-narrative.

datePosted on 17:50, April 19th, 2013 by Pablo

Broadly speaking, the way in which terrorists have been depicted in the US has some interesting, contrasting themes. White native-born (male) individuals who commit acts of politically-motivated lethal violence are generally depicted as marginalized sociopathic psychos rather than as individuals acting out of sincere ideological belief (I say “sincere” because homicidal individuals often attach themselves or attribute their actions to political causes without fully subscribing to the ideological precepts underpinning them). This lumps this type of terrorist in with genuinely insane psychopaths and allows the state to address their acts as criminal offenses rather than as political crimes.

For example, the Unabomber, Oklahoma City bombers and Atlanta Olympics bomber all acted out of sincere ideological conviction (Unabomber Ted Kaczynski published a 35,000 word manifesto of his beliefs). Yet, they were treated by the justice system less like al-Qaeda style fighters and more like the criminally deranged Tucson shooter who wounded Congresswoman Gabrielle Gifford and killed six others.

In the 1960s and 1970s groups like the Black Panthers, Symbionese Liberation Army and Weathermen were treated as guerrilla groups, which by definition recognizes that their challenges to authority are based on contrary political ideologies. These groups marshaled their opposition to the White Anglo Saxon Protestant Capitalist (WASP/C) status quo along racial and class lines. The used an unconventional war of position to convey their counter-hegemonic resistance to things as given. Because of this, the state saw them as an existential threat that challenged the socio-economic, cultural and political parameters of US society. They were treated accordingly, which in some cases slipped into extra-judicial punishment.

The predominant US born white male terrorist profile is that of a loner or small cell member whose ideological foundation is at the core of the WASP/C value system. The WASP/C terrorist believes in individual choice and natural rights in a free market unencumbered by tyranny. He may believe in God, a preferred religion and/or racial hierarchy. He despises the central (federal) government, foreign agencies and often times large corporations.

In effect, his armed critique of the system comes from deep within rather than from without. He sees the usurpation of traditional values and hierarchies as evidence of terminal moral decline, and he feels compelled to stand against it. He is a modern Minuteman.

This is why the WASP/C terrorist is treated like a psychopath rather than as a guerrilla or unconventional fighter. His values are too “close to the bone” of the US belief system to be treated first as an ideological critique rather than as deranged.  Instead, the WASP/C terrorist is profiled as having severe unresolved personal issues, to include sublimated or repressed sexual urges that are eventually expressed through anti-social violence. However he is portrayed, his political motivations are downplayed in favor of flawed personal psychological traits.

In recent times the terrorist challenge in the US has been seen by the state as coming from foreign-based Muslims and their domestic supporters. These have been treated much in the way the guerrilla groups of the 1960s and 1970s were. They are depicted as having an ideology that is anathema to the American way of life. They are held to hate US values and its freedoms. The fight against them is framed in existential and civilizational terms. Focus on the criminality of their acts is shared by focus on the ideological reasons for them. They are considered to be ideological enemies as much if not more than as criminals.

The two-track meta-narrative on terrorists allows the US to reaffirm its core beliefs without subjecting them to re-examination. It reinforces the dominant ideology by differentiating between criminal and political violence along lines that do not challenge core WASP/C values and beliefs, which are now shared by non-WASPs and WASPs alike (popularized in the “anyone can make it here” credo epitomized by the Obama presidency).

Although it is easy to see why the US would adopt this meta-narrative on terrorism, it is unfortunate. It creates two standards of justice, one political and one criminal, with which to treat terrorists. This is inimical to the equal justice underpinnings of liberal democracies and paves the way for the creation of parallel judicial systems such as that seen in the Guantanamo Bay military tribunals.

It would seem preferable to treat all terrorism as criminal offenses. The issue is not whether the perpetrators are foreign or domestic. The type and location of the crime is what matters, and issues of nationality or domicile are at most the justification for extradition requests. Political or psychological reasons can be offered as an explanation for why terrorist acts were committed, but they cannot be used for the purposes of meting our different standards of justice. That has the benefit of reassuring friend and foe alike that the focus will be on the crime, not the cause.

That, in of itself, can be a significant deterrent to those who would otherwise pursue terrorism as a form of political expression.

Postscript: It will be interesting to see which narrative emerges with regard to the Chechnyan brothers involved in the Boston bombings. Home grown, self-radicalized small cell jihadis, part of an international al-Qaeda plot, or siblings with some creepy inter-personal dynamics? The rightwing US media already see the Muslim -bashing angle as the preferred interpretation, but the official government response (so far) is to not be as quick to attribute ideological rather than criminal intent to their actions.

Against “courageous corruption” as Crown policy

datePosted on 12:40, May 14th, 2012 by Lew

It should come as no surprise that I disagree with Chris Trotter’s latest piece about the Urewera raids. Don’t get me wrong — I think his assessment of the operational capability New Zealand police and intelligence services are correct. Their actions were strategically and tactically flawed, and they seemed to hold unrealistic expectations of the task they were undertaking. But some of the judgements Chris wraps around this argument are troubling to say the very least.

Not all of them. Some are fine: we need a competent security and intelligence apparatus, and the lack is something that should be rectified. Some are nonsense: a sophisticated left-wing propaganda network (where have they been these past two electoral terms?) and sleeper cells of “sympathetic journalists” (presumably not those who are shills for the corporate élite?). Some are merely distasteful. Others, however, are downright frightening, and the worst of these is the notion that the Crown should not be bound by its own laws when prosecuting dissident citizens.

Also lacking were the reliable media “assets” so highly prized by the British security services. Individuals to whom key elements of the Crown’s case … Where, for example, was the Crown’s equivalent of Wikileaks? Clearly no one was prepared to play the role of Private Bradley Manning by dumping all the evidence denied to the Prosecution on a suitably insulated and legally untouchable website.

Let’s not forget that some of this actually happened. Elements of the Crown case actually were leaked to the public, and some suppressed material was published in daily newspapers and was the subject of (unsuccessful) contempt proceedings.* Other elements, having been retrospectively ruled in by a court despite having been collected unlawfully, were used throughout the trial to create a prejudicial atmosphere around the trial.

Given those events, the argument here is essentially that the Crown didn’t leak enough evidence; didn’t act ruthlessly enough and was too heavily burdened with scruples to secure a “right” outcome. The call for an officer of the Crown to wilfully breach the very laws they have sworn to uphold, in the name of their own individual assessment of a complex situation, is extremely concerning. Having failed to conduct their evidence-gathering operations lawfully, and having failed to persuade a judge that, in spite of that, there was still a sufficient reason to admit all the evidence, the argument here is that the Crown should have taken an extrajudicial Mulligan.

When I started writing it this piece was considerably more personalised to Chris, and how his post seems to provide final proof of his degeneration from idealistic radical to authoritarian establishment curmudgeon. The reference in the title is to his now-infamous declaration that Labour’s breach of electoral law during the 2005 election campaign was justified inasmuch as it prevented a terrible counterfactual — a National government led by Don Brash — from coming to pass. I disagree with that argument on the grounds that the integrity of the democratic system as a whole is of greater importance than any particular electoral outcome, and I disagree with his argument regarding the Urewera 4 for the same reasons: the integrity of the justice system is of greater importance than the outcome of any given case.** But I don’t want to dwell on the personal; rather than trading extensive cannonades with Chris (again), I think there’s more value in covering my reasons for holding these views in principle, leaving aside the specific merits (on which we’re never going to agree), or whether I support the principals in either case.***

The first and most obvious argument against this sort of extra-legal recourse is: be careful what you wish for. If you want the Crown to leak, to cultivate sources in the media whom they can trust to run their propaganda for them, and to resort to whatever other means they might need to secure what you think is a “right” outcome, you’d better hope you always agree with them. If you don’t, eventually you’ll find yourself on the wrong end of it. The danger of this for the ideological left in Aotearoa should need little elaboration: almost all the authoritarian cards and most of the ruthlessness in playing them are in the hands of the various factions of the ideological right, and they are constrained more by norms of conduct and the need to appear to be less ruthless than they are than by black-letter law or constitutional barriers. These norms are quite robust, but they essentially all operate on the honour system: they persist because people observe them. If you break the law in the name of the rule of law, you erode the rule of law. If you destroy the village to save the village, you still destroy the village.

This leads into the second point: changing norms of Crown conduct, or what we might call “authoritarian sclerosis”. Norms that constrain what a government, the Crown or its agents may acceptably do are becoming more lax, and have been since shortly after 9/11, when the Terrorism Suppression Act that gave rise to the current farce was hastily passed. In the past two parliamentary terms this has continued to accelerate, partly as a consequence of hysteria around — and blurring of — activism and terrorism more generally. The government, by leave of an increasingly punitive and paranoid populace, can now impose disproportionate punishment on certain offenders via the “three strikes” regime, and indefinite “civil” detention of certain offenders. The infiltration of the security and intelligence apparatus into harmless activist groups such as those that agitate for animal rights has been well-documented in recent years. It has gotten to this point despite the fact that (Urewera case aside) the two most significant threats to our national security in the past decade have been an Algerian theologist who now makes kebabs in a food hall on Karangahape Road, and three Catholic pacifists with agricultural implements. The government can now amend or suspend almost any law or enact almost any measure it likes, with immediate effect and without meaningful judicial oversight, in the service of rebuilding Christchurch. There are laws on the books that shift the burden of proof of innocence for some types of copyright infringement from the accuser to the alleged offender. On US urging, the New Zealand police recently undertook expensive, unprecedented and legally risky operations against a foreign national who had apparently committed no serious crimes against New Zealand law, and it now seems increasingly unlikely that the case will amount to anything. The government may now spend beneficiaries’ money for them. They are are moving to require DPB mothers (and their daughters!) to use long-term birth control, and to force them to work when their youngest is just one year old. The latest proposal is to force beneficiaries to vaccinate their children, in violation of the fundamental right to refuse medical treatment. These latter policies of authoritarian sclerosis disproportionately affect Māori, who are already disproportionately impacted by the state’s historical use of its power via colonialism. I could go on, but you get the point: the door to the police state is not yet open, but it is creaking ajar. Those who benefit from opening it do not need agents of the left nudging that door wider for them, but they will gratefully accept it if some are willing to do so.

This is all bad enough in itself, but as well as eroding the norms of what is acceptable, authoritarian sclerosis makes it more difficult to erect robust black-letter or constitutional safeguards against undue exercise of power by the state over its citizens, making it more likely that the norms which are being undermined are all we will be able to rely on in future. Again: be careful what you wish for.

Perhaps more important than all of that, though, is the incentive that the Mulligan creates within the organs of the Crown responsible for implementing the policies outlined above. If you make excuses for underperforming or incompetent agencies, if you cut senior officials slack when they or their subordinates fail to discharge their duties adequately, when they bring into question the good standing of their departments; if you seek to tailor laws and regulations to them rather than requiring them to work within the existing bounds of proper conduct, then you produce agencies which are dependent on special pleading and special treatment. When you select against competence, independence, resourcefulness and strategic thinking by allowing “right-thinking” loyalty and patronage to thrive, you breed pampered inbred poodles reliant on favour from political masters, rather than vigilant, independent watchdogs of civil society.

Multiple layers of dysfunction contributed to the Crown’s failure to convict on substantive charges in the Urewera 4 case. They started with the drafting of the Terrorism Suppression Act, which Solicitor-General David Collins declared “unnecessarily complex, incoherent, and as a result almost impossible to apply”. Court interpretations giving the police permission to undertake surveillance operations that were later ruled illegal also contributed. Police culture and operational capability, and a lack of both strategic and tactical awareness also contributed strongly, and Crown Law’s failure to make best use of the meagre evidence that derived from those preceding actions was merely the last in a long chain of failures.

If you want to make a system stronger, the solution is to genuinely strengthen it, making it better, by having those agencies take their lumps and learn their lessons, by punishing failure and rewarding success; by staffing it with better people, better trained and with greater strategic vision. I want an intelligence/security and police apparatus and a justice system good enough that it doesn’t need to be oppressive to be effective. One that I can trust to keep society safe, and to not persecute me while doing so. That can’t happen if we erect a scaffold of legal or extra-legal privilege beneath the sagging edifice, pretend there’s nothing wrong, and call it a win. It didn’t work for the investment banks, and it can’t work here.


* Chief High Court Judge Randerson and Justice Gendall found that the publication had not “caused a real risk” of prejudice, so fair enough. But they also stated that “The breaches of suppression orders and the unlawful conduct of a major news organisation and a senior newspaper editor should have resulted in their prosecution” by the Police, and that the court was “at a loss to understand why these breaches were not prosecuted.” While they raised the point that the penalties for such breaches are risibly small, it’s also hard to avoid the conclusion that the Police were simply reluctant to punish actions that might have helped their case.

** In principle, there is a time for extrajudicial action, for exercise of the reserve powers or of the almost-limitless authority of the sovereign parliament, or for rebellion by the people. Desperate times may call for such measures. These are not such times.

*** For the record: Of course, I did not support the 2005 National party. I am satisfied with the Urewera 4 verdicts since they accord with what I know about the case, though I also would not have been averse to a retrial and an opportunity for them to clear their names more forcefully.

Urewera Terror: epic fail

datePosted on 06:01, March 21st, 2012 by Lew

Whatever your opinion regarding the Urewera Terror raids, you have to admit that the Police and Crown Law have failed.

The so-called “Urewera 4″ were convicted on about half of the least-serious charges brought, and the jury was hung on the more serious charges of participation in an organised criminal group. The defendants may be retried on these latter charges, and they may yet be found guilty. But the paucity of the Police and Crown Law operation is pretty clear regardless.

Let’s put this in context. The Crown sought initially to lay dozens more charges against many more people than the four who eventually stood trial; leave to bring charges under the Terrorism Suppression Act was not granted, and most of the other charges were dropped after the Supreme Court ruled that the evidence upon which they were founded had been illegally obtained. A year of fancy intensive surveillance; an extreme and unprecedented police assault on an unsuspecting community, including violent treatment of old people and children; four and a half years of lawyering comprising the most expensive trial in New Zealand history, held almost as far from the homes of the defendants as is possible; leaks and publicity tactics designed to bring about a de-facto trial-by-media — and the best they convict on is Arms Act offences such as about half the adult male population of rural New Zealand would be guilty of at some time or other? This, we are supposed to believe, is Aotearoa’s finest at work.

Not only did they fail at the nominal objective of securing convictions, they totally failed at the personal, punitive motive of punishing Tāme Iti and shaming him before his people. Iti has been literally the face of Māori activism, at least since Hone Harawira took the institutional path, and it is impossible to see this trial as anything other than utu for his temerity in escaping conviction for previous acts of defiant political theatre, most notably shooting a flag at a Waitangi Tribunal hearing in 2005. By going in loud and heavy, attempting to show them uppity Māoris who was boss, the Crown set themselves an ambitious target: they had to actually show who was boss. By failing to convict him on the serious charges at a canter, they failed. Tāme Iti is now a celebrity. His mythology is greater than his deeds, except inasmuch as resisting such a legal and ideological onslaught with dignity is a significant deed in itself. He has, in the view of a significant minority of the population, been victimised by the system, and that victimisation provides proof of Crown oppression he had previously struggled to demonstrate. For the rest of the population, Iti represents a brown, tattooed bogeyman, an object of fear, and of loathing that ranges from mild to virulent depending on who you talk to. Iti isn’t standing for office, he doesn’t need to be loved by 50%+1; he just needs to engender fervent support among an active minority, and vague feelings of unease in the rest. Notoriety differs from fame only in its polarity. The Police and the Crown have granted Tāme Iti this sort of fame. He should probably thank them for it.

As if the particular and the personal weren’t failures enough, the Crown also failed at the strategic project of redefining “activism” as “extremism”. Despite all the preceding factors weighing in the Crown’s favour, that a heavily-vetted jury was split indicates that they have failed to blur this crucial distinction, and failed to reframe left-wing and Māori activism* as a threat to civilisation, rather than a legitimate expression of dissent in an open society. This suggests that, in spite of years of Police infiltration and surveillance, of decades of stigmatisation and propagandisation of groups from Ngā Tamatoa to Ploughshares to SAFE, in spite of the better part of two centuries of official attempts to elide the gulf between dissent and insurrection, the public doesn’t really buy it. The jury — and, I would suggest, the people of Aotearoa — quite like and value that distinction and although it is been somewhat eroded, there it remains.

For that finding alone, and regardless of the result of any retrial, yesterday was a good day.


* Māori and leftist because, let us not forget, the Right Wing Resistance are free to continue with their training camps and their pseudo-secessionist projects, unmolested.