Tag: counter-terrorism

ISIS and Biological Weapons: Black Flag, But Not the Black Death

This is a guest post by Frank L. Smith III, lecturer at the University of Sydney and author of the new book, American Biodefense: How Dangerous Ideas About Biological Weapons Shape National Security.

The 2003 Iraq War aimed to stop rogue states from using weapons of mass destruction or giving these weapons to terrorists. Now we face ISIS, a terrorist organization that also claims to be a state. But what about WMD? Last week, Foreign Policy reported the discovery of an ISIS laptop that contained a jihadi fatwa on how “it is permissible to use weapons of mass destruction,” and, far more troubling, instructions on how to use biological weapons. So has the Islamic State become the triple threat that we supposedly invaded Iraq to prevent?

The laptop in question was captured in Syria earlier this year. Its previous owner was a Tunisian-turned-ISIS fighter who studied chemistry and physics at university. Along with a variety of other material on conducting jihad, “the ISIS laptop contains a 19-page document in Arabic on how to develop biological weapons and how to weaponize the bubonic plague from infected animals.”

This is clearly not good news. ISIS is bad enough already, and an Islamic State armed with biological weapons would be even worse. As the document on this laptop suggests, “the advantage of biological weapons is that they do not cost a lot of money, while the human casualties can be huge.” Plague is certainly contagious enough and infamous enough to fuel fear. Moreover, the spectre of WMD often creates considerable confusion to the detriment of sound policy – confusion that I explain in my book about “WMD” and other dangerously inaccurate stereotypes. Continue reading

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What is to be Done in Nigeria?

This is a follow-up to my earlier post, “Why Foreign Intervention in Nigeria is a Bad Idea.” That post focused on larger issues that make Nigeria a particularly problematic context for foreign involvement of any kind; this post focuses on what policies — mostly domestic — might work.

In the past week, things have not gotten better with regard to Nigeria and the effort to #Bringbackourgirls. On the US front, the administration began a blessed crawl away from direct US military involvement in Nigeria the day of my earlier post. In last Thursday’s hearings before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, a succession of military and State Department officials provided a needed reality-check:

  • It will be very difficult to find the girls. Specialists now guess that the girls have been split into smaller groups. For more on the logistical difficulties of an extraction, see here and here.
  • The Nigerian military is not a suitable partner. Pentagon and State officials noted that, even if the political will were present, the Nigerian military may not have the capacity to find the girls. The U.S. is significantly hampered in its efforts to help by the Leahy Law, which bars U.S. assistance of any form to foreign military forces that systematically violate human rights (in force in various forms since 1998). Said one Pentagon official, finding Nigerian military units that had not engaged in gross human rights abuses has been “persistent and very troubling limitation” on US assistance to the Nigerian Government.

This is why the Obama administration deployed 80 US military personnel to Chad, which borders Nigeria’s far northeast, rather than to Nigeria itself. By basing US surveillance and assistance efforts in Chad, we may help in the tasks of both closing the porous borders that have bedeviled the fight against Boko Haram and also disrupting the flow of small arms into Nigeria. These are good things, but they leave open the question of what to do inside Nigeria.

 

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Is Capture and Kill Bad Guys Good Counter-Terrorism?

The U.S. had two dramatic efforts to capture high priority terrorist targets, one in Libya and another in Somalia. The snatch and grab operation in Libya was a seeming success (though I’m wondering if last night’s kidnapping of the Libyan Prime Minister was retaliation).  The Somalia mission, coming one day after the 20th anniversary of the Black Hawk Down episode, was aborted when the team recognized that there was no way they could take their target alive, given heavy resistance and potential civilian casualties.

The question that emerges from all this is: what the hell is the United States doing? Ok, maybe I phrased this badly, but I’m wondering if our strategy of drone and/or grab is a winning strategy in the long-run? If a fractured Somali or Libyan state is the heart of these countries’ problems, do our efforts hinder or help national reconciliation? From what I’m reading about Somalia, I worry that the United States once again has a military solution for a problem that ultimately requires considerable finesse and diplomacy. This week’s links speak to the errors and issues with the Somalia mission and what it all means… Continue reading

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Is Victory Bad for Business?

All wars end. Or do they?

Rather too often, we are being reminded that the ‘war on terror’ against the Al Qaeda terrorist network is far from over, in fact that it will never end and even, that it can never end. One military analyst, for example,

a former employee of the Defense Intelligence Agency in the US, states OBL and his closest circle in Pakistan were hardly influential to AQ franchises and affiliates. In his last few years as AQ’s leader, OBL was never concerned in the operational aspects of AQ. This perhaps means that the death of OBL, though a great success for counterterrorism, will not greatly affect AQ and its operations around the world, for example, AQ in the Arab Peninsula has been permitted to operate against the Gulf rulers without any open meddling from AQ’s inner leadership.

Anthony Cordesman from the Center for Strategic and International Studies states AQ has had ten years to attain another leader, has formed strong and international cells and superfluous networks, and has found alternative sites throughout the world. AQ is still a large threat and the US and its allies still have a long way to go in the war against terrorism.

Really? Firstly, the body of evidence uncovered from Osama Bin Laden’s hideout contradicts these  statements.  He was far more than a figurehead or ‘rock star’ icon of dark charisma. He tried to maintain an intricate bureaucratic chain of command while realising that there were franchises that were semi-autonomous. OBL was still influential, he was giving orders, he took great interest in the operational side of his movement, and he did have resources at his disposal. And in the cases where he was not fully in control, OBL recognised what some Western observers don’t, that the loosening of the structure came at a high price, enabling the counter-productive behaviour of Al Qaeda affiliates, imitators and franchises and leading to a crisis of legitimacy for the network, from Algeria to Iraq. Indeed, in their own audits and self-assessments, Al Qaeda Central were more willing to entertain the idea of their own failure than many Western analysts.

Secondly, how is AQ still a ‘large threat’ to the security of the United States and its allies in any measure? Against Western targets, it has failed to pull off a complex, mass casualty assault of the 9/11 variety in over ten years since 9/11, and since 2003-2005, none of the lesser scale of a 7/7 or Madrid bombing. It has become wildly unpopular and suffered violent blowback in lands it regards as sacred to its cause, like Iraq and Saudi Arabia. Its attempts at even low-tech attacks in the West have been disrupted and/or ineffective. Third-order nuisance maybe, non-trivial concern in places like Somalia and Syria perhaps, downright lethal still in its car bombings occasionally in Iraq, but ‘large threat’? When its brand is at best marginal amongst most protesting masses in the Arab Spring, how dangerous is it, in terms of translating violence into political results?

The killing of Bin Laden removed one of the networks most skilful, iconic and seasoned players. The regular killing of his subordinate commanders has also drained it of hard-won skills. Terrorism isn’t an instant capability that anyone can acquire at the click of a mouse. It takes experience, group cohesion, a high level of political will, operational security and a range of intellectual and technical abilities.

No doubt violently draining the network of talented folk can produce blowback and have ‘martyring’ effects. But to announce that Bin Laden was just a figurehead, a borderline irrelevance, and that this World War must continue as though the adversary is just as potent as it was on 10 September, is to perpetuate one of the most serious errors of the War on Terror, the failure to measure risks and costs soberly.

There is also a more unfortunate side to this debate: the refusal of professional experts at times to acknowledge not only that AQ has taken hits to its credibility and cohesion, but to acknowledge that it even could. Is it bad for business to recognise when the object of one’s intellectual fascination is fading in importance?

The War on Terror provided many people with a chance to build an industry around worrying about terrorism and warning that the threat is dire and almost never-ending. The last thing they would want would be to admit that the death of OBL and his subordinates has been a serious blow, or the policy implications flowing from it, that we can scale back our global efforts to conventional, day-to-day counter-terrorism. That would be bad for business.

But for those who disagree, please consider this: what would defeat, or marginalisation, look like? If you are saying that Al Qaeda is still a large threat worthy of an ongoing, top-priority war, what are your criteria for our success and their failure?

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A View to Kill: Should states engage in assassination?

I have a lengthy piece on targeted killing/assassination up at the Canadian International Council’s Open Canada blog. It touches on some of the issues I’ve raised in previous posts here and here.

The short version is that targeted killing/assassination advocates tend to rest their arguments on three assumptions: first, that it is morally legitimate on the basis of reciprocity, that it is easier than launching full-scale invasions or sending in troops to difficult/hostile terrain, and finally that it is effective.

I question these assumptions – first, tit-for-tat/”Golden Rule” justification and logic has been rejected by Western military forces for many decades. Second, while drones may be a more viable option in areas such as the mountainous regions of Afghanistan/Pakistan, you can’t generalize a rule out of this one particular example. Finally, that there is no reliable evidence that targeted killing/assassination actually works (or, to be fair, that it doesn’t work.) And even if we wanted to evaluate whether or not targeted killing is effective, what criteria should be used? The actual elimination of terrorists? The subsequent numbers of operations.? Or should we look at second and third order effects: impact on morale, recruitment, etc. And how could these factors be measured? Further, given the wide variety of actors, circumstances and context, and the many different historical cases, it is virtually impossible to extrapolate from one case to another.

If 2011 is any indication, drone strikes, targeted killing and “assassination” will be here to stay for some time. As such, it is worth asking certain question of our political and military leaders to encourage democratic accountability. What are the criteria to render someone a target? To what degree are these decisions subject to judicial review? And under what framework of law are these operations considered to fall under?

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Explosion in Norway (Updated/Updated Again)

A likely bombing near the PM’s office in Norway. I don’t have time to write at the moment, but there are a number of policies and political factors that make Norway a target for jihadists. But there are also reasons why those of other ideological stripes are very unhappy with the current red-green government.

Concerns, prayers, and sympathies to our many friends in Oslo.

UPDATE: Follow the news on your source of choice. The small-arms attack on a Labour-Party Youth Camp is appalling, but consistent with shifting tactics of transnational jihadist. I find the combination of large vehicle bomb and small-arms attack elsewhere a bit surprising, but I suppose it (1) leaves no doubt about the orientation of the attack and (2) screams “no one is safe.”

DOUBLE UPDATE: right-wing extremist. Death toll at 80. Should have backtracked much earlier. I sent out a tweet six hours ago querying about whether the Norwegian far right had a militant strain. Should have raised that on the blog. Anyway, shades of Oklahoma City. Makes sense of the non-standard operating procedure and the dual targeting.

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Terror, Counter-Terror, and Insurgency in Harry Potter, or Why Harry Won

In the waning days of classes, one of my colleagues asked a student if she’d been among those celebrating outside of the White House the night that President Obama announced the killing of Osama Bin-Laden. “Of course,” she responded, “I mean, they got Voldemort!”

For many readers who aged along with its titular hero, the Harry Potter series inextricably intertwines with the war on terrorism. This connection stems from more than a mere accident of timing. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2000) provides readers their first glimpse of the Death Easters as they carry out a terror attack against the wizarding’s greatest sporting event, the Quidditch World Cup. The Goblet of Fire also expands upon themes first introduced in The Prisoner of Azkaban (1999): state policies of arbitrary detention, torture, wrongful imprisonment, star-chamber style justice, and the use of all four by officials to advance their careers.

Such tropes surely already resonated in the United Kingdom—the “Good Friday” accords were, after all, signed in 1998—but they took on new dimensions with the attacks of September 11, 2001 and the Bush Administration’s policy responses. Indeed, for those inclined to see Harry Potter as, at least in part, a parable for terrorism, counter-terrorism, and the flawed responses of the state, the Goblet of Fire’s sequels—Harry Potter and the Order of the Pheonix (2003) and Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (2006)—do not disappoint.


In Order of the Pheonix we find the Minister of Magic, Cornelius Fudge, refusing to accept that Voldemort has returned. This denial extends to Dolores Umbridge’s efforts to discredit and vilify Harry Potter. These failures of leadership allow Voldemort and his Death Eaters to wage a low-level campaign of terror, murder, and intimidation. Although fans disagree about whether or not the Death Eaters retain their cellular organization from the previous conflict, the only evidence to the contrary concerns Voldemort’s inner circle. It is clear, however, that power and authority among the Death Eaters is highly centralized in Voldemort’s hands.

As is so often the case in politically unstable environments, Fudge worries most not about the possible threat posed by Voldemort, but that Dumbledore seeks to replace him as head of the Ministry. Given Dumbledore’s own political views, particularly with respect to the treatment of sentient magical creatures, Fudge’s attitude made a certain amount of pervese sense. Rowling’s account of the politics of the wizarding world suggest that the Death Eaters’ ideology—essentially one of wizard racial supremacy over muggles and muggle-born wizards and witches—is, in some ways, less revolutionary than that of Dumbledore’s embrace of radical inter-species equality. And, of course, Dumbledore does lead a clandestine paramilitary organization: the Order of the Phoenix.


The Order operates as a secret counter-terror squad determined to stop the Death Eaters even without help from the Ministry. Its structure is, in fact, rather similar to that of the Death Eaters. Through both Order of the Phoenix and Half-Blood Prince, the two groups fight a shadow war that extends into the ranks of the ministry itself. The Order’s main advantage in this struggle involves superior intelligence: that provided by Severus Snape and by Dumbledore’s investigations. Indeed, the film version of the Half-Blood Prince’s (2009) main contributions to advancing the series’ arc center on Harry’s and Dumbledore’s efforts to gain intelligence necessary to defeat Voldemort—the nature, existence, and number of his horcruxes.

Even after indisputable proof of Voldemort’s return at the end of Order of the Phoenix costs Fudge his job, the Ministry remains, at best, an uncertain ally of the Order. The Ministry proves unwilling to take concerted action against a number of likely Death Eaters—not out of a concern for due process, but rather an unwillingness to overly antagonize powerful members of the community. Instead, it engages in ineffectual “security theater,” including incarcerating innocent wizards and witches as suspected Death Eaters. The film version of the Half-Blood Prince drives the resulting fear and uncertainty home by adding a scene in which two of Voldemort’s most powerful lieutenants—Belatrix Lestrange and Fenrir Greyback—attack the Burrow, lure its defenders away, and then burn its upper floors to the ground.

The Ministry’s preference for counter-terror show over substance allows the Death Eaters to subvert it from within. The nature of the conflict changes radically in The Deathly Hallows, Part I (2010), and not simply because of Dumbledore’s (willing) defenestration at Snape’s hands. Voldemort, through his agents, seizes control of the British wizarding government. His followers turn the Ministry’s coercive and propagandistic capacity—augmented by their own equivalent of brownshirts, the Snatchers—toward suppressing opposition to their new order. Taken together, the two parts of the Deathly Hallows films chart a government crackdown on dissent, a growing insurgency waging asymmetric warfare against the state, and Voldemort’s personal Stalingrad, i.e., the Battle of Hogwarts.

As much as I enjoyed The Deathly Hallows, Part II, there’s not much in the way of international politics in the film; it deals almost exclusively with the final stages of the second Voldemort war. From this perspective, Part II involves three major events of concerns to scholars of international security:

  • The raid on Gringott’s to seize a crucial enemy resource (a horcrux) that nearly ends in disaster for the resistance;
  • The clandestine incursion to seize another horcrux that unexpectedly prompts an open revolt in Hogwarts; and
  • Voldemort’s attempt to crush the rebellion once and for all in a single battle.

Harry’s, Hermione’s, and Ron’s attack on Gringotts reflects the tactics they perfect over the courses of the series; these tactics fit squarely within the tradition of guerilla and asymmetric warfare. They rely on stealth and deception; they operate as a small mobile strike team. The three show no remorse about using the imperious curse—one of the three “Unforgiveable Curses”—to forward their goals. When detected, they exploit a weakness in their enemy’s defenses: they liberate an imprisoned dragon and use it as a means of escape. In their efforts they are aided by a network of supporters, including Aberforth Dumbledore, who conceals them in Hogsmeade, and, unbeknownst to them, Snape, who, in Part I, goes so far as to provide them with an important weapon—the Sword of Gryffindor and, in Part II, passes on crucial intelligence even as he lies dying.

Behind their success lies the superior intelligence and planning of the Order, and of Dumbledore in particular. Although Dumbledore’s role in the Order appears superficially comparable to Voldemort’s in the Death Eaters, Dumbledore takes extensive steps to ensure that his followers retain operational capability after his demise. He prudently conceals his plans by parceling out information among his agents, and by often encrypting that information to render it unusable by their enemies. He encourages Harry to share key intelligence with Ron and Hermione. Indeed, his efforts to guide the three since their arrival at Hogwarts wield them into a proficient covert operations teams. In the Order of the Phoenix, he does nothing to prevent Harry from training an army of students; “Dumbledore’s Army” provides one of the major fighting forces in the Battle of Hogwarts. In sum, Dumbledore builds an organization capable of surviving decapitation, and one that proves willing to fight on even in the face of Harry’s (apparent) death.

These advantages in intelligence and motivation are not, in of themselves, enough to overcome the Death Eater’s superior firepower, experience, and numbers. But the Death Eaters themselves suffer from a number of weaknesses. The Death Eaters’ problems, in fact, partially overlap with those we often associate with failed counterinsurgency campaigns.

First, Voldemort places far too much strategic emphasis on, and faith in, technological fixes—most notably his horcruxes and the Elder Wand. The former fail, the latter betrays him. Harry, on the other hand, seeks strength in the loyalty of his allies and the force of his cause.

Second, the Death Eaters reliance on fear as a tool of rule gives their regime, like those of Middle Eastern despots, an underlying fragility. Although they quash most dissent, they remain vulnerable so long as resistance continues. Thus, Harry, Ron, and Hermione remain potent symbols of opposition. Events at Hogwarts highlight the fragility of the Death Eaters’ regime, particularly in pockets of ideological opposition. There, Harry’s open defiance of Snape encourages the remnants of Dumbledore’s staff to rebel; previously unaligned students affiliated with Gryffindor, Hufflepuff, and Ravenclaw immediately follow suit.

Indeed, Machiavelli claims that it is better to be feared than loved, and councils rulers to inflict their injuries at the outset so that they can appear beneficent later, this advice fails miserably for Voldemort. Narcissa Malfoy’s betrayal of Voldemort—a consequence of his cruel treatment of her family for Lucius’ failures—ensures that Harry survives to defeat him. Voldemort’s overtures to the students of Hogwarts after they believe Harry dead provoke resistance rather than capitulation. Or, to paraphrase Rowling, Voldemort does not understand the power of love, only of fear and hatred.

Third, Voldemort’s egocentrism and overdeveloped will-to-power lead him to build, in direct contrast to the Order, an organization that cannot function in his absence. After the end of the first war, his supporters scatter, renounce him, or go into hiding. In the second war, his iron-fisted rule, unwillingness to cultivate replacements, and generally poor people skills ensure that the Death Eaters cannot outlive him. Voldemort’s death shatters the Death Eaters because of their lack of organizational resilience—a direct consequence of their over-centralized leadership structure and reliance on Voldemort’s personal ability to inspire terror.

Voldemort compounds these problems by committing a major strategic blunder: he actively participates in a direct assault on a well-fortified enemy position, one in which his adversaries enjoy superior local knowledge. These are common mistakes made by fictional tyrants. The Padishah Emperor Shaddam Corrino IV allows himself to be lured to Arrakis where the Fremen, led by Paul Maud’Dib, defeat his supposedly invincible Sardukar; Emperor Palpatine, placing far too much faith in his so-called “Death Star,” engineers a final battle in which his forces fall before the rebels and their newfound indigenous care-bearish allies.

Palpatine’s death at the hands of his chief adjutant one might argue, stems from his inability to appreciate the power of love and compassion.

In the books, the tide of battle is turned by the intervention of magical beings, including Centaurs and the House Elves—both of which lack civil and political rights in wizarding society and face an even worse time from Voldemort’s regime. This omission from the film raises questions about the Death Eaters’ defeat. In the real world, insurgencies almost always lose when they attempt to transition to conventional warfare. Only those guerilla leaders that wait until they have state-like manpower and resources (for example, Mao Zedung, Fidel Casto, and Ho Chin Minh) succeed. This does not seem to be the case for Harry and his allies: the students, teachers, and members of the Order at Hogwarts are significantly overmatched by the Death Eaters and their auxiliaries. Whether in the books or the films, the Battle of Hogwarts is a near thing; we should not assume that Voldemort’s defeat was preordained.

Especially in the absence of third-party intervention on behalf of our heroes, Voldemort’s best course of action is straightforward: allows his forces to crush resistance, or at least settle in for a long siege, while he watches from safety. But his reliance on a fearsome reputation to hold his coalition together, combined with his narcissism, compel Voldemort to face Harry himself. Indeed, Harry only survives numerous confrontations with Death Eaters because of Voldemort’s unwillingness to delegate key tasks to his subordinates. And here, again, we see the superiority of Dumbledore’s and Harry’s approach to leadership, let alone their specific command decisions.

If audiences can merge Voldemort and Osama Bin Laden as embodiments of evil, this becomes more complicated once the Death Eaters achieve military superiority. Their terrorism ceases to be that of a weapon of the weak; it takes the form of state terrorism—directed against the state’s own citizens. The most obvious analogy here, both with respect to ideology and to style, is with Nazi occupation governments. But we might also draw parallels with the Taliban regime in Afghanistan or, in fact, with what an Al-Qaeda inspired regime in the Middle East might look like. For their part, once Harry and his friends find themselves reduced to the position of insurgents, (and branded as terrorists, no less), they prove willing to adopt some of their opponents’ tactics, including the use of Unforgiveable Curses.

To the extent that the comparison continues to instruct, it does so in two ways. On the one hand, the series of events that climax in The Deathly Hallows, Part II stand as a powerful indictment of the worst excesses of the war on terrorism. Rowling’s deliberate condemnation of the repression she worked against while at Amnesty International resonates with recent experiences of arbitrary detention, torture, and incarceration of political dissidents. On the other hand, we can only hope that the Death Eaters’ pathologies are those of Al-Qaeda and other terrorist networks. In the real world, however, few leaders prove as indispensible to a violent movements’ persistence as Voldemort. Given our tendency to personalize and personify our enemies, we would do well to remember that the Deathly Hallows, Part II, is, in the final analysis, just a movie.

This is a different stab at an international-affairs discussion of The Deathly Hallows. Be sure to read the other attempt.

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Harry Potter and Foreign Policy, or Voldemort is not Osama Bin Laden

One draft of a piece that will not be appearing anytime soon. I will post the other version, a strategic-studies analysis of the outcome of the Deathly Hallows, later on.

The sixth Harry Potter film, the Half-Blood Prince (2009), opens with Harry standing side-by-side with his mentor, recently reinstated Hogwarts Headmaster Albus Dumbledore. Blinding flashbulbs illuminate Harry’s vacant stare, rendering the scene a literal, as well as figurative, flashback to the immediate aftermath of the Battle of the Department of Mysteries, in which three clandestine forces clashed within the Ministry of Magic itself: Voldemort’s Death Eaters, Dumbledore’s Order of the Phoenix, and Dumbledore’s Army (the “DA”)—students trained in secret by Harry in “defense against the dark arts.” Harry’s indifference stems from shock: his godfather, Sirius Black, died in the battle, and in the background we hear the voices of Voldemort and Black’s killer, the insane Bellatrix Lestrange.

Flash forward to a modern glass-and-metal office building in London. Disbelieving office workers leave a conference table and walk to its picture window as storm clouds appear from nowhere. Darkness rapidly engulfs the sky. The camera tacks into the thunderous clouds themselves as they form into the image of a skull: the Death Eater’s Dark Mark. Three inky-black vaporous streams emerge from it. They look and move like the trails of impossibly agile sidewinder missiles. The three, which fans of the films recognize as flying Death Eaters, zoom down over the Thames as the camera moves into position behind them. They streak on through Trafalgar square and the streets of London. They’re no longer sidewinders, but rather supersonic air-launched cruise missiles. They pass into the heart of the wizarding world in London, Diagon Alley, and slam into Olivander’s Wands.

The camera pulls back to give a birds-eye view of the shop exploding—sending glass flying and knocking bystanders to the ground. The camera cuts to street level to show Fenrir Grayback, a werewolf and ally of Voldemort, roughly dragging Olivander—head obscured under a blindfolding black hood—away from his shop. In the company of two Death Eaters, Grayback launches into the air with Olivander. But before they leave London, the three fly along the Millennium Bridge. The force of their passage rips the bridge from its supports. It collapses, along with terrified pedestrians, into the Thames.

The opening of the Half-Blood Prince continues a trend begun in the Order of the Phoenix, in which danger bleeds seamlessly from the wizarding world into our own, and back again. None of this sequence, I should add, is a faithful translation of the book onto the screen. In the novels, Voldemort is the only Death Eater capable of unassisted flight. Readers learn of Olivander’s abduction via exposition. In the opening chapter of the Half-Blood Prince, recently sacked Minister of Magic Cornelius Fudge informs the Prime Minister of Britain that Voldemort is behind the destruction of a (fictional) bridge: “The Brockdale Bridge – he did it… he threatened a mass Muggle killing unless I stood aside for him and….” David Yates’ direction takes a basic fact about the Death Eaters—they are, by organization and tactics, terrorists—and renders it visceral. Its imagery blurs the distinction between magic and modern weaponry. Terrorism and warfare, it suggests, aren’t so different in Diagon Alley from the streets of Baghdad.

Indeed, later on in the Half-Blood Prince, Harry, Ron Weasley, and Hermione Granger take a trip to Diagon Alley to, as they have every year since being accepted into Hogwarts, purchase school supplies. On their way to Fred and George’s joke shop, they pass the abandoned and burnt-out wreck of Olivander’s Wands. As in the books, Hogwarts, already scarred by the brief, but ruthless, tenure of Ministry of Magic hack Dolores Umbridge, has been transformed. The school is under lockdown, protected by magical defenses and the special agents of the Wizard world, the Aurors. We also see it, for the first time, through the eyes of adolescents firmly on their way to adulthood. Harry and Ron tower above first-year students. Yates makes sure we notice snogging teenagers as his camera pans the halls. In some scenes, students lounge around drinking unidentified substances in the hours between classes and curfew.

By the film’s end, these twin transitions are complete. Hogwart’s defenses have been compromised through the actions of Draco Malfoy, a student and uneasy Death Eater; Dumbledore lies dead at the hands of Severus Snape—a double-agent for the Order who, at least for the moment, appears to have actually been working as a triple-agent; and Harry, along with Hermione and Ron, has vowed to leave behind Hogwarts to find Voldemort’s remaining horcruxes: hidden containers for parts of his soul that, as long as they persist, protect him from death.

In many ways, the Harry Potter series interfaces uncomfortably with most understandings of international relations. Foreign policy is often about balancing unpalatable alternatives, as has been the story of US engagement with the so-called “Arab Spring,” its efforts to ensure the delivery of vital supplies to NATO forces in Afghanistan, and its dealings with North Korea. Rowling’s novels—and their film versions—are too sophisticated not to allow even good characters to make bad, and even cruel, decisions. For example, a significant thematic of The Deathly Hallows is that Dumbledore, who we know as a paragon of moral rectitude and self-sacrifice, has lived a far from untarnished life.

The wizarding world that Harry and his friends fight to defend is itself deeply flawed. Its enslavement of House-Elves is so complete that all but Dobby recoil at the thought of freedom. It denies full political and civil rights to other sentient magical creatures, including Centaurs and Goblins. Many of its members look upon non-magical humans (Muggles) with a sense of smug superiority; more than a few refer to witches and wizards born of Muggles as “mudbloods.” The Ministry of Magic proves willing to propagandize against those it considers threats via British wizardry’s leading newspaper, The Daily Prophet. As the series unfolds, we also see it conduct star-chamber trials, condemn people to torture at the hands of the soul-sucking Dementors, and frequently bend to the desires of the rich and powerful.

Through all of this, however, Rowling never gives us any reason to doubt that Voldemort and his Death Eaters are evil embodied. They stand for racial subordination, tyranny, and the sacrifice of others to their own ambitions. Voldemort himself is the series’ “Big Bad”; his every action, as well as his very appearance confirms his demonic nature. Voldemort’s eyes are and nostrils are slits, his skin serpentine. He commits numerous atrocities, such as suspending a tortured Hogwarts teacher (of “Muggle studies”) above the table on which he and his followers eat dinner or feeding an innocent old man to his snake familiar. Indeed, while many of Rowling’s “good” characters are flawed, and her “bad” characters—other than Voldemort—capable of redemption, there is little moral ambiguity in Harry Potter.

If there exists an explicit foreign-policy message in Harry Potter, it is that we should not sacrifice liberty for security. The books are resolutely anti-torture. Hogwarts games keeper Hagrid is briefly sent to Azkaban—the wizarding world’s Guantanamo Bay—without anything approximating due process. Sirius Black spends years there for crimes he didn’t commit, during which he is driven (temporarily) insane. Rowling strongly suggests that even the guilty do not deserve punishment at the hands of Azkaban’s Dementors.

In fact, the Ministry’s practices prove steps along the slippery slope to fascism and tyranny. Once the Death Eater’s subvert it from within, they easily harness its institutional apparatus for the persecution of mudbloods and other “undesirables.” They deploy its propaganda to further their ideological of racial purity and magical superiority, as well as to brand Harry the most dangerous enemy of the wizarding community. Although they control some recalcitrant officials with the Imperious Curse, others, including Umbridge, eagerly embrace the Ministry’s new policies. As long as Voldemort stays in the shadows, many wizards and witches don’t even recognize that his forces have seized control.

Once the Ministry falls, the dominant tropes of the two Deathly Hallows films increasingly center around those of a resistance movement fighting against a tyrannical regime. As Harry, Ron, and Hermione pursue Voldemort’s horcruxes they mount what are, in effect, guerilla raids against the Ministry and the Death Eaters. Disguised as employees, they sneak into the Ministry to retrieve a horcrux, find themselves freeing a group of “mudbloods,” and barely escape capture. They spend a good deal of the rest of the film running and hiding. Eventually, their attempts to gather intelligence lead to their apprehension by a group of Death Eaters. With the assistance—and self-sacrifice—of Dobby the House-Elf, they escape from the clutches of Bellatrix Lestrange only moments before Voldemort arrives to kill Harry.

Most of Part II concerns the final showdown with Voldemort and the Death Eaters. The pre-title sequence of Part II begins with Voldemort acquiring the most powerful wand ever created—the so-called “Elder Wand”—which he believes will make him invincible. The Battle of Hogwarts provides the major set piece of Part II, but beforehand some unfinished business remains. Harry, Ron, and Hermione steal one of the final horcruxes from Gringott’s Bank—the HSBC of the wizarding world… if HSBC were run by goblins and stored its patrons’ treasure in vault-lined caves and tunnels. Once again they narrowly evade capture, only this time they do so on the back of an abused dragon who guards the most important vaults. Their ride over London provides our last glimpse of the Muggle world until the film’s epilogue, which is fitting, because from hereafter we are firmly in the realm of fantasy.

The Battle of Hogwarts features a titanic clash between good and evil; moments of redemption , self-sacrifice, and rebirth; the triumph of the few over the many; and a final duel between Voldemort and Harry. The “Elder Wand” betrays Voldemort; it recognizes, for reasons too convoluted to explain here, that Harry as its true master. In the end, Harry breaks it into pieces and, in doing so, renounces the will-to-power that so twisted Voldemort.

In this respect, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part II, is something like comfort food for unsettled times. Many people whom fans have grown to care about lose their lives, but never in vain. Voldemort’s defeat marks the end of the Death Eaters: absent his vision and the fear he inspires, they cannot recover. No wonder long-circulating comparisons between Voldemort and Osama Bin Laden gained a new lease on life in the lead up to the film’s release: for a generation reared on Harry Potter and marked by 9/11, it seems fitting that US forces killed Bin Laden not long before opening day. And it is nice, just for a moment, to imagine that Al-Qaeda, like the Death Eaters, will simply melt away.

But I think it is too easy to dismiss Harry Potter as fantastic escapism. Popular culture seldom has a direct effect on international politics. Instead, it supplies common referents that shape our understandings of events; its images, narratives, and ideas intrude into the “common sense” of its consumers. How it represents, for example, ethnic groups, ideologies, and threats matters. Thus, the very idea of an analogy between Voldemort and Bin Laden, and the ease with which it comes to mind for students of a certain age, takes on some significance. To the extent that popular culture influences our understandings of right and wrong, then the content of Potter’s moral compass matters even more. Rowling’s sophisticated treatment of torture, justice, propaganda, political inequality, and the dangers of state excess are likely to be among the enduring legacy of the novels and films.

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Targeting Targeted Killing

I was asked to step-in at the last minute to write a chapter on targeted killing for a textbook on isses in the War on Terror. Given the recent OBL killing and debate about raids, etc, I was surprisingly excited at the prospect of engaging with the issue.

Although my chapter is almost done (no really, Richard, it’s on its way!) I’ve noticed some problems with researching the topic and trying to draw general conclusions as to whether or not it is a good or a bad policy.


1.What are you people talking about?

When talking about “targeted killing”, everyone means something different. Some are talking about assassination (Michael Gross for example), some specifically are talking about the Israeli policy used against alleged Palestinian militants post-November 2002 (such as Steven David); some are talking about the targeting of terrorist leaders generally (decapitation in Audrey Kurth Cronin’s book How Terrorism Ends). Nils Melzer on the other hand seems to be talking about every kind of state killing in and out of warfare from the CIA in Vietnam, to US tactics against Gaddafi in the 1980s to Israel-Palestine post-2000.


And yet all of these things are radically different policies from each other. While decapitation refers to the removal of the leadership of a group, Israel’s policy targeted anyone who was seen as part of the upper-to-middle management of terrorist organizations. It’s not just the leadership that was targeted, but the bomb-makers, planners, etc. The US drone policy seems to target “militants” generally and is done in the context of ongoing armed conflict (although I concede this is up for debate). Whereas the OBL raid was clearly targeting just OBL.

Yet many (like Dershowitz in this post here or Byman here) conflate ALL of these kinds of killing where it is convenient for his/her argument. For example, shorter Dershowitz: the US has killed Osama, ergo Israel’s tactics are legitimate. Leaving the legitimacy issue aside for a moment, these operations were two INCREDIBLY different things. You simply can’t compare one to the other – which leads me to my next point…

2. Israel-Palestine is crazy sui generis

To put it mildly, the Israel-Palestinian situation is unlike any other situation in the world. Basically, you have a well-armed democratic country in a state of confused hostilities with an internationally recognized movement (with some branches that engage in politically violent acts) directly beside it that is engaged in a struggle for independence. This is pretty much the opposite of the United State’s drone tactics in the Af-Pak region, where drones are being controlled from far away (military bases or mainland USA) against territories that are also far away to combat a threat that is, again, far away.

To draw conclusions from one and to apply it to the other simply does not make any sense. The policies are carried out in very different ways, justified very differently (Israel has a process involving courts, political figures, etc; the US president seems to be the sole authorizing force on many of the attacks against militants/terrorists). Comparing targeted killing apples and drone oranges doesn’t really seem to work.

And yet, almost all of the work on targeted killing from which assessments are made has been based on Israel’s policy in Palestine. The three major studies I can find are: Kaplan, et al. 2005; Hafez and Hatfield, 2006; Mannes 2008.

The one exception I have is the Cronin book, How Terrorism Ends where she also looks at the policy of targeting and killing militants in the Philippines and Russia. As a popular-ish book, it doesn’t go into a lot of methodological detail, but just states what happened to various movements/organisations after their leaders were killed. (Cronin is also sceptical that it works though she does admit of the Israeli policy that it may have saved some Israeli lives.)

So, while it might be the only model we have decent statistics on, but I don’t think the Israeli policy of targeted killing is appropriate one for building a comprehensive argument on targeting leaders generally.

3. Assessment of effectiveness requires counterfactual history

Many of the studies above make assessments of the Israeli-Palestinian policy by saying that it basically has no effect whatsoever. Statistics don’t lie, I suppose. But I can’t help feeling that something is missing here. While these studies don’t show a significant decrease in attacks, they don’t show a significant increase either. Who knows what would have happened without the policy. There could have been more attacks. There could have been fewer attacks. It could have stayed the same. The problem that defenders and detractors of targeted killing encounter is that we don’t really know what would have happened otherwise. So drawing conclusions about success/failure seems to necessarily involve guessing what would have or would not have happened when it reality we don’t actually know and have to rely on assumptions and guesswork.

In summary, it seems to me that 1) there is a dearth of evidence from which to draw reasonable conclusions 2) the policies are so different that a comparison is impossible – as is the extension of the lessons of one case study to another.

In this case I wonder if such policies should be justified (David, 2003) or denounced (Stein 2003; Gross 2003 and 2006) on a normative basis. For example, David justifies the policy as fulfilling a need for revenge (which he sees as morally justifiable) and Gross argues against because the use of collaborators in gathering the necessary intelligence is immoral.

This isn’t to say that quantitative studies on the issue are useless – on the contrary, we desperately need more information. But to me this seems to be a case where a discussion of morality may actually be more effective than discussing an almost impossible to measure effectiveness – at least for the immediate future.

I would be most grateful for any suggestions of further qual/quant studies on the topic from Duck readers. (I see that CATO has a speciall issue out on the US and targeted killing. However as it does not appear that it will be fully uploaded until 13 June, I’m kind of out of luck for my chapter and this post.)

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Thoughts on Bin Laden, #47

I’ll make it quick.

1. He’s dead. But that won’t stop the vast, academic industry around this war. We academics really have done very well out of the war on terror for the most part. We have a strong professional interest in not facing up to the raw strategic reality, that Al Qaeda has become largely a third-order nuisance, dangerous but mainly in terms of baiting us to do stupid things, and a diversion from much more difficult and serious stuff, like the vast imbalance between our power, resources and commitments, the near collapse of our financial system (September 2008, as well as 2001, is a critical date), the overloading of the planet with people competing for dwindling resources, the fact we still have hair-trigger nuclear weapons systems and false alarms and close calls, and that not so long ago, Boris Yeltsin had the nuclear briefcase before him as he decided whether to launch a nuclear attack in response to a Norwegian weather rocket mistaken for an incoming attack. No, an endless war on terror and a ‘global counterinsurgency’ lets us opine about such ticklish subjects as sectarian hatred, multiculturalism, alienated young men, globalisation, nationbuilding, etc etc and a whole network of institutions and careers built on it.

2. For just a small example, I remember arguing with a member of an ‘insurgency’ study group in a prominent university. When I made the blunt point that AQ attacks against us of any significance have been so rare and mainly incompetent that most of us are in more danger of falling of a ladder, he had the wit to reply that there was a broader ‘insurgency’ underway. It was manifest not only in violent militancy (silly me), but in the eccentric opinions of teenagers in chat-rooms getting excited about a Caliphate, and even in the demands of some folk for Sharia Law. He had expanded insurgency to encompass the holding of any subversive idea. A touch authoritarian, perhaps. When I asked him whether the Archbishop of Canterbury was an insurgent because of his mild belief in some kind of legal pluralism in the UK, the verdict was that he was a ‘useful idiot.’ A professional expert on insurgency finding insurgencies everywhere? Follow the money.

3.  On the death celebrations: I can’t agree with some folk here that the celebrations mark some kind of fundamental and scary brutalising of American civic life, like torture did, for example. Most folk haven’t taken to the streets to join in the party. Bin Laden declared war on the US and killed thousands of Americans, and if it is unappetising or unsavoury that some people have celebrated a little loudly, that is surely forgivable. Revenge and reprisal is part of our human condition, no matter how much we sublimate it into concepts like ‘justice’, even if we should work harder to civilise that urge. That terrorism against us is partly caused by the longing for vengeance because of ‘legitimate grievances’ is something academics argue for and sometimes sympathise with. Surely the fact that we might respond emotionally and vulgarly because of our legitimate grievances too deserves some sympathy?  In most societies across space and time, the news that a murderous enemy of the state has been killed is an occasion to be glad, even to rejoice. To condemn Americans, or Britons, or Westerners for failing to be exceptional and infinitely merciful and dignified is to apply a fictitious and narcissistic standard. Men and women are not angels.

4. I do hope the Obama Administration ends up revealing a photo of some kind. Rumours over the next ten years that Osama is somewhere in a retirement home playing backgammon with Elvis could be too much to take.

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Politics of Potter

Alyssa Rosenberg has a good discussion of the anti-torture themes in the Harry Potter series. But she neglects two other ways in which J.K. Rowling critiques the US conduct of the war on terror: Azkaban and arbitrary detention.

Harry’s disdain for the ministry in The Half-Blood Prince focuses on their detention of Stan Shunpike in Azkaban — Stan’s obvious innocence doesn’t deter Minister of Magic Rufus Scrimgeour from scapegoating the young man as part of his effort to create the illusion of security in the Wizarding world. Indeed, Azkaban itself could be any number of soul-devouring prisons in the Muggle world, but in the the last few books it sometimes seems a stand in for Guantanamo Bay.

Given the obvious connections between the Death Eaters and terrorist organizations — from their methods to their cell-structure organization — it doesn’t take much to read the later novels as, in part, a claim that state terror, whatever its purpose, inevitably corrupts democratic governance and renders it vulnerable to fascism and totalitarianism.

(note: I’ve edited this post a bit. Still getting used to blogging from iPad)

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First Reactions to the Big News, Steve’s turn

There will be a lot of time to think about Bin Laden’s death, but I thought I would add a few quick thoughts while I catch up on the coverage online.  There are a bunch of surprises and non-surprises.

First, in retrospect, the non-surprises are:

  • Seal Team 6 (the super-special operations forces) did the job, not a drone.  This is not a surprise, because the US always wanted to have complete proof that it was Bin Laden and that he was dead.  A drone cannot do that…. yet.
  • That the US took the shot.  Yes, there are tradeoffs involved, especially backlash against the US and within Pakistan, but this is one campaign promise that Obama had to fulfill if he had the chance.  More importantly, the whole “US is a superpower but cannot find one guy” impotency tale had to end if possible.  Done.
  • That Pakistan* played a mixed role in this, perhaps helping at the end, but very clearly providing some support (by individual government officials certainly, by the government itself who knows) to Bin Laden during his years of hiding. 

*  This might alter the results of my amateur survey of who is America’s worst ally.  It also puts into perspective the recent visit of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mike Mullen, who was very critical of the Pakistanis.

  • That the speech was delayed an hour.  Sure, they had months and months to plan the op, so they could have spent months planning the speech, but the secret was tightly held (see below), plus word-smithing is a DC disease.  My minor memos got vetted to death and those were small stakes.  I can only imagine how many people were looking over the shoulders of the speechwriters–who did a nice job.
  • Osama was with his youngest wife.  Well, duh.
  • Burial at sea.  What other choice was there?  Take him to the US?  Afghanistan?  Create a location for folks to use as a rallying point?  Quick burial according to Islamic (and Jewish) tradition meant that they could not spend lots of timing figuring this out.  Will, of course, raise questions about whether he is dead, whether he was assassinated, etc, but smarter people than me spent months thinking about this, and it was probably the least bad choice. [Update: US apparently asked Saudis, they said “no thanks”]
  • That the mission ended with Osama dead.  He had sworn he would fight to his death.  I also would not be surprised if the troops were ordered to kill on sight, given that a captured Osama would have been far more complicated.

Second, the surprises:

  • That Bin Laden was hiding in a pretty fancy place (not a mansion but an Mc-Mansion perhaps) in the suburbs of a major city.  This is not entirely surprising since it is easier to hide in a crowd than by oneself. But it seems that the elaborate hiding place gave him away.  Indeed, more proof for the “Normal Accidents” approach–the multiplicity of tactics to hide Bin Laden (big walls, no internet, etc) ended up undermining the effort. 
  • That the US government kept the secret for so very long.  No leaks at all.  Nice to see that the US can work together when the stakes are super-high.  Still, this is very striking.  There is even a great pic of Obama laughing while Seth Meyers was joking about finding Bin Laden–when the choppers must have been on the way or just about to be.  Obama definitely was very busy in the public eye in the days leading up to this–the WH correspondent’s dinner, going to Alabama to see the tornado damage, going to the Shuttle launch (which was delayed)–doing a very good job of not tipping his hand.

What does this mean?  For the US?  For Pakistan?  For Afghanistan?  For the Arab Spring?  No one knows.  Lots of wild speculation to come (and not just from me–Charli got here first!).

There will be some complaints about the Americans cheering a death, but that is pretty lame given how much Bin Laden and his pals did of this cheering for much less precise attacks on far less guilty folks.  The man declared himself to be a mortal enemy of the US.  Of course, he proved he was exactly that yesterday–mortal.  I liked that Obama pointed out that Bin Laden was a murder of Muslims.  Indeed, combining the totals of the folks killed in AQ attacks over the years with OBL’s indirect responsibility* for those killed in Afghanistan and Iraq since 2001, that is a lot of blood.  Not Hitler-esque, but still awful no matter how you count it.

*  By all accounts, Bin Laden wanted the 9/11 attack to trigger an American war in Afghanistan.  It is also pretty clear that attack made it far easier for the Bush Administration to launch the Iraq invasion–note, no real planning of that war until after 9/11.

These are just the first few thoughts I have.  I am sure that we will all be thinking about this for a while.  Your thoughts are most welcome.

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Terrorism: A Problem for Realists

Whatever version of political realism you are dealing with, the sovereign state is still central to its universe. Which is one reason realists are uncomfortable with any world view that accords ‘non-state actors’ a pivotal or even significant role.

I’m a huge fan of the work of political realists such as John Mearsheimer, Robert Pape or Christopher Layne, especially of their warnings against our own self-defeating behaviour. But there is a contradiction, or at least a tension in some of their arguments that deserves further thinking.

They argue that we have inflated the threat of AQ-style terrorism, which in reality is not fundamental and may be little more than a nuisance. On the other hand, they argue that this nuisance is significant enough that we should not maintain a forward-leaning military and strategic presence in places like the Gulf, partly because it radicalises opinion and fuels terrorism.

Consider Measheimer’s views:

In the aftermath of 9/11, terrorism was described as an existential threat. President Bush emphasized that virtually every terrorist group on the planet—including those that had no beef with Washington—was our enemy and had to be eliminated if we hoped to win what became known as the global war on terror (GWOT). The administration also maintained that states like Iran, Iraq and Syria were not only actively supporting terrorist organizations but were also likely to provide terrorists with weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Thus, it was imperative for the United States to target these rogue states if it hoped to win the GWOT—or what some neoconservatives like Norman Podhoretz called World War IV. Indeed, Bush said that any country which “continues to harbor or support terrorism will be regarded by the United States as a hostile regime.” Finally, the administration claimed that it was relatively easy for groups like al-Qaeda to infiltrate and strike the homeland, and that we should expect more disasters like 9/11 in the near future. The greatest danger for sure would be a WMD attack against a major American city.

This assessment of America’s terrorism problem was flawed on every count. It was threat inflation of the highest order. It made no sense to declare war against groups that were not trying to harm the United States. They were not our enemies; and going after all terrorist organizations would greatly complicate the daunting task of eliminating those groups that did have us in their crosshairs. In addition, there was no alliance between the so-called rogue states and al-Qaeda. In fact, Iran and Syria cooperated with Washington after 9/11 to help quash Osama bin Laden and his cohorts. Although the Bush administration and the neoconservatives repeatedly asserted that there was a genuine connection between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda, they never produced evidence to back up their claim for the simple reason that it did not exist.

The fact is that states have strong incentives to distrust terrorist groups, in part because they might turn on them someday, but also because countries cannot control what terrorist organizations do, and they may do something that gets their patrons into serious trouble. This is why there is hardly any chance that a rogue state will give a nuclear weapon to terrorists. That regime’s leaders could never be sure that they would not be blamed and punished for a terrorist group’s actions. Nor could they be certain that the United States or Israel would not incinerate them if either country merely suspected that they had provided terrorists with the ability to carry out a WMD attack. A nuclear handoff, therefore, is not a serious threat. 

When you get down to it, there is only a remote possibility that terrorists will get hold of an atomic bomb. The most likely way it would happen is if there were political chaos in a nuclear-armed state, and terrorists or their friends were able to take advantage of the ensuing confusion to snatch a loose nuclear weapon. But even then, there are additional obstacles to overcome: some countries keep their weapons disassembled, detonating one is not easy and it would be difficult to transport the device without being detected. Moreover, other countries would have powerful incentives to work with Washington to find the weapon before it could be used. The obvious implication is that we should work with other states to improve nuclear security, so as to make this slim possibility even more unlikely.

So far so good. We needn’t conflate them all, their capabilities are overstated, states have good reasons not to arm them with WMD, and we should make sure that the very unlikely calamity of nuclear terrorism is made more unlikely.

But later he goes on:

Specifically, offshore balancing is the best grand strategy for ameliorating our terrorism problem. Placing American troops in the Arab and Muslim world is a major cause of terrorist attacks against the United States, as University of Chicago professor Robert Pape’s research shows. Remember what happened after President Ronald Reagan sent marines into Beirut in 1982? A suicide bomber blew up their barracks the following year, killing 241 service members. Reagan had the good sense to quickly pull the remaining marines out of Lebanon and keep them offshore. And it is worth noting that the perpetrators of this act did not pursue us after we withdrew.

Reagan’s decision was neither surprising nor controversial, because the United States had an offshore-balancing strategy in the Middle East during this period. Washington relied on Iraq to contain Iran during the 1980s, and kept the rapid-deployment force—which was built to intervene in the Gulf if the local balance of power collapsed—at the ready should it be needed. This was smart policy.

After Iraq invaded Kuwait in August 1990, the United States, once again acting as an offshore balancer, moved large numbers of troops into Saudi Arabia to liberate Kuwait. After the war was won and victory was consolidated, those troops should have been pulled out of the region. But that did not happen. Rather, Bill Clinton adopted a policy of dual containment—checking both Iran and Iraq instead of letting them check one another. And lest we forget, the resulting presence of U.S. forces in Saudi Arabia was one of the main reasons that Osama bin Laden declared war on the United States. The Bush administration simply made a bad situation even worse.

Sending the U.S. military into countries in the Arab and Muslim world is helping to cause our terrorism problem, not solve it. The best way to fix this situation is to follow Ronald Reagan’s example and pull all American troops out of Afghanistan and Iraq, then deploy them over the horizon as part of an offshore-balancing strategy. To be sure, the terrorist challenge would not completely disappear if the United States went back to offshore balancing, but it would be an important step forward.

Next is to address the other causes, like Washington’s unyielding support for Israel’s policies in the occupied territories. Indeed, Bill Clinton recently speculated that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is responsible for about half of the terrorism we face. Of course, this is why the Obama administration says it wants to achieve a two-state solution between Israel and the Palestinians. But given the lack of progress in solving that problem, and the fact that it is going to take at least a few years to get all of the American troops out of Afghanistan and Iraq, we will be dealing with al-Qaeda for the foreseeable future.

Now to be clear, I’m in sympathy with offshore balancing (hence my own blog’s rather kitsch title), as a more prudent, alternative grand strategy. But if terrorism, as Measheimer and others suggest, is at best a minor nuisance that can be pretty straightforwardly managed and contained, then it becomes less decisive as a reason to not do things that Mearsheimer opposes, such as supporting Israel, keeping troops and bases in the Gulf, or waging wars around the world. There are lots of other reasons to favour an alternative strategy, but on Mearsheimer’s analysis it becomes more marginal.

Putting it another way, if Osama Bin Laden and his affiliates and imitators can hardly hurt us now that we’re on the case, any more than “lightning, or by accident-causing deer, or by severe allergic reactions to peanuts”, then their burning objections to our foreign policies should matter less in the overall calculus about our grand strategy.

Assuming Mearsheimer’s causal hypothesis is right, that our policies abroad ’cause’ it and/or intensify it, breeding more terrorism still remains a ‘minus’ on the balance sheet. Its not a good idea to create a nuisance unless there are very good reasons that make it worthwhile. On his analysis, it takes terrorism closer to being an ‘acceptable’ cost of the very policies Mearsheimer opposes.

Ultimately, I agree that we have inflated the threat and allowed the declared intentions of AQ and their ilk to overshadow a clear-eyed assessment of their capabilities. But they remain dangerous in a more interactive/action-reaction sense, that a successful strike against us tempts us into self-defeating, self-harming behaviour. But whether or not I’m right, at some point realists have to reconcile their belief that terrorism is not terribly important with their claim that it is very important as a reason not to do things.

However, I’ve drunk way too many coffees today and its lovely and hot outside, so I could have found two ideas that are complimentary, not contradictory. Over to you!

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Will the IRA blow up Will and Kate?

Unidentified ‘British security officials’ are telling journalists there is a possibility that sections of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) could attack next Friday’s royal wedding in London. At an event I attended this week, Patrick Mercer OBE, Conservative MP for Newark and member of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Transatlantic and International Security, warned that the three security threats facing Britain are Al-Qaeda inspired terrorism, violence ‘attached’ to student protests, and ‘Irish terrorists’ attacking the royal wedding. Mercer questioned the wisdom of holding a royal wedding so close to Easter, a time with historic significance for Irish republicans. The Easter Rising insurrection against British rule in Ireland began on 24 April 1916. The wedding date is also close to the 30th anniversary of the death of republican prisoner Bobby Sands, who died on hunger strike on 5 May 1981. Don’t we understand ‘how Irish terrorists think’, asked Mercer. Yet, talking informally to journalists in London, I discovered many didn’t want to raise the matter because it might appear to strike a negative note and alienate readers at a time many view as one of national celebration.
If there is a threat of violent attacks on the wedding – and it is unlikely security services would make details public even if there were evidence that there was a threat – what would be an effective way to communicate it? Where does the balance lie between informing and scaremongering? Government and journalists will face the same dilemma at the Olympics in a year’s time so it will be interesting to follow how it plays out in the next week. 
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Cause and Effect in the “War on Terror?”

 It is impossible to know at this point whether there is any connection between these two disturbing events reported yesterday:  NATO forces’ mistaken killing of nine boys gathering firewood in Afghanistan; and, a few hours later, the killing of two American soldiers at Frankfurt airport, apparently by a Muslim man of Kosovar origin.   We do know that other terror suspects have stated that they acted in response to U.S. policies in the GWOT, in particular the frequent killings of innocent civilians in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere.  It would therefore not be surprising if this were true in the German case.  And it is at least possible that the impetus was in fact the horrific NATO shootings in Afghanistan just hours before.  

This raises yet again the question of what is cause and what effect in the “war on terror.”  Are American policies, which predictably result in large numbers of civilian casualties no matter how great the military’s precautions, in fact reducing the number of terrorists?  Do our heartfelt apologies in the wake of such wholly foreseeable errors in fact have any effect on the families of the victims, let alone on the small number of angry and extreme–but not yet violent Muslims–elsewhere in the world?  The answer seems likely to be, No.  The GWOT is a self-perpetuating policy that increases the amount of terrorism in the world, even as it enriches military establishments, COIN bureaucracies, and all manner of private suppliers of questionable anti-terror services and technologies.  (Read the prior article–an amazingly depressing story of yet more waste, fraud, and gullibility in the GWOT.)
My question for Duck readers is:  How does such folly come to an end?  On the surface, when cause becomes effect, there would seem ample, rational basis to change policies.  And there have been any number of additional reasons to halt it recently too:  the obvious marginality of al-Qaeda in the massive popular upheavals that have rocked the Middle East and North Africa; recent statements by American officials that the number of al-Qaeda fighters is vanishingly small; Robert Gates’s tacit admission last week that the Afghanistan and Iraq wars should never have been fought; and reports that the military is propagandizing U.S. politicians and thereby citizens to believe that the wars are succeeding.  (This article too is worth a full read to see both how some in the military confuse the “mission” with their own ambition–and, a ray of hope, how others sometimes stand up against them). 
Any suggestions from Duck readers about literature on this kind of conundrum?  How are senseless but self-perpetuating policies, backed by hugely vested interests, ever brought to a halt?

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“State” Multiculturalism

This is England?

I woke up this morning to discover that apparently “state multiculturalism” has failed. According to Prime Minister David Cameron:

…when a white person holds objectionable views, racist views for instance, we rightly condemn them. But when equally unacceptable views or practices come from someone who isn’t white, we’ve been too cautious frankly – frankly, even fearful – to stand up to them. The failure, for instance, of some to confront the horrors of forced marriage, the practice where some young girls are bullied and sometimes taken abroad to marry someone when they don’t want to, is a case in point. This hands-off tolerance has only served to reinforce the sense that not enough is shared. And this all leaves some young Muslims feeling rootless. And the search for something to belong to and something to believe in can lead them to this extremist ideology. Now for sure, they don’t turn into terrorists overnight, but what we see – and what we see in so many European countries – is a process of radicalisation.

In this speech, given in Germany, Cameron claimed that the West needs to “wake-up to what is happening to our countries” and basically realize that our tolerance of other people’s cultures is responsible for the terrorist threat, 7/7, etc.

And as if to perfectly echo the point, the rather fascist self-styled English Defense League – a full blown anti-Islam group that wants to ban mosques, people that are not white, etc had a large rally in Luton today.

Fabulous.

It seems ridiculous that I have to make the point that I DON’T think the PM is an EDL member, etc. etc. And I’m sure he felt the timing of his speech was unfortunate – but this does serve to highlight some points I’ve been unscientifically thinking about for a while.

After having lived in the UK for nearly 10 years (including some poorer neighbourhoods and in council estates), it doesn’t seem to me that the UK has ever given multiculturalism a chance. And having read the Prime Minister’s speech, it doesn’t actually seem that he knows what multiculturalism is.

In the UK, and in the speech, “multiculturalism” seems to be “let’s let those people go and live in that ghetto over there”. It’s never been about integration – just a kind of reluctant (or “hands-off”) tolerance. But this is not really multiculturalism – at least I think as it has been practiced elsewhere or even as it could be.
Multiculturalism – to me – would suggest an exchange: keeping the practicses of ones’ culture alive within the context of a liberal, pluralist society. And yes, we can make demands on someone to respect certain liberal civil values. I’m not sure it was ever really about allowing people to stand up and defend their hatred of homosexuality, women’s rights and the like. Suggesting that this is multiculturalism seems to me to be an unfortunate co-opting or gross misunderstanding of the term. It seems to be the hated “multiculturalism” of the right (the kind that wants to ban Spanish in America) that the PM has bought into rather than what it could stand for.

Additionally, it doesn’t so much seem to me to be the case that it is a policy of multiculturalism that drives people to live in ghettos – but the fact they are poor. According to a report released last year by UK think tank Demos, Muslim people in the UK are more likely to be unemployed and to suffer discrimination:

Occupationally, Muslims are the most disadvantaged faith group in the Western European labour market. Muslims on average experience higher unemployment rates compared to national averages, and more often than not, their occupations are not compatible with their levels and fields of education. In respect of housing and poverty, there is marked clustering of communities that has resulted in the ghettoisation’ of some areas, leading to social tensions.

Another interesting thing about PM Cameron’s speech is what he means by “state” multiculturalism? As opposed to what other kind of multiculturalism? Non-state multiculrualism? He never says.
Is there an alternative? The Labour Party and Gordon Brown used to speak of spreading “British Values”. But I’m not even certain that the British know what Britsh values are. While one can look back and find reference to notions of the “liberties of all Englishmen”, they’re very undefined. (Particularly since the UK never really got around to writing them down). And this is a very legalistic notion of what “values” are. And besides ethnic and religious differences, are British values the same in the south of the country as the north? Or in the other ‘nations’ like Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland (where some Christian MPs regularly denigrate homosexuals). So Cameron is speaking about a “common identity”. But really, there just doesn’t seem to be any sense that the government has anything else to put in place.

So if he wasn’t advocating an alternative, what’s this about then? There has been some suggestion in the media that Cameron’s speech is to prepare the UK for some changes to come following a review of the “Prevent” strategy – the UK’s anti-extremism/radicalisation policy which is under review (mostly because it seems to have cost a lot of money and achieved little results).

But it would seem to me that multiculturalism, however imperfect, would seem to offer a platform to combat inequality and mistrust and to promote integration. You know, some of the things you’d want to do to combat extremism. And I think it would be easier than promoting a “shared national identity” – especially considering there are nationalist/separatist movements in Scotland and Wales.

I think it can be easily said that no sensible person would advocate funding organizations that fundamentally contradicted liberal values. And I don’t think that we should accept racism, sexism, anti-semitism or any other bad-ism from whatever the source. But I don’t think that the government should claim that accepting these things is the result of multiculturalism when I think there are many other factors to point at. It’s not about tolerating the intolerable.

Without articulating an alternative, or perhaps even suggesting a different take on multiculturalism, the PM risks having this message of challenging intolerance and extremism mixed with that of the EDL. (Certainly they must see this as some kind of propaganda coup?) And that’s not doing anyone any favours.

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Aasif Mandvi, Our Future Overlord

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I just saw this clip from last Thursday and I think the inversion of US/South Asian security ethics is just brilliant.

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