Tag: terrorism (page 2 of 3)

No More Cups of Tea: Terrorism Research and the Law

This is a guest post from Tanisha Fazal, a professor of political science at Columbia University, and Jessica Martini, a human rights and international trade attorney based in New York City.

To conduct research on terrorism and insurgency, it’s best to be able to talk to people.  Combing through incident reports is helpful, but often an informal conversation over a cup of tea is as, if not more, illuminating.  But according to ban on providing “material support” (18 United States Code (U.S.C.) 2339B), buying a cup of tea for a terrorist can land you in [US] jail.  In 1996 the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA) prohibited providing “material support or resources” to terrorists, which included providing goods and financing, in addition to intangibles such as training and personnel.  This was expanded in 2001 in the wake of the September 11th attacks, as part of USA PATRIOT Act, and subsequent court decisions interpreting this law, to include “expert advice and assistance” and coordinated advocacy.

As part of the government’s broader counterterrorism strategy, The Departments of Defense, State, and Homeland Security all have major initiatives and funding today to develop and promote better research on terrorism.  But another element of US counterterrorism – the material support ban – not only directly hinders the conduct of exactly this type of research, but also puts scholars in a position where they risk being fined or even imprisoned for researching terrorism and/or insurgency.
According to the American Bar Association, the material support ban

prohibits “providing material support or resources” to an organization the Secretary of State has designated as a “foreign terrorist organization.” The material support ban was first passed as part of the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA). The provision’s purpose is to deny terrorist groups the ingredients necessary for planning and carrying out attacks. Congress was concerned that terrorist organizations with charitable or humanitarian arms were raising funds within the United States that could then be used to further their terrorist activities. The provision outlawed any support to these groups, irrespective of whether that support was intended for humanitarian purposes.

The list of foreign terrorist organizations, or FTOs, contains many groups whose members scholars would like to interview to further their own research.  In addition to the restriction on contacts with FTOs and other entities listed on a number of other US Government lists, there are restrictions on bringing the modern tools of research, such as laptop computers and cell phones – into sanctioned countries like Syria or Iran due to trade sanctions and  export controls.

Prominent NGOs such as Human Rights Watch, The Carter Center, and the International Crisis Group and academic centers such as Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute have protested these restrictions, specifically by submitting amicus briefs (see more such briefs here, here, and here) in Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project, which was an unsuccessful test case challenging the constitutionality on First Amendment grounds of the material support ban.  Ambiguity in the Holder decision creates uncertainty about what is legal when conducting research involving people who may be affiliated with terrorists.  Any resources transferred to these groups – be it a discussion of your broader research that could be translated into advice, or buying lunch for a subject to thank them for taking the time to speak with you – could, in theory “free up other resources within the organization that may be put to violent ends,” according to the majority opinion of the court.

The Holder decision is an issue not just for academics, but also for journalists and activists.  Many of the groups co-sponsoring the amicus briefs were engaged in peacebuilding activities with groups such as the LTTE in Sri Lanka.  But the court’s ruling was that training members of these groups in international human rights law was illegal.

The material support ban and export control restrictions serve an important purpose. Terrorists are a proven threat to the US, and we shouldn’t abet them.  But in restricting resource transfers wholesale, we limit our ability to understand and help these groups find alternative means to achieve the ends they currently seek violently.  There are, in other words, important unintended consequences to the law and to the subsequent decision on its constitutionality.

The main danger for scholars is the vagueness of both the law and the court’s decision.  Insofar as academic research tends to stay within the academy, it’s highly unlikely that a terrorism scholar will be prosecuted for buying a cup of tea for an interview subject on the FTO.  But to the extent that scholarship makes it up to the levels of policy debate – which is partly the point of government programs such as the Minerva initiative, as well as foundation and university initiatives such as the Bridging the Gap program – these laws make conducting research on terrorism and insurgency even riskier than it already is.

— Cross-posted from The Monkey Cage

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Slow-Motion Srebrenica

The NY Times’ recent article on Obama’s “kill list” of American citizens and others suspected–not convicted–of terrorism includes much disturbing information on what our government is doing in our names.  The entire “kill list” process and Obama’s central role in it has seldom been presented in such detail in a mainstream publication.   It is necessary if ugly reading, even if it is written in something approaching a triumphalist tone. 
The “kill list” involves U.S. targeting of Americans and others for drone death worldwide. This is being done without “due process of law.”  Previously, due process of law has meant that an impartial decision maker hears evidence presented by the executive branch, before an American is convicted of — let alone executed for— a crime.  For the “kill list,” due process of law does not exist.  If the Executive branch, the CIA, or other “intelligence” agencies, suspect you or another American of being a terrorist, your right to due process of law evaporates.  All you receive is review by officials of the same agencies who fingered you in the first place and will okay your killing, ultimately Obama himself. 
Right to defend yourself?  Forget about it.  Right to trial?  No way?  Worry about blowback?  Not a care, for instance, about reaction to the Yemeni family of 8 obliterated by drone days ago.
To me, one of the most unsettling points in the article was the “explanation” for why drone attacks are asserted, by government officials, to kill so few civilians.  It’s simple really:  just redefine the word “combatant.”   Thanks to the Obama administration, it has now been defined down to mean  “all military-age males in a strike zone . . . unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent.”
And of course, Obama is now personally authorizing the assassination of individuals, whether Americans or foreigners, based merely on their behavior—and without their identities being known.  So-called “signature” strikes, make the situation even worse than it first appears.    
All of this reminded me of the Srebrenica massacre of 1995.   Serb military forces under Ratko Mladic rounded up  “all military-age males” in the town, accusing them of support for or participation in attacks on the Serbs.  They then systematically slaughtered about 6,000, with no process of law.  Srebrenica, of course, was roundly and rightly condemned by the world community, not least Obama’s “atrocities czar” and one-time human rights champion, Samantha Power.
With Obama’s drone warfare, we appear to be doing the same thing, albeit over longer periods of time, in smaller batches of butchery, and using remote control weaponry.   As imperial hegemon, it seems, the U.S. is “permitted” to do this, even by those who profess to believe in human rights. 

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Oliver North threat-inflates for the next ‘Modern Warfare’: a new Low for the Military-Industrial-Entertainment Complex

Even tea-partying righties should be pretty shocked at this shameless, exploitative (and wildly inaccurate) manipulation of Americans’ post-9/11 paranoia as a marketing gimmick. And you thought 24 was off the air. Well here’s the video game version, all designed to scare you s—less – for cash. When the Homeland Security Department terrified the country 10 years ago by telling us to buy ducktape and sheetwrap, at least they had public safety goals, however confusedly, in mind. But this pseudodocumentarian ‘they’re-everywhere!-no-one-is-safe!’ crap is just to shill some video game. Bleh.

And Oliver North?! Good lord – the guy violated the appropriations clause, the Logan Act, and who knows how much other statute, and should have been in jail next to Frank Colson. Yet this guy is credible for the (apparently) largest entertainment franchise in the world now? Wow. H/t to Kotaku: “What does this say, then, about the market for a game like Call of Duty? Does Activision really believe its core market is so full of gun-crazy, right-wing types that it feels entirely comfortable employing Oliver North as someone to help sell the game?”

Activision’s Modern Warfare series has a well-known, morally dubious (yet best-selling) record of brutality-celebrating, militaristic, war-glorifying gaming, but invoking Oliver North’s pseudo-gravitas for right-wing street cred must be a new low. Is the first-person shooter genre now politicized too? So Sarah Palin’s ‘Real Americans’ blow away commies and terrorists with extreme prejudice, while you wimpy liberals play girlie games like Final Fantasy or something? The red state-blue state divide has come to your Xbox too. How nice; how healthy for democracy. Is it necessary to remind all those Tea Parties who adore the Constitution that North blatantly, repeatedly violated the appropriations clause of said ‘sacred,’ ‘holy’ end-all-be-all document?

At a time when the President is asserting an unprecedented right to kill overseas Americans without Constitutional protections, we really don’t need yet another wildly overhyped, quick-cut, paranoia-inducing threat assessment. Somewhere neocons are smiling, because I guess we all need our own drone now, right? But this stuff is pummeling our democracy and leading to all sorts behavior, like warrantless wiretaps or the Patriot Act, that we’d never tolerate otherwise and about which we will one day be ashamed.

The irony too is how baldly this ‘documentary’ contradicts the actual social science work on war – you know, from people who actually know what the hell they’re talking about, like Pinker, Goldstein, the democratic peace, nuclear peace, Long Peace, or security community theorists. War seems to be becoming less frequent, less cost-beneficial, more hemmed-in with rules and norms, and less general (i.e., not involving all the system’s big players anymore). If there’s one thing just about everybody in IR today seems to agree on, it’s that the US spends way, way more money on defense than it needs to. But I guess there’s no money in a game entitled ‘Threatlessness,‘ so let’s amp up the fear-factor by rolling out the Gordon Liddy of the Reagan administration to freak out the consumer.

More generally, I find it pretty worrisome just how brutal post-9/11 American geopolitical entertainment has become. I don’t mean violent; many movies and games are violent, even graphically so. Rather I am thinking of the unabashed relish for pro-American killing, the zealous bloodlust that’s morally fig-leafed by American patriotism so as to be defensible to the viewer. The same people who cheered for Rick Perry’s talibanic enthusiasm for the death penalty and waterboarding are thrilled to see the gleeful embrace of pro-American torture, mass-killings, and executions in even mainstream, hugely popular franchises like Modern Warfare, 24, or Transformers.

24 constantly found a way to work in torture by the good guys, as if to say that real men, genuinely committed to America, don’t have time for rules and due process. Lawyers are for sissies and liberals; patriots will gladly go over to Cheney’s ‘dark side’ beat the hell out of anyone, violate any law, to defend America. Modern Warfare 2 became globally notorious by requiring the gamer to participate in a mass atrocity (machine-gunning hundreds of civilians). In Battle: Los Angeles, the American hero performed a battlefield vivisection on wounded opponent. In Modern Warfare 3, the protagonists shoot a defenseless, surrendered enemy in the face even after he has cooperated in giving information. Homefront portrays the execution of parents in front of their screaming child, has the gamer hide under the bodies in a mass grave, and later encourages you not to waste ammunition on enemies on fire after an airstrike. Transformers 3 includes four battlefield executions (because it’s a movie for kids you know) and gives the antagonist the startling, downright revelatory post-9/11 line: ‘We will kill them all in the name of freedom.’ Wow – why not just give Michael Bay a job at some neocon think-tank? EA’s Battlefield 3, in the same year as the US is debating striking Iran, spun up a story of Iranian-sponsored MWD use in Western cities, which then provokes an in-game US invasion of Iran in which the gamer participates. Good lord; Bill Kristol himself could have written that script. And I have no doubt after this paranoid video above that Black Ops 2 will include some gratuitously vicious sequence packaged as ‘defending’ America.

The basic trick in all these the-defense-of-America-requires-cruelty narratives is to structure the story with such extreme bad guys and circumstances that the viewer can morally excuse the American hero for egregious violations of the law or rules of engagement that would otherwise get the cop/soldier/good guy rightfully thrown in jail as a dangerous sociopath. 24’s constant portrayals of torture justified by the wildly unrealistic ticking time-bomb scenario is the most obvious example. So long as Jack Bauer can say he’s trying to save a million people in LA, he’s allowed to do anything – torture, maim, execute civilians, violate due process, steal passwords, etc.

This stuff is tea party nirvana – strong, a—kicking men stand-up for America while liberal sissies at the ACLU worry about lawyers for terrorists. Conveniently the hero’s brutality is shielded/morally excused by some lame narrative fig-leaf about MWDs or alien invasions. But the real point is to show vengeful, post-9/11 killing on behalf of America without feeling guilty about it. This is why it’s terrifying.

So if you wonder why stories about American misbehavior in Afghanistan, like trophy taking or killing squads, get so little attention, consider just how coopted the post-9/11 geopolitical entertainment industry is, constantly presenting America’s opponents as unworthy of any rights, justifiably tortured, and fit to be wiped out with extreme prejudice at all time. Conversely, if you wonder why Apocalypse Now or Platoon are vastly more gripping and engaging, while you can’t even remember the story of last summer Transformers, it’s because in the real world, the moral certainty imparted by the ticking bomb scenario (much less cartoonish alien invasions) almost never happens. Jack Bauer’s 100% certainty in the bomb threat, which justifies his tearing out some Muslim’s fingernails or something, is a narrative figment. Lots of studies of war and intelligence gathering have told us just how much confusion and uncertainty there is. This is the whole reason we have the rules of engagement.

This why Jack Bauer would be in prison for life in the real world, no matter how much the right thinks he should be a role model for GWoT CT. Real world bad guys usually aren’t all wholly unredeemable villains – unlike in the black-and-white, ‘moral clarity,’ tea-party/neo-con dreamworld of Michael Bay, John Milius, Keifer Sutherland, Fox News, and even Peter Jackson. Even after the ’good war,’ de-nazification didn’t lead to mass executions of the Wehrmacht. Someday we’re going to look back on this post-9/11 bloody-minded entertainment with cringe-inducing shame, in the same way we think about Rambo or Red Dawn today.

I don’t want to sound like some boring old dude who doesn’t get this stuff. I like gaming. I waste too much time on it also. I enjoy action movies and FPS’s like Halo; I’ve played Modern Warfare and even Homefront. What unnerves isn’t the thrill of the violence. (That is also morally dubious, of course, but given that it underlines the viewing rush of every action movie ever made, hold that for a moment.) What I find really noticeable and increasingly disturbing is the post-9/11 gleeful depiction of pro-American carnage. 9/11 ‘took the gloves off’ and allowed so many directors – Bay, Milius, Sutherland, the Activision guys –  to unleash their chauvinistic, reptilian id, all their inner xenophobia, cruelty, militarism, war-glorifying machismo, and sheer bloody-mindedness. And the Tea-Party loves them for it.

Every time I see one of these movies in Korea (Battleship and Act of Valor just arrived), or whenever my students tell me how great some new shooter game is, I always wonder what foreigners must think of us and this endless diet of jingoistic movie and gaming violence we produce. One movie after another game of over-the-top violence, huge CGI, American flags waving, uniforms and saluting, troopers barking canned, macho dialogue like ‘Marines never give up,’ killing, and then more killing, flirtation with torture. I understand why my students tell me America is an empire; we sure entertain ourselves as if we are, and foreigners can see this stuff. I know the Tea Party couldn’t care less what foreigners think of us – that’s they whole point, right? And I know that the Pentagon approves Hollywood scripts before it lends its hardware, but I can’t imagine that even the brass really wants only this kind of jingoistic, bloodthirsty pap. Who wouldn’t exchange one Apocalypse Now for all these awful, cruel, rah-rah post-9/11 movies and games? But they gross huge amounts, of course; as will Black Ops 2, I have no doubt. And what self-respecting tea-partier wouldn’t want to help Oliver North’s rehabilitation to credibility?

Cross-posted on Asian Security Blog.

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The ISA Drinking Game

The Duck crew getting ready for their
annual meet-up in 2011.

We are now two weeks away from the start of the annual International Studies Association convention in sunny San Diego. In 2010 the Duck developed the APSA drinking game. Here is the ISA version for your conferencing pleasure. (Oh, and if Tom Volgy asks, you haven’t seen me.)


The following, unless otherwise specified, result in the taking of one drink for every observation/sighting at the Annual Conference of the International Studies Association. The Duck of Minerva is not responsible for any liver damage or unfortunate choice of panel questions that may result after participating in this game.

  1. Watching the Feminist and Gender Studies section pick a ‘turf war’ with the Women’s Caucus at the ISA General Counsel meeting. +2 if already 4:45pm.
  2. Less than 6 European scholars in the hotel bar after midnight. +1 if no Brits
  3. Hawaiian shirt.
  4. Kony2012 shirt.
  5. Observing someone take more than 5 chocolates/mints from Keesing’s booth and managing not to speak to anyone. +1 if entire bowl.
  6. Bumping into your former PhD student who now has more publications than you. +1 if still doing PhD.
  7. Panel with discussant who obviously hasn’t read any of the papers. +1 if obviously doesn’t care. +2 if uses time to plug own book.
  8. Invitation to Phi Beta Delta Honor Society event. +1 showing up, +2 showing up by accident.
  9. Someone throwing leftover beads from ISA New Orleans 2010 Conference. +1 if at John Mearsheimer.
  10. Panellist saying “Well, I actually haven’t read the book” and then proceeding to discuss said unread book.
  11. iPad. +1 Samsung Galaxy. +10 Blackberry Playbook. +100 Apple Newton
  12. Performance of Lady Gaga Song at talent cabaret. +1 if in costume
  13. Someone commenting/retorting with “Well, as I wrote on my blog…”. +1 if “as I wrote on my MySpace”, +2 if Brian Rathbun
  14. Watching someone dive behind a table to avoid editor to whom they owe an overdue manuscript. +1 if knock over pile of Cambridge University Press books doing so. +2 if still unsuccessful.
  15. If attendee looking for the International Society of Automation. +1 International Submariners Association (+2 if have own submarine)

San Diego Bonus Round!

  1. Someone proposes holding panel at the Del Coronado. +10 if Tijuana
  2. Presenter eating burrito. +1 if with umbrella drink
  3. Reference to Anchor Man (easy!)
  4. Reference to Demolition Man (hard!)
  5. Reference to Top Gun (sexy! But must include “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’” and/or volleyball)
  6. Someone wearing their conference badge at 2am or more than a mile from the actual conference site. +1 if in Mexico.
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RIP: Habeas Corpus . . . and Normative Power

The news that President Obama plans to sign the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) permitting indefinite detention for Americans accused of supporting terrorism is a sad day for those who believe in basic civil and human rights. Equally, this move calls into question optimistic views about international norms and the power of human rights.

Glenn Greenwald and others cover the threat to basic freedoms in posts that are well worth reading. By comparison, the import for scholars of norms may seem minor but is nonetheless worth pondering.

Norms against indefinite detention have long been basic to human rights, along with prohibitions on torture and extrajudicial execution. Of course, we’ve seen those fall by the wayside too. National security, a norm backed by enormous material power, has made its dominance plain. However, in recent cases where the U.S. has engaged in torture or extrajudicial executions of American citizens, these actions have been purely executive, albeit with many a legislative, scholarly, and public cheerleader.

The NDAA, however, enshrines indefinite detention for American citizens in law passed by Congress and to be signed by the President. The magical incantation “terrorist” is all that’s been needed to throttle a core rights protection.

What has been the power of norms in this case?

It’s doubtless true that the human rights norms I’ve mentioned have more defenders than they once did. There are today many more NGOs who promote and support them than there were in the 1950s, the last time the U.S. passed similar laws (against the Communist menace, only to reverse them decades later after severe abuses). Today, there have been many voices, both domestic and international, raised against the indefinite detention provisions.

But in the end, these fell before trumped up security norms and terror fears. Many Americans appear all too willing to trade basic rights (and trillions of dollars) for an illusion of security against a minuscule threat. I am continually stunned when I hear American citizens saying we don’t need a judiciary to check the Executive in these cases because the President has sworn an oath to uphold the Constitution. So much for the judicial branch, so much for checks and balances, and so much for the power of centuries old domestic norms and laws.

Particularly striking in the debate over detention and the broader one over Obama’s civil liberties record is political opportunism. Many Democratic Party leaders who screamed that George Bush was acting unconstitutionally and illegally in the early years of the GWOT, have now fallen into line behind Obama’s continuation and expansion of Bush policies, including extrajudicial executions and now summary arrests. It’s striking too that we have seen so few resignations from top posts in the Obama administration even from those regarded as staunch defenders of basic rights. So much for the independent influence of norms.

More broadly, this suggests that other human rights norms are equally fragile and contingent achievements, with little if any independent strength. Of course, anyone witnessing the erosion of these rights over the last decade already knew that. All such norms exist at sufferance of state actors. To the extent states follow them, it is because the “norms” do not run contrary to their core interests, because a sufficiently large threat has not been invented to justify their subversion, or because the states are too weak to challenge them. Any real belief in state “habitualization” and the power of norms as such must be questioned.

Don’t get me wrong. I think it is important to promote and resurrect the crucial values and freedoms we have lost. But the only way to do so is through political organizing and activism–through material rather than normative means.

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Pornography and National Security: The ever expanding threat

In today’s ‘horrors of bad social science’, we have a piece by Jennifer S. Bryson, director of the Witherspoon Institute’s Islam and Civil Society Project, (which seems to be a conservative think-tank) who has written a piece for the Institute’s blog on the threat of pornography for national security. (No really.)

Bryson asks the question that no serious scholar has ever, ever addressed and comes up with an argument to be considered. In fact, she is getting right on top of this hard and pressing issue.She reaches around the boundaries of conventional thinking about terrorism and slowly but steadily penetrates the burning question as to whether pornography drives a serious challenge to National Security:

With the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks staring us in the face, we already know that our failure to have an approach to security that is robust and accurate has dire consequences. Pornography has long circulated nearly unbounded due to calls for “freedom,” but what if we are actually making ourselves less free by allowing pornography itself to be more freely accessible?
Are there security costs to the free-flow of pornography? If so, what are they? Are we as a society putting ourselves at risk by turning a blind eye to pornography proliferation?
I wonder further: Could it be that pornography drives some users to a desperate search for some sort of radical “purification” from the pornographic decay in their soul? Could it be that the greater the wedge pornography use drives between an individual’s religious aspirations and the individual’s actions, the more the desperation escalates, culminating in increasingly horrific public violence, even terrorism?

Let me tell you, now that we’ve been stirred to this threat – of young men somehow being converted to wicked, wicked ways – we need to act now, right here and now, damn it! Clearly the perpetrators of this filth have been very, very bad and need to be punished.

I believe that we all need to come together, scholars, government workers, NGOs, and throw caution to the wind. We need to straddle the division between us, fuse ourselves together and come up with an inspired solution. Let’s use each other to the very best of our abilities, and respond quickly to this vitally important need.

It’s Friday night so I’m just going to be at home thinking really long and hard about a solution to this problem. I’m just going to lie back right here by my lonesome self, thinking about nothing but pornography… for the sake of National Security.

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Pirates, Hackers, and Terrorists

A hypothesis: Pirates, hackers, and terrorists are perennial actors in international relations. They will never be permanently defeated; the frontier will never be permanently settled.

The underlying material reason that these actors exist is actually quite simple. Each of these (Weberian) ideal type actors emerges as a consequence of the (proto-capitalist or industrial-capitalist) overproduction and networking of standardized technologies. [I am considering them as separate types even though they may overlap in practice.] Overproduction and networking creates vulnerabilities as access is dispersed and familiarity increases. Technologies may be reverse engineered, hijacked, or even commandeered if there is sufficient familiarity with the operational system. As technologies that connect people and places experience a paradigmatic shift, waves of piracy, hacking, and terrorism will recede until the new technology once again becomes overproduced, common, and accessible.

Although each type of actor has occasionally been licensed and/or supported and sheltered by state actors, state support for terrorism, hacking, and pirating is not critical. State support may enhance the lethality and frequency of activities but the activities are not dependent on state support. It is worth considering that the withdrawal of state sponsorship may actually create greater instability as happened in the Caribbean for example from the 16th to the 18th century when unemployed privateers would turn to piracy in peacetime. While some of these activities can be materially lucrative (e.g. ship piracy and ransom), they may be motivated by other psychological factors such as an anti-social disposition or a politico-religious ideology for example. State counter-actions may work to displace the physical and virtual sites from which pirates, hackers, and terrorists operate, but new sites will always emerge even if particular actors or organizations are dismantled. The reason is that the panoptic powers of states are never uniform and cooperation between states is often ephemeral in global politics.

Computer or cell phone hacking seems to be a relatively new and distinct activity, but before hacking there was phreaking of the 2600 Hz variety and hacking is basically a new label for burglary, espionage, and sabotage.  As computer programs are merely solvable mathematical equations, any computer system can be hacked — just as any lock can be picked — if there is the possibility of access. And access is always a possibility.

Okay, so what does all of this mean? I am not sure, which is why this is just being posted as a hypothesis, but here are some tentative thoughts…

First, it means that those who believe that drones and biometrics will pacify the “non-integrated gap” fail to understand the political economy of technology. While technology and biopolitics may temporarily calm a restive area, that technology will eventually be overcome. Drones and biometric devices will be hacked and pirated. These technologies which are currently giving states an advantage, if they continue to proliferate, will most likely be used against state actors in the future.

Second, while ideology or religion may matter in recruiting/retaining individuals in these types of activities, it is important to think through the material forces that enable these activities. The argument is not to replace one form of mono-causal thinking (i.e. ideational) with another (i.e. materialist), but to think through the ways in which material resources facilitate certain types of ideologically motivated political action in a dynamic manner.

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Carlos

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Cross-posted from my personal blog, by suggestion of a Vikash Yadav tweet.

I’ve now watched the first two parts of “Carlos,” a three-part French-produced television miniseries that was broadcast on Sundance this past month. Édgar Ramírez is terrific in the title (star-making) role, though his character is hardly sympathetic. The notorious terrorist is portrayed as an unusual killer — part playboy, part-diplomat, and part-frustrated middle-manager. Carlos is shown meeting with prominent international leaders and is called a celebrity by his fellow terrorists after the 1975 kidnappings at the Vienna OPEC convention. That event takes up a good portion of part 2.

Part 1 of the film opens with a statement warning that it is a fictionalized account and that only certain specific crimes were factually confirmed at trial. Thus, I was not sure of what to make of an alleged meeting in Baghdad involving Yuri Andropov (then-head of the KGB), Carlos and other desperadoes (one actor looked like Tariq Aziz). Allegedly, Andropov put a price on Anwar Sadat’s head at this meeting.

Indeed, one important element of “Carlos” is the relatively clear state sponsorship the terrorist and his various organizations enjoy throughout most of his career. Support from Libya, Syria, Iraq, Algeria, East Germany and the Soviet Union all figure into the terror incidents portrayed on screen. It is no wonder that the Bush administration, circa 2001, believed that state sponsorship was the key element of its anti-terror campaign (despite facts suggesting a completely different kind of threat). This was not a matter of IR theory privileging states.

As a movie, the Golden-Globe winning production is quite unusual:

The film’s scope, range and ambition are incredible; it’s set in at least 16 countries over a 21-year period, and at all times features the characters speaking the languages they would have spoken in the relevant situations—Carlos himself shifts effortlessly among Spanish, English, French, German, Russian and Arabic. An untold number of supporting and bit players pop vividly to life for however many moments they’re onscreen, and the film maintains an exceptional balance between a relentless forward movement and a certain artistic stability…

…the film is so convincing that it persuades you this is essentially the way it was. There are few so completely transporting historical movies, in that it drops the viewer down in another world and time without evident artifice, doctoring, nostalgia, revisionist thinking or overt political agenda. Those with a continuing stake in the causes involved or their own memories of the times can be counted upon to dispute this or that, but as a time machine “Carlos” functions brilliantly.

I can’t wait to watch part 3 — the decline and fall of Carlos, apparently.

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A gulf in understanding?

Last week I participated in a workshop at the Al Jazeera Center for Studies in Doha, Qatar, which brought to an end the ESRC’s Radicalisation & Violence programme of research projects, led by Prof. Stuart Croft. I was one of several researchers invited to present recent research on ‘terrorism, resistance and radicalisation’. My fledgling experience of academia has thus far been that debates rarely get politicised. It is noteworthy when it happens, triggering a visceral thrill or horror as we depart from our scripts of professional civility. The Radicalisation & Violence programme has been politicised from the outset. Anthropologists and sociologists were unhappy that researchers might apply to carry out fieldwork in dangerous regions, that the FCO was offering some funding towards the programme and hence it was ‘state-sponsored’ to an extent (although so is the ESRC), and nobody carrying out research could be unaware that in the UK in the 2000s people at universities were being arrested for having ‘radical’ material on their computers, even if they were carrying out legitimate research. It is no surprise, then, that the concluding event retained this political edge. Talking about terrorism in this particular region could not be otherwise.

The event was a success, but I came away with two reservations. The first concerns the possible failure of Anglophone security studies to find ways to engage with the rest of the world in ways that don’t come across as dominating. Croft has written about this himself recently (chapter in here), noting that ‘interdependence’ is a concept we in elite universities in North America, Europe or S.E. Asia might be comfortable with, but might seem threatening to others. Our research might contribute to the very problems of international conflict and cooperation it seeks only to explain. Sure enough, in Doha the Arabic professors consistently argued that the migration of Western terms like ‘terrorism’ and ‘radicalisation’ is itself aggressive, a continuation of colonial practices. ‘They begin in English dictionaries but are applied in Arabic countries’, said one participant. And the fact that ‘we’ don’t provide clear definitions is an act of power: ‘The vagueness is deliberate. They [Western academics] want to hold in their hands what is legitimate’, said another. Western academics will define terrorism to suit our states’ interests. From this perspective, perhaps, for us ESRC-funded researchers to go to Doha and use such terms was an affront.
We can easily contest these claims. How can ‘they’ so lazily conflate Western researchers with their national governments? How can anyone expect a consensual definition of terms that are political and essentially contested? But at the same time, do we have a duty to discuss politics and security in other discourses? How can all parties translate and recognise each other’s vocabularies, histories, and problem framings? Without some thought about this, a space is created for pointless misunderstanding and mutual aggravation.
And it’s in this space, marked by the lack of shared terms and meanings, that my second concern emerges. Misconceptions about ‘the West’ were used so routinely, by individuals who could be considered opinion leaders in Arabic media, individuals who are familiar enough with life in North America or Europe to know that these are misconceptions, but who continue to perpetuate them in a manner that reifies the notion of a war between Islam and the West. As mild instances, the notions that ‘Westerners burn Qurans’ and ‘the West is Islamophobic’ were raised several times. A colleague pointed out, if you try to burn a Quran in the UK you will quickly be arrested, and if a person or institution discriminates on religious or ethnic grounds then legal proceeding should kick in. This is not to say Islamophobia doesn’t exist, but that it can be challenged and is challenged. Everyday multiculturalism has survived the war on terror. And does it make sense to even talk of ‘the West’ now anyway? Well, from those outside it, who feel on the receiving end of ‘Western’ action, it seems so. But there is a danger of explaining the world through Orientalism and finding the world is Orientalist.
These reservations aside, such events are a useful platform for overcoming mutual blind spots and only highlight the need for more engagement. 
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Homeland Security Heads Roll in Pennsylvania—But the GWOT Keeps on Rolling

 Two weeks ago, I wrote about Pennsylvania’s Perverted War on Terror.   This week the state’s Homeland Security Director James Powers, Jr. resigned.  Governor Ed Rendell had refused to fire him, saying Powers was not the only one responsible for hiring the Institute of Terrorism Research and Response (ITRR).  True, enough:  Rendell had command responsibility, and Robert French, director of the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency, apparently had oversight too (neither has resigned).  But it appears that Powers was the person who okayed the $103,000 contract that resulted in numerous “intelligence reports” on everyday political activities here in the Keystone State, including environmental meetings against natural gas drilling—then passed some of those reports on to natural gas companies.  

In his resignation statement, Powers still seems confused—not about our country’s First Amendment this time, but about his former office’s responsibilities.  He wrote that “the primary goal of commonwealth preparedness strategies” and “our greatest challenge” is “to prevent, prepare for, respond to and recover from incidents resulting from all hazards (terrorism attacks, major disasters and other emergencies).”  With such an unlimited conception of homeland security’s role, it is little wonder that his department happily paid ITRR for its “intelligence reports.”  Of course, the far bigger scandal remains the “global war on terror’s” waste, hubris, and threat to our liberties.

For those of you worried about Mr. Powers, who did at least have the decency to resign:  the ex-Special Forces man will no doubt find a job with one of the many “homeland security” operations still feeding at the public trough.  Indeed ITRR is probably looking for a few like-minded employees.  
When I wrote my original post, I was unable to find their website; my mistake perhaps, but ITRR may have suspended it themselves (or perhaps been hit by the Stuxnet worm).  In any case, ITRR’s website appears to have re-appeared.  Check it out!  As a birdwatcher, I do have to say I was taken by the owl on the website’s frontpage (Great Horned, I think)–though wisdom does not seem ITRR’s strong suit.  In any case, ITRR links to an article justifying the surveillance on Pennsylvania’s environmentalists, written by Anthony L. Kimery, who describes himself as a “respected award-wining editor and journalist who has covered national and global security, intelligence and defense issues for two decades.”   It is also reassuring to see that ITRR,  along with Philadelphia University, will be holding a Hometown Crisis Management Series program on Oct. 22.  
I have not had time to peruse ITRR’s website fully, though it looks to make fascinating reading–perhaps worthy of another post one day.

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Pennsylvania’s Perverted “War on Terror”

How does America’s bloated anti-terror bureaucracy spend its time and our money? A story out of Pennsylvania last week throws light on the earth-shakingly important work these saviors of our soil perform, defending us all from the scary monsters who pose such a dire menace to America.

Or rather it illustrates, yet again, the myriad ways in which our homeland security hogs work to rationalize their existence and perpetuate their wallow in the “homeland security” slops-trough—even while eroding our civil liberties.

The swine this time: International Terrorism Research and Resources (ITRR), a recently formed company with the right sounding name and the right sounding “experts.” ITRR was hastily hired last year by the Pennsylvania Office of Homeland Security, just weeks before the G-20 meeting in Pittsburgh.
(It’s not exactly news, but in these times of national budget woes it’s worth noting again: With the gusher of Homeland Security funding since 9/11, every state and numerous localities have formed their very own Mini-DHS’s pledged to defend their very own patch of the homeland. Austin Powers’s Mini-Me would be most proud of his pork-barrel protégés.)
The $103,000 annual contract called for ITRR to file reports three times per week about “credible threats” to “critical infrastructure.” ITRR apparently performed that contract to the letter—though its definitions of “credible” and “critical” may have been just slightly aggressive. But no matter, “intelligence bulletins” must be filed–and thrice weekly at that!
So ITRR began digging for threats—any threats. According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, these included crowds expected at a Michael Moore film screening, gay activists promoting same-sex marriage, a protest against Arizona’s immigration law–and (shudders!) a rally against the mistreatment of a killer whale at a Florida aquarium. A particular favorite of ITRR’s monitoring: the budding environmental movement against natural gas drilling in Pennsylvania’s Marcellus shale deposits.
Conveniently enough, ITRR sent some of the latter “intelligence bulletins” to companies planning to drill for the gas. In a memo leaked to the Post-Gazette, state Homeland Security Director James Powers, Jr. made his priorities (and profound understanding of “homeland security”) clear: “We want to continue providing support to the Marcellus Shale Formation natural gas stakeholders while not feeding those groups fomenting dissent against these same companies.”
But it was not just suspects on the Left who ITRR monitored. With three bulletins a week that must be written to keep the government checks rolling in, even an “intelligence” company must get creative. In fact, ITRR was an equal opportunity homeland defender—targeting activism of any political stripe. Its bulletins also covered tea partiers, gun rights proponents, right to life groups, and white supremacists.
All of this may seem a sideshow— a puny and pathetic one at that. A “deeply embarrassed” Governor Ed Rendell quickly terminated the company’s contract. Just as quickly, ITRR and its top officials dropped a Get Smart-style cone of silence around themselves.
But this case is in fact a microcosm of the whole “homeland security” cesspool. ITRR transformed legal political activity—the heart and soul of the homeland—into “credible threats.” It inflated nothing, literally nothing, into ominous “intelligence bulletins” emailed to various Pennsylvania government offices, corporate intelligence bureaus, and god knows who else.
It is little solace that a spokesperson for the state Attorney General claimed that his office saw “no value” in the bulletins and deleted them from in-boxes when they arrived. (For ITRR, of course, the value of those emails was $103,000 in taxpayer money.) Nor is it comforting that Gov. Ed Rendell felt shame—not when Pennsylvania doubtless has contracts with other similar outfits and the other 49 states certainly do as well.
But the bigger scandal is how the bottomless pit of “homeland security” dollars generates unstoppable demand for its own consumption. Consider the trillions spent or earmarked for “homeland security” and for the wars in Aghanistan and Iraq: When CIA Director Leon Panetta admitted a few months ago that “we’re looking at 50 to 100, maybe less” al-Qaeda members in Afghanistan and when National Counterterrorism Center czar Michael Leiter asserted that there may be somewhat “more than 300” in Pakistan, the eye-poppingly irrational dollars-to-“terrorist” ratio caused no embarrassment and generated no outrage. Nor, of course, did the collateral carnage regularly wreaked by what Colin Powell has called our “terror industrial complex.”
There are just too many proud “defenders of the homeland,” like ITRR, feeding at the trough to end the waste. And in any case it is simple to invent a new existential threat–the latest in, of all places, Yemen, one of the poorest and most backward countries on earth.
But, in fact, portraying Yemen as a “national security threat” is easy in the current craven climate–even to a country with the world’s largest military spending and biggest economy. After all, for the last nine years we’ve been waging war to the tune of billions per year in Afghanistan, also one of the poorest and most backward countries on earth.
Keep that gravy train rolling–all the way from Scranton to Sana!

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Driving Parents Crazy: Why are some violent radicals fathers?

My blogging has been light lately as I have been on the road travelling a lot. This recent period has had me travelling like something of a crazy person with trips all over the Centre/East Coast of North America.

Part of this trip included some time in Ottawa, where it was some interesting times. The week before I arrived there was a series of dramatic arrests here against individuals suspected of plotting to carry out terrorist attacks against the city. These are individuals who, from most media accounts, were largely raised in Canada and subsequently became radicalized.

This is not the first series of arrests that have been carried out by Canadian police and intelligence services in recent years. The case of the Toronto 18 (although only 11 were eventually charged) – seems to be similar in the sense that it was a bunch of individuals that became radicalized and eventually tried to carry out terrorist acts in Toronto. Although their efforts were almost comically bad – and full of screw-ups along the way – the plot to blow up Toronto office buildings was not really anything to laugh about.

This is kind of old news now, but a couple of thoughts on this latest series of arrests – with the caveat of course that I am no terrorism expert.

I suppose the main thing that has caught my attention is that one of the suspects, Khurram Sher, has young children. Initially, I found this somewhat shocking – but upon reflection I realized that this is not unlike recent London bombers (in the 7/7 attacks and the attempts of 21/7 ) – some of whom were married and some with children. And some of the lead suspects in the Toronto 18 case also had children.

I’ve been asking terrorism researching friends why this might be. Apparently the appropriate question is why, in these cases does having children not provide an “insulating” factor against radicalization? If there is some kind of parenting instinct, why is it not enough to overcome or prevent some individuals from wanting to carry out violent acts?

Based on some brief conversations, I’m not sure there is a straightforward answer. One explanation is that violent radicals have often married young and, naturally, have had children as a result. So in this sense it may just be something that has happened along the way, or during the process of violent radicalization.

Perhaps more interestingly it was also suggested to me that there is some research to support the idea that the women in the lives of violent radicals – such as their wives – may play a role in encouraging them to act. Kind of like a bad version of Macbeth, I guess. But in that case the question about the insulating effect of children then applies to the women as well – why don’t children discourage them from encouraging violent radicalism? Why would they prefer that their husbands act than their children to have a father?

But upon some (very light) investigation into this – it seems as though many women who actually execute terrorist acts (as opposed to only encouraging) are mothers as well. This is particularly the case with the Black Widdows of Chechnya where women are often in their mid-20s and may have 2-3 children. A depressing thought.

Another interesting question to come off of this is if there is a difference between fathers in the Middle East in harsh circumstances (such as Palestine) and Western radicals? While I could imagine that being the son/daughter/wife of a “martyr” might convey (however perversely) a certain social status in the Occupied Territories, would this hold true for the Canadian Muslim community (who have been very quick to denounce the supposed plot on a national level)?

I would be very interested in suggestions for research in this area. I’m fairly certain that if I asked my parents I would get some kind of sarcastic comment about myself and my brother being enough to drive anyone crazy. However, I have to think that there is more social-scientific research out there that doesn’t involve parental sarcasm.

This video of one of the London bombers holding his infant daughter is pretty chilling. He is literally making a video for her – spelling out exactly what he was about to do and that she should pray for him in heaven. I don’t like to think of myself as overly sentimental – but you would think that having kids would discourage someone from actively harming themselves?

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The Latest in Mole Whacking

Yesterday, the New York Times had a story about huge proposed increases in military assistance to Yemen, framed around the “war on terror.” Since the Christmas day 2009 attempted airliner bombing that was linked to Yemen, the U.S. was allocated about $155 million in military aid for FY 2010 — up from about $5 million in FY 2006.

The Pentagon’s latest plan calls for $1.2 billion in the next six years, about $200 million annually. That’s nearly a 25% increase from 2010 and an enormous change in commitment over a short period of time.

Apparently, by comparison, Aghanistan is so 2009:

“Yemen is the most dangerous place,” said Representative Jane Harman, a senior California Democrat on the House Homeland Security Committee who visited Yemen in March. “We’re much more likely to be attacked in the U.S. by someone inspired by, or trained by, people in Yemen than anything that comes out of Afghanistan.”

Since the Pentagon claims that there are only about 100 al Qaeda personnel in Afghanistan, this quote may well be literally true.

Of course, Harman says nothing about Pakistan, which has for some time been the real ground zero in the war on terrorism. The unpopular drone strikes demonstrate how that part of the AfPak war is being fought.

Those of us who have some doubts about the ability of military force to fight terrrorism (and achieve other foreign policy objectives) will be relieved to read this paragraph:

Daniel Benjamin, the State Department’s counterterrorism coordinator, said in a policy talk last week that American-backed assaults by Yemeni forces on Al Qaeda may “deny it the time and space it needs to organize, plan and train for operations.” But in the long term, he added, countering extremism in Yemen “must involve the development of credible institutions that can deliver real economic and social progress.”

There is another big problem with the Pentagon’s plan — Yemen’s relative disinterest in the mission:

Gregory Johnsen, a Yemen scholar at Princeton…said the priorities of President Saleh, an autocrat whose family has ruled [Yemen] for three decades, do not coincide with those of the United States.

“If we’re just pouring money and equipment into the Yemeni military in the hopes that it will be used against Al Qaeda,” Mr. Johnsen said, “that hope doesn’t match either with history or current reality.”

The whack-a-mole metaphor has been widely used by critics of U.S. foreign policy — to describe outcomes in both Afghanistan and Iraq.

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It’s radical, man.

Through the very good King’s of War blog I was directed to a post on Jihadica on the recent emergence of an apparent Al-Qaida affiliated English-language publication called “Inspire”. While the author suggests that this has thrown Western media into a panic, there was very little to actually be worried about (other than the fact that it might contain a computer virus).

The bottom line is that Inspire is a drop in an ocean of jihadi propaganda. The recent media coverage suggests that otherwise educated observers don’t seem to realise 1) how large and 2) how old that ocean is. I find this both disappointing and disconcerting. For a decade, militants have been pumping out sophisticated propaganda and genuinely dangerous training manuals to a vast Arabic speaking audience. In comes a sloppy magazine in English, and suddenly people speak of a new al-Qaida media offensive. This ignorance and linguistic myopia is inexcusable, since blogs and translation services have made information about jihadi propaganda more available than ever.
In my view, the only interesting thing about the release of Inspire is the fact that the PDF file is corrupt and rumoured to carry a Trojan virus… Personally I don’t see why either jihadis or intelligence services would deliberately disseminate viruses, given that a virus would hurt both friends and enemies. In any case, whoever created Inspire wanted attention, and they certainly got that – in spades.

I found this post particularly interesting because last week I attended a conference organized by the International Centre for the Study of Radicalization (ICSR) in New York City. This isn’t necessarily in the realm of my normal academic work – other than the fact that I am interested in the way that democracies confront threats and the threat of terrorism. (But let’s face it – it didn’t take a lot of arm twisting to sell me on a conference to New York City in July.)

The conference was interesting for a number of reasons – it brought together academics, policy makers and political leaders to address questions like “are we any safer after 9-11” and thinking about what has been learned. On the one hand there have been two attempted attacks on the US within six months of each other on the United States. On the other hand, one was a guy who literally could not set his pants on fire and the other a failed car bomb. Maybe we’re just safer because the quality of “terrorist” has gone down in the last couple of years?

Given the organizers, the focus of the conference was on radicalization (and they launched a study on radicalization in prisons). I did, however, expect a little more on thinking about these issues within the context of human rights/democracies/constitutions. (Maybe this was a bit of a sore spot as there were many former Bush administration officials there?) However, the issue was touched upon by the third panel of the second day titled “Counterterrorism Cooperation: Is It Working?” (Short answer: yes and no.) The panellists all agreed that human rights played an important part in how counterterrorism cooperation is engaged in. Australian Ambassador for Counterterrorism, Bill Paterson suggested that his country had worked towards helping to improve conditions inside of Indonesian Prisons to diminish the threat of radicalization there. Richard Barrett, head of the UN Al Qaidea/Taliban Monitoring Team maintained that human rights are one of the main pillars of counterterrorism.

Eric Rosand, the Senior Advisor in the Office of the Coordinator for Counterterrorism in the US Department of State argued that for the US this meant increasing the capacity to prosecute individuals within the United States. Interestingly, he also later added that there was a problem with some multilateral efforts. He pointed out that all UN counterterrorism work is being done in New York and Vienna and not on the ground in the countries where it matters.

Another interesting panel was on “How Terrorism Ends” – seemingly named for Audry Kurth Cronin’s 2009 book on the topic. She was at the conference and noted that while terrorism “doesn’t end” that terrorist groups do – the important question is how. She argued that there were six ways: group leadership may be ‘decapitated’ and the group withers, negotiations, success in eradication, failure to eradicate (leading to massive problems in the state or achievement of terrorist goals), mass repression and reorientation of groups. She also noted that given the variations of groups and the different ways they can be approached and confronted that the term “global terrorist insurgency” is not very useful.

I regret to say that the low-mark of the conference for me were the two plenary speakers, Lord David Trimble and Leader of the Opposition in Israel Tzipi Livni. Trimble – who helped to bring about a solution to the Northern Ireland “troubles” and won the Nobel Peace Prize – did not seem to be able to present a coherent narrative about his experiences (and went on so long that there was not time for questions). The main points I took from his talk was that peace in Northern Ireland was possible because of state power – but state power also gave them room to participate in a political process. While the UK government could have left the IRA to just eventually disappear and dissolve into its own infighting, an approach which accommodated them, according to Trimble, helped to diffuse the underlying problems causing terrorism. In addition the process helped to create political structures to address grievances and problems.

Livni, gave a speech which basically amounted to a justification of Israeli policies rather than any kind of serious engagement with the issue – or how democracies can confront the threat of radical violence. Actually, she talked about the way that Hamas ‘uses’ democracy to gain power. She literally stated that everyone “must choose a side… you are either for us or against us” – without any sense of irony or the fact that she was paraphrasing George Bush. I have a lot of sympathy with Livini (and blogged about it in one of my first posts for this site here). But there was nothing new or interesting in her talk – in fact it was rather depressing way to end the conference. (But then maybe that was the point – none of this is going away.)

So terrorism wasn’t solved but I got a really nice dinner out of it. I like to think that means “we’re” winning.

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Relieved? Why HEU should still worry.

Even if the new sanctions against Iran prove effective at stopping an Iranian bomb, security analysts will not be able to breathe a sigh of relief. Eben Harrell in Time, April 8, 2010, explained the global distribution of highly enriched uranium:

All told, over several decades, the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council distributed some 44,000 lbs. (20,000 kg) of HEU — enough for 800 nuclear weapons — to around 50 countries as diverse as Australia, Jamaica and Vietnam. Although that figure is a drop in the bucket compared with the estimated 4.4 million lbs. (2 million kg) of HEU in weapons and storage in the U.S. and Russia, the Atoms for Peace HEU is of particular concern because it is used in civilian reactors that are often poorly guarded and vulnerable to theft. As William Potter, director of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at California’s Monterey Institute of International Studies, points out, “If you are a terrorist, you don’t necessarily go where there is the most material. You go where the material is most accessible.”

The story quotes Graham Allison hyping the threat and John Mueller downplaying it.

Today, reading this piece, I’m leaning toward Allison’s view over Mueller’s (who nonetheless supports reducing HEU stockpiles around the world). Unfortunately, the National Nuclear Safety Administration, a US government agency, has met some difficulties in achieving its task of reducing HEU globally:

So far, the NNSA has removed a total of 5,935 lbs. (2,692 kg) of fissile material from 37 countries and has its sights on 4,190 lbs. (1,900 kg) more….But many countries see HEU-fueled research reactors as symbols of prestige and don’t necessarily share U.S. and Russian concern that fissile material may fall into terrorist hands. Canada and South Africa, which both have large stockpiles of HEU, argue they need it to make medical isotopes profitably. Politics comes into play too: poor relations between Ukraine and Russia have hampered efforts to move Ukraine’s large stocks of HEU to Russian facilities.

Anecdotal evidence suggests those states should be worried:

[I]n November 2007… two teams of armed attackers stormed Pelindaba, a supposedly secure facility that houses hundreds of kilograms of weapons-grade uranium in South Africa. The attackers gained access to the facility’s control room and shot an emergency-services officer in the chest. They fled without making any effort to steal the nuclear material, and the reason for the break-in and the attackers’ identity remain a mystery.

So, don’t break out the champagne just yet.

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Young men who don’t have anyone to screw blow themselves up?


While I am generally respectful of the journal International Security‘s clear effort to publish more gender-related work, Bradley Thayer and Valerie Hudson, in “Sex and the Shaheed” have managed to write about gender while missing the conceptual foundations and research insights of decades of work in feminism, gender, and IR.

This article ranges from factually partial at best and inaccurate at worst. It focuses on male suicide terrorists when a significant percentage of suicide terrorists are women. It treats the Middle East as if it were a “real” region and homogenous in respect to propensity to suicide terrorism. It focuses on Islamic Suicide Terrorism as if: a) the majority of suicide terrorism is Islamic fundamentalist (which is likely untrue, and if true, recent in the last year or two), b) Islamic “suicide terrorism” is a separable phenomena from Islamic terrorism more generally which shouldn’t be explained at the same time with the same factors, and c) the religious and the political have an easy relationship where “Islam” is the political cause of those who engage in martyrdom missions and are Islamic. “Real world” suicide terrorism is, of course, messier: it is not universal to the “Middle East,” it is carried out by persons who are not Islamic (until recently, the LTTE held the record for the highest number of suicide attacks), it is carried out in service of causes other than the politics of Islamic religion (for example, Chechen suicide terrorism is aimed at independence from the Russian state), and it is carried out by (elite and non-elite) men and women from all over the world.

The conceptual work in this article is as wanting as the factual work. There are, of course, a much broader range of explanations for (Islamic) suicide terrorism than are discussed there (where the authors mention international anarchy, U. S. hegemonic involvement in Islamic states, and Islamic fundamentalist belief systems). To start with, of course, only a small minority of suicide terrorist attacks are aimed at the United States even indirectly. But above and beyond that, political scientists have offered other explanations (e.g., Mia Bloom‘s understanding of the contribution of personal trauma and Bob Pape‘s use of both regime type and actor strategic interest as explanatory variables, not to mention more nuanced/sophisticated accounts). There are also a number of psychological accounts of suicide terrorism, some of which account for explanations interested in sex and belonging like the one in this article (for an overview, see Chapter 7 of Caron Gentry and my Mothers, Monsters, Whores book on women’s violence).

If both the factual and conceptual work are problematic, so are the politics of this article – even beyond what is implied in the discussion above. For example, on p.47, “though the concepts of honor and virility may be hard for a Western academic audience to understand ….” and other references throughout the article to the uniqueness (and impliedly, degree) of masculinity/masculinism in the Islamic world are both patently false and culturally problematic. To whom among us are the ideas of honor and virility really foreign? And what leverage is gained by making them sound foreign, in setting up an “us/them” dichotomy between (sane) white, Western academics and (suicidal) young, Arab/Islamic men?

I’d better stop now, or I’ll be stealing the thunder of people who will write a response to this from an article. But if someone wrote about deterrence without citing the decades worth of literature on deterrence in IR, no reputable journal would accept it. So why is it still okay to write about gender in IR without engaging decades worth of literature on gender in IR relevant to the point at hand (and now years worth of work on gender and terrorism, of course)? And who is responsible for the result?

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Peace Talks and Terror Tactics

Video Source: Channel 4 (UK)

One day after peace talks between India and Pakistan, there has been an attack targeting Indian nationals on a goodwill mission in Afghanistan. I don’t think anyone seriously doubts that these Taliban-led attacks in Afghanistan are being directed from Pakistani soil. (In general, the Afghan and Indian people have quite warm relations and Afghan nationalists have gravitated toward seeking a strategic partnership with India as both countries share territorial disputes with Pakistan.) Moreover, there are strong suspicions that a Pakistani extremist organization is to blame for the terrorist attack in Pune (India) a few days before the peace talks began.

The Government of India is convinced that the militant organizations attacking Indian citizens and interests are linked to elements within the Pakistani state. In the latest peace negotiations, India requested the extradition of 33 Pakistani nationals, including two currently serving Pakistani military officers, who are alleged to be involved in the Mumbai attacks of 2008. India provided Pakistan three dossiers with evidence to support their request. Pakistan’s Foreign Secretary responded that he “did not want to be sermoned on terrorism.” It became readily apparent that these talks, which had been urged by the United States, did not reflect a changed disposition toward the use of terror tactics by the Pakistani state.

In a forthcoming article in Pragati magazine, my co-author and I predict that the use of terror tactics by elements linked to the Pakistani state against India will increase in the coming years. Echoing the recent work of C. Christine Fair, we argue that more than a fear of further dismemberment, the real reason why a nuclear armed Pakistan continues to use terror is that it cannot compete economically or militarily with a rising India. In essence, the deployment of militants using terror tactics is not defensive in nature, nor is it a negotiating tactic; Pakistan’s use of terror is preventive. The main objective is to prevent peace in the subcontinent which would clear a pathway for India’s rise on the global stage. Unfortunately, Pakistan can delay but not prevent the inevitable rise of India.

American policymakers need to engage this issue in greater depth. Urging peace talks between India and Pakistan in order to free up Pakistani troops to fight America’s War on the Taliban is a pointless exercise if Americans haven’t laid the groundwork for successful talks. If the United States is serious about creating peace, it needs to force Pakistan to rethink its grand strategy. This can only be done by convincing the people of Pakistan that the quest for military and economic parity with a much larger and economically more dynamic India is a fantasy that undermines their own goals of democracy, regional peace & prosperity, and sovereignty. The Pakistani state and people must be encouraged to review their strategy in light of the 1998 nuclear tests. While Pakistan has had good reason to fear Indian aggression in the past, the strategic context has changed. It is only by re-evaluating their strategy that Pakistanis will realize that the goal of military parity is outdated, unnecessary, and harmful to their own national aspirations.

It will be argued that I am not asking India to change its behavior. That is correct. India can facilitate peace by continuing to show restraint in response to militant provocations emanating from Pakistan. Ultimately, India will need to make more sacrifices, particularly in Srinagar, but that can only come after Pakistan abandons the use of terror tactics and eliminates the militant organizations on its soil.

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How to Win the War on Terror

It’s not that earth-shattering – people have been saying this for years – but I haven’t seen it put this well, for mass consumption, in a long time. Phil Bobbitt writing in Newsweek:

It is often asked, “How can we win a war against terror? Who would surrender? How can we make war against an emotion (terror) or a guerrilla technique (terrorism), neither of which are enemy states?” These questions assume that victory in war is simply a matter of defeating the enemy. In fact, that may be the criterion for winning in football or chess, but not warfare. Victory in war is a matter of achieving the war aim. The war aim in a war against terror is not territory, or access to resources, or conversion to our political way of life. It is the protection of civilians within the rule of law.

But Newsweek’s editors seem to have taken a different message from his argument – that it’s impossible to define victory. Instead of taking seriously the idea of how to measure victory on Bobbitt’s terms, their latest issue features a long, admittedly interesting but ultimately distracting conversation about how ambiguous the concept of “victory” is today. That whole discussion misses Bobbitt’s point, I think. Victory on conventional terms is no longer possible in asymmetric wars. Instead of belaboring that, let’s redefine our terms and create some valid metrics to go with them.

More ruminations on that score at Current Intelligence.

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Gitmo

According to the Department of Defense, many of the captives released from the U.S. prison on Guantánamo Bay “return” to extremist activity — and the rate is increasing. This is from the LA Times story of January 7:

A new report estimates that one-fifth of the detainees who have been released from the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, have resumed extremist activity, a Defense Department official said Wednesday, a figure that intensifies the debate over the prison.

The Pentagon report on the released detainees remains classified and officials refused to discuss it publicly. But Pentagon Press Secretary Geoff Morrell acknowledged the numbers had risen since April, when the department said about 74 former detainees — about 14% of those released — had returned to hostile action against the United States.

Readers might recall that President Obama promised nearly one year ago to close the prison within a year.

Dan Froomkin has a thorough takedown of the Pentagon study and I’d encourage everyone to read it. Note that most of his arguments are based on the work of Seton Hall researchers directed by Law Professor Mark Denbeaux. The Seton Hall team has repeatedly debunked DoD claims about Guantánamo and effectively spanked the media for reporting on the official claims without some degree of journalistic skepticism.

So, what’s wrong with the Pentagon reports and claims?

  • The Pentagon refuses to provide names, making it virtually impossible for researchers to verify their claims.
  • By DoD’s definition, “returning to the fight” apparently includes detainees speaking out publicly against their incarceration at Gitmo.
  • Officials, if pressed, acknowledge they don’t really track former detainees, so their conclusions are largely speculative.
  • Most detaines cannot “return” to the battlefield since the arrested weren’t ever really combatants and were never charged with anything

Clearly, the Pentagon continues to signal that it’s not going to watch silently as the President’s team works to close the Guantánamo prison. They’re obviously picking a political fight and domestic political allies in Congress will help them — remember the silly NIMBY debate about Khalid Sheikh Mohammed? What Froomkin suggests is that a malleable media with a poor short-term memory will help them.

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The External Validity of Terrorism Studies on Israel/Palestine

The growing desire to understand both the rationality of suicide terrorism, as well as test theoretical concepts empirically has generated several interesting political economic studies of terrorism. As such, a recent paper in the NBER caught my eye for several reasons. The article, entitled “The Economic Cost of Harboring Terrorism,” adds to this body of work by focusing on an area that has yet to be explored. Very often the question of interest in these studies is, “how do terrorist attacks affect the target economy?” In this paper the authors reverse the question and ponder, “how do terrorist attacks affect the economic conditions of the area from whence the attack came?”

The question is a very good one, and the authors investigate it with a unique data set:

Our analysis overcomes these difficulties by relying on a detailed data set of suicide terror attacks and local economic conditions together with a unique empirical strategy. The available data set covers the universe of suicide Palestinian terrorists during the second Palestinian uprising, combined with quarterly data from the Palestinian Labor Force Survey on districts’ economic and demographic characteristics, and Israeli security measures (curfews and Israeli induced Palestinian fatalities).

The punchline…

…a successful attack causes an immediate increase of 5.3 percent in the unemployment rate of an average Palestinian district (relative to the average unemployment rate), and causes an increase of more than 20 percent in the likelihood that the district’s average wage falls in the quarter following an attack. Finally, a successful attack reduces the number of Palestinians working in Israel by 6.7 percent relative to its mean. Importantly, these economic effects persist for at least two quarters after the attack.

While I think this paper introduces a very important research paradigm, I have a concerns with some of the technical assumptions built into their analysis, and the overarching reliability of research focusing exclusively on terrorism in the Israel/Palestine conflict. With respect to the technical assumptions there is one line in the paper that struck me as very problematic: “Our empirical strategy exploits the inherit randomness in the success or failure of suicide terror attacks as a source of exogenous variation to investigate the effects of terrorism on the perpetrators economic conditions.”

I find it very difficult to accept the notion that success and failure is random across suicide attacks—especially within this particular conflict. There is clearly no support for a theory that selection of suicide attack sites is random; therefore, it follows that the success of an attack would also be a function of both the selected target as well as the learning process occurring by both the attackers and defenders. There is, therefore, an expectation of high autocorrelation across success for attacks happening within a relatively small geographic area. Such difficulties highlight the general problem of external validity for terrorism studies that focus solely on the Israel/Palestine conflict.

It is not surprising that researchers often default to data on terrorist attacks from this conflict. Given the relative openness of Israel’s democratic government, the media attention on Palestine, and the—unfortunate—frequency of attacks there exists are large amount of data from this conflict. As I have mentioned before, however, it is very difficult to infer causality from this data given the natural interconnectedness of the conflict dynamics. As I mentioned, there any large-N study of terrorism in this context has enormous selection problems, as terrorists learn innovate to evade the defensive tactics of the ISF, and the Israelis create new policies that may provoke and dissuade the terrorist activities. There are no other ongoing low-intensity conflicts that have issues at this level, making it difficult to draw parallels between findings from research focusing and Israel and Palestine and another other conflict.

I am curious as to others’ thoughts on this issue of external validity, and welcome your comments.

Photo: Norman G. Finkelstein

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