Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Conservatives must end their incoherence on counter-terrorism

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Have Faith in America

People are a bit gloomy about America's future. They shouldn't be. Here's a piece I wrote before the election, on why we should have faith in our country.

The six reasons America will remain great

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Why America is right to support Israel

During my time in London, I was frequently asked why the US maintains such a close relationship with Israel. Could, I was asked, America's support for Israel truly be justified?
For me, the answer was and remains pretty simple - Not only is this alliance justified, it's also inherently necessary.

Don't get me wrong, the Israeli Government angers me from time to time. But no relationship is perfect. After all, even our relationship with the UK has its problems.

But contrasting the disagreements are an abundance of commonalities and four key imperatives.

First, the US was intimately involved in the creation of the Israeli state. That historic legacy sustains our desire to maintain Israel's existence and security.

Second, in the aftermath of the Holocaust and against the long and horrific history of Antisemitism, America vowed that we would protect Israeli democracy from destruction. Flowing in union with our finest values (freedom, honor, commitment), this is an oath worthy of our continued support.

Third, Israeli co-operation with the United States on issues of joint concern (Iran, for example) is of direct value to the national security of the United States.

Fourth, Israel needs American support. Surrounded by violent extremists who possess savvy PR capabilities (blaming Israelis for the terrorism that they respond to), America is crucial to the assertion of Israel's rightful global legitimacy.

Why I support the CIA drone program

UPDATE: 10/22/13 - 'In Defense of Drones'

 A quick post on why I support the CIA's drone program

  • The program has eviscerated Al Qa'ida/Taliban/other terrorist leadership cadres.
  • The program is highly effective in terms of its intelligence collection provisions.
  • The program strikes fear into the enemy- denying open freedom of movement/action.
  • The program is discriminate - IE - it avoids significant civilian casualties (those who say otherwise are simply wrong).
  • The program removes the need for American ground forces to be deployed into highly precarious situations.
  • The Pakistani/Yemeni* people are infuriated by the drone program - to some degree, this feeds anti-American nationalist sentiments.
  • It treats a symptom (terrorists) rather than the disease (why do terrorists become terrorists?) so is not a end game solution.
CONCLUSION- I'm a strong supporter of the drone program. Yes, it won't end terrorism. However, until states like Yemen and Pakistan develop credible civilian govt's and stronger, unified counter-insurgency efforts, the drone program will provide a discriminate and highly productive tool for necessary counter-terrorism.

I recognize that UCAVs are used in other locations beyond Yemen/Pakistan.

Please also see my other writings on related issues.

Monday, April 22, 2013

BBC World Service Debate

Earlier today I was on a BBC World Service panel. The topic of discussion was The Future of Guantanamo Bay.

I speak at: 25.49, 30.30, 34.27, 35.57, 38.56, 40.10, 41.04, 46.18. The link is here.

From Boston, Powerful Truths for America

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Why did the Tsarnaev brothers turn to terrorism?

Now that the dust has settled and the Tsarnaev brothers are no longer a threat, the question why? has taken center stage. Why did two men seek to wage such destruction against the country that had given them a home? These are the same questions that British officials were forced to ask in the aftermath of the July 7th bombings. To this day, the primary terrorism threat in the UK does not originate with foreign citizens, but rather with Britons who have rejected the UK's democratic plurality in favor of a violent, extremist interpretation of Sunni Islamism. 

I believe that it's possible to draw number of observations about what can motivate citizens/long-time residents to turn so brutally against their host countries. For me, there are four progressive factors that lead to homegrown extremism.

1) Culture Shock

For those entering a new country or being brought up in a family which distances itself from broader social engagement, a multitude of challenges can arise. Central amongst these is the need to adapt to accepted society. Whether it be different sports, varied social attitudes or contrasting behavioral norms, escaping social exclusion can be a challenge. Consider how the average American would react to India's focal obsession with cricket? Or to the Spanish tradition of a siesta? Or to the Saudi expectation of female subservience? Of course, most immigrants embrace their new cultural experience - complementing it with their own. The great beauty of America is our ability to incorporate new identities into the broader American identity. We are the ultimate complementary nation. This is good. Unfortunately, there will always be those who are unwilling to adapt to their new environments. This can lead to a sense of alienation.

2) A Sense of Alienation

When an individual feels that he/she has no attachment and no relationship with the society in which he/she lives, that dynamic is not conducive to the individual's ability to function in that society. When individuals are unable to gel with others, this divergence can manifest itself in a brooding and ever deepening sense of social isolation. It's notable that Tamerlan Tsarnaev was regarded by many who interacted with him as socially dysfunctional. He himself complained about his lack of friends. While alienation does not in and of itself equal extremism, it also provides an obvious foundation for extremism to take root. People want to belong and extremism can offer the belonging they desire.

3) The Clarity of Extremism

For those who subscribe to politically extremist ideologies, there is a sustaining trend of motivation. Primarily, the extremist ability to offer simplistic, accessible prescriptions for complex social problems. Consider some examples from history. The rise of the KKK was rooted in the fear of social change. The emergent power of Nazism was the result of a common perception of social decay and dysfunction. Identity politics gave a face to the ills of German society. 'Blame the Jews, blame the communists, blame the travelers'. It allowed mobilization in common cause and offered a solution to German decline. In the UK today, the far-right finds increasing sympathy in a band of disaffected young-middle aged men. The BNP and EDL might not offer serious solutions, but what they do offer is an easy explanation for social ills. Then comes the mythology - Whether concerning the purity of southern values (KKK), the unified fatherland (Germany), or the crusaders of traditionalism (see crusader imagery of EDL), extremists situate their extremism in deeper social meaning. They appeal to a pre-existing ideational comfort in order to mobilize political activity in the moment. More specific to the Tsarnaev's, consider the role of extremist Islam. Though this is a grossly simplified explanation, violent Shia Islamists root their activities in the culture of righteous resistance. For one example, the legacy of Karbala finds contemporary voice in the pervasive martyrdom imagery of Hizballah. But what about Sunni Islamist extremism - the cause of most Chechen extremists. Consider the intellectual father of modern Sunni political extremism - Sayyid Qutb. In his writings, Qutb identified all the ills of the world as stemming from a central source - Separation from the divine authority/wisdom of Allah (jahiliyah). If only, Qutb and his followers claim, society acted in concert with God, then the problems of the world would find final resolution. This notion of finality is central to violent Sunni extremism. Its agents are not acting in pursuit of political reforms to the existing political order, they seek reforms in the pusuit of a fundamentally new order. A pure order. A order worth hard choices and ultimate sacrifice. This clarity can thus lead to the appeal of purpose in extremism.

4) Finding Purpose in Extremism

What did Tamerlan Tsarnaev's six month 2012 trip to Russia entail? What was he doing there? Who did he meet? What did he learn? 

Chechen Islamist extremists are well known for their absolutist devotion to their cause. In 1995, Chechen terrorists held hostages at a Russian hospital. In 2002, Chechen terrorists allied with Al Qa'ida, fought bare foot on freezing Afghan Mountains. In 2004, Chechen terrorists took over a Russian school and massacred hundreds of children. In 2010, Chechen terrorists attacked the Moscow metro system and in 2011, attacked Moscow's main airport. In the context of this record, for Chechen terrorists at least, blowing up a Marathon is not a morally complex act. We need to know if Tamerlan had direction to do what he and his brother did. We need to know if Dzhokhar (who many saw as a harmless pot head) was turned by Tamerlan. But we also need to recognize why homegrown terrorists find purpose in the atrocities they commit. Because of the purposive clarity which Sunni extremism offers - a unified world under a righteous and just new order, its purveyors have few qualms about taking monstrous actions in their pursuit of that new order. After all, as they see it, they're simply implementing the divine, omnipotent will of God. By bombing Boston, perhaps Tamerlan and Dzhokhar believed they would find purpose in becoming new Islamist leaders - valiant heroes struggling against the existential immorality of America.  

Some people are so desperate for purpose that they lose sight of the very essence of human existence. Sometimes, purpose becomes an end in itself.

Where this leaves us...
Of course, the Tsarnaev's were delusional. Like all terrorists, their calculating murder had no justification. In the end, like the July 7 bombers (who, except for one, were all born in the UK), they were losers who chose to betray the country which gave them opportunities for a better life. We can recognize this and hate them for what they have done. But in order to defeat men and women like the Tsarnaevs, in order to protect ourselves against the future homegrown attacks, we must look to how homegrown terrorism takes place. And we must match this pursuit with vigilance and resolve.

For some of my other writings on terrorism - please click here

Writings on Terrorism/Iran/Middle East


Friday, April 19, 2013

Boston is secure

On Monday afternoon, Boston suffered a brutal attack. Tonight, the bombers are no longer a threat and justice will soon follow. 

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Boston Suspects - Observations

These two individuals are persons of interest (POI) wanted by the FBI in connection with the Boston bombings. I have a number of observations. For sake of clarity, I have identified the front POI as POI-A and the rear POI as POI-B.

1) Both POIs are attempting to blend in with their surroundings (casual demeanor, walking etc). But at the same time (albeit to different degrees), both are wearing clothing (sunglasses, baseball cap, coats - hides build) that go some way towards concealing their identities. This could indicate an intentional effort at operational security on the part of these individuals. Perhaps also indicating some measure of organized training.  Again though, the easy accessibility of counter-surveillance material online means that the bomber/s could simply have looked up these techniques on the internet. The POI-A's baseball cap seems to have an uncommon pattern - something that investigators will be actively considering.

2) POI-A appears to have a darker complexion than POI-B (although shade may play a major role in this) and also seems to be older, however, this alone should not be used to make conclusions about organization/agenda/racial origin. At this point we must wait for more information.

3) The fact that the FBI has released the photos is in and of itself very interesting. For one, the FBI knows that by doing so, they risk those responsible for the attack (if these are indeed the perpetrators) going deeper into hiding. It seems likely that the FBI/Intelligence Community have limited information at this point in the investigation. In short, they've decided that they need the public's help. But alongside the negatives, there's obviously a great positive to the release of these photos- most of America will be looking at them. And it's highly likely that these POIs will have had interaction with someone on or prior to Monday. In addition, the side zoomed photo of POI-B is good footage. It should enable major investigatory leads for the FBI. Oh... and for those who have suggested that those responsible may already have left the country, yes, it's a possibility. But extradition treaty or no extradition treaty, one way or another those responsible will be brought to justice.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Boston Investigation - Day 2

 The investigation in Boston continues.

1) My observations from yesterday concerning the potential of a fragmentation-IED employment appear to have been correct. As has been widely reported, it seems the explosive was packed inside a pressure cooker and surrounded by nails + other shrapnel. Clearly, this attack sought to combine a simplistic method of engagement (a relatively easy to construct bomb) with a comparatively significant impact (a large number of casualties). On the second point, as I noted yesterday, the low number of fatalities is a great credit to Boston's EMS and surgical teams.

2) In terms of the perpetrator/s/group responsible, we still know very little. It's true that the pressure cooker explosive tactic has been a traditional go-to approach for Al Qa'ida, however, the ease of that construction methodology means that we cannot be confident Al Qa'ida (/affiliate/inspired) were responsible. Regardless, I suspect that at this point (approaching 48 hours post-incident), the FBI and Police will soon have a camera shot of whoever placed the devices. Unfortunately, the individual/s in question may have concealed their identity. Regardless, by the lack of newly leaked information, it's evident that the authorities have significant gaps in their knowledge. Because of the number of investigators assigned to this case, once new information does arrive, it will likely enter the public domain very quickly (contrary to common belief, the US Govt. finds it very difficult to keep necessary secrets).

3) The ricin letter sent to US Sen. Wicker (R-MS) may or may not be related to the Boston bombings. It's impossible to know at this point. It may simply be a lone wolf who wants to create a sense of panic. This being said, a connection cannot be ruled out. It is worth noting (if only for background) that Al Qa'ida have previously shown a serious interest in ricin weaponization.
4) Whoever is responsible for the bombings and the letter (either together or individually), it seems highly likely that the number of individuals involved is very low. To successfully elude the US intelligence community requires a great deal of operational secrecy, ease of access to the US and independence (why in recent years the US/UK IC have been especially concerned by British-Pakistani extremists using their UK passports to gain access to the US). 

At this time, the primary concern on the part of the US Govt. is twofold - to investigate the attacks and to quickly find those responsible. A real threat will exist until the responsible party is detained (a concern evidenced by the significant increased security measures in major US metropolitan areas). But be under no illusions, they will be found. The FBI is the finest investigation force in the world.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Boston bombing - Investigation Day 1

Having just watched this morning's FBI-Boston press conference, it seems apparent that the Govt. does not yet know which individual or group were responsible for yesterday's Marathon attack. But we do know a little more than yesterday.

1) The primary injuries sustained - lower limb injuries, suggests that the explosive did indeed have some form of fragmentation weaponization. When a fragmentation bomb is used, those in the immediate proximity of the weapon suffer both explosive injury and fragment-impact injuries. Using these types of weapon, the attacker's intention and outcome are the same - causing terrible injuries to a large number of people (in this case evidenced by the 17 who are still critical). It's a testament to the skill of Boston's first responders and surgical teams that so many were saved. In other locales, many of those injured would likely have died.

2) The FBI has confirmed that only two explosive devices were used and that no others were found. This fact is important, as it makes more plausible the notion that a single individual or very small cell carried out the attack. A basic truth of terrorism is that the smaller a network, the more likely the network will be able to go undetected by authorities. Again - this is just an observation. Nothing more.

3) As in London post the July 7th 2005 bombings, the US law enforcement/intelligence community will be working overtime to try and ensure that the immediate threat has now ended.

4) Once again, it's important to reiterate that at the moment, we know very little. But there are two conclusions we can make.

First, we should be thankful that this attack didn't take more lives. It easily could have done so.

Second, the indiscriminate murder of civilians (including an 8 year old boy) and the intention to kill many more, has once again given clarity the moral abhorrence of terrorism. Regardless of the motivations of the actors responsible, terrorism is not a legitimate political strategy; it's murder. Brutal, unjustified and requiring of our unequivocal condemnation. We should seek to understand terrorists only to the degree that our understanding enables their persuaded or enforced compliance to an emergent condition of just, democratic peace.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Boston Attacks

Let's be clear - it's far too early to start making conclusions about who was responsible for the attacks on Boston. Having said this, it's still possible to make some observations.

1) Because of the apparent target - the Boston Marathon, the successive nature of the explosions and the day - Patriots day, this incident conforms with the modus operandi of previous terrorist attacks. The injury reports - limb injuries also could indicate fragmentation based improvised explosive devices. As of the time of this writing, Fox News are reporting that further devices have been found and neutralized via controlled explosions.

2) Reports that the cause of the explosions may have been bombs in garbage cans, suggests that the perpetrators may still be at large (UPDATE - Apparently one suspect is in custody at a hospital). However, there may be other suspects at large. This then raises an obvious concern which will dominate much of the FBI response over the next few hours - Where are the perpetrator/s now and do they intend to carry out further attacks? Since the Mumbai attacks, western security services have been extremely concerned by the prospect of a copy-cat style sustained operation in an urban space. I expect that the terrorism alert level will be raised.

3) In terms of responsibility, it's very hard to make a judgement. Islamist extremists (most specifically Sunni Islamist terrorists) have an evident preference for attacking targets that carry heavy symbolism and a close density of individuals (they want to kill as many as possible with as much media impact as possible). Having said this, at the moment, we simply do not know. Some are suggesting that this is unlikely to be terrorism because intelligence would have prevented the attack. That's an absurd suggestion. Often it's only a combination of luck and skill that prevents an atrocity.

One thing is for sure. Boston will endure.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Monday, April 8, 2013

North Korea, Iran and Syria; an Axis empowered by our appeasement

'States like these and their terrorist allies constitute an axis of evil, arming to threaten the peace of the world.’

Once ridiculed as the oratory of a simple mind, Bush’s warning has now arrived at hard fruition. For even as we debate the policy prescriptions that defined his Presidency, Bush’s prognosis was right. A new alliance of totalitarians stands in contest with global security. And enthroned on the bodies of the oppressed, the leaders of North Korea, Iran and the successor to Saddam’s Iraq – Syria, are far more than adversaries of America, they’re an axis against humanity.

Neglecting this truth, we’re endangering the cause of peace.

Since 2009, the Obama Administration and its allies have embraced the belief that consistent engagement can positively transform any adversary. After ten years of war, this is a tempting understanding. 

Tempting but misguided.

Consider the new axis against us.

In North Korea, we find the part-clown, part-monster, Kim Jong-Un. Reinforced by decades of appeasement, Kim’s a trend setter for nuclear extortion. 

In face of his threats, the United States faces a choice – to fold or to hold. The right answer is to hold. After all, by starting a war, the North Korean elite know they would lose both life and luxury

Regrettably though, calls for negotiation are once again increasing. This is an inexcusable neglect of history - compliance in the face of intimidation only encourages greater hostility. If we want to change Kim’s behavior, we must do so now.

Next there’s Syria.

Celebrated by Vogue, blessed as a reformer by Hillary Clinton and labeled the road to peace by Nancy Pelosi, for over two years now, Assad has massacred his people. A rampage which reaches new levels each passing month. Protected by Capo Putin and supported by the faux liberators, Hezbollah, Assad clings to power. The Chinese don’t care, the EU is impotent and we’re timid. We could provide select rebel groups with arms, but no, that would be too complicated. Instead, we offer red lines of a thousand shades and equivocations of the highest order.

And the Syrian people hear our message - Let them die.

Then there’s the final member of the modern axis. Iran. Founded in the spirit of revolution, Iran’s regime is now an unashamed terrorist state. At home and abroad, the violent theocrats seek to spread their iron rule. We’ve acquiesced to their campaigns of murder. In 2009, when Iranians rose to protest another stolen election, President Obama stayed quiet. Why no condemnation? The White House doesn’t like meddling.

Yes, the President has adopted aggressive espionage efforts against Iran’s nuclear program. However, these actions are disconnected from diplomatic endeavor. In negotiations with Iran, instead of requiring compliance, the President has chosen to support the European position of floating appeasement. A flawed strategy for a gleeful Ayatollah. 

Be under no illusions, if you think a nuclear North Korea is bad, you’re not going to like a nuclear Iran.

This begs the question, why has our policy gone so wrong?

Pretty simple. Those who support limitless negotiations mistake the axis rulers for semi-reasonable men. A terrible error. These rulers are disinterested in honest relations. Just look at their myths of self-identification. In North Korea, Iran and Syria, we have the absurd union of communist orthodoxy, Shia fundamentalism and secular nepotism. Ideologies with as much affinity as PETA and the Fur industry. And yet, they stand together. The sustaining unifier? Their mutual desire for domination and their shared hatred towards the common obstacle in that pursuit, America. 

Power not autonomy, is their unyielding end game.

So what should we do?

Clearly, none of us want war. But our choice is not between appeasement and war. Courageous, principled diplomacy can achieve the lasting security that we seek. We must not legitimate nuclear blackmail. In the nuclear age, the threat of despotism is multiplied both in reach and in magnitude. Here resides our challenge and our responsibility. Cognizant in our greater strength, we must restrain those who chose intimidation as their instrument of power. 

If we don’t, our appeasement will find it’s way to a bloody end.

Margaret Thatcher RIP

I will have a column out over the next day or so, but here are my immediate thoughts on the passing of Margaret Thatcher.

Having grown up in the UK, I'm personally aware of Margaret Thatcher's importance to modern Britain. She was, in short, a great Prime Minister who lead her country away from the economic abyss and towards a vibrant, sustained and broadly shared prosperity. Without her, Britain would have collapsed in confidence to become a second tier state. Without her, Britain would have yielded to terrorism and foreign intimidation (Falklands and the IRA).

Thatcher allowed the UK to shape its modern destiny for the better.

She was one of the greats and the objective eye of history will remember her as such.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

North Korea - what we're doing/should be doing

As I argued a few days ago (here and here), it's evident that the Obama Administration is concerned by the renewed threats coming from North Korea. From what we know so far, the US response has involved heavy bomber show of force flights, the deployment of an advanced missile defense system to Guam and the staging of US Navy Aegis BMD equipped destroyers (advanced missile defense systems) into the waters surrounding North Korea. It's also extremely likely that the US is refocusing significant image, signal and measurement intelligence assets towards North Korea. The objective - to know more about North Korea's intentions and capabilities, and to deter and defeat any North Korean aggression.

But I also believe that two others steps are now necessary. 

First, now that Kim Jong-Un has explicitly threatened to use nuclear weapons against the United States (for two weeks), President Obama needs to issue standing orders to the US Military. The President should order US forces to down any launched North Korean missile which threatens US or allied assets. Essentially, if a North Korean missile is heading towards Guam or Japan - shoot it down. That might seem obvious, but until now we've allowed the North Koreans to fire missiles over Japanese territory and towards Guam with impunity. That dynamic has to come to an end.

Second, as I argued a couple of weeks back, President Obama needs to issue a robust public statement on North Korea. My suggestion - 

In the event of an attack by agents or proxies of the North Korean state against our allies, the United States will render full spectrum support to our ally. Further, any nuclear attack, or attempted nuclear attack, against the United States or South Korea, by agents or proxies of the North Korean state, will be met by nuclear retaliation from the United States.

North Korea must understand that nuclear poker serves them no positive interest. They have bad cards and we know it. They know that we know, but they like to think that we lack the courage to stand up to them and thus that we pretend we don't know. As a result, Kim Jong-Un thinks that he can make us blink.

My older piece for The Guardian - Washington's message to Pyongyang