Saturday, April 21, 2012

The al Qaeda numbers game

It seems that I’ve been reading the same article for a decade or so: “Al Qaeda is down, but not out; their numbers are diminished, but they’re branching out, ready to target the homeland. Government officials warn same old bullshit. But this time they mean it.”

That’s pretty much the gist of this piece from The Economist. The article parrots the Obama Administration’s line in claiming that asses are being kicked on a massive scale, but there are new asses that need kicking, especially in Yemen and Somalia. And maybe Nigeria. Rather than claiming victory, the Administration boasts of partial victory while searching for more monsters to slay.

Al Qaeda central in Afghanistan/Pakistan, we’re told, is currently in the “low hundreds.” But, this is nothing new: in 2010 intelligence officials estimated the group's membership at “more than 300." In fact, al Qaeda membership was not a large organization even during its  heyday in the '90s. It trained a lot of militants, but few were invited into the actual organization. Even many of the 9/11 attackers remained outside of the group until the planning was well under way.

Numbers didn’t matter all that much because al Qaeda had resources. In addition to bin Laden’s trust fund, the organization had a network of fronts and scams that provided funds for attacks, as well as the tuition collected from its training camps. But between the invasion of Afghanistan and the dismantling of the group’s financial resource base, al Qaeda’s material power was significantly depleted. Indeed, Ahmed Rashid argues that bin Laden’s gang had to rely on the financial support of Pakistani militant organizations in relocating to Pakistan after their expulsion from Afghanistan.

Then Al Qaeda was small but rich; but now it’s small and cash-strapped. This suggests that the “ties” between al Qaeda and its affiliates are likely being overblown, since al Qaeda has little to offer. The organization may not even be able to offer its expertise to groups in Africa or the Arabian Peninsula, since many of its most experienced members—i.e. those who trained in Afghanistan camps during the nineties—are dead or in prison. Indeed, the “experts” training the new generation of jihadis in Pakistan appear to be ISI agents, not al Qaeda militants. Al Qaeda, in short, has little to give to “global jihad.”

But, the western media has largely accepted the narrative of al Qaeda’s growth beyond Afganistan-Pakistan. Reports of “ties,” “links,” and “support” are bandied about uncritically. Al Qaeda, we're told, has contracted and expanded simultaneously, breaking the laws of organizational physic. As Brian Fishman argues, the media's ready acceptance of this narrative results in key questions not being asked:
Are we really to measure al-Qaeda's strength based on some assessment of its "synergies" with other groups? What is the baseline? How do you compare the late 1990s, when al-Qaeda collaborated with a relatively strong, but very independent, Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG) to the situation today where a faction of LIFG has joined al-Qaeda but has vastly diminished resources? Does "synergy" mean they collaborate on attacks in Afghanistan together or that they agree on attacking western targets abroad? How do you measure the relative effectiveness of al-Qaeda's training programs from the late 1990s to today? Camps are smaller, but do you need a jungle gym to learn how to hijack a plane?
I’ve written about al Shabaab’s purported ties to al Qeade before, so in this post I will focus on the supposed Nigerian and Yemeni "franchises."

Whether or not Boko Haram has actual “ties” with al Qaeda is an open question. The evidence for such links is largely limited to mere “claims,” whether made by Nigerian security officials, western intelligence agencies, or “purported” Boko Haram spokesmen. But each has good reason for seeking such links. For Boko Haram, it’s a matter of prestige and profile. For western intelligence agencies, it’s about justifying intervention and expanding influence in Africa. And for the Nigerian state, it’s largely a matter of what Jason Burke calls the “blame al Qaeda syndrome,” whereby repressive governments seek to cover up their own misdeeds in giving rise to violent conflicts within their states. (During the Cold War a similar “blame the international communist conspiracy” ploy was especially effective in Latin America.)

The Economist article claims that Boko Haram’s “increasingly violent attacks and use of suicide-bombings suggest it has technical and material help from AQIM.” That the group has engaged in suicide attacks does not actually suggest this. First, suicide bombing is a modular form of violence, like car bombing, kidnapping, or beheading. It thus can be—and has—been used by various groups that have no connections. In the 1990s, Hamas and the Tamil Tigers both used suicide bombings, but this doesn’t suggest material ties whatsoever. Andrew Breivik’s attacks were not all that different from the Mumbai attacks, but no one is arguing that the Norwegian was trained by Pakistani militants. 

Second, bombs are relatively cheap to make and the knowhow is available on the internet. In addition, explosives are often available locally. Boko Haram allegedly obtains its explosives form raiding construction sites in Nigeria. The Madrid train bombers got theirs through a small-time crook/miner who led them to a warehouse wear the dynamite was stored. In both cases, no al Qaeda “technical and material” assistance was needed.

Of course, the Madrid bombing demonstrates that militants do not need direct al Qaeda ties to commit atrocities on a massive scale against Western targets. But they do need the intention to do so. Thus far, neither Boko Haram nor al Shabaab have demonstrated the intention to attack the “far enemy,” that is the West. Boko Haram’s conflict is against the Nigerian state and, particularly, security forces—and, increasingly, Nigerian Christians. Though the group did attack U.N. headquarters in Nigeria, they are largely engaged in a local conflict. Al Shabaab's foreign attacks have been focused on getting African Union states to leave Somalia. The West is not presently a concern. Not yet, at least.

With regard to the Yemeni al Qaeda, which according to The Economist “is reckoned by Western spooks to be most dangerous internationally,” a distinction must be made between their considerable level of success in Yemen as an insurgent organization and their obvious incompetence in waging global jihad. The two most notable international operations by the group—the “underwear” and the “printer cartridge” plots—were absolute failures. Furthermore, like al Shabaab, Yemeni jihadis may have more pressing concerns in waging a classic insurgency—and, increasingly, acting like a proto-state in territories under its control—which may make international attacks mere distractions.

But are we providing these groups with the motive to attack western target? By expanding the War on Terror into new arenas beyond the AfPak region, are the counterterrorists setting the stage for further “self-fulfilling prophecies”? By engaging in an increasingly militaristic counterterrorist strategy—and the concomitant “al Qaedization” of local insurgencies—is the Obama Administration creating the conditions for further violence? And even if expanding the War on Terror is providing these groups with the motive to attack the "far enemy," do they have the resources and expertise to commit such ambitious actions while simultaneously managing their insurgencies?

In all of this, the actual al Qaeda doesn't really matter, but rather it is this phantom "al Qaeda" that is driving events.

Friday, April 20, 2012

The breakdown of the Syrian ceasefire continues

The Miami Herald:

Rebels here fought the Syrian military Wednesday in a breach of a U.N.-sponsored cease-fire that was rare primarily because it was witnessed by an independent journalist who’d entered the country surreptitiously earlier this week. 
The fighting began in this city near the Lebanese border in the early afternoon after a group from the Free Syrian Army, the name claimed by most of the rebels who’ve taken up arms against the government of President Bashar Assad, attacked a military convoy near the city.Fighters here had said earlier this week that they were respecting the cease-fire brokered by U.N. Syria envoy Kofi Annan at the behest of Riad al Assad, a Syrian army colonel who defected and is now the nominal leader of the rebels in Turkey. 
The fighting in Qusayr took place as a U.N. monitoring team visited Douma, a site of frequent clashes between the rebels and the military on the outskirts of Damascus, Syria’s capital... 
The fighters in Qusayr, most of whom belong to the Farouq Brigade, the Free Syrian Army’s largest group, accused the government of violating the terms of the cease-fire by increasing the number of troops in the area during the past week. They said that shelling, which has been heard and seen in nearby villages frequently since Sunday, was intended to protect the government forces as they set up checkpoints along main roads here in hopes of disrupting rebel movements. 
As tanks began shelling Qusayr, rebels here grabbed their weapons and headed in the direction of the fighting. They were obviously mismatched, as they loaded nothing heavier than rocket-propelled grenades into a pair of pickups and a sedan whose windows had been shot out in a previous battle. 
“We are still respecting the cease-fire,” said Mohammed Idris, a commander in the Farouq Brigade here. “What is going on now is defense.”
ead more here:

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Mitt Romney's non-position on Afghanistan

Republican presidential candidates just love themselves a good war. Can't get enough. Wave the flags, salute the troops, talk a big game, wear a bomber jacket: what's not to love?

The New York Times looks at Mitt Romney's vague positioning on Afghanistan, which hasn't gotten much attention in this "it's-the-economy-stupid" election. Mittens' stance is basically asserting that "Obama's a pussy, but I'll fuck shit up." The problem is that, since Obama has embraced the militarism of the Bush II Regime, Romney hasn't been able to come up with an actual alternative of his own Other than a call for more war-making and kowtowing to the demands of "the generals" -- who usually insist that just a little more war will bring us victory. That, and pretty much the same withdrawal plan as Obama: troops out by 2014. Assuming "the generals" O.K. it. (My guess is that, come 2014, the generals will argue that just a little more war is needed before withdrawing.)

On negotiations, however, Romney's position is stark: “We should not negotiate with the Taliban. We should defeat the Taliban." Great. How long will that take? After all we've been "defeating" the Taliban for over a decade. Just like the American military consistently beat the North Vietnamese before the Paris peace talks. (Reminder: Donald Rumsfeld announced victory over the Taliban way back in 2003.)

Romney -- who has apparently "reached out" to Hamid Karzai -- will likely insist that the corrupt, incompetent, and erratic Afghan Government will somehow suddenly get its act together and become a viable state, despite being thoroughly corrupt, incompetent, and erratic. And we'll defeat an insurgency that has proven itself remarkably resilient. (In case you forgot: Donald Rumsfeld announced the Taliban's defeat in 2003.) Because Mittens ain't no pussy.

Romney is joined in his magical militarism by those reliable Senatorial warmongers McCain, Graham, and Lieberman, who've consistently demonstrated that they know exactly jack-and-shit about the Afghan conflict in their perennial media appearances. McCain, despite his love affair with military lingo, recently demonstrated his limited knowledge of insurgency in saying, "Reconciliation with the Taliban will not happen because we want to stop fighting. It will happen when we have broken their will to keep fighting."

This statement should be contrasted with that of another American militarist, Henry Kissinger, on the U.S. experience during the Vietnam War: We fought a military war; our opponents fought a political one. We sought physical attrition; our opponents aimed for psychological exhaustion. In the process, we lost sight of one of the cardinal maxims of guerilla war; the guerilla wins if he does not lose; the conventional army loses if it does not win. The North Vietnamese used their forces the way a bullfighter uses its cape – to keep us lunging into areas of marginal political importance.” 

Romney and McCain want to apply the same simple militaristic approach to Afghanistan that did not work in Vietnam. They've an uphill battle in convincing America that just a little more war is the answer: public support for the war continues to plummet.

Will Romney be able to sell more war to his own base? Much has been made of recent findings showing the even a majority of Republicans no longer support the war. However, I take this finding with a grain of salt. Though there is a strong isolationist current within among the Republican base -- stoked by lately by the antiwar Ron Paul, who outpaces every other candidates in terms of campaign contributions from those serving in the military -- there's also a very reliable militarist faction within the party. 

Furthermore, Republicans may simply be against the war because it's now Obama's War. They may turn out to love the look of Romney's WarGlenn Greenwald has referred to this "authoritarian cult" phenomenon in American politics: hardcore partisans tend to support policies not on the basis of principal, but rather out of "blind loyalty" to the the president. Just as Democrats and liberals defend and applaud Obama for continuing the militaristic policies of Bush II, once-militaristic Republicans may be turning against the war in Afghanistan because it's not their guy's war. And, in the incredibly unlikely event of a Romney victory, they'll likely rekindle their love affair with war.

Palestinian prisoners initiate mass hunger strike

Between 1,200 and 1,600 Palestinian prisoners have begun what they're calling "the battle of empty stomachs":
Hunger strikes by a few individuals have gathered an unexpected momentum, leading to mass action by prisoners against the Israeli use of solitary confinement, the difficulty of securing family visits and the strip searches inflicted on visitors. 
Palestinians also criticize the use of 'administrative detention', whereby Israel can imprison suspects indefinitely, without ever informing them of the charges they face or presenting their lawyers with any evidence. 
Hundreds of prisoners joined the "battle of empty stomachs" on Tuesday to coincide with "Prisoners' Day", when both the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip stage mass rallies in support of some 4,800 Palestinians who are held in Israeli jails. 
The Israeli prisons authority said 2,300 prisoners had announced they would reject their daily meal on Tuesday, while 1,200 indicated they were launching a formal hunger strike... 
Palestinian officials said 1,600 prisoners were joining the indefinite hunger strike, which fits into their much broader struggle to secure an independent homeland.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Cracks in Spain's Parot Doctrine?

Gara reports on the breakdown of judicial unanimity regarding the Parot Doctrine. Five of eleven judges of the Tribunal Constitucional have issued dissents on the application of the judicial policy – whereby “terrorists” are sentenced to life, despite the fact that Spanish penitentiary policy expressly forbids life sentences. According to Judge Asua Adela the Parot Doctrine is tantamount to “changing the rules of the game” – i.e. Spanish law – and that the Doctrine entails “arbitrariness and uncertainty” that is contrary to the rule of law. Furthermore, Judge Adela worries that the doctrine privileges punishment over rehabilitation and contrition.

Judge Eugeni Gay specifically cites the case of Paxti Gomez in his dissent. Convicted of being a member of ETA and participating in various violent actions, Gomez served 20 years in prison prior to being released in 2009. In February of this year, Gomez was rearrested when a judge decreed that he spend another ten years in prison for the same conviction in an “a posteriori” application of the Parot Doctrine, an action which Judge Gay considers a gross and dangerous violation of human rights.

But, we shouldn't take this as more than what it is: a minority opinion. Earlier this week, Spanish Justice Minister Alberto Ruiz-Gallardón reiterated the Rajoy Governments support for "permanent imprisonment" for individuals convicted of "terrorist" crimes. It should here be noted that the legal definition in Spain is incredibly vague, which makes the Justice Minister's clarification of the Government's position not all that clear.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Experts warn dissident republicans could bomb the Olympics (but probably won't, say experts)

The Anatomy of Terrorism Journalism

The AP today reports that "dissident" Irish republicans may be plotting to attack as the Olympic torch makes a 5-day tour of the North of Ireland. This article is prime example of how "terrorism" is written by journalist. Basically, what we have is a "threat" exaggerated at the beginning of the article, expert opinion, few facts, and the ultimate disproving of all that was claimed previously. To the author's credit, this last bit isn't often included in most journalistic accounts of terrorism. But, let's get to the snark.

The article begins with the "threat":
The Olympic Torch will spend five June days traveling through 67 cities, towns and villages throughout this long-divided corner of the United Kingdom. The flame's ambitious course into predominantly British Protestant and Irish Catholic turf should offer a poignant measure of how far Northern Ireland has traveled down its own road to reconciliation. 
Irish Republican Army dissidents are committed to shattering that image and, experts agree, are bound to see the Olympics as an unprecedented opportunity to advertise their defiant existence.
In come the "experts." I don't want to disparage the particular individuals interviewed in this article -- Richard English's and Kevin Toolis are both capable, objective authors familiar with the Irish conflict -- but this is a typical trope of terrorism journalism. Call an expert, include his or her most alarmist statements in your article, file, and move on to the next threat. "Experts," in general, are not disinterested parties in the representation of terrorism in the media. In fact, their continued gainful employment requires that terrorism be seen as a perpetual threat. The more alarmist, the more valuable their expertise.

But, there's a bit of irony at work here: by warning that terrorists are seeking to "shatter the image" of peaceful coexistence in the Six Counties, the experts seem to be engaging in a bit of image-shattering of their own. Consider the following:
A security think tank offering advice to British companies for the Olympics, the SIRS Consultancy, says the Olympic flame's June 3-7 procession through Northern Ireland has been recklessly timed. 
The Northern Ireland leg will coincide with celebrations marking the Diamond Jubilee, the 60th anniversary of Queen Elizabeth II's ascent to the throne. The U.K. has made that weekend a four-day holiday capped by the queen's June 4 birthday. Northern Ireland police expect heightened tensions between the Protestant majority, which will celebrate the jubilee, and the Catholic minority, which won't. 
SIRS noted that the flame will spend parts of two days in Londonderry, a focal point for recent dissident attacks, and visit several Irish republican districts from Belfast to the border town of Newry. It also will travel through Omagh, scene of the Real IRA's 1998 car-bomb slaughter, which killed 29 people, mostly women and children.
Why do the dissidents even need to conduct an operation? Security experts seem to be working hard at creating a narrative of persistent social conflict and a return to the bad old days: "Those damn Irish are about to start some shit, as they always do!" It goes on:
IRA experts say disrupting the torch's Irish travels could well be an opening act. They say police must be braced for the dissidents to attempt to plant at least one bomb in England — where no IRA faction has exploded a device since before the 9/11 attacks — at some point during the July 27-Aug. 12 London Olympics, chiefly because tens of thousands of foreign journalists will be there.
"Could well be" maybe should be read as "I have no fucking idea."  But surely these learned gentlemen, these experts, know something we don't. Enter the anonymous government official:
An Irish anti-terrorist officer said two Oglaigh na hEireann operatives were trailed from the Irish border to London in early 2011, where they met supporters and saw several Olympics-connected sites as tourists. 
The officer, who spoke to the AP on condition he not be identified because he wasn't authorized to speak to the media, said it was not clear if the dissidents were scouting Olympics sites, because their trip also preceded the April 2011 royal wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton. The officer said the two men remain under surveillance back home.
If the threat was considerable -- whether to the Olympics or the royal wedding -- then the British Government wold likely have used its considerable counterterrorist powers to detain the militants. The fact that they didn't suggests the threat was not taken all that seriously.

But what about the dissidents themselves? Surely their communiques indicate that they're out for blood and -- since they're terrorists -- they're out for innocent blood, lots of it. Well, the dissidents aren't playing the part all that well:
At an April 9 ceremony in a Londonderry cemetery, a masked Real IRA member told supporters the group would keep attacking police and British soldiers and "their installations, as well as British interests and infrastructure." The person didn't specify any threat to the Olympics.
Thankfully the experts are specifying the threat to the Olympic torch, since the Real IRA isn't.

So now we have a threat specified, references to attacks that occurred a decade or two ago and a few smaller ones from this last year, and some tantalizing -- though unverifiable -- intelligence leaked by an unnamed security official. End of story. Stay the fuck away from Northern Ireland -- hell, stay out of England as well -- because the IRA is coming.

Not quite. The second half of the article is all about disarming what had been said previously. 
The experts are unanimous on one key point: If any dissident IRA group does plant a bomb near the torch route or an Olympic facility, it will be to generate panic and headlines, not civilian deaths... 
The homemade bombs by dissident IRA groups also are often flawed. Many are duds and some explode sooner than intended.
So, after scaring the shit of us for two-and-a-half pages, now you tell us that this is an amateurish, thoroughly infiltrated band of pissed-off Northerners with "thick rural accents" and limited technical expertise. They're not C.O.B.R.A. Command? 

Of course, in this era of lazy reading, I wonder how many people actually got to the end of this piece. 

Monday, April 16, 2012

Rule #1 of reading about Afghanistan: Take the claims of a military spokesperson with a large grain of salt

Last week NATO spokesman German Brigadier General Carsten Jacobson boasted that the Taliban's spring offensive wouldn't be much of an offensive due to the military gains made by NATO forces over the last year.

Jacobson may have spoken too soon. This weekend the Taliban began its spring offensive in earnest in Kabul, conducting a series on coordinated attacks on various Western embassies, NATO headquarters, and the Afghan Parliament, which lasted for 18 hours. Afghan security forces were able to prevent an assassination plot targeting Hamid Karzai by detaining the four would-be suicide bomber en route to paradise. There were also simultaneous attacks in other parts of the country. On the other side of the border, the Pakistani Taliban stormed a prison liberating nearly 400 inmatesThis weekend's come on the heels of twin suicide attacks on Thursday that targeted Afghan government facilities in the capital.

General Jacobson predicted that the recent military gains -- including the "beefing up" of Afghan forces who, by most reports, are in need of a lot of beef -- would prevent the Taliban from using previously effective tactics. But Sunday's attacks seem to suggest that the opposite may be true:
Afghan security forces apparently failed to learn lessons from a similar operation in Kabul last September, when insurgents entered construction sites to use them as positions for rocket and gun attacks. 
On Sunday, insurgents entered a multi-storey construction site overlooking the diplomatic triangle and behind a supermarket. There they unleashed rocket-propelled grenades and gunfire, protected from the view of security forces by green protective netting wrapped around the skeleton of the building.

As the article notes, this operation was pretty much a rerun of last September's attack on Kabul by the Haqqani Network, who were likely responsible for this weekend's violence. According to the LA Times:

Three of the attacks in Kabul were mounted from high-rise construction sites, affording fighters a superior vantage point and cover behind green protective netting. This suggests that Afghan security forces didn't take sufficient notice of a similar operation in Kabul last September that saw unoccupied buildings used for rocket attacks on the U.S. Embassy and NATO headquarters. 
The tactic underscored the insurgents' flexibility, some experts said. 
"The Taliban is constantly developing new methods of attack," said Rohan Gunaratna, head of the International Center for Political Violence and Terrorism Research at Singapore's Nanyang Technological University. "If they succeed, they may continue to use them, otherwise they move on."
UPDATE: The attacks appear to have been a response -- at least in part -- to the boastful claims of General Jacobson and other NATO officials. According to the New York Times:
One Taliban spokesman described the onslaught as the opening of the Taliban’s spring offensive. “This is a message to those foreign commanders who claim that the Taliban lost momentum,” said Zabiullah Mujahid, a Taliban spokesman. “We just showed that we are here and we will launch and stage attacks whenever we want.”
Some NATO officials are, of course, downplaying this weekend's violence:
“This does have all the hallmarks of Haqqani on it,” said Col. Daniel J. W. King, spokesman for NATO. “It’s been over 150 days since the Haqqanis launched a successful attack on Kabul, they have to do this if they are going to have any credibility.” He added, “If this is the best they can do to start their fighting season, then obviously the Afghan security forces and others are having a significant impact.”
General John R. Allen, however, was a bit more candid, saying, “No one is underestimating the seriousness of today’s attacks.”
UPDATE #2: US Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker tried to further downplay the attacks, saying “The Taliban are really good at issuing statements. Less good at actually fighting.” The Ambassador seems to miss the point of the attacks entirely: the insurgents were seeking a symbolic rather than a military victory. By demonstrating that they can mount large-scale operations -- operations for which there is no escape for the insurgents involved -- the Haqqani Network likely wanted to show both their capacity to strike in the capital -- belying NATO narrative of gains and progress -- and the commitment of their militants. Know thy enemy, Ambassador.

Monitoring the impending breakdown of the Syrian ceasefire (plus a bit about Hamas)

Last week, the ceasefire in Syria was widely interpreted as holding despite the killings of only 6 people during protests nationwide. Or rather it was seen as holding because only 6 people were killed on its first day. Will this interpretation itself hold in the midst of continued shelling of urban neighborhoods?

The AP reports on reports of continued violence in Syria on Monday. Opposition groups claim that regime forces fired shells at rebel strongholds in Homs and of detentions carried out by the army and shabiha militiamen. Government media countered by claiming that armed rebels were ambushing patrols and attacking checkpoints. All this as UN monitors arrived to "discuss ground rules" of the ceasefire.

I haven't been privy to these discussions, but my guess is that refraining from shelling urban neighborhoods and employing ethnic death squads are among the ground rules.

Then there's this odd little bit buried at the end of the article:
Also Monday, a Hamas official said a senior member of the Palestinian group, Mustafa Lidawi, was abducted over the weekend near Damascus. In the past, Lidawi had served as the Hamas representative in Iran and Lebanon. 
Lidawi opposed a recent power-sharing agreement between the Islamic militant Hamas and its Western-backed rival, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, and was seen as a supporter of Assad's regime. Until recently, Hamas' top leaders were based in Damascus, but became increasingly critical of Assad's crackdown on the uprising and decided to leave the country. 
Hamas asked the Syrian authorities to try to find Lidawi, said a senior official of the group in the Hamas-run Gaza Strip, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the contacts. Lidawi's family told Hamas officials he was abducted Saturday.

Read more here: