Tag Archives: terrorism

The Taliban as a Desert Gang

Here is a great article in Foreign Policy that compares Afghanistan’s Taliban movement to the Bloods and Crips and other urban gangs here in the US. The author notes similar structures and similar motivations, and then discusses successful methods that urban police departments have used to reduce gang violence, and how they could be applicable in the deserts of Afghanistan.

Interesting fact: as part of counterinsurgency training, US Marines from Camp Pendleton are embedding with Los Angeles cops to see anti-gang policing in action.

Extra shout out: for the headline Straight Outta Kandahar.


War Against Terror is a War of Messages

With all the talk of whether Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and the other 9/11 terrorists should be tried in civilian or military court, and concurrent discussion of whether Christmas Day underwear bomber Umar Abdulmutallab should have been arrested and Mirandized or shipped off to Gitmo, it feels like there is a lot of macho posturing going on instead of focusing on what is best for national security.

“The president doesn’t understand we’re at war,” people say. “Terrorists aren’t criminals…they’re the enemy,” say others. It seems everyone is jockeying to prove how poorly they can treat the enemy and thus how tough they are. But being tough isn’t the goal of a war…winning is the goal. Being tough is only relevant if it helps us win; toughness qua toughness is pointless.

Of course Obama understands we’re at war; everyone understands we’re at war. Duh. But conservatives don’t seem to understand that this is a war of messages just as much as a war of guns. We need to imprison terrorists and kill terrorists, yes, but we also need to prevent people from becoming terrorists. And the way we do that is with a hearts and minds strategy, exactly as David Petraeus, every conservative’s hero, laid out in the Army’s counterinsurgency manual.

Every time I see or read an interview with someone in the Middle East, or look at the results of surveys from that region, the consistent message is that when the US acts like a bully or a hypocrite (eg. supporting totalitarian regimes while talking up democracy (hello Egypt)), the people get angry and listen to Al Qaeda and its ilk. When the US treats people fairly and follows its own laws, folks in the Middle East think better of us. Look at this graph showing improved Middle Eastern views of the US since Obama’s election. As Stephen Walt writes in Foreign Policy, Bush’s tough detainee policies were a “propaganda boon” for Al Qaeda.

Trying KSM in civilian courts would show that the US follows its own laws; it would demonstrate commitment to a fair system of justice. This would send a positive message to the unemployed Arab youth from whom Al Qaeda recruits. Our civilian courts can handle this sort of case; we have convicted many terrorists already, and they are serving life sentences in prison. Using civilian courts doesn’t mean we are soft. It means we are fair. Coupled with Obama’s aggressive use of drone strikes to kill Taliban leaders, it’s hard to see how anyone will think we’re soft. In fact, the use of civilian courts here with tough military tactics there is exactly the “balanced application of both military and non-military means” (section 1-113) that General Petraeus calls for in the counterinsurgency manual.

In addition, why should we let Al Qaeda claim the mantle of soldier or warrior by trying them in military commissions? It’s far more insulting to treat them the same way we do common thugs and thieves. As the judge in the Richard Reid trial put it, “you are a terrorist. A species of criminal guilty of multiple attempted murders.” Terrorists want to be seen as mighty warriors. Let’s not give them that propaganda win.

FYI, read here about how the guy arrested in Chicago for helping with the Mumbai attacks, and dropped immediately into the traditional criminal justice system, is singing like a canary.

Part of this “look how tough I am dynamic” is a tendency toward vicious attacks on those who disagree. In a protest of Eric Holder’s decision to try KSM in a civilian court, people called him a “traitor” and yelled to “lynch him” (a particularly terrible to say to a black man, by the way). That really doesn’t help. Reasonable people can disagree on the best way to fight this war against terrorism. I don’t think people who argue for military commissions are traitors or unpatriotic. I may think they are wrong about the best path forward, but I don’t think they are awful people or totalitarian fascists. Maybe focusing on policy would be a good idea.

The protest mentioned above, by the way, was organized by Debra Burlingame, the sister of one of the pilots who was killed on 9/11, and a prime mover in the attacks on the DOJ attorneys who have represented Al Qaeda prisoners. Greg Manning, whose sister was badly burned on 9/11, took the mike to say that Holder would be responsible for “hundreds of thousands dead.” I’m going to come out say something that might be controversial: I am tired of the families of 9/11 victims having special status in this argument. I feel terrible about their tragic loss, of course, but that loss doesn’t make them national security experts. Nor should their quest for vengeance affect us; we left eye-for-an-eye justice behind a long time ago.

Richard Clarke on Terrorism Policy

Richard Clarke, who was a lead anti-terrorism official in both the Clinton AND Bush administrations, recently wrote a piece in the NY Daily News discussing the current status of our policies and some of Obama’s recent decisions. As you might expect from someone who worked in both Democratic and Republican administrations, Clarke takes a pretty rational approach and tries to cut through all the political noise. The article is worth a read. Check it out here.

The Christmas Bomber and Miranda

Bad timing for David Rivkin, who used Tuesday’s Wall Street Journal for one of his monthly attacks on some Obama policy. This time it was about the Christmas Day bomber, with Rivkin saying that not immediately sending the bomber into military detention was “an intelligence failure of massive proportions.” Too bad that the very next day, today, the exact same newspaper reported that the Christmas bomber is again talking to the FBI, providing “valuable intelligence.” This also damages the arguments of this guy and this woman. Look, there are valid reasons to say that terrorists should be viewed as wartime combatants rather than criminals. But claiming that we won’t get good information from terrorists held in the civilian legal system is clearly not a valid reason. And there is at least one good reason not to throw them in military brigs: it creates an appearance of the US being at war with Islam, which appearance seems to generate more terrorists. Finally, I would like to note, again, that George W. Bush also tried terrorists in civilian courts. For Republicans to now claim that this approach is terribly weak is to be hypocrites of the worst sort. Which is, I supposed, to be expected from politicians.

Terrorism: As Dangerous As A Tornado?

The Wall Street Journal this weekend ran a very interesting article about terrorism, and how incredibly unlikely it is for an American to die in a terrorist attack, and how Americans should maybe toughen up and look at the numbers instead of spending billions of dollars and millions of hours taking off their shoes at airports to prevent something that is statistically rare. The main article is here, and the sidebar that runs the numbers in detail (by Nate Silver!) is here.

The chance of an American dying in a terrorist attack is 1 in 3,000,000, or about the same as being killed by a tornado. Every day, 50 Americans are murdered, but we certainly aren’t spending the time and money to prevent those deaths that we are spending on the much less deadly terrorism. Obviously, this is a complicated issue that can’t be decided purely on statistics, but the point that we are maybe not focusing on the right things, and that we are maybe giving the terrorists a bigger psychic role than they deserve, is a good one.

Gitmo Prisoner in US: Run, Run for Your Life!

Just a few hours after I posted yesterday regarding the ridiculous fear surrounding the transfer of Gitmo prisoners to the United States, a story comes out that Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, a suspect in the 1998 embassy bombings, was moved from Gitmo to the federal detention facility in New York City so that he can stand trial in federal court. Yes, you heard that right: the federal lockup in Manhattan, not the Supermax prison in Colorado. The same facility that currently houses Bernie Madoff. Are New Yorkers leaving town to avoid this horrible danger? Will the authorities order the evacuation of Manhattan? No, of course not. Ghailani (oddly close to Giuliani, don’t you think?) is under massive guard, and nobody thinks he will escape. The only person worked up about this is notorious douchebag John Boehner, who called the move ”the first step in the Democrats’ plan to import terrorists into America.”