The Syrian Refugee Crisis.

A civil war between the Sunni majority and the Shi’ite minority has been ravaging the Middle East. Since the outbreak of the Syrian civil war in 2011, more than four million refugees have fled the country.[1] While many went first to all the surrounding countries (Lebanon, Jordan, and Iraq), most went to Turkey. By late 2011, the number of refugees in Turkey reached 7,600. By the end of 2012 the number of refugees in Turkey topped 135,000; the number in Egypt passed 150,000. In summer 2014 the appearance of ISIS in eastern Syria and western Iraq sent the number of refugees soaring. By August 2014 the number of refugees in Turkey reached an estimate 850,000. Then the CrISIS just exploded in the second half of 2014. Western aid workers were decapitated, a Jordanian pilot was burned to death, and Yazidis were enslaved. Huge numbers of Syrians “loaded up the truck and moved to Turkey-ey.” By early 2015, Turkey had 2.1 million Syrian refugees within its borders. Camps expanded and proliferated.

Then, in late summer 2015, hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees suddenly sought to scale the walls of the European Union (EU). More than 300,000 refugees from Syria entered the EU between January and July 2015. It accelerated from there, with 100,000 refugees entering the EU during July 2015. Now hundreds of thousands are pressing their noses against the glass in Hungary, Croatia, and Slovenia. Media attention has focused on the appalling human suffering in the West.

How did hundreds of thousands of refugees get from camps in southern Turkey to either the Greco-Turkish frontier near Edirne or to the Turkish coast opposite the nearby Greek island of Lesbos? Most of the refugee camps are in Hatay Province in the far south. There is a railroad station in Iskenderun in Hatay province. The line from Iskerderun runs through Adana, Konya, Afyon, and Izmir (Smyrna) to the port of Dikili, on the Aegean. Dikili faces the island of Lesbos, the nearest Greek land. Lesbos has been swamped in refugees crossing from Turkey. How has the Turkish government failed to perceive or resist this huge movement of people? Are the Turks actually trying to organize the movement of refugees from the camps to the coast?

The 100,000 refugees to be taken in by the United States in the next several years seem ridiculous compared to the need. However, the Gulf states have taken in no Syrian refugees. None, nada, zip. They have pitched in a bunch of money to support the refugees. Those sums are piddly compared to what the United States has contributed. The refugee-aid sums provided by Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Qatar amount to 60 percent of what the US alone has contributed. In short, the Sunni Arab states aren’t concerned.

The Syrian refugee migration is best understood as part of the larger civil war in the Muslim world between Sunnis and Shi’ites. The Sunni Turks and the Sunni Saudis want the Alawite (a sect of Shi’ism) government of Bashar al-Assad gone. Shi’ite Iran wants the Assad regime to remain in place. How to get the western powers to intervene more effectively against the Assad regime? How about you cause them a bunch of problems? Hence, the refugee crisis.

Western states are deluged in migrants. These refugees are unwelcome in the West. It would be best if they went home. How to get them to go home? We’ll, no one is going home if the Assad government or ISIS is in a position to do them harm. So, get rid of Assad and ISIS. The Sunni states (Turkey, Saudi Arabia) are muscling the West by indirect means to overthrow the Assad regime. The Syrian refugee crisis is an act of aggression against the West by its nominal allies.


Man Hunters.

Before the Second World War the United States possessed intelligence-gathering organizations that were derisory in comparison to those of the great powers. The War Department gathered information on the military capabilities of foreign states from military attaches; the State Department reported on political and economic developments; both War and State maintained signals intelligence (code-breaking) offices. However, the US possessed no “secret intelligence service” equivalent to the British MI-6 or the action services of other countries. During the Second World War, the US sought to make good this deficiency with the temporary Office of Strategic Services (OSS). After the Second World War, America’s new global role and the Cold War demanded an enhanced intelligence-gathering capability. In 1947, Congress created the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to fill this role. Filled with wartime OSS veterans, the new agency had a predisposition to clandestine action, not just to intelligence gathering. Confronting the brutal Soviet KGB around the globe, CIA played a rough game. Eventually, CIA fell afoul of changed national values. The Church Committee hearings led to restrictions on CIA action like assassinations. From the mid-Seventies onward, CIA concentrated conventional intelligence-gathering and analysis.

Then came 9/11.[1] The scales fell from their eyes, or they had a Road to Damascus experience, or whatever other Biblical reference occurs to you. An executive order from President George W. Bush overturned the limits on action. CIA agents lashed out at Al Qaeda operatives wherever they came within reach. Some were killed, either by a rapidly-expanded paramilitary arm of CIA or by drone strikes. Some were captured and subjected to “enhanced interrogation.” In 2003, the US attacked Iraq, only to see early triumph turn into a gory insurgency that seemed to have no end. Soon, there came a backlash against both big wars and the use of torture.[2] A new consensus emerged: killing terrorists is acceptable, but torturing them is not. Certainly, it is less likely to get people keel-hauled by a Congressional committee. According to Mark Mazzetti, CIA “went on a killing spree.” Drones and commandos struck Islamists[3] in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia. While banning the use of torture, President Barack Obama has continued all the other programs begun by the Bush administration.

Arguably, the results have been as disastrous, if not quite so dramatic, for American intelligence as for the Islamists hit by Hellfire missiles launched from Predator drones. In an Econ 101 analysis, multiple needs compete for finite resources. Resources (money, manpower, attention) spent “man-hunting” can’t be devoted to other needs. Yet the US faces multiple current, latent, and potential threats.

The CIA already suffered from maladaptation between the end of the Cold War and 9/11. Its budget fell as part of the “peace dividend”; spending on new technologies further reduced the resources for human intelligence-gathering and analysis; and its former strengths in Soviet and East European issues could not easily be shifted to new areas. (Pashto and Polish both begin with a P, but there the similarity ends.)

America’s political culture is having a hard time discussing the choice between long-term trends and immediate action. The recent murder of five servicemen by what looks like an Islamist “lone wolf” will only make “man-hunting” seem more vital than ever.

[1] Mark Mazzetti, The Way of the Knife: The CIA, a Secret Army, and a War at the Ends of the Earth (New York: Penguin, 2013).

[2] In 2004, CIA’s Inspector General condemned some of the practices as “unauthorized” and “inhumane.”

[3] Including the occasional American renegade who declined to surrender himself to more formal American justice.


In 1967 Israel lashed out against a gathering flock of vultures (Egypt, Syria, Jordan). In an astonishing triumph, this “Six Day War” put Israel in possession of the Sinai peninsula, the West Bank of the Jordan River, and the Golan Heights. It also put them in possession of a large population of Arabs and Palestinian refugees cast up by the agony of Israel’s initial creation in 1948. The problem became what to do with the conquered lands and people. Israel offered to “trade land for peace” with its neighbors. The neighbors showed little interest. Meanwhile, the Palestinians launched their own war on Israel through terrorism. In 1972, members of the “Black September” group kidnapped eleven Israeli athletes at the Munich Summer Olympics. Most of the captors and all of their captives died in a botched rescue operation by the Germans.

In revenge, Israel launched “Operation Wrath of God.” In theory, the objective was to kill eleven of the “Black September” leaders who were responsible for Munich. The operation went on for years. It killed many more than eleven men. Eventually, the operation wound down.

In 1984, Yuval Aviv, one of the assassination team leaders who then was living in New York and no longer working for Israel’s intelligence agency, became the source for a book about the operation.[1] Soon afterward, HBO brought out a movie based on the book.[2] Then the story languished for almost twenty years.

Then, early in the 21st Century, Steven Spielberg bought the rights to the book and made his own version, “Munich.” Why did Spielberg want to re-make somebody else’s movie? There are a couple of possible answers.

On the one hand, Spielberg has made a bunch of historical movies that can be thought of as grouped in pairs. The pairs deliver different perspectives on the large historical subjects. Thus “The Empire of the Sun” (1987) and “Saving Private Ryan” (1998) consider the legacy of surviving traumatic events in the Second World War; “Amistad” (1997) and “Lincoln” (2012) deal with the fight against slavery, a problem which continues to haunt America; and “Schindler’s List” (1993) and “Munich” (2005) turn on the struggle for survival by Jews in a hostile world. In the case of the latter two movies, “Schindler’s List” made an argument for Israel as a Jewish refuge; “Munich” asked how Israel differed from other states.

On the other hand, maybe the movie isn’t about Israel at all. Maybe it’s about America. At the end of “Munich” the World Trade Center’s “Twin Towers” are visible in the backdrop. On 9/1101 Al Qaeda terrorists attacked sites in Washington and New York, most famously the WTC. The United States responded by invading Afghanistan in an effort to get Al Qaeda’s leader, Osama bin Laden. Missing their punch, the Americans became bogged down in a long struggle that hasn’t yet ended.[3] Then, in 2003, the Americans invaded Iraq on the grounds that the country possessed a program for weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and that contact had been alleged between al Qaeda and Iraq’s dictator, Saddam Hussein. Here the Americans became embroiled in an even worse conflict than in Afghanistan.[4]

Where does vengeance lead? Does it lead to “justice” and “closure”? Does it lead to an open-ended conflict with an ever-rising death toll? Are we captives of our past experiences? Are we even conscious of how our views of the past shape our present actions and our future?

[1] George Jonas, Vengeance: The True Story of an Israeli Counter-Terrorist Team.

[2] “Sword of Gideon” (1986, dir. Michael Anderson). See:

[3] See: “Zero Dark Thirty” (2012, dir. Kathryn Bigelow); “Lone Survivor” (2013, dir. Peter Berg).

[4] See: “Generation Kill” (2008, HBO); “The Hurt Locker” (2008, dir. Kathryn Bigelow); “Green Zone” (2010, dir. Paul Greengrass); “American Sniper” (2014, dir. Clint Eastwood).

What we learned from the report of the 911 Commission XII

On 12 October 2000, an al Qaeda team staged a suicide bombing against the American warship, the USS Cole while it was at anchor in the Yemen port of Aden. The attack killed 17 American sailors.

Although the CIA “described initial Yemeni support after the Cole [bombing] as ‘slow and inadequate,’…the Yemenis provided strong evidence connecting the Cole attack to al Qaeda during the second half of November, identifying individual operatives whom the United States knew were part of al Qaeda. During December the United States was able to corroborate this evidence. But the United States did not have evidence about Bin Laden’s personal involvement in the attacks until Nashiri[1] and Khallad[2] were captured in 2002 and 2003.” (p. 278.)

The Yemenis arrested two of the surviving members of the Cole team; extracted from them the names and descriptions of Nashiri, their immediate commander, and Khallad, the liaison who came from Afghanistan; and suggested to the Americans (correctly) that Khallad was actually Tawfiq bin Attash. (p. 277.) Both Nashiri and Khallad were known to the Americans to have been involved in the 1998 embassy bombings, for which al Qaeda had claimed credit, and to be linked to al Qaeda. (p. 278.) An FBI special agent participating in the investigation recognized the name Khallad as someone described by an al Qaeda source as Bin Laden’s “run boy.” In mid-December 2000 the Americans’ al Qaeda source identified a photograph of Khallad obtained from the Yemenis as Bin Laden’s agent. (pp. 277-278.)

Moreover, the 12 October 2000 “attack on the USS Cole galvanized al Qaeda’s recruitment efforts.” [OBL ordered production of a propaganda video that highlighted the attack on the Cole.] “Al Qaeda’s image was very important to Bin Laden, and the video was widely disseminated… and caused many extremists to travel to Afghanistan for training and jihad. Al Qaeda members considered the video an effective tool in their struggle for pre-eminence among other Islamist and jihadist movements.” (p. 276.) [NB: Al Qaeda appeared to be claiming responsibility for the attack. How could the CIA still waver over identifying OBL as the originator of the attack on the Cole?]

In mid-November 2000 Sandy Berger asked Hugh Shelton to review plans for military action against Bin Laden. On 25 November 2000 Berger and Clarke wrote to President Clinton to inform him that the investigation would soon show that the Cole attack had been launched by a terrorist cell whose leaders belonged to al Qaeda and whose members had trained in al Qaeda facilities; the memo also sketched out a “final ultimatum” to the Taliban being pushed by Clarke. (pp. 280-281.)




[1] Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri (1965- ). Saudi Arabian. One of the “Arab Afghans” who fought the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. Eventually aligned with Osama bin Laden. Captured by the CIA in 2002. Reportedly “waterboarded” during interrogation. Currently being held at Guantanamo.

[2] Walid Muhammad Salih bin Roshayed bin Attash (1979- ).  Yemeni immigrant to Saudi Arabia.  Another “Arab Afghan.”  Became very close to Osam bin Laden.  Captured in 2003.

What we learned from the report of the 911 Commission XI

Post-Crisis Reflection: Agenda for 2000.

In January, February, and March 2000 the NSC and others reviewed what lessons might be learned from the “millennium crisis.” They concluded that any effort at disrupting al Qaeda operations had to be undertaken in a more determined way henceforth and that domestic security had already been penetrated by “sleeper cells.” Action to deal with these problems was approved in a general way. (pp. 262-263.)

Various American delegations (including one by President Clinton which the security-conscious Secret Service loudly opposed) went to Pakistan in January, March, May, June, and September. The trouble is that the US had noting to offer the Pakistanis as a reward for their co-operation: Congressionally-imposed sanctions prevented the government from offering anything of substance [and apparently the Clinton Administration did not want to brave the wrath of Congress by requesting a revision of relations with Pakistan]. (pp. 263-265.)

Richard Clarke seems to have been so focused on al Qaeda that he could not see the need for CIA assets to deal with other forms of terrorism, still less for a robust general intelligence capability. This led to bitter disputes between Clarke and the CIA leaders, who may have played the terrorism card as a budget ploy without fully appreciating how grave the danger faced by America. (pp. 265-266.)

The executive branch didn’t get very far trying to tighten up border security, especially with regard to Canada.

By the end of 1999 or the start of 2000 the leader of the Northern Alliance, Ahmed Shah Massoud, wanted the US to line up as his ally in the struggle to overthrow the Taliban. Both Cofer Black and Richard Clarke wanted to do then what the US did anyway after 9/11. At the minimum, this would allow the CIA to put its agents into Afghanistan on a long-term basis, rather than relying on hearsay from the Northern Alliance and the “tribals.” The Clinton administration declined to forge such an alliance: the Tajik-dominated Northern Alliance represented the minority within Afghanistan and many of its people had very shady pasts. (p. 271.)

Meanwhile, CIA agents in Malaysia took the group of suspects identified by the NSA intercepts under surveillance, but failed to communicate departure information in a timely fashion when some of the men moved on to Bangkok, Thailand. CIA agents in Bangkok not only failed to arrive at the airport in time to tail the arriving suspects, they failed to learn that two of the suspects had left for the United States on 15 January 2000 until March 2000. CIA’s Counterterrorist Center did not inform anyone else–neither the State Department nor the FBI– of the arrival of the two suspects in the United States until January 2001, after the bombing of the U.S.S. Cole. (pp. 261-262.) As a result, the first two members of the 9/11 team arrived in Los Angeles on 15 January 2000, at the height of the “millennium crisis.” Although neither one spoke any English and were Arabs, they failed to attract any recorded attention from Customs.

What We Learned From the Report of the 911 Commission X

In the mid- to late-Eighties, Khadr Abu Hoshar, a Palestinian terrorist resident in Jordan, was recruiting young men who had been through the Afghan training camps. In 1996 Abu Hoshar was imprisoned for a time by the Jordanians. By 1998 he had been released and was back to his old tricks. During 1998 he and a group of 15 fellow terrorists worked up an ambitious plan for attacks. During 1999 he got in contact with some Islamic terrorist jihadis in Afghanistan who had some sort of ties to OBL. They were providing technical advice and training to Abu Hoshar’s group. (pp. 252-253.)

Abu Hoshar’s security practices had not improved during his stretch in a Jordanian prison, however, because the Jordanian intelligence service spiked his phone and kept his whole group under observation. On 30 November 1999 the Jordanians intercepted a conversation between Abu Hoshar and Abu Zubaydah, the Afghan with connections to OBL, which seemed to herald an imminent attack. They rolled up all but one of the group, turned the screws on the prisoners until they got a bunch of intelligence in short order, and told the Americans what was up. (pp. 252-253.)

The CIA situated this report in a larger context during the first few days of December 1999 by reporting the possibility of a planned series of attacks by OBL at the “millennium,” some of which might involve weapons of mass destruction. (pp. 253-254.) Various efforts were made to hinder any such attacks by various means: by diplomacy (the Taliban were threatened, the Paks were cozened); by disruption in cooperation with friendly intelligence services; by loosening the leash on CIA operations. (pp. 254-255.) In December 1999 the leader of the Northern Alliance offered to plaster al Qaeda’s training camp at Derunta with rockets. Again, the CIA thought that this would violate a ban on assassinations, so they waved him off. (p. 270-271.)

Canada was awash in terrorists and aspiring terrorists in the late Nineties. Ahmed Ressam, a Moroccan petty criminal who had managed to find refuge in Canada in 1994, was recruited in 1998 by another jihadi then resident in Canada. Ressam spent part of 1998 training an Afghanistan terrorist camp. Here he joined a group of other Algerian jihadis who had been recruited for anti-American terrorist action. Back in Canada in the first half of 1999, Ressam received assistance from three other Algerians who were hiding out in Canada from French authorities, who wanted to talk to them about some stuff that had happened in France. By December 1999 he was in Vancouver, BC, preparing to enter the United States to attack LAX. (p. 255.)

On 14 December 1999 Ressam behaved oddly when attempting to enter the United States at Port Angeles, Washington, and was arrested. (p. 257.) The Ressam arrest coming on top of the report of the Jordanian plot caused great alarm in Washington. The FBI started tapping numerous telephones under FISA warrants. Richard Clarke’s office warned that “Foreign terrorist sleeper cells are present in the US and attacks in the US are likely.” Clarke also asked Berger rhetorically “Is there a threat to civilian aircraft?” (pp. 258-259.) In late December 1999 the US received a report from a foreign intelligence service that OBL planned to bomb several transatlantic flights. (p. 259.)

What We Learned form the Report of the 9/11 Commission VI.

“The modest national effort exerted to contain Serbia and its depredations in the Balkans between 1995 and 1999, for example, was orders of magnitude larger than that devoted to al Qaeda.” (p. 487.) Neither the American public nor American leaders seemed to even notice terrorism as a problem in the post-Cold War environment.


Crisis: August 1998.

Immediately after the embassy bombings CIA Director George Tenet knew that there would be a big gathering of terrorist leaders at Khowst in Afghanistan on 20 August 1998, and CentCOM commander Tony Zinni had his cruise missile plan already to go. The responsible decision-makers talked over the issues until 20 May and sent the Vice-Chairman of the JCS to warn the Pakistanis that the cruise missiles flying through their air space were not an Indian attack. Nobody wanted a nuclear war on the sub-continent as an unintended by-product of the strike at Bin Laden, but this probably constituted a serious breach of security. The missiles missed Bin Laden by a few hours and some people think that he was warned off by Pakistan’s intelligence service. (pp. 169-171.)

Clarke wanted the cruise missiles strikes of 20 August 1998 to be the opening act for continuous efforts to kill Bin Laden. It was not to be. (pp. 175-176.)

Although JCS Chairman Hugh Shelton ordered CENTCOM to plan for additional measures, he “did not recommend any of them.” “Shelton felt that the August 1998 attacks had been a waste of good ordnance and thereafter consistently opposed firing expensive Tomahawk missiles merely at ‘jungle gym’ terrorist training infrastructure. In this view, he had complete support from Defense Secretary William Cohen. Shelton was prepared to plan other options, but he was also prepared to make perfectly clear his own strong doubts about the wisdom of any military action that risked U.S. lives unless the intelligence was ‘actionable.’”(pp. 502, 503.)

CENTCOM commander Tony Zinni, who actually had to come up with a possible scheme, believed that a long-term development of relationships with neighboring countries made the most sense. Covert action of any kind would require some kind of local base. Zinni got the feeling that Washington was picky about doing business with dictators merely because they could help out the United States. (p. 197.)

Already haunted by memories of “Desert One” and “Black Hawk Down,” decision-makers probably became even more cautious about using force to solve the Bin Laden problem in the wake of the failed cruise missile strikes of 20 August 1998. (pp. 172-173.)

In addition to missing Bin Laden, there were serious downsides to this attack: international opinion heaped abuse on the US for being “bomb-happy”; the Republicans ridiculed Clinton for “pinpricks.” (pp. 172-173.)

Soon afterward, American diplomatic and military power was being applied in the Balkans against Serbia (October 1998-March 1999) and in the Middle East against Iraq (December 1998). This distracted most of the key people from problem of terrorism.

At the same time it is important to note that people working for Allen Holmes, the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Low-Intensity Conflict, produced a paper calling on the Defense Department to assume the lead in the global fight against terrorism. (pp. 176-177.) This paper did not get very far up the chain of approval during the Clinton Administration, but it may have lain dormant until Rumsfeld came to the Pentagon.