My Weekly Reader 30 May 2017.

Ali Soufan was born in Lebanon in 1971, but ended up living in the United States and became an American citizen.[1]  “Education’s the thing, don’t you know.”[2]  In 1995 he got a BA in Political Science from Mansfield University.[3]  Later on he got an MA in International Relations from Vanillanova.  Then he went into the EffaBeeEye.

No chasing bank-robbers or goombas for him.  The harps had those jobs sewn up.[4]  He spoke Arabic and the Bureau only had eight Arabic speakers, so he went into counter-terrorism.  In 1999 he went to Jordan to liase with the Jordanian intelligence service, which had uncovered leads to what would be called the “Millennium bomb plot.”  Here began another theme in his career.  He found a box of files in the CIA station, allegedly ignored by the over-worked agents, containing maps of the targets.  The CIA seemed more vexed than grateful.  In 2000 he went to Yemen as part of the team investigating the bombing of the USS “Cole.”  Here he made important discoveries.  He went back to Yemen after 9/11 to pursue leads.  Here he figured out that the CIA had held back information from the FBI that might have allowed him to connect the “Cole” attack with the 9/11 plot.[5]  The CIA seemed more vexed than grateful.  Then he interrogated captured Al Qaeda terrorists.  Subsequently, some of his subjects were transferred to CIA control and were subjected to enhanced interrogation techniques.[6]

By 2005 Soufan had become fed-up or burned-out.  He resigned from the Bureau to start a consultancy.  In 2011 he published The Black Banners: The Inside Story of 9/11 and the War Against al-Qaeda.[7]  Here he tracked the campaign against Al Qaeda from 9/11 to the killing of Osama bin Laden.  Now Soufan has published Anatomy of Terror: From the Death of Bin Laden to the Rise of the Islamic State (2017).[8]  The American invasion of Iraq (2003) triggered a disaster.  Partisan observer—Soufan included–put too much emphasis on the botched occupation.  Iraq was a social IED waiting to be tripped.  The invasion itself lit the fuse.

Even before OBL died, Al Qaeda had transformed into something else, something worse.  It had become Zarqawi’s Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia.  The remnants of that group fell back to Syria and became the Islamic State (ISIS).  More importantly (unless you’re stuck inside the Caliphate), ISIS called for the “lone wolf” attacks that have wreaked havoc in Europe and the United States.  Boko Haram (Nigeria), Al Shabab (Somalia), Jumatul Mujahedeen (Bangladesh), and Abu Sayaf (Philippines) all align themselves with the ideology of Al Qaeda.  We live with the results.

[1] I conjecture that his parents fled the awful Lebanese civil war of 1975-1990.  See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lebanese_Civil_War  So, that’s one anecdotal argument against President Trump’s “Muslim ban.”  The recent suicide bombing in Manchester, England, offers an equally compelling anecdotal argument on the other side.  So, we probably shouldn’t rely upon anecdotal evidence.  “Well, d’uh,”–my sons.

[2] I think that’s from one volume of the trilogy U.S.A. by John Dos Passos, but I can’t find the exact reference.

[3] Mansfield is a former teachers college in the middle of nowhere in north-central Pennsylvania.   He got his BA when he was 24, so he lost some time somewhere doing something.

[4] See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Whitey_Bulger

[5][5] Before people start jumping all over the CIA, read the Report of the 9/11 Commission.  Not just the executive summary, but the whole thing.  Then look at the list of Commission members and run down their career tracks.

[6] Soufan subsequently made public comments on the results obtained by the different approaches.  The CIA seemed more vexed than grateful.

[7] In Western culture, black flags usually denote pirates.  Until the 18th Century, captured pirates rarely got a trial.  You just hanged them at the yard-arm or threw them overboard if there were some sharks handy.  This is a plea for cultural sensitivity on the part of radical Islamists.  Falls under the heading of “enlightened self-interest.”

[8] At least he didn’t call it Al Qaeda: Covenant or Al Qaeda: Dead Men Tell No Tales.

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United States of Jihad.

Peter Bergen (1962- ) is an American, but he was raised in London and got his university education at Oxford with an MA in History. When he graduated, the Cold War was in flower, so, in 1983, he went to Pakistan to make a documentary about refugees fleeing the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The film, “Refugees of Faith,” saw the light of day on British TV. This helped him land a job with ABC News (1985-1990). Then he moved to CNN (1991-1998). Here he won the Overseas Press Club Edward R. Murrow award for best foreign affairs documentary for the program “Kingdom of Cocaine” (1994); and produced Osama bin Laden’s first television interview, in which he declared war on the United States to a Western audience.

Since then, Bergen has bounced back and forth between journalism and teaching gigs at Johns Hopkins, Harvard, and lesser universities. In the gaps, he wrote Holy War, Inc. (2001); The Osama bin Laden I Know (2006); The Longest War: The Enduring Conflict between America and Al-Qaeda (2011); and Manhunt: The Ten Year Search for Bin Laden, from 9/11 to Abbottabad (2012). Now he has written a new book, based on his study of more than 300 cases of “home-grown” American militants.[1] What did he find?

Bergen organized his inquiry around a series of simple and direct questions.

First, what’s a “jihadist”? A jihadist is someone who embraces the idea of creating a conservative Sunni Muslim (Salafist) version of a “caliphate” that runs from Morocco to Indonesia. Thus, essentially it is a war for control of the “Dar al Islam,” rather than a war against the “Dar al Harb.” Why then terrorist attacks in the West? Because, the United States and other countries are seen as propping-up the existing order in the Muslim world.

Second, why do some Americans become jihadists? The social profile of American jihadists is puzzling. Most are well-educated, many have wives and children, and some are from middle or upper class backgrounds, rather than all of them being the “losers” often portrayed in the media. However, conservative Islam does not accept a distinction between church and state. So, to have become a Salafist for religious reasons can easily turn one toward political activism.

Third, how does the government seek to counter them? Here Bergen draws a distinction between earlier “leader-led” jihadists who were inspired and launched from abroad, and more recent “leaderless” or lone-wolf jihadists.

It is easier—although not easy—to disrupt terrorist attacks that begin abroad. Broadly, the attackers need visas and airplane tickets. This creates barriers to success. The State Department or the airline security screening might catch them before they board. More likely, there are flight attendants who didn’t sign up to get blown to shreds over the Atlantic by some psychotic misogynist, Thank You Very Much.

It’s more difficult to prevent attacks by domestic “lone wolves.” Many of them are “remotely-inspired” through the Internet.[2] Islamist web-sites have followed the same steep upward curve as have every other form of e-commerce since the 1990s. There were a dozen terrorist-affiliated web-sites in 1990; in 2006, there were more than 4,000; today, who knows? One of them is “Inspire,” started in 2010 by Samir Khan. It urges aspiring jihadists to launch attacks in their own country in order to short-circuit surveillance of people going abroad. Multi-lingualism—but especially the spread of English as the world’s second language—facilitates communication across national boundaries. Cosmopolitanism becomes its own enemy.

Fourth, how has terrorism changed American society? In a sense, this question is beyond Bergen’s ken—or his deadline. However, we can take as an indication his reliance on sources in the EffaBeEye and the National Counterterrorism Center, while critics point out his lack of consideration of the National Security Agency, the Department of Homeland Security, and the role of local police departments. In short, 9/11 spawned the growth a huge and intrusive national security bureaucracy.

[1] Peter Bergen, United States of Jihad: Investigating America’s Homegrown Terrorists (New York: Crown, 2016).

[2] Anwar al Awlaki was in touch with Major Nidal Malik Hassan, who murdered 13 fellow soldiers at Fort Hood.

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.

Good enough for government work.

What follows is the sort of quibbling over details that appeals only to scholars. However, historians believe that human affairs are “contingent.” That is, even if humans are storm-tossed in some vast sea of historical processes, the actions that individuals take or do not take always have consequences.

Commenting on the troubles in Yemen and Libya, Professor Daniel Benjamin (US State Department counter-terrorism co-ordinator, 2009-2012, and now a professor at Dartmouth) said that “The forces that drove the Arab Spring [of 2011] were of such enormous dimensions that it’s unrealistic to think any president or any group of leaders could steer these events.”[1] It is possible to take a different view.

For one thing, the “forces that drove the Arab Spring” have been totally mastered. Protests in Morocco, Algeria, Jordan, Oman, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Djibouti, and Somalia all soon ended after largely cosmetic concessions by the authorities.   Something harsher was required in in Egypt and Syria. Under pressure from the crowds in a few urban areas and from the United States, the Egyptian military dictatorship bent but did not break. Now it has reasserted its power, using the threat of Islamism as its justification. Seeing what was happening in Egypt, the far more ruthless Assad government in Syria took a strong line with the urban malcontents.   They malcontents are mostly in refugee camps at the moment. What the Syrians were left with was an uprising among conservative Sunni Muslims who have been joined by a flood of Islamist foreign fighters, just as the insurgency in Iraq attracted hordes of Islamist jihadis. What does Islamism have to do with the American liberal vision of the “Arab Spring”?[2]

For another thing, the United States played an active role in creating the chaos that now engulfs both Libya and Yemen.   The Obama Administration exceeded its mandate from the UN when it expanded its involvement in the Libyan rebellion from protecting civilian lives to toppling the Gaddafi regime through air-power.[3] Then the U.S. walked away when the overthrow of Gaddafi opened a Pandora’s box of troubles. Much more reasonably, the U.S. also supported the initiative by the Saudi-dominated Gulf Co-operation Council to push “president” Ali Abdullah Saleh out of office. Here alone the Americans had a clear goal: to preserve the ability to hunt Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula jihadis.

As the NYT headlined the story in which Daniel Benjamin was quoted, “Killing Terrorists May Be Best U.S. Can Hope For.” That’s a modest goal. Not transformative of the entire Middle East. Not a lasting solution to the problem of radical Islam. Not the sort of thing to win someone a Nobel Peace Prize. But manageable within the limits of our power.

[1] Mark Mazzetti and Scott Shane, “Killing Terrorists May Be Best U.S. Can Hope For,” NYT, 17 June 2015.

[2] See: “Arab Youth,” September 2014.

[3] It also helped poison Russian-American relations. See: “Obama versus Putin,” September 2014.

What We Learned from the Report of the 911 Commission XXIX.

The tricky issue of Personality and Culture.

The foreign intelligence community did a pretty good job of centralizing information and analysis on threats to American interests abroad and of coordinating a response. However, there was no centralization of information and analysis on domestic threats, no co-ordination of response, and no adequate communication between foreign and domestic intelligence. No one seems to have realized that the domestic agencies had no formal plans or procedures for how to respond to terrorism; no one told the agencies to develop such plans and procedures. (pp. 378-379.) There was no central co-ordination of intelligence analysis or threat assessment. “The mosaic of threat intelligence came from the [CIA’s] Counterterrorist Center, which collected only abroad. Its reports were not supplemented by reports from the FBI.” (p. 294.)

“Beneath the acknowledgement that Bin Laden and al Qaeda presented serious dangers, there was uncertainty among senior officials about whether this was just a new and especially venomous version of the ordinary terrorist threat America had lived with for decades, or was radically new, posing a threat beyond any yet experienced.” (p. 491.) Richard Clarke failed in repeated efforts to get the Clinton administration to recognize al Qaeda as a first order threat, and he was still trying to get a decision on this from the new Bush administration in early September 2001. However, no one—even Richard Clarke—ever forced an open debate on the issue. (p. 491.)

NB: A point worth considering. The above analyses fairly frequently point out the deficiencies of the FBI, the CIA, and the State Department because all three of them privilege the local commanders (so to speak) over central authority. Local offices tend to have autonomy about what they do and how they do it within the broad outlines of general policy defined from the center. However, at the start of Chapter Five, “Al Qaeda Aims at the American Homeland,” there appears the following remark. “Bin Laden and his chief of operations,…, occupied undisputed leadership positions atop al Qaeda’s organizational structure. Within this structure, al Qaeda’s worldwide terrorist operations relied heavily upon the ideas and work of enterprising and strong-willed field commanders who enjoyed considerable autonomy.” (p. 210.) How could the same system work FOR al Qaeda and AGAINST the United States?

President Clinton apparently grew impatient with the inability of the United States government to make Bin Laden just go away. President Clinton once remarked to JCS Chairman (and Green Beret and former commander of all Special Forces) Hugh Shelton that “You know, it would scare the shit out of al-Qaeda if suddenly a bunch of black ninjas rappelled out of helicopters into the middle of their camp.” Shelton subsequently declared that he didn’t remember Clinton making the statement and former Secretary of Defense William Cohen said that he thought the President might have been making a hypothetical statement, however Clinton has repeatedly stated that he said this. (p. 272.) NB: It’s like listening to my 13 year-old—when he was younger.

“According to Clarke, [National Security Adviser Sandy] Berger upbraided DCI [George] Tenet so sharply after the Cole attack—repeatedly demanding to know why the United States had to put up with such attacks—that Tenet walked out of a meeting of the principals.” (p. 278.) In Summer 2001 Tenet engaged in a lot of hand wringing about ordering a lethal attack on Bin Laden. “Are America’s leaders comfortable with the CIA doing this, going outside of normal military command and control? Charlie Allen told us that when these questions were discussed at the CIA, he and the Agency’s executive director, A.B. “Buzzy” Krongard, had said that either one of them would be happy to pull the trigger, but Tenet was appalled, telling them that they had no authority to do it, nor did he.” (reported, p. 305.) NB: What would Dulles, or Helms, or Colby have said?

What We Learned from the Report of the 911 Commission XXVIII.

So, there were flaws in how the government professionals responded to the danger posed by al Qaeda. How did elected officials do?

 

The Carter administration began the practice of having counter-terrorism co-ordinated by an NSC staff member in the White House. A civil servant, Richard Clarke, took over the function of co-ordinating policies on trans-national crime, narcotics, and terrorism (“drugs and thugs”) in the Reagan administration after Olly North’s “arms for hostages enterprise ran aground. The Clinton administration kept Clarke on. Beginning in 1995 the Clinton administration took a considerable interest in resisting terrorism: the anti-terrorism budget of the FBI was substantially increased and the budgets of the CIA ceased to decline; the US leaned on foreign countries to stop providing shelter to terrorists; and Richard Clarke was promoted to be “national coordinator for security, infrastructure protection, and counterterrorism.” (pp. 144-150.) In theory, Clarke was supposed to report through the Deputies Committee; in practice Clarke reported directly to a restricted sub-group of the Principals. (p. 288.)

However, Osama Bin Laden declared war on the United States in February 1998, but neither Bill Clinton nor George W. Bush went to Congress for a corresponding declaration of war against Osama Bin Laden. This limited the possibilities for action against Bin Laden. (NB: On the other hand, how do you declare war against one guy living in a cave in the most backward place on earth?)

 

In the wake of the Watergate scandals, Congress created House and Senate select committees to over-see the work of the intelligence agencies (and to keep them from making a mess on the carpet). However, the Armed Services committees have real authority over the intelligence agencies, so the intelligence budgets rise and fall with the over-all levels of defense spending.

The grab for a “peace dividend” in the 1990s by cutting defense budgets also drove down intelligence budgets; Congress wasn’t interested in terrorism as a problem; and Congress has become progressively less capable of exercising over-sight of the executive branch in recent decades. Instead of carefully reviewing the implementation of laws and programs, Congressional committees have shifted to “a focus on personal investigations, possible scandals, and issues designed to generate media attention.” (Quoted, p. 155.) They certainly did nothing to push the executive branch to reorganize itself to deal with the post-Cold War world. (pp. 150-157.) NB: The general coarsening of American public life showed up here as well.

 

What We Learned from the Report of the 911 Commission XXVII.

The Federal Aviation Administration thought that security was not much of an issue and that a bombing was more likely than a hijacking, let alone a suicide-hijacking. Even so, FAA security was “seriously flawed prior to 9/11.” (p. 123.) Its intelligence assessment was focused overseas and in any event was ignored by the FAA leadership. No one in the other sections of the government (CIA, FBI, State Department) ever bothered to pass the multiple thousands of names on government terrorist “watch lists” to the FAA for inclusion on its passenger pre-screening lists. Many tests of passenger boarding security indicated that it could be easily breached, but no one ever took the matter seriously because effective measures would make air travel more cumbersome and even more of a pain in a neck that it was already. There were only 33 air marshals, and they guarded overseas flights.

Air carriers—or the security firms to which they contracted out the work—simply ignored requirements for continuous random searches of carry-on luggage. Previous experience with hijackings led to a common prescribed strategy of cooperation and conciliation. (pp. 121-126.)

The State Department had dominated the making and implementation of American foreign policy until the end of the Eisenhower administration in 1960; the Kennedy-Johnson administrations shifted leadership to the Defense Department, which took up the task with a will; the Nixon administration then concentrated leadership in the National Security advisor.   Budgets followed function, reducing the means the diplomats possessed to match their declining importance. (pp. 137-138.)

In the Sixties and Seventies terrorism wasn’t very important, so it was left to the State Department. Thereafter, terrorism policy became a tin can kicked from one place to another: in the Carter administration National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski seized control of the issue during the Iranian hostage crisis in 1979-1981; in the Regan administration Secretary of State George Schultz adopted an aggressive stance on the matter in the Eighties, but found himself blocked by Caspar Weinberger’s resistance to military solutions; the Clinton State Department was largely indifferent to the issue relative to more pressing tasks. (pp. 138-140.)

Since the Eighties the military services have emphasized “jointness” (or you don’t get promoted). This has tended to homogenize the military advice provided to political leaders and it definitely shifted the balance of power within the services to favor the regional commands over the central authority of the Joint Chiefs. (pp. 140-141.) [NB: You will notice the parallel to the autonomy of CIA station chiefs and FBI SAICs.]

Once the Israelis whacked the Palestinian hijackers at Entebbe (1976) and the West Germans did the same at Mogadishu (1977), the Army created Delta Force. Delta Force suffered a humiliating catastrophe during the attempt to rescue the Iranian hostages (1980), then Hezbollah truck bombed the Marines in Beirut; then Army Special Forces suffered a perceived defeat in Mogadishu (1993). The American military took from these reverses a belief that special operations required “maximum preparation, overwhelming force, and a well-defined mission.” (p. 142.) Conversely, air strikes against Libya (1986) and against Iraq (1993) in response to acts of state-sponsored terrorism seemed to the American military to define an effective use of conventional military power against unconventional enemies. (pp. 143-144.)

Conversely, foreign terrorists may have taken the lesson that the Americans could be forced into retreat by relatively minor casualties suffered in spectacular acts of terrorism, and would respond to attack by blowing up a building, then going away. (pp. 143-144.)