The Count 1.

As best I understand it, before ISIS launched its Summer 2014 attack into western Iraq, it engaged in a long campaign of bombings in the heartland of Iraq. These spread terror and distrust of the government. As best I understand it, the defeat of Boko Haram on the battlefield led to a campaign of bombings in Nigeria and Cameroon. These spurred mass flight and a economic paralysis. So, bombings can be harbingers of victory or of defeat. It’s too bad that they aren’t more clear in their meanings. Still, I thought that I would watch this “variable”—as social scientist call it. See if anything becomes clear to me.

Hilla, Iraq is about 60 miles south of Baghdad on the Tigris River. It’s near the site of ancient Babylon, a vital center of Mesopotamian civilization that is unfamiliar to generations of American college students. From about 1000 AD on it was a sleepy farm town and administrative center. In the early 20th Century, an interesting episode in environmental history led to the construction of a dam to insure the proper irrigation of local farmlands.[1]

Saddam Hussein was hard on both the ancient and modern faces of Hilla. He had workmen knock down a bunch of the Babylonian ruins in order to build one of his palaces. After the war in Kuwait in 1991, a rebellion broke out around Hilla. Government troops killed several thousand people and buried them in a mass grave.

On 1 April 2003, there was a good-sized fight at Hilla between American armored forces and an infantry battalion of the Republican Guard. Then the insurgency began. One feature of that insurgency appeared in the efforts by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi to foment a Sunni-Shi’ite civil war. Hilla is a predominantly Shi’ite city, so it came in for its share of trouble. In February 2005, a suicide bombing killed 125 people waiting for treatment outside a medical clinic; in May 2005, two suicide bombers killed 31 and wounded 108 Shia police; in September 2005, a car bomb killed 10 and wounded 30; in January 2007, suicide bombers killed 73 and wounded 160; in February 2007, a pair of suicide bombers killed 45 and wounded 150; in March 2007, two car bombs killed 114 and wounded 147; in May 2010, a multiple car bomb attacks killed 45 and wounded 145. Then things calmed down as the “Sunni Awakening” and the “Surge:” took hold.

At a security check-point near Hilla, on 6 March 2016, a gasoline tanker waited for approval to move ahead in the middle of a crowd of vehicles and pedestrians.[2] When guards waved at the driver to halt, the truck lurched ahead and then exploded. At least 33 people were killed outright and 115 were wounded. (Almost 30 of the wounded subsequently died.) A witness said that the explosion 350 feet away from the blast felt like “an earthquake.” The witness is 54 years old. That means that he was born in 1962. He has lived through the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988); the American air campaign associated with the 1991 war over Kuwait; the American invasion (2003) and all that followed from it (2003-2007).

The key point here is that there are a lot of people outside “the West” who have heard explosions before and know what to do. “I immediately lay on the ground and saw flames all over the checkpoint.” After a while he got up to go check on friends in shops closer to the check-point. “One of them was beheaded and others were killed.” A 32 year-old school teacher who had been waiting to pass the checkpoint to get to work described it as “a very hard scene.”

What is it like to know what a suicide bombing sounds like? What about knowing that the bombings come in pairs, usually the second happening after people rush from cover to help the victims of the first bombing?

[1] See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hindiya_Barrage

[2] Omar al-Jawoshy, “Truck Bomb Kills at Least 33 At Checkpoint in Central Iraq,” NYT, 7 March 2016.

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Explaining Bernie Sanders—and Perhaps Donald Trump.

Two-thirds of Americans believe that there is at least one presidential candidate who would make a good president in the current crop. Most (75 percent) of Republicans believe that Donald Trump could win a general election—even though only about half of Republicans want him as their candidate. Virtually all (83 percent) Democrats believed that Hillary Clinton could win election–before Bernie Sanders ran even with Clinton in Iowa and then torched her in New Hampshire. Among the less-favored candidates are Ted Cruz (60 percent of Republican); Marco Rubio (55 percent of Republicans); and Bernie Sanders (54 percent of Democrats).[1]

In theory, Hillary Clinton wipes the floor with the leading Republican candidates when it comes to dealing with terrorism. Americans preferred her to Donald Trump (50-42), Marco Rubio (47-43), and even Jeb Bush (46-43).[2] On the other hand, that means that 43 percent of Americans want anyone-but-Hillary, no matter how clownish or inexperienced, to deal with terrorism. Is it the same for other issues? If it is, then she has remarkably high negatives for someone running for president. Still, so did Richard Nixon. Oh. Wait.

On the other hand, Independents fail to share this enthusiasm. Only 58 percent of them believe that there is anyone who would make a good president. (If Independents sit out in large numbers, then that might leave the November 2016 election in the hands of party regulars.)

Why are Americans so rabid for anti-establishment candidates?

In 2003, the net worth of the average American was $87,992. In 2013, the net worth of the average American was $56,335 in 2013. That amounts to a 36 percent fall in net worth, before allowing for nugatory inflation.[3] On the other hand (2003-2014), the net worth of the top five percent of earners increased by 14 percent over the same period.[4]

About one-third of Americans have no savings accounts at all.[5] Twenty percent of people aged 55 to 64 have no retirement savings. Almost half (45 percent) of people surveyed expected to live on whatever Social Security paid them.[6] Almost half (44 percent) of Americans don’t have an “emergency fund” to cover basic expenses for three months. Almost half (43 percent) of American workers would be willing to take a pay cut IF their employer would increase the contribution to the 401k retirement savings plan.[7] In August 2014, about 77 million Americans had a debt “in collection.” The median amount owed is $1,350.[8]   That’s not a lot of money. Unless you don’t have it.

If the “Great Recession” had not occurred, then college graduates entering the job market might have expected salaries 19 percent higher. The “normal” penalty for graduating in a recession is about 10 percent.[9] The recent unpleasantness has been unusually unpleasant. Also, state aid to public colleges has fallen during the recession. That means that students have been graduating with much larger debt loads than previously. They have to service those debts out of smaller starting salaries.

People hiring employees tend to favor those who are narcissistic over the humble.[10] Apparently, they are right to do so. “Narcissistic” CEOs make an average of $512 million more over their careers than do those who are not.[11] Will it be the same for voters? Hard to think of anyone more narcissistic than the Clintons. Unless it is Donald Trump.

[1] “Poll Watch,” The Week, 5 February 2016, p. 19.

[2] “Poll Watch,” The Week, 4 December 2015, p. 19.

[3] “Noted,” The Week, 8 August 2014. P. 14.

[4] “Noted,” The Week, 8 August 2014. P. 14.

[5] “The bottom line,” The Week, 15 February 2013, p. 32.

[6] “Noted,” The Week, 22 August 2014, p. 16.

[7] “The bottom line,” The Week, 22 August, 2014, p. 32.

[8] “The bottom line.” The Week, 15 August, 2014, p. 31.

[9] “The bottom line,” The Week, 1 August 2014, p. 31.

[10] “The bottom line,” The Week, 27 June 2014, p. 32.

[11] “The bottom line,” The Week, 1 August 2014, p. 31.

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.

Annals of Counter Terrorism 1.

Emanuel L. Lutchman lived in Rochester, New York.[1] He was born about 1990. His mother died soon afterward and he was raised by his grand-mother in Florida. He was diagnosed with mental problems early on. When he was 13 he returned to Rochester to live with his mother’s side of the family. He never graduated from high school. By 2006, at the latest, he was having “contact” with the police. In part, this stemmed from his unsteady mental health. In part, this stemmed from crimes. He did a five year bit for robbery. He became a Muslim while in prison. Prison doctors also loaded him up on meds for his mental problems. At some point he got married and the couple had a son, but Lutchman found the responsibilities of marriage and fatherhood a burden. He had a felony conviction, but no high school diploma. Who would hire him? After he got out of prison, he began to follow radical Islamist web-sites and complained on Facebook about the injustices of “the system.” He soon came to the attention of the authorities, who sprang into action. His grandmother said that he was visited by FBI agents in early Fall 2015. They asked him to work as an informant. He declined.[2]

Then he contacted a member of the Islamic State abroad. The government became aware of this and sicked on him several informants. The informants soon won Lutchman’s confidence. He told them of his desire to stage an attack in the near future. The informants told Lutchman that they would help him. His first thought was to imitate the Tsarnaev brothers by building a pressure-cooker bomb. However, he didn’t have enough money to buy a pressure cooker.[3] He thought about a stabbing attack in a restaurant on New Year’s Eve. His wife had a knife and he could get a ski-mask for $5. So, this was more in his price-range.

When Lutchman pledged his allegiance to ISIS, the internet contact urged him to kill many “kuffar” (Unbelievers). Lutchman then made an audio recording of himself pledging allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the self-proclaimed leader of the self-proclaimed Islamic State. He sent the recording to one of the informants. The informant gave the recording to his government superiors. Soon afterward, the superiors told the informant to pull out of the operation. This left Lutchman down-cast. He texted the informant that he “was thinking about stopping the operation.” The other informant quickly bolstered Lutchman’s resolve. He also took him to a Rochester Walmart. They scored ski masks, knives, a machete, and some other stuff. The bill came to $40. Lutchman didn’t have any money, so the informer paid the bill. The FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force then arrested Lutchman the next day.

William J. Hochul, Jr., the United States Attorney in Buffalo declared that “this New Year’s Eve prosecution underscores the threat of ISIL even in upstate New York, but demonstrates our determination to immediately stop anyone who would cause harm in its name.”

The ISIS member with whom Lutchman was in contact has not been publicly identified.

[1] Benjamin Mueller, “Rochester Man Charged With Planning a Machete Attack on Behalf of ISIS,” NYT, 1 January 2016.

[2] See: https://www.google.com/search?q=Walmart+pressure+cookers+price&ie=utf-8&oe=utf-8#q=Walmart+pressure+cookers+price&tbm=shop

[3] They range in price between $20 and $120. See: https://www.google.com/search?q=Walmart+pressure+cookers+price&ie=utf-8&oe=utf-8#q=Walmart+pressure+cookers+price&tbm=shop

Some context for the shift in the American attitude toward Muslims.

Recently, commentators have contrasted the public discourse at the time of 9/11 with the anti-Muslim discourse today.  How can we explain this shift?  There are a couple of things to think about.

First, 9/11 produced national unity.  Events over the fourteen years since then have produced deep polarization.

The Presidential elections in 2004, 2008, and 2012 included vicious debates over national security and the Middle East, as well as many other things.  In light of his subsequent wholesale adoption of Bush Administration policies, Barack Obama’s first Inaugural Address(with its blistering critique of Obama’s predecessor, who was sitting on the platform behind the President-Elect) looks particularly gauche.  On the other hand, the right-wing denunciations of Obama as a secret Muslim and a traitor are vastly worse.  They remind one of previous conspiracy theories (like the de-monetization of silver–dear to the hearts of Democrats as the “Crime of 1873”–or that FDR knew in advance about Pearly Harbor–dear to the hearts of Republicans for several decades–to take but two examples).

Then the illegal immigrants issue actually does bear on this.  The southern border of the US turns out to be incredibly porous.  Inflows of people from Mexico dropped after the beginning of the “Great Recession.”  No one thinks that this is because the border has been tightened up in a significant way.  If Hispanic-Mexicans wanted to enter the US, then they could.  But this is also true of Middle Eastern terrorists.

Second, after 9/11 it was possible to argue that Osama Bin Laden and Al-Qaeda were a numerically insignificant element within the Muslim world.  President George W. Bush emphatically made this case.  Now, years of terrorism and conflict with Muslims may have produced a much deeper fear of Muslims as a group.

The Iraq insurgency revealed that lots of Muslims didn’t welcome Americans with bouquets of flowers.  Instead, we had the appalling reports of IEDs and traumatic brain injuries.

The Iraqi civil war between Shi’ites and Sunnis had a lot of horrible things happen.  (See Dexter Filkins’ observation that you could always tell a Sunni killed by Shi’ites because a power-drill had been used.)

Zarkawi.  Lots of suicide bombers who came from all over the Muslim world.  There were bombings of NGOs like the UN Mission in Baghdad that killed Sergio de Mello.

Then there is the basic weaseliness of Pakistan.  Whose side is our “ally” actually on?  OK, Americans got sold a bill-of-goods on this.  All the worse then that it is apparent that Pakistan is an Islamist state armed with nuclear weapons and cruise missiles.

Then, there were terrorist bombings in Madrid (2003) and London (2004).  The basic lesson was that Islamist terrorists could reach out to Western capitals.  The “Charlie Hebdo” massacre (January 2015) and the recent attacks in Paris (November 2015) added more examples.  Most of these terrorists were “home-grown” radicals, instead of emissaries from some other place.

“Well, at least they can’t get to the United States.”  Except that a truck bombing of Times Square in New York City failed for technical reasons rather than from having been prevented by national security organs.  The “shoe bomber” and the “underwear bomber” who tried to bring down airliners failed because passengers and air crews stopped them, not because the government prevented them from boarding the air planes.

Then there is ISIS.  On the one hand, there is the savagery of its methods.  Captives get beheaded (without recourse to sending to France for a headsman as happened with Ann Boleyn) or burned to death in a cage.  On the other hand, there are the tens of thousands of young Muslim men–and woman, if today’s New York Times is to be believed–who flock to Syria and Iraq to enlist in the jihadist cause.  They come from Muslim countries in North Africa and the Middle East mostly, but also from Western Europe and the United States.  They are all evidently bent out of shape with Western countries for reasons that we do not well understand.

People seem happy to spin this state of mind as either “just being realistic” or as “more xenophobia.”  Thinking about it as a historian, rather than as a polemicist, it seems to me that we should all try to reduce the recriminations.  We have hit a lot of emotional chuck-holes. We haven’t fully absorbed or understood them. That is probably not going to produce a good policy outcome.

The Ascent.

Ancient cities all around the eastern Mediterranean were built on an “acropolis,” a piece of easily defended high ground. There is one in Jerusalem, called the Temple Mount. According to Jewish tradition, this is where God made Adam and where Abraham came close to sacrificing his son Isaac. Regardless of whether that is true, it is the site on which King Solomon built the First Temple (c. 1000 BC) and it later served as the site for the Second Temple (516 BC). The Western Wall is all that remains of the Second Temple.[1] So, it is a holy place for Jews. Muslims believe that the Prophet Muhammad ascended into Heaven from the Temple Mount to receive Islam’s “Five Pillars” from Allah (621 AD). So it is a holy place for Muslims. Both the Al-Aqsa mosque and the Dome of the Rock were later built to commemorate Muhammad’s journey.[2]

Possession is nine-tenths of the law, as someone said. From 1187 to 1967, Muslims ruled the Old City of Jerusalem. Jews were barred from entering the Temple Mount compound. In 1967, Israel seized the Old City during the Six Days War. A new regime allowed Jews to enter the Temple Mount compound, but not to pray there.

This arrangement didn’t please Muslims, but it drove some Jews crazy. They have demanded that Jews be allowed to pray on the Temple Mount. After an Israeli-American murdered two Muslim in the Dome of the Rock in 1982, tensions rose. Sometimes Jews on the Temple Mount were attacked by rock-throwers. Eventually, in 2010, Ariel Sharon, then the leader of the opposition in Israel’s parliament (Knesset) visited the Temple Mount to visibly assert the right of Jews to be on the Temple Mount. This led to rioting by Palestinians that initiated what is called the “Second Intifada (Uprising).”

Then skip ahead to late 2014. More and more Israeli settlers have moved into East Jerusalem over the years, stoking fears that Arabs would be pushed out entirely. Without success, Jews had continued to lobby for the right to pray on the Temple Mount. One of the most vocal of these was shot by a Palestinian who was, in turn, killed by the Israeli police. Palestinians again rioted and the police pushed back hard. This bitter quarrel then became entangled in the equally bitter quarrel between Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. After Israel closed off access to the Temple Mount, Abbas called it “a declaration of war.” Rumors soon spread—almost certainly originating with Abbas—that Israel planned to take control of the site and to allow Jews to pray there. Netanyahu has repeatedly denied this, to no avail.

A whole series of knife attacks by Palestinians against Israelis have occurred. By early November 2015, eight Israelis were dead.

The dispute over the Temple Mount provides an excuse to fight rather than a cause to fight. Why are young Palestinians disposed to fight right now? One answer could be that yet another generation of Palestinians has grown up with the failed “peace process” that never yields a self-governing Palestinian state. The First Intifada (1987-1993) and the Second Intifada (2000-2005) were expressions of this frustration. Now a Third Intifada is beginning.

Another answer could be that the same forces that have sent so many young Muslim men to fight for ISIS and other Islamist groups are now gaining a hold on young Palestinians. This is by far the more ominous explanation. So far, the Palestinians only have knives. If ISIS can find a way to arm the rebels with guns and explosives, Israel will face a daunting threat.   A big “If.”

[1] The Second Temple was destroyed by the Romans in 79 AD.

[2] “The struggle over the Temple Mount,” The Week, 20 November 2015, p. 11.

Terrorism 1.

How long will the current war against radical Islamism continue? Can we win? How will we know when/if we have won? These questions don’t get much discussion, so preoccupied are we with each surprising outbreak of insurgency and atrocity. Probably, government officials in democracies are not eager to tell the public that this could go on for a lot longer than the next election cycle. Back in 2009, two books offered counsel that still deserves attention.[1]

David Kilcullen saw a core struggle between radical Islam, on the one hand, and the Unbelievers in the West and Incorrect Believers in many Muslim countries, on the other hand. Swirling around both parties to the core struggle were many local movements that associate themselves in name with radical Islam (Al Qaeda then, ISIS now, something else in the future). The strength and the staying power of the local insurgencies vary greatly. Kilcullen thought that the Western countries had a pretty good sense of how to wage the core struggle against radical Islam, even if they botched the execution from time to time. Where they came up short is in managing the peripheral small wars. Indeed, having the local insurgencies pop-up seemingly out of nowhere is one of the things disturbing the public in the West. More recently, the “lone wolf” attacks in Britain, Canada, France, and the United States add to this unease.

According to Michael Burleigh, history tells us that we can and–almost certainly will—win. Terrorism has come and gone in waves: in the 19th Century, they were Irish Fenians, Russian revolutionaries, and European anarchists; in the later 20th Century, they were malcontent leftists in advanced countries (Weathermen, Red Brigades, Red Army Faction, IRA, ETA) and Third World rebels (PLO, South Africa); today they are radical Islamists (Chechens, Al Qaeda, ISIS). Wherever they go, the terrorists have left a trail of dead, maimed, and traumatized victims. In most cases, however, they had little in the way of concrete political achievements to show for their work.

How to defeat these threats? Focusing on the peripheral wars and insurgencies, Kilcullen recommends policies that protect local communities in remote areas from becoming penetrated by radical movements. This, rather than heavy hammer blows from the military, is most likely to stop an insurgency in its tracks. Problems abound with this solution. A lot of the world’s people live in small communities remote from central government authority. Who can tell where the next danger will arise? Is every Middlesex village and farm to be garrisoned “just in case”? Then, most armies train for conventional war against foreign states or for repression of dissent in unjust societies, not for policing or community protection.

Here, Michael Burleigh has some equally useful suggestions. Focusing on the core struggle, Burleigh argues that experience shows that winning the ideological debate through public diplomacy; promoting economic development to drain the swamp of poverty that contributes to radicalization; and developing intelligence capabilities before relying on brute force offers the best path forward. Burleigh’s strategy provides the framework for Kilcullen’s tactics. However, long debates in many languages on social media, nudging countries toward social justice and economic modernization, nurturing good governance in countries suspicious of Western meddling, and building language skills and cultural competence in intelligence agencies is going to take time. We’re in for a long war. People need to know this harsh truth.

[1] David Kilcullen, The Accidental Guerrilla: Fighting Small Wars in the Midst of a Big One (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009); Michael Burleigh, Blood and Rage: A Cultural History of Terrorism (New York: HarperCollins, 2009). .