Category Archives: Terrorism

Of Drones & Drugs

So I lobbed two posts on Twitter yesterday morning, pertaining first to drones and then to drugs, that probably weren’t a good fit for the 140-character format. In short, I implied that using UAVs for counternarcotics implied the GWOT had entered a “doing whatever the fuck we want” phase, and that the DEA was doing a better job collecting HUMINT than some other alphabet agencies. I figured I’d try to draw out the logic (or lack thereof) underpinning them.

As Spencer Ackerman rightly pointed out, UAVs are in no way new to the drug war. The Department of Homeland Security employs Global Hawks, Predators and Reapers over our land borders, and the Navy is slowly deploying Fire Scouts for drug interdiction at sea. Closer to shore, the Coast Guard and Customs & Border Protection jointly operate a Reaper variant called the MQ-9 Guardian, and testing out the smaller Scan Eagle. Police in Miami (a city boasting at least a passing acquaintance with drug trafficking) continue to field-test Honeywell’s RQ-16 T-Hawk drone.

What we have not seen- yet- is the employment of armed UAS against drug traffickers, solely vis-à-vis their being drug traffickers. But I think that line got a little blurrier last week, when the U.S Treasury Department designated Taliban leader and Helmand province “shadow governor” Mullah Naim Barich as a drug kingpin. Not that it’s not already a fuzzy distinction to begin with. We’re spending billions both on a “war on drugs” and a “war on terror,” although both activities are necessarily a criminal matter as well.

Looking at the post-9/11 Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) and NSPD-9, the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, and our covert operations in Yemen, Pakistan, Somalia and other garden spots, it’s fair to say we came down pretty hard on the “war” side of the argument with terrorism. So designating a major Taliban fighter as a drug kingpin seems, at first blush, to be icing on the cake; the thought process being that while we earnestly endeavor to shuffle him off the mortal coil, we might also be able to slow down his IRGC-assisted drug pipeline into Iran. 

The Taliban aren’t the only terror organization linked with drug trafficking. Hezbollah has worked closely to launder money and move narcotics with criminal organizations in Colombia and Venezuela, not to mention the notorious Zetas in Mexico. Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) even got caught trying to move cocaine through the Sahara into western Europe. I’m not really surprising anybody by saying that when you hunt terrorists, you stand a good chance of disrupting narcotics trafficking.

But since we’re now hunting Taliban who wear the dual hats of drug kingpin and military/intelligence target,  I think the day may not be far off when civilian law enforcement agencies like the DEA find themselves consistently closer to the kill/capture missions traditionally associated with JSOC and drones. It’d already be tough to tell a DEA Foreign-deployed Assistance & Support Team (FAST) agent from a JSOC operator. So I think we will be entering the “doing whatever the fuck we want” phase when the blurry line between terrorists and drug traffickers is used to blur the authorities by which we pursue them. Specifically, it would be tempting to play up a drug lord’s terrorist bonafides as a way of justifying a Title 50 Griffin through his car door, instead of risking lives on a mission to haul his ass in for a costly and uncertain federal trial.

The DEA says that’s not the case, and insisted to TIME last year that their priority is drugs, not terrorists. But as the legacy GWOT footprint lightens, it’s the DEA who’s out building FOBs and shooting people in unpleasant corners of the world. Its Special Operations Division quietly runs a Terrorism Investigations Unit, or the 960a Group, dedicated to chasing narcoterrorist bad guys across the globe. And sure, it’s still primarily a domestic law enforcement agency, but the DEA, through its Office of National Security Intelligence, is a also a full-fledged member of the IC, right alongside Air Force Intelligence and the CIA.

My point in all this is that by also designating a Taliban chief a “drug kingpin,” the already-close nexus between overseas American civilian law enforcement and some particularly pointy military/IC/contractor entities just got a little closer. And- as seen in that TIME story above- there’s some real doubts about the efficacy of prosecuting some of these international bad guys. So over the next year or so, I would not be surprised to see more mentions of DEA in the same breath as some of the more imaginative interpretations of “traditional military activity,” or flat-out Title 50 hijinks.*

*This will all be highly classified, but we’ll hear about a DEA success story, which will inevitably piss off someone at the CIA, who will leak everything to David Ignatius.


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Should the Fort Hood Attack be Classified as an Act of Terrorism?

The question of whether the Fort Hood attack carried out by Nidal Hasan should be classified as an act of terrorism is in the news. As ABC News notes, survivors of the attack have “released a new video … calling on the government to classify the November 2009 shooting as a terrorist attack rather than ‘workplace violence,’ a change that would make them eligible for specific combat-related benefits.”

The coverage of this issue has been a bit confused, because there are actually three different questions embedded within it, and media coverage has conflated them. The three questions are: 1) should the attack be classified as “an international terrorist attack” for the purposes of satisfying Purple Heart criteria?, 2) should terrorism-related charges have been brought against Hasan?, and 3) was the Pentagon’s Fort Hood review too narrowly focused on the incident as “workplace violence” rather than ideologically-motivated terrorism?

Should the attack be classified as “an international terrorist attack” for the purposes of satisfying Purple Heart criteria? The bottom line is that it doesn’t qualify as one under existing criteria. As ABC News explains, a Purple Heart may be awarded to service members who are killed or wounded “in action against an enemy of the United States; as the result of an act of any hostile foreign force; or as the result of an international terrorist attack against the United States, provided the Secretary of the military department concerned recognizes the attack as an international terrorist attack” (emphasis added). An international terrorist attack, in turn, is defined as “premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by sub-national groups or clandestine agents” when the act involves “citizens or the territory of more than one country.”

The Fort Hood attack really did not involve the citizens or territory of more than one country. Those who want it classified as an international terrorist attack will argue that Anwar al Awlaki’s involvement makes the attack international. Leaving aside the objection that Awlaki was also American (he was, in fact, a dual U.S.-Yemeni citizen), the problem with this argument is that Awlaki did not direct the Fort Hood attack. Indeed, the correspondence between Hasan and Awlaki could be classified as a case of unrequited love on Hasan’s part, as Awlaki barely gave Hasan the time of day.

One may argue that the criteria should be changed to allow the award of Purple Hearts to Hasan’s victims. I am not going to evaluate that argument here — but regardless of whether it is right to change the criteria to allow Hasan’s victims to be awarded Purple Hearts, current criteria do not support the award without such a change.

Should terrorism-related charges have been brought against Hasan? As Pentagon spokesman George Little noted in an email to the Washington Times, Hasan was charged with 13 counts of premeditated murder and 32 counts of attempted murder. I should note that in my initial version of this post, since edited, I erroneously sympathized with the idea that terrorism charges should have been brought in the first instance, because I was looking at applicable federal law. However, as Louis Klarevas flagged on Twitter, the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) does not contain a separate charge for terrorism offenses. Indeed, in pre-trial coverage, Time explained that UCMJ would make for a simpler trial for this exact reason:

While the debate swirls about Hasan’s motives, connections and communications, opting for a military trial avoids the legal mire of treason or terrorism charges. Military prosecutors will have a Dragnet view of the case — “just the facts” as Jack Webb, star of the television cop classic was fond of saying. Why he did it is not essential, [Scott] Silliman says, although the defense may seek to cloud the picture with digressions into motivation. Prosecutors will focus on what the accused intended to do and how he allegedly did it: when he bought the gun, what he said to neighbors and how he acted on the morning of the crime.

In August, I did field research in Little Rock, Arkansas, on the Carlos Bledsoe case (Bledsoe is the man who carried out a shooting in 2009 at Little Rock’s military recruitment station, killing one soldier and injuring another). I spoke to the prosecutor in that case, Larry Jegley, about why the fact that Bledsoe’s motivations made the shooting an act of terrorism was treated as incidental. His response illustrated why prosecutors may opt for a simpler case in chief in instances such as this:

We have anywhere from 40 to 100 killings a year in my jurisdiction, and we try a lot of homicides. Of course, this thing got a lot more attention because the victims were in uniform, and were at an installation of the U.S. military. Our attitude about it early on was that we’ll let our cops do their thing, because unfortunately they’ve got a lot of experience. We’ll figure the rest of it out when we get there. Whether it would be tried as terrorism didn’t really enter into our mind. If you read the statutes, the only unusual factor at work in this case was the fact that one element of the capital murder statute involves someone in the military: Arkansas Criminal Code § 5-10-101(a)(3) applies to premeditated and deliberated killing for the purpose of causing the death of military personnel. That is what made this capital murder.

In other words, to Jegley it was simpler to treat the Bledsoe case as one of the too-frequent murders his office has to deal with every year: he had the evidence that he needed to prosecute the case as a capital murder, and playing up the ideological dimension would, in his view, only have complicated matters. Jegley and his team looked at Bledsoe’s motivations (rooted in his jihadist beliefs) to see if anything jumped out at them as an aggravating factor during the sentencing phase, but they found nothing.

Similarly, UCMJ does not contain a terrorism charge. This is not to say that Hasan’s attack couldn’t garner terrorism-related charges under federal law; but charging Hasan with a terrorism offense under UCMJ is a non-starter because UCMJ does not include terrorism charges.

Was the Pentagon’s Fort Hood review too narrowly focused on the incident as “workplace violence” rather than ideologically-motivated terrorism? In this area, I agree with the criticisms of the Pentagon review. Hasan’s attack was not a simple case of workplace violence, and it is impossible to understand the incident without taking a hard look at Hasan’s motivations, and the ideology that drove the attack. In this regard, the U.S. Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs report, A Ticking Time Bomb: Counterterrorism Lessons from the U.S. Government’s Failure toPrevent the Fort Hood Attack, was far more rigorous and thorough.

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Reflections on Byman’s “Breaking the Bonds”

The incisive Daniel Byman recently published a new study with the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center for Middle East Policy entitled Breaking the Bonds between al Qaeda and Its Affiliate Organizations. This is a critical topic for the contemporary study of al Qaeda driven and inspired terrorism, in large part because how we judge al Qaeda’s strength in late 2012 comes down to the question of how to assess gains made by the affiliates against losses inflicted on the core. Debates on this issue are often crude, with strong assertions made about affiliates’ connection, or lack thereof, to al Qaeda’s core without factual or theoretical substantiation. It seems that a significant amount (but by no means all) of the commentary about the relationship between core and affiliates is outcome-determined, based on whether the commentator in question wants to find a strong or weak al Qaeda.

Byman’s study can significantly sharpen this debate by providing a sound framework for such discussions. In it, he elucidates various degrees of connection between affiliates and the core; motivations for linkage from both the affiliates’ and core’s perspective; the reasons that other salafi jihadi groups have chosen not to affiliate; and possible strains in the affiliate-core relationship. Byman concludes with policy prescriptions about how the U.S. can magnify tensions between al Qaeda’s core and affiliates, and thus minimize cooperation between them. A careful reading of Byman’s report makes clear that it doesn’t try to answer the question of how tightly bound al Qaeda’s core and affiliates truly are today — which is almost certainly a wise decision, given our limited visibility into that issue based on available open source information. He does, however, provide a great deal of sound historical information that can improve our consideration of the core-affiliate relationship.

Byman provides seven different motivations that might cause a regional jihadi group to join up with al Qaeda, mustering historical examples of how each of them operated in the past. One reason is failure, when a salafi jihadi group’s inability to make progress in its fight against a local regime produces an internal crisis. Second, there are monetary considerations, with both al Qaeda’s core and also certain powerful affiliates (such as al Qaeda in Iraq during its heyday) being able to influence other groups due to their prosperity, at least by jihadi standards. Third, a safe haven from which to operate has proven to be a strong motivator for linkage in the past. Fourth, Byman notes that training, recruiting, publicity, and military experience have all been assets of the al Qaeda core; it has been able to bolster regional groups’ capabilities in all of these ways. Fifth, there is the issue of a common defense. Byman writes, “A number of individuals or cohorts within groups that loosely cooperated or operated in proximity to al Qaeda have chosen to affiliate as a result of being subjected to counterterrorism measures.” Sixth, there have been branding benefits to affiliates, in terms of recruits and funders. Earlier I mentioned monetary considerations; yet it is unlikely that al Qaeda’s currently diminished core will be able to channel money to regional affiliates as it once did. However, despite the core’s relative weakness, al Qaeda’s brand may help these groups to raise money from al Qaeda’s donor base (such as certain individuals and foundations in the Gulf Arab states). Seventh, there is the importance of personal networks. “Once a connection among jihadists has been forged,” Byman writes, “it is very challenging for an outside party to break it, so much that because of the prevalence and breadth of personal networks, it is difficult to truly destroy jihadist organizations.”

Byman also outlines five reasons why al Qaeda’s core may want to join with new affiliates. One reason is mission fulfillment, seeking affiliates in areas where Islam is perceived to be under attack, and in turn pushing the affiliates to adopt more global agendas. Second, relevance: al Qaeda has been on the defensive ever since the 9/11 attacks unleashed U.S. and international counterterrorism efforts against the organization. Byman notes that “some of the most notorious ‘al Qaeda’ attacks since 9/11 have in fact been carried out by affiliate groups.” Third, al Qaeda’s reach will grow due to its relationship with new affiliates. Fourth, affiliates can offer logistical advantages to al Qaeda, including “access to their media resources, recruiters, and other core parts of their organization.” Fifth, al Qaeda has often been able to gain new experienced members through its relationship with affiliates.

Yet despite the advantages that both regional jihadi organizations and also al Qaeda’s core can gain through affiliation, many groups have decided not to affiliate with al Qaeda when the opportunity presented itself. One reason is ideological differences, something illustrated by the decision of Egypt’s Gama’a al Islamiyya (GI) not to affiliate with al Qaeda due to the latter’s prioritization of “jihad over other forms of Islamicization.” One GI leader, Najih Ibrahim, told the Arabic-language London daily Al Sharq Al Awsat that GI decided not to join al Qaeda “because their goal is jihad, whereas our goal is Islam.” Other reasons that Byman provides include the question of takfir (declaring other Muslims to have apostatized themselves from Islam), the targeting of civilians, local agendas that predominate over the global, the fear of taking on new enemies, limited contact or interaction between the prospective affiliate and the core, and personal rivalries. In addition to this, Byman also outlines strains that may exist in the core-affiliate relationship even where both entities have chosen to take on an explicit affiliation.

Overall, Byman’s study makes a tremendous contribution to our thinking about the relationship between al Qaeda’s core and its affiliates, and analysts trying to assess this relationship would do well to use it as a basis for thinking about this question. Byman concludes by illustrating the complexity of acting (or not) on a developing core-affiliate relationship in a way that is often not reflected in popular debates about the subject:

There are no simple choices when confronting al Qaeda affiliates. On the one hand, ignoring groups until they become affiliates, or ignoring affiliates until they strike at U.S. targets, risks leaving U.S. intelligence and security officials in a defensive and reactive mode and vulnerable to a surprise attack. On the other hand, too aggressive an approach can create a self-fulfilling prophecy, strengthening bonds between al Qaeda and other jihadist groups by validating the al Qaeda narrative and leading groups to cooperate for self-defense and organizational advancement.

For any study of this kind, I will have quibbles, find evidentiary points with which I disagree, and the like. Byman’s study is no exception. Yet the overall contribution that Byman’s study makes on this important issue renders my quibbles and minor disagreements almost beside the point. This is one of the five most relevant studies about terrorism published this year, and I encourage all readers interested in the issue to give it a careful read.

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Nidal Hasan’s “Fairly Benign” Correspondence with Anwar al Awlaki

When Nidal Hasan carried out his notorious massacre at Fort Hood in November 2009, it was quickly revealed that he had previously exchanged between ten and twenty emails with the extremist imam Anwar al Awlaki (the exact number was eighteen). Thereafter, a Joint Terrorism Task Force had taken “a look” at Hasan, but according to officials, they “concluded his communications with Awlaki were ‘fairly benign.’” This conclusion seemed dubious when it was first made public. But following the release of all eighteen emails that comprised their exchange (which can be found here, at J.M. Berger’s excellent website), the wrongheadedness of the conclusion is clear.

This blog entry provides an exposition of the email exchange, and outlines why initial claims about the benign nature of the exchange are so implausible. The entry is in part inspired by Charles Cameron’s inquiry into the exchange. On his blog, Cameron looks into the first of Hasan’s emails to Awlaki, and writes that he was struck by Hasan’s claim that “he was dealing with soldier patients returning from the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan who had doubts as to the religious legitimacy of killing fellow-Muslims in those wars.” Cameron notes that, “on the face of it, that’s a topic a psychiatrist who didn’t feel himself expert in his religion … might wish to consult with clergy about.” Cameron concedes that he hasn’t been following news reports closely–so rather than making an argument that the emails were benign, he is simply making a query about the subject, stating that he’d “welcome a pointer or pointers, and closure.”

What Was Known About Anwar al Awlaki?

Critical to determining whether this email exchange was benign, or tipped Hasan’s hand about what was to come, is understanding what was known about Anwar al Awlaki back in 2008-09 when the exchange occurred. Cameron notes that there was ambiguity about whether Awlaki was an extremist after he left his job as the imam of the Falls Church, Va. mosque–and in fact an Associated Press report notes that most of the worshipers “did not find him to be overtly political or radical.”

This might be a compelling data point if analysts knew nothing about Awlaki between the time he left the Falls Church mosque and 2008-09. But, in fact, he was a known quantity by then; it is not a coincidence that the JTTF took an immediate interest in Hasan upon seeing that he had sent emails to Awlaki. An extremely useful report in terms of understanding why Awlaki raised red flags even then was published by the U.S. Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, A Ticking Time Bomb: Counterterrorism Lessons from the U.S. Government’s Failure to Prevent the Fort Hood Attack, from which we draw the data points in this section of our entry.

Essentially, by 2008-09, Anwar al Awlaki was known as a “radicalizer” within the U.S. intelligence community, had given public addresses agitating against the U.S., and had come up in multiple criminal cases as a key influence in homegrown terrorists’ radicalization. Specifically, in 2008 DHS undersecretary for intelligence and analysis Charlie Allen had already identified Awlaki as an “example of al Qaeda reach into the Homeland.” Awlaki, Allen said, “targets U.S. Muslims with radical online lectures encouraging terrorist attacks from his new home in Yemen.”

And this material was effective at actually motivating people to violence. The Senate report details in a number of bullet points how this effectiveness could be seen in a succession of court cases that all occurred prior to Hasan’s attack:

  • Over four years prior to the Fort Hood attack, Mahmud Brent. a man who admitted to attending a Lashkar-e-Taiba training camp in Pakistan was found with “audiotapes of lectures by Anwar al Awlaki.”
  • Nearly three years prior to the Fort Hood attack, six individuals planned to attack Fort Dix, New Jersey, and to kill “as many soldiers as possible.” The FBI arrested the group in May 2007. According to expert testimony at the trial, al Awlaki’s lecture explaining Constants on the Path to Jihad was a cornerstone of their radicalization to violent Islamist extremism.
  • Nearly a year and a half prior to the Fort Hood attack, U.S. citizen Barry Bujol was allegedly seeking al Awlaki’s advice and counsel on how to join a terrorist organization. In June 2009, the FBI arrested him for attempting to provide material support to AQAP. Bujol had emailed al Awlaki requesting assistance on “jihad” and wanting to help the “mujahideen,” and in response al Awlaki sent his 44 Ways of Supporting Jihad. Bujol believed that al Awlaki’s email would attest to his bona fides to AQAP.
  • A year and three months prior to the Fort Hood attack, Hysen Sherifi, one of seven men in North Carolina charged in a plot to attack the Marine base in Quantico, Virginia, allegedly told an informant that he was going “to send [the informant] more books on Islam and jihad and that one of the books was ’44 Ways to Help the Mujahidin’ by Anwar Awlaki .”
  • Four months prior to the Fort Hood attack, in a case investigated by the FBI’s Washington Field Office, U.S. citizen Zachary Chesser reached out to al Awlaki through al Awlaki’s Web site for spiritual guidance and solicited al Awlaki’s recommendations on his desire to join al-Shabaab in Somalia. In charging documents against Chesser, the FBI noted that “various Islamic terrorists were in contact with Awlaki before engaging in terrorist acts.” Chesser explained to investigators that “Awlaki inspires people to pursue jihad.” He watched online videos and listened to digitized lectures “almost obsessively” including those by his favorite spiritual leader, al Awlaki. Al Awlaki responded to two of Chesser’s messages.

In each of these criminal cases, Awlaki’s lectures played an important role in inspiring acts of violence against the United States. Was Hasan, like the individuals mentioned above, seeking guidance and validation from Awlaki as he considered whether to undertake violence? Or was the correspondence ambiguous at best? Let’s turn to the Hasan/Awlaki correspondence to explore this question. (Note that Hasan’s spelling and grammar can be described as idiosyncratic. The original spelling/grammar has been retained.)

Nidal Hasan’s Exchange with Anwar al Awlaki

First email to Awlaki, Dec. 17, 2008. Nidal Hasan’s first email to Anwar al Awlaki alarmingly invoked Hasan Akbar, a Muslim soldier who was convicted of the double-murder of two officers in a grenade attack in Kuwait in 2003 (also wounding 14 other soldiers). Akbar has the distinction of being “the first U.S. service member prosecuted on charges of murdering fellow troops in wartime since the Vietnam War era.” Hasan wrote to Awlaki that “there are many soldiers in the us armed forces that have converted to Islam while in the service…. Some appear to have internal conflicts and have even killed or tried to kill other us soldiers in the name of Islam i.e. Hasan Akbar, etc. Others feel that there is no conflict. Previous Fatwas seem vague and not very definitive.”

As Cameron notes, one might be inclined to see this as a psychiatrist reaching out to an Islamic scholar because he was confronted with fellow Muslim soldiers who felt conflicted about America’s wars. Or was Awlaki instead referring to “some soldiers” who appeared to have internal conflicts as a stand-in for his own internal conflicts? In pondering this question, it is worth noting an oddity in the question Hasan ultimately posed to Awlaki. This is the entirety of what he asked: “Can you make some general comments about Muslims in the u.s. military. Would you consider someone like Hasan Akbar or other soldiers that have committed such acts with the goal of helping Muslims/Islam (Lets just assume this for now) fighting Jihad and if they did die would you consider them shaheeds.” (The Arabic word shahid can be translated as either witness or martyr; here he was asking if Akbar would have been a martyr if he had died during his attack.) Hasan went on to say that though these questions may be difficult, “you seem to be one of the only ones that has lived in the u.s. has a good understadning of the the Qur’an and Sunna and is not afraid of being direct.”

So Hasan affirmed that Awlaki was one of the only scholars who, understanding the Qur’an and sunna well, was “not afraid of being direct.” But more significant, his question to Awlaki didn’t actually deal with the valid question that he raised, the feeling of inner conflict between one’s faith and serving in the U.S. military. Instead, he leaped right to a question that should rightly trigger alarm: if Hasan Akbar died while attacking fellow soldiers, would he be a martyr? Hasan skipped over questions about whether serving in the U.S. military is religiously acceptable; whether going to war against fellow Muslims is a violation of religious principles. Instead, in addressing “some” soldiers who felt conflicted about fighting fellow Muslims, Hasan right away asked whether it was permissible to kill other U.S. soldiers in the way Hasan Akbar.

Fourth email to Awlaki [no date provided]. In a political diatribe, Hasan made clear that rather than feeling “internally conflicted,” his allegiances were not with the United States. He wrote that “the Western world makes clear that it does not want Islamic rule to prevail. Again- they make that quite clear; not only in their own lands but in the lands of the Muslims as witnessed by their mighty plotting around the world.”

Fifth and sixth emails to Awlaki, Feb. 16, 2009. In the first email sent this day, Hasan wrote: “Please have alternative to donate to your web site. For example, checks/money orders may be sent to This can assure privacy for some who are concerned.” His second email was largely the same: “Please have alternative methods to donate to your web site. For example, checks/money orders may be sent to This can assure privacy for some who are concerned and maximize the amount given.” At this point, Hasan had not only expressed his great admiration for Awlaki, but expressed the desire to donate money to him as well. Further, he wanted to find a secure way to send Awlaki money, thus indicating that he understood that there were perceived problems with doing so.

Seventh email to Awlaki, Feb. 16, 2009. Hasan wrote that an advertisement would be posted in the March 2009 issue of the publication Muslim Link advertising a $5,000 scholarship prize for the best essay entitled “Why is Anwar Al Awlaki a great activist and leader.” He asked Awlaki to personally award the prize. This reference to a scholarship prize prompted the only two emails in this exchange that Awlaki would send to Hasan (the other sixteen were from Hasan to Awlaki). In the first response email, Awlaki noted that he doesn’t travel, “so I wont be able to physically award the prize.”

Hasan sent a follow-up email on Feb. 19 explaining that the essay contest would not in fact occur. He wrote that “obstacles have been placed by Muslims in the communtity that are petrified by potential repercussions.” Among other things, this indicates that Hasan is well aware of the controversies that have surrounded Awlaki. Hasan in fact castigated those Muslims who would not stand with Awlaki:

Allah willing everything will work out in such a way that pleases Allah (SWT). You have a very huge following but even among those there seems to be a large majority that are paralyzed by fear of losing some aspect of dunya. They would prefer to keep their admiration for you in their hearts. In any case, my personal experiences have taught me that if you align yourself to close to Allah (SWT) you will likely not have many friends but pleny of hardships. Even the Prophets use to say when is the help of Allah (SWT) coming.

The Muslims who found Awlaki too controversial are portrayed as not only cowardly but also betrayers of their own faith, desiring the life of this world (dunya) over God’s pleasures. Not ending there, Hasan goes on to offer Awlaki any kind of assistance he may need, stating that “I believe my biggest strength is my financial situation.” He wrote that he was looking forward (inshallah; God willing) to seeing Awlaki in Jannah (heaven), where they will see each other “sipping on non-intoxicating wine in reclined thrones and in absolute and unending happiness.”

If there were any doubt at this point about Hasan’s feelings toward Awlaki, he even asked Awlaki to help him to find a wife. In fact, his expressions of love for Awlaki would continue to grow during the course of the correspondence.

Fourteenth email to Awlaki, May 25, 2009. Hasan sent an email to Awlaki with encouraging words for him, and noting a Qur’anic verse that made him think of Awlaki. This is precisely how Hasan rendered the Qur’anic verse, including the internal bracketed material:

O you who believe! Whoever from among you turns back from his religion (Islaam), Allah will bring a people ([like Anwar Al Awalaki] whom He will love and they will love Him; humble towards the believers, stern towards the disbelievers, fighting in the Way of [Allaah], and never fear of the blame of the blamers. That is the Grace of [Allaah] which He bestows on whom He wills. And [Allaah]  is AllSufficient for His creatures’ needs, All-Knower.

Note the bracketed material in this Qur’anic verse: Hasan has gone so far as to insert Awlaki’s name into a Qur’anic verse. Muslims believe that the Qur’an is the literal word of God. Adding words to it in brackets is not blasphemous: for example, the controversial al Hilali and Khan translation of the Qur’an has engendered criticism because of bracketed material that purports to aid the reader’s interpretation of various verses, but in fact guides the reader in a militant direction. But, though not blasphemous, it is an extraordinary step for Hasan to actually place Awlaki’s name inside a Qur’anic verse.

Fifteenth email to Awlaki, May 31, 2009. This is the most striking email of all. In it, Hasan first justifies suicide attacks at some length, and then queries Awlaki about the permissibility of collateral damage while in the process of killing enemy soldiers. He began by describing “a speaker” who defended the suicide portion of suicide bombings as religiously permissible:

[The speaker] contends that suicide is permissible in certain cases. He defines suicide as one who purposely takes his own life but insists that the important issue is your intention. For example, he reported a recent incident were an American Soldier jumped on a grenade that was thrown at a group of soldiers. In doing so he saved 7 soldiers but killed himself. He consciously made a decision to kill himself but his intention was to save his comrades and indeed he was successful. So, he says this proves that suicide is permissible in this example because he is a hero. Then he compares this to a soldier who sneaks into an enemy camp during dinner and detonates his suicide vest to prevent an attack that is know to be planned the following day. The suicide bombers intention is to kill numerous soldliers to prevent the attack to save his fellow people the following day. He is successfull. His intention was to save his people/fellow soldiers and the stategy was to sacrifice his life.

Hasan wrote that this logic made sense to him. But what he wanted to know from Awlaki is whether killing innocents in the process of killing enemy soldiers is permissible: “If the Qur’an it states to fight your enemies as they fight you but don’t transgress. So, I would assume that suicide bomber whose aim is to kill enemy soldiers or their helpers but also kill innocents in the process is acceptable. Furthermore, if enemy soldiers are using other tactics that are unethical/unconscionable than those same tactics may be used.”

In retrospect, this appears to be a query related to the attack that Hasan would carry out at Fort Hood later in the year. But even if the specifics of the coming attack were not foreseeable, this email raises a number of questions, particularly in light of Hasan’s stated view that the West was at war with Islam–and thus the West is likely cast in the role of the “enemy soldiers.” First, why is a U.S. army officer emailing Awlaki to express his belief in the permissibility of suicide bombings? Second, why is he asking a man like Awlaki if collateral damage is acceptable in the process of carrying out a suicide attack? Third, he began this correspondence with reference to Hasan Akbar, and whether Akbar might have been considered a shahid had he died in the course of his attack. Does this latest inquiry take on new meaning when related to Hasan’s first email?


The initial defense of Hasan’s emails as “fairly benign” is simply not defensible. The only explanation for why officials might reach that conclusion is that they simply did not know what they were looking at.

To review, Hasan repeatedly expressed what can only be described as a school-girl crush on Awlaki, who was known as a radicalizer in actual cases where Americans were driven to violence. Hasan even expressed a desire to send Awlaki money, tried to set up a $5,000 essay contest on the topic of “Why is Anwar Al Awlaki a great activist and leader,” and inserted Awlaki’s name in a laudatory manner into a Qur’anic verse. Hasan clearly expressed the view that Western forces were at war with Islam. And he sought Awlaki’s counsel on such questions as whether suicide bombings were acceptable, whether collateral damage was permissible in the course of a suicide attack, and–in his very first email–whether Hasan Akbar, who murdered fellow U.S. soldiers, might have been considered a martyr.

We are not claiming that understanding this correspondence better would have stopped the Fort Hood attack; counterfactuals are always a difficult game, and they risk overestimating what could have been done to prevent a tragedy. But at the very least, these emails should have triggered additional interest rather than being seen as “benign.” They were not benign; and Hasan was not asking the kind of questions that might naturally come up in the course of his professional duties. It is by understanding past mistakes that we can do better in the future, and writing off the Hasan/Awlaki correspondence as innocuous should be seen as a clear and unequivocal error now that the actual emails have been made public.

UPDATE, AUG. 5, 2012: In light of the above, it is worth noting what officials had said about Nidal Hasan back in 2009, shortly after the Fort Hood shootings. From the New York Daily News (with emphases added):

Agents pulled Hasan’s military records, but the FBI in a statement said his contact with Awlaki was “consistent with research” he was doing “as a psychiatrist at the Walter Reed Medical Center.”

“There was no indication that Maj. Hasan was planning an attack anywhere at all,” a senior investigator said last night.

The FBI shared the info with Army brass, who not only refused to boot Hasan from the service but promoted him – even after colleagues were stunned by his views on the wars abroad.

Needless to say, there are multiple problems with all the statements we have highlighted above.

UPDATE, AUG. 6, 2012: J.M. Berger weighs in with a couple of important points about the context of the Hasan/Awlaki email correspondence. We agree with both of his major points: our purpose was to undertake a content analysis of the correspondence rather than to claim that better understanding the red flags would have saved lives at Fort Hood. Often the ease with which terrorist events could have been averted is massively overestimated in the public sphere.

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Current U.S. Policies Toward Nigeria’s Boko Haram

Boko Haram is a violent Islamist group operating in Nigeria that has been seen as an increasing concern by the United States. For example, in March 2012 General Carter Ham (the commander of AFRICOM) testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee that “the potential for support and strengthening of ties between these three groups (al Shabaab, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and Boko Haram) with al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and al Qaeda senior leaders in Pakistan, is of particular concern and requires continued monitoring.” Similarly, a report by the House Subcommittee on Counterterrorism and Intelligence entitled Boko Haram: Emerging Threat to the U.S. Homeland advised that the U.S. should “not underestimate Boko Haram’s intent and capability to attack the U.S. homeland.” Other observers see Boko Haram’s militant activities as more rooted in local grievances, and thus see the group as less likely to pose a direct threat to the United States. The point of this piece is not to engage in the debate about how big a threat to America Boko Haram should be seen as: rather, we note these U.S. perceptions as the reason that the United States has formulated a number of policies for addressing the militant group.

This entry provides a look at these U.S. policies. Our purpose in doing so is to promote a more informed discussion of what the United States should be doing in Nigeria, in several ways. First, some commentators on Boko Haram have provided recommendations for addressing the militant group that are quite similar to currently expressed U.S. policies. An explanation of what the U.S. is currently attempting to do to address the challenge posed by Boko Haram should help to produce more informed recommendations. Further, an explanation of U.S. policies can help commentators keep track of which policies have been successful, and which are lacking. Essentially, current U.S. policies for addressing Boko Haram seek to be broad-based and comprehensive. As Ambassador Daniel Benjamin, coordinator for the U.S. State Department’s Office of the Coordinator for Counterterrorism, stated in recent testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, “Long-standing and still neglected political and socio-economic grievances are some of the drivers feeding the violence in the North. Eliminating this threat requires us to address these issues. U.S. counterterrorism strategy is closely linked to the broader strategy of support for the Nigerian government’s reform efforts, and increased respect for human rights.”

What follows is our analysis of the policies being pursued by various U.S. governmental agencies. Note that in several instances limited information is available about the policies that the United States is pursuing beyond the fact that assistance falls within a specific category. This provides ample room for researchers to further flesh out the contours of U.S. policy in future contributions.

Department of State

There are three major prongs to the State Department’s policies. The first is the U.S.–Nigeria Bi-national Commission, which Secretary of State Hillary Clinton launched in 2010. The commission organizes meetings and working groups in four key areas: good governance and transparency, promoting regional cooperation and development, energy reform and investment, and food security and agricultural investment. Last week, the commission convened for its seventh meeting at the U.S. Institute of Peace. The Department of Defense also plays a role in the Commission’s working groups. As Amanda Dory, deputy assistant secretary of defense for African affairs, said in April 2012 House testimony, “In late January 2012, DoD participated in the inaugural meeting of the regional security working group established under the DoS-led U.S.-Nigeria Bi-national Commission. Although meant to address the full range of U.S.-Nigeria security cooperation, this working group meeting focused on countering violent extremism.”

A second State Department goal is to improve the capacity of local partners in Nigeria. The State Department’s Antiterrorism Assistance Program (ATA), which provides training and equipment to countries combating the threat of terrorism, has projects with Nigeria. As Ambassador Benjamin noted, “A key ATA project initiative involves building Nigeria’s counter incident countermeasures capacity as the level of terrorism and political violence at the hands of Boko Haram increases.”

A third State Department goal is reducing the flow of funds to Boko Haram. Its Counterterrorist Finance Program (CTF) is working with the Government of Nigeria to address Boko Haram’s revenue streams, with a special focus on dealing with kidnappings. Ambassador Benjamin explained:

The State CTF program works with the interagency to provide the Government of Nigeria with an array of training to include Bulk Cash Smuggling, Terrorist Finance Investigations, Financial Intelligence Unit Analytical Training, as well as soft skill development targeting the financial regulatory system. Pending adoption of AML/CTF legislation that meets international standards, Nigeria may be one of the best equipped nations in West Africa to address the threat of money laundering and terrorist finance.

In an effort to build regional cooperation toward stopping the flow of illicit funds and illegal goods and substances through West Africa to Europe, from the Western Hemisphere, State will partner with the Department of Homeland Security in July 2012 to deliver a new program in partnership with both the Senegalese and Nigerian governments. The venue will serve as a platform for dialogue for each country to discuss common challenges presented by organizations such as Boko Haram and Hizballah.

Department of Defense

The Department of Defense provides the Nigerian government with security-related training, as well as funding. General Ham has said that the U.S. military relationship with Nigeria is “very long-standing, very helpful and very useful.”

First, the DoD provides training and support activities. U.S. Army Special Forces soldiers have provided counterinsurgency training to Nigerian troops, helping them to prepare to fight Boko Haram. In November 2011, it was disclosed that the U.S. sent 100 Special Forces soldiers for these purposes. AFRICOM also provides training through both the African Coastal and Border Security Program (ACBS) and the Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership (TSCTP). ACBS, as Boko Haram: Emerging Threat notes, strives to provide “training, border and maritime security, and increase military professionalism.” TSCTP began in 2005 to prevent the expansion of terrorist groups. In Nigeria, the program provides training and intelligence support directed against Boko Haram. Additionally, the National Guard’s State Partnership Program links the California National Guard with Nigeria.

The DoD also provides funding to the Nigerian Army to improve their capabilities. As Boko Haram: Emerging Threat states, DoD has provided the Nigerian army with “$2.2 million for the development of a counterterrorism infantry unit, and another $6.2 million designated to the tactical communications and interoperability within its counterterrorism unit.”

Despite the aforementioned military programs, the House Subcommittee on Counterterrorism and Intelligence stated that Nigerian forces fell short in critical capacities:

Despite General Ham’s positive reviews of U.S.-Nigerian military cooperation, Nigerian capacity to combat Boko Haram in the north is limited. According to sources following the attacks, soldiers deployed in northern Nigeria have been deserting due to a lack of pay. Morale has been reported to be generally low among security forces based in the north. Residents feel that the security situation will continue to deteriorate, in part due to the fact that senior commanders still do not appear to take the threat posed by Boko Haram seriously. The inability of the government to pay its soldiers and the lack of urgency among senior commanders regarding the increasingly violent attacks waged by Boko Haram underscore the challenges the Nigerian state faces in confronting this problem.

Thus, the Subcommittee advised intensified cooperation with Nigeria’s military, particularly in the area of intelligence: “It is critical that the United States work more closely with Nigerian security forces to develop greater domestic intelligence collection and sharing with the U.S. Intelligence Community. Military cooperation is vital to a successful counterterrorism strategy.”

U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID)

USAID has also been involved in Nigeria. Some of the USAID initiatives are outlined in Boko Haram: Emerging Threat:

The United States has begun to engage Nigerian Muslims, primarily through two U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) programs in the northern states of Bauchi and Sokoto…. Additionally, a USAID program called Leadership, Empowerment, Advocacy, and Development (LEAD), is [helping] northern governments build partnerships between state and local governments and the private sector. The goal of this program is to improve accountability, governance, and the delivery of essential services.


Alexis Shklar, an intern at FDD’s Center for the Study of Terrorist Radicalization, contributed research to this analysis.

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Tortured Logic

Jose Rodriguez is the former head of CIA’s Clandestine Services, the organization responsible for conducting the interrogations of several key al Qaeda figures. He has recently published a new book, Hard Measures, in which he discusses how he fought for authority and latitude to use the now infamous ‘Enhanced Interrogation Techniques.’

As part of the book promotion, Rodriguez has given a series of interviews, the most notorious of which was with Lesley Stahl of 60 Minutes. My purpose in linking that interview here isn’t to go back and rehash every aspect of the debate around EIT, but focus on a few aspects of the interview and the logic that Jose Rodriguez uses to justify the actions that he and his team took.  Also, just to get this out-of-the-way up front, my personal belief is that, strategically, the use of EIT has been a net loss for US interests.

As a caveat, I have not yet read ‘Hard Measures.’ I also fully acknowledge that 60 Minutes has the ability to shape the ‘tone’ of interviews during the editing process, but I have no idea to what extent that may have happened in this case.

I would recommend that you watch the videos in their entirety, but no matter what you need to jump to 6:45 in Video 1 so that you can see the ‘Big Boy Pants’ reference.

Video 1

Video 2

<embedding these videos has proved…troublesome.  If we can figure it out we will add them in later.  Regardless, I promise they are worth watching>

A couple of things to note. First, Leslie Stahl does not come across as an unbiased journalist seeking to understand the motivations of Rodriguez. There are several places where she uses a specific type of language and question to frame the interview.  She often appears more like a lawyer conducting a cross-examination. Stahl asks a question using specific unflattering language and then Rodriguez responds by offering a rationalization but also adopting the unflattering language and repeating it in his response. [bold emphasis added to transcript]

Lesley Stahl: You had no qualms? We used to consider some of them war crimes.
Jose Rodriguez: We made some al Qaeda terrorists with American blood on their hands uncomfortable for a few days. But we did the right thing for the right reason. And the right reason was to protect the homeland and to protect American lives. So yes, I had no qualms. [...]

Lesley Stahl: So you were getting pressure from Congress and the White House to take the gloves off. Did you go to the dark side?
Jose Rodriguez: Well, the dark side, that’s what we do.
Lesley Stahl: You are the dark side.
Jose Rodriguez: We are the dark side. [...]

Lesley Stahl: So sleep deprivation, dietary manipulation. I mean, this is Orwellian stuff. The United States doesn’t do that.
Jose Rodriguez: Well, we do.

It was disturbing to see that the man who was in charge of eliciting intelligence from America’s worst enemies did not realize that he was being manipulated into making statements that were against his own best interest.

Secondly, there are several places where Rodriguez appears to contradict himself over the course of the same interview.

Jose Rodriguez: We were flooded with intelligence about an imminent attack. That al Qaeda had an anthrax program, and that they were planning to use it against us. And that they were seeking nuclear materials to use in some type of nuclear weapon. So we were facing a ticking, time bomb situation and we were very concerned. [...]
Jose Rodriguez: You know, he had speculated that within 30 days we would probably be able to get the information that we wanted, yes.

The imagery most people associate with a “ticking, time bomb situation” is not something that allows you to wait 30 days for intelligence.  When you have a ticking time bomb, Jack Bauer shoots the terrorist in the kneecap and you find out what you need to know.  When Rodriguez uses this kind of language he is playing to ’24′ fantasy that is still, unfortunately held by large tracts of the American population, some even within the intelligence community.

Jose Rodriguez: The reason why we taped Abu Zubaydah was because we– he was very wounded when he was captured. And we feared that he was gonna die in captivity. So we wanted to show the world that we actually had nothing to do with his death. That you know, he died on his own.
Lesley Stahl: Well, that’s ironic. You wanted to have a video record that he was being well treated, but in the end they became– a video record that he had been subjected to these harsh techniques.
Jose Rodriguez: Yeah, we weren’t hiding anything.
Lesley Stahl: But you then ordered these tapes destroyed.
Jose Rodriguez: Correct. Ninety-two tapes.
Lesley Stahl: Ninety-two tapes. Why did you order that they be destroyed?
Jose Rodriguez: To protect the people who worked for me and who were at those black sites and whose faces were shown on the tape
Lesley Stahl: Protect them from what?
Jose Rodriguez: Protect them from al Qaeda ever getting their hands on these tapes and using them to go after them and their families. 
Voice-over: He was also worried about the very survival of the CIA’s dark side, the Clandestine Service because of the so-called Abu Ghraib effect.
Jose Rodriguez: I was concerned that the distinction between a legally-authorized program as our enhanced interrogation program was, and illegal activity by a bunch of psychopaths would not be made.

Make no mistake, these tapes were primarily a CYA maneuver by Rodriguez to assure there could be no accusation that his team was crossing the line of what they were authorized to do.  There is actually nothing unusual about this.  On the contrary, if you are engaging in activities “at the border of legality” it is wise to document that you are not actually crossing that ‘border’.  Law enforcement organizations routinely video interviews and interrogations to provide video evidence that verbal statements were made and that they were not obtained unlawfully (acknowledging the different standards of legality that exist between these situations). The part that demonstrates Rodriguez’s flawed logic, or outright deception is when he says “we wanted to show the world…”  There is simply no conceivable situation where Rodriguez, or the US government would choose to show “the world” a video of a detainee being water-boarded. Rodriguez clearly taped the interrogations to protect himself from any kind of policy change.

Rodriguez also acknowledges taking several other steps in order to protect himself and his team from future reprisals.  By forcing Agency leadership to repeatedly sign off whenever EIT techniques were used, he assured that he could never be ‘hung out to dry’ as he alleges CIA personnel have been in the past.  I don’t think anyone that has ever worked within a dynamic, politically charged bureaucracy can fault Rodriguez on this one.  There were indications early in the Obama Administration that they may consider prosecution. While I do not believe that this was ever likely, I can understand why he took this step. It should also be noted that Rodriguez’s destruction of the tapes certainly raised the question of whether they contained evidence of illegal activity.  The destruction was a key aspect to the Justice Department conducting a review.  Ultimately, neither Rodriguez or anyone from his team was prosecuted for any actions taken during this time.

Rodriguez also seems to contradict himself on the overall utility of EIT.  While he claims that it directly led to the capture of several senior al Qaeda leaders, in the next breath he states that it was unreasonable to expect that it would lead to Osama bin Laden.

Lesley Stahl: Here’s something that was told to me. Abu Zubaydah’s stories sent the CIA around the globe. Not a single plot was foiled. We spent millions chasing phantoms.
Jose Rodriguez: Bullshit. He gave us a road map that allowed us to capture a bunch of Al Qaeda senior leaders. [...]

Lesley Stahl: But the truth is about Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, you really didn’t break him.
Jose Rodriguez: Why? Why do you say that?
Lesley Stahl: Well, he didn’t tell you about Osama bin Laden. He didn’t tell you how to get him. He didn’t tell you how to find him.
Jose Rodriguez: Some of these people were not going to tell us everything.
Lesley Stahl: So you don’t break ‘em.
Jose Rodriguez: There is a limit, there is a limit to what they will tell us.
Lesley Stahl (Voiceover): Actually KSM lied about the courier – whose identity finally led to the compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, where the terrorist leader he calls Sheikh bin Laden was hiding.
Lesley Stahl: Now, here’s what I heard: that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed told you the courier had retired and threw you off the scent for a while.
Jose Rodriguez: That was the one secret he was going to take to the grave, and that was the protection of the Sheikh. He was not going to tell us.

The most bizarre theme in the interview that Rodriguez repeatedly tries to hit is that EIT is not that bad and that it is basically what normal people experience in a routine day.

Lesley Stahl: You also employed stress techniques?
Jose Rodriguez: Uh-huh. There was a technique where the detainee would sit on the floor and would raise his hands over his head.
Lesley Stahl: In other words, he had to hold his hands up there forever and ever, right?
Jose Rodriguez: Forever & ever? I was thinkin’ about this the other day. The objective was to induce muscle fatigue, and most people who work out do a lot more fatiguing of the muscles.
Lesley Stahl: Are you saying this was like going to the gym? Come on.
Jose Rodriguez: A little different.
Lesley Stahl: Yeah.
Central to the interrogation was sleep deprivation. Abu Zubaydah was also kept awake for three straight days.
Jose Rodriguez: Sleep deprivation works. I’m sure, Lesley, with all the traveling that you do, that you have suffered from jet lag. And you know, when you don’t get a good night’s sleep for two, three days, it’s very hard.
Lesley Stahl: Now, you don’t really mean to suggest that it’s like jet lag. I mean, you make it sound like it’s benign when you say stuff like that.
Jose Rodriguez: Well, I mean, the feeling–
Lesley Stahl: And you go into the gym and jet lag–
Jose Rodriguez: Well, the feeling that you get when you don’t sleep.
Lesley Stahl: But I mean, these were enhanced interrogation techniques. Other people call it torture.This was– this wasn’t benign in any– any sense of the word. [...]

Jose Rodriguez: No. He [Khalid Sheikh Mohammed] gets a good night’s sleep. He gets his Ensure. By the way, he was very heavy when he came to us and he lost 50 pounds. So– [I really wish Stahl wouldn't have cut him off here because it sounds like he is going to explain how EIT is just like a diet program.  -JSG]
Lesley Stahl: What his Ensure? You mean like people in the hospital who drink that stuff?
Jose Rodriguez: Yes. Dietary manipulation was part of these– our techniques.

In these examples, Rodriguez seems to say, “We didn’t do anything to hurt these guys, basically we sent them to the gym, made them stay up a little bit past their bedtime and we put them on the Atkins diet.”  These are ridiculous defenses of EIT, but they are tame compared to the last one.

Jose Rodriguez: Can I say something about Khalid Sheikh Mohammed? He’s the one that was responsible for the death of Danny Pearl, the Wall Street reporter. He slit his throat in front of a camera. I don’t know what type of man it takes to cut the throat of someone in front of you like that, but I can tell you that this is an individual who probably didn’t give a rat’s ass about having water poured on his face.

Regardless of your opinions on Enhanced Interrogation Techniques in general or water-boarding in particular, this statement should send a chill down your spine.  Apart from the unconscionable comparison of water-boarding to something as mundane-sounding as taking a shower, Rodriguez essentially states that if a detainee has done something horrific enough, it becomes impossible to torture them. What is implicit in that statement is that because KSM brutally killed Danny Pearl he has somehow ceased to become human and therefore no action we take against him could possibly be considered torture.

The issues surrounding the authorization and utilization of Enhanced Interrogation Techniques in 2002 and beyond are complex.  There will assuredly never be a full accounting on either the positive or negative aspects.  That complexity is what I wanted to see in this interview.  I was prepared to give Jose Rodriquez the benefit of the doubt on several aspects.  I reminded myself that there was a very different political tone in the country immediately post-9/11.  I hoped to hear a rational defense of the CIA utilizing harsh tactics to elicit information for the greater good.  I wanted to identify with someone who recognized the great weight and responsibility that his position held.   Instead, I got Jose Rodriguez.  A man who comes across as being in no way troubled with the actions that he took or concern for the way those actions reflected on his country.  If he ever did have any concerns, he has rationalized them away over the last decade.  Now, he literally has “no qualms.”

This is my concern with the logic that went into the development and utilization of Enhanced Interrogation Techniques.   Somebody, somewhere needed to have qualms.  When we chose to go down this path, we should have recognized the impacts that this would have on our character and our identity as a nation.  We should have been mindful and vigilant and perpetually troubled by our decision.  Instead of just asking the legal question of ‘Can we do it?’ we also should have asked, and continued asking the question of ‘Should we do it?’


Posted in Al Qaeda, Middle East, Radicalization, Terrorism | 2 Comments

We’ve got drones and SOF teams. Who should we go after?

‘We’ve got drones and SOF teams. Who should we go after?’

This is how the target selection process sounds to me when I read about it. My semi-secret fear is that this might be quite close to how this process actually works. The Global War on Terror, the shadow war, the overseas contingency operation – whatever you want to call it, I’ve long worried that its reach and the place of importance it is given are out of proportion to any threat posed by Al Qaeda or any similar group, and I’ve long feared that the way we go about ‘countering’ terrorism may in fact cause more problems than it solves, possibly by orders of magnitude. I am no insider. I don’t see the process. I would like to think that more care is put into these decisions than it seems from the outside. But from here, from the outside, it seems like no matter how many times – through decades of experience – we see the second and third order effects, the collateral damage, the side effects of our actions, the people making the decisions are not really concerning themselves with taking time to consider how the benefits balance out against the potential unintended consequences and long-term effects. And it’s not just about doing things we maybe shouldn’t be doing; it’s also about failing to do things we maybe should be doing.

Then when I read an article like this one by Kimberly Dozier (and I strongly recommend reading that), it reads very cart-before-horse to me, like ‘Who are we going after with these drones and SOF guys?’ and not ‘This AQ leader is a terrible threat. What are we going to do about that?’ I’m not saying that we shouldn’t have contingency plans in place for how to deal with potential real threats to U.S. security, but it seems like more than that. I fear that maybe we use these tactics just because we can, that because we have drones and incredibly skilled and versatile SOF teams and such, we just look for people to use them on. That scares me because it implies a casual attitude toward the many forms of potential collateral damage, scant consideration of long term effects (and therefore the absence of a robust long term guiding strategy), meaning finally, an approach to national security that is not actually optimized to keep our nation secure.

The drones aren’t the issue any more than any other tool or tactic is – they are a tool, and can be a very valuable one – but if we’re looking around for people to kill with them rather than using them only in service of a true strategy or to counter a clear threat that has arisen, then we’re doing it wrong, and if we’re doing it wrong – and this is true even if you are concerned only with American interests and are fully indifferent to the collateral damage done to and within local populations in the areas of operation – we risk having to pay a harsh price in five years, or ten, or twenty, when the right things we didn’t do and the collateral effects of the things we did do comes back to haunt us. 

But please tell me I’m wrong. I’ll feel a lot better if I am.

Bonus reading: h/t to Rob Caruso for linking up three great recommendations for current reading on operations (which yes, very much do consist of more than just drones): “Offshoring CT: Towards a Dissection” – Dan Trombly for Abu Muqawama; “The Vickers Doctrine” – Robert Caruso at Rocky Shoals; and “U.S. Foreign Policy and Contested Sovereignty” – Micah Zenko for CFR. All good reads that bear on various aspects of this subject, none quite addresses the question of what kind of big-picture, long-term strategy guides these operations, although Caruso comes closest to getting into this in that his (very interesting) post offers guidance on structure and prioritization in operations going forward.

Posted in Military, Strategery, Terrorism, Uncategorized, War | 9 Comments

The Last Great Phantom Threat

Yesterday I wrote about a graphic posted to jihadi forums that garnered some media attention. In it, New York City’s famous skyline at sunset was overlaid with the text: “Al Qaeda: Coming Soon Again in New York.” The print media interpreted the graphic as a possible threat; on Fox News, Rep. Peter King was reportedly shown the image and asked if another attack was coming. I cautioned in my initial New York Daily News column and blog entry that the chance of this being the prelude to another large-scale attack was quite low. “With the recent disruption of large-scale plots, al Qaeda’s need for secrecy will only grow,” I wrote. “The chance of some low-level figure knowing enough about an upcoming plot connected to al Qaeda’s core to post a Photoshopped graphic boasting of it in advance is infinitesimally small.” It turned out, when more information came in, that the graphic wasn’t even a threat at all: if you read the Arabic-language introduction where this photo was posted on jihadi forums, it specifies that the graphic is actually a lesson in Photoshopping.

I got into an interesting discussion on Twitter thereafter about the effectiveness of terrorist threats (because they can garner media attention and either scare people or divert policing resources even when, as with the New York graphic, they are either phantom threats or not really threats at all). I think the conventional wisdom on this point is that jihadis have a relatively easy time getting the media to hype non-existent threats. As is so often the case, I took a position contrary to the conventional wisdom: I think the media’s hyping of questionable terrorist threats is in fact less common than is generally perceived.

To be sure, at one point amorphous threats received a disproportionate amount of national media coverage. But I think the general perception of how often this happens was set relatively early after the 9/11 attacks, when terror alerts were common and the media would devote a great deal of attention to each one. Since 2006, you would be hard pressed to name many examples of inordinate national media attention to threats that don’t exist. The New York City graphic is a recent example, but the kind of attention it garnered honestly isn’t all that impressive. Back in September, more attention than I would have liked was devoted to an alleged plot that would coincide with the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. A militant had fed the bogus story of a new plot to American officials, and it was widely reported. But before that? You would be hard pressed to name the last time, prior to September 2011, that a phantom threat truly received disproportionate national media attention.

In October 2010, a plot to carry out multiple Mumbai-style plots in Europe received a great deal of media coverage — but this represented a disrupted plot, and a large-scale one, rather than a hyped phantom threat. In the summer of 2010, I appeared on a rather remarkable Fox Business segment premised on the idea that “as many as hundreds of members” of Shabaab were slipping into the U.S. through its southern border (the other guest accused me of secretly aiding Shabaab when I cast doubt on that dubious assertion). But that segment can hardly be considered a major national media storm.

My point is not that phantom or amorphous threats do not get hyped — they do — but rather that this doesn’t happen as frequently as most people who follow terrorism closely perceive to be the case. Just as the point of not hyping amorphous threats is that we shouldn’t lose our sense of perspective, we also shouldn’t lose our sense of perspective about the media’s tendency to hype such incidents: it has happened far, far less frequently since the first five years of the “global war on terror.”

In fact, I think we can pinpoint the last great phantom threat with some precision. I believe it occurred in October 2006, when a warning was posted to the Internet message board 4chan that “America’s Hiroshima” was imminent. The message stated:

On Sunday, October 22nd, 2006, there will be seven “dirty” explosive devices detonated in seven different U.S. cities; Miami, New York City, Atlanta, Seattle, Houston, Oakland and Cleveland. The death toll will approach 100,000 from the initial blasts and countless other fatalities will later occur as a result from radioactive fallout.

These dirty bomb explosions would allegedly take place at NFL stadiums, during the games. The 2006 midterm elections were just around the corner, and Media Matters (an organization with which I have considerable political disagreement) has a decent rundown of the kind of media attention this threat received. “CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC dedicated a considerable amount of airtime to a purported threat to NFL stadiums in seven cities,” Media Matters stated. The Media Matters writeup notes that I was interviewed about this threat — appearing on Fox News’s The Big Story — but I wish it had also reported on the content of my appearance, if only because it departed significantly from the cautious way that other commentators treated this “news” item. I said on air that we could be absolutely certain that this threat was bogus — for the same reasons that we could be certain the “Coming Soon Again in New York” graphic wasn’t our first warning of another 9/11. Leave aside the ridiculous claim that the initial death toll from seven dirty bomb blasts would be 100,000 — it most definitely would not — and it is still obvious that this threat was a hoax. Quite simply, if al Qaeda was really prepared to set off dirty bombs simultaneously in seven different cities, would some chump who’d go bragging about the operation on 4chan really be given advance notice? I guess there’s the possibility that this could have been an official al Qaeda announcement — but given the fact that the jihadi group had just seen a large-scale plot disrupted (the August 2006 transatlantic air plot), would it really provide such specific information about where it would strike, such that authorities’ chance of disrupting the plot would be maximized? And if we want to assume that this might have been an official al Qaeda announcement, since when had 4chan, of all places, become al Qaeda’s go-to channel for communication?

A few seconds of thought could thus easily reveal that there was no meat to this story, and I said as much on the air. But the NFL “plot” is so much more hilarious when you know the actual back story. This wasn’t the phantom threat of committed jihadis or their supporters. Rather, the 4chan message was the work of Wisconsin resident Jake Brahm, who was at the time living with his parents and working part-time at a grocery store. Essentially, he was bored and wanted to see if he could cause a bit of a stir by making some juvenile online threats. Before that, Brahm was best known for keeping a personal blog of his masturbatory habits entitled “Jake Brahm Wangs Da Poo.” Sadly, it’s no longer available online — but really, you probably didn’t want to read it in the first place. Brahm ultimately plead guilty to willfully conveying false information, and was sentenced to six months in federal prison. This is the man who briefly scared the whole country:

I think Media Matters was right to link the excessive coverage of Brahm’s self-evidently bogus threat to the 2006 midterm elections. But the bottom line is that this media attention didn’t swing the election, at all. The Republicans, at the time generally considered the tougher of the two parties on terrorism, were trounced at the ballot box; and the media looked awfully silly for how much time it devoted to Brahm’s little cry for attention.

This is a decidedly non-scientific judgment, but I think an analysis of the media’s coverage of vague, amorphous terrorist threats would reveal Brahm’s NFL warning to be the last great phantom threat. I’m not saying that threats have never been hyped since, but rather that to me October 2006 seems to represent the apex of the practice, with terror alerts and random but suggestive data points garnering declining attention thereafter.

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The Anti-Piracy Business – Warning Shots and the Rules of Engagement

I’ve had an interest in the private maritime security industry and the international regulations thereof ever since a friend’s ship was taken by pirates a couple years ago, so when friend of the blog Jay Fraser* approached us about doing an interview with his friend who runs a maritime security company, we jumped on it. I hope you find it as interesting as I do! – DW

Many of us grew up with pictures of swashbuckling pirates and images of Errol Flynn in movies like “Captain Blood” and “The Sea Hawk.” [ed: and some of us grew up with Dustin Hoffman as Captain Hook...] In school, we learned about the Barbary Pirates attacking American and British shipping vessels off the Northwest Coast of Africa, near Tripoli and Algiers, and President Thomas Jefferson’s naval responses.  More than two hundred years have passed, and while the locale has shifted to the northeast coast of Africa, the problem piracy remains. Today, piracy is focused primarily in the Gulf of Aden, the Arabian Sea, and the Indian Ocean.  Pirates are live firing against merchant vessels, sometimes attempting to board the ships, and are using violence and ransom as a means to an end.

As noted in a recent update published by Stratfor, with the end of the monsoon season and the return to calmer water in the region, the piracy season is “back on.”  One of the more recent trends is the emergence of companies hired by the shipping companies to place armed personnel on the commercial vessels in efforts to discourage and limit the success of these pirates.

I’m privileged to know and to call a friend a man who operates one of these private security companies, Jim Jorrie of Espada Logistics and Security Group (San Antonio, Texas).  I interviewed Jim for an audio spot for ThreatsWatch about three years ago and he and I recently talked about doing an update.  Thanks to my friends at Gunpowder & Lead, here is the interview we did just a few days ago.

Jay Fraser: Jim, when we spoke back in April 2009, it was right after some pirates in the Gulf of Aden had overrun the Maersk Alabama.  The ship’s captain Richard Phillips was held captive after the rest of the crew was released.  The incident ended when Navy sharpshooters were able to take the kill shots.  But this incident brought to the attention of many Americans the problem of piracy on the high seas, and especially off of the coast of Somalia in the Gulf of Aden.  Today I would like to cover a lot of ground in a short time and have you explain how the piracy problem has evolved in the last three years.

Jim Jorrie: Thank you Jay for this chance to give an update from our last interview.  Yes, the last three years have been very interesting and things have really changed out there.

JF: Since G&L is a new audience, can you give us a quick bio and then a capsule version of how you got into the pirate fighting business?

JJ: I started out in 1983 enlisting in the Navy and moved on to receive a commission in the Army with a focus on Defense support to Civil Authority missions.  As a civilian I have worked in the intelligence community and held the post of Homeland Security Coordinator for San Antonio and the surrounding areas.  I have also had the privilege of being involved in several National Response Plans such as the Pandemic Influenza response plan.  Around 2004 I was asked to provide some security assessment work for private oil exploration in Colombia.  This bloomed into multiple security projects and was really the genesis of ESPADA.  About 3½ years ago we had an opportunity to assess the emerging piracy problem in the Gulf of Aden.  Since one of our core competencies is providing logistics in austere locations, providing anti-piracy security services was a natural fit for our company.

JF: When we spoke earlier this week, you and I talked about the changing nature of the Somali pirates and specifically about their levels of aggression, the fact that they are better armed and that they now use tactics like kidnapping.

JJ: Three years ago the piracy was conducted by two major clans in Somalia.  Since that time, organized crime syndicates have joined the enterprise increasing the technology, intelligence gathering and execution of piracy.  Also, there emerged confederations from other countries that expanded the pirate network.  For example, vessels that are overtaken in the lower Red Sea may now be taken by Eritrean or Yemeni criminal confederations that will in turn transfer the ship to the Somali clans that in turn negotiate for the ransom.  The same is true on the east coast of Africa where you may have Kenyan and Mozambican confederate criminal organizations that cooperate with the Somali pirate clans.

We continue to see the use of RPGs and AKs in most attacks, but there have been a few attacks where the pirates have used crew-served weapons such as the PKM.  Other than that, the major change in operating tactics has been the actual use of the hijacked vessels as mother-ships.   They use cranes that are on the ships to lift the pirate skiffs onto the deck of the ship and then take the hijacked vessel far out at sea to launch their attacks.

JF: Some people aren’t really aware of the rules of engagement your company and others must operate under.  Can you explain a bit of what has to be done in order for you to operate and perform your security functions (restrictions, still not permitted to fire on sight or have to wait and return fire?).

JJ:  This continues to be an interesting source of debate.  The International Law of the Sea that covers piracy is several hundred years old.  And it is very clear on what rights a ship’s Captain has to defend his ship from a pirate attack.  Of course in recent years lawyers have gotten further involved in crafting specific, eloquent language that restates rules from the Barbary pirate days.  For example, if a pirate vessel fires on a ship the ship’s master may use any means at his disposal to safeguard his ship and crew.  For a security team, this means we can fire warning shots to communicate to an approaching or menacing vessel that he is approaching an armed ship.  However, if the security team fires on an approaching vessel without the command of the master in defending the ship, then the master/team/owner etc. are liable for the actions.  Most engagements will begin and end at approximately 300 meters from the vessel.  At this distance the pirates either begin firing at the ship or the warning shots communicate the potential danger of them proceeding. To many people, having to wait until a heavily armed pirate boat is within 300 yards of the vessel and – more importantly – until it has fired on the vessel before the vessel’s security team can respond is an uncomfortably short distance, but those are the rules of the game in antipiracy security.

JF:  I think one of the more interesting things people need to hear is about the practical business issues of running a company like Espada.  The other day you mentioned some points about the need for rapid deployment.  Can you add to that?

JJ:  Unlike a traditional contract, our services are hired ad-hoc.  This presents some extreme logistics and personnel challenges for us.  It is very expensive to fly people back and forth halfway around the world, so you have to have facilities in the Area of Operation in which to house them.  A normal notification of a request for our services comes with about 48 hours advanced warning.  Paying the security team members doesn’t stop, so scheduling them for follow on transit work and reducing their down time is of key concern. The cost of insurance for this sort of business is, as you can imagine, astronomical. And on top of these challenges is the fact that many of the countries know that the ship owners and security team can work out of their designated transfer points.  So at times, just getting a bus ride from the airport to the boat with equipment can cost over $10K USD.  With all of the deposits, insurance, working capital requirements, and emerging regulatory requirements I would hate to try to start a business like this now as it would be very hard.

JF: One of the comments you made struck me when you mentioned about weapons regulations.

JJ:  While I am a firm believer in the accountability of firearms, US companies have been put into a competitive disadvantage to their British and European counterparts with regards to regulatory compliance and authorization in marine security.  We spent a lot time early on asking different government departments the proper way to export weapons for the exclusive use of our security personnel.  Unfortunately, not having the resources of some of the other large defense contractors, we made a few missteps in the handling of the reporting. The British and Europeans, in contrast, received active support from their governments, even to the extent where they were able to get letters of endorsement for their business from the government. Clearly this is something the US government does not do.  I do think that the US regulatory agencies are starting to come up to speed with understanding the commercial requirements of the marine security industry.  And is my hope that they will continue to work with legitimate maritime security organizations to help facilitate and not restrict their business.  Bottom line, the more successful we are the more Americans we put to work.

JF: I guess one final question is about the “soldiers of fortune” that you encounter in theater and the problems they are creating for you and your company.

JJ:  This turns out to be a classic example of one or two organizations that have no business being out there in the first place, screwing something up and the rest of us having to deal with the whiplash of new rules.  Whatever happened to the old adage that if you stepped on the foot of your date, you weren’t invited back to the dance?  Weapons authorizations, terrestrial logistics, and the other aspects of operating in a marine security business are serious and complex.  This is not an arena that a group of hunting buddies needs to venture out into carelessly.  Very few problems have come from the larger more established companies.

JF: Jim, is there anything else that you’d like to add before we wrap this interview?

JJ: I think I will leave you with two comments.  One, there is a lot of good combat veterans out there that are unemployed.  And I would put out there to you that this line of work is something they should consider, as we strongly prefer to hire veterans because of their training and professionalism.  Lastly, in all my travels over the last 3 years setting up our maritime security operations I have gained a renewed appreciation for being an American.  It is easy to get caught up in the political rhetoric and other problems in our communities.  But when you spend time in other countries dealing with their politics, their regulations, their lack of a constitution and civil liberties, it gives you a new perspective that maybe this 300 year experiment that we call America isn’t that bad after all.

*Jay Fraser is a technology entrepreneur currently operating two ventures, one of which is involved in counterfeit detection and covert surveillance technologies.  He serves as Principal Investigator for this company’s Department of Defense contracts, and has also coordinated sensitive international special projects. His responsibilities include strategic direction, operations, managing programs with federal agencies and National Labs, negotiating licensing and R&D agreements, and dealing with potential commercial partners & customers.  The second company, newly formed, is involved in the information sharing environment with the ability to enable seamless exchange of information across and among a network of authorized users.  Until recently he wrote about issues related to homeland security, policy implications, and technologies used in the Global War on Terror for ThreatsWatch.Org.  Mr. Fraser is an experienced public speaker and often lectures on technology strategy and technology transfer.

Posted in Small Arms, Terrorism | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Muhtorov, the IJU, and Foust: Part 2

This entry is my second contribution to a debate with Joshua Foust about the recent arrest of Jamshid Muhtorov, as well as Uzbek militant movements more generally. As with the first, it is co-written with Lauren Morgan — but this time with less bombast and self-indulgence. To review the debate so far:

Our article referred to Foust’s original contribution as “an epistemological wreck,” arguing that it made a number of claims that were either extremely hyperbolic or not supported by evidence. There were two parts to our argument. First, we argued that Muhtorov’s arrest did not constitute a “thought crime,” and that there was in fact probable cause for the arrest. Second, we argued that contrary to Foust’s original post, the Islamic Jihad Union (IJU), to which authorities allege Muhtorov was trying to provide material support, did in fact exist, and that there is reason to consider it a terrorist organization. On both of our points, Foust has either significantly backtracked or else conceded our points.

Probable Cause for Muhtorov’s Arrest

Foust’s original article argued that Muhtorov’s arrest amounted to “arresting people for sending emails… essentially criminalizing participation in a chat room.” In response, we quoted extensively from the arrest affidavit, establishing the panoply of facts from which authorities determined that Muhtorov was leaving the country to join up with the IJU — the act of going to join that organization constituting material support for a designated terrorist entity in contravention of U.S. law. We contrasted Muhtorov’s case with that of Youssef al Khattab, a big talker on the Internet who has spread militant Islamic propaganda from the U.S. — and has done so legally, his free speech rights protected.

In Foust’s rebuttal, he states that the area where we differ from him is “the presumption of Mukhtarov’s guilt.” This is plainly untrue. There is a significant difference between authorities having probable cause to make an arrest and proving a defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt (which is the standard for conviction following a criminal trial, and also the area where a presumption of innocence becomes relevant). In fact, we made this point abundantly clear in our entry, noting that Foust has elsewhere asked “if the current charges are trumped up,” and explicitly calling this “a fair question.” It is quite clear that we do not presume guilt in this case: rather, it seems to us that there was probable cause to make the arrest, which is an entirely separate question from guilt or innocence.

Foust goes on to say that his objection to Muhtorov’s arrest was not that authorities lacked probable cause, but rather that the material-support law is itself flawed: “Mukhtarov does seem to have fallen afoul of the ‘material support’ laws in the U.S. My argument, poorly stated in that initial post, was that those laws are themselves inherently flawed.” We will take him at his word that this was the point he was trying to make — as Foust concedes, the fact that he was doing so was not entirely clear. But two problems remain with his argument. One is that, in critiquing the basis for Muhtorov’s arrest, Foust either improperly portrays or else simply does not understand what Muhtorov is being charged with. The second problem is that there may in fact be a better legal regime than the current material-support laws, but Foust proffers no alternative.

Foust’s inaccurate portrayal of the crimes with which Muhtorov is charged is clear when one reads Foust’s entry carefully:

While scolding me for reducing the Mukhtarov indictment to “crimes on a chatroom,” Daveed pulls from the indictment itself a list of crimes that include sending emails favorable of Juma Namangani and saying he supports the goals of a website administrator. I fail to see the distinction, even if he is working on semantics rather than specifics, between “email correspondence with a website administrator” and “crimes on a chatroom.”

Muhtorov’s reference to Namangani actually occurred in a phone call rather than an e-mail, but that is beside the point. The larger issue is that referring favorably to Namangani is not a crime, and Muhtorov is not being charged for doing so. If authorities tried to criminalize speaking favorably of Namangani, we would both oppose it, as that would be a clear contravention of the speech rights enshrined in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. This is a vital distinction: the bullet pointed list that we took from the affidavit did not constitute “a list of crimes,” but rather a list of acts that put together gave authorities probable cause to make an arrest on the basis that Muhtorov was taking concrete action to join a designated terrorist group overseas, and support its activities. In his portrayal of this point, Foust is either being dishonest or else did not understand the distinction between acts and crimes: we assume it is the latter, both because it’s always best to assume good intentions in one’s debating opponents, and also because we have not known Foust to be purposefully dishonest in his previous writings. But informed critique of the material support laws is impossible without getting the basic facts right about the basis for an arrest under this statue.

Foust argues that “just because Mukhtarov said some scary things on the Internet, that doesn’t mean he committed any traditionally-defined crimes in doing so. To criminalize this sort of correspondence veers dangerously close to creating thought-crimes.”Again, the correspondence wasn’t criminalized — see the above-referenced case of Youssef al Khattab, which we also mentioned in our initial post, as it is instructive about the latitude individuals are given to “say scary things on the Internet,” in Foust’s parlance. Muhtorov’s arrest, rather, is based on multiple factors: what he said on the Internet about his desire to join the IJU, along with the fact that he immediately began searching for tickets to Turkey upon doing so, along with telephone conversations that further clarified his intentions with respect to the IJU, along with telling his daughter that she would never see him again except in heaven, along with quitting his job before finally purchasing his plane ticket to Turkey. Put together, this is not the criminalization of correspondence, but a case study in how various pieces of evidence that are indicative of intentions can combine to give authorities probable cause to believe that an overt (non-speech) act is a crime. Foust can still argue that the law should not allow an arrest under these circumstances, but the first step in any critique should be understanding how the law actually operates.

This brings us to the second problem with Foust’s critique of material-support laws: it critiques them without offering an alternative. Americans who have traveled overseas to join designated terrorist groups have in fact succeeded in killing people: two recent examples are Americans who executed suicide attacks in Somalia, Abdisalan Hussein Ali and Shirwa Ahmed. So, if the material-support laws are bad, what would be better? On one end of the spectrum we could have no material-support laws at all: Americans could have the right and ability to join and assist any violent non-state actor they choose, anywhere in the world. We do not think that such a legal regime would be an improvement on the present system. On the other hand, perhaps there is a revision to current material-support laws that would be be superior to what we have now. If that is Foust’s position, he would make the best contribution not just by calling the present law “dumb,” but by finding and proposing that superior alternative.

The Islamic Jihad Union

One particular reason that we decided to weigh in on this debate was Foust’s initial claim that the IJU didn’t actually exist. To quote Foust: “There’s this IJU group, which still doesn’t exist outside of some Internet chat rooms.” We replied by showing, at some length, that the IJU does exist, that it’s a real thing that has undertaken operations. Foust replies that the real issue is whether the IJU is capable of global reach: “Just because a group says it has global aspirations, that doesn’t mean they are capable of global action or warrant a global response…. So when Daveed says that I argued the IJU doesn’t exist, he’s misrepresenting my argument.” This is obviously a hard position to sustain: his initial post said that the IJU “doesn’t exist outside of some Internet chat rooms” — and proving in response that it does exist constitutes an on-point refutation. Thus, Foust’s co-blogger at Registan, Nathan Hamm, noted in the comments to Foust’s latter post: “I think it’s hard to say that Daveed is grossly misrepresenting your position when you, well, said these things.”

Indeed, the only way Foust’s observations about the IJU can fit with his original critique of the Muhtorov arrest is if the IJU isn’t a real group, or really shouldn’t be considered a terrorist organization, thus underscoring the injustice of the arrest. So Foust now concedes our point, that the IJU exists; but he goes on to claim that our position is that “the IJU is a really real thing that does stuff and is scary.” The “scariness” flourish is, of course, just that — a flourish. As we made clear in our first entry, neither of us consider the Provisional IRA to be “scary,” or “a threat to all peoples.” But it is real, and it supports and undertakes violence, and we are better off if our government does not give Americans carte blanche to assist the organization.

That is all we really need to establish with respect to the IJU: that it is real, and that it supports and undertakes militant activities, and so designating it is a rational decision. Whether the IJU is “capable of global action” or not is beside the point with respect to a discussion of Muhtorov’s arrest. But it is worth noting that, as with Muhtorov, the case that the IJU is a real organization that undertakes violence is not a matter of trusting what they say on the Internet. There have been arrests by multiple governments — not just Uzbekistan but also Germany and Turkey. (While Foust argues that there may be a distinction between the IJU and the “Islamic Jihad Group” behind the 2007 plot to set off explosives in Germany, he certainly does not prove this point, and the intelligence sources with whom we have spoken deny this distinction. Foust himself mentions that a multiplicity of languages are being spoken within IJU, which includes non-Uzbek speakers, and this fact can lend itself to multiple translations of the group’s name. Indeed, various other jihadi groups, including al Qaeda in Iraq, have operated under different names and operated different websites.) Moreover, with respect to IJU’s Internet claims, one can — as with Muhtorov — look to the intersection between what it is claiming and the facts on the ground. The IJU has been able to provide credible accounts of attacks in Afghanistan and drone strikes in Pakistan that suggests an inside knowledge of these incidents — so when American analysts put stock in these IJU claims, they are not just taking these groups at their word. Rather, they are judging the IJU’s claims in light of external evidence that can either verify or undermine those claims.

So our overarching point is that it seems the IJU was properly designated as a terrorist entity. Whether or not it is a “global threat” is a beside the point. We do not claim to be able to pinpoint exactly how powerful it is at present, in part because the IJU is an institution in flux, as are many violent non-state actors. But as we can see from AQAP’s remarkable advances over the past year in Yemen’s Abyan province, jihadi groups are capable of gaining momentum beyond what analysts expect. This is not to say that the IJU or IMU will do so — but rather that, when exploring such questions as the threat a group poses, some degree of humility should always be in order.


And that’s all, folks. Foust has backed down from the rather soaring claims of his first post, and has adopted a more moderate position that opposes current material-support laws. His representation of what those laws actually prohibit is imperfect, but this post hopefully clarifies for Foust the distinction between crimes and acts that his previous posts misapprehend. The area where Foust could take this discussion in the future is toward a more sustained critique of the material-support laws. But if he does that, it is our hope that he will try to contribute to the question of what he would prefer in their place.

Posted in Evisceration, Islamic Jihad Union, Terrorism | 1 Comment