Archive for December, 2010

A new article for the Guardian exploring an issue I have had knocking around my head for a while, the issue of the use of informants in U.S. terror cases. It is a complex question, as it is hard to know what the alternative is sometimes. Being on the Guardian’s website, this has awakened a storm of comments on their page, some of which are rational but many are pretty off-the-wall. Once I have gotten over my current large writing hump I will try to return to this subject in some sort of a more academically useful way. Any pointers for longer pieces on this topic would be warmly welcomed.

Counter-productive counter-terror

Is entrapping low-level wannabe jihadists with elaborate FBI sting operations the best way of handling domestic radicals?

Raffaello Pantucci

guardian.co.uk, Tuesday 30 November 2010 18.30 GMT

Mohamed Osman Mohamud, the Christmas tree bomber, Portland Oregon Mohamed Osman Mohamud, who has been dubbed ‘the Christmas tree bomber’, after his arrest in an FBI sting operation for attempting to carry out a terrorist attack in Portland Oregon. Photograph: AP Photo

The latest attempt by an American Muslim to wreak havoc in America is a depressing indictment of two things: of the fact that there continue to be young Americans eager to kill their fellow citizens in the name of extremist ideas, and of the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s eagerness to launch counter-intelligence operations to trap such people.Attorney General Holder may be correct that “there is no entrapment here, and no entrapment claim will be found to be successful,” but what is unclear is the degree to which efforts to catch people may well be exacerbating the problem.

In the UK, counter-terrorism experts mutter sniffily about how such an approach would never stand up in a British court of law. And in some recent cases, one has to wonder. Farooque Ahmed, a Pakistani-American, appears to have been the only active plotter in a network of FBI informants who claimed to be al-Qaida. Ahmed thought he was plotting with them to launch a series of bombings on underground stations in Washington, DC, when, in fact, he was the only person whose intent was genuine among a unit of paid informants.

Now, there is the case of Mohamed Osman Mohamud, a 19-year-old Somali-American who drove and attempted to detonate a car bomb at a Christmas tree lighting ceremony in Portland, Oregon. Having attempted to make repeated contact with what he believed were extremists in Pakistan, Mahmud was finally contacted by a FBI agent who led him to believe that he was a fellow extremist. The two met in July 2010, and Osman appears to have decided this person was acceptably radical and to share violent ideas with him.

What follows is a scenario that is increasingly familiar in the US: the agents worked with the young man essentially to help him assemble a plot that would demonstrate his intent to carry out an attack in the US. Throughout court documents published after arrest, it is clear that agents made sure the individual knew what he was getting himself into, and what the likely consequences would be (innocent people would die). And at no point does the individual decide that, actually, this is something he would rather not do.

Instead, he continues down the path until, at a certain point, police decide that they have enough evidence and he is arrested. This has happened previously with Hosam Maher Husein Smadi and James Cromitie and his cell. In those cases, individuals are currently serving long jail terms, and given the weight of evidence that doubtless includes a lot of incriminating recordings, it is likely that Farooque and Mahmud are going to be following them.

But is this really a strategy that is improving the situation in the United States? Domestic radicalisation in the US is of increasing concern to American security planners, and rightly so, but such arrests have a questionable security benefit.

First of all, it is worth taking a step back to look at whether these individuals would have necessarily attempted to carry out their actions if it was not for the support of the network of agents who tasked with monitoring them. If these individuals continued as lone radicals who were unable to find individuals of equal determination to pursue a violent path, would they necessarily have attempted to carry out an attack?

As has been shown by Marc Sageman and others, domestic Islamist terrorists tend to be more effective (that is, dangerous) if they have others to bounce their ideas off. When we add to this the fact that, often, it is the security agents in the situation who have provided (or are offering to provide) the weapons or explosives, then this phenomenon is surely further accelerated.

Second, it seems of questionable utility to be continually incarcerating the sorts of individuals caught in these FBI stings. In the case of Mahmud, at least two undercover agents and numerous others’ time was used in catching him; while in Farooque’s case, at least three agents were directly involved. In either instance, might it not have been a more productive use of agents’ time simply to scare the individual off his chosen path with a menacing warning, rather than bothering with this long and expensive investigation? In neither case did they seem to have anything beyond peripheral contact with actual extremists. Had they been warned off, they might have ceased their efforts.

Of course, it can be argued that the harsh reaction to these individuals could be a purposeful effort by American services to send a strong deterrence message. But operations like these have been going on for years, and we continue to see new domestic radicals pop up.

It is also true that the US authorities are understandably concerned about the increase in unpredictable, “sole agent” attackers at home: Hassan Malik Nidal and Abdulhakim Mujahid are merely two of a number of Americans to have been drawn to Anwar al-Awlaki’s message of personalised jihad. Alongside aspirant attackers Faisal Shazhad or Umar Faruk Abdulmutallab, who had some connections but acted alone, these men all appear to have operated in a vacuum, which the FBI had missed prior to their murderous attacks. That precedent is rightly alarming.

Still, questions must be raised about the value and utility of capturing such low-level aspirants as Farooque or Mahmud, who are both likely to receive long terms of incarceration at great expense to the taxpayer. Another way to address the threat might be to actively dissuade such individuals from getting involved in terrorist activity. This approach has not always met with success in the past: the British services made themselves known to Abu Qatada, Abu Hamza and other radicals in London, but this contact did not dissuade them from radicalising aplenty and supporting jihad internationally. But this still might be a more productive avenue in dealing with low-level aspirants (as opposed to hardened militant preachers), as an effective alternative to elaborate sting operations.

After all, both Farooque and Mahmud were gullible enough to believe that individuals they first met online were hardcore al-Qaida supporters – these are strictly amateurs. A dramatic intervention coupled with local monitoring could result in just as much security benefit, at a considerably lower cost. This strategy would have the bonus effect of helping to thin out the increasing number of Muslim “martyrs” sitting in American jails. Their growing presence suggests that lengthy incarceration has little, if any deterrent effect on America’s homegrown jihadis.

 

A movie review this time at Free Rad!cals looking at the movie Carlos. I watched the extended version, which while hugely enjoyable was very long and could have been trimmed a bit. Still well worth watching though if you have the chance. Have written a few of these types of reviews at Free Rad!cals (this one looked at another couple of films dealing with terrorism), and would be willing to write more should anyone comes across any books or films that seem relevant. Contact me through the contact page or comments if you have any ideas. It also occurred to me as I re-publish this here, that this case in Spain looks like it would also help prove my point about networks being interlinked.

Carlos

Filed under: Terrorism

This weekend I sat through the full-whack three-part version of the film “Carlos,” the story of Carlos the Jackal, the infamous Venezuelan who turned from a beret sporting revolutionary into international gun for hire. An enjoyable experience, it reminded me once again of the many parallels that seem to exist between the ideas and motivation that drive Islamist extremists and the left-wing extremists who turned to violence in the 1960s and 1970s. 

To give a brief history, Carlos, whose real name was Illich Ramirez Sanchez, was born in Venezuela in 1949 to a father so dedicated to the Leninist cause that he named his children, Vladimir, Illich and Lenin (after the great man). Having decided from a young age he was set on becoming a revolutionary, Illich joined and trained with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) for whom he struck repeatedly around the globe. From there he graduated into international celebrity, achieving his greatest notoriety for leading the raid in which he and a team kidnapped the OPEC ministers while in conference at Vienna. Having reached his apex, much of the rest of his career was spent living off the laurels of this infamy, though he led a terror campaign across Europe and against French interests in the 1980s. The collapse of the Berlin wall and disappearance of the communist bloc meant he lost one of major benefactors, leaving him stranded and reliant on the mercy of friendly Arab states who were trying to ascertain their position vis-à-vis the West in the post-Communist world.

The film is useful in highlighting a couple of key lessons that leaders learned after their experiences with terrorism in the 1970s.  First of all, that negotiation and capitulation to terrorists’ demands at the end of a gun is something which is really only going to bring you more trouble. Secondly, that state actors tend to play an important role. Carlos and his group are repeatedly reliant on funding from states and the use of their diplomatic cover to move weapons and to travel around. For the supporting states, Carlos and his team provide asymmetric depth to their ideological conflict with the western powers.

More interesting when comparing the problems then to the problems now is the incredibly diverse set of people that Carlos calls upon in his operations. From German members of the Revolutionary Cells, to ETA members, to Palestinians, and other Arab nations, the front that Carlos is seen leading is an international one which is motivated (at least initially) by a deep desire to free the world from what they characterize as “imperialism.” Parallels are easy to draw between this and the idealism behind the individuals who are drawn from an international community to the cause of Islamist extremism. The recent scare to emerge from Waziristan seemed to focus around a possible plot which included British-Pakistani’s, Franco-Algerians, and an assortment of German born or raised young men. In both cases, young people from around the world are drawn by a common ideology to fight against the system.

But equally concerning is the parallel that one might draw when one considers the ideological flexibility these groups and networks can deploy once established. In the film we see Carlos shift from being a revolutionary idealist to a gun for hire – deploying his international network at the disposal of states that are willing to fund his operations. Similarly, these days it is possible to see how networks established to support causes abroad can be turned to support ones at home: Lashkar e Toiba’s European network appears to have provided some support for Richard Reid’s attempting shoe bombing and the structure from which Operation Crevice emerged. There are many such examples, the point being that once created, these networks can easily switch from merely funneling abroad to bringing trouble home.

The film itself is very well made, if a bit long, but I did choose to watch the longer version that I can see in parts could have been trimmed. The lead actor, Edgar Ramirez, is very impressive both in his acting and his capacity to leap quite fluently between languages. However, it is difficult to shake the sense that the film is an attempt to glorify the Jackal; as this reviewer put it, presenting his as “the terrorist as pin up.” Something that might exacerbate the problems this film is talking about. But if that is part of a terrorist’s appeal, then maybe it is unavoidable – films will always be glamorous and it remains unclear whether it is always their fault or their responsibility if people are inspired by media to carry out similar actions.

A short article for Foreign Policy, expanding on my previous Survival article looking at China’s relationship with Afghanistan. This is a subject I am going to do some more work on, including building on a fascinating set of interviews I recently did in Beijing. As ever, any thoughts or pointers hugely appreciated.

In Afghanistan, it’s only Chinese take-out

NATO wants more Chinese assistance in stabilizing the region. But as ever, Beijing won’t step up to the plate without a nod from Islamabad.

By RAFFAELLO PANTUCCI | NOVEMBER 29, 2010

U.S. and European generals and strategists are often decrying China’s increasing influence around the globe. But this March NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen took a different stance. “I think China could play a key role in civilian development in Afghanistan,” Rasmussen told China’s state media.

Eight months later, however, Beijing is no closer to playing that role than it has been throughout the nine-year war in Afghanistan. For all the recent media attention on China’s investment in Afghanistan’s mining wealth, the real question is why Beijing isn’t doing more. Afghanistan’s President Hamid Karzai’s administration has long reached out to Beijing for money and political support, and both Afghan and NATO leaders think that China’s leaders, if they were so inclined, could do much to improve stability in Central and South Asia. Yet Beijing doesn’t want to play ball.

Not so long ago, it seemed China might finally be ready to take on a larger role. In late 2009 and early 2010, Western diplomats visiting Beijing were surprised at the level of interest and inquisitiveness from their Chinese counterparts when it came to the subject of Afghanistan. U.S. President Barack Obama had just announced the planned withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan beginning in July 2011, and concerned Chinese policy makers seemed to be trying to assess the impact of such a move on their near neighborhood. One op-ed that ran in the state-runGlobal Times on Dec. 24, 2009 suggested it might be time for the Chinese to send police forces to “help the Afghan government to safeguard the construction projects aided or invested in by the Chinese government.”

One clear signal China could give would be to finally open the Wakhan Corridor, the thin band of land extending some 200 miles from northeast Afghanistan, which links the two countries. China has kept the border virtually sealed for over 100 years due to political instability in Afghanistan. In June 2009, China announced it would look into the possibility of reopening the border road. Nothing has come of that inquiry so far.

China’s reluctance to act is largely due to its close relationship with Pakistan, the prism through which Beijing views much of the region. Beijing is likely aware that opening the Wakhan Corridor might disrupt lucrative regional trade routes through Pakistan, thus incurring Islamabad’s wrath and damaging other investments it has already made in the Gwadar port in southern Pakistan. Moreover, China has no desire to be dragged into the messy business of nation-building; even its existing investments now seem at risk. Key among them is the Aynak copper mine for which the state-owned China Metallurgical Group Corp. paid more than $3.5 billion, while also offering to build a rail line and power station to support the province. Yet the expensive project has thus far proved to be a headache, plagued by schedule delays and local security problems. Archaeologists have raised concerns that an ancient monastery filled with historical artifacts sits atop the mine’s location. Such hassles have made the China Metallurgical Group reconsider whether it really wants to bid for theHajigak iron ore mine, which could contain, according to the Afghan government, up to two billion tonnes of high-grade iron ore that it had initially expressed interest in. Even the seemingly insatiable Beijing has begun to wonder whether mining in Afghanistan may be more trouble than it’s worth.

This is not to say that China has played no role in Afghanistan. Beijing recently pledged $75 million in aid to Afghanistan over the next five years and has already provided, according to Chinese figures, $130 million in aid since the fall of the Taliban. In July, China’s Foreign Minister Yang Jiechiannounced that Beijing would train 200 Afghan officials and technical personnel this year and was increasing the number of scholarships it offered to young Afghans from 30 to 50. But these numbers are small compared with what China could give and what it does gives to neighboring Pakistan. In the wake of the terrible floods this year, for instance, China quickly pledged $200 million in aid to Pakistan.

For now, beyond resource extraction and providing a minimum of diplomatic largesse, China refuses to become more engaged in Afghanistan. It is hard to see a way through the impenetrable fog of friendliness that is the Sino-Pak relationship, described by Chinese and Pakistani leaders as “higher than the mountains, deeper than the oceans, sweeter than honey, and stronger than steel.” And since Pakistan continues to hedge its position in Afghanistan, both supporting the government and supporting elements linked to the insurgency, it’s unlikely that Beijing will endanger its friendship with Islamabad and its potential partner in the wake of NATO’s departure by coming to NATO’s aid.

Ultimately, there is a great deal of common ground between Beijing, the West, and the Karzai administration: They all want to see a stable Afghanistan. But China’s wait-and-see strategy is not going to change anytime soon, something the Obama administration is going to have to accept as it figures out how it is going to extricate itself from Afghanistan.

Raffaello Pantucci is a visiting scholar at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences and a China program associate with the European Council on Foreign Relations.

A new post over at Whose World Order?, the new blog I contribute to for my new organization, the European Council on Foreign Relations. As I have mentioned before, this is going to be a relatively regular feature, so any ideas for it would be warmly welcomed. Thanks, as ever, to Sue Anne for pics.

Shanghai View: A day at the Races

Date: 29th November 2010  |  Author: Raffaello Pantucci

Categories: China
Tags: ChinaGermanyShanghai

This weekend, German street car racing came to Shanghai. It was not the first time that it had taken place, but it was a surreal experience to see a chunk of Shanghai transformed, at least in part, into a racetrack screaming branding in German daubed with large yellow posters advertising Deutsche Post.

The race was the culmination of the DTM year of racing, and was the 1st race of the season outside Europe and in Asia. When asked why they did these races here, the common consensus amongst the organisers spoken to was that they saw this as a huge potential market and that anything to raise their profile in it was a good thing. But the market is still in its infancy here. To give a sense of numbers, some 5,000 showed up for the final days race, while an average European race attracts 80,000. However, as the vast Chinese consumer market grows it is likely that the market for those seeking high-end cars and the fine tuning equipment and parts to turn them into racers is also likely to grow and both Audi and Mercedes Benz (and the army of smaller parts companies) want to guarantee they have a share of that.

The event itself was apparently organized in part by Ye Jingzi, the daughter of Marshal Ye Jianying, a veteran of the Long March and founder of the PLA, who was recently featured in the FT as a rising “princeling”. She was running around the racecourse and at the end was amongst those doling out the prizes. Also present was a Vice Mayor, who provided a stamp of officialdom to the event, though frankly did not seem that impressed by the whole thing.

Prior to the race, some of the team organizers were complaining about the track and its difficulties. Since the course ran through the middle of new Shanghai, during the evenings prior to the race the roads had been left open to the public bringing dirt onto the roads that made it harder for the drivers to get good grip.

But this aside, it was clear that this was an important race. The teams had all brought out their main sponsors to the course, partly doubtless because this was the final of the season, but also since this was China and everything Chinese is of course elevated to a different level. For German manufacturers like those selling car parts getting in early and with good contacts into the Chinese markets is essential. Cars remain an industry that foreigners can only invest in if they establish a joint venture with a Chinese firm; something that alarms people concerned with the tech transfer issues involved. It also puts competitors like General Motors and Volkswagen (VW) in the odd position of both having joint ventures with the Shanghai Automotive Industry Corporation (SAIC). So they are working with a partner who is also helping their competition, as well as producing separate SAIC cars for the same market. None of this, it should be added, has detracted from making VW a fortune in the Chinese market. Audi, a VW firm, is the car most frequently used by Chinese officials and according to figures released in late October for the year prior, the company’s profits from two joint ventures in China was a whopping €513 million, more than double the €231 million made the year before. According to the WSJ, in 2009, VW sold 1.4 million units, up from 1.02 million the year before, placing it atop the scoreboard of vehicle sales in China.

In the end it was a British driver who won the race, and a Scottish driver who won the overall competition. Chinese driver Congfu Cheng, while playing with home-field advantage, was only able to place 15th. Still, I was led to understand that this is not the last time a race will take place in China and I am sure in the future, Chinese drivers will also become a growing presence on the DTM scoreboard.

Pictures courtesy of Sue Anne Tay, who has some more on her blog