Posts Tagged ‘US’

A new piece for Jamestown on a subject I have been trying to get published for a while. Will keep this short as am in hurry, but more soon.

The Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan’s Expanding Western Connections

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 9 Issue: 37
October 14, 2011 05:20 PM Age: 18 hrs
Faisal Shahzad
As the United States breathed a sigh of relief that the 10th anniversary of 9/11 had passed without any major incident, the U.S. Justice Department announced that three men had pled guilty to charges of trying to smuggle a member of the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) into the United States. As one of the suspects, Irfan ul-Haq, put it, it was “not their concern” what the smuggled individual might “want to do in the United States – hard labor, sweep floor, wash dishes in a hotel, or blow up. That will be up to them.” [1] The men were apparently part of a network of people smugglers that was willing to help Pakistani TTP members enter the United States, highlighting once again the menace posed by the group to the United States, as perceived by the American security community.

The histories of the three men at the heart of this case are unclear. They were arrested on March 10 in Quito, Ecuador, as part of an operation by American forces (NTN24 [Bogata], September 20, 2011). In court documents released later, prosecutors laid out a case showing that from January 2011, undercover agents dispatched by a law enforcement agency approached two of the men in Quito, Irfan ul-Haq and Qasim Ali, to inquire about smuggling a fictitious person from Pakistan into the United States. The initial approach was to ul-Haq, who directed them to talk to Ali in order to obtain fraudulent documentation. The two men then met and spoke with the undercover agents a number of times to work out the details and a month later ul-Haq seems to have brought a third man, Zahid Yousaf, into the conspiracy. [2] It was at about this time that one of the undercover agents told the suspects he was a member of the TTP and that the individual who was intended to be smuggled was also a member – information that elicited the callous response highlighted before. [3] While it is unclear whether the suspects were actually supportive of TTP aims, their capacity to smuggle individuals out of Pakistan and into the United States using fraudulent documentation would have provided the TTP with a useful network were they able to connect with it. At one point the suspects provided the undercover agents with a sample fake British passport and ul-Haq boasted of having contacts in Pakistani immigration that could provide exit stamps for people who were wanted by security services.

This in turn highlights the general growing concern about the increasing internationalization of the TTP. On July 29 the UN Security Council agreed to add the TTP to the list of proscribed groups. [4] In an electronic interview with Terrorism Monitor, Richard Barrett, coordinator of the UN’s al-Qaeda-Taliban Monitoring Group, said the move was “an important symbolic consequence” that showed “the international community as a whole condemns [the TTP] without reservation. This universal condemnation acts as an encouragement to all those who are opposed to TTP and have suffered from its violence.” [5] The move follows earlier decisions to proscribe the TTP by Pakistan, the UK, the United States and most recently, Canada. [6] The threat to the West was brought into focus when Waliur Rehman, the head of TTP in South Waziristan, announced: “Soon you will see attacks against America and NATO countries, and our first priorities in Europe will be France and Britain” (al-Arabiya, June 28).

This is not the first time the group has threatened the West and it has attempted in the past to carry through on these threats. Back in January 2008, the group was connected to a plot to attack Barcelona, Spain and other possible EU targets by deploying a network of twelve men, ten Pakistanis and two Indians.  According to prosecutors and an informant within the cell, some of the men had undergone training with TTP in Waziristan. The informant reported that the then-TTP leader Baitullah Mahsud had specifically identified him as a potential suicide bomber. The link to the TTP was confirmed in August 2008 when TTP spokesman Maulvi Omar released a video in which he stated, “the [foiled attack] in Barcelona was conducted by twelve of our men. They were under pledge to Baitullah Mahsud and the TTP has already claimed responsibility because [of] Spain’s military presence in Afghanistan.” [7]

While this plot was disrupted, responsibility for Faizul Shahzad’s failed car bombing in Times Square in May 2010 was claimed by TTP soon afterwards in a video that featured footage of Shahzad at a TTP camp. According to the indictment that was handed down against him, Shahzad admitted to having trained alongside the group in Waziristan in December 2009. Having returned to the United States, Shahzad received some $5,000 in February 2010 to help him carry out an attack there. He then went about purchasing a gun and locating the necessary equipment to build a car bomb. [8]

While it is unclear whether Shahzad had any contact with TTP networks in the United States, the existence of these networks now seems to have been confirmed. Aside from the group arrested in Quito, FBI agents in Miami moved in May to disrupt a network based around a pair of imams in Florida who were allegedly running a fundraising network to send money to the TTP. According to prosecutors, the group sent at least $50,000 to Pakistan and discussed the terrorist attacks it was going to support with their contacts there (Miami Herald, May 14). This came after an August 2010 operation codenamed “Samosa” in Ottawa, Canada that was mounted by Royal Canadian Mounted Police forces to disrupt a network that was sending funds to the TTP and accumulating bomb making material locally (National Post, July 5).

Successful attacks have yet to emerge from these TTP support networks, but it seems likely that more plots will follow in the future. Given the ongoing trickle of foreigners drawn to Pakistan and the TTP’s ongoing campaign at home against the Pakistani state and its American backers, it is likely that this connection will continue to be a focus of concern for Western intelligence agencies.

Notes:

1. USA vs. Irfan ul Haq, Factual Proffer in Support of Guilty Plea, filed September 12, 2011.http://www.investigativeproject.org/documents/case_docs/1683.pdf.

2. USA vs. Irfan ul Haq, Qasim Ali, Zahid Yousaf, Indictment filed March 3, 2011.http://www.investigativeproject.org/documents/case_docs/1678.pdf.

3. USA vs. Irfan ul Haq, Factual Proffer in Support of Guilty Plea, filed September 12, 2011.http://www.investigativeproject.org/documents/case_docs/1683.pdf.

4. http://www.un.org/sc/committees/1267/NSQE13211E.shtml.

5. Author’s email interview with Richard Barrett.

6. Public Safety Canada – Currently Listed Entitities, http://www.publicsafety.gc.ca/prg/ns/le/cle-eng.aspx#TTP.

7. http://www.nefafoundation.org/multimedia-intvu.html

8. USA vs. Faisal Shahzad, indictment, http://www.cbsnews.com/htdocs/pdf/Shahzad_Faisal_Indictment.pdf .

A short letter for the Washington Post, this time focused on the question of drones and their use as a tactic in American counter-terrorism. My original letter was much longer, but the distilled point is still there. I have touched on this subject before, and would like to return with a much bigger piece at some point but am a bit overwhelmed with other things at the moment. Look for some longer pieces to land in the near future in the meantime.

—-

The confirmed expansion of the drone program in Africa [“U.S. creating a ring of secret drone bases,” front page, Sept. 21] highlights once again the importance of the program to American counterterrorism efforts.

But in the rush to deploy with this clearly effective new technology, have policymakers given enough consideration to the fact that they are carving out a path that almost completely disregards the conventional rules of war, borders and the right of due process in foreign countries?

There also is a longer-term impact of the wanton use of this technology that must be confronted: What happens when others manage to develop the same technology? Can the United States complain when a foreign power uses drones to eliminate individuals they believe are plotting terrorism in a country that is a close American ally? More immediately, can it complain when foreign powers send teams to execute individuals they claim are terrorist plotters? What if these supposed plotters are in the United States?

Raffaello Pantucci, London

The writer is an associate fellow at the International Center for the Study of Radicalization

A new piece over at the Guardian, looking at the perennial question of al Shabaab and its western recruits. I realize the conclusion might be seen as a bit exaggerated, but it does seem to me that we are potentially running the risk of going in this direction and at the end of the day it is often what we don’t expect that happens. The question is how long will this sense hang over us. As usual thoughts and comments warmly welcomed.

Al-Shabaab: the American Connection

There’s ample evidence of radicalised US citizens wooed to fight in Somalia. We need to ensure they don’t bring the jihad home.

A fighter from al-Shabaab, Mogadishu

A fighter from al-Shabaab runs for cover from a burnt-out African Union tank during fighting in Somalia’s capital, Mogadishu, 2 July 2010. Photograph: Feisal Omar/Reuters

The news of another American suicide bomber shows, once again, the deadly allure of jihadism among a small number of young US citizens, but it also casts a light on the potential danger that allowing the conflict in Somalia to continue unabated poses. Now that we are at the third possible American suicide bomber in Somalia, it is time to take stronger measures to solve this problem – before it comes back to haunt us in the west.

In a cynical way, the news is a tidy resolution for security services. The fact that these young men have died abroad means they will no longer be able to pose a threat at home. But this fails to take into account the larger threat that these deaths represent, both in terms of the embedding of jihadist ideas in North America, but also the growing menace internationally of the al-Shabaab group.

The story of the American jihad is not new. At this point, we have seen jihadist plots in the US with links to all of the major jihadist battlefields abroad, and in many cases, they have involved US citizens. And within the US, there have been a number of plots uncovered involving Americans who have radicalised and chosen to participate in plots that may have concluded in terrorist attacks. The conviction of Tahawwur Rana for his role in a plot targeting Denmark was merely the latest manifestation.

Somalia and al-Shabaab (whose name literally means “the youth”) is a subset of this issue, but one that has been growing in importance as it becomes clear that the group has been able to draw to itself both young ethnic Somalis and an ever increasing number of radicalised young men and women from other ethnicities. Young Shabaab leader Omar Hammami, for example, is a Daphne, Alabama native of Syrian descent who left the comfort of the US to serve as a leader in the Somali group using the nom de guerre “Abu Mansur al-Amiriki”. And he is not alone, with some of his compatriots agreeing to act as suicide bombers in that war-torn country.

But in parallel to this trend of young Americans leaving to fight jihad, al-Shabaab has gradually escalated the tenor of its violence. From a group that was a wing of the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), which emerged from the rampant warlordism gripping Somalia, Shabaab has steadily risen to become a formidable fighting force that has absorbed other groups and taken and held increasing chunks of territory. It has also demonstrated a capacity to launch coordinated attacks beyond its territory of control. In October 2008, it sent six suicide bomber teams deep into usually peaceful northern Somalia; one of those bombers was Shirwa Ahmed, a 26-year-old Somali American from Minneapolis. Then, in July of last year, as people enjoyed the football World Cup final, a pair of suicide bombers sent by Shabaab blew themselves up in Kampala, Uganda, killing some 74 people.

In between, there were numerous other bombings, attacks and firefights inside Somalia, alongside a growing trend for terrorist plots or attacks in the west – all with links to Shabaab. A group in Australia, frustrated in its ambition to go fight in Somalia, was disrupted while apparently plotting to attack an army base in Melbourne. A young Somali Dane, who was picked up and repatriated to Denmark by Kenyan forces as part of an alleged network planning an attack against Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, tried to kill cartoonist Kurt Westegaard for his role in the Mohammed cartoons. And a group of young Britons, who had attended outward-bound camps in the UK alongside attempted London suicide bombers in the UK, went to Somalia seeking connections with a-Shabaab.

It is unclear whether al-Shabaab directed any of these attacks or groups, but the connections are worrying. As the head of Britain’s MI5 said last September, “I am concerned that it is only a matter of time before we see terrorism on our streets inspired by those who are today fighting alongside al-Shabaab.”

Yet, the prevailing western tendency has been to observe the problem, rather than engage with it. While direct intervention in Somalia is clearly a bad idea, a more focused effort is needed. Broad sweeps of the Muslim community, exemplified in New York Representative Peter King’s recent congressional hearings on radicalisation, are not helpful: they put people’s backs up while failing to address a problem that only affects a minority within a minority. Instead, efforts should be focused on demythologising jihad. Former fighters who have returned and changed their minds can foster a counter-narrative, while jihadist websites in the west need to be taken down and the webmasters identified. Fundraising and support networks should be pursued, and the community needs to be persuaded that turning a blind eye to this activity is only going to attract negative unwanted attention. Some of these measures are likely already being deployed, but clearly, they are not proving totally effective.

The pattern that can be observed in the Somali jihad is one that replicates almost precisely the pattern that culminated in the 7 July 2005 bombings in London. Let us learn from those mistakes and ensure that it does not culminate with a similar atrocity in the US or elsewhere.

A longer article in the latest HSToday, that predates the current chaos regarding a certain person who was killed in Pakistan. Looks at why terrorists remain fixated with aviation. The whole article can be found below, but those who want to read it in the magazine can find it here or at your local newsagents (if you are in the US).

Airport Security: Aiming At Aviation

Why terrorists continue to focus on planes as their number one target.

By: Raffaello Pantucci

05/04/11
A suicide bomber in the reception hall at Moscow’s Domodevo International, a shooter randomly targeting US servicemen as they wait for a bus outside Frankfurt International airport, parcel bombs placed upon international freight carriers heading for the United States intercepted in Dubai and the UK’s East Midlands Airport—aviation and airports have never seemed to be a higher priority target for terrorist groups.
This is not in itself a new phenomenon, but given estimated costs and disruption for each plot veering into millions of dollars and the guaranteed media attention that they bring, it seems equally clear that this is a problem that is only likely to get larger over time.

A short history of explosive flight

Terrorists have long sought out airlines as priority targets. Sept. 11, 2001, stands out as a major recent watershed, but this was merely a tactical fusion of two separate strands in terrorist targeting that had gone on before.

For groups seeking quite specific tactical aims, the idea of kidnapping aircraft laden with passengers provided a group of hostages that could be bartered for money or fellow comrades sitting in jails, all the while advancing their political cause before a global audience. Throughout the 1960s-1990s, terrorist groups of many different stripes would target aircraft, from the Japanese Red Army who in 1970 hijacked an internal Japanese flight that they redirected to North Korea, to Kashmiri extremists who in December 1999 hijacked a Kathmandu, Nepal, to Delhi flight and ended up securing the release of three fellow comrades sitting in Indian jails. The international nature of air travel meant that groups were guaranteed global media attention that would often translate into successful media operations whether or not the specific tactical aims were achieved.

This global attention and disruption was also at the heart of targeting aircraft with bombs to bring them down mid-flight. On June 22, 1985, Sikh extremists placed suitcases full of explosives on Air India flights originating from Canada. One exploded over the Atlantic Ocean near Ireland while the other went off on the ground at Tokyo’s Narita airport, both bombs killing a total of 331 people. The campaign was part of a radical Sikh campaign to seek separation for an Indian state. Three years later, a bomb placed in a suitcase on Pan Am flight 103 from London Heathrow to John F. Kennedy Airport in New York brought down that aircraft over Lockerbie, Scotland, killing all 259 on board and a further 11 on the ground. The bombing was part of a Libyan sponsored campaign that also included the bombing in September 1989 of a flight from Brazzaville, Congo, to Paris, killing 170, and the hijacking in 1986 of another Pan Am flight on the ground in Karachi, Pakistan. All these attacks were part of the shadow war between Colonel Muammar Gadaffi’s Libya and the United States.

The Sept. 11 attacks, however, brought these two deadly strands together in a manner that had not yet been seen—turning a hijacked craft into a flying bomb.

Echoes of the plot could be found earlier. In December 1994, a cell of Algerian Islamists linked to the Armed Islamic Group (known by its French acronym GIA) hijacked a flight from Algiers to Paris and, according to a French intelligence asset, intended to crash it full of fuel into the Eiffel Tower. The plotters were taken out on the ground in Marseilles by French special forces, and as a result their final intentions will never be known.

Weeks after the raid in Marseilles, police in Manila, Philippines, reported to an apartment fire and caught Pakistani national Abdul Hakim Murad in an apartment full of terrorist material. Murad later confessed to being part of a conspiracy masterminded by Ramzi Youssef to bring down about a dozen flights en route from Asia to the United States with undetectable bombs left on board the flights. The plotters had already tested out one of their devices on a Manila to Tokyo flight, killing a Japanese businessman. Youssef, who a year earlier had masterminded the 1993 attempt to topple the World Trade Center towers, was the nephew of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and continued to plot with his uncle until he was captured in Islamabad, Pakistan, in February 1995. Upon capture he was found to have US flight plans in his possession.

These dots were never connected until after September 2001. Some security planners were reported by the 9/11 Commission to have considered scenarios along the lines of 9/11 prior to the event, but no one had considered the implications of what might be required to respond.

Post-Sept. 11, however, there has been a noticeable drop off in attempts to hijack aircraft. While passengers with personal agendas or mental disorders threaten sporadic aircraft, there has not been an organized hijacking since September 2001, something that is a testament to the effectiveness of the 9/11 plotters. Having seen what can happen, it is now unlikely that a flight full of passengers will sit docilely by while they are flown to certain death.

None of this has, however, reduced the attraction of airlines and aircraft as a target for Al Qaeda. Subsequent to his arrest in March 2003, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed revealed plans to attack Heathrow airport in London either using a hijacked craft or a mortar. Three months after his successful 9/11 strike, he had dispatched Richard Reid and Saajid Badat—two British Muslims who had been directed to Al Qaeda camps in the years prior to 2001 through the network around the Finsbury Park mosque in London—with bombs in their shoes to bring down transatlantic flights. Badat backed out at the last minute with a message to his handler saying “you will have to tell Van Damme that he could be on his own,” while Reid attempted to board a flight in Paris. Showing up looking unwashed and with no baggage, he was initially turned back by security but was able on the second day to board a Paris to Miami flight.

Russian terrorism takes flight

Even in the wake of the more stringent checks placed on aircraft and passengers caused by 9/11, Al Qaeda remained fixated on airlines, a consistency also visible among terror networks in Russia that targeted aircraft both before and after 2001.

In March 2001, a team of three Chechens armed with knives and what they claimed was a bomb hijacked a flight from Istanbul to Moscow, redirecting it to Medina in Saudi Arabia where they released some of the passengers and demanded refueling, supposedly to go on to Afghanistan. Fearing a bloody resolution if the terrorists blew the plane up as they threatened, Saudi authorities decided to storm the craft, resulting in the death of a hijacker, a passenger and one of the crew. The two captured terrorists were quickly identified as Aslanbek Arsayev, a prominent Chechen who had served previously as minister for state security in Chechnya, and his brother Supian Arsayev. Both men were eventually extradited to Russia and their current whereabouts are unknown.

Subsequent to the September 2001 attacks, Russian Military Air Forces Commander in Chief General Anatoly Kornukov was quoted as saying that “it would be impossible for terrorists to hijack several aircraft simultaneously in Russia.” Showing a certitude born from previous experience when he ordered the shooting down of a South Korean passenger plane that had accidentally violated Russian airspace, Kornukov told a Russian reporter, “if I knew for a fact that there were hostages aboard the hijacked plane and the terrorists were heading straight towards the Kremlin I would report so to the defense minister and suggest he destroy the aircraft. That would be the lesser evil. And then let others judge my actions as they will.”

As it turned out, it was not hijacking on which the Chechens focused. Three years later, Chechen fighters bribed their way onto a pair of planes leaving Moscow’s Domodevo airport on internal routes. Waiting patiently until they knew both flights would be in the air, the bombers detonated their explosives at 11 p.m. on Aug. 24, 2004, bringing both craft down and killing a total of 89 people.

Posthumously identified as Satsita Dzhebirkhanova and Amanta Nagayeva, the “black widows” were identified as Chechens who had suffered family losses as a result of the war and who had been dispatched by Chechen leader Shamil Basayev as part of a campaign called “Operation Boomerang.” According to Cerwyn Moore, an expert on Russian Islamist terrorism at the University of Birmingham, UK, the entire operation was “designed to demonstrate the weakness of Russian security measures … breaching security Domodevo not only caused embarrassment for the Putin administration, it also posed a security dilemma for the Russian authorities.” And as we saw in January, it is one that they have not yet managed to resolve.

For Russians, terrorism from Chechnya and the Northern Caucasus has become something of a routine affair. Aside from the targeting of airplanes, there have been takeovers by terrorists of hospitals, schools and theaters as well as periodic bombings of everything from the Moscow subway to outdoor concerts and the grim apartment bombings of September 1999 that claimed 293 dead. The decision, however, to target the international airport’s arrivals lounge in January 2011 was, according to Moore, specifically “to send a message to both the Russian authorities but also to the outside world … that the Russian authorities’ most secure transport hubs could be attacked.” The subsequent international media coverage guaranteed that this message reached a wider audience, though it is unclear that it will have any tangible impact on the group’s aims.

Al Qaeda’s innovative wing

In August 2006, British and Pakistani forces moved in to arrest a network of plotters that they had under surveillance as part of a large-scale plot, directed by Al Qaeda’s upper echelons, to bring down as many as eight aircraft on transatlantic routes.

Coordinated using a network of British extremists, six of whom had recorded martyrdom videos, the plotters were planning on using devices ingeniously devised to pass airport security. Using highly concentrated hydrogen peroxide hidden in soft drink bottles as the main charge, hollowed out batteries filled with explosive to provide the detonator and a disposable camera light bulb as the trigger, the bombs would have been likely to pass airport security and killed thousands. According to former Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, the attack “would have rivaled 9/11 in terms of the number of deaths and in terms of the impact on the international economy,” a statement that highlights quite precisely the double-impact that terrorist groups try to achieve through attacking airplanes.

Since this point, however, the Al Qaeda core has seemingly backed away from aviation, preferring more traditional targets like bombs in city centers. The Najibullah Zazi plot in New York, the April 2009 plot in Northern England and the July 2010 plot in Oslo, Norway, all seemed to target buildings in city centers. And the rumors swirling around the global intelligence community in late 2010 were that Al Qaeda was hoping to stage a Mumbai-style attack on an unspecified European city.

Instead, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the Yemeni affiliate connected to Yemeni-American preacher Anwar Al Awlaki, has eagerly taken up the mantle of targeting aviation. Echoing their ideological leader Osama bin Laden in their English-language Inspire magazine, they declared, “if our messages can reach you by words, then they wouldn’t have traveled by planes.”

The group was behind the attempt by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab to bring down a flight en route from Amsterdam to Detroit in December 2009, and then just under a year later for the double-parcel bomb on airfreight craft en route to the United States.

Both attempts were directed and claimed by the group, with Anwar Al Awlaki seen as the ideological and operational leader and Ibrahim Al Asiri, a Saudi bomb maker, as the designer of the devices. Al Asiri had previously designed the bomb that his brother Abdullah had hidden in his rectal cavity and tried to use to kill Saudi security chief Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Nayef. Showing his ongoing capacity to design devices able to get past airport-style security, in December 2009 he constructed the device that Abdulmutallab carried in his underwear, first on a plane from Ghana to Amsterdam and then on to Detroit. It is also believed that he designed the devices secreted in printers that were intercepted in October 2010.

This final operation was celebrated by the group in a special November 2010 edition of Inspire in which they provided images and details of what they dubbed “Operation Hemorrhage.” Alongside claiming responsibility for the two parcel bombs hidden in printers that had been intercepted at the Dubai airport and the UK’s East Midlands airport following a tip passed on by Saudi intelligence, the group also claimed responsibility for the downing of a United Parcel Service plane that crashed in early September 2010 near the Dubai airport. The plane went down for unspecified reasons, and the group claimed responsibility, declaring that “we have succeeded in bringing down the UPS plane but because the enemy’s media did not attribute the operation to us we have remained silent so we may repeat the operation.”

Non-government academic experts, who requested anonymity, told Homeland Security Today that, more likely than not, the group was simply claiming responsibility for something it had not done. But one former British official verified the impressive technical quality of the devices that were found in Dubai and the UK. While international air cargo has long been known as a security weakness in the international supply chain, these devices were able to penetrate security and then were only identifiable to British security officials who were looking for them after they were specifically told where to look by their Emirati counterparts who had located the other device. The bombs showed a new level of technical proficiency.

How the group had achieved this seems to be a combination of human and technical intelligence, something boasted by the “Head of Foreign Operations” in Inspire magazine. In preparing for the attack he claimed that, “we have researched the various security systems employed by airports. We looked into X-ray scanners, full body scanners, sniffing dogs and other aspects of security. The resulting bomb was a device that we were confident that, with the will of Allah, it would pass through the most stringent and up-to-date security equipment.” Later in the magazine the authors highlight in detail how they sealed the device in plastic and then cleaned the bag afterwards so that the device would be undetectable.

While much of the magazine remains anonymous (or penned under what look like pseudonyms), according to Thomas Hegghammer, a prominent scholar of Al Qaeda, this article “is almost certainly written by Awlaki.” Citing a number of references typical of Awlaki’s writing and the “long-held suspicions of intelligence analysts,” Hegghammer believed that this article signaled Awlaki’s “coming out.” Significantly, it also highlighted Awlaki’s personal obsession with targeting aviation—something born out by the parcel bomb attempts and the Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab attempt, both of which he is believed to have played a key role in directing.

Analysis

In a seminal 1974 article written for the RAND Corporation, “International Terrorism: A New Kind of Warfare,” (http://www.rand.org/pubs/papers/2008/P5261.pdf) renowned terrorism expert Brian Michael Jenkins discussed the threat of terrorism and the then-increasingly common form of international air travel.

“Jet air travel furnishes unprecedented mobility and with it the ability to strike anywhere in the world. Recent developments in news broadcasting—radio, television, communication satellites—are also a boon to publicity-seeking terrorists,” he wrote.

It is a nexus that current terrorist groups have been targeting with regularity, recognizing the publicity and chaos that disrupting air travel can cause for relatively low cost. While likely overestimating the cost of their disruptions (they claim it will “cost America and other Western countries billions of dollars in new security measures”), AQAP proudly boasted that “Operation Hemorrhage” cost the group merely $4,200—a more credible figure that highlights how cheap terrorism can be.

What is equally likely is that the groups will learn from their mistakes in targeting international travel, but also that they are likely to learn from the lessons of the two more successful attacks carried out in early 2011—the Moscow Domodevo bombing and the shooting at Frankfurt Airport.

Unlike AQAP’s efforts, these two attacks were effective in killing people and likely required a lot less planning. It is in fact likely that there will be an increase in attacks like that at Frankfurt airport—random acts of violence pursued by loners who believe they are part of an international movement—but whether they take place at airports will not be something that security planners can factor in any more than they can factor in similar attacks in other places. Heightened states of security already exist at most international hubs, and doubtless in the wake of the Frankfurt and Moscow incidents the security perimeter will be pushed out further in much the same way that a July 2007 attempt to drive a car bomb through the departures hall of Glasgow International Airport resulted in increased security at regional British airports.

But for terrorists the optimal target will continue to be aircraft in transit. The problem from a terrorist’s perspective is that a bomb at an airport is very similar to a bomb in any other public place, except the security is tighter (the exception would seem to be Russian airports where, at least in the case of the double-plane downing, individuals at the airport have been corrupted with small, on-the-spot bribes). Consequently, it can seem easier to simply deposit a device on a public transport system where security will be far less. Furthermore, it lacks the drama of an attack on an international flight.

As Brian Michael Jenkins put it in 1974, “terrorism is theater” and an airplane full of people traveling between two developed economies remains the only sure way to guarantee a large media splash, dramatic economic damage and intense attention for your cause. Given AQAP’s continuing fixation with aviation, security in the air will continue to be a major headache in the years to come.

_________________________________________________

Evil by e-mail

Further evidence of Anwar Al Awlaki’s obsession with aviation and the United States was seen in e-mails that emerged in the trial of a Bangladeshi man employed as a British Airways information technology worker who was incarcerated in February for plotting with Awlaki.

In an e-mail to the Bangladeshi in early 2010, Awlaki wrote that he “was excited by hearing your profession” and that “I pray Allah may grant us a breakthrough through you. As a starter, can you please answer these questions in as much elaboration as possible: can you please specify your role in the airline industry, how much access do you have to airports, what information do you have on the limitations and cracks in present airport security systems.”

In responding to the preacher, Karim stated he knew “two brothers, one who works in baggage handling at Heathrow and another who works in airport security. Both are good practicing brothers and sympathise towards the cause of the mujahideen.” Two men were picked up by police in Slough in the wake of Rajib Karim’s arrest, though neither was charged with anything. One was subsequently fired from his job at Heathrow.

A later note from Awlaki highlighted the preacher’s overriding desire to attack the United States using planes. “Our highest priority is to attack the US. Anything, even on a smaller scale compared to what we may do in the UK, would be our choice. So the question is: with the people you have is it possible to get a package or a person with a package on board a flight heading to the US?”

Two weeks after this e-mail was received in February 2010, Karim was arrested at his desk at a British Airways office in Newcastle. Awlaki went on to plan “Operation Hemorrhage” and clearly found other ways to gather information about airport security. Showing how this might have taken place, in late 2010 British intelligence officials released a story to the media that highlighted their belief that terrorist networks were “periodically testing” security at some of Britain’s regional airports. Images were released to the Guardian newspaper that appeared to show improvised explosive devices as seen through airport X-ray machines.

A new piece for HSToday, covering some of the ground I already touched upon with my earlier piece on Rajib Karim,but now going into greater detail about Awlaki’s clear obsession with flights to America. One detail I should clarify, the way the piece reads, it looks like I said that it was the voice message Awlaki sent Rajib and his brother that got security forces switched onto them. I do not know this for certain, though this certainly seems one of the earlier pieces of communication between Awlaki and the Karim to have been released. In fact, it seems likely that he was on radars for a while before this.

Britain Convicts Awlaki Acolyte Targeting US Bound Planes

By: Raffaello Pantucci

03/08/2011 (12:00am)

Last week a court in London convicted Rajib Karim, a 31-year-old Bangladeshi national in the UK working for British Airways of plotting with the Yemeni-American Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) leader, Anwar Al Awlaki, to attack flights bound for the United States.

According to information released during Karim’s trial, Karim exchanged emails with Awlaki in Yemen thinking through ways attacks could be carried out. The target for Awlaki remains America. In an email exchange with Karim, he is alleged to have stated “our highest priority is to attack the US.”

The prosecution asserted that Karim is “committed to an extreme jihadist and religious cause” and was “determined to seek martyrdom.”

Karim denied he got a job with the airline so that he could plan a terror attack, and maintained that “Islam teaches that you can’t target civilians.”

Karim’s conviction is clear evidence of a third attempt by Awlaki to attack aircraft bound for America. In the first known case, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a young London-educated Nigerian, hid an explosive in his underwear and boarded a flight from Ghana through Amsterdam to Detroit. He was overwhelmed before the explosive he carried could fully detonate and currently is in American custody awaiting trial.

A year later, a second attempt came in the form of a set of parcel bombs that originated in Yemen bound for targets in the US. Acting on information from a Saudi informant, one of the bombs was intercepted in Dubai and the other at East Midlands Airport in the UK. In a subsequent “special” edition of Inspire, the publication produced by AQAP, the group claimed credit for the attempted bombings, which it dubbed “Operation Hemorrhage.”

In the case of Karim, it is less clear exactly what Awlaki was planning, but emails between the two men disclosed a series of possibilities. An IT worker at British Airways at time of arrest, Karim moved to the UK in 2006 when he immigrated with his wife and child seeking medical aid for the child. The child got better, and while the move seems genuine enough, Karim by this point was a radicalized individual providing funding and logistical support for the Bangladeshi jihadist group, Jamaat al Mujahedeen.

Meanwhile, Karim’s younger brother, Tehzeeb, spent his time attempting to connect with jihadists in other parts of the world and ended up traveling to Yemen where he connected with Awlaki.

Having made contact with Awlaki using a path that went through the same language school in Sanaa as the one used by Abdulmutallab, Tehzeeb boasted to Awlaki about his brother who worked at British Airways in the UK. This immediately piqued Awlaki’s interest and the Al Qaeda spiritual leader contacted Karim to hear more about his position and how he could help him with his plotting to attack America.

Karim told Awlaki of knowing “two brothers, one who works in baggage handling at Heathrow, and another who works in airport security. Both are good practicing brothers and sympathize towards the cause of the mujahedeen.”

Several other men also were arrested in the initial sweep after Karim’s arrest, but nothing came of the possible charges against them. One was fired from his position at British Airways.

At another point during the plotting when it was announced that British Airways staff were going to go on strike, Karim suggested (and was encouraged) by Awlaki to sign up to act as replacement staff. But he was rejected on the basis that he had worked for the firm for less than five years.

Clearly seeing the potential of the Bangladeshi brothers, Awlaki paid special attention to them, and at one point even sent them a special voice message confirming that rumors of his death were untrue. It is likely that this communication tipped off intelligence agencies to Karim.

When initially arrested, Karim was calm, according to police sources, who suspect that his coolness stemmed from his belief that the security programs he had installed on his computer would keep his secrets hidden from investigators. Coupled with his cover as an IT worker for British Airways and a public persona co-workers described as “mild mannered, well-educated and respectful.”

Karim believed himself a perfect sleeper jihadist.

Police nevertheless were able to crack his encryption codes and methods of hiding information and uncovered a treasure trove of documents and information regarding his communications with Awlaki and his jihadist brother. They were able to piece together his plotting and his growing desire to leave the United Kingdom to conduct jihad.

Karim wrote on January 29, 2010″ “Without anything happening and also not being able to have any concrete plans to do anything here, my iman [faith] was getting affected. I started feeling like a real munafiq [hypocrite]. It has been three years that I have been living here away from the company of good brothers and spending a good part of my working day with the kuffar [infidels] … that’s why I desperately wanted to make hijrah [journey to fight jihad].”

For Awlaki, clearly, the preference would have been for Karim to attempt an attack in the West. And given Karim’s connections and position, it is easy to see how close he came.

 

A short piece for HSToday looking at the decision in the UK to list TTP – still unclear to me why they did it now, except that US also announced it was going to add Qari Hussain to their list of targeted individuals. Any ideas or thoughts on why always welcome.

Britain Goes After Tehrik E Taliban Pakistan

By: Raff Pantucci

01/25/11
On January 19, 2011, Britain joined Pakistan and the US in putting the Pakistani-based Tehrik e Taliban Pakistan (TTP) on the list of terrorist organizations.
UK Immigration Minister Damien Green said the decision means “the proscribed organization is outlawed and is unable to operate in the UK. Proscription means that it is a criminal offence for a person to belong to, or invite support for, a proscribed organization. It is also a criminal offence to arrange a meeting in support of a proscribed organization or to wear clothing or carry articles in public which arouse reasonable suspicion that an individual is a member or supporter of the proscribed organization.”

In essence, proscription means it is now easier for British prosecutorial services to go after individuals and groups providing support for TTP from the UK.

It was not immediately clear why the government moved now to officially proscribe TTP as a terrorist organization, and questions were repeatedly raised in the House about the timing of the decision. Green refused to answer these questions, highlighting the sensitive nature of the intelligence connected to the government’s decision-making process.

In discussing the proscription, ministers’ repeatedly emphasized that the terrorist group’s murderous record in Pakistan, along with the fact that it was connected to Faisal Shahzad’s aborted attempt to detonate a car bomb in Times Square, the organization clearly has shown a capacity to go global. Furthermore, it has directly threatened British aid workers in Pakistan, which poses a direct threat to British interests.

But proscription powers can also present problems. Last year, the government made the controversial move of banning the group Al Muhajiroun and a network of connected organizations.  Unlike TTP, Al Muhajiroun was loudly active in the UK in organizing protests, websites and other activities protesting government policy at home and abroad. Its leader in the UK, Anjem Choudhry, was quite open in talking about the ease with which one can sidestep the proscription orders.

“Unless the government can prove that you are ostensibly exactly the same organisation, doing the same things at the same time, it’s very difficult to clamp down,” Choudhry stated.

Security officials said at the time that there were mechanisms to prevent this sort of activity from taking place, but others stressed that it is a waste of security officials’ time in chasing such low level loudmouths.

As the minister put it: “proscribing the TTP will enable the police to carry out disruptive action more effectively against any supporters in the UK.”

However, it remains unclear how large these sorts of support networks are in Britain. It seems clear that there are support networks in the UK that are providing funding and support for Lashkar-e-Toiba and other networks primarily seen as fomenting jihad in Kashmir and Afghanistan, but it is unclear the degree to which a group like TTP, which seems to operate with brutal ruthlessness within Pakistan, is equally effective in the UK.

But with the decision to proscribe, it seems clear the UK is operating on the assumption that some level of activity is taking place, or at least that the potential exists for such networks to operate. It remains to be seen, though, just how soon the Crown Prosecution Service lines up a case to pursue the organization for such activity.

 

My good friend David was kind enough to hook me up with a guest slot at the prestigious Kings of War blog which is run out of the King’s College, London War Studies department. It explores the issue of Predator strike attacks (which I have touched on before) and looks at what alternatives there are open to policymakers. I am hoping to hear reactions or thoughts on this and please feel free through the contacts page or in the comments.

Raffaello Pantucci on targeted killings: what are the alternatives?

by DAVID UCKO on 3 JANUARY 2011 · 2 COMMENTS

Raffaello Pantucci, a dear friend of mine, has penned a guest post for Kings of War on targeted killings (TK). The post is a lengthy response to aprevious guest post on KoW, by Adam Stahl. Below, Raff hardnosedly (39th use of this word online) asks what the alternatives are to the current use of drone strikes. He seeks to move away from the discussion as to whether their use constitutes a strategy or a tactic, to consider instead how we have gotten to the situation we are now in, and what the options may be for the future. Engaging with this question, he makes the case for recasting the rhetoric surrounding the use of drone strikes, to take us back to talking and thinking about ‘war’, with all the gravitas implied by that term. Yet as Raff concludes, all may not be fair in war, and even in such a context, the continued use of drone strikes would require a serious investment in information operations so as to mitigate their potentially counter-productive side-effects.

My own take on this question is that the very logic presented by Raff in paragraph 3 is too compelling to the powers that be to prompt any real change, even in rhetoric. Changes surrounding the use of drones will be incremental and largely symbolic until such a day as it is demonstrated, in no uncertain terms, that they not only radicalise but that such radicalisation directly leads to terrorist attacks at home. And it is uncertain to me whether such a causality will ever be sufficiently stark to defame this ‘quick and easy’ fix to the problem of terrorism. That is not to say that change is not necessary. So, Raff, take it away…


Hand wringing over the strategic utility or definition of targeted killings is all very well and good, but if we are concerned with drone strikes (the current most prominent TKs), then a sensible idea would be to start to try to formulate some alternatives. After all, drone strikes have become the US default strategy in AfPak for a while now, and one could see how it might start to take on a similar role in Yemen or Somalia if, as appears to be the case, the perceived externally oriented threat continues to grow.
First of all, let us think about how we got to this situation. The rationale behind the deployment of drones in ever-increasing numbers was an awareness that key members of terrorist organisations or insurgent networks were operating in areas from where, for either a lack of forces or of local support, allied forces were unable to easily go and get them. Not wanting a political mess or a lot of dead soldiers, pilotless drones seem a safe option by which enemies could be dispatched without causing a messy political backlash at home. This is clearly not a perfect solution: aside from regular official complaints from the Pakistani government, there is nowthe case of a man who is suing the US government for $500 million for killing his brother and son in a predator strike in Waziristan on New Year’s Eve 2009 (a case that led indirectly to the unmasking of the CIA station chief in Islamabad). It has also angered some in Europe who are appalled at the notion of the US killing its citizens, with impunity, on the other side of the globe. A German MP in particular is making a lot of noise about a case where a predator strike may have killed a German citizen, and similar issues have been raised in the UK in the past and may again surface if the true identities of Abu Bakr and Mansoor Ahmed are uncovered. The US has its own domestic problem with the targeting of Anwar al-Awlaki, whose case was taken up by the ACLU. Finally, it is unclear whether this solution is resulting in too many civilians deaths and possibly inflaming the very rage that fuels the enemies later targeted in these attacks.

Clearly, the political solution that has been reached is not a perfect one, but for the leadership in Washington (whose finger is, in this case, on the trigger), the problems are manageable: they manifest themselves on the other side of the globe and not amongst a community with a vote in the US. There are some attempts to placate the discontents, but for the most they remain ignored by policymakers, who conclude that as long as domestic terrorist attacks are staved off and the body count for friendly soldiers stays relatively low, the public won’t really question government policy abroad.

What other solutions might there be?

One alternative is the deployment of units of soldiers to go snatch these individuals once they have been located, to whisk them away to places where they could be tried and convicted for their crimes. But this presents a number of problems. First, there is the likely death of friendlies, as the sought-after individuals can be expected to resist arrest. It is equally likely that these individuals would be retrieved from areas where civilians and hostiles are hard to distinguish. Any such action would likely hand a propaganda bonanza to the targeted enemy, who will loudly present any casualties resulting from the action as civilian victims (a claim that may be difficult to refute).

And even when the wanted individual is sequestered, what then? Interrogation and then presumably a trial leading to incarceration. Problematically, these interventions would often target culprits before they commit a readily convictable terrorist offense. Meanwhile, to gather evidence along with the culprit would add to an already demanding mission for the snatch team, particularly in an environment likely to be hostile. All of this would also cost money and time: court cases in the UK against groups of plotters linked to al Qaeda go on for years and cost tens of millions of pounds. If individuals are to be taken back to Europe or North America for trial, consider the costs of doing so at the frequency at which drone attacks are currently being launched. If these trials are instead held in, or near theatre, it is still going to be very expensive, and also involve additional security costs to guarantee the trial space.

Finally, even if a case was effectively carried out and a sentence passed, there is the question of long-term incarceration. Jails, presumably high-security detention facilities like Supermax, would rapidly fill up and need replacements. Then the possibility has to be considered that some of these people would live out their sentences and need releasing back into society: how would that work? Would it involve sending them back to where they came from? A lawyer may make the case that upon release a convict be naturalised as a citizens and granted the requisite rights and freedoms. We have already seen how problematic this can be with the US government’s attempt to close down Guantanamo.

The other solution is to go the other way and to ramp up strikes in the face of political opposition, on the assumption that this will be a short-term expedient to a temporary problem. This is the path currently pursued, but it is equally riven with problems. Aside from the political issues highlighted above, it is unclear whether it will resolve the situation in some permanent way. Predator drones have been deployed for over half a decade now and while they clearly instill fear in our enemies, they have not gotten rid of them, as evidenced by the continued need for drone strikes in theatre. If this tactic were a strategy by which to resolve the problem, then presumably at some point we would have run out of targets. Instead, it may be that despite, or because of these drone strikes, our enemy’s numbers are growing (something that may in turn explain their increased use and provide a worrying answer to Donald Rumsfeld’s question as to whether terrorists are being killed quicker than they are being produced).

So is there a third way?

A third way would need to maintain low casualties amongst friendlies and civilians while also capturing bad guys in a sanitised way that nonetheless takes them out of circulation. It would also need some way of addressing the political problems that plague the use of this tactic.

Maybe the solution lies in using the drones as eyes in the sky rather than as killers hovering above. Use the intelligence gathered from the drones to track enemies until they reach a location where they can be snatched by friendlies, and then placed before courts of law. The idea would be to have almost total coverage over a restricted space where the enemy was known to operate, and to grab them when they venture beyond this space – presumably on their way to carry out terrorist acts. This would keep down the amount of friendlies in danger’s way, along with the level of collateral damage.

There are a number of problems with this solution, however: first, it would require a considerable number of drones and of intelligence operators to monitor these drones. Secondly, it is hard to ensure complete cover. Intelligence is never perfect and a failure to focus on the right region or hot-spot may lead to a terrorist attack. Insurgents and terrorists are by their nature adaptive, and eventually they would figure out ways to avoid the watchers in the sky (doubtlessly they are already working on this and may already have made some headway). And none of this addresses the question of what to do once the suspects are in custody – if they are extradited to the US or a European country, we return to the problems of trials and incarcerations.

Another alternative is to focus instead on the killing capacity of the drones. Switch the weaponry on the drones; turn them into flying sniper rifles rather than flying missile carriers (I have to concede that this concept was first suggested to me by KoW blogger Tim Stevens). This would save on the collateral damage and on the number of friendlies in the line of danger. Yet aside from the technical aspects (of which I am no expert), what of the question of culpability and guilt, and the political issue of whether it is acceptable to launch assassination missions across the globe? Given the difficulties of ascertaining and proving whether it was a civilian or a terrorist who was killed, the narrative of civilians caught in the crossfire would continue. The Taliban have repeatedly shown how effective their information operations can be, and you need only have a brief conversation with people in the UK to see how effectively this message of civilian casualties spreads, often without a shred of evidence either way.

Maybe the solution lies in producing information packs to be published or released immediately after any strike, detailing who was targeted and why, including the evidence against them and of having hit the right target. This is the nightmare suggestion for intelligence or security professionals who would blanch at the prospect of sharing their jealously cherished intelligence (at least until Wikileaks gets their hands on it!). More seriously, it is of course likely that someone with a knowing eye would be able to identify informants from amongst the information released, something that would endanger their lives and probably stop the flow of useful information. It would also require the admission of local collusion in the strikes, on the part of host governments, which may complicate the political situation on the ground. The Wikileaks cables from Yemen, which show the government’s collusion with the US in masquerading drone attacks, is something that would put unsustainable pressure on any Western government found in a similar position.

Maybe the solution is much simpler: the conflict needs to be recast as a ‘war’. People die in wars, usually for a rationale that a majority of the population accepts, or which it needs to be persuaded of. NATO went to Afghanistan in the wake of 9/11 to get those who carried out that heinous act, in a move that most supported (in the West at least). Let us refocus the rhetoric and language on this fact and that the drone war is an extension of this conflict. This is not to advocate the conflict’s indefinite continuance, but let us phrase the debate about strikes within that context and continue the discussion along these lines. This framework would also force a serious public conversation on the war in Afghanistan, rather than a debate about a tactic. It would furthermore provide a better context for understanding the path that the West is now on: slowly withdrawing troops from Afghanistan while continuing with drone strikes against set targets.

Having refocused the rhetoric, the US should establish a high-level committee that includes at least one human-rights judge, a known independent (ideally foreign, UN-employed) judge or prosecutor, and another from the nation in which the strikes are taking place (probably therefore Pakistani). This committee should be given access to the targeting package information for each drone killing and should publish an annual report verifying and detailing what has taken place the year before in a fashion accessible to the public (and scrubbed of sensitive intelligence information).

There are problems in this solution: the Pakistanis (or whoever) would be admitting publicly to something they continue to condemn in rhetoric, and the recasting of drones and the Afghan conflict in the language of ‘war’ may once again inflame matters à la ‘Clash of Civilizations’. But, frankly, both of these complications are already in place. No one really believes the Pakistanis’ statements (and thanks to Wikileaks we can now see how the leadership in Yemen is also speaking out of one side of its mouth in public and another in private), and al Qaeda and the Taliban already think that they are at war (and at least for the Taliban, one they are winning). The only people who might get infuriated would be anti-war types at home, but then their anger tends to be a guaranteed byproduct of any military activity abroad. As for the argument about drone strikes deepening radicalisation: governments would need to conduct major information operations to ensure the committee’s findings are published and disseminated effectively. And clearly, drones and their impact is not the sole radicalising agent at play.

The question and permissibility of drones and targeted killings as a weapon in combat is one that the Israeli Supreme Court has wrestled with before. I would recommend reading its findings for a good debate about the issues at hand. Hopefully, all of this will serve to stimulate some more thinking on these questions, and I look forward to hopefully engaging further in this discussion on- or off-line.

Raffaello Pantucci is an Associate Fellow at the International Center for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR), his writing can be found here.

My latest for the ECFR blog looking at the internet in China. This is a fascinating subject for those either side of it, confusing as it is. For example, this site is actually the wrong side at the moment, though for a while it was accessible. I have no idea for the rationale behind either case.

Shanghai View: Welcome back BBC and hello Wikileaks!

Date: 16th December 2010  |  Author: Raffaello Pantucci

Categories: China
Tags: BbcChinaNobel Peace PrizeWikileaks

The Chinese censorship of western news organizations including the BBC around last week’s Nobel peace prize ceremony was not a surprise. More unexpected was the speed with which they were back up and running. Meanwhile, WikiLeaks is easier to access from China than ever before.

Things have been tense in China since the decision to award Liu Xiaobo the Nobel Peace Prize. These tensions reached something of an apex last Friday with the actual awards ceremony, as China went into full attack mode against the decision by the committee to award the prize to an individual who is incarcerated in China.

In China itself, however, one could be mistaken for not noticing that this was all going on. While everyone seemed to have heard about it (and I encountered a couple of tense meetings in which it came up), the story was blocked from the airwaves and netwaves. In particular, the BBC and CNN came under heavy assault as they broadcast stories about the event and the Chinese reaction. A friend working for CNN in Beijing reported they were experiencing trouble with their systems, and the channel kept getting blacked out whenever stories came up about events in Oslo. The BBC came under heavy online attack, with all of its sites blocked.

The BBC is now, however, back. As of Monday, the sites were accessible again, though there was no explanation or reasoning offered why they had been pulled or why they returned. This is not the first time the BBC has experienced this: prior to the Olympic games it was blocked, and since then there have been sporadic issues. For example, after the Xinjiang riots last year, the internet and television were sporadically blocked. When Hilary Clinton gave a particularly sensitive speech on web freedom, I recall watching in Beijing as my screen went black.

What is intriguing about this most recent instance is the rapidity with which the BBC has been unblocked. It appears that three days is ample punishment in the PRC’s mind. I am uncertain about whether this is the product of behind-the-scenes lobbying, but would be unsurprised to hear that the change was a pleasant surprise to everyone at the BBC as well. This is the most perplexing thing about being the wrong side of the Great Firewall: it is totally erratic and uncertain. No-one really knows what is blocked and why; there is no apparent rationale to the blocks.

Internally, people tend to be quite exasperated about blockages to the net. One student told me during the troubles with Google earlier in the year that he liked Google because it was less censored and had less advertising. The Chinese equivalent, Baidu, he said, was useless as you had to skip about 10 pages of search results before you got beyond the advertising. However most people, when confronted with blocked pages, tend to operate on the assumption that the site in question was doing something illegal and that therefore they should not be surprised that it is blocked.

Recently released Wikileaks cables have given us some hints about how Chinese media censorship operates. One cable suggested that a Politboro member was behind the attack on Google earlier in the year. Others point to possible motivations. While internet censorship is a nuisance in China, it has had the effect of blocking the Chinese system to foreign companies allowing local ones to flourish.  It struck me as somewhat ironic that the BBC was blocked the same week that Youkou and Dangdang (Chinese versions of Youtube and Amazon) listed on the NYSE to spectacular openings. Youkou at least has profited from the fact that YouTube is blocked in China.

Oddly, the WikiLeaks site, which is usually blocked here, appears at the moment to be open to the public in China. I have had little difficulties for the last two weeks reading what is emerging, whereas before the cable dump the site was only accessible through virtual private networks or proxy servers. Maybe the Chinese government has decided that it actually rather enjoys the embarrassment that US diplomacy is undergoing at the moment and has decided to not shield its public from it, or maybe Wikileaks is now switching servers so rapidly that the PRC monitors are not able to keep up. I would venture, however, that no-one would really be able to answer this question.

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 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.