Chasing the Norm

Australian academic and blogger on politics, international relations, and culture

Tag: Terrorism

Counter-Terrorism White Paper

Tuesday saw the release of the Rudd Governments first Counter-Terrorism White Paper (Get it here). It seems we are now duty bound to receive regular white papers on topics governments see as important (Defence, Aging, National Security principles & now on Terrorism – though no word on Foreign Policy) which is in the large a positive step, however this one feels somewhat like the homework done the night before, being slightly too glossy and superficial in parts. However this is an important document for the rhetorical shift it makes in how the government understands terrorism; first the causes and secondly who & how we fight it. It’s not entirely confident in its new positions (like the Defence Force 2030 White Paper), but the Rudd government is clearly shifting away from the Howard Government to attribute social & economic factors as drivers of terrorism, and is envisioning a role for Australia to fight the message war as well as the material one.

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The power of humor: WoT Humor?

An thought provoking and amusing piece from The Jakarta Post:

Do Asians have a sense of humor?
Nury Vittachi
A teacher who wanted only to be known as Man-sir had sent me links to several articles which said the biggest threat to world peace was the culture gap between West and East. “Experts say the best bet for bridging that potentially catastrophic gap is shared entertainment: movies, sport, and in particular, humor,” he wrote.
But that’s the problem. “Westerners consider Asians to be wildly unfunny. And several non-Western cultural groups, such as Muslims and Mainland Chinese, they consider humorless to a dangerous degree,” Man-sir wrote. “We need to prove Asians can be funny.”
Intelligent, sensible people do not waste time on people who insult them. So I dropped what I was doing and phoned him at once. The world’s most pressing problem was a drastic shortage of Islamic humor, he explained. “Locating and distributing this will defuse global tension by showing that Muslims can be funny, charming and self-deprecating.” Thinking about it, I realized words like “funny” and “charming” aren’t used a lot about Osama Bin Laden, the only Muslim most Westerners can name. Man-sir was right about something else, too: Asian comedians are as rare as braincells in the Jonas Brothers’ fan club.

I’ll leave aside the question of asian’s being funny ( Anh Do always cracks me up), but the role of humor as a political weapon is a critical and under-discussed issue in shaping the psychological nature of the war on terrorism. This is something one of my favourite comedians Lewis Black noted way back in 2002: The fundamental difference between the west and its attackers was that we could laugh. We could laugh at ourselves, we could laugh at them, and relief from the burdens of life through humor, and in that we could find perspective. Given our moral descent into torture and the angry stridency that even 7 years later still marks our (esp the US’s) debate on terrorism, it’s worth reminding ourselves of this virtue.
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Doubting the wisdom of men who stick fireworks in their crotch

I’ve not paid much attention to Umar Farouk Abdul Mutallab, the crotch bomber who tried to blow up a flight into Detroit if only because it was a failed attack. That men are out there in the thousands trying to kill civilians of all faiths and creed as part of an anti-modernist religious nihilism is one of the defining but also definable threats of the decade past. All of us over the last 9 years have at some point surely felt fearful of an attack on ourselves and those we love. Whether travelling or simply attending populated areas, the thought has surely creped in. This latest case is no more significant than any other. Only the sensational way in which he was stopped, American right wing demagoguery and a story starved press have caused his actions to be seen as significant. And just as looking deep into the abyss lets the abyss look into you, voices have sprung up in the US demanding that AbdulMutallab be tortured:

Fifty-eight percent (58%) of U.S. voters say waterboarding and other aggressive interrogation techniques should be used to gain information from the terrorist who attempted to bomb an airliner on Christmas Day. A new Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey finds that just 30% oppose the use of such techniques, and another 12% are not sure.

….The vast majority of Americans have it right: You don’t put an enemy combatant who just committed an act of war into the criminal-justice system — and you certainly don’t give him a lawyer and tell him, “You have the right to remain silent.” You make him tell you what he knows so you can prevent new attacks.

I suspect (hope) the poll’s wrong and that those surveyed didn’t already know he’s already singing to the FBI, but what’s most interesting is the last line, “tell you what he knows so you can prevent new attacks”. Why does anyone think this guy knows anything ?

If the attack had gone to plan AbdulMutallab would be dead today, so why then would Al Qaeda tell him about upcoming attacks? Why would they entrust or even let overhear, sensitive details to someone who was so smart that he was incapable of setting off the crudely made device, and so obvious even his father tried to turn him in? Western special force troops with a decade plus of training and field work are still not told what missions other units are undertaking or if any are operating in nearby battlefields, so why would this guy know anything? What part of ‘terrorist cells working in isolation’ have they not understood as described in the literally millions of articles, journals, books and other publicly available analysis about the threat we are facing?

Richard Reid the failed shoe bomber was caught in December 2001 in a similar way, similarly ridiculed, and sentenced in a civillian court, and is now in jail for life. No different step needs to be taken in this case. Only given that this boys only real achievement was to ensure he can probably never breed again, a future-darwin award and extended mockery are his real reward. Attacks like this will probably occur for the rest of our lives, the only way to deal with it is serious sober police work and humor. I suggest more efforts like those below the fold (NSFW). Happy 2010.

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The End of the War on Terrorism?

Soon after the recent bombing in Jakarta killed 9 including an 3 Australians, Kevin Rudd along with his Foreign Affairs minister Stephen Smith sought to draw a link between the attack and continuing the fight in Afghanistan. Responses were swift rejecting the PM’s claim. Hugh White from ANU told journalist Michelle Grattan that

“in practical policy there’s no link. It’s an illusion to think that if you fix Afghanistan, we’ll be safe from terrorism.” Ideologically and practically, the activities of Noordin Top, the alleged mastermind behind the Jakarta bombings, have nothing to do with Afghanistan, White says.

Meanwhile over at the Interpreter Allan Behm makes the case that there is a connection:

the fact is that many terrorist groups, be they in Chechnya, Palestine, Pakistan or even Indonesia draw ideological, ideational, inspirational and motivational solace from the pronouncements of Osama bin Laden and the actions of al Qaeda.
At the high end of anti-terrorist strategy is the goal of denying any oxygen at all to terrorist organisations and their followers. That is why the pursuit of al Qaeda, both in Afghanistan and Pakistan, is important.

So who is right amongst these two highly knowledgeable and respected experts? Well I side more with White’s approach, but he doesn’t explain this to its full significance. Behm’s point is well taken and worth noting. Whilst Al Qaeda was responsible for the attacks on a US embassy in 1999, the USS Cole in 2000 and of course the 9/11 attacks, it has not had a recognised attack since that day. Despite it’s name being taken as a synonym for terrorism around the world, it has been reduced to little more than a communications company sending out videos, sometimes training orientated (and funds) but largely just well made propaganda. It is this which Behm means when he talks of providing solace and inspiration. Denied the opportunity to attack the west directly through international counter-terrorism efforts, Al Qaeda has had to outsource its efforts with varying results. How you interpret this effort is the clearest diviner of how experts regard the success or failure of the war on terrorism.

The worst case scenario tends to note details such as the 9/11 attackers had connections to Hambali the Indonesian terrorist who was key in the Bali 2002 attacks, or the role of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi leading Al Qaeda in Iraq . It sees the general values that motivate these groups in their Islamic faith, rejection of western modernity, and desire for independent Islamic states as primary compared to local values such as between various sects, personality and ethnic differences and on the ground conditions. It emphasises the flow of money, intelligence and training, especially through the internet between these various groups. Under this reading, the USA and west is facing an enemy who can change face and location with ease. Like trying to stop water flooding through a grill, each blockage in one place simply increases the pressure coming through in another. Our very size and strength makes us vunerable to a thousand cuts leaving us to bleed out, in finances, troops and resolve. This is also an approach that places great store in the concept of confidence. It interprets most events primarily in psychological terms, rising or reducing the motivation of both the west and the terrorists according to the ebb and flow of events. Every attack is seen as significant in re-enforcing this pattern. Therefore what happens in Afghanistan is critically central to how events in Indonesia play out. (Afghanistan perhaps even more than Iraq or other locations due to its historic role in bringing down the soviet empire). This is a somewhat zero-sum approach, we are winning so they must be losing, or vice versa, with confidence a limited commodity effectively traded between the groups through their various successful or failed missions. At its worse this results in mush like Andrew Bolt’s effort, which conflates all threats as one, and indeed all Muslims as somehow suspicious. This however is very far from the considered approach of scholars such as Behm who highlights the significance of local links and issues. Still, for all their certainty, those who take this approach can as Behm does write sentences like “Noordin Top would derive considerable encouragement from that[withdrawal from Afghanistan], even without any formal or operational links with al Qaeda ” without ever qualifying what this ‘considerable encouragement’ means in practical policy terms. It could be meaningless heart warming or a game changing recruitment & financial driver. We don’t know and they don’t say.

The more optimistic scenario again notes these early links, but also their paucity and the local nature of the connections and the difficulty of maintaining these once key individuals are taken out (Hambali currently sits in Guantanamo Bay, the 9/11 attackers are dead, as is al-Zarqawi). They also note that when Al Qaeda has attempted to significantly involve itself in the local fight, the results have usually been poor. Whilst Al Qaeda in Iraq had a significant number of successes in the early years after the war, they have come to be combated by the US effectively. More importantly when they tried to integrate into the Iraqi system they ran into two fundamental problems. The sunni/shia divide, and the suspicions of the tribes. Where they had been largely non-sectarian in the early years, Al Qaeda found that the best way to bring in new recruits was to emphasize it’s Sunni origins, and help the fight against the true enemy: the Shia. This immediately cleaved the groups influence across vast sections of the islamic world, not only the Shia, but Sunni and other moderates who rejected the internal conflict and wanted attention focused on the West. Secondly, where Al Qaeda tried to integrate itself with the tribes it often did so in a ham-fisted, culturally insensitive manner (much like the US soldiers similar errors) It’s measures were often too extreme and lacked local knowledge and so came to be rejected by 2006 in the now infamous Al-anbar awakening where Tribal groups once supportive of the insurgents switched to help the US and gave the US it’s first big break of the war. This is a pattern that has been repeated around the world. Rather than Al Qaeda creating terrorist franchises as the pessimists had feared, we have seen that invariably local issues, personalities and conflicts have dominated and distracted the effort. Some groups have simply taken Al Qaeda’s money and men and used them for their own local pre-jihad efforts, whilst occasionally mouthing similar rhetoric to keep the cash flowing. Instead of a global war on terror we are seeing the emasculation of the worst of the groups (Al Qaeda), and a significant reduction in capabilities for their supported groups (Jemaah Islamiyah is still a shadow of its former self despite the recent attacks). And importantly the more the global group shrinks, the more the local groups will return to their own local concerns and local efforts, and fail to be drawn by the global values that once threatened to envelop the west. Therefore what happens in Afghanistan is of minor concern. It may give an individual or group solace for a day or week, but very soon local realities like a lack of skills, funds or the omniprescence of the police will do more to change their actions than any psychological acts. Especially when the overall trend of the war has been quite strongly against the Jihadist’s. Psychology is important, but both groups can be gaining confidence whilst one side is technically ‘winning’ (ie a withdrawal from Afghanistan may not provide extra terrorists, whilst freeing up western resource – though I do not advocate such an act)

Whilst the recent attacks surprised some adherents of the common wisdom that JI was broken (Though perfect timing by Carl Ungerer to warn of the groups risks the day before the attacks), what it most significantly shows is that the ‘Global War on Terror’ is almost over. What we are facing instead are local threats from nihilistic, barbaric misfits of a form that states have been dealing with successfully for over two thousand years. Though these days we don’t use the gruesome techniques these groups were usually suppressed by (ie killing anyone and everyone related to the group), we have far superior tools through the information revolution to track, isolate and bring down such groups. We can shut off their funds, listen in on their communication and highlight their barbarism to win the PR war (there have been sharp declines in the support for suicide bombing across the muslim world from 2002-2007).

What is perhaps most significant about the recent attacks in Jakarta is how low key the public and press responded to them. The media brought information quickly to the public, but soon moved on from the story. The general public took it largely in their stride, with it barely meriting a mention in most people’s gossip over the weekend. This was terorrism without terror. Of course it may make many re-think that Indonesian holiday, but Australians have condemned, mourned, and gone on with life. This is a pattern of terrorism that we can live with, and take precautions against, in the same way we avoid dark city ally’s and ask for more cops to patrol our streets to keep away the drunks and street thugs. (If the government’s new anti-terror laws move in this direction of on the streets social changes, great, if not, it is an authoritarian over-reaction).This is not to downplay the threat that these groups could still do to many of us, but it is to suggest we have entered a new phase. One where this violence is seen for what it is, petty and unpredictable, but not threatening everyday life or the nation-state as it stands. And if the public here recognise this, then soon the local population in islamic countries who may otherwise fall under the sway of terrorist groups will recognise it too. And who want’s to die for a tiny group of losers who are never going to achieve their aims? We still have terrorism, but maybe we have almost ended the war.

Obama’s Long game

If you havn’t yet, you need to watch Obama’s speech in Cairo. There is already plenty of immediate commentary from positive and negative voices. Yet if there is a common theme, it seems the short term focus of all who observed. Especially with the negative or cautious views, there is a overpowering demand to see instant policy action and change. And in some ways they are right, it is policy mistakes that are crippling America (indeed Bush’s most inspiring rhetoric on the importance of liberty and democracy came in the same 2003-2004 period as his greatest policy mistakes).

Instead of looking for this speech to suddenly changing polling attitudes, or even the policies of governments of the middle east, what Obama is seeking to do is at least re-establish America’s voice as a part of the regions debates. What this type of speech does is attempt to re-establish an operating environment for American power, both political and military to act. MIDEAST ISRAEL PALESTINIANS OBAMANot only will it help calm blowback on the mistakes the US will inevitably make (such as bombing civillians), but also give their offensive elements a chance to actually have a chance. The US critical mistake under Bush was to try and walk away from a world it had authored. It spent the decade trying to both hold other nations to a set of rules it had established post 1945, whilst also re-writing the rules for it’s own actions. And whilst all nations see rules as somewhat flexible, the US’s actions served largely to bring into disrepute it’s own laws. Like a corrupt cop, the US’s -very public- search for flexibility cost it more than it gained. As David Killcullen writes in his new book:

“Assuring other nations that the United States will exercise it’s power responsibly, sparingly virtuously, and in accordance with international norms is therefore not an optional luxury or sign of moral flaccidity. Rather it is a key strategic requirement to prevent this previously noted adversarial “balance of power” response to the unprecedented scale of American military might” – David Kilcullen The Accidental Guerrilla 2009 Page 24

Kilcullen is a military man of over 20 years experience in the Australian Army. He has operated in East Timor, Pakistan, Thailand and Afghanistan and helped write the Counter-Insurgency booklet with David Petreus that led to the surge in Iraq in 2007. If he thinks this is a strong act, thats more than enough for me compared to the dozens of conservative armchair hawks who see this as somehow weak. Instead, this is actually a way that we can establish a footing in a another battle field that we have ignored to our peril:

‘Under Globalised conditions the media space is a domain, an ecosystem, or even a battlespace, filled with dozens of independnet, incoordinated, competing and conflicting entities rather than a single actor or audience… the diversity and diffusion of globalised media makes what public relations specialists call “message unity” a single consistent message across multiple audiences impossible for democratic governments and open societies – David Kilcullen The Accidental Guerrilla 2009 Page 10

This is where Obama’s speech seeks to make it’s main impact. It wont suddenly make the Israelis end the settlements, the arab world embrace democracy and stop supporting extremists, or even a family to dissuade a wayward son against extremism. But Al Qaeda is clearly worried and it at least gives America a chance to have a voice again in this debate. One of the most dangerous challenges any politician faces is when the public are no longer listening. It happened to Keating in 1996, Howard in 2007, and Bush almost ever since he declared war on Iraq. Once that trust is gone, then no claim, no spending, no policy will be received in the way it is intended, allowing conspiracy and rumor to rule.

Obama is seeking to play a very very long game. What he had to do with this speech was at least stop the bleeding America had suffered under Bush, and become once more an honest force for argument within the region. With that, then future policy actions, such as small but significant steps in the Israel/Palestine negotiations, encouraging democratic reform, and even offensive properganda style efforts to convince people away from terrorism and towards legitimate political engagement will have a chance to actually be taken on their merits and perhaps, maybe, with luck, work. As a speech, it was low on the rhetorical flourishes, dominated by Obama’s favourite tactic of alteration, but clever in its ability to respond to and refute the arguments of his opponents, an under-rated skill of his which I’ve previously noted

No one can say yet if it will work. But if in 5 years the Arab world has reacted largely sensibly to US policy steps, or at least given it some benefit of the doubt, then we will know that this speech has had its effect. Obama isn’t seeking to change perceptions, but simply to give future US policy a chance to be judged fairly. If he succeeds, this could be a world changing act, by the only possible candidate from the 2008 election who could have given it. That is why so many of us supported Obama way back in 2007, and why he may just deliver on those impossible promises his strongest supporters and critics attribute to him.

Arounds the Traps

Sometimes there just isn’t time for 1000 words on a subject, and Thursday afternoon drinks are soon upon us. So some quick links & thoughts

Expected….Joel Fitzgibbon has resigned as Defence Minister. No word yet on a replacement (which is slightly odd considering this was either expected or going to occur whenever Rudd next shuffles the bench). Greg Sheridan’s usual talent at being spectacularly wrong in his predictions once again strikes. Fitzgibbon may have gone for ethical reasons, yet he clearly didn’t have control of the department. Defence needs a heavyweight who isn’t looking to fastrack their career (defence is usually where careers go to die). I’d suggest Bod Debus. He’s already the Home Affairs minister, and has been a minister at state level for over 20 years. Luckily whoever takes over will have the capable Mike Kelly and Warren Snowden supporting them. UpdateIt’s Faulkner. Great Choice, though he will be missed as Special Minister of State.

Developing…. Details are yet to emerge, but why did Rudd accept a Car as a gift? If this was whilst PM it’s a serious lapse of judgment. The PM has to be above reproach on these issues. It’s one thing Howard did rightly, and saved himself a lot of grief. Unlike many many of his ministers over the years.
Update – It was 13 years ago, and even Turnbull is saying the gift isn’t itself important. This will go no where

Cheap… For News Ltd’s new effort ‘Punch’ it seems words not actions matter and so manage to somehow blame Bob Hawke for China’s human rights violations over the past 30 years. All because he wouldn’t give them an interview.

Fools….The right wing still hasn’t worked out Obama’s talent with narrative. Far from having a fit, they should be welcoming this as one of the smartest moves in the political fight against radical jihadists in a decade.

Reading…Finally, as linked to the other day David Kilcullen’s new book ‘Accidental Guerrilla: Fighting small wars in the midst of a big one’ is a ripper of a read. I’ll have much more to say in the future on it. However having also heard him speak in person recently, what is most notable for this quasi-father of the Iraq Surge and 20 years infantry man is how little military actions play in his arguments for how to deal with terrorism. Drones, Battalions and even special forces are rarely mentioned or endorsed. They are important, but only in the way a chisel helps the sculptor achieve his desired shape. Despite having been a senior advisor to Condolezza Rice he is “broadly supportive” of the way Obama is going about the job. Efforts such as those linked immediately above are key reasons why. Whilst Fitzgibbon’s trouble with managing defence and Conservatives dominance in national security debates may lead some to think that the Left and the military don’t agree/work well, people such as Kilcullen* demonstrate there is a lot of common ground if smartly approached. There is no natural or ideological block to a left wing government having strong relations with the military and using it’s insights and strenghts, just as much as right wing hawks love to use the military’s cruise missiles. In fact I think many on the left would be surprised by just how receptive many in the military are to their ideas about how to fight this war on terrorism, and where our foreign policy priorities should be. But much more on that in a later post.

(* I have no idea of how he votes, nor would I like to speculate. And damn, even my link posts run to 600 words. You’d think given these tendencies a PhD of 100’000 would be easy…)