Thursday, August 10, 2006

A Few Thoughts on the London Investigation

Well, I have a few scattered thoughts to share regarding the ongoing London investigation.

First, this plot should come as a profound surprise to no one. Remember Bojinka? For those who don’t, here’s the 10 second version. Ramzi Ahmaed Yousef, principal mastermind behind the 1993 WTC bombing, spent some time training in Afghan al-Qa’eda camps shortly after his ’93 operation. While there, Yousef’s handlers (some say bin Ladin himself, though that has not been verified to my knowledge) asked him to train members of a little known al-Qa’eda linked group based in the Philippines in some of the technical aspects of his bombmaking training (having graduated from a technical college in Wales, trained in Afghanistan, gone through the operation for the ’93 bombing, and back to training he was something of an expert at this point). The group by the way is the now well-known Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG), founded by an “Afghan Alumnus” (veteran of the Afghan-Soviet war) who fought alongside bin Ladin himself, Abdurajik Abubakr Janjalani. Yousef worked with Janjalani et al in training his men how to make relatively sophisticated improvised explosive devices (IEDs), later used by ASG throughout the Philippines and shared with another Far East Asian terrorist group, Jemaah Islamiyya. Yousef himself though had bigger plans. In conjunction with a whole rash of additional plots –killing President Clinton and the Pope, targeting U.S. Embassies in the region and in Pakistan, etc. –he also wanted to target an active symbol (that is, it is both symbolic and strategically significant) of the U.S. economy: airlines. Yousef got together with a few other experienced terrorists like Adel Annon (likely his own brother using a nomme de guerre), Abdul Murad (old friend, WTC ’93 intellectual veteran), Mustafa Abu Zanaib (precise link unclear, but closely associated by way of various Da’awa activities), and Wali Khan Amin Shah (close friend who lost a few fingers in Afghan war) to hatch something grand. They called it Project Bojinka (Serbo-Croat for explosion). In a nutshell, it involved carrying in bottles disguised as contact lens solution, etc. a stable form of nitroglycerine explosive (more on that in point two), onboard an airplane, assembled into a crude IED in the bathroom, placed strategically onboard the plane with a timer, get off, and the planes –some a dozen in number –would detonate onboard while flying over the high seas and populated U.S. cities. The key was to kill everyone onboard, all on American owned airlines, all in one day’s time. Before he went through with the plan though, he wanted to test it. So, he boarded flight 434 from Manila to Tokyo, a nine volt battery in each shoe and small nitroglycerine container in his bag. On the flight went to the bathroom, assembled the device, and stuck it under his seat. Really nervous he then switched seats, refused food, and waiting for the flight to land. He departed the plane at its layover in Cebu. On theflight's second leg to Tokyo the bomb went off, butterflying a Japanese businessman, but not taking down the flight –not wanting to attract too much attention, he merely wished to test his device. It worked. Eventually he went back to his Manila apartment he used as a lab. In a highly sophisticated design, one the FBI was thoroughly impressed with and had never seen before, he made a large array of these bombs. The problem? In making them, one of the chemicals became unstable and exploded in the apartment. Police and fire trucks came, he fled to a nearby Karaoke bar, told his friend Murad to go back for his laptop that he left there… police arrested Murad, found plans to take out 12 U.S. Airliners, and the whole thing was foiled –just in time. Note, a lot of very very interesting things were found on this laptop and Murad under torture by Philippine authorities later gave up the plot to put explosives on a plane and take out the CIA building at Langley (the precursor plot to what later became 9/11). Uncovering the plot sparked a massive, though impressive, FAA and international law enforcement effort to quickly, quickly, and effectively search thousands of jumbo jets all over the world –no one knew if some of the bombs might have made their way to the target despite the bust. The checked underneath seats, in the luggage compartments, in bathrooms, everywhere. Luckily, it appears they had stopped it just in time. This history is important to al-Qa’eda, as we know they have a very strong tendency to continue an operation until they get it right (WTC, Embassy in Pakistan, etc.). It should come as no surprise that some would like to pick up on Yousef’s plans and do it right.

Second, a few thoughts on the explosives. You hear a lot of talk about TATP (even Wilkinson a at St. Andrews said as much to CNN this morning) and other kinds of explosives some suspect were to be used. Well, I can tell you that unless they know something I don’t, and I’m pretty sure they don’t, TATP is not a liquid in its stable form, and they are not going to bring it onboard a flight in unstable form (the hard part is making it into a powder to begin with in a highly controlled lab). Yes, TATP is a major type of explosive used by terrorists, especially of the Palestinian persuasion (though also see Madrid, Richard Reid shoebomber, a few in Iraq, and I’m told some by LTTE), but they wouldn’t be looking for liquids in that case, they would be checking shoes. Were Yousef’s Bojinka Plot used as the model, his explosives were highly complex devices learned after pouring over a plethora of books he stole from various libraries around the world. Yousef’s men bought sulphuric acid, nitric acid, acetone, silver azide, and nitrobenzene to create an undetectable form of nitroglycerine –the explosive element in TNT. The trademark of his device was converting Casio wristwatches (the kind with the tiny keypad/calculator on it) into effective timers, with the nitroglycerine hidden in container of contact solution, cotton balls as the stabilizer, and two nine volt batteries (brought on board by hiding it in his shoes) for the spark. The density of the nitro-glycerine is apparently such that it makes it extremely difficult to detect through X-ray (sorry, but I’m really not scientific enough to explain how that works). Thus, this is why all liquids have been banned categorically. Should be interesting if they ever decide to reverse this trend. Yousef was expert enough to make it all look natural –one would have to really look at the watch to know it had been tampered with. But interestingly, there’s not talk about watches. This seems to indicate the possibility that it may have been a martyrdom operation, rather than a Yousef-styled Bojinka II –who needs a timer when one plans to set it off himself a la Richard Reid? We will learn more in days ahead, but I will be looking for indications relating to Casios for an indication as to the nature of the plot.

Third, some reports have indicated that the London cell is a self-starter, al-Qa’eda inspired group, rather than “genuine” al-Qa’eda operatives. If true, this would be extremely significant. In the past, al-Qa’eda self-starters have resorted to much lower profile, far less sophisticated operations, born from training acquired from do-it-yourself (DIY) manuals and an ambition ignited by the general political, social, and religious environment they experience buttressed by a favorable image of the broader “bin Ladinism” seen worldwide. This tendency toward primitive operations has led many experts to conclude that the so-called “second wave” of international terrorism –comprised of those who believe in the al-Qa’eda cause but lack official ties to the organization –is less of a threat than the media would have the world believe. Not true if this most recent plot turns out to be self-starter.

There are some indications however, indicating that this may not be self-starter. For one, the complexity of simultaneously attacking nine distinct targets is difficult to pull off. Those involved in the Madrid train bombings astonished the world when they became the very first terrorist group in the world to detonate ten bombs simultaneously before. And although they certainly remained more independent than most al-Qa’eda operators, they had help. The likelihood of a truly independent cell conducting nine, and doing so especially on Western airlines in the post-9/11 world with its enhanced security apparatus, seems low. Such an operation would require extensive patience and training. An estimated 3,000 British citizens have found their way into Afghan terrorist training facilities, where some limited explosives training may have been conducted, but al-Qa’eda’s traditional training pattern indicates a willingness to provide particularly specialized training only in the presence of an establish plot, thus making any such operation no longer self-starter in character. What’s more, were the fact that British authorities have apparently arrested some twenty-four individuals in connection with the scheme taken as an indication of its scope, it seems all the more unlikely that any internally ignited group of discontents would be capable of radicalizing such a large number of individuals without professional assistance. As with any joint venture, large operations tend to require professional operators.

The possibility that these alleged terrorists may have acted alone remains, fueled by the DIY manuals of the internet or practical experience fighting Western interests in Iraq, and in such a case Western antiterrorist authorities should be deeply concerned, but it appears most likely for the time that this was indeed al-Qa’eda’s second bite at the apple. It shall be particularly interesting to see if any of these suspects have ties to Far East Asia, the birthplace of the original Bojinka plot. Only time will tell.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Lebanon/Israel Conflict

A few thoughts I have on the present Lebanon/Israel Situation:

First, according to Hizbullah strategists-though we may choose to dismiss such comments as moves for propaganda we cannot ignore them outright -in initiating this conflict, civilians were not the target. If you were to ask them, as for instance a journalist for the New Yorker recently did (see the latest edition for an interesting account of what is going on), they will tell you that their aim was to target military personnel in the abduction. Only after the situation escalated, for a number of evident reasons, did they move to civilian targets. Attacks on civilian infrastructure, in their view, is tantamount to attacks on civilians themselves. As a result, katyusha rockets then targeting civilians are responsive attacks, rather than first strikes. Now, there are a number of problems with this account, many may be nearly self-evident others may not be, but it is worth keeping in mind that though they are certainly a terrorist organization and have in the past and continue to target civilians, for their strategic calculations a civilian target is not the same as a military target. The two do not exist on an even playing field, even for them.

Second, no legitimate entity or authority to my knowledge has -or ever would -doubt Israel's right to defend itself and its people by way of unilateral forcible action against a terrorist threat. The right to self-defense in this instance is clear. But what makes the issue messy is the manner in which such actions are exacted. This in turn further divides into two issues: what works and what's right. From the perspective of what works, I find the claims that present IDF personnel making about the action's capacity to disrupt Hizbullah in direct contradiction to most instances in the long study of counterinsurgency and counterterrorism. Now I am not a historian, nor an expert strategist, and make no claims to a comprehensive knowledge to either discipline. But in the many instances of counterterrorism directed against non-state actors (and I distinguish this from counterinsurgency here for a number of messy reasons perhaps not necessary for further elaboration in email form, though certainly could go into further later) where military force is applied, in rare instances do conventional, massive operations succeed. For a number of reasons, it is absolutely not any form of "collective punishment". Though I think that argument may have a place in discussing operations in Gaza, for a number of reasons it's irrelevant here. Nonetheless, conventional operations are not sufficiently precise in this kind of situation. Indeed, from what I can tell, the only instances in which such actions work are when the aim is a complete overhaul in government (regime change) or, like American-guided operations in the Greek Civil war where the non-state actor is reasonably confined in geographic space and uses semi-conventional tactics itself. IDF's model should have been the second stages of the Afghan operation, a truly special operations war, and not what they have. As a result, there would be fewer people displaced, fewer civilian casualties, and a more international support. The problem for Israel is that it would many of its soldiers in doing it. A tough call, but I think they should have bit the bullet and done it right. This would also lead to a solution of the secondary problem, that of legality and/or morality associated with massive collateral damage. In looking through the ICRC multi-volume guide to Customary International Humanitarian Law (now considered by many in the field to be the black-letter legal guide), one sees some credibility to the claim against Israel regarding proportionality. If anyone's interested, I'd be happy to get into this further, but for the sake of brevity I'll leave that discussion for another email. Now, this is customary law, something of a weak construction, but it grants some legitimacy to some claims made against IDF generally. A special operations war would have been both more effective and would have avoided this problem. Then again, with an IDF chief that's IAF, you can see why they chose the "bomb the hell out of 'em" option, however ineffective.

Third, military operations -whether an international blue helmet force, IDF, or native Lebanese (and good luck with that!) in nature -are not the sole means to disarming Hizbullah. Indeed, after the Cedar Revolution, a movement in favor of instituting UNSCR 1559 was in place. Maronite Christians had teamed up with Hariri's Sunnis to dismantle the present system. The problem is not just that Hizbullah is in the cabinet, unfortunately it's more complicated than that. It is the President, Emil Lahoud, and not the Prime Minister who has the ultimate executive military power. Lahoud is favored by Syria -this is why he is in power after the 1559 withdrawal by Syrian forces. Without getting into the mess of Lebanese politics -which I make no claim to fully understand myself -the Cedar Revolution brought to power a majority in Parliament sufficient to override present Syrian supporters in the government. This would have been the political solution to dismantling Hizbullah. The problem? A man by the name of Gen. Michel Aoun, who I was trying to bring to campus as a speaker (thank God that didn't happen, right?) sold out. Originally he was a very strong anti-Syrian actor -he even made claims to have been involved in the authoring of 1559. As an effective leader to the Maronite majority though, he flipped and went the way of Syria. (Note: I understand by several key figures on the Maronite side that this is where the claime you often here that Maronites condone Hizbullah comes from... it isn't true at it's core, the people don't, but they followed Aoun and here's where it got them -many are very angry as a result). This pro-Syrian flipflopping (and it shall be interesting to see what happened there) caused a serious problem, many of his backers just followed him. Thus, dismantling Hizbullah -at least in so far as its staunch exclusivity of civil services for Shia and its militant capabilities were concerned -was rendered temporarily impossible. That doesn't mean a political solution could not have come in the future, with time it would have, but Israel was impatient to wait. Now, any influence Israel might have had on that process has been rendered obsolete and pro-Aoun forces, I suspect we me find when the dust clears, may be stronger than ever before. The international community has to figure out how to support a majority in parliament that is not Syrian backed to dismantle Hizbullah from the inside, if Lebanon is to solve the solution itself. And it must do so without sparking an inter-confessional war. Or so, that's my view.

Fourth, it's not so easy to just "address the root causes" in practice. This would necessarily involve dismantling Syrian and Iranian support for native actors, Hizbullah or otherwise. Good luck with that. We can work to put a wedge between Syria and Iran, an important point because Iran needs Syria for transit, but that requires dialogue over threats, and Washington refuses to talk. Perhaps not a brilliant strategy on behalf of the present Administration. No doubt, the international criminal tribunal relative to the assassination of Rafik Hariri in the upcoming year or two will place an enormous amount of pressure on Syria, the question is whether or not that pressure will be sufficient to force their influence totally out of Lebanese politics, and I find that perhaps a little hard to believe. As for Iran, preemption against nuclear facilities won't do anything to their asymmetric angling in Lebanon, or anywhere else in the Middle East for that matter -note the Saudis know that which is why they have been buying up arms en masse recently. I suspect we'll see American prosecutors (among others) start cracking down on any company even remotely believed to be selling dual use materials to Iran. Iran requires these networks to finish the job, we'll have to attack them that way. Plus, as you've no doubt seen in the news, Commerce is playing a big role in sanctioning any company (Russians included) working with Iran. I'm willing to bet we'll only see more of that in upcoming months. Ultimately we're going to have a difficult time addressing Iran and Syria and containing their regional Shia influence, made all the more difficult in light of Israeli (perceived regionally as American proxy targeting) action in Lebanon (did you see the hundreds of thousands in Sadr City and Baghdad protesting, among other places?).

Fifth, America must respond to the Humanitarian crisis. According to the government situation report on Lebanon released yesterday, there are 958 dead in Lebanon, 3,369 injured, and a total of 915,762 displaced. Our response? Aside from throwing money around here and there, USAID has essentially offered 20,000 blankets and 18 medical kits. Not helpful. We need more, we need a real response, a massive one. Think Pakistan earthquake or Tsunami. Here, USAID actions are security actions.

In my view, Israel had the right to respond, but the manner in which an inexperienced Prime Minister and Defense Minister have haphazardly conducted their response has placed American and Israeli security in peril and we've stood aside and waved as the ship passes by.