Tag Archives: Terrorism

The TSA farce

As put so eloquently by the Washington Post

As a result of those attempts, passengers must surrender sharp objects (a response to the Sept. 11 attacks) and slip off their shoes (a response to the 2001 would-be shoe bomber). They must remove liquids from their bags (a result of a 2006 plot to blow up planes), and, as of a few weeks ago, they must submit to body scans or pat-downs (a process accelerated by the attempted airline bombing last Christmas Day).

I’d also recommend checking out this interview with John Pistole, head of the TSA.  The many, many problems of the TSA began well before Pistole headed up the agency but I’m not sure he’s going to improve much.  This, in particular, caught my eye as particularly troubling:

Well, we have people from the intelligence community and the law enforcement community and also bomb experts, who are working on what’s the next device. Nobody predicted toner cartridges. I wish we had. That’s why we need tactical intelligence versus strategic intelligence. I’ve had members of Congress call and say: I have friends who are concerned about going to Europe over the holidays, we’ve got this travel advisory, what do you recommend? So strategic intelligence is good, but I’m always looking for the tactical. The proportionality issue comes down to how do we ensure that yesterday’s plots don’t succeed a second time. Because shame on us if they do. I mean, as the American people. I think we say, OK, burn us once, yeah, we’ll learn from that, but you’re not going to do it twice.

My translation:  I’m totally committed to ceding the initiative to terrorists because knowing what motivates terrorists or how events in another part of the world might manifest as threats here is a bunch of crap.  I’d rather chase a bunch of Hollywood plots because it’ll look really cool in our recruitment videos!

The Stockholm bombing

Well, thank goodness incompetent terrorists aren’t the exclusive domain of the United States.  Over the weekend, some dude decided that 500 Swedish troops in Afghanistan was an outrage that must be stopped at any cost.  So, he put some canisters of ‘liquefied petroleum gas’ in his car, strapped some more (or some other material that goes boom) on himself and headed for downtown Stockholm.

Both devices went off but the bomber was the only victim.  Apparently, he botched the job so that it initially might not have even been clear that it was intentional.   According to one witness:

“It looked like the man was carrying something that exploded on his stomach. He didn’t have any injuries to his face or his body and the stores nearby weren’t damaged. All the windows were whole,” the witness told DN.


Bone-headed security decsions (homeland security edition)

Ah, you’ve got to love our anti-terrorism strategy.

  • Find an Arab speaker who’s got some criminal charges to work off.
  • Send him to a mosque or place where Muslims congregate.
  • Look for terrorists
  • If you can’t find any, look for people who need money or are mentally handicapped.
  • Bribe, beg, threaten, persuade, or cajole them to adopt Jihad (or at least say the right things into a microphone)
  • Get them to do something (no matter how incompetently) that might, be construed as furtherance of a terrorist action
  • Send in the SWAT team
  • Strut at the press release.

Case in point.

…the FBI has used informants…as one of many tactics to prevent another strike in the United States.

Monteilh’s mission as an informant backfired. Muslims were so alarmed by his talk of violent jihad that they obtained a restraining order against him.He had helped build a terrorism-related case against a mosque member, but that also collapsed. The Justice Department recently took the extraordinary step of dropping charges against the worshiper, who Monteilh had caught on tape agreeing to blow up buildings, law enforcement officials said. Prosecutors had portrayed the man as a dire threat.

And this is neither a recent or California only problem.  Chris Christie who was a U.S. Attorney before becoming New Jersey’s governor engaged in the same shady behavior in his prosecution of Hemant Lakhani.

Part of this is due to our screwed up judicial system that encourages prosecutors to dig in their heels and fight for convictions even when the evidence is shaky or, even when it proves the suspect’s innocence.

Some of it is laziness.

Some of it is incompetence.

Ayloush reported the FBI’s own informant to the FBI.

Members of the mosque told its leaders that they were afraid of Monteilh and that he was “trying to entrap them into a mission,”…The mosque went to Orange County Superior Court in June 2007 and obtained a restraining order against Monteilh, court records show.

After he vowed to go public…an FBI supervisor threatened him with arrest. “She said, ‘If you reveal your informant status to the media, it will destroy the Muslim community’s relationship with the FBI forever.”

Ah yes.  threaten your source and then appeal to him to keep quite because it’ll make your job easier.  Sounds like a plan.  Better prep Plan B.

At a subsequent meeting, Monteilh said, he signed a non-disclosure agreement in exchange for $25,000 in cash.

Let’s review.  Take a convicted felon.  Make him do all sorts of dodgy stuff.  Cut him loose and threaten him with arrest and then try to buy him off.  I’m sure we’ll be able to trust him now, right?  There’s nothing that’d get him to talk.


But Monteilh was arrested in December 2007 on a grand-theft charge and ended up back in jail for 16 months.

Just a guess.  He tried to get the FBI to get him off this in exchange for keeping him mouth shut (again) and went public when they wouldn’t (couldn’t?) play ball.

Very little of this makes us any safer.  But it generates cash (for participating agencies, security companies and assorted hangers on), the appearance that we’re making progress against terrorists and makes careers.

And, after all, isn’t that what it’s all about?

Safety First!

I’m flying soon and so likely have an opportunity to get my government mandated grope.  I had one done about a couple of months ago but that was before the rule instituting the mandatory ‘happy endings‘.

As an aside, I think given there are some important policy implications about these security procedures that we have missed.  Allow me to submit the following propositions:

  1. airport security and the defense of our homeland is at least as important as what we’re doing on the battlefield.
  2. certain (ahem) government officials have made strong declarative statements about the danger of having gays in the military (erodes effectiveness, too much flirting in foxholes, etc.)
  3. the lack of a ban on homosexuals in the TSA allows terrorists to exploit that weakness by recruiting hot guys (or girls) to distract and befuddle gay TSA agents and allowing the terrorists to smuggle weapons and explosives on planes (you see teh gayz will be so anxious to inspect the junk they won’t notice the shoulder holsters and such)
  4. OMG!  We’re all gonna die!

Yeah…think I’m joking (not by much)?

…Americans For Truth About Homosexuality is calling for the Transportation Security Administration to institute some “common-sense, healthy ‘discrimination'” by banning “self-acknowledged homosexuals” from doing security screenings, “so as to avoid [passengers] being put in sexually compromising situations.”

Jeez…So we’re not only supposed to be freaked out about terrorists who want to kill us but now we’ve got to be paranoid that someone is actually going to get a cheap thrill out of feeling us up.  The levels of self reinforcing paranoia boggle the mind…

Jeff Goldberg was on the Colbert Report the other night raising the possibility (jokingly) of homosexual passengers requesting physical pat downs from people of the opposite gender and the inevitable skyrocketing of men who claim to be homosexuals when a hot TSA screener is working the station (That sounds a bit too much like a euphemism for this family friendly blog, buster! eds.) I guess you could stymie that by telling people you were entering their sexual orientation into a massive government database so as to avoid this problem in the future but I suspect other complications may arise.

And finally, a bit of Canadian humor.

h/t Fallows

Nine Years

So, nine years ago tomorrow the fates threw us a curveball.  Where are we now?

Well, I think we are safer from large scale attacks than we were nine years ago.  So, good for us.

On the other hand.  I’m convinced we are in worse shape in many other areas.  What’s particularly maddening is that, in at least some cases, our problems are both our own doing and were reasonably foreseeable at the time.  Specifically…

  • National cohesion – The first big mistake of our post-9/11 response.  While there was a huge outpouring of support and a desire to ‘do something’ the administration couldn’t think of anything more significant than ‘go shopping’.  I think that was a huge mistake for a number of reasons not least that it allowed the country to deceive itself into thinking that this was someone else’s problem.  Oh, we could still muster outrage and panic alternately but we couldn’t even talk about the possibility that Americans might need to tighten their belts and pay a bit more in taxes to pay for the two wars we were engaging in.  Does anyone think that decades from now, people who grew up during this time will talk to their children about the experience of living in America during wartime?  Is there any collective memory of this time other than 9/11 (apart from Jersey Shore)?
  • Conceding the initiative – It seems like ever since 9/11 we’ve let the extremists define the conflict.  They said we were fighting a war against Islam and we sputtered and stuttered for years without coming up with a response.  Worse, our own nuts seemed to relish the imagery of a new crusade and began babbling about a ‘fourth world war’ (deciding the Cold War counted as a Third) or a clash of civilizations.  My father informed me we were engaged in a Holy War just the other day.  I find arguments about whose sky-daddy is more powerful just about as productive as wondering if the tooth fairy could take the Easter Bunny in a fair fight.  But have we attempted to put forward a counter narrative?  Hardly.  The best demonstration of this was when I was at the counterinsurgency symposium earlier this year.  A person bemoaned the lack of any strategic messaging on our part when a voice from the back piped up ‘Actually, I’m from the state department and we have a very robust strategic messaging effort.’  The fact that they needed to reaffirm their existence proved that statement to be a lie.
  • Hubris.  Remember the ideas that we’d transform the world into representative democracies?  And everyone would absolutely love our invading armies?  How the hell did they get so many people to believe that crap?
  • Overreach.  Two wars simultaneously?  No problem.  While cutting taxes and increasing other spending?  Hey, we aren’t amateurs.  Pissing over our allies?  C’mon.  Truuuust us.

And as I’ve said for at least four years now, if I’m UBL sitting in my cave now I think I’ve got to be feeling pretty good about things.  Sure, the U.S. is extracting itself from Iraq and has reached a point where if the whole place self destructs Americans will say (and believe) ‘Hey, we didn’t do THAT.  Everything was just fine when we left.’ but it’s still an open sore of resources and prestige.  Afghanistan continues to look promising but the real win is in America itself.  The country is teetering on bankruptcy, the two political parties look like nothing so much as Didius Julianus and Titus Sulpicianus trying to outbid each other for the favor of the praetorians (or maybe just the mob).

The famed tolerance of Americans is under pressure as reactionaries try to turn the country back to some non-existent time and attempt to deny some the right to worship, the right to citizenship and the right to a fair trail.

And really, let’s say we kill UBL and all of al-Qaeda tomorrow.  Is anything really going to change?  Is the threat level suddenly drop to green or blue or whatever color ‘no problem’ translates into?  Are we going to stop hearing the drumbeat of ‘get tough’ rhetoric that demands bombs drop or assassins get busy every time we are displeased by another nation (or individual)?  Are we going to (finally) hold people accountable if they torture others in the name of the United States?

Probably not.  The Rubicon has been crossed.  I recently read a post where the author said he felt like it was 1913 with the old order spiraling out of control.  Maybe that’s true and maybe it isn’t.  Maybe this is the beginning of our ‘crisis of the 3rd century‘.  Or maybe things will stabilize.  But one thing is for sure, it’ll never go back to the way it was and pretending we can make it so or ignore the changes that have occurred and serious challenges we face ain’t gonna make it any better.

Interesting that the day after I wrote the above, Sullivan has this post.

And this leviathan moves on, its budget never declining, its reach never lessening, its power now emboldened by the knowledge that this republic will never check it, never inspect it, never hold its miscreants responsible for anything, unless they are wretched scapegoats merely following orders from the unassailable above them.

And, most tragic of all, those who say they care about liberty above all – the tea-partiers who invoke the founders – seem only too willing to surrender every liberty for the prize of a security against a threat we cannot even measure, and to bow down before a new king (and probably warrior-queen) rather than elect a new president.

I think Sullivan flatters the non-Tea Party movement here.  There are plenty of non-tea party people who’d be more than happy to hand over liberty in exchange for some hazy level of protection against a highly unlikely event.  I don’t think this is intentional or some sort of insidious plan nor is this limited to the one side of the political spectrum.  Parents are more afraid of their kids being the victims of terrorist attacks than car accidents.  They’ve been whipped into a frenzy about on-line predators that is completely out of whack with the data.  What parent isn’t going to jump at the chance demand that the government ‘think about the children‘ and look the other way as we trample on the principles the nation was founded on.

But you won’t hear about that at any rally purporting to ‘restore honor’ to the nation.

You’d think after nine years people would get a grip and be able to put threats into perspective.  In the days and weeks immediately after 9/11, you could understand the confusion and many of the responses but we’re almost a decade later and still we keep hearing ‘Hannibal ante portas!’

TSA goons strike again

I’m not particularly enamored with the TSA and its airport operations.  After all, they don’t have a great record of preventing dangerous weapons from getting on airplanes and aren’t exactly known for their sharp analytical skills.

So, what to do if you’re incompetent at your primary mission of implementing anti-terrorism countermeasures?

Branch off into snap analysis of financial crime!  Here’s the story of Kathy Parker:

She says she was heading to Charlotte, N.C., for work that Sunday night – she’s a business support manager for a large bank – and was selected for a more in-depth search after she passed through the metal detectors at Gate B around 5:15 p.m.

Two Philadelphia police officers joined at least four TSA officers who had gathered around her. After conferring with the TSA screeners, one of the Philadelphia officers told her he was there because her checks were numbered sequentially, which she says they were not.

“It’s an indication you’ve embezzled these checks,” she says the police officer told her. He also told her she appeared nervous. She hadn’t before that moment, she says.

She protested when the officer started to walk away with the checks. “That’s my money,” she remembers saying. The officer’s reply? “It’s not your money.”At this point she told the officers that she had a good explanation for the checks, but questioned whether she had to tell them.

“The police officer said if you don’t tell me, you can tell the D.A.”

When she got home, her husband of 20 years, John Parker, a self-employed plastics broker, said the police had called and told him that they’d suspected “a divorce situation” and that Kathy Parker was trying to empty their bank account. He set them straight.
It’s not the job of the TSA to determine if Mrs. Parker is having marital trouble…OR embezzling from her workplace.
Really…if we’re going to be inconvenienced at the airport could it at least be by competent people?  And if that’s not possible, could we at least hire people who aren’t pathological bullies?

What is Hoffman talking about?

In an article for the National Interest, Bruce Hoffman talks about the threat of terrorism in the U.S. but I’m not too impressed.  He lists some new ‘disquieting trends’ that we’ve seen recently including…

…the conventional wisdom, which long held that the threat to the United States was primarily external and involved foreigners coming from overseas to kill Americans in this country again has been shattered. Third, the comforting stereotype that terrorists are poor, uneducated, provincial loners—and thus are both different from us and can be readily identified—has once more been compromised. And, finally, that the American “melting pot”—our historical capacity to readily absorb new immigrants—would provide something of a “fire wall” against radicalization and recruitment has now fallen by the wayside.

Geez…straw men everywhere!  Are there really a lot of people who still think terrorists are ‘poor, uneducated, provincial loners’?  Wasn’t that myth blown away in 2001?  I know every time there’s an attack or attempted one news organizations go with the ‘I’m shocked, SHOCKED to discover someone with an education would do this sort of thing.’ but what person even casually following terrorism doesn’t know that terrorists (and not just Islamic ones) commonly come from the ranks of the educated middle class? Yet, Hoffman goes on at length disputing ‘conventional wisdom’ that I’m not sure is all that conventional.

And that conventional wisdom.  There are somewhere between 1-5 million Muslims in the U.S.  Hoffman points to 2009 as a ‘watershed’ of “[a] record nine jihadi incidents, jihadi-inspired plots or efforts by Americans to travel overseas to obtain terrorist training, and one tragically successful attack at Fort Hood, Texas, that claimed the lives of thirteen persons, occurred.

Sorry, but I do have a problem calling a .00036% rate of terrorism among a population a ‘watershed’.

I know…I know.  It only takes one person to nuke a city, release weapons grade anthrax and kick our dogs from a secret moon base.  Let’s not make this out to be some mass movement, however.

But my main objection is his ‘evidence’ that the idea of the American melting pot as a bulwark against radicalism has fallen by the wayside.  Is he really basing that on a handful of incidents in 2009?  Holy crap, I like to engage in baseless speculation as much as the next guy but this is too much even for me.

Ah…but let’s whip up that fear machine again.  Don’t get too comfortable just because we haven’t had a significant terrorist attack in the U.S. since 2001.  Hoffman’s here to tell you it’s not a matter of if…it’s when.

In this respect, what appears as “amateurish” may in fact be more a reflection of the attack having been rushed.

Yeah…Islamic terrorists have been so busy over the past nine years with keeping up with their Facebook pages, Twitter accounts and putting out magazines that their problem has been that they haven’t had enough time to plan and execute an attack in the U.S.  If only they could get a prescription of Ritalin to help them focus they’d be launching highly effective, mass casualty attacks all over the place.

Perhaps it’s even more sinister than that.  Al-Qaeda inc. has a plan to just act completely incompetent.

…this is part and parcel of an al-Qaeda strategy that it also has pushed on other groups. It is a strategy that is deliberately designed to overwhelm, distract and exhaust the terrorists’ adversaries. Thus already stressed intelligence and law-enforcement agencies are deliberately flooded with “noise”: low-level threats from “lone wolves” and other jihadi “hangers on”—e.g., the “low-hanging fruit” that are designed to consume the attention of our national-security apparatuses in hopes that this distraction will permit more spectacular terrorist operations—such as the al-Qaeda-directed plot uncovered last September to attack the New York City subway system—to go unnoticed, sneak beneath the radar and therefore succeed.

Yeah, well I guess that strategy isn’t working out too well for them.  But, even if it were, he’s cutting those poor, stressed intelligence and law enforcement agencies way too much slack.  If they’re overwhelmed it’s because they choose to be, deciding to freak out every time some knucklehead upset from a custody hearing or whatever sends some soap shavings in an envelope to a courthouse.  That isn’t al-Qaeda’s doing.  That’s our doing.  We could refine our filters to ignore that ‘noise’ and pick off the low hanging fruit without obsessing over it but we don’t.  It’s too hard to do that.

He ends his piece with a number of questions we haven’t addressed and need to.  My favorite is the first:

What do we do when the terrorists are like us? When they conform to the archetypal American immigrant success story? When they are American citizens or U.S. residents? When they are not perhaps from the Middle East or South Asia and in fact have familiar-sounding names? Or, when they are “petite, blue-eyed, blonde” suburban housewives who, as the infamous JihadJane boasted, “can easily blend in” to our society to perpetrate terrorist attacks?

What?  Racial profiling might not work?  Oh, I guess I’m all out of ideas then.  Can we panic now?

Really?  Really?  ‘What do we do when the terrorists are like us?’  Yeah, I guess the 1960s and 1970s never happened.  I guess it’s also a good thing that criminals all are conveniently ‘different’ from us so they’re easy to identify.  Otherwise, how ever would we find them.

Der Baader-Meinhof Komplex

With a recommendation from the Armchair Generalist, the TwShiloh team checked out ‘Der Baader Meinhof Komplexthis weekend and were mightily impressed.  I remember the ‘wanted’ posters back when I was stationed in (West) Germany back in the late ’80s but by that time the group’s glory days were behind it.

I seem to recall these everywhere on base...

The movie depicts a group that lacks any sort of cohesive raison d’etre other than a obsession other then their next tactical move.  It’s not a perfect movie but given the rather weak field of films dealing with terrorism, it’s definitely worth a watch.

The role of anti-terrorism legislation in radicalizing animal rights activists

Since I’ve finally finished my counter terrorism class I can now put up my paper on the above subject.  Given the complete lack of open source data I don’t think it does more than raise some (I hope, interesting) questions. I can’t help but think that ‘get tough’ policies and hysterical rhetoric about animal rights/environmental groups is ultimately going to have two negative consequences.  It’s going to scare legitimate activists into silence (which might be seen as an ultimate positive by elements who like to whittle democracy down to a once every four year event – every two years if your a senior citizen) and it’s going to attract and further radicalize a smaller subset of people that 1) are already convinced the government is an evil Leviathan swallowing up individual freedoms and 2) thrive on playing the martyr.

To paraphrase our old friend Niccolo:  Suppression legislation like this relies too much on the power of the lion and not enough on the slyness of the fox.  They have mistaken snares and traps for signs of wolves and besides, it’s a lot more fun to be the lion who can roar and threaten with impunity.  But, “Those who choose only to be a lion do not really understand.”

I’d be interested in anyone’s comments, ideas or feedback.

Anyway, here’s the paper.  Enjoy.

Terrorism legislation and its effect on terrorism

I’m at the end of my last class for my M.A..  Long time readers may remember that a few months ago I made a similar claim which, obviously wasn’t true.  The problem was that I had foolishly decided to pursue a graduate certificate simultaneously with my degree and while I finished my coursework for my Masters in International Conflict Resolution I hadn’t completed my certificate work in terrorism.  While I assumed I could complete them independently, the school had other ideas and declared that the two were locked in a death embrace and I couldn’t get credit for one until I completed them both.


My last class is called counter-terrorism and my final research project revolved around the hypothesis that anti-terrorism legislation directed at certain groups (specifically animal rights/ecological activists) will actually lead to an increase in radical, illegal activity.

Why would this be?  Well, my theory is that it will be the result of two factors: the further radicalization of existing AR extremists through the perception that there are fewer alternatives to direct action and the attractiveness of an increasingly demonized movement to individuals psychologically predisposed to violent and destructive behavior regardless of its ideology.

I should say my research was maddening in part because of the lack of any sort of reliable information.  Given that as recently as recently as 2004, the FBI declared animal/eco rights activists to be the highest domestic terrorism investigative priority” for the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and in the years since have claimed that they’ve attributed more than 1,200 incidents to those activists with a monetary cost in the hundreds of millions of dollars you’d think they’d be able to share some of that data.

Well, no such luck.  In fact, the National Counter Terrorism Center has less than 2 dozen events listed in their database.  That meant that I had to rely on the (even more) dubious statistics from the actual combatants in this fight.  One set is available from the Animal Liberation Front (I zeroed in on the animal liberation movement) and the other from the Foundation for Biomedical Research.

Both of those data sets have really REALLY big problems but given that let me show you this:

Allow me to specifically point out the purple line (which represents all incidents attributed to animal rights activists both legal and illegal)  and the blue line (which represents events which resulted in damages in excess of $10,000).  Now, in 1998 the first people were prosecuted under the Animal Enterprise Protection Act accompanied by a dramatic drop in all sorts of animal rights activist.  So, that must mean legislation works, eh?

Not so fast, partner.

What you’ll notice in the years after that is a pretty significant spike (especially in terms of those high dollar incidents) in the years after that prosecution up until 2001.  I’m guessing that after 9/11 a lot of the wind was taken out of people’s sails for direct action but by 2003 we saw numbers climbing again.  By 2005/2006 the animal rights community had the double whammy of prosecution of the SHAC-7 and the passage of the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act. Those events were accompanied by a dramatic drop in all sorts of animal rights activism.  So, that must mean legislation works, eh?

Hold your horses.

According to my little theory you’d expect to see a pretty dramatic spike in the years after 2006 as activists decided to fight back and, perhaps, as others less concerned about ideology but interested in taking up the banner because they’re drawn to extreme behavior decided to see what all the hoola is about.

And here my data kinda craps out.  I was able to check my data to with some minimal degree of confidence up until 2006 but after then I really don’t have much that I can even hang a virtual hat on.  The scant evidence I could find, however, does seem to hint that there might, in fact, be an increase in the number of direct action events.  About seriousness of those actions (dollar damage amounts or violent activity) I can’t say.

I’m not entirely sure that the suppression model of labeling an increasingly wide range of activity terrorism (anti-social and rude – definitely, illegal – sometimes, terrorism – not so much) produces the long term solution it promises.  But, it does have the effect of making the targeted industries happy (now if some kid keys a bunch of cars or releases some minks it’s not vandalism it’s terrorism and the fate of the free world is at stake) and making law enforcement happy (more funding…more promotional opportunities). The whole idea is based on some assumptions about how these people radicalize and what motivates them that doesn’t appear to have been examined in any serious way.

And of course, there’s also the ‘chilling effect’ such legislation can have on legal and legitimate protest.  In a phone interview I conducted with Will Potter he described the confusion some activists had in knowing what activity was within legal bounds and unable to get a straight answer from their local law enforcement and being told, in essence “You’ll know if it’s illegal when we arrest you.”

I clearly wasn’t able to prove anything one way or the other but it’d be nice to see someone (*cough* FBI *cough*) actually track and release data about these sorts of events.  And again, enough with treating everything like it’s the nuclear launch code.  If it’s in the local paper and the ALF website, I think we can trust the American people with the information.  And, as long as I’m getting totally crazy how about some evaluations of some of this legislation and if you keep coming back to congress asking to get increasingly tough on some unwanted behavior, maybe look at some alternative strategies.