Archive for the ‘Counterterrorism’ Category

Dot Dot Dot: Taking Everyone’s Favorite Metaphor For Failure Out For A Spin

Monday, December 28th, 2009

By Tommy Brown

In the wake of the attempted terrorist attack on a Amsterdam-to-Detroit airliner, the WaPo’s editorial page breaks out my favorite way that the burden of failure is transferred from actual people to abstract concepts: “Connecting the dots.” From the editorial:

THE THWARTED Christmas Day airplane bombing raises three causes for alarm. First, it illustrates a screening system that remains porous enough to let a suspect board with the same explosive shoe-bomber Richard Reid attempted to use in 2001

Okay, I’ll give him that one, but it’s not exactly like it was unknown that the TSA is a complete disaster. Since 9/11, reporters and government types alike have repeatedly defeated the TSA’s security and gotten everything from box-cutters to guns to mock explosives aboard airplanes. So color me unsurprised.

Second, it exposes a terrorism bureaucracy too clumsy to catapult the suspect, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, at least to a higher level of preflight scrutiny after his father came forward with warnings that he might pose a danger.”

That may have something to do with the fact that both the no-fly list and the “extra attention” list are literally swamped with hundreds of thousands of names, ninety percent of whom seem to be on there for no apparent reason. This is thanks to a system called TIDEMART that literally runs off of a laptop in the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center (CTC) and NSA data-mining run amok. Add in an element of political intimidation (scores of antiwar activists found themselves on one of the lists during the Bush Administration) and you have the recipe for a system that may be worse than not having one at all.

And his father did warn the US Embassy in Lagos that his son had been radicalized, which did get him on the increased scrutiny list. Why no more than that you ask? Well, two reasons: One, the CTC and NSA are absolutely flooded with vague warnings from all over the world that may or may not be the real deal, which basically reduces it to going with the odds-on favorite. Two, despite the fact that pretty much every CIA officer in the world using official cover poses as a Foreign Service embassy official, the striped-pants set from the State Department and the spooks from Langley are generally at each others’ throats. Then you add in the disdain that the FBI, which is responsible for domestic counterterrorism, has for the CIA (the saying is, “FBI catches bank robbers; CIA robs banks”) and it is yet again a recipe for disaster.

Expect to hear about “breaking information stovepipes” (my second favorite in terms of blaming abstract concepts) and “not just moving boxes around on a chart” when moving the boxes into an arrangement that makes a lick of sense would probably be a good idea.

Third, if it is true that the suspect received explosives training from al-Qaeda in Yemen, the incident underscores the emergence of that troubled nation as a training ground for terrorists.

This is the kind of thing that makes my blood boil. Yemen is not “emerging” as a training ground for terrorists, Al Qaeda has been there at least since bin Laden was kicked out of the Sudan and moved to Afghanistan in the Nineties. Yemen acted as sort of a regional command center for AQ Central in the Persian Gulf, given that the ruling council was in a Central Asian country on the far side of Iran.

I mean, Yemen had a direct role in 9/11. Two of the hijackers came to America from Yemen; one actually returned there and came back during preparations for the hijackings. In fact, the best example of not “connecting the dots” before 9/11 involves Yemen. It goes like this: The NSA was actually tapping the communications of the Yemen command center, and identified those two future hijackers as AQ and on their way to America. The NSA told the CTC, but the call was taken by an FBI agent seconded to the Agency, who told his CIA boss, who for reasons unknown sat on the information.

At least this explains our targeted strikes in Yemen recently..

No screening system can be foolproof, and every system must balance security against the need to allow an acceptably free flow of travel. But the system apparently failed in the case of Mr. Abdulmutallab in significant part because available technologies were not employed. The explosive PETN, pentaerythritol tetranitrate, that Mr. Abdulmutallab allegedly carried would not be found through normal X-rays or metal detectors. However, it is detectable by bomb-sniffing dogs, by “sniffer” technology that blows particles off travelers, or by swabbing passengers for traces of explosives; full-body imaging might also have been helpful.

This is a whole bunch of words that can be boiled down to this: If someone in Lagos or Amsterdam had put the guy through a bomb sniffer, this would never have happened. Period.

The episode also serves as another sobering reminder that eliminating Afghanistan as a haven for terrorist planning is necessary but not sufficient. Yemen will be “a fertile ground for the training and recruitment of Islamist militant groups for the foreseeable future,” Andrew Exum and Richard Fontaine warned in a report last month for the Center for a New American Security.

Al Qaeda is in more than eighty countries, including every Sunni-ruled country in the Middle East, multiple countries in Africa, the Philippines, you name it. In spite of the fact that no one seems to know or care about it, Operation Enduring Freedom (the initial attack on Afghanistan) also included a Philippines component, with Special Forces pursuing and eliminating members of Jamaat al-Islamyiah, an AQ offshoot. So, again, color me less than surprised.

Hopefully this will be the final kick in the ass that will spark some serious intelligence and counterterrorism reform, but Your Humble Author remains doubtful. If 9/11 couldn’t do it, what can?

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Everybody Loves David: Another Exciting Capitol Hill Hearing

Saturday, December 19th, 2009

By Tommy Brown

General Petraeus goes to Washington:

The chief of the regional U.S. Central Command told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that “additional mission force elements” would be sent to Afghanistan in the spring, but he declined to provide details in an open congressional hearing.

Although such “elements” have not been publicly discussed in the administration’s strategy announcements, counterterrorism efforts — missiles fired at specific insurgent targets from unmanned aircraft and bombs from manned planes, as well the use of Special Forces units and intelligence surveillance — are expected to increase along with the deployment of 30,000 more U.S. ground troops.

Off top, it’s nice to see someone talking about counterterrorism in Afghanistan rather than counterinsurgency.  Most folks think they are the same thing, and they are most definitely not.

The “additional elements” are almost certainly Special Forces and Special Operations teams that will spend a good portion of their time hunting Al Qaeda chiefs in the Pakistani borderlands. Throw in some more Predators and CIA paramilitary spooks for good measure. And here’s why:

The use of air attacks in Afghanistan has been curtailed in recent months as Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the U.S. and NATO commander there, sought to avoid civilian casualties. But as described by Petraeus, the new concentration on pushing the Taliban out of population centers will allow more robust action against fighters in the countryside.

U.S. drone attacks have been used extensively against al-Qaeda and Taliban targets in Pakistan, although their frequency has diminished recently as the Pakistani military has been engaged in a ground assault in South Waziristan. Obama has warned Pakistan that it must step up its effort in that region and others along the border it shares with Afghanistan or risk an escalation of U.S. activity.

The Pakistani offensive in South Waziristan, which is where the Al Qaeda ruling council most likely resides, is a joke, we most likely cut back drone strikes to avoid accidentally killing a Pakistani soldier and sparking a diplomatic incident.  Pakistan’s army is a conventional force that is geared entirely towards a land war with India, so we’re talking armor, mechanized infantry and lots and lots of artillery.

They are not cut out to fight insurgents in extremely mountainous terrain. They have engaged the Pashtun tribes several times over the years since 9/11 and managed to lose decisively to ragtag tribal militias. So this is either a public relations stunt to keep American aid flowing, or they think they can get the anti-Pakistani Taliban faction that has been giving them so much trouble in the Swat Valley, because they’ve been known to kick it with Al Qaeda from time to time.

These are not the same Taliban who are attacking us in Afghanistan. The leaders of the major Afghan factions like Haqqani, Mullah Omar, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, are good friends with the Pakistani military and secret police.

Senators sharply questioned the officials about remarks Tuesday by Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who said he anticipated a U.S. combat presence in his country for five more years — about the same timeline Obama described, beginning with an initial troop escalation that started in the summer and leading to a withdrawal that would start in July 2011, depending on Afghan capabilities. Karzai said he envisioned U.S. funding for Afghanistan’s own security forces to continue for 15 years, a cost that Petraeus estimated would total about $10 billion a year.

Noting that Karzai’s timeline would extend to 2024, Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) noted that “we’re talking about $150 billion just on the security side,” for Afghan forces alone, “before we get to the development side.”

You have to admire Karzai’s cojones for just blatantly coming out and saying it, when most politicians would deny such a long-term commitment would happen despite the fact that they knew it was inevitable.  Not to mention that American-funded security for a decade or so is probably the only thing that would keep the Pakistanis from killing him (they’ve already tried twice). They see Karzai as pro-India (which he is) and the shady way he bounced pro-Pakistan presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah out of the election has probably made them ever less happy.

Petraeus also provided additional details on plans to “reintegrate” Taliban fighters into Afghan society or security forces with monetary and other incentives. He described a new Force Reintegration Cell, headed by a retired British general who held the same job under Petraeus when the latter was the U.S. commander in Iraq, that will identify insurgents likely to switch sides if provided the right incentives.

This is the part that is going to drive both sides of the political spectrum insane, because the Taliban has been conflated with Al Qaeda for so long. I’ve said it before, but how long do you have to kill people for their government having bad house guests? It’s been almost a decade; they’ve most likely learned their lesson. Of course the strategy is sound, every counterinsurgency ends with political negotiations, but try explaining that to your average American.

Those who cannot be reintegrated “can be killed, captured or run off,” Petraeus said. But the idea, he said, was to make individual fighters “part of the solution instead of part of the problem.” U.S. commanders in Afghanistan said Wednesday that they are funding a raise in Afghan military pay — from $180 a month to about $240 for an entry-level soldier, along with other tangible benefits — to compete with the Taliban, which offers up to $300 a month.

Word. Good ideas.

The strategy also includes development of “community defense” forces, tapping local leaders to defend their territory in conjunction with coalition and Afghan forces. That effort has long been pushed by the U.S. Special Forces Command, which has argued that the extremely localized nature of Afghan culture should be matched by a localized U.S. approach.

“It’s a village-by-village, valley-by-valley effort,” Petraeus said, “and we’re using some of our best Special Forces teams right now to really experiment with this.”

This puts the American Special Forces in the role they are best at: Force multiplication and foreign internal defense. Though most people see them as elite hunter-killer teams (and there’s no doubt that they are),  a Special Forces A-Team of just twelve men can raise, train and command a company-sized unit of militia fighters. They are experts at turning a bunch of ragtag native fighters into a disciplined and effective fighting unit. Foreign internal defense (FID) is milspeak for fighting an insurgency inside a “host nation.”

And why are we just trying this now eight years later you ask? Well, it’s simple: It’s office politics. The Cold Warriors who trained to fight the Soviets in Europe that now run the Army have a reflexive distrust of the individual branches’ Special Operations Forces and especially the Special Operations Command, which covers the whole world and thus don’t fall under the authority of the individual theater commander where they are operating at.

Why? It could be resistance from generals who were lieutenants either during Vietnam or in the immediate aftermath and swore never to fight another counterinsurgency. It could be that the Army is a crazily massive bureaucracy (you would not believe the amount of typing and filing it takes to kill people in significant numbers all across the word) and turning it to a new direction is a painfully slow process. It could be that they don’t believe in the COIN mission and think there’s a better way

It’s most likely a combination of all three. Eventually, though, they need to accept the fact that unconventional warfare is the Next Big Thing, and that the combination of Special Operations units, SF operators, close air support and indigenous fighters can accomplish with less than a thousand soldiers and airmen what it used to take a massive conventional force to do.

If one looks at history, every occupation of Afghanistan has been a disaster, but punitive strikes have worked multiple times: Get in, kill a bunch of people, and depart posthaste. One would think the ghost of William Macnaughten would hover over our politicians’ shoulders in this debate, but how many do you think knew who he was or what he did?

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Hell Freezes Over: Are The Feds Actually Cooperating With The NYPD In Counterterrorism?

Saturday, October 3rd, 2009

By Tommy Brown

A piece from Newsweek on the recent arrest of a mope planning to set off a bomb in NYC:

This, according to these same [NYPD and FBI] officials, is what the countdown looked like:

It is Wednesday, Sept. 9, two days before the anniversary of 9/11 and just five days before Obama is scheduled to make a major speech on Wall Street, only a few hundred yards from Ground Zero. A week after that, the U.N. General Assembly will be in full session, with some 150 heads of state gridlocking Manhattan. And now the FBI tells the NYPD it’s concerned about the activities of this guy, Najibullah Zazi, whom agents have been watching for months in Colorado. The Feds have good reason to believe he’s been trained in bombmaking in Pakistan. They say they know he’s been stockpiling the same kind of chemical components—hydrogen peroxide and acetone—used to concoct the explosives used in the horrific London subway bombings in 2005. Over the past few days surveillance suggests he’s not only been cooking them up, he’s allegedly been calling friends to make sure he gets the mixture just right. The New York City connection? He was brought up in Queens in a neighborhood long known to be full of Taliban supporters. And at this moment he is in a rental car headed east. The FBI is watching him. The bureau normally works with more than 100 NYPD detectives in the Joint Terrorism Task Force, but on this one it wants Cohen’s Intelligence Division working the case, too.

Now this is how domestic counterterrorism is supposed to work. “Breaking down stovepipes” and all that, actually sharing intel instead of engaging in the usual law enforcement agency pissing matches over jurisdiction or credit for the collar.

A couple of years ago, that kind of cooperation didn’t exist. After Police Commissioner Ray Kelly reorganized the force in the wake of 9/11 and brought in Cohen, the Intelligence Division had an extremely rocky relationship with the FBI field office. Cohen’s detectives focus on preventing new attacks, not pulling together cases for prosecution after the fact, which is what FBI agents traditionally have been tasked to do. The NYPD intelligence unit works undercover and gathers human intelligence in New York City, in the wider United States, and even overseas. FBI agents, used to believing they have a monopoly on that kind of work, wanted to keep it, and the infighting was legendary.

Despite all that, FBI Director Robert Mueller—who has tried to shift the FBI law-enforcement culture from after-the-fact prosecution toward more aggressive measures to prevent terrorism—has developed a good working relationship with Kelly. And since Joseph Demarest took over as the head of the FBI field office in New York late last year, according to law-enforcement officials, cooperation on the ground has improved dramatically. One of those officials says that the FBI has worked closely with the NYPD intel detectives on more than two dozen important cases in the past several months.

“An extremely rocky relationship” is a very very mild way of putting it concerning the interactions of the NYPD and FBI. Even before 9/11, the rivalry and contempt between “the Feebs” and the “local yokels” was the stuff of legend. In the Joint Terrorism Task Force, which was tasked with Al Qaeda investigations worldwide before 9/11, the federal agents constantly short-shrifted the NYPD detectives on cases or treated them like gofers.

After 9/11, Mayor Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Ray Kelly were so incensed at the lack of federal cooperation (and lack of federal counterterrorism funds) in the city that is the biggest terrorist target on the planet that they literally created their own CIA and a sort of municipal hybrid of the FBI and Britain’s MI-5.

The Intelligence Division sent detectives all over the country and even the world to sniff out plots against NYC before they had a chance to become operational. The fact that the Deputy Commissioner for the Intel Division is the former head of the CIA’s clandestine service says it all. The CT Divsion was focused on preemptive action and rolling up terrorist networks in the city, using the kind of preemptive action that the FBI had a deep institutional aversion to (and with good reason, but that’s another story).

It’s Sept. 11. FBI agents and Intelligence Division detectives meeting that morning believe they have a good handle on the Zazi case. They have found this source, Afzali, who knows quite a lot about Zazi and his friends. The suspect is under surveillance, and a warrant has been obtained to search his rental car and the laptop inside. Then word comes that a phone call has been intercepted from someone telling Mohammed Zazi the cops are asking about his son. The name of the caller is not the one the cops have been using. The top Intelligence Division detective at the meeting steps out of the room to phone his office and check. Yeah, that’s Afzali, he says when he comes back in.

The next day, Saturday, Najibullah Zazi is on a plane back to Denver, and there are a lot of loose ends. How much of a network was Zazi involved with? (“You study these things and they get bigger, then smaller, then bigger—like an accordion,” as one veteran counterterrorism analyst puts it.) Where are the explosives or their components? No one seems to know.

On Wednesday the 16th, the FBI in Denver began questioning Zazi directly. His father was brought in as well, and Afzali was picked up in New York. On Saturday the 19th all three men were charged with allegedly lying to federal officers. On Sept. 24, Najibullah Zazi was indicted for conspiracy to use weapons of mass destruction.

The investigation continues. More than 120 detectives from the NYPD Intelligence Division remain assigned to the case.

With the (almost entirely true) horror stories about the dearth of actual domestic security against these kind of threats, this pitch-perfect CT investigation ending in the roll-up of most of the cell before they could achieve their explosive aims is quite heartening. In fact, one may notice that the Department of Homeland Security did not seem to be involved in this investigation in any way, which speaks volumes about their effectiveness.

Hopefully, this will be the beginning of a golden era of cooperation between the NYPD Intel detectives  and the federales . Given the traditional Bureau disdain for the CIA and spook types in general (the saying goes, “FBI catches bank robbers for a living; CIA robs banks”), I wouldn’t hold my breath. While I would love to believe that all the stuff about the two agencies playing nice is as rosy as this article portrays, both the Bureau and the NYPD have a reputation for snowballing the media for positive press coverage.

Oh yeah, one more thing. The lead sentence of the article:

“The ticking bomb” is a cliché in movies about cops and spies and terrorists, but sometimes in real life, with real terrorists, it’s the real deal.

This was not a ticking time bomb scenario. This was rolling up a network before they could become operational.

Please stop it Newsweek. There is no reason to give the Jack Bauer counterterrorism crowd more ammunition for their fallacious arguments.

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