Normative Narratives


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Conflict Watch: ISIL, Terrorism, and Social Media

When one thinks of an extremist / terrorist organization such as ISIL, the first things that comes to mind are probably guerrilla warfare, intimidation and coercion; given recent mass killings in Syria and Iraq, it is obvious where this image comes from. While this image is accurate, it is an incomplete view of the enemy we are fighting. What we are dealing with is a foe who embraces the theory of “hearts and minds” by providing essential services to people, is skilled in propaganda (especially when we give them “ammo”, such as drone warfare), and has embraced social media in order to attract a larger, younger, international following:

The extremist group battling the Iraqi government, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, may practice a seventh-century version of fundamentalist Islam, but it has demonstrated modern sophistication when it comes to using social media, particularly Twitter and other sites like WordPress and Tumblr.

What ISIS realized, more quickly and effectively than its rivals, was that “smartphones and social media accounts are all that is needed to instantly share material in real time with tens of thousands of jihadists,” said Rita Katz, a terrorism analyst who on Friday published a study of ISIS and Twitter on the website of the SITE Intelligence Group, which monitors extremist activity online.

“ISIS, as well as its fighters and supporters, quickly adopted these tools and has been utilizing the latest Internet technologies and social media outlets to maintain massive, sophisticated online media campaigns used to promote jihad, communicate, recruit and intimidate,” Ms. Katz wrote.

Aside from sowing terror and winning extremist admirers, ISIS’s use of social media has also had both strategic and tactical impacts on the battlefield.

In Mosul, two weeks before ISIS attacked and overran the city, it began broadcasting individualized death threats on its Facebook accounts to every Iraqi journalist working in the city, said one of those singled out.

Many experts on extremists’ online activity have complained that the social networking sites should be policing their platforms better.

“Twitter must adapt to these new circumstances and become more proactive in deterring such activity,” Ms. Katz said. “It has the capability to carry out account monitoring and suspensions on much larger scales than it has thus far.”

An official of a social networking site, who said he would speak frankly only if his name was not used, said the huge size of the major sites made it impossible to enforce rules against terrorists’ use. “It’s kind of like whack-a-mole,” he said.

“We constantly look at these things and when we find them we take them down,” he said. “Our policy is any terrorist organization, we take down.”

For instance, Facebook has shut down a half-dozen accounts linked to ISIS, the social networking official said.

Guerrilla warfare is intrinsically hard to defeat; by decentralizing power, the cost of any individual loss is minimized. Terrorist groups have successfully used this leaner form of warfare to counter opponents who have greater resources than them. Social media is an extension of guerrilla tactics; accounts are free to setup, and once one is closed, another pops up.

On Sunday, ISIL announced the formation of an Islamic caliphate on Twitter. This announcement was billed as “the most significant development in international jihadism since 9/11,” according to Charles Lister, Visiting Fellow at the Brookings Doha Center. The fact that ISIL would take to social media for such an important announcement shows how fully the organization has embraced modern technologies.

To paraphrase Sun Tzu, the ancient  Chinese military strategist whose famous work “The Art of War” remains relevant today, it is important to both “know thy enemy and thyself”. The United States, under the leadership of President Obama, has “found” its Post-War on Terror foreign policy identity: a mixture of drone warfare, local capacity building in conflict areas (including technical “good governance” assistance, intelligence sharing, military training, and economic assistance) and more evenly spreading the costs of global security with other developed world powers.

We found this identity both from our own failures, and by recognizing that our enemy has evolved. Al Qaeda and its offshoots have gone from a relatively “vertical” organization under Osama Bin Laden, to a “horizontal” and splintered group of extremist organizations. Due to shortcomings in domestic governance, they have positioned themselves to Middle-Eastern societies as an alternative to modern democracy; a preserver of tradition and religion and provider of basic needs (including security against American drone warfare). Furthermore, they have begun to utilize tools such as social media to galvanize public support (similarly to how democratic movements have been organized via social media).

Extremist groups like ISIL are deplorable; they represent backwards and socially regressive norms. However, they have also proven themselves to be incredibly adaptable and resilient. With this in mind, it would be prudent for America and it’s allies to shift resources away from programs which fuel extremist popularity (such as drone warfare, which while sometimes needed, has been overused too the point of counter-productivity), and towards programs that undermine their appeal (government capacity building both for public service delivery and security forces, and building relationships / institutions which promote inclusive and pluralistic democratic governance).

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Conflict Watch: Drone Week(s), It’s a Bad Week to be a Terrorist

I should probably say “drone month” or “drone year / decade”, but I really wanted to make a play on Shark Week so there it is.

Comic relief aside, news of drone strikes in the Middle East and Central Asia has proliferated recently:

Pakistan:

At least six militants were killed and four others injured after the latest American drone strike in Pakistan’s restive tribal belt on Sunday, Pakistani intelligence officials and militant commanders said.

An intelligence official in the area, who was authorized to speak only on the condition of anonymity, said preliminary reports indicated that a senior commander with a Pakistani Taliban faction led by Gul Bahadur, which has links with Al Qaeda, had been killed in the attack.

There have been 15 C.I.A.-led drone strikes in Pakistan so far this year, compared with 47 in 2012, according to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, which monitors the strikes. Up to 124 people have been killed, the group said, including up to 4 civilians.

Pakistani officials say the attacks violate their country’s sovereignty, result in civilian deaths and aid in the recruitment of fresh militants. American officials privately dispute those claims, saying the civilian death toll has dropped as strikes have grown more accurate in recent years.

Yemen:

Missile-armed drone aircraft launched the fifth attack on suspected al-Qaeda militants in Yemen within 72 hours, as the U.S. stepped up raids after closing its embassy and warning Americans to leave the country.

The drone killed three people in a vehicle in Ghail Bawazeer region, according to the al-Sahwa news website of the opposition Islamist Islah party, which is linked to the Muslim Brotherhood. At least 22 suspected militants have been killed since Aug. 6, according to a tally from reports on the website.

The strikes come as the U.S., Britain and other Western countries closed their missions in Yemen and told citizens to leave, while Yemeni authorities said on Aug. 7 they had foiled an al-Qaeda plot to seize port facilities. The Obama administration is keeping 19 embassies and consulates closed because “a threat still remains” from al-Qaeda affiliates, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said yesterday.

Saeed Obaid al-Jemhi, an expert on al-Qaeda and Islamist movements and author of a book on the Yemeni group, said the intensified campaign will be counterproductive.

“The Americans feel these strikes will generate a positive impact and that is true, but there is a huge negative impact on Yemen,” he said. “This will generate more sympathizers with al-Qaeda and will also weaken the popularity of the Yemen’s President Hadi.”

The Bureau of Investigative Journalism reported a sharp increase in U.S. operations in Yemen in 2012, with at least 32 confirmed strikes, double the number carried out in 2011. The U.S. intends to end drone attacks in Pakistan soon, Secretary of State John Kerry said on Aug. 1.

Egypt:

An Israeli drone strike inside Egypt killed five suspected Islamic militants and destroyed a rocket launcher Friday, two senior Egyptian security officials said, marking a rare Israeli operation carried out in its Arab neighbor’s territory.

The strike, coming after a warning from Egypt caused Israel to briefly close an airport Thursday, potentially signals a significant new level of cooperation between the two former foes over security matters in the largely lawless Sinai Peninsula after a military coup ousted Egypt’s president. Egypt long has maintained that it wouldn’t allow other countries to use its territories as hotbed to launch attacks against other countries.

The drone strike comes after Israel briefly prevented landings at an airport in the Red Sea resort of Eilat on Thursday. While Israeli officials would only say the closure came out of unspecified security concerns, an Egyptian security official told the AP that officials warned Israel about the possibility of rocket strikes. The official said Egyptian authorities received intelligence suggesting terrorist groups planned to fire missiles Friday at Israel, as well as at locations in northern Sinai and the Suez Canal.

Residents heard a large explosion Friday in el-Agra, an area in the northern region of the Sinai close to Egypt’s border with Israel. The officials said the Israeli attack was in cooperation with Egyptian authorities.

While Egypt signed a peace deal with Israel in 1979, the country has long been suspicious of the Jewish state’s intentions while annually celebrating its own military exploits against Israel in the Sinai. Allowing an Israeli drone strike inside its own territory represents military cooperation otherwise never seen before.

Proliferation of drone strikes has occurred in line with D.I.M.E. (Diplomatic, Intelligence, Military, Economic) foreign policy, and has been carried out in a more transparent way (as evidenced by news reports on drone strikes).  For a reminder, or the sake of new readers, I had this to say about the place of drone strikes within the larger D.I.M.E. framework:

We must realize that everyday there are people who try to hurt Americans Western interests–Jihad does not take a vacation. The fact that the Boston Marathon attack was the first major act of terrorism on American soil since 9/11 is not a result of a diminished threat, but rather highlights the efficacy of American intelligence efforts.

To the extent that the Obama administration is embracing a a shift to D.I.M.E. (diplomatic, intelligence, military, economic) foreign policy, winding down traditional military programs requires putting more resources in diplomacy, economic aid, and intelligence gathering. As I said, far from being hypocritical, the Obama administration is being consistent; when the ultimate goal is security for American’s (and the world), putting people directly in the line of fire is counter-productive unless it is truly a last-case scenario.  

Obama did not say he would stop drone strikes, but that he would make the process more transparent. He did not say he would stop fighting terrorism, but that the way that terrorism is going to be fought is changing.

Are Drone strikes a necessary evil in today’s world? Considering the high cost of traditional warfare (both in money and in lives), and the inability to keep terrorist leaders in jail due to prison-breaks, perhaps targeted, intelligence-backed drone strikes truly are the most effective way of moving forward with “the War on Terror”. Terrorists due not respect human rights and due process, why should they be granted such privileges?

The “drone-strikes-fuels-Jihad” argument seems to hold water. Are drone strikes really counter-productive in terms of increasing the appeal of / helping recruiting efforts for extremist groups? Testimony from the sentencing portion of the Bradley Manning case sheds light on this claim:

A prosecution witness in the sentencing phase of the court-martial of Pfc. Bradley Manning told a military judge on Thursday that Al Qaeda could have used WikiLeaks disclosures, including classified United States government materials provided by Private Manning, to encourage attacks in the West, in testimony meant to show the harm done by his actions.

The witness, Cmdr. Youssef Aboul-Enein, an adviser to the Pentagon’s Joint Intelligence Task Force for Combating Terrorism, said that WikiLeaks materials showing that the United States had killed civilians, for instance, could help Al Qaeda.

“Perception is important because it provides a good environment for recruitment, for fund-raising and for support for Al Qaeda’s wider audience and objectives,” he said.

The article went on to say that had it not been for Wiki-leaks, Al Qaeda would have found other propaganda to help recruitment efforts / fuel anti-American sentiment (apologies, I cannot seem to find that version of the article).

I am all for preventative peace-building, tackling the root causes of terrorism before they take hold. But taking the moral high-ground [not using drones] in areas where terrorism already has deep roots would be–in my opinion–much more counter-productive to the global war on terror.  

Drone strikes have become more transparent (in their disclosure), and allegedly more targeted to minimize collateral damage and civilian deaths. When assessing national security programs, it is helpful to think of them in terms of opportunity cost–what is the cost of the next best alternative / inaction. If the next best alternative is traditional warfare, then we already know the costs are too high and results unsustainable. The cost of inaction is high too; pulling out of the war on terror may seem like an attractive short term solution. But allowing terrorism to spread with relative impunity will only make future anti-terrorism efforts all the more costly and complex.

Am I an “Obama foreign policy apologist”? Perhaps, however I see the use of drones as the lesser of many evils. A world in which drone strikes and terrorism (and warfare and human rights violations in general) do not exist is a beautiful normative vision, but is unfortunately not a reality today.