Sunday, November 30, 2014

What is Terrorism?

               What is terrorism? This is a question that has been ever present since the 2001 9/11 attacks. And it has remained unanswered in any concrete way. It can involve one casualty or hundreds. At the same time, it can even involve 0 casualties. Terrorism can also utilize several different venues to make a statement. It can use suicide bombers, as seen in the Iraq conflict. It can also use biological and chemical agents, such as the 2001 Anthrax Mail attacks which killed 5 people. Terrorism can utilize a diverse number of tactics and venues to send its message across. Yet, it is still undefined.

               Terrorism cannot be defined by number of dead, maimed, or negative effects it has created. It has also been shaped by the public’s changes of perception. For instance, the public of 1982 loved the actions of John Rambo in First Blood. He managed to evade capture of the US police and army using guerilla tactics that led to 1 officer’s death and several wounded police and soldiers. Yet, the reaction would be very different if a similar story were to occur in the post-9/11 setting. In many ways, terrorism is defined by the perceptions of the beholder. It’s knowing that something is a duck when you see it. But this could lead to its overuse or its mislabeling. It is a malleable term that is heavily influenced by the public’s biases.

               On June 8th, 2014, Las Vegas was struck by what was undeniably an act of domestic terrorism. Soldo and Alyn Beck attacked LVPD officers after shouting something about a revolution. They attached a note claiming that the revolution had begun, attached Nazi symbols to the dead officers, and draped a Gadsden Flag (The “Don’t Tread on Me” Snake) over one of the dead bodies. While some researchers, such as John Schindler, who works at the Naval War College, and J.M. Berger, a domestic extremism expert, declared the attack as being terrorism, the media largely avoided the term. Yet why did they? The act fits the majority of terrorism definitions. It was an attack that sought to send a politicized message of fear. Some, such as the author of the article, would claim that it was the lack of any Islamic identifiers amongst the attackers that caused the media to avoid the term.

               Our public perception of terrorism helps define it. We often view it as a violent, politically charged attack against Americans that was committed by an Islamic extremist. We also view that these attacks have been on the rise since 9/11. Yet, that would be false. Terrorism has actually been decreasing. There were 11 acts in 2011 in comparison to the 120 acts that were committed in 1975. Additionally, a large number of attacks have been carried about by homebred, apple pie eating Americans who have far-left/right tendencies as seen by the Oklahoma Bombings that injured 150 people. The politicization of attacks being a perquisite of terrorism is also up for debate. For instance, the DC Snipers were charged under Virginian Terrorism charges, yet their end goal was to receive 10 million dollars to stop their attacks.
               The perception of terrorism and its definition is constantly in flux. It also reflects our eventual change from a Cold War viewpoint. It is undeniable that a large portion of NSC organizations still operate under some influence of its Cold War history. It is what causes us to invest more in spy satellites than in the HUMINT sources that are more effective in our global war against terrorism. Yet, the post-9/11 world has begun to edit facets of it. We now have a DHS. The FBI is finally beginning to embrace the technology it ignored in Spying Blind. The Military now has an updated COIN Manual.

               The definition of Terrorism will probably never be concretely defined. It will always remain partially abstract. This will forever effect how the public and policymakers react to terroristic events. By understanding the malleability of the term, it is possible to see how and why government agencies and policies change to address it.

Just Let ISIL Eat Cake

The situation in Iraq and Syria continues to deteriorate and no one seems to know just how to best fight them. Terrorist non-state actors are a tricky specimen for actual states to confront. So instead of waging a halfhearted campaign against ISIL why not just let them have their cake and eat it too. Then, right after the dust settles the US-led coalition can wage a proper war in the only way they know how. The porous borders, taking and retaking of cities on top of a civil war are just too confusing for a traditional army to fight. 
The current strategy of airstrikes and arming rebels is only dragging out the fight leading to more civilian casualties. Not to mention the fact that there is clear dissension within the region regarding how best to deal with ISIL. So with the US performing 770 out of 900 airstrikes and its coalition mostly for show what does the US have to lose, besides a little prestige, in slowing their roll and letting this play out? 

Turkey wants to give Assad the ax first before tackling ISIL. Iran is the only country in the area sending ground troops. Then others just want to contain ISIL as there is no long term solution to this particular problem, and all can agree that airstrikes are not enough. The departure of Chuck Hagel and a revolving policy in the area should demonstrate that we don’t quite know how to handle ISIL. They’re a new breed that hasn’t come after the US the way al-Qaeda did 13 years ago nor are their goals what we’ve come to expect of terrorists. 

What good is the US really doing by continuing to involve itself in a region that is not its number one fan, with a short term approach that doesn’t address the core problems and no exit strategy? Here’s what it would look like if the US backtracked and allowed ISIL to form borders and consolidate gained territory for its caliphate. First it would end some of the regional violence and fighting outside of the war waged by the Syrian army. And then many different options are possible from there. The region could further turn against ISIL as it imposes strict Sharia law. This would also put ISIL’s internal stability and prowess to the test as many doubt their ability to even mint their own money. The Middle East might find some much needed common ground in the absence of the US’ money and military might as well. 

Needless to say this is likely more problematic than beneficial. However, considering current events and the lack of a long term strategy and an inability to tackle the core issues that breed extremist movements, questioning US involvement is not without merit. Abandoning the fight would send the wrong message to both terrorists and the region about US commitment and sincerity. Not to mention it would be quite the gamble allowing ISIL to consolidate its power as it just might succeed making it all the more difficult to defeat. 

While this idea would be ignored right out of the Situation Room as well as a career killer, the current strategy is utterly inadequate and doomed for failure. Obama must choose whether to fully engage in this fight and commit to the “degrade and destroy” strategy or not. If he doesn’t engage then he has the chance to regroup and attack ISIL with the full force of the US military instead of what will likely be a long process of containment. And the US public probably doesn’t have the same level of patience they did during the Cold War.

Putin's Options Only Getting Smaller

For decades, the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) cartel has been the undisputed dominating force in oil production. Recently, with the stratospheric rise of production capability in the United States, it is looking more and more like OPEC can no longer maintain its ability to control global supplies and market prices. This, comes on the heels of an OPEC meeting in Vienna on Thursday where members could not reach an agreement on lowering collective production output, which would have stemmed the continued nosedive of oil prices. It seems for all intents and purposes, OPEC is a competitor for global oil market share.

As a side effect to this decline in oil prices and continued economic sanctions from the West, Russia’s economy is in its worst state since the late 1990s, with the ruble tumbling precipitously over the past few months. On Friday, the ruble fell 3.6% to an all-time low of 50.4085 against the dollar and officials within Putin’s administration estimate that Russia will lose $140 billion in revenue annually with the lower oil prices.  With continued sanctions by Western nations and the decline in energy revenue, Putin has turned towards neighbors—most notably China—to capitalize on the potential closer to home, as evidenced by the recent pipeline deal recent pipeline deal (see below) between Russia and China.

A Russian/Chinese partnership could be disastrous for the US as and Europe foreign policy as it would give Putin a way to circumvent the effectiveness of sanctions as well limited reliance on foreign pressure. For China it would have an effective counterweight to US and Japan power in the region and for Russia, a partnership to rival US/EU power.

Inevitably, an important player in all of this is India. In August, government officials were reported to be researching the feasibility of a gas pipeline running through the Himalayas from Russia. In addition, Prime Minister Modi is scheduled to host Putin on December 11th, which no doubt will be used to discuss possible energy investment between the two nations. This partnership would serve the policy goals of both leaders with Putin attempting to stave a recession and Modi making good on his campaign promises of economic growth and mitigating a symbiotic Russian/Chinese partnership.

As the Russian economy continues to feel the pangs of isolation from the West, Putin must learn that his foray into Ukraine and his policy of making the loyal elite wealthy is unacceptable. The outgrowth of oil supply versus global demand could not have come at a better time to put pressure on Russia. As past lessons have shown, international pressure can only serve to expedite a financial crisis. Hopefully Putin will realize it is too late before Russia faces another 1998.

Kangaroo Court for Pharaoh

Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s former President ruling for 30 years, could finally smile after hearing Judge Rashidi, who led a panel of three judges, read the verdict. The court cleared Mubarak’s charges against the killing of protesters in 2011 uprising. It was estimated more than 800 people to have been killed as security forces battled protesters in the weeks before Mubarak resigned on 11 February 2011. However, the court documents at the retrial related to the deaths of 239 people and injuries sustained by 1,588, across 11 of the country's regions. 

As well as the murder charge, Mubarak was also cleared of a corruption charge involving gas exports to Israel. While in a separate court charges, Mubarak’s sons Alaa and Gamal are also cleared from corruption charges. The court room which was full of Mubarak’s supporters cheered in jubilation. While the family of victims were frustrated knowing justice would not prevail.
Judge Rashidi did not elaborate from the bench on their reasoning why he dismissed the murder charges but pointing instead to a 280-page summary of their 1,340-page explanation of the case. He insisted that the ruling had “nothing to do with politics.” He also sounded sympathetic about the former president “To rule for or against him after he has become old will be left to history and the Judge of Judges,” he said. Many of the judges involve are the same judges who issued harsh sentence rulings to the dissidents crackdown under al-Sisi. Khaled Ali, a human rights lawyer and former presidential candidate said “it was not a trial, just a game they are playing with the people, to relieve them and then enslave them again”
Dissatisfied with the court’s verdict, protesters gathered around Tahrir Square at night. Tahrir Square was the same place when the Egyptians started their revolt on January 25, 2011 leading to the removal of Mubarak from power, who in fact was planning on to pass the mantle to his son on September that year. People's protests paved the way for General Sisi to his power now albeit Morsi won the election and happened to be in power for one year.  

The verdict implied that Mubarak still have strong supporters among the elite structures, including General El-Sisi, who is the product of military high command under former President Mubarak. The army propaganda combined with the General’s charisma and oratory skills induced Egyptians in euphoria thinking he was the savior and thus expected him to bring changes to the country. They all forgot, thirty years in power is long enough for Mubarak to cultivate strong influence from all walks of life including the military and build them into his circles. 

Al-Sisi, former general who led the military takeover ousting Egypt’s elected Islamist government, now has consolidated power and surrounded himself with former Mubarak advisers. The state-run and pro-government media now routinely denounce the pro-democracy activists who led the 2011 uprising as a “fifth column” out to undermine the state. Many of the activitists are still in prison, and the Islamists who won free elections are now jailed as terrorists along with thousands of their supporters. 

What occurred in Egypt after the revolt and what is happening now with the former figures and the cronies suggest democracy does not take over night, it takes many generations to go and there can not be any short cut for it. The January 25 revolt was not the end and not yet the beginning as well towards democracy, just like in 1952 when the Egyptian army ousted the prime minister. What Mark Twain said holds true that "history does not repeat itself, but it does rhyme".