Tuesday, January 12, 2010
5 Myths About Who Becomes a Terrorist Also: Asia Times: The Shadow War in Afghanistan
5 Myths About Who Becomes a Terrorist
Also: Asia Times: The Shadow War in Afghanistan [In Afghanistan, the American military is only part of the story. There's also a polyglot "army" representing the United States that wears no uniforms and fights shape-shifting enemies to the death in a war of multiple assassinations and civilian killings, all enveloped in a blanket of secrecy.]
By now, more than eight years after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, we should be better at plucking a terrorist out of an airport security line. After all, we have some idea of what he'll be like: young, socially alienated and deeply religious. And he'll come from a country like Afghanistan, Algeria, Cuba, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Nigeria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Syria or Yemen. (Under new Transportation Security Administration rules announced last weekend, people bearing passports from these 14 countries will undergo special scrutiny before boarding a plane.)
Or will he? What if he comes from Northern Virginia, like the five young men who were arrested in Pakistan on Dec. 8 and who have been accused of planning "terrorist activities," according to Pakistani newspaper reports? The bottom line is that we can no longer assume that terrorists will come from any particular country or fit any particular profile. The more we learn about what makes people vulnerable to recruitment by terrorist organizations, the less any of the old generalizations hold up.
1. Most terrorists are spoiled rich kids.
Many prominent jihadists are indeed well off and well educated. Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the suspect in the failed Christmas Day airline bombing, comes from one of the wealthiest families in Nigeria. After the 2001 attacks, much was made of the engineering backgrounds of some of the hijackers, and Osama bin Laden famously hails from a wealthy family with close ties to the Saudi royals.
But terrorists come from all socioeconomic backgrounds. For poor people in countries where economic prospects are bleak, jihad can be one of the few jobs available.
Of the 25,000 insurgents and terrorism suspects detained by U.S. forces in Iraq as of 2007, nearly all were previously underemployed, according to Maj. Gen. Douglas Stone, the commander of detainee operations at the time. And according to Christopher Boucek of the Carnegie Endowment, the Saudi Interior Ministry found that most of the 639 convicted terrorists going through a rehabilitation program came from lower- or middle-class families, while 3 percent had high-income backgrounds.
2. Al-Qaeda members come from repressive countries in the Middle East.
Al-Qaeda's core organization, which was responsible for the Sept. 11 strikes, is now based in Pakistan, but terrorist organizations claiming to be its affiliates include North Africa's al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, Jemaah Islamiah in Indonesia and al-Shabab, which is fighting in southern Somalia and has been recruiting Westerners.
The organization also has a more amorphous following of independent cells and individuals around the world. It is almost impossible to target or quantify this following because it isn't centralized in any one location
. Such self-made terrorists can be found anywhere, even in Fort Hood, Tex.
More broadly, there is no particular political system that reliably promotes or deters terrorism. And democracy is not the cure-all it is often assumed to be. There are many more terrorist incidents in democratic India, for example, than in non-democratic China or Saudi Arabia. (This may be because authoritarian regimes are good at controlling terrorism within their borders.) And economist Alberto Abadie of Harvard University has found that the transition to democracy can be a particularly dangerous period with regard to terrorism -- consider the experiences of Spain in the late 1970s, Russia after the fall of communism and Iraq today. Failed and failing states, such as Yemen and Somalia, also make particularly fertile ground for terrorism.
3. Al-Qaeda is made up of religious zealots.
To the contrary, rank-and-file terrorists who claim to be motivated by religious ideology often turn out to be ignorant about Islam. The Saudi Interior Ministry has questioned thousands of terrorists in custody about why they turned to violence, and found that the majority did not have much formal religious instruction and had only a limited understanding of Islam. According to Saudi officials, one-quarter of the participants in a rehabilitation program for former jihadis had criminal histories, often for drug-related offenses, whereas only 5 percent had been prayer leaders or had other formal religious roles.
In the Netherlands and elsewhere in Europe, second- and third-generation Muslim youths are rebelling against what they consider the culturally contaminated Islam that their parents practice and that is promoted in their local mosques, favoring instead the allegedly purer Islam that they discover online or via imams from the Middle East. But the form of Islam they turn to is often highly unorthodox. For example, the Hofstad group in the Netherlands -- a network of radicalized young Muslims -- practiced a sort of do-it-yourself Islam cobbled together from Web sites and the teachings of a self-taught Syrian imam who is also a former drug dealer.
And groups linked to al-Qaeda, including in Somalia, have been begun using anti-American hip-hop music or "jihad rap" in their recruitment videos, even though such music is considered counter to the extremist version of Islam promoted by the terror network. Rather than Islam leading young recruits toward al-Qaeda, it may be an ignorance of Islam that renders youths vulnerable to al-Qaeda's violent ideology.
4. Terrorists are motivated by a strong belief in their cause.
Terrorist movements often arise in reaction to a perceived injustice, whether real or imagined. Yet ideology is not the only, or even the most important, factor in an individual's decision to join. In my research and interviews with terrorists, I have found that operatives are often more interested in adopting a new identity than in supporting a terrorist group's stated goals. Many speak, in particular, about being motivated by a feeling of humiliation. A Kashmiri militant founded his group because, he said, "Muslims have been overpowered by the West. Our ego hurts . . . we are not able to live up to our own standards for ourselves."
The reasons that some people become terrorists are as varied as the reasons that others choose conventional professions: market conditions, social networks, contact with recruiters, education and individual preferences. And just as the passion for justice that may animate a young law student is not necessarily what keeps him working long hours at a law firm while hoping to make partner, a terrorist's motivations for staying with his cause can also change.
Most terrorist groups disappear quickly; those that survive tend to have the sort of flexible ideology that can attract a diverse array of recruits and funders. Al-Qaeda is among the most disciplined terrorist groups, but its goals and its list of enemies are constantly shifting. Documents analyzed by scholars at the Combating Terrorism Center at the U.S. Military Academy reveal an astonishing lack of clarity about the group's purpose, even among leaders of the organization. Abu'l-Walid, a leading strategic thinker for al-Qaeda, has complained about constantly shifting strategic goals, lamenting that "waging jihad like a rhinoceros is stupid and futile."
5. The typical terrorist recruit is an alienated loner.
According to The Washington Post, Abdulmutallab, the alleged Christmas airplane attacker, wrote in an online Islamic forum: "I have no one . . . to consult, no one to support me and I feel depressed and lonely. I do not know what to do. And then I think this loneliness leads me to other problems."
But for most terrorist recruits, the problem isn't so much a lack of friends as the wrong friends. This dynamic isn't so different from the way gang recruiting works in the United States: Terrorists often join an armed struggle because they have a buddy who has done so. In a survey of 516 Guantanamo detainees, researchers at the Combating Terrorism Center found that knowing another member of al-Qaeda was a better predictor of who became a terrorist than was belief in the idea of jihad.
It is interesting to note that in its rehabilitation efforts, the Saudi government tries to compete with convicts' ties to terrorism networks by reconnecting them to their families and home communities, and most controversially, by trying to find wives for the former fighters.
Ultimately, some individuals may join terrorist groups out of a misplaced desire to transform society. But over time, the social and psychological rewards of belonging can eclipse such motivations. Terrorists want to better their own circumstances at least as much as they want to change the world. ByJessica Stern serves on the Hoover Institution Task Force on National Security and Law and is a lecturer at Harvard Law
School. The Washington Post
The Shadow War in Afghanistan
It was a Christmas and a New Year from hell for American intelligence, that US$75 billion labyrinth of at least 16 major agencies and a handful of minor ones. As the old year was preparing to be rung out, so were the US's intelligence agencies, which managed not to connect every obvious clue to a (literally) seat-of-the-pants al-Qaeda operation. It hardly mattered that the underwear bomber's case - except for the placement of the bomb material - almost exactly, even outrageously, replicated the infamous, and equally inept, "shoe bomber" plot of eight years ago.
That would have been bad enough, but the New Year brought worse. Army Major General Michael Flynn, the US and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) forces deputy chief of staff for intelligence in Afghanistan, released a report in which he labeled military intelligence in the war zone - but by implication US intelligence operatives generally - as "clueless". They were, he wrote, "ignorant of local economics and landowners, hazy about who the powerbrokers are and how they might be influenced ... and disengaged from people in the best position to find answers ... Eight years into the war in Afghanistan, the US intelligence community is only marginally relevant to the overall strategy."
As if to prove the general's point, Humam Khalil Abu-Mulal al-Balawi, a Jordanian doctor with a penchant for writing inspirational essays on jihadi websites and an "unproven asset" for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), somehow entered a key agency forward operating base in Afghanistan unsearched, supposedly with information on al-Qaeda's leadership so crucial that a high-level CIA team was assembled to hear it and Washington was alerted.
He proved to be either a double or a triple agent and killed seven CIA operatives, one of whom was the base chief, by detonating a suicide vest bomb, while wounding yet more,
including the agency's number-two operative in the country. The first suicide bomber to penetrate a US base in Afghanistan, he blew a hole in the CIA's relatively small cadre of agents knowledgeable on al-Qaeda and the Taliban.
It was an intelligence disaster splayed all over the headlines: "Taliban bomber wrecks CIA's shadowy war", "Killings Rock Afghan Strategy", "Suicide bomber who attacked CIA post was trusted informant from Jordan". It seemed to sum up the hapless nature of America's intelligence operations, as the CIA, with all the latest technology and every imaginable resource on hand, including the latest in Hellfire missile-armed drone aircraft, was out-thought and out-maneuvered by low-tech enemies.
No one could say that the deaths and the blow to the American war effort weren't well covered. There were major TV reports night after night and scores of news stories, many given front-page treatment. And yet lurking behind those deaths and the man who caused them lay a bigger American war story that went largely untold. It was a tale of a new-style battlefield that the American public knows remarkably little about, and which bears little relationship to the Afghan war as we imagine it or as our leaders generally discuss it.
We don't even have a language to describe it accurately. Think of it as a battlefield filled with muscled-up, militarized intelligence operatives, hired-gun contractors doing military duty, and privatized "native" guard forces. Add in robot assassins in the air 24/7 and kick-down-the-door-style night-time "intelligence" raids, "surges" you didn't know were happening, strings of military bases you had no idea were out there, and secretive international collaborations you were unaware the US was involved in. In Afghanistan, the American military is only part of the story.
There's also a polyglot "army" representing the US that wears no uniforms and fights shape-shifting enemies to the death in a murderous war of multiple
assassinations and civilian slaughter, all enveloped in a blanket of secrecy.
Black ops and black sites
Secrecy is a part of war. The surprise attack is only a surprise if secrecy is maintained. In wartime, crucial information must be kept from an enemy capable of using it. But what if, as in the US's case, wartime never ends, while secrecy becomes endemic, as well as profitable and privitizable, and much of the information available to both sides on the US's shadowy new battlefield is mainly being kept from the American people? The coverage of the suicide attack on forward operating base (FOB) Chapman offered a rare, very partial window into that strange war - but only if you were willing to read piles of news reports looking for tiny bits of information that could be pieced together.
We did just that and here's what we found:
Let's start with FOB Chapman, where the suicide bombing took place. An old Soviet base near the Pakistani border, it was renamed after a Green Beret who fought beside CIA agents and was the first American to die in the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001.
It sits in isolation near the town of Khost, just kilometers from the larger Camp Salerno, a forward operating base used mainly by US Special Operations troops.
Occupied by the CIA since 2001, Chapman is regularly described as "small" or "tiny" and, in one report, as having "a forbidding network of barriers, barbed wire and watchtowers". Though a US State Department provisional reconstruction team has been stationed there (as well as personnel from the US Agency for International Development and the US Department of Agriculture), and though it "was officially a camp for civilians involved in reconstruction", FOB Chapman is "well-known locally as a CIA base" - an "open secret", as another report put it.
The base is guarded by Afghan irregulars, sometimes referred to in news reports as "Afghan contractors", about whom we know next to nothing. ("CIA officials on Thursday would not discuss what guard service they had at the base.") Despite the recent suicide bombing, according to Julian Barnes and Greg Miller of the Los Angeles Times, a "program to hire Afghans to guard US forward operating bases would not be canceled. Under that program, which is beginning in eastern Afghanistan, Afghans will guard towers, patrol perimeter fences and man checkpoints."
Also on FOB Chapman were employees of the private security contractor Xe (formerly Blackwater), which has had a close relationship with the CIA in Afghanistan. We know this because of reports that two of the dead "CIA" agents were Xe operatives.
Someone else of interest was at FOB Chapman at that fateful meeting with the Jordanian doctor Balawi - Sharif Ali bin Zeid, a captain in the Jordanian intelligence service, the eighth person killed in the blast. It turns out that Balawi was an agent of the Jordanian intelligence, which held (and abused) torture suspects kidnapped and disappeared by the CIA in the years of George W Bush's "global war on terror".
The service reportedly continues to work closely with the agency and the captain was evidently running Balawi. That's what we now know about the polyglot group at FOB Chapman on the front lines of the agency's black-ops war against al-Qaeda, the Taliban and the allied fighters of the Sirajuddin and Jalaluddin Haqqani network in nearby Pakistan. If there were other participants, they weren't among the bodies.
The agency surges
And here's something that's far clearer in the wake of the bombing: among the US's vast network of bases in Afghanistan, the CIA has its own designated bases - as, by the way, do US Special Operations forces, and according to a Nation reporter, Jeremy Scahill, even private contractor Xe. Without better reporting on the subject, it's hard to get a picture of these bases, but Siobhan Gorman of the Wall Street Journal tells us that a typical CIA base houses no more than 15-20 agency operatives (which means that Balawi's explosion killed or wounded more than half of the team on FOB Chapman).
And don't imagine that we're only talking about a base or two. In the single most substantive post-blast report on the CIA, Mark Mazzetti of the New York Times wrote that the agency has "an archipelago of firebases in southern and eastern
Afghanistan", most built in the last year. An archipelago? Imagine that. And it's also reported that even more of them are in the works.
With this goes another bit of information that the Wall Street Journal seems to have been the first to drop into its reports. While you've heard about President Barack Obama's surge in American troops and possibly even State Department personnel in Afghanistan, you've undoubtedly heard little or nothing about a CIA surge in the region, and yet the Journal's reporters tell us that agency personnel will increase by 20-25% in the surge months. By the time the CIA is fully bulked up with all its agents, paramilitaries and private contractors in place, Afghanistan will represent, according to Julian Barnes of the Los Angeles Times, one of the largest "stations" in agency history.
This, in turn, implies other surges. There will be a surge in base-building to house those agents, and a surge in "native" guards - at least until another suicide bomber hits a base thanks to Taliban supporters among them or one of them turns a weapon on the occupants of a base - and undoubtedly a surge in Blackwater-style mercenaries as well.
Keep in mind that the latest figure on private contractors suggests that 56,000 more of them will surge into Afghanistan in the next 18 months, far more than surging US troops, State Department employees and CIA operatives combined. And don't forget the thousands of non-CIA "uniformed and civilian intelligence personnel serving with the Defense Department and joint interagency operations in the country", who will undoubtedly surge as well.
The efforts of the CIA operatives at Chapman were reportedly focused on "collecting information about militant networks in Afghanistan and Pakistan and plotting missions to kill the networks' top leaders", especially those in the Haqqani network in the North Waziristan tribal area just across the Pakistani border. They were evidently running "informants" into Pakistan to find targets for the agency's ongoing drone assassination war.
These drone attacks in Pakistan have themselves been on an unparalleled surge course ever since Obama entered office; 44 to 50 (or more) have been launched in the past year, with civilian casualties running into the hundreds. Like local Pashtuns, the agency essentially doesn't recognize a border. For them, the Afghan and Pakistani tribal borderlands are a single world.
In this way, as Paul Woodward of the website War in Context has pointed out, "Two groups of combatants, neither of whom wear uniforms, are slugging it out on the Afghan-Pakistan border. Each group has identified what it regards as high-value targets and each is using its own available means to hit these targets. The Taliban/al-Qaeda are using suicide bombers while the CIA is using Hellfire missiles."
Since the devastating explosion at Chapman, statements of vengeance have been coming out of CIA mouths - of a kind that, when offered by the Taliban or al-Qaeda, we consider typical of a backward, "tribal" society. In any case, the secret war is evidently becoming a private and personal one. Balawi's suicide attack essentially took out a major part of the agency's targeting information system.
As one unnamed NATO official told the New York Times, "These were not people who wrote things down in the computer or in notebooks. It was all in their heads ... [The CIA is] pulling in new people from all over the world, but how long will it take to rebuild the networks, to get up to speed? Lots of it is irrecoverable." And the agency was already generally known to be "desperately short of personnel who speak the language or are knowledgeable about the region". Nonetheless, drone attacks have suddenly escalated - at least five in the week since the suicide bombing, all evidently aimed at "an area believed to be a hideout for militants involved". These sound like vengeance attacks and are likely to be particularly counterproductive.
To sum up, US intelligence agents, having lost out to enemy "intelligence agents", even after being transformed into full-time assassins, are now locked in a mortal struggle with an enemy for whom assassination is also a crucial tactic, but whose operatives seem to have better informants and better information.
In this war, drones are not the agency's only weapon. The CIA also seems to specialize in running highly controversial, kick-down-the-door "night raids" in conjunction with Afghan paramilitary forces. Such raids, when launched by US Special Operations forces, have led to highly publicized and heavily protested civilian casualties. Sometimes, according to reports, the CIA actually conducts them in conjunction with special ops forces.
In a recent American-led night raid in Kunar province, eight young students were, according to Afghan sources, detained, handcuffed and executed. The leadership of this raid has been attributed, euphemistically, to "other government agencies" (OGAs) or "non-military Americans". These raids, whether successful in the limited sense or not, don't fit comfortably with the Obama administration's "hearts and minds" counter-insurgency strategy.
The militarization of the agency
As the identities of some of the fallen CIA operatives at Chapman became known, a pattern began to emerge. There was 37-year-old Harold Brown Jr, who formerly served in the army. There was Scott Roberson, a former Navy SEAL who did several tours of duty in Iraq, where he provided protection to officials considered at high risk. There was Jeremy Wise, 35, an ex-SEAL who left the military last year, signed up with Xe, and ended up working for the CIA. Similarly, 46-year-old Dane Paresi, a retired special forces master sergeant turned Xe hired gun, also died in the blast.
For years, American author and professor Chalmers Johnson, himself a former CIA consultant, has referred to the agency as "the president's private army". Today, that moniker seems truer than ever. While the civilian CIA has always had a paramilitary component, known as the Special Activities Division, the unit was generally relatively small and dormant. Instead, military personnel like the army's special forces or indigenous troops carried out the majority of the CIA's combat missions.
After the 9/11 attacks, however, George W Bush empowered the agency to hunt down, kidnap and assassinate suspected al-Qaeda operatives, and the CIA's traditional specialties of spycraft and intelligence analysis took a distinct back seat to Special Activities Division operations, as its agents set up a global gulag of ghost prisons, conducted interrogations by torture, and then added those missile-armed drone and assassination programs.
The military backgrounds of the fallen CIA operatives cast a light on the way the world of "intelligence" is increasingly muscling up and becoming militarized. This past summer, when a former CIA official suggested the agency might be backing away from risky programs, a current official spit back from the shadows: "If anyone thinks the CIA has gotten risk-averse recently, go ask al-Qaeda and the Taliban ... The agency's still doing cutting-edge stuff in all kinds of dangerous places."
At about the same time, reports were emerging that Blackwater/Xe was providing security, arming drones, and "perform[ing] some of the agency's most important assignments" at secret bases in Pakistan and Afghanistan. It also emerged that the CIA had paid contractors from Blackwater to take part in a covert assassination program in Afghanistan.
Add this all together and you have the grim face of "intelligence" at war in 2010 - a new micro-brew when it comes to Washington's conflicts. Today, in Afghanistan, a militarized mix of CIA operatives and ex-military mercenaries as well as native recruits and robot aircraft is fighting a war "in the shadows" (as they used to say in the Cold War). This is no longer "intelligence" as anyone imagines it, nor is it "military" as military was once defined, not when US operations have gone mercenary and native in such a big way.
This is pure "lord of the flies" stuff - beyond oversight, beyond any law, including the laws of war. And worse yet, from all available evidence, despite claims that the drone war is knocking off mid-level enemies, it seems remarkably ineffective. All it may be doing is spreading the war farther and digging it in deeper.
Talk about "counter-insurgency" as much as you want, but this is another kind of battlefield, and "protecting the people" plays no part in it. And this is only what can be gleaned from afar about a semi-secret war that is being poorly reported. Who knows what it costs when you include the US hired guns, the Afghan contractors, the bases, the drones and the rest of the personnel and infrastructure? Nor do we know what else, or who else, is involved, and what else is being done. Clearly, however, all those billions of "intelligence" dollars are going into the blackest of black holes. By Tom Engelhardt and Nick Turse
Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project, runs the Nation Institute's TomDispatch.com. He is the author of The End of Victory Culture, a history of the Cold War and beyond, as well as of a novel, The Last Days of Publishing. He also edited The World According to TomDispatch: America in the New Age of Empire (Verso, 2008), an alternative history of the mad Bush years.
Nick Turse is the associate editor of TomDispatch.com and the winner of a 2009 Ridenhour Prize for Reportorial Distinction as well as a James Aronson Award for Social Justice Journalism. His work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the Nation, In These
Times, and regularly at TomDispatch. Turse is currently a fellow at New York University's Center for the United States and the Cold War.