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Archive for the ‘Militancy’ Category

The Next Threat: Mexico

John Robb, whose blog is an essential read, offers a dependably bleak prediction: “The most likely existential security threat to the United States isn’t likely to originate from terrorists from southwest Asia or a hypothetical war with China. Instead, it will originate from Mexico’s open source insurgency.” Here’s why:

  • The Mexican state becomes hollow and unable to maintain any semblance of control over its territory. Fiscal bankruptcy, driven by declining oil revenues and a global economic depression, will eliminate any remaining legitimacy it has with the countryside (already tenuous due to extreme income stratification).
  • The narco-insurgency in the northern provinces morphs into a national open source insurgency with thousands of small groups all willing to fight/corrupt/intimidate the government. Many, if not most, of these groups will be able to power themselves forward financially due to massive flows of money from black globalization. The result will be a diaspora north to the US to avoid the violence.
  • Economic failure, a loss of legitimacy and economic deprivation in the US creates an environment for the rapid proliferation of domestic groups willing to fight the government in order to advance their economic interests. Catalyzed by connections to Mexico’s functional and lucrative bazaar of violence [...], these groups carve out their own territory in the US. Experience shows that once these groups gain a foothold, they become nearly impossible to defeat (although they can be co-opted).

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In a panel hosted by Counterterrorism Blog, CNAS Fellow and COIN guru David Kilcullen offers good insight on the Mumbai attacks:

On the tactics:

‘This was not some Islamic charity or some group working alone from the Deccan Mujahedeen: this has all the hallmarks of a Special Forces raid, closer to a commando or SBS raiding activity than a traditional Al Qaeda style terrorist attack. Al Qaeda has never attacked a land target from the sea, though they have attacked maritime targets from the sea, such as the Cole, the Limburg and attacks on Saudi oil installations. There has never been anything close to this level of sophistication of a seaborne attack: this was a high professional bar. We can deduce they had some professional help though I think it is much too early to state who that support came from. It has been set up to look like a Pakistani government operation. We should be careful until we know more. As a side bar, European CT forces captured an Al Qaeda CD that highlighted Al Qaeda urban warfare tactics, and these matched those used in Mumbai to the letter. The sea part was new but the land parts followed Al Qaeda tactics pretty closely.’

On Pakistan:

‘President Zardari offered general Pasha, the head of the ISI, to help out with the investigation and 24 hours later, General Kiyani, the Pakistan Chief of Army Staff, said no and recalled him. The other question, then, is who is actually in charge in Pakistan and to what extent is their national security state operating outside civilian government control? I think it is way too early to hold anyone inside Pakistan responsible.’

[...]

‘We provide Pakistan 100 million dollars a month in coalition support funds, we also train the SSG; Mohammed Ajmal Kasab said he was trained by retired Pakistani officials, so did our money go to elements of the Pakistani Army or intelligence that helped plan this attack?’

On success:

‘Assuming it is LeT I think they would feel they did pretty well. The way they were set up, with fake IDs, clean shaven with western clothes indicated they might have intended to survive the attack. The fact that they lost 9 out of 10 does not indicate that they intended to have those 9 people die. They would have some after-action discussion, I think, about what you do when the hotel you just captured gets assaulted by the Indian security forces. They managed very fortuitously to kill the head of the Mumbai CT police, they would be very happy with that; they would be very happy with the way the diversion worked.’

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I think this much is clear:

Whoever the Mumbai attackers were, and whatever power they swore allegiance to, they weren’t acting on their own, and those who set things in motion had a larger strategic goal in mind: to relieve military pressure on the Taleban, al-Qaeda and other forces operating along the Afghan-Pakistani border, by provoking a confrontation between India and Pakistan.

If this sounds like Tom Clancy, you should read Steve Coll’s brilliant account of what happened last time. On December 13, 2001, five armed men stormed the grounds of the Indian Parliament in Delhi, killing nine people and setting South Asia’s nuclear rivals on the warpath. Not only was the world closer to a nuclear exchange than ever before since the Cuban missile crisis, but, as Pakistan moved its troops from the Afghan border to protect its eastern flank from a seemingly inevitable Indian offensive, Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda’s senior leadership were allowed to slip into FATA.

As in the case of Mumbai, no hard proof of Pakistan’s complicity was found. For those who still have doubts, here’s my favourite passage from Coll’s story:

On December 13th, the United States Ambassador to Pakistan, Wendy Chamberlin, happened to be visiting the two-star Pakistani general in command of the paramilitary Frontier Corps, at his headquarters in Quetta, in the western province of Baluchistan. During their meeting, the general kept his television tuned to a satellite news channel, with the sound muted. As reports of the parliament attack crossed the screen and the magnitude of the event became clear, Chamberlin asked her host for his reaction. According to a written record of the meeting, the general offered a one-word reply: ‘Oops.’

[Dang. My hero Ahmed Rashid is saying pretty much the same thing.]

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My Firefox tabs are buckling under a pile of first-class terrorism analysis, so, in the spirit of international co-operation, I thought I’d share:

“The Coming Urban Terror” — John Robb’s prophetic 2007 City Journal article on how the fabric of a modern metropolis unravels.

“Al Qaida’s strategy to puncture the war on terror” — A thoughtful new piece from ORF’s Wilson John.

“In Just Minutes, Mumbai Was Under Siege” — An excellent minute-by-minute walkthrough by Washington Post’s Emily Wax.

“How Gadgets Helped Mumbai Attackers” — A technology rundown by the war geeks of Wired’s Danger Room.

“The lessons of Mumbai” — Paul Rogers points out that hitting soft targets is hardly an innovation.

“World at Risk” — The Report of the Commission on the Prevention of WMD Proliferation and Terrorism. (Jeffrey Lewis’s critique is here.)

“Lessons from Mumbai” — Bruce Schneier says the attacks were surprisingly ineffective.

“LeT’s Not Jump the Gun” — At CJR, Mr. Foust talks like me, but better.

India’s Naxalite Rage — A wildly imaginative security blog by Shlok Vaidya.

Think Tank — The New Yorker’s Steve Coll recalls his encounter with LeT.

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Researching a backgrounder on the Mumbai attacks, I exchanged emails with Wilson John, a Senior Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, a Delhi-based thinktank.

Although I’m what they used to call “an old India hand”, I haven’t paid much attention to the Subcontinent for quite some time, and a lot of what John told me came as news. Excerpts:

On the radicalisation of Indian muslims:

”There is evidence of a section of the Indian Muslims getting radicalised enough to take up arms against the State but they are neither trained nor capable of carrying out terrorist attacks without outside help. In the past, all of them were trained in Pakistan or Bangladesh or in Kashmir where militant camps have been operating for quite some time. Weapons and explosives have often been procured from outside sources, helped in large measure by the criminal underworld in Mumbai and other cities. I must say that there are people, mostly young, in the Muslim community who are more influenced by the al Qaida ideology than by Pakistan. Many of the doctors and software professionals caught in the recent past point to such a possibility.”

On the Pakistan-Afghanistan-Kashmir connection:

“Pakistan has kept jihadi groups like Lashkar-e-Tayyeba and Jaish-e-Mohammad operational despite severe restrictions on such groups imposed by the US and other nations since September 2001. These groups have been sustained both as tactical and strategic tools in achieving certain foreign policy objectives, viz. India and Afghanistan. LeT men, for instance, were sent as first line of intruders in Kargil in 1999. JeM was created after the 1999 Kandahar hijacking to launch a series of suicide missions against the army in Jammu and Kashmir. Today, key terrorist leaders — LeT chief Hafiz Saeed, JeM chief Maulana Masood Azhar, HuJI chief Qari Saifullah Akhtar and Harkat ul Mujahideen chief Fazlur Rehman Khalil — are free. LeT hand in the July 2008 suicide bombing of the Indian Embassy in Kabul and the attack on the US troops in Kunar province proves the group’s strength and operational capability.”

I also spoke with Professor Martti Koskenniemi, a leading Finnish expert on international law, who showed no mercy to my attempts at drawing an analogy between Mumbai and the U.S. military response to 9/11. He pointed out that unless the Pakistani government refuses to co-operate (so far it hasn’t), there is no legal basis for an Indian retaliation.

I asked him whether Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 2006 was thus illegal, as clearly the Lebanese government was not responsible for the attacks that led to the war. He promptly replied: “Absolutely it was illegal, there was never any doubt about it.”

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Aryn Baker writes in Time:

The roots of Muslim rage run deep in India, nourished by a long-held sense of injustice over what many Indian Muslims believe is institutionalized discrimination against the country’s largest minority group. The disparities between Muslims, which make up 13.4% of the population, and India’s Hindu population, which hovers around 80%, are striking. There are exceptions, of course, but generally speaking Muslim Indians have shorter life spans, worse health, lower literacy levels, and lower-paying jobs. Add to that toxic brew the lingering resentment over 2002′s anti-Muslim riots in the state of Gujarat. The riots, instigated by Hindu nationalists, killed some 2000 people, most of them Muslim. To this day, few of the perpetrators have been convicted.

And:

Kashmir, a Muslim-dominated state whose fate had been left undecided in the chaos that led up to partition, remains a suppurating wound in India’s Muslim psyche. As the cause of three wars between India and Pakistan — one of which nearly went nuclear in 1999 — Kashmir has become a symbol of profound injustice to Indian Muslims who believe that their government cares little for Kashmir’s claim of independence, which is based upon a 1948 U.N. resolution promising a plebiscite to determine the Kashmiri people’s future. That frustration has spilled into the rest of India in the form of several devastating terrorist attacks that have made Indian Muslims both perpetrators and victims.

Like much of the analysis of the Mumbai attacks I’ve read in the past couple of days, this ignores the role of outside influence on the radicalisation of Indian Muslims.

A sense of injustice doesn’t automatically lead to terrorism, and social grievances by themselves don’t breed militancy; otherwise we’d all be in trouble. Communal violence has rocked India almost every year since 1947, yet the country’s descent into terrorist bloodshed is relatively recent. The 2002 Gujarat riots are rightly emphasised in almost every news story as one of the causes of “Muslim rage”, but for the wrong reason. It’s not that the mayhem, although horrific, was historically bad; it’s because it occurred at a crucial juncture. Kashmir had been burning for more than a decade; al-Qaeda had scored its biggest victory with 9/11; and in Pakistan, ISI was riding roughshod over moderates while funding every jihadist outfit they deemed useful as a proxy.

Kashmir’s role in the radicalisation of Indian Muslims is significant, and there is no doubt that abuses by the Indian security forces added insult to injury. But the valley never would’ve been swallowed by a full-blown insurgency had it not been for ISI’s fundamentalist gunmen. I traveled the area frequently in the 80s and early 90s, and the transformation was as rapid as it was tragic. Muzaffarabad was a beehive of jihadist activity; on the Indian side, battles raged and the Indian forces, lacking a coherent COIN plan, resorted to treating every civilian as an enemy. In the end, Pakistan’s strategy of provocation was a resounding success. If the plebiscite had been held in 1989, I’d say most Kashmiris would’ve opted for staying with India; by 1991, most wanted independence; today, my guess is at least a notable section of the population would prefer accession to Pakistan.

India certainly isn’t immune to homegrown fanaticism, be it Hindu or Muslim. But to blame the country for what happened in Mumbai by pointing to the discrimination and resentment of its Muslims trivialises a problem that goes far beyond India’s borders. Without Pakistan’s involvement in Kashmir, there would be no Indian Mujahedin, and SIMI would’ve remained a nuisance. No reasonable person blamed the U.S. for 9/11, even if one could see its policies in the Middle East as a root cause. We should extend the same courtesy to India.

(For an Indian perspective, see terrorism expert Wilson John’s conclusions.)

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After flouting U.S. and international laws for nearly seven years, the United States, in a stunning anticlimax, yesterday convicted Osama bin Laden’s driver Salim Ahmed Hamdan of supporting terrorism.

I think it is a testament to the folly of Bush’s “war on terror” that after all the death and suffering and abuse of human rights, the best they can manage is a military commission trying a footsoldier.

I mean, I can understand Hitler’s architect and Pol Pot’s physician, but this…

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Yesterday, I was drawn into a prolonged and painful argument over the question — to my mind solved five years ago, but apparently not to others — of Saddam Hussein’s alleged ties with al-Qaeda.

Thankfully the discussion ended shortly before midnight, but just in case discontent is still simmering out there, here’s something I’ve been meaning to link to for a while. It’s a brilliant essay by Thomas Hegghammer on the history of Saudi jihadism, which the U.S. should’ve studied closely before and after 9/11, but of course never did.

Incidentally, the invaluable West Point CTC study I linked to yesterday shows conclusively that Saudi militants have provided by far the largest contribution to the Iraqi insurgency, in terms of both money and bodies blown up. Talk about a nexus.

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West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center has published its fifth “Harmony Report” on the inner workings of al-Qaeda, this time its Iraqi variant, AQI. Based on the Sinjar Records and written in clear and concise language, it’s an extremely important paper everyone interested in Islamic terrorism should read. Some key findings:

There is a strong risk of blowback from Iraq. Relatively small numbers of Jihadis will ‘bleedout’ to fight elsewhere, but they will likely be very dangerous individuals.
The Iraq war has increased Jihadi radicalization in the Muslim world and the number of al‐Qa`ida recruits. Foreign fighters in Iraq have also acquired a number of useful skills that can be used in future terrorist  operations, including massive use of suicide tactics, organizational skills, propaganda, covert communication, and innovative improvised explosive device (IED) tactics.

AQI has produced fewer, but far more skilled, fighters than the  ‘Arab‐Afghans’ did in the 1980s.
The foreign fighters in Iraq share important similarities—such as country of origin and ideology—with the so‐called  ‘Afghan  Arabs’ that traveled to Afghanistan to fight Soviet and Afghan‐communist forces in the 1980s. But there are important differences as well. Foreign fighters in Iraq have seen more combat than their predecessors in Afghanistan. In addition,  they have shown greater ability to innovate critical tactical skills, such as IED development and suicide bombings.

The report also notes that although AQI is “a wounded organization”, American withdrawal from Iraq “may not end the flow of foreign fighters” as long as parts of the country remain ungoverned and opportunities for humiliating the U.S. abound.

This was the point I was trying to make rather crudely last week in my post about Iraq being a country-sized training ground for foreign jihadis. On the other hand, the report quite spectacularly disproves my theory that Iraq is a “sideshow” for AQ Central.

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For some weeks there have been reports that foreign jihadis are departing Iraq in increasing numbers to join their fellow believers in Afghanistan. According to The Washington Post, Al-Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Ayyub al-Masri himself has recently relocated. With security improving in Iraq, Americans with neocon leanings have predictably announced that “victory” is at hand.

This is the same as if Roosevelt would’ve declared the Pacific War won when the last Japanese was killed on Guadalcanal.

Just as President George W. Bush himself has always spoken of his “global war on terror” as a multi-front struggle, Iraq for al-Qaeda has been but one battlefield among many. For bin Laden, it has never been the central front, but rather a useful sideshow, an unexpected opportunity to bleed the stumbling superpower even more. And it has been a spectacular success: thousands of Americans have died, Iraqi deaths probably number at least 100,000, billions of dollars have been wasted, resources have had to be diverted from Afghanistan, and America’s image as a beacon of democracy has suffered irreparable damage.

Only fools believe al-Qaeda’s local affiliates really sought to establish a Salafi state in Iraq. The jihadis knew that once the U.S. realised what it was up against and harnessed its military might to fight a counterinsurgency, it would all be over. Iraq was nothing more than a country-sized training ground for terrorist tactics, and the surge provided the trainees with their last live targets before the real deal — Afghanistan.

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