Friday, May 30, 2008

Memorial Day at Fort McHenry

On Memorial Day I visited Fort McHenry in nearby Baltimore, where almost 200 years ago, the Star-Spangled Banner was written after the Fort held out against a British bombardment and prevented a British fleet from entering Baltimore harbor and sacking the city. In studying the history of the fort, it encapsulates the history of what we now call homeland security.

Fort McHenry was the linchpin of a defense system built around the city of Baltimore and paid for primarily by the city, with some state and federal support. The federal government then was much weaker than now. Baltimore merchants had prospered as privateers attacking British shipping (the British were capturing American ships and pressing American sailors into their service). They knew they would be targeted and took matters into their own hands. The officers serving at Fort McHenry were also from these mercantile families. A certain parallel with the NYPD’s impressive counter-terrorism bureau suggests itself. Two hundred years ago, cities protected themselves with networks of fortifications – now they need intelligence networks. But just as Baltimore had to build the forts for themselves, according to NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly, “We’re still defending the city pretty much on our dime.”

Fort McHenry is most famous for its role in the War of 1812, but its role as a military installation continued. In the Civil War it was a fort, but perhaps more importantly for the war effort, it was used as a prison. Over 2200 people, including many of Maryland’s most prominent citizens (including state legislators) were held there under legally ambiguous circumstances. The fear was that if Maryland (a slave state) joined the Confederacy then Washington DC would be surrounded and the war would be lost.

In World War I, Fort McHenry served as an army hospital, serving the multitudes of wounded from “The War to End All Wars.” The Fort remained in service when the war ended and a deadly pandemic swept the globe killing tens of millions.

In World War II the Fort McHenry was a Coast Guard station. Every coast in the United States was considered vulnerable to German and Japanese attack, but Baltimore would have been an important target. Just a few miles from Fort McHenry was Sparrows Point, home to Bethlehem Steel’s giant steelworks (then the largest steelworks in the free world). Their steel was sent to the Fairfield Shipyard where Liberty Ships were built. Ugly and slow, American shipyards could churn out Liberty Ships faster then U-boats could sink them. Over 2700 were built in WWII, 385 at Fairfield.

Since WWII, Fort McHenry has not had a military function. It is a National Park, and in the best tradition of that service it preserves something essential to our common heritage as Americans. While there I watched the changing of the flag on Memorial Day and heard the Veterans speak - a ritual about binding ourselves together and to our common past. That is Fort McHenry’s new role in national security, as a reminder of our common history and that there is something special about this country and a reason we revere its symbols – and that it is worth fighting for…

Fort McHenry’s time as a physical defender is long past. It’s new mission, as a spiritual one is only just beginning.

Statistical Analysis of Decapitation as a Counter-Terror Strategy

The most recent edition of The Journal of International Policy Solutions published a statistical analysis I wrote on the efficacy of killing or capturing the top leaders of a terrorist organizations. Entitled "Testing The Snake Head Strategy: Does Killing or Capturing its Leaders Reduce a Terrorist Group's Activity?" the article can be read in its entirety here a summary of the method and findings follows.

It is conventional wisdom that removing an organization's leaders is an effective counter-terror strategy, but the quantitative analysis is less clear on the issue. Most of the successes focus on specific instances, such as the collapse of Sendero Luminoso in Peru after its leaders were removed. There are also examples on the other side, such as Hezbollah's increased deadliness and effectiveness after Israel's 1992 assassination of Hezbollah Secretary-General Abbas Musawi.

This study was an attempt to shed some light on the issue, focusing strictly on removing top leaders (#1 or #2 - so OBL or Zawahiri would count, but Khalid Sheikh Mohammed did not.) Sixty cases of terrorist leaders being killed, dying, or being captured and imprisoned for lengthy periods were identified. Using the Terrorism Knowledge Base, which is now sadly not available to the public anymore, I gathered data on incidents and fatalities in the two and five year periods before and after the organization lost its leader. Because there are lots of reasons why a terrorist group's level of activity might change I tested these results against a comparison group of 21 terrorist groups that did not lose a leader.

The Results

The data-set was relatively small so most of the results were not statistically significant. There was a trend of lower numbers of incidents after a group lost its leader, a trend that increased when a group lost its leader more than once. On the other hand there was an indication that the number of fatalities by Islamist groups increase after they lose a leader. Building on that when an Islamist leader is killed, rather than arrested, the increase is even greater.

None of these findings are rock solid and there are many other factors that could effect a terrorist group's activity. In particular, the increase in killings by Islamist groups after their leader is killed could reflect that the killing occurred i n the midst of a large-scale war (such as Chechnya or Algeria which were included in this study.) Still it is a potential cause for concern. Iraq was not included in this study, in great part because the data was too complicated to work with.

This is another key point the paper discusses, the data problems and other challenges (for example what should be measured - 9/11 was nearly 3000 deaths, but 4 incidents) in doing any quantitative analysis of terrorist activity. The paper also reviews other statistical studies of decapitation as a counter-terror strategy. At this point, my overall conclusions are the old academic fallback, "More study is needed." The paper ends:
Tolstoy began Anna Karenina by noting, "Happy families are all alike, every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." Like unhappy families, terrorist groups differ from each other and finding universally applicable rules to understand them may not be realistic. Regardless of the quantitative results, decapitation will remain a counter-terror strategy. If a quantitative test can help indicate where and when it is most likely to be effective or have deleterious results, it can help conserve scarce counter-terror resources and avoid exacerbating situations where the decapitation strategy may be counter-productive."

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Feared FARC Commander Surrenders

Another FARC commander has surrendered to Colombian authorities. Nelly Avila Moreno, aka Karina, turned herself in (along with her daughter andher partner, known as Michin.) Karina was commander of the 47th Front. (She was also one of the top-ranked women in the FARC – here is some background on the women in the FARC.) This would be roughly equivalent to a Captain surrendering. At a news conference, she stated the FARC was “crumbling.” She had been out of communications with the FARC leadership for two years. Her once feared unit of 350 was down to about 50 fighters.

A few notes about Karina’s surrender and the FARC’s collapse:

  • The FARC’s collapse is good news for everyone except perhaps the several hundred hostages still held by the FARC (including Ingrid Betancourt and three American contractors.) Their daily life is an absolute hell. Unfortunately, as the FARC disintegrates it is increasingly likely that the hostages may be executed or die in the process of constant movement. The Colombian government has shown a great deal of creativity in battling the FARC, perhaps it can do the same in developing strategies for the hostages’ release.

  • Karina had been shaken by the death of Ivan Rios at the hands of his own men. She had a $900,000 reward on her head. She told reporters, "You may have a lot of fighters at your side, but you never have an idea of what they are really thinking,"

    The bounty strategy has worked well against the FARC. But it is no silver bullet. It has not been successful against al-Qaeda. Every terrorist group is different. Also, the rewards program has only worked against the FARC after years of hard fought counter-insurgency.

  • There is extensive discussion of the role of the Internet and terrorism. But against the FARC low-tech radio has been a key part of a successful information campaign. The Colombian government regularly broadcasts appeals for FARC members to surrender (over 2000 have defected over the past two years – the FARC’s peak strength was about 18,000 in 2002.) In the case of Karina, President Uribe made a personal appeal for her to surrender.

  • Karina is suspected of a role in the 1983 murder of Uribe’s father. It is unclear what deal was negotiated regarding the charges against her. Colombia has an ongoing, but problematic “Justice and Peace” process to demobilize, prosecute and re-integrate former paramilitaries (groups that formed to fight the FARC and committed innumerable bloody massacres in their own right.) For the many thousands of low-level figures the process seems to work well – but for the commanders, with real blood on their hands (and often links to important political figures) it is not clear that justice is always being served. As more and more high-level FARC figures surrender these issues will surface in that context as well.
  • Friday, May 16, 2008

    FARC Eats it Own

    Reporting on Interpol’s assertion that the files on the captured FARC computers are authentic has focused on potential Chavez-FARC ties. But another bit of FARC news should be noted. Six of FARC commander Mono Jojoy’s bodyguards had plotted kill him, probably to collect the $5 million reward. The plot was discovered and three of the six were killed, the other three escaped and are now aiding the Colombian authorities. This plot was no doubt inspired by the death of another member of the FARC Secretariat, Ivan Rios – again at the hands of his bodyguards. The Colombian government’s decision to pay Rios’ bodyguards the reward no doubt encouraged Mono Jojoy’s bodyguards. This is roughly equivalent to Generals being shot by their own troops.

    There is probably no better counter-terror strategy than to get a group to turn on itself. The campaign against the notorious Abu Nidal Organization (ANO) in the late 1980s was successful because the paranoid leader, the eponymous Abu Nidal (real name Sabri al-Banna) became convinced that his organization had been infiltrated by the CIA and his subordinates were plotting against him. He became unhinged and began burying them in wet cement. Reportedly, on one night he killed 150 ANO members.

    In addition, FARC is losing its mid-level leaders to arrest or death and experienced cadres are deserting at increasing rates. Whatever international, regional, or public support the FARC ever had has evaporated.

    The capture of the computer equipment from Raul Reyes’ camp will accelerate all of these trends. Their public image will be further decimated as their own records of their violence are exposed. Colombian intelligence will receive a terrific insight into the FARC modus operandi. Also, as I’ve written before the metadata associated with the documents may be a treasure trove in its own right. Photograph files on laptops often reveal information about the cameras that took them (possibly leading to information about where they were purchased.) Emails may include information about their origin and receipt that could reveal patterns of movement and usage. Combined with Colombia (and American) electronic intelligence capabilities this is sure to be an intelligence bonanza.

    The FARC is in a state of rapid decline. Unfortunately it will probably not be vanquished soon – and there is the concern that a smaller, more violence and ideological successor group could emerge. Nonetheless, the FARC's decline is good news. In the 1990s when Plan Colombia was initiated, there was a very real concern that the government of Colombia could "lose" and the FARC could win. Now this possibility is increasingly remote.

    Friday, May 9, 2008

    Me on Covert Radio Discussing Latin America

    Attention fellow TerrorWonks there is a terrfic new online resource, Brett Winterble's Covert Radio. It features interviews with - among others - Olivier Guitta, Bill Roggio, Daveed Gartenstein-Ross (anyone see a theme developing here.)

    Not long ago I had a chat with Brett about Hugo Chavez, the FARC, and threats emanating from Latin America.

    Listen here.

    About Bout & the DEA

    The recently unsealed indictment of arms-trafficker extraordinaire Victor Bout is an interesting read. Perhaps the most notable line is on page 10, when Bout told the DEA operatives (who he believed represented the FARC) that America was also his enemy and their fight was his fight. Another international arms dealer, Monzar al-Kasser, who was arrested in a DEA sting, promised the informants to raise an army for the FARC in order to fight the Americans. Are these heartfelt sentiments, or just salesmen trying to ingratiate themselves to a wealthy client and close a lucrative deal?

    The truth is probably a combination of both. Many criminals seek to justify their actions as somehow contributing to a greater good by empowering the powerless. But intentions aside, Bout’s capabilities are the real cause for worry. He promised to airlift hundreds of Igla portable surface-to-air missiles (known as MANPADS – man portable self-defense systems) along with UAVs, ultra-light planes, explosives, and millions of rounds of ammunition to the FARC. Bout wasn’t just a dealer, he also could provide training (nothing like good customer service to bring in repeat business.) He also mentioned that he could sell the FARC airplanes if they were interested. Regardless of intent, individuals with the connections and capabilities to acquire and transport large quantities of deadly weapons like MANPADS outside of regulated channels are as dangerous to international security as terrorists.

    (As a side-note, the FARC keeps appearing in the headlines on Bout’s capture, but in fact had nothing to do with it – DEA operatives were portraying themselves as FARC representatives. The FARC, which has a terribly long list of vicious misdeeds of its own, does not apparently need Bout, as the latest documents from the captured FARC computers indicate that FARC believed that Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez would supply them with everything they might need.)

    About the DEA

    Bout’s capture, besides being good news in and of itself, highlights the Drug Enforcement Agency as a competent law enforcement/intelligence agency capable of carrying out a complex international operation. On a related note, a recent Justice Department Inspector-General report, the Drug Enforcement Agency has been fairly successful at building its analytical capabilities. Most analysts are satisfied with their work and analyst turnover is much lower than at the FBI. Although the report was mostly positive, it also highlighted the many challenges to building an effective analytical capability. To often analysts are also given administrative tasks and hiring is complicated by the long clearance process (many prime candidates find other jobs while waiting to be cleared.) The DEA’s reports are well regarded by other intelligence agencies, but they apparently are slow to share information. The DEA response to this complaint was particularly interesting – they noted that information was quickly shared through informal channels. But, there is a demanding review process for formal reports and the DEA wants to make sure its analyses are high quality.

    The report gives a sense of the nuts and bolts issues of building an intelligence analysis component and is food for thought as the FBI is criticized, yet again, for not building its analytical capabilities. In fairness, the DEA is a much smaller agency with a specific focus and is not being called on to re-invent itself on the fly. Too often these detailed issues regarding organizational capabilities and culture are ignored in favor of grand pronouncements and declarations.