Friday, September 25, 2009

Safe for Now - Assessing Recent Terror Plots

Within the past week law enforcement has revealed the disruption of three separate terrorist plots against the United States. These actions highlight the continuing threat to the continental United States, but also the barriers discussed here before to conducting successful terrorist attacks within the United States.

Two of the plots were self-starters; individuals who became motivated to commit acts of violence and in their efforts to find allies inadvertently attracted the attention of law enforcement agencies. One had traveled to Pakistan where he may have received some training. All of them highlight the difficulties of carrying out a terrorist attack.

The two self-starters, in Texas and Illinois were both lured into law enforcement‘s clutches by promises of access to explosives. Weapons are frequently the lure that government informants use against suspected terrorists. This has also worked on the Fort Dix Six and against cells of right-wing domestic radicals in the past.

The case of Najibullah Zazi is a bit different. He had the wit to attempt to produce his own explosives, but that raises problems of a different sort. It appears that the process of acquiring the supplies and preparing the explosives left an extensive trail for law enforcement to follow. It is also appears that some intelligence agencies were interested in his activities beforehand, probably due to his travels to Pakistan, as his cel-phone was tapped.

These plots reinforce the reality that terrorist desire to strike the United States remains strong, but that their capabilities have been reduced. The abilities to move, communicate, and to acquire the skills and equipment needed to carryout terror attacks are limited and efforts to do so frequently tip-off law enforcement.

Tools to address the desire end of the equation still need to be developed. Nor can the current apparent limits on terrorist capabilities be taken for granted. These threats have been neutralized due to diligent efforts by American intelligence and law enforcement agencies. Terrorists can continue to turn to other countries with less capable security forces. There may be flaws in the U.S. security net that can exploited. Terrorists may “shorten their punch” by developing a lower-cost weapon of mass murder then previously deployed. None of these possibilities can be ignored.

Organizational Dynamics
In addition, it is possible (even probable) that baring successful attacks security agency emphasis on the problem will decline. In the classic case study, Essence of Decision, Graham Allison and Philip Zelikow explain how before the Challenger accident NASA officials had, based on previous shuttle launches modified the bases on which they made their decisions – ultimately following routine procedures in an unprecedented situation. But it should be emphasized that the routine procedures had served NASA well prior to the Challenger tragedy.

The same could happen on the counter-terror front. One hint of this potential is that the NYPD and the FBI seemed to have had crossed wires in the investigation (NYPD counter-terror officials have been reassigned.) The United States has innumerable law enforcement and intelligence agencies at the federal, state, and local level. The boundaries between their activities are not always clear. As memories of 9/11 fade the possibility of an incident slipping between these seams could increase – it is in the nature of large organizations with competing priorities.

Terrorists have been known to read indictments in terrorism cases for intelligence about what their enemies know about them. They can also consider how to take advantage of agency routines. The terrorist enemy is currently weak, but constantly adapting.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Why Hamas has been Quiet in 2009

The Jewish Policy Center's Palestinian Rocket Report has just published an article I wrote with my boss about why Hamas has kept the cease-fire since Operation Cast Lead. In it we to apply some of our work modeling terrorist group behavior, our models strongly suggest that internal Palestinian politics plays an important role in Hamas' strategic calculations.

The piece is below.

Why Hamas Has Been Quiet In 2009
by Aaron Mannes and V.S. Subrahmanian
Palestinian Rocket Report
September 15, 2009

Since Israel ended Operation Cast Lead―a massive incursion into the Gaza strip intended to suppress rocket fire into Israel―in January 2009, Hamas has largely held to a ceasefire on rocket and mortar attacks on Israel. The obvious explanation for this change in behavior is that Israel's incursion into Gaza and Hamas' corresponding heavy losses have re-established Israeli deterrence. Another explanation is that this unprecedented period of quiet is proof that Hamas has changed politically, and that Western nations and ultimately Israel should negotiate with it directly. There is also substantial countervailing evidence that HAMAS remains committed to its campaign against Israel and that the cease-fire is strictly tactical.

Models of organizational behavior built at the University of Maryland's Laboratory for Computational Cultural Dynamics suggest all of these explanations may be wrong. Indeed, intra-Palestinian politics may be playing an important yet overlooked role in Hamas' calculations.

Re-establishing Deterrance?

Hamas retains a significant capacity to strike Israel. Increased international efforts to close Hamas' supply line―the tunnels under the Egypt-Gaza border―have had limited success. The primary Hamas rocket, the Qassam, is easily produced. It is manufactured in the Gaza Strip using common materials such as metal pipes for the rocket body and fertilizer and sugar for fuel. Reports suggest that Hamas has acquired more sophisticated systems, such as longer-range rockets and anti-tank missiles, since the conclusion of Operation Cast Lead. Thus, despite maintaining the capability to continue launching rockets against Israel, Hamas has chosen not to do so.

However, Hamas' claims of victory in the wake of Operation Cast Lead rang hollow. Hamas inflicted minimal casualties on Israel and had difficulty sustaining rocket fire, while hundreds of Hamas fighters were killed or captured and substantial stores of equipment were destroyed. Though Hamas attempted to spin its survival as a victory, the reality was that Hamas' survival was due to Israel's decision to not re-occupy Gaza.

Moreover, Hamas chose to violate the 2008 cease-fire in an attempt to force Israel to end its blockade on shipping non-humanitarian goods into Gaza. Hamas failed to achieve this goal. The rocket provocations only led to a massive Israeli retaliation. Indeed, Hamas learned that large-scale rocket fire would only result in an overwhelming Israeli response.

In view of this analysis, it can be argued that Israel achieved deterrence. Yet, this is not a sufficient explanation for Hamas' behavior. Israel has struck Hamas hard in the past, killing its top leaders and destroying its infrastructure, yet Hamas continued to attack Israel.

Moderation vs. Pragmatism

Since agreeing to a new cease-fire, Hamas has launched an international public relations effort, including granting interviews with its leaders to Western journalists in which they discuss the conditions for a long-term ceasefire with Israel, and offering to engage with United States on the subject of Middle East peace. This has led some to argue that Hamas has changed some of its fundamental position.

Many analyses (including a monograph from the U.S. Army's Strategic Studies Institute) argue that viewing Hamas as a terrorist organization is too narrow a prism. HAMAS, they argue, is a complex political organization that provides social services, acts pragmatically and responsibly, and cannot be ignored because of its popular support among the Palestinians. Hamas leaders' recent statements are taken as evidence of the organization's pragmatism and an argument for the United States and Israel to directly engage Hamas.

However, as a study by the Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center shows, these statements are far from promises. The Hamas leadership delivers one message to the West, while making vitriolic statements to Arab audiences about Israel.

Hamas' raw anti-Semitic vitriol is impossible to ignore. For example, in April, during a festival in memory of Hamas' founder Ahmad Yassin, Hamas' television station aired a drama depicting Jews drinking the blood of Muslims. The website of the Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades continued to vilify Israel and lionize its "martyrs." Thus, even if Hamas leaders are prepared for a new understanding with Israel, they have done nothing to prepare the rank and file of their organization or the Palestinian people for real peace.

Military Capacity

Internal Palestinian politics may be a critical factor in Hamas' strategic calculations. The Laboratory for Computational Cultural Dynamics (LCCD) at the University of Maryland has developed Stochastic Opponent Modeling Agents (SOMA), which can automatically generate rules about the probability of an organization's behavior in a given situation. Hamas was among the profiled groups.

The model uses the Minorities at Risk Organization Behavior data set created at the University of Maryland's Center for International Development and Conflict Management. The data collected covers Hamas from its 1987 founding through 2004.

The model indicates that the primary driver for Palestinian attacks on Israel does not relate to specific events (reactions to provocations, as Hamas often claims), but Hamas' strength and military capacity.

For example, Hamas' probability of committing suicide bombings rose as the organization established external bases where it could learn from Iran and Hezbollah. Prior to the creation of these facilities, suicide bombings were not a Hamas tactic. Indeed, once Hamas had these bombers at their disposal, they dispatched them regularly, regardless of other factors.

When Hamas was engaged in the Palestinian political process (either running in elections or allowing its representatives to participate in the Palestinian Parliament) there remained a very high likelihood of Hamas suicide bombings as well as other acts of violence. This undermines the argument that participating in the democratic process has moderated Hamas.

Intra-Palestinian Politics

Not surprisingly, there is also a high correlation between Hamas violence (particularly assassinations, kidnappings, and arson attacks) during periods of conflicts with other Palestinian factions such as Fatah, its chief political rival.

In the past Hamas was at a decided disadvantage in its rivalry with Fatah. When it could not attack Fatah directly, Hamas could bolster its popularity by attacking Israel. Now that Hamas has complete control over the Gaza Strip and has emerged as both a military and political challenger to Fatah, it has to change its strategy and tactics. Indeed, Hamas now has more complex political factors to consider.

Rocket fire against Israel would only increase Hamas' international isolation, enforce the notion that sanctions against Gaza are necessary, and lend further impetus to American and Israeli support for Fatah against Hamas in the West Bank. This would weaken the organization amidst its current drive to supplant Fatah as the representative of the Palestinians and consolidate power after a 2006 electoral victory and its 2007 military coup in Gaza.

In other words, the decision to halt the firing of rockets from Gaza is not an abandonment of its long-term strategy of war against Israel. It is merely an element within its short-term strategy to consolidate power among the Palestinians. As Shin Bet (Israeli Security Agency) chief Yuval Diskin recently noted, the recent trail off in rocket fire, "doesn't mean they [Hamas] have abandoned ideological principles. Hamas is turning to the diplomatic sphere to challenge exclusive control by [Fatah leader] Abu Mazen."

History As A Guide

It would be overly optimistic to interpret Hamas' cease-fire since Operation Cast Lead as an indication of a philosophical change. The ineffectiveness of Hamas' rocket attacks relative to the damage it suffered from the IDF offensive must be one factor in Hamas' decision-making. Intra-Palestinian politics is another. Ultimately, short-term choices that impact Palestinian political dynamics will not likely prompt Hamas to renounce its goal of destroying Israel, or its long-term use of violence to achieve that end.

Aaron Mannes is a researcher at the University of Maryland's Laboratory for Computational Cultural Dynamics.V.S. Subrahmanian is the director.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Assessing Counter-Terror Since 9/11

Among analysts, wonks, policy-makers, and pundits the question on the eighth anniversary on 9/11 is “Where are we?”

To some extent, one’s answer to that question (like much else) is shaped by where one sits – politically, geographically, and occupationally. This analysis attempts to look across the globe soberly and assess where things stand for Islamist terrorists and their targets.

Modes of Counter-Terror Success
It is impossible to ignore the relative dearth of successful Islamist terror attacks on Western targets. The last major attacks in the West were the London subway bombings in July 2005. This has not been for lack of trying. Western intelligence agencies deserve full credit for building the capabilities to monitor, infiltrate, and disrupt major plots.

A fascinating article from National Journal’s James Kitfield about a disrupted plot in Spain in 2008 gives tremendous insight into the difficulties faced by Islamist terrorists seeking to attack the West. The attack was modeled on the Madrid 2004 bombings. There were many operational differences, but the strategy was the same. Just as the March 11 bombings contributed to Spain’s leaving Iraq, this plot hoped to pressure Spain out of Afghanistan. However, European and US intelligence services were on top of the plot and successfully infiltrated the cell.

Counter-terrorism is the practical application of Murphy’s Law. Murphy states that if something can go wrong it will go wrong. Counter-terrorism is making sure things go wrong. Successful terror attacks require real skills at surveillance, security, and usually explosives manufacture. None of these skills are easy to acquire. Most successful attacks have involved someone with real training, usually acquired in Pakistan. By monitoring movements to and from Pakistan (and other areas that could be training centers) and extensive sharing between national intelligence agencies suspect activity can be identified and monitored. A replay of 9/11 in which nearly 19 people were moved around the world is almost inconceivable without attracting enormous attention from the intelligence community.

It is easier to move a specialist or so to a situation and then recruit muscle locally: easier, but not easy. At the same time, local recruits can be problematic. They are often less diligent about operational security and have connections in local communities that can be exploited by security services.

The other option is the local self-starter cell. These cells have had a notoriously bad record of achievement. In the United States self-starter cells have been rolled up by informants in New York, LA, Miami, and New Jersey. In Europe, at least a few have attempted to launch operations but (like the German suitcase bombs of 2006) were stymied by technical difficulties.

Finally there are the “lone wolves,” self-starters operating on their own or in very small groups – perhaps spontaneously so that security agencies have no opportunity to get a read on them. First, there have been relatively few of these plots. The most deadly was the DC sniper. The fascinating question on this operation is that if it was successful at spreading terror and easy to carryout: why hasn’t it been imitated?

The short hypothesis is that without either indoctrination or mental illness it may not be so easy for individuals to kill people. The more spontaneous “lone wolves” on the other hand, while difficult to detect and prevent, are also very limited as national security threats. When visiting the National Counterterrorism Center, Washington Post columnist David Ignatius wrote "My doomsday scenario, aside from weapons of mass destruction, is personalized jihad," explained one analyst. "Everyone gets to do it on their own. Anyone can take a knife and stab someone in the back."

This concern must be kept in perspective. The United States suffers approximately 14,000 homicides per year. Each one is a tragedy, but that does not mean that each rises to the level of national security concern. Insurgency experts note that when local police can address the problem, an insurgency is at least contained and usually defeated.

The Easy Part & Some Caveats
Preventing deadly terror attacks in the West is, in effect, the easy part of the equation. Two important caveats to this statement are necessary. First, comparatively easy is the operative term. Our safety relies on the tremendous efforts of intelligence and security professionals. We should be profoundly grateful for their efforts. They are fighting an adaptive, cynical adversary where even small mistakes in judgment can lead to tragedy. MI-5 had the 7/7 bombers under surveillance but elected not to monitor them. Resources are not infinite. This leads to the second caveat. Murphy’s Law applies both ways. At some point, terrorists will evade detection or develop an easier means of mass murder. This may be due to their adaptability – it could also be an accident. For whatever reason, a plot in formation fails to trip the appropriate alarms or a minor attack (such as a relatively small bomb) inadvertently triggers cascading reactions that lead to a major tragedy. A final caveat is that the focus is on Islamist terror. Other major terrorist groups, such as radical leftists in Europe and eco-terrorists and domestic rightwing terrorists in the US are also under surveillance. But there is always the possibility of “X-factor” terrorism motivated by rationales so arcane that they are simply not on the radar screen beforehand. Aum Shinrikyo in Japan and the anthrax attacks in the US were in that mold.

The Hard Part
Having written that preventing terror attacks on Western soil is the easy part of the equation, and then qualified this by expressing how difficult that task is raises the question: what then is the “hard part.”

Geopolitics. Islamist terrorists may not be able to pull off another 9/11 or 7/7 – but they can really mess up Pakistan – which could have international cascading effects that could effect – at a minimum - tens of millions. Pakistan may be at the top of the list but there are many lawless regions in which Islamist can fill the void and use their haven to destabilize neighboring areas or attempt to launch further attacks on the West. Somalia and substantial parts of Yemen are obvious examples. There are also many teetering states where Islamists could tip the balance – Egypt, Nigeria, and Bangladesh come to mind.

Sending troops to all of these hotspots is both unfeasible and would probably only make things worse. Developing the levers to maintain stability and ameliorate some of the underlying conditions that create the instability is a tall order. That is the hard part.

First Takes on 9/11

Below is the article I wrote for NRO on September 12, 2001. I remember the morning well, I was visiting my in-laws in California. My mother-in-law called us at our hotel and told us to put the TV on because "some planes had crashed into some buildings."

I told her to stop watching Cartoon Network.

Like everyone we spent the next few days just sitting inside watching TV. My in-laws live on a flight path - so even though we were on the other side of the country we felt some of the silence that my friends back in DC also felt. My mother-in-law, after a not easy life, has been enjoying her golden years watching TV news and telenovelas. She skipped her stories and kept up a vigil monitoring English and Spanish news stations. I plugged my laptop into their phone line (remember those days?) and checked my email twice as often (roughly every fifteen seconds) between scanning news sources.

There was so little any of us could actually do - but as a writer, I could write. So I did.

I still believe in the essential rightness and power of human freedom, our last president was absolutely right when he said "Freedom beats in every human heart."

But, like so many, my understanding of the depth of the cave and of the cultural barriers that went beyond the merely political was inadequate. As a response and cure for violence, promoting freedom has its limits. But it remains right - though the path may be long and obscure.

Freedom First
The war against terrorism promises to be a long one.

By Aaron Mannes, Washington-based writer & Middle East analyst.
September 12, 2001 10:00 a.m.

While the horrible terrorist attacks yesterday morning seem like something from a movie — the perpetrators are not James Bond villains in secret fortresses. These terrorists have political ideologies that were shaped by a culture that encourages violent radicalism — they do not exist in a vacuum. America's initial focus, quite properly, will be on developing the appropriate military response and security procedures to prevent future attacks. But ultimately, the political culture that nurtures this monstrous evil must be addressed and this will require an offensive for freedom.

Most analysts have focused on the Middle East in general and Osama bin Laden in particular as the source of this attack. While this assumption is not proven, it is not without foundations. The Middle East has been the source of many major terrorist attacks against American targets, including the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center. The celebrations throughout the Middle East of the attack on America are nothing new, public discourse throughout the region has long been shocking and anti-American.

For example, a Palestinian Sheikh, in a sermon broadcast on Palestinian Authority TV exhorts, "Wherever you are, kill those Jews and those Americans who are like them…"

In Egypt, an ostensible ally, and the recipient of billions of dollars of U.S. aid annually, the United States is frequently accused of plotting against Egypt. For example, when Egypt Air 990 crashed off of Long Island, Egyptian parliamentarians insisted that an American-Zionist conspiracy was the cause.

These examples and many others from the Middle East are available on the website of the Middle East Media Research Institute.

This overheated rhetoric is inextricably linked to the general lack of freedom throughout the Middle East — excepting Israel. As dictatorships always have done, the leaders of the Middle East use an external enemy to distract their people from their oppression. Israel as a free country and the United States as a free country that supports Israel fill the role of external enemy. This combination of repression and incitement is a fertile ground for terrorism. Whatever military action the United States takes, this dangerous political culture must be viewed as an integral part of the problem.

Just as yesterday morning's horrors revealed failures of American intelligence, the lack of liberty in the Middle East is a failure in American foreign policy — a failure to promote freedom. Nations don't have to embrace Western-style liberal democracy. But the U.S. should support and promote governments that institute rule of law, protect their citizens, and permit them to lead their lives with minimal interference. For the most part people must achieve freedom for themselves, but the United States does have diplomatic options and sponsors programs that extend liberty around the world.

For example, the Voice of American (VOA) radio network played a crucial role in the Cold War — reminding dissidents that freedom existed in other parts of the world and inspiring many to quietly resist the Soviet regime. Those who suffer under the yoke of tyranny hunger for words of freedom. The demonization of the United States has led to enormous curiosity about it. The VOA introduces Middle Easterners to American culture as a path to promulgating American values. (But VOA programming to the Middle East has been woefully under funded and ineffective. Congress is in the process of authorizing funds to expand the quality, quantity, and range of VOA broadcasting in the Middle East.)

The United States supported dissident groups such as Charter 77 during the Cold War. These groups of intellectuals did not have an immediate impact, but they played a role in crystallizing opposition to the Soviet Union. The United States could begin to sponsor similar groups from the closed regimes of the Middle East, such as Syria, Iran, and Libya.

These are just a few of the options available to the United States to promote freedom — there are many other programs. These important programs are relatively inexpensive — budgets are in the tens of millions of dollars. None of them will bring quick results, but given time they can — combined with a robust and assertive U.S. diplomacy supporting human rights — ameliorate some of the prevailing anti-American ideologies. The war against terrorism promises to be a long one, and expanding freedom is an essential strategy that will undercut terrorism's base of support. While it cannot replace the necessary military response, an offensive for freedom is a deadly weapon against tyranny and the terrorism it spawns.

Caveat: It remains uncertain what organization or nation was responsible for the terrorist attacks. Regardless of the origin, promoting freedom is the right thing to do and can help counter the growth of terrorism.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Hezbollah Financial Scandal: From Mughniyeh to Madoff

Salah Ezzedine, a leading Lebanese businessman, turned himself in to Lebanese authorities last week when his large-scale Ponzi scheme collapsed and he declared bankruptcy. This is could be a major blow to Hezbollah, which has already had a very bad year.

Ezzedine was closely tied to Hezbollah and several top Hezbollah leaders personally lost money in investments with him. Now referred to as Hezbollah’s Madoff, he had once been known as the Mughniyeh of money (in reference to Hezbollah’s long-time operations chief Imad Mughniyeh who was killed in a car-bombing in February 2008.)

Ezzedine was well known in Lebanon as a businessman and philanthropist. He ran an organization that arranged trips to Mecca and owned Dar al-Hadi, an Islamic publishing house that published books by senior Hezbollah figures and was visited by former Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Velayati in 2004.

Ezzedine’s companies took major losses when the price of oil began to fall and he reportedly sought to cover these losses by bringing in more investors. His investors not only included major Gulf businessmen (hence the extensive coverage of the case in the Gulf) but also thousands of modest Lebanese Shia. Reportedly people mortgaged their house to invest with Ezzedine and take advantage of his promised high returns.

This is a double-hit on Hezbollah. First it appears that they have lost a great deal of money (some reports are that it was over $600 million). What’s more, they will be challenged in replacing these lost funds as donors become more wary of donating or investing with Hezbollah.

But there is a second aspect to this. Imagine if Madoff were closely linked with a political party. Even if the party had not done anything wrong, the relationship would have seriously damaged that party’s public standing. Hezbollah was regarded as being a basically clean political party in a country where corruption runs rampant. Further, for Hezbollah to counter this perception they will need to spend money – and they will have far less of it to spread around.

The importance of this loss in public standing should not be underestimated, models of Hezbollah behavior indicate that the organization takes its public standing within Lebanon very seriously – and its disappointing performance in Lebanon’s elections indicates that their public standing in Lebanon is weakening.

The latest reports are that Hezbollah Secretary-General Nasrallah is denying that Hezbollah was linked to the bankruptcy scandal. But it will be tough to persuade people that there was no link, considering the deep ties between Ezzedine and Hezbollah. Ezzedine’s publishing company, Dar al-Hadi was named for Nasrallah’s son Hadi who was killed fighting Israel in 1997.

At the same time, Hezbollah has also failed to avenge the assassination of its operations chief Imad Mughniyeh. Several plots have been disrupted, most recently a plan targeting the IDF chief of staff. Hezbollah seems to have gone from being the “A team of terrorism” to the bad news Bears. Mughniyeh must be turning in his grave.