Sunday, August 22, 2010

Keeping Tabs on Terrorists: Aaron Mannes & V.S. Subrahmanian in the "Wall Street Journal"

The Wall Street Journal Asia just posted an article my colleague V.S. Subrahmanian and I wrote on the ongoing game of catch-up intelligence agencies are forced to play as terrorists quickly adopt and adapt the latest communications technologies.

* AUGUST 22, 2010

Keeping Tabs on Terrorists
India's spat with the maker of the Blackberry underlines a broader technological challenge for intelligence agencies.


The war on terror came closer to home this month, when the Indian government pressured Canadian company Research in Motion to hand over encryption keys for its popular Blackberry device. New Delhi claims terrorists are using the company's secure networks for covert communications. The United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Indonesia—all of which face significant terror threats—have also expressed concern. But such moves may do more harm than good.

India's concern is clearly justified: Terrorists are using new media sources to facilitate covert communications that—directly or indirectly—have led to numerous deaths. According to the U.S. National Counterterrorism Center's Worldwide Incident Tracking System, Pakistan-based terror group Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), perpetrator of the deadly 2008 Mumbai attacks, is responsible for over 700 fatalities in India during the last five years.

But publicly browbeating RIM into providing its encryption keys is a Pyrrhic victory. Terrorist organizations can only survive if they study the capabilities of their adversaries and adapt. Terrorist organizations backed by intelligence agencies tend to be even more sophisticated. If terrorists know that Blackberries are monitored, terrorists will not employ them—or will do so only in combination with other channels of communication in order to evade intelligence agencies. The much-publicized nature of India's threat to Blackberry thus may well have compromised potential operational gains.

LeT's Mumbai attack shows how quickly terrorists adapt to new technology. According to the publicly released portion of an Indian intelligence dossier, the LeT terrorists were in continuous communication with their Pakistani handlers using a mix of mobile phones and an obscure Voice over Internet Protocol provider called Callphonex. Handlers based in Pakistan were able to monitor Indian security efforts, providing real-time intelligence to the terrorists that prolonged the attack for three days and provided the terrorists with the media exposure they craved. In other words, using readily available commercial technology, the Mumbai terrorists created an effective battlefield communication system.

Intelligence agencies, on the other hand, are often slow to develop the monitoring mechanisms needed for new communications media. This is a weakness that terrorists systematically exploit. As new communications media proliferate, security analysts are forced to play a constant game of "catch up" irrespective of whether a Blackberry or Google hand over their security keys and provide server access.

Security agencies need to quickly identify emerging communication technologies and develop monitoring mechanisms tailored for each new media in almost in real-time. The technical and analytical requirements of monitoring Voice over Internet Protocol, for example, are very different from those needed to monitor photo-sharing sites. Monitoring mechanisms must be grounded in systematic research about how people actually use communications media and how new forms of communication can be monitored.

This sounds like an impossible task, but it isn't. These studies can be combined with "red team" activities in which specialists game out the terrorist role in live and virtual simulations to consider how new technologies can be used. An important virtue of "red teams" is not that they will always identify specific terrorist methods, but that they will foster a culture of rapid adaptation to technological innovation within the security services.

The development of monitoring mechanisms is a technical issue, distinct from the legal and ethical question of when a nation should monitor electronic communications. However, well-designed monitoring mechanisms can help intelligence agencies operate ethically and within the laws and discern appropriate targets for surveillance from legitimate, legal online activity. It is in the absence of effective monitoring mechanisms that states may be tempted to take in data without discrimination, violating the privacy rights of their citizens.

While there are legitimate security needs that require communications companies to provide access to their systems, simply obtaining more data without developing both a process and technology to monitor emerging communications media is a losing proposition even for the most capable intelligence agencies. As new communications technologies proliferate, smarter intelligence strategies are needed to get ahead of terrorists and prevent rather then react to the next attack.

Mr. Subrahmanian is the director and Mr. Mannes is a researcher at the University of Maryland's Laboratory for Computational Cultural Dynamics.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The End of Pakistan?

Although it is wracked by floods, violence, and other tragedies, this small story from rural Pakistan caught my eye recently:
SHIKARPUR: Ten people were killed in an armed clash between Magsi and Qambrani tribes in the jurisdiction of Golodaro police station on Thursday evening.

According to sources, the gunbattle followed a brawl over irrigation of paddy crops near Kuddan village.

The sources said the Qambrani tribe lost seven men while the Magsi tribe lost three.

Sanaullah Abbasi, a senior police official, told Dawn five bodies had been recovered.

A big police contingent stormed the village late in the evening and brought the situation under control.
According to a letter to Pakistan’s excellent daily The Dawn this incident was by no means exceptional.

This story encapsulates several important realities about Pakistan: declining resources, the increasing violence over the declining resources and the inability of the government to control this violence.

This is a miniature of the violence that has recently wracked Karachi – also fundamentally a conflict over land and resources. These riots are unfortunately endemic to Pakistan’s commercial capital. Just two years ago, on the weekend that the world watched as Mumbai suffered from an overflow of Pakistan’s internal disorder, Karachi was suffering its own outbreak of violence in which at least 40 people were killed, not unlike the recent fighting.

The great fear of the West is Pakistan falling under the control of radical Islamists. The great fear of Pakistan’s leadership is the state fracturing (this is probably #2 for the West – a nuclear Yugoslavia.) But the endemic low level violence suggests another possibility, the state dissolving – a nuclear Somalia.

Medium and Long-Term Dangers
Meanwhile the terrible flooding is testing the capabilities of Pakistan’s institutions and they are failing. Their record at providing immediate relief is mediocre. But the floods have destroyed Pakistan’s crops, so that the country (which is already broke) will be forced to buy or beg food abroad. It will be several years before Pakistan’s agricultural production will return to their previous levels – so food shortages will be an ongoing problem. Even without the crisis food security was a problem in Pakistan. In addition, cotton crops, essential to Pakistan’s major export industry – textiles – have also been devastated. All of this can only further weaken an already precarious economy.

Assuming the floods and their aftermath do not lead to state dissolution it certainly weakens Pakistan for facing its longer-term crises. The flooding is linked to the deterioration of Pakistan’s extensive irrigation system. Pakistan is facing a long-term water shortage (discussed in some detail in a series of articles here.) Even if Pakistan recovers quickly from the current disaster, this longer-term trend is ominous. Worse, it dovetails with another serious long-term problem – Pakistan’s rapidly growing population. The current population of about 180 million could easily double in about forty years. This means that a country that is already straining to feed itself and possessing declining water resources will face an enormous number of additional mouths to feed. The potential international ramifications are dark indeed – water wars with India, enormous refugee crises, Islamist run mini-states, and of course loose nukes.

Policy Option: Encourage Reforms
It is possible that this crisis offers Western donors one last great chance to help stabilize Pakistan and prevent these worst-case scenarios from coming to pass. With its utter dependence on foreign assistance, in theory, donor nations should have tremendous leverage to press for reforms – reconstruction of the irrigation system, increasing women’s literacy, reforming Pakistan’s tax collection, and perhaps even pressing for improved relations with India. If the floods can help sweep away Pakistan’s corrupt civilian elites (starting with the Bhutto family) then some good will have come with this tragedy.

There are three enormous problems with this plan. The first is that donor nations may simply be unwilling to fund these projects. Pakistan has long been a recipient of international aid and it has been very good at parleying its prime geopolitical real estate into international support. The second problem is leverage – it is very hard to get other governments of other countries to do things. So far efforts to press Pakistan to embrace reforms have been stymied by its embedded interests. The feudal landholders and businesspeople oppose economic reforms, the military opposes reforms in security policies, and Islamists oppose social reforms.

Finally there is the question of implementation. Even if resources and good will exist, actually implementing necessary reforms – such as improving women’s literacy (which is heavily correlated with lower birth rates) – is an enormous challenge. Efforts to put girls in school will face entrenched local customs. Rebuilding the irrigation canals will have to be done against the wishes of local rent-seeking leaders and reforming Pakistan’s tax collection has been the recommendation of every single survey of Pakistan’s economy for the past several decades.

Even if everything were done right there is a good chance that it would not work and Pakistan would become unsustainable. Policy-makers and analysts should begin thinking about what happens if Pakistan dissolves. Naturally, Pakistani leaders will assume that such planning is in fact a plot to dismantle their country.

Thinking through these worst-case scenarios allows planning for them. This is essential since it may be a reality that occurs no matter what Western donors attempt to do. It also permits a cost-benefit analysis. It is possible, that all things considered, a Pakistan held together by duct tape and Western aid is the least bad option. But other possibilities should be considered as well.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Golden Oldie: Pakistan Needs U

Just over three years ago, National Review Online published an article I wrote urging the U.S. to rush aid to Pakistan in response to a cyclone that had devastated Pakistan's coastal regions. Much of it appears all too relevant now.

July 6, 2007 7:30 A.M.
Pakistan Needs U
And we need Pakistan.
Hopefully the United States is preparing a massive relief package for Pakistan’s coastal regions, which have been hard hit by flooding caused by a cyclone and heavy monsoon rains since June 23. In addition to the humanitarian importance of this mission, aiding Pakistan’s response to the flooding could have some positive implications for the U.S.-Pakistani relationship.

While possibly not as horrendous as the 2005 Kashmir earthquake, there have been over 200 deaths so far and at least two million are homeless. Karachi, Pakistan’s leading port, and a sprawling megalopolis with over ten million inhabitants (some population estimates double this figure) that suffers from power outages and poor municipal services at the best of times, was battered. Particularly hard hit were the coastal regions of the Pakistani province of Baluchistan, where the floods have isolated communities, cutting transport and communications links. Outbreaks of cholera and other diseases also loom.

The Pakistani provincial and federal governments have been slow to respond. In shades of our own Katrina disaster, Pakistan’s National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) has been roundly criticized for its failures. At one point, the NDMA chairman claimed that there had been 14 deaths when the media had already confirmed nearly 100. There have been large-scale protests throughout flood-hit parts of Baluchistan.

At the moment the Pakistani government is distracted. There is a standoff in Pakistan’s capital between government forces and the radical Islamist “Red Mosque.” The nation has also been rocked with massive protests in the wake of President Musharraf’s ham-handed firing of the chief justice.

A timely and large-scale relief package is much needed. Aiding people suffering from natural disasters is always the right thing to do. Also, it is good public diplomacy. The Pakistani image of the United States changed when the U.S. led the way in delivering assistance to Pakistan after the 2005 earthquakes. Models of U.S. Army Chinook helicopters became the favorite toy for Kashmiri children.

U.S. aid to Pakistan’s coastal regions would also serve a range of positive strategic purposes. The aid would be an opportunity for U.S. and Pakistani military forces to work together in a peaceful role. The Pakistani military is effective, but heavily focused on a conventional war with India. The U.S. has been assisting the Pakistani military in its transformation into a more nimble force that can perform a range of missions. Collaborating on flood relief would be a learning experience for both militaries.

One of the Pakistani government’s major concerns is that eventually the United States will abandon it, leaving Pakistan encircled by India. A major rescue operation might help reassure Pakistan that the U.S.-Pakistan relationship is for the long-term. If the Pakistani government were more confident in strength of the U.S.-Pakistan relationship it might also be more flexible in undertaking political reforms that move the country back to democratic civilian rule.

The region hardest hit by the flooding is Baluchistan, the largest in area, but poorest province of Pakistan. Sitting on mineral wealth, including natural gas, and with a seacoast that is just beyond the Straits of Hormuz and the terminus for the shortest land route to Central Asia, Baluchistan has become central for Pakistan’s future development. Baluchi frustration with the Pakistani government has sparked uprisings in the past. The current round of violence between the Baluchi tribes and the government is fueled by the failure of the investments in the province to bring benefits to the inhabitants. Past Pakistani governments responded to Baluchi uprisings with negotiations, but currently the Pakistani military is responding with a large-scale offensive. Last year, the Pakistani military assassinated a prominent tribal leader, Nawab Akbar Khan Bugti. The government’s failure to deliver disaster relief is seen as simply another example of the Pakistani government’s attitude towards the region.

A strong aid program might help defuse some of these tensions and allow the government and the Baluchis to resolve their disputes. With Baluchistan bordering southern Afghanistan (Taliban leader Mullah Omar is rumored to be in the vicinity of the provincial capital Quetta) the Pakistani military does not need this distraction from the main battle against the radical Islamists. Additionally, China has built a deep-water port at Gwadar on the Baluchi coastline. It would only be prudent for the United States to also be engaged in this strategic region. Finally, if assistance from other sources is not forthcoming, the void will be filled by Pakistan’s powerful Islamist organizations. The Baluchis have not traditionally been extremist in their religious beliefs, but if no one else shows concern for their plight that could change.

Delivering aid to the suffering people in Pakistan’s coastal regions is an opportunity to provide much needed humanitarian relief while improving relations with a nation crucial in the fight against radical Islam.

— Aaron Mannes is a researcher in international-security affairs and Ph.D. student at the University of Maryland.