Poor Nigeria. As if it didn't already have a terrible reputation, the alleged terror attempt by a 23-year-old Abdul Farouk Abdulmutallab yesterday on a flight from Amsterdam to Detriot seals the deal. But as you're reading the news, a few caveats to remember:
First, much of the information coming out about the suspect's origin comes from the Nigerian newspaper This Day. While often a good source of initial information, this report probably shouldn't be taken as fact without other confirmation. The press in Nigeria, while vibrant, growing, and home to countless incredible journalists, has still been known to exagerate or assume at times. I have no reason to believe that is the case this time, but skepticism is warranted.
Second, if the suspect does indeed come from a family of means, as his residence in London suggests (forgive a generalization, but anyone who is anyone in Nigeria has got a house in London), it says much about where the real terror "threat" is (and is not) coming from in Nigeria. Security analysts have been worrying about Nigeria since the Sept 11. attacks -- fearing that this about half-Muslim country of 140 million people would be a potential host to extremists. But at the end of the day, something that I've learned about Nigeria is that it takes money and connections to get things done. Just think back to the violence earlier this summer by the Boko Haram sect. The mostly-impoverished members of the group raised hell in the local context ... but that was it. Taking "jihad" international from Nigeria is still a long ways and a lot of financing off (if it is on the way at all).
Which brings me to one more point about extremism in Nigeria. Much of the religious violence that the country has seen in recent years has been less about religion and more about a country rife with corruption and wanting for institutions. When sharia law was introduced in the North earlier this decade, most analysts believe that it had more to do with a desire for the law -- any law -- to function. Since the secular government had failed for years, many sought refuge in the laws of religious fundamentalism.
And that brings us back to the alleged terrorist in questioning today. His grievances are different from these, one might imagine, since the lack of rule of law often works in favor of (rather than against) the elite. In short, what I'm trying to say is that there are two different phenomena going on here: mass dissatisfaction among many impoverished in the country's Muslim North, and the different brand of extremism that would incite a well-off 23-year-old to blow up a plane in Detroit.
Finally, in the time that I've written this blog post, I have recieved several requests from news agencies and papers to help me connect them with reporters in Nigeria. An unfortunate reminder that the press in my former-resident country is drying up. And with each correspondent that leaves, it is trickier and trickier to piece together developments that unfold. For the last two years, editors have asked me why Nigeria matters. Case and point.
For the first time, alleged al Qaeda members are being charged by U.S. prosecutors on narcoterrorism charges. Oumar Issa, Harouna Toure and Idriss Abelrahman were arrested in Ghana last week in a sting operation coordinated by the Drug Enforcement Agency and Ghanaian authorities and were hoping to move hundreds of kilograms of cocaine through West Africa to finance al Qaeda and its North African offshoot, Al Qaeda in the Maghreb.
U.S. attorney Preet Bharara says the arrests "reflect the emergence of a worrisome alliance between al Qaeda and transnational narcotics traffickers," but if these guys represent the vanguard of a new generation of narcoterror, we probably don't have too much to worry about:
The operation took shape in August, when a paid DEA informant posing as a Lebanese radical encountered Issa, an alleged fixer for a criminal organization that operated in Togo, Ghana, Burkina Faso and Mali, according to a sworn statement from veteran DEA agent Daria Lupacchino.
The two met in September in Ghana. The informant said he represented members of FARC, which has targeted U.S. citizens with bombings, kidnappings and other violence in recent years. Issa told the informant, in a conversation recorded by authorities, that his associates had circumvented customs agents and could ensure "safe passage" through the African desert, the affidavit said.
The informant later met with Toure, identified by Issa as "the main guy," and verified Toure's identity using a passport he mistakenly left at a hotel that served as the meeting site, the DEA agent wrote.
"Toure stated that he has worked with al Qaeda to transport and deliver between one and two tons of hashish to Tunisia and that his organization and al Qaeda have collaborated in the human smuggling of Bangladeshi, Pakistani and Indian subjects into Spain," the Lupacchino affidavit said.
Toure also allegedly described efforts to kidnap European citizens and to obtain foreign visas, the court papers said.
Granted we don't many details, but I doubt that most serious high-volume traffic drug smugglers -- even if they got taken in by the agent's Lebanaese radical/FARC story -- would brag about all of the other nefarious criminal enterprises they're involved with or be sloppy enough to leave their passport behind when meeting with a cocaine supplier.
Just six months ago, the Kremlin declared "mission accomplished" in settling the restive, largely-Muslim region of Chechnya, and pledged to withdraw at least half its troops stationed there. Russian soldiers have allegedly resorted to brutal tactics in the decade-long effort to subdue the region, including the systematic beating and raping of Chechen civilians, widespread detention and torture, and the murder of human rights and opposition activists.
But the Kremlin has claimed victory in the regional struggle time and time again, and the most recent claims of success seem as wrong as ever; yesterday the Georgian Daily reported that "Moscow is planning to increase the number of units in the North Caucasus military district by a factor of four, according to officers there..." The plans come amidst an escalating Islamic insurgency in Ingushetia, the region bordering Chechnya to the west.
There's no doubt that the Kremlin is facing a protracted struggle. Doku Umarov, one of the most prominent members of the insurgency (who has been reported dead on a number of occasions) released a lengthy statement in 2007 on the Al-Qaeda affiliated website Kavkaz Center, in which he declared Muslim rule:
I reject all laws and systems established by infidels in the land of Caucasus.
I reject and declare outlawed all names used by infidels to divide Muslims.
I declare outlawed ethnic, territorial and colonial zones carrying names of "North-Caucasian republics", "Trans-Caucasian republics" and such like.
I am officially declaring of creation of the Caucasus Emirate...
We will relentlessly wage war on everyone who will oppose the establishment of the Sharia, Inshaallah. And those who openly violate that which was established by Allah and scorn the Islamic religion should not think that we will leave it unpunished. That is a serious delusion."
Photo: KAZBEK BASAYEV/AFP/Getty Images
A large contingent of American bands have joined the Close Gitmo Now campaign in direct protest of the use of their music during torture practices at Guantanamo Bay. The new campaign is led by two retired generals: Lieutenant General Robert Gard and Brigadier General John Johns. Robert Gard has spoken out in defense of the musicians, stating:
"The musicians' music 'was used without their knowledge as part of the Bush administration's misguided policies'."
artists such as REM, Pearl Jam, Bonnie Raitt, Tom Morello, Billy Bragg,
Michelle Branch, Jackson Browne, and The Roots have signed an open letter to Congress requesting the declassification of government records concerning how music was utilized during "futility" interrogation tactics - making the prisoner feel hopeless while exploiting his psychological, moral, and sociological weaknesses.
Tom Morellon of Rage Against the Machine fame has expressed his peronsal rage against Dick Cheney:
"Guantanamo is known around the world as one of the places where human beings have been tortured - from water boarding, to stripping, hooding and forcing detainees into humiliating sexual acts - playing music for 72 hours in a row at volumes just below that to shatter the eardrums. Guantanamo may be Dick Cheney's idea of America, but it's not mine. The fact that music I helped create was used in crimes against humanity sickens me - we need to end torture and close Guantanamo now."
But don't except every rock band to jump on board, some view the use of their music at Gitmo as an honor.
Above, Zach de la Rocha of Rage Against The Machine performs during the 2008 Republican National Convention (RNC) at the Target Center September 3, 2008 in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Eric Thayer/Stringer/Getty Images
It appears astrophysics isn't a good prerequisite for espionage. Hot off the heels of this month's arrest of an alleged al-Qaeda operative at the CERN lab, a U.S. scientist was brought down yesterday for trying to sell state secrets to Israel.
Stewart David Nozette, third from the left in the photo, once had top security clearance during his tenure with both the U.S. Department of Defense and NASA. While he worked in the George H.W. Bush administration, he had access to top secret and secret information about U.S. satellites. When approached by an undercover FBI agent, he offered to spill this information if Israeli intelligence could pony up the cash. (The sting's details are here)
The Department of Justice says Israel is in no way implicated in the sting, however Politico points out that Nozette said he expected to be contacted by Mossad at some point, and his former company, Israel Aircraft Industries, has had several employees charged with espionage.
In a statement, Nozette said he thought he was already working for Israeli intelligence while employed by Israel Aircraft Industries, as he thought they were a front. He will be in court today; if convicted, he could face life in prison.
These recent scientist-turned-spy stories remind one of when the two professions interfaced seamlessly.
Near Geneva, Switzerland sits a 27-kilometer particle accelerator, the largest the world has ever seen. When it is finally switched on and makes it past the warm-up stages, it will create conditions that haven't existed since the beginning of the universe. This, naturally, scares the bejesus out of people, some taking it to the courts to stop its activation. Foreign Policy reported one group's fears:
"There is a real possibility of creating destructive theoretical anomalies such as miniature black holes, strangelets and deSitter space transitions. These events have the potential to fundamentally alter matter and destroy our planet." -Walter Wagner, LHCDefense.org
The Large Haldron Collider (LHC) at the CERN Lab has yet to reach full operation, but it will later this year. That is, unless something crazy happens...like, for instance, a CERN researcher being arrested for suspected links to al-Qaeda!
This is pretty scary to begin with, but even scarier is the fact that the man's brother was also arrested; he works at the European Organization for Nuclear Research.
The suspect has been linked to the Algerian chapter of
al-Qaeda, and suggested targets in France. After being under surveillance for
18 months, the French decided to bring him down, luckily before the
LHC was turned on.
CERN says the suspect was never involved with any elements that could be used for terrorist purposes; he mainly worked on data analysis.
FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/Getty Images
Noted terrorism expert and FP contributor Jarret Brachman had dinner with former Pakistani
dictator President Pervez Musharraf last Friday, and wrote about it here (welcome to the world of new media, Pervez). For the record, Brachman describes Musharraf as "a gracious, humble and serious military man."
Some highlights of their conversation:
- He honestly believes that he transformed Pakistan from a backwards third-world garbage pit to a land of new opportunities and prosperity. That, for him, is the legacy that matters most.
- He seemed disengaged from al-Qaida overall, at one point forgetting the name of the jihadi godfather, Abdullah Azzam.
- He had no working knowledge of al-Qaida’s senior leadership below Bin Laden or Al-Zawahiri, which makes me think that he outsourced the entire al-Qaida portfolio.
- He stonewalled me on every question I asked involving Iran and Saudi Arabia. In fact, in his keynote addressed later that night entitled, “Internal and External Dynamics of Pakistan,” he didn’t mention either country. He also steered clear of my questions on the Pakistani ISI.
- He advanced the (now well accepted as false rumor) statement that Bin Laden is on kidney dialysis. When asked if UBL was in Pakistan, he responded by saying that’s like him asking if UBL is in the United States, “nothing more than unfounded speculation…”
- He seems to truly believe that he did everything he could against al-Qaida but that it was a series of American missteps, historically and currently, in Afghanistan that created the mess that exists today.
Makes you wonder who was running the al Qaeda portfolio in Pakistan, doesn't it?
In a talk given this afternoon at the Miller Center of Public Affairs, retired Gen. John Abizaid outlined his view of U.S. involvement in the Middle East. He argued that it is foolish to approach issues on a country-by-country basis, complaining that "we look at Iraq through a soda straw. We look at Afghanistan through a soda straw." Instead, says Abizaid, the United States must develop a regional strategy that accounts for the roles of Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Iran.
For the same reason, he suggested, the debate over whether or not to send more troops to Afghanistan has been over-simplified; the discussion should be broadened to include the relative demands of Iraq, Afghanistan and the region at large.
Abizaid also emphasized the ideological nature of the conflict, and the need for soft power to address the root causes of radicalism. He noted that Baitullah Mehsud, the top Taliban leader, is referred to as "the commander of the faithful."
"While we may chuckle at that title," Abizaid said, "the people fighting for him do not." When asked whether there should be a shift to a counter-terrorism approach in Afghanistan that relies more upon targeted strikes than nation-building, Abizaid responded that such a plan is impractical. Stabilization in Afghanistan and Iraq is a precondition for effective counter terrorist operations, he argued, because it provides the infrastructure needed to develop the "superb, superb intelligence" needed.
The theme of the talk was that instability anywhere in the region is a serious threat to surrounding countries. With our "ground forces spread thin" and "our 24-7 forces totally engaged," the United States must more fully incorporate diplomatic, political and economic plans to get a handle on the region. A number of questions were directed to the resources required for such a broad regional approach, and towards the end of the talk, the retired general was asked if the situation would be better in Afghanistan had the United States not invaded Iraq.
"All's I know is that we did what we did, and we are where we are," he answered.
It's been a big media week for counterterrorism expert Jarret Brachman, who has a story on ForeignPolicy.com today about Sheikh Abu Yahya al-Libi, the new face of Al Qaeda.
Brachman also got quite a bit of attention for posting the the photo on the right on his blog, which is the first anyone has seen of terrorist leader Khalid Sheikh Mohammed since his capture. The photos were taken by the Red Cross for his family and then released onto the Jihadist Internet where they were spotted by Brachman's fellow terrorism-wathcer Leah Farrell.
Brachman believes the release of the photos is a significant propaganda victory for KSM and Al Qaeda, as the most recent and widely circulated photo of the terrorist mastermind is the not-so-flattering one taken right after arrest. It also shows him in relatively good condition even after being reportedly waterboarded 183 times in one month. Brachman writes:
Even the jihadis say on their forums that he looks virtually unrecognizable from the previous photos they’ve seen (none of which are all that complimentary in their opinion). This one paints him as a pious elder Muslim. He’s serene, contemplative – is that a partial smile?
So, the jihadists get a hold of this image and have in their hands more than just a photo. They have a symbol. This is the man who dealt the single greatest blow to the ‘infidel’ and look, they might say, he’s not only still alive, but he looks more pious and happier than ever.
Here's the battle in a nutshell. The Obama administration -- despite questions raised by eminences grises on Afghanistan, such as Harvard's Rory Stewart -- has chosen to double-down.
Walt argues that Obama's contention --"left unchecked the Taliban insurgency will mean an even larger safe haven from which al Qaeda would plot to kill more Americans" -- is a myth. Therefore, realists should recognize it hardly justifies remaining in Afghanistan.
Not so, argue the AfPak Channel's Peter Bergen and NYU fellow Paul Cruickshank -- the Taliban do and would provide cover for al Qaeda, justifying the U.S. presence. (Here's a one-time tag for responses from within FP.)
We'll post more replies from other bloggers as they come in -- here's Windy security reporter Spencer Ackerman, for starters. If you've blogged it, leave it in comments!
An attack on Algerian police by the militant group Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) was the latest in a wave of violence in North Africa this week. It followed two major incidents in Somalia.
On June 17, Mogadishu's police chief was among those killed in heavy fighting between hardline Islamic militia and pro-government forces in the city. The following day, the Somali security minister was killed along with at least 22 others in a car bombing of a hotel in Beledweyne, north of Mogadishu. The last month has seen a push in Mogadishu by anti-government forces like the man pictured above.
Interestingly, while Somalia's rebels, including some hardline Islamists have often downplayed alleged Al Qaeda connections and told Osama bin Laden to stay out of their business, AQIM in Algeria was formed from extremist remnants from the country's civil war in the 1990s and explicitly joined Al Qaeda in 2006, showing their allegiance with the name change.
MUSTAFA ABDI/AFP/Getty Images
In 2007, Kiriakou famously went on television to describe waterboarding, and discussed the single incidence in which Abu Zubaydah was waterboarded. After just 30 or 35 seconds, Kiriakou said, Zubaydah started singing and never needed to be tortured again.
But Kiriakou wasn't there for the waterboarding -- he was half a world away, in Langley -- and Zubaydah was waterboarded more than 80 times. The New York Times first noted the difference in the two stories.
I remember wondering at the time why Kirkiakou was allowed to come forward and talk about interrogations so sensitive the Bush administration created a special "top secret" designation for them. Why didn't the CIA revoke his pension and prosecute him for leaking?
The New York Times writes:
The C.I.A., which considered legal action against Mr. Kiriakou for divulging classified information, said last week that he "was not - and is not - authorized to speak on behalf of the CIA."
Paul Gimigliano, a C.I.A. spokesman, said: "This agency did not publicly disclose the frequency with which the waterboard was used, noting only that it was employed with three detainees. If reporters got that wrong, they weren't misled from here."
The CIA didn't do much to repudiate or discredit Kiriakou at the time, despite the fact that he broke a central covenant of his profession. Here's the CIA response, as reported by ABC News:
The former CIA intelligence official who went public on ABC News about the agency's use of waterboarding in interrogations, John Kiriakou, apparently will not be the subject of a Justice Department investigation, even though some CIA officials believe he revealed classified information about the use of waterboarding.
"They were furious at the CIA this morning, but cooler heads have apparently prevailed for the time being," a senior Justice Department official told the Blotter on ABCNews.com.
Gen. Michael Hayden, the CIA director, did sent out a classified memo this morning warning all employees "of the importance of protecting classified information," a CIA spokesperson told ABCNews.com.
Had they wanted to silence or punish him, surely they could have. It all seems a bit strange to me, and leads to one obvious possibility: John Kiriakou -- telegenic and well-spoken John Kiriakou, who never went to jail for blasting state secrets on television -- was told the story to tell and released onto an unsuspecting public. It's an impression the CIA will have difficulty dulling now.
For, Kirkiakou went on to act as a "paid consultant" for ABC news after the interview, Laura reports.
Earlier today, I spoke with veteran Washington Post reporter Dana Priest. My question was simple: At what point did it become clear that the United States' treatment of detainees in overseas prisons was harsh, and possibly illegal? (For more FP torture coverage, see here.)
Allegations of detainee abuse first started trickling out in January 2002 -- in essence, as soon as detainees came into U.S. custody. But it wasn't until eleven months later that Priest and fellow Post reporter Barton Gellman wrote the first definitive account of such abuse. On the day after Christmas, 2002, the Post described "stress and duress" tactics, extraordinary rendition to countries like Syria, and the harsh treatment of al Qaeda operative Abu Zubayda. The article used the word torture -- saying that the United States harshly interrogated prisoners, and sent them to foreign prisons to gain the "fruits" of torture without having to do it themselves.
According to one official who has been directly involved in rendering captives into foreign hands, the understanding is, "We don't kick the [expletive] out of them. We send them to other countries so they can kick the [expletive] out of them."
Back then, the CIA was Priest's beat. She says her tip-off on the "stress and duress" story came when she noticed a separate, unmarked compound near the main Bagram holding facility. "It wasn't in the military compound," she says. "But it was surrounded with triple concertina wire," the type used in high-security prisons. "I thought -- they have a separate facility, so are they working under separate rules? I knew the CIA and military were working in teams together, but at what?"
She and a team of Post reporters, among them Rajiv Chandrasekaran and Barton Gellman, working in parallel and in competition to New York Times writers like Tim Golden and Carlotta Gall, started piecing the stories together. "Really, there were just a handful of reporters who could make inroads on the subject," she says.
The reporting was painstaking. "It was a very decentralized thing. You weren't even sure what the questions were," she says. "We couldn't connect it up. We couldn't see the big picture. And there was no past reporting to go on. Everyone was making it up. We'd follow these little reports from Afghanistan, about people disappearing. That was it."
Crucial to the success of the early reporting were the teams of lawyers at organizations like the Center for Constitutional Rights struggling to glean information on detainees. "We were all getting little teeny scraps and putting it together painstakingly," she says. "Nobody told you the whole story, or even a quarter of a story." One Post article on an extraordinary rendition came together because a someone happened to write down the number on the tail of an airplane. "You needed to keep those little scraps in your head," Priest notes.
Another big break -- for which she won a Pulitzer Prize -- came when she completed a story about the black sites, secret overseas prisons. The story took more than two years to report, and, she says, reporting on the subject still didn't get much easier -- it took years for Congress to devote as much attention to it as reporters and defense lawyers were.
"Congress did nothing," she says, "until political winds had changed, and the Democrats were feeling a little more at ease in the world. It's a new feeling for them. Because, before, there were Democrats in those meetings saying, ‘Do what you've got to do.'"
Alex Wong/Getty Images
Torture: it's a byzantine tale that unraveled over the course of eight years, and is only reaching its denouement this week. There are two strands, both vitally important, to follow. One's the story of what happened and when (for that, see FP's torture timeline). The other is the story of when we knew it.
Indeed, this week, it seems like the torture story's just breaking through. But, allegations of abuse and even prisoner death started emerging as soon as the United States had prisoners in custody. And reporters have doggedly covered it since then.
One of the first Washington Post stories on the treatment of detainees from the War on Terror arrived in January 2002, just months after 9/11 and the subsequent U.S. invasion of Afghanistan. Already, there were 158 detainees from 25 different countries held in Guantanamo Bay, and two congressional delegations had traveled there to review conditions. The detainees were getting 2,400 calories a day, the Post story reported. "Some of them are getting medical attention for the first time in their lives," Senator Bill Nelson proudly noted.
There were also already allegations of prisoner abuse. Photos showing bound, blindfolded, and shackled detainees on their knees appeared as soon as prisoners arrived in Gitmo -- the International Committee of the Red Cross censured the U.S. for the photos, which violated the Geneva Conventions.
The following month, in February, President George W. Bush issued an executive order denying detainees the privileges and protections of the Geneva Conventions. The United States started down the road that culminated in Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, Bagram, and the black sites -- secret overseas prisons, in countries like Egypt, where prisoners were sent via "extraordinary rendition" and the worst detainee abuse may have happened.
Reports of U.S. soldiers abusing persons they detained in Afghanistan emerged that winter as well -- kicking and beating them after they'd already been shackled. The military went on the defensive. "I don't believe that any of the detainees...were subject to beatings or rough treatment after they were taken into custody," General Richard B. Myers told the New York Times. "All 27 detainees were medically screened upon arrival in Kandahar, and there were no issues of beatings or kickings or anything of that sort."
Over the next year, the trickle became a stream. The military admitted using harsh techniques on Abu Zubayda and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, high-ranking al Qaeda operatives we now know were repeatedly waterboarded.
At the time, officials told the New York Times "physical torture would not be used against Mr. Mohammed...They said his interrogation would rely on what they consider acceptable techniques like sleep and light deprivation and the temporary withholding of food, water, access to sunlight and medical attention."
It took the prisoner abuse scandal at Abu Ghraib, broken by veteran reporter Seymour Hersh and CBS News, to blow the door open -- that happened in April 2004.
It spawned a glut of media attention, as well as congressional hearings and a series of governmental reports: the Taguba report (on the Abu Ghraib scandal), the Schlesinger report (which described how harsh techniques from Afghanistan crept into Iraq), the Fay Jones report (on the Army personnel responsible for prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib), the Church report (71 cases of abuse, six deaths). Over the next years came the Schmidt report (which said treatment at Guantanamo was humane, in 2005, after the waterboarding of Abu Zubayda and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed), as well as the Senate Armed Services Committee Report released this week.
So, most of the foundational reporting on torture happened in late 2003, 2004, and 2005 -- by reporters like Dana Priest of the Washington Post and Jane Mayer of the New Yorker, describing extraordinary rendition and the black site prisons.
But it's crucial to remember that a small group of reporters -- at the New York Times, McClatchy, the Washington Post, Time magazine, Newsweek magazine, and the New Yorker -- had the story before it was a story. They worked with a slight and growing handful of congressional, White House, military, Justice Department, legal, and other sources. They used a list-serv started by lawyers working on detainee cases to learn information. And they opened the door for Abu Ghraib to open the door further.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images
With the glut of new information about "enhanced interrogations" and the treatment of detainees in U.S. custody -- the Senate Armed Services Committee and Senate Intelligence Committee reports especially -- it's been very hard to keep track of who knew what and when.
To help sort it all out, I created a timeline showing new information in italics.
Look for more today...
There's been a wealth of information released on the treatment and torture of detainees in U.S. custody in the past days. Here's a capsule of the new news:
I asked Tom Malinowski, the Washington advocacy director for Human Rights Watch and a former Clinton administration official, to work through some of the foreign policy implications of the newly released torture memos with me.
We discussed whether the Bush administration memos encouraged other countries to torture, or led to any global uptick in "enhanced interrogation" practices. "I've always tried to be careful not to suggest that countries like Egypt or China or Uzbekistan would be torturing more because the United States was setting a bad example. Obviously, dictatorships torture for their own reasons, and they didn't need [former U.S. President] George W. Bush to show them how," he says.
But, the Bush administration torture of detainees and disavowal of the Geneva Conventions did preclude diplomacy on many occasions, Malinowski says. He testified before the Helsinki Commission in 2007 to make the point:
A couple of years ago, Human Rights Watch was meeting with the Prime Minister of Egypt, and we raised a case in which hundreds of prisoners rounded up after a terrorist bombing were tortured by Egyptian security forces. The Prime Minister didn't deny the charge. He answered, "We're just doing what the United States does." We've had Guantanamo and the administration's interrogation policies thrown back in our face in meetings with officials from many other countries, including Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Pakistan and Lebanon. U.S. diplomats have told us they face the same problem. A U.S. ambassador to a leading Middle Eastern country, for example, has told us that he can no longer raise the issue of torture in that country as a result.
Malinowski says the detainee abuse made it difficult for the White House to negotiate any human rights provisions or issues, broadly. "Issues beyond torture were effected, because it enabled authoritarian governments to say, ‘You have no right to lecture us,'" he says. "They were delighted to tweak the United States on it."
The biggest offender? Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who Malinowski described as a "world champion" of chiding the United States via its own policies.
Nevertheless, Malinowski thinks that, despite the horrible details revealed by the Bush administration and International Committee of the Red Cross memos, ultimately their release is a very good thing for the Obama administration.
[Obama] can go to a country like Turkey or Indonesia or Egypt and say, "Look, I know what it's like to face real security threats, and we as Americans understand the temptation to give up some of our liberties and principles to defend ourselves against those threats. But what we've learned the hard way in the last eight years is that those liberties and principles actually make us stronger. You could learn from our example."
That's a much more effective way of arguing the point than going to those same countries and saying, look at our perfect system and our glorious morality, and maybe someday you can be as good as we are. So I think if he uses the experience as a cautionary tale, it will actually make our country a more effective and compelling champion of human rights around the world, ironically.
Here's to hoping so.
Photo: Entrance to Bagram Air Base by Spencer Platt/Getty Images
One of the most interesting things about the four newly released Bush administration memos on the “enhanced interrogation” of detainees in overseas secret CIA prisons has been what isn’t in there, rather than what is. The truly grotesque caterpillar revelation aside, the memos weren’t very revelatory. We already knew about the SERE techniques. We knew that medical professionals attended them -- and that Jay Bybee, then an administration lawyer, now a federal judge, felt the presence of medical professionals meant it wasn’t torture.
But Tom Malinowski, of Human Rights Watch, pointed me to one truly new detail, in a footnote in the May 2005 memo from Steven Bradbury to John Rizzo, a CIA lawyer. Here’s footnote 28:
“This is not to say that the interrogation program has worked perfectly. According to the IG Report, the CIA, at least initially, could not always distinguish detainees who had information but were successfully resisting interrogation from those who did not actually have the information….On at least one occasion, this may have resulted in what might be deemed in retrospect to have been the unnecessary use of enhanced techniques. On that occasion, although the on-scene interrogation team judged Zubaydah to be compliant, elements within CIA headquarters still believed he was withholding information. [REDACTED PORTION.] At the direction of CIA Headquarters, interrogators therefore used the waterboard one more time on Zubaydah.”
Which marks the first time a memo has admitted that waterboarding was “unnecessary.”
In a press release, Attorney General Eric Holder and the Department of Justice announce the withdrawal of the "enemy combatant" definition of Gitmo detainees. The memo says that, under President Obama's orders, the department is reviewing detention policy:
In a filing today with the federal District Court for the District of Columbia, the Department of Justice submitted a new standard for the government’s authority to hold detainees at the Guantanamo Bay Detention Facility. The definition does not rely on the President’s authority as Commander-in-Chief independent of Congress’s specific authorization. It draws on the international laws of war to inform the statutory authority conferred by Congress. It provides that individuals who supported al Qaeda or the Taliban are detainable only if the support was substantial. And it does not employ the phrase "enemy combatant."
The Department also submitted a declaration by Attorney General Eric Holder stating that, under executive orders issued by President Obama, the government is undertaking an interagency review of detention policy for individuals captured in armed conflicts or counterterrorism operations as well as a review of the status of each detainee held at Guantanamo. The outcome of those reviews may lead to further refinements of the government’s position as it develops a comprehensive policy.
The memo states that the government will no longer detain combatants who provided "insignificant or insubstantial" support to al Qaeda or the Taliban. (The Bush administration came under fierce criticism for holding persons with little or no connection to the terrorist organizations.) More than 200 remain incarcerated at Camp Delta; it's unclear if any -- or how many -- will be released under the new legal standards.
Photo: Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images
Geography Professor Thomas Gillespie of UCLA has employed a technique typically used for tracking endangered species in order to pinpoint the most likely location of the world's most wanted terrorist. In a paper (pdf) published in the MIT International Review Gillespie describes how he used biogeographic data including bin Laden's last known location, cultural background, security needs, declining health, limited mobility and height to create a mathematical model that he claims will show where the terror mastermind is hiding.
According to Gillespie, Osama is riiiiiiiiiiiiiiiight about here:
More specifically, he found a 90 percent chance that bin Laden is in Kurram province in Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Areas, most likely in the town of Parachinar which gave shelter to a larger number of Mujahedin during the 1980s. Here's a closer look at the region with Osama probabilities shown:
Gillespie even identified three buildings in Parachinar that would make the most likely shelters for Bin Laden and his entourage. Here's one of them:
The exact coordinates are N. 33.901944° E.70.093746°. Anyone want to go check it out?
Images: The MIT International Review
A public contest for the "world's best job" -- taking care of a tiny Australian tropical island and writing about the experience -- received an unusual video application from one "Osama bin Laden." ''I enjoy the outdoors and sandy areas,'' the ersatz Bin Laden says. 'I've got experience with videos, delegating tasks and experience with large scale event coordination.''
Australian pranksters seem to have something of a fetish for the terror mastermind.
I see that senior U.S. counterterrorism officials are bragging to NPR that al Qaeda is getting whipped in the rural wilds of Pakistan:
CIA-directed airstrikes against al-Qaida leaders and facilities in Pakistan over the past six to nine months have been so successful, according to senior U.S. officials, that it is now possible to foresee a "complete al-Qaida defeat" in the mountainous region along the border with Afghanistan.
The officials say the terrorist network's leadership cadre has been "decimated," with up to a dozen senior and midlevel operatives killed as a result of the strikes and the remaining leaders reeling from the repeated attacks.
"The enemy is really, really struggling," says one senior U.S. counterterrorism official. "These attacks have produced the broadest, deepest and most rapid reduction in al-Qaida senior leadership that we've seen in several years." [...]
"In the past, you could take out the No. 3 al-Qaida leader, and No. 4 just moved up to take his place," says one official. "Well, if you take out No. 3, No. 4 and then 5, 6, 7, 8, 9 and 10, it suddenly becomes a lot more difficult to revive the leadership cadre."
If you take these claims at face value, it's a pretty impressive achievement.
But here's the problem: At the same time as al Qaeda appears to be getting its collective ass kicked, native Pakistani and Afghan militants appear to be getting stronger, not weaker, just as Pakistani analysts have been warning for months.
Just today, militants in Pakistan's Khyber Agency cut the chief supply route to U.S. troops in Afghanistan. The Obama team appears to be shocked at how bad the situation in the region has gotten. Fareed Zakaria is talking about Obama's Vietnam. And in what is either desperation or brilliant diplomacy, NATO is reportedly considering turning to Iran -- Iran! -- for logistical help.
Is this victory?
UPDATE: John McCreary, of NightWatch, comments on the Iran story:
Iran and Pakistan have a common interest in combating extremists, and they can improve the situation in their region by enhancing political and economic ties, according to Fars news agency today, citing Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, Head of Iran's Expediency Council. Iranian-Pakistani cooperation is the most vital issue in resolving the Afghanistan situation, Rafsanjani said, and foreign forces there cannot fight extremists without the partnership of those two countries. Cooperation on the exchange and supply of energy is the best area for Iranian-Pakistani relations, he added. Rafsanjani made the comments at a meeting with Mohammad Bakhsh Abbasi, the new Pakistani ambassador to Iran.
Rafsanjani made a decent point about the need for partnership with adjacent countries in stabilizing Afghanistan. The significance is that he seems to be offering it. Iran, for example, has not dismissed or discouraged media speculation or the NATO suggestion that Iran could become an alternate supply route for international forces in Afghanistan.
Naturally, Rafsanjani did not mention Iran's terms. Iran always has terms.
With the violence in Gaza and the imminent changeover in administrations here in Washington D.C., terrorism experts told Foreign Policy in interviews today, Osama bin Laden apparently thought the time was right to deliver a message to both his supporters and his enemies.
An audio tape attributed to the al Qaeda leader appeared on an Islamist website early Wednesday morning. Although there has not been any independent confirmation of whether the voice on the tape is actually bin Laden's, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack stated that he had no reason to question the tape's authenticity.
The message called for jihad against Israel for its assault on Gaza. Addressing the Palestinian people, bin Laden stated: "We are with you and we will not let you down. Our fate is tied to yours in fighting the Crusader-Zionist coalition, in fighting until victory or martyrdom." He also publicly doubted the ability of the United States to continue its struggle, saying that "America is begging the world for money," and "the USA will not be as powerful as it used to be."
While the world's most wanted man hardly broke new ground with these pronouncements, the very fact that he recorded a message himself -- his first since last May -- shows that he is very much alive and intent on being a public antagonist to U.S. President-Elect Barack Obama.
"No matter how isolated bin Laden is, [the tape shows] that he is following current events and maintains the ability to comment on them and get his message out there," Bruce Hoffman, a professor at the Security Studies Program at Georgetown University, told FP.
There is no issue in the Arab world that is the focus of more rage right now than the Israeli assault on Gaza, which has now claimed the lives of more than 1,000 Palestinians. Since al Qaeda has been unable to establish any actual presence in Palestine, bin Laden's tape is one of the terrorist organization's only available methods for being heard on the subject. "The Israel-Palestine conflict is, for many al Qaeda members, at the heart of their struggle, so they had to comment on it," noted Daniel Byman, a counterterrorism expert with the Brookings Institution. "The Arab world is riveted to what is going on in Gaza, and it is hard for them to remain on the sidelines."
Bin Laden is also likely interested in puncturing some of the hopes raised by Obama's upcoming inauguration, a message also delivered recently by th al Qaeda leader's deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri.
"They're essentially saying that, despite Obama's talk about change, his administration will be the same old wine in a different bottle," said Hoffman. "The message is: Don't feel hope, don't be taken in. The United States is still doing horrible things to Muslims around the world, and al Qaeda will eventually be victorious."
Bin Laden also blames Bush for "the collapse of the economy," arguing that if the United States pursues its war against al Qaeda it will "drown in economic crisis." This is actually a persistent theme of bin Laden's rhetoric. Since 2002, bin Laden has claimed that the United States was on the verge of military and economic collapse, in much the same way that the Soviet Union was during its battles against the Afghan mujahideen in the 1980s. "He sees the West in fundamental decline, and believes that it is losing the ability to maintain the fight," explained Byman.
Bin Laden is about to outlast the U.S. president who vowed seven years ago to bring him in "dead or alive." Clearly, he's gearing up for the next one.
Photo: AFP/Getty Images
An interesting article by Alan Cowell and Mark McDonald in today's New York Times reveals an inconvenient truth about analysts who study terrorism: they often have wildly divergent views about the same events.
Christine Fair, senior political scientist and a South Asia expert at the RAND Corporation, was careful to say that the identity of the terrorists could not yet be known. But she insisted the style of the attacks and the targets in Mumbai suggested the militants were likely to be Indian Muslims and not linked to Al Qaeda or Lashkar-e-Taiba, another violent South Asian terrorist group.
There’s absolutely nothing Al Qaeda-like about it,” she said of the attack. "Did you see any suicide bombers? And there are no fingerprints of Lashkar. They don’t do hostage-taking and they don’t do grenades." By contrast, Mr. Gohel in London said "the fingerprints point to an Islamic Al Qaeda-affiliated terrorist group."
Fair goes on to make the point that India has a lot of angry Muslims of its own, and has a history of telling the world, "Our Muslims have not been radicalized."
I would point out that the two main competing theories -- a domestic group and outside involvement -- are not mutually exclusive. Extremist groups have been known to share logistical networks (for safehouses, weapons procurement, etc.), and there aren't always bright lines between them. So, it could be that domestic perpetrators of the attack conceived and executed the idea, but operatives turned to Lashkar-e-Taiba or some other group for logistical help and expertise.
UPDATE: Here's a pretty strong clue that points to Kashmir:
A militant holed up at the center phoned an Indian television channel to offer talks with the government for the release of hostages, but also to complain about abuses in Kashmir, over which India and Pakistan have fought two of their three wars.
"Ask the government to talk to us and we will release the hostages," the man, identified by the India TV channel as Imran, said, speaking in Urdu in what sounded like a Kashmiri accent.
"Are you aware how many people have been killed in Kashmir? Are you aware how your army has killed Muslims. Are you aware how many of them have been killed in Kashmir this week?"
On the other hand, a senior Indian military official seems pretty confident the militants are from Faridkot, Pakistan. One captured terrorist had a Punjabi accent.
Al Qaeda's latest video is pretty strange. But one thing that struck me as especially odd was the slur of President-elect Barack Obama as a "house Negro," which is not actually a direct translation of the Arabic.
If you listen to the clip in question, al Qaeda No. 2 Ayman al-Zawahiri actually calls Obama abid al-beit, or "house slave." Yet al Qaeda translates it as "house Negro," which is the term that Malcolm X used. I guess they wanted to keep the parallel exact?
In any case, I wonder if this message might actually play better in some parts of the Arab world than we think. Yes, it's a pretty crude racial epithet, and for a pan-Islamic movement that encompasses Sudanese, Uzbek, and Indonesian members along with the core group of Arabs, it's probably going to ruffle some feathers. But there is a surprising amount of anti-black racism in Arab countries, and Zawahiri may be hoping to tap into that to drum up new recruits.
Finally, in case you were wondering how this incident is being handled on conservative talk radio, here's what Rush Limbaugh said on the matter:
Well, Barack Obama has gone from the 'Magic Negro' now to the 'house negro,' according to Ayman al-Zawahiri. [...] Now, the question about this that we all have, ladies and gentlemen, is what will Obama's reaction be? I don't know that he can turn his back on al-Zawahiri any more than he can turn his back on his own preacher, but don't jump to any conclusions. We don't know what he's going to do here.
It's become a cliché, but I think we can now officially say that the financial crisis has been worse than 9/11 for the United States:
The Commerce Department said Friday that retail sales fell by 2.8 percent last month, surpassing the old mark of a 2.65 percent drop in November 2001 in the wake of the terrorist attacks that year.
Back in October, al Qaeda-linked groups were taking credit for getting the United States into a quagmire that had "exhausted its resources and bankrupted its economy." That's rank economic illiteracy -- America's current woes have a lot more to do with subprime mortgages than overextension abroad. If anything, credit default swaps and collateralized debt obligations have proven to be the true weapons of mass destruction of our age.
I didn't watch the debate last night. But I did read parts of it, and I was particularly interested in the candidates' exchange about Pakistan:
In one of the more heated moments of the debate, Mr. Obama, the Democratic presidential nominee, argued that he would take the war to Osama bin Laden’s cave door, whether Pakistan cooperated or not. And it was Mr. McCain, the Republican nominee, who argued that without Pakistan’s cooperation, any such operation was doomed.
I have to say, McCain gets the better of the exchange.
I've become convinced that Obama is making a huge mistake in endorsing the Bush approach, which will lead to disaster if it is allowed to continue. When FP asked five top Pakistani experts to tell us how to get Osama bin Laden, they all stressed passionately that the United States is heading down the wrong path by escalating a campaign of airstrikes in the tribal areas and, on at least one occassion, sending U.S. ground troops across the border.
There doesn't appear to be any genuine counterinsurgency strategy in place to do what General Petraeus did in Iraq -- protecting the local population from Taliban and other militant groups and seeking to win the hearts and minds of the Pashtun people. Instead, it's bomb, bomb, bomb. I understand the political appeal of getting bin Laden. But if you get
the al Qaeda leader but turn Pakistan into a failed state, that is a strategic
defeat, not a victory in the war on terrorism.
Nor is there any apparent effort to rein in what Pakistan sees as India's attempt to encircle it in Afghanistan, or a major push to make progress on Kashmir. Many people seem mystified and frustrated by Pakistan's "double game" in the war on terrorism. Fear of India is the root cause.
Does Obama get all this? I understand the politics here. But as policy, the Bush approach to Pakistan is sheer folly.
Farrar, Straus, and Giroux has give us permission to post the following excerpts from After 9/11: America's War on Terror (2001- ), by Sid Jacobson and Ernie Colón. A self-described "work of graphic journalism" by the same folks who put together the visual adaptation of the 9/11 report, the book is a very cool way to look at what's happened over the past seven years.
Below is a vignette from the book, which shows the Bush administration shifting its focus from Afghanistan to Iraq:
Click here to see the rest of this series.
Because we were all waiting to see how the international terror organization would react: Al Qaeda has now joined a chorus of condemnation from the international community by calling for a jihad in Mauritania in the wake of last week's military coup:
"Raise the banner of jihad and let us bleed and have our limbs severed until we bring back a caliphate styled along the lines of The Prophet's way," the leader of the al Qaeda Organization in the Islamic Maghreb, Abu Mus'ab Abd el-Wadoud, said in a statement posted on the Internet on Tuesday.
Abd el-Wadoud said the soldiers who toppled President Sidi Mohamed Ould Cheikh Abdallahi in the northwest African state last week were probably acting upon a green light from "infidel states; America, France and Israel".
Abd el-Wadoud must have missed the memo that the "infidel states" aren't happy with the coup either: Both France and the United States have suspended non-humanitarian aid. Israel, too, had ties with the previous government in Mauritania, one of the few Arab nations with whom it had diplomatic relations.
While coup leaders tried to assuage critics by releasing the prime minister and three other high-ranking leaders Monday and promising new elections "as soon as possible," overthrowing a democratically-elected leader in the name of democracy isn't going to jive with international opinion.
Still, the fact that Al Qaeda isn't happy about the new leadership, and the promise by new military ruler Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz to clamp down harder on Islamic militants may give some Western leaders pause. It's not like we've supported convenient coup leaders with so-so democratic credentials before.
Osama bin Laden once said that his goal is "bleeding America to the point of bankruptcy." Maybe he should have gotten into the mortgage business instead of becoming a terrorist.
Zubin Jelveh blogs a new IMF working paper by Hui Tong and Shang-Jin Wei, who look at the responses by economic forecasters and consumers to 9/11 vs. their reactions to the subprime mortgage crisis. As you can see, everybody pretty much shrugged off 9/11 (at least when it comes to the economy; emotional grief is, of course, beyond measure) after about six months, but subprime has brought a steady decline in confidence:
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