Hoffman’s take on al Qaeda in Syria

Dina Templ-Raston of NPR did a nice short clip on the extent of al Qaeda infiltration and participation in the Syrian revolts against the Assad regime. The short clip- (click here al Qaeda in Syria) – mixes discussion from Ambassador Dan Benjamin at the U.S. Department of State and the Godfather of terrorism and counterterrorism research, Dr. Bruce Hoffman. Knowledge Ninja Sensei Dr. Bruce (He’s a notch or two above all other knowledge ninjas) provides some interesting perspective on how al Qaeda integrates into rebellions at first, by supporting rather than commanding rebels. Dr. Hoffman notes here.

“The key here is that al-Qaida is not waging these struggles as independent units, rather they are presenting themselves or offering fighters as force multipliers,” …”In the past, they have been very effective of co-opting the local agenda of these groups,” Hoffman said. “We’ve seen it certainly with the Pakistani Taliban that staged the 2010 Times Square attempted bombing. We’ve seen it certainly with al-Shabab in Somalia. And the Free Syrian Army certainly wouldn’t be the first who thought they could control terrorists.”

Ahh, this poses an interesting dilemma for the past week’s discussion on “who should we call al Qaeda?“. In the beginning, al Qaeda doesn’t really taking outright control of local groups. Instead, al Qaeda provides to militant group’s what they need, foreign fighters, weapons, and funding, and then later embed themselves within the leadership of the militant group instituting their jihadi ideology and strategic agenda on a group now in debt to al Qaeda for past support. So, who do we call “al Qaeda’?

Should We End The ‘War On Terror’?

Scrolling through old NPR shows, I stumbled onto an excellent debate from around the time of the September 11 anniversary.  The debate question was “Is it time to end the War on Terror?”.  This Oxford style debate featured two sides.  (Note: Oxford style debates are conducted in collared, button down shirts with Khaki pants where as Bermuda style are conducted in long shorts.)

For ending the ‘War on Terror’ were Peter Bergen of the New America Foundation and Juliette Kayyem of Harvard University’s Kennedy school.  Bergen led the charge asserting the U.S. has achieved victory in this conflict killing the majority of AQ’s senior leadership and preventing any major AQ attack for several years.  While he noted AQ members or AQ affiliates could attack again, the wind is out of AQ and by perpetuating the ‘War on Terror’ mantra we are only further scaring the U.S. population and spending unnecessary resources to placate this fear.

Against ending the ‘War on Terror’ were former CIA/NSA director General Michael Hayden and Deputy NYPD commissioner/White House Dep. Homeland Security Advisor Richard Falkenwrath.  Both Hayden and Falkenwrath focused on the legal implications of ending the ‘War on Terror’.  As they importantly noted, declaring victory and ending the war would also end the legal authorities which allow the U.S. to pursue al Qaeda and its affiliate anywhere they might be in the world.  Hayden and Falkenwrath believe this reduction in authority could allow AQ to reemerge.

I found myself on both sides of this debate.  Earlier this summer, J.M. Berger brought up the important point about there being no clear definition of “Al Qaeda”.  Thus, it’s difficult to know if we’ve won since we can’t clearly define what we are fighting.

Meanwhile, Bergen provided an excellent challenge to Hayden and Falkenwrath noting that if the current state of AQ doesn’t represent a defeated organization and a U.S. victory then what will be the conditions in which the U.S. can declare victory.   Hayden and Falkenwrath couldn’t define those conditions. Hayden provided a particularly weak answer stating something to the effect (not an exact quote), “I think we’ll know what victory is when we get there/we’ll know it when we see it.” Hayden was strong at many points in the debate but particularly weak here.

Kayyem seemed to agree with both sides of the argument at times.  She noted that she thought the U.S. has won the ‘War on Terror’.  Kayyem thought we should scale down the resources dedicated to fight AQ while also protecting the legal authorities to continue pursuing terrorist threat.

Ultimately, I believe we need to end the ‘War on Terror’ while still pursuing any and all terror groups and their members wherever they may reside.  Ending the ‘War on Terror’ is important.  Pursuing a never-ending campaign against an undefined enemy ultimately hurts the U.S. financially and psychologically. Unfortunately, as mentioned in the debate, no politician will declare the end to terrorism as it is political suicide.  Politicians gain much more from building fear than allaying fear.

The crux of this debate ultimately hinges on the antiquated legal structure the U.S. uses to pursue its enemies.  The U.S. can’t end the ‘War on Terror’ without tying its hands.  Solving this problem requires the U.S. to update its laws to enable rather than disable the nation’s ability to pursue non-state asymmetric threats.  The U.S. appears far more likely to face terrorists than nation-states in the near term.  The challenges presented by cyber threats push the boundaries of warfare even further in the direction of asymmetry.

So what should the U.S. do?  Try to fight it’s enemies through guidelines constructed for a world we no longer live in? Or develop a more nimble approach cognizant of the asymmetric battlefields enabling our enemies? I’m guessing the U.S. will pursue the first option as the Executive and particularly the Legislative Branches appear incapable of accomplishing anything.  I hope the folks a Lawfare do a post sometime soon (or maybe a comprehensive book) describing how the law of war might be re-written.  They’ve had some good reviews lately.

Below is the audio for the debate and I think it’s well worth listening to and well moderated.

Importance of Confidence: In Conflicts and Markets

From about 2005-2007, military briefings pushed me to the edge of a coma with endless banter about how counterinsurgency victory depends on the “will of the people to outlast the insurgents”.  The briefer would then show a chart depicting the average length of insurgencies and how popular support for the counterinsurgents determined the outcome of the conflict.  Essentially, if the population supporting the counterinsurgency were confident that victory could be achieved and the cause worthwhile, then the fight could be sustained and victory attained.  (There was a little more to it than confidence, but I’ll summarize to save you the pain.)

Recently, I listened to an interesting NPR broadcast on the shaken confidence of young investors entering the financial market – “How Recession Rewires Your Tolerance for Risk”.  Essentially, young workers do not share the confidence of their 1990’s predecessors who believed that investing in stocks and mutual funds would provide guaranteed payments during retirement.  The large scale of American worker investment contributions in mutual funds, 401K’s, and stocks helped propel U.S. market growth from the 1990’s through 2008.  What will happen to the markets if the next generation of American workers chooses not to pursue this investment approach while retirees begin pulling their retirement payments out in mass?

In both cases, conflicts and markets, the tipping point for victory or growth may rest on confidence more than anything.  In Iraq, American confidence helped lead to what is perceived by most as a victory of sorts.  In Afghanistan, American confidence appears quelled and victory still uncertain.  In the markets, I wonder when will investor confidence return and what will make it return?  And when comparing conflicts and markets, I wonder which is easier, building American confidence in support of counterinsurgency or restoring American confidence in investing.

New Book on U.S. Counterterrorism

Today, NPR broadcast an interview with Eric Schmitt and Thom Shanker reference their new book Counter Strike: The Untold Story of America’s Secret Campaign Against al Qaeda.  I’ve relied on Schmitt’s New York Times reporting for years to gain day-to-day perspective on the ebbs and flows of the Global War on Terror.  I expect this book will be a good read for those interested in the progression and improvements of U.S. counterterrorism operations over the past decade.  I’ve only listened to a portion of this interview so far but the discussion and the book its based on seems accurate of the peaks and valleys in the ten year al Qa’ida chase. I look forward to anyone’s review of the book when they get time to read it.

My only criticism (fear maybe) from the interview is the continued over focus on terrorist use of the Internet.  In my opinion, the media obsesses over al Qa’ida’s use of media skewing the American public’s view of the al Qa’ida threat. I’ll have to explain in more detail in subsequent posts, but enough with the al Qa’ida use of the Internet.  Fear not what you can see on the Internet, fear more what al Qaeda is doing outside of the Internet.  Here is who I listen to on al Qa’ida’s use of the Internet; they support their analysis with research and reason.

FYI- If you want a coded database of the Sinjar foreign fighter records discussed in this interview, click here.

Here’s the audio interview from NPR.