Equivocal Terrorism: Measuring the Threat from Yemen

Yemen’s fragile nature could mean that it is going the way of other failed states as a safe haven for terrorism and the presence of a local branch of al Qaeda could present an imminent threat to U.S. national security. A debate I examine as I explore the nature of the threat posed.

All too often I wonder about whether or not our great nation can properly provide for the security of the 310 million people that live within its borders. As I concluded in my most recent post, the ever-increasing threat of terrorism is a difficult task that the United States must overcome. With the impact al Qaeda has had on terrorist groups worldwide through the creation of a global network, a development that Rohan Gunaratna explores in Inside Al Qaeda: Global Network of Terror, it has become evident understanding and measuring perceived threats is critical to national security. A recent RAND study on carrying out this analysis points out that al Qaeda possesses the capabilities and the hostile intentions, making it the greatest threat to the United States.

A recent terror attack plot by a branch of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), in the form of complex bombs within a cargo shipment to the United States, provides an example of an al Qaeda linked threat based in Yemen. yemen_4.jpgIn my journey through reputable political blogs and websites this week I uncovered a blog post at Foreign Policy magazine by David Bender and Jonathan Tepperman questioning the importance of the threat that AQAP poses to the United States’ national security. David Bender, a radio talk show host, and Jonathan Tepperman, an editor at Foreign Affairs and Newsweek, present an disparaging examination of the AQAP’s credibility by exploring past attack plots, crediting U.S. and Saudi intelligence agencies, and confiding in Yemen’s U.S. backed government. The recently failed attempt from AQAP presents a viewpoint, such as Bender and Tepperman’s, that the presence of an al Qaeda related group in Yemen does not pose a significant threat, because after all the group, “has made several attempts at striking targets abroad, [but] all of these plans have failed.” I enter into discussion with Bender and Tepperman about the possibility that this failed attack could mean so much more. My response to Bender and Tepperman’s post can be found at the Foreign Policy blog, and is also re-posted below for convenience.

“Why Yemen is not a crisis…yet”
My Comment

Mr. Bender and Mr. Tepperman,

The situation in Yemen brings up some interesting discussion points. I believe this failed attack provides a great example of the threat the al Qaeda central poses to the international community as a whole not just the United States. Which leads me to believe that the problem of terrorism is an ever-present danger in our world today that we as Americans must learn about and understand as we attempt to combat such a difficult threat. The use of PETN by al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula presents an increased sophistication that x-ray and sniffer dogs are unable to detect, which creates a growing threat for national security. In the article you reason that AQAP’s failed attempts are proof that the group “isn’t worth worrying about,” but is this not the same failure of imagination that the 9/11 Commission Report warned about? After all, this is the first successful attempt to smuggle primed explosive devices into the cargo of a comercil aircraft since 1988. Al Qaeda central had numerous failed attacks prior to 9/11, but one successful attack can have devastating consequences not matter the perceived threat and it appears that the Yemeni team is learning quickly. As you point out, reliance upon the Saudi GIP brings some comfort but improvement of U.S. capabilities to respond to such a threat is necessary.

Dependence upon Saleh to keep AQAP under control seems problematic at best, but support from the U.S. and Saudi Arabia should be helpful. It seems though, that improved action now will let the threat posed by AQAP grow and perhaps lead to increased capabilities and improved attacks. If the situation constitutes a threat now, as I believe it does, or eventually worsens with the failure of the government, do you believe that it will be in the U.S.’s best interest to intervene in Yemen? In discussing public exposure to U.S. counterterrorism operation in the past, there is mention that the Yemeni’s may side with AQAP rather than Saleh. Do you think the Yemeni’s see the increased security that AQAP provides and is it possible for them to understand the danger that could exist in supporting AQAP if it means that the U.S. will become involved? Thank you for your thoughts on the situation, hopefully I get an answer to my inquiries!

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Occupation in the Middle East: Grounds for Breeding Terrorism

A drastic increase in the number of terrorist attacks since the occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan suggests an examination of foreign policy towards both countries. In this post I examine whether U.S. military presence is the root cause for the increase in suicide terrorists attacks within the past decade.

In response to the suicide terrorist attacks against the United States on September 11th, 2001, the Bush administration launched Operation Enduring Freedom, an invasion into Afghanistan in order to overthrow the Taliban. This invasion was only the beginning of the Bush administration’s self proclaimed “global war on terror,” a foreign policy mission that also stretched into Iraq under Operation Iraqi Freedom. WTC Suicide Attack According to a study by Robert Pape, a Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago, there has been a notable increase in suicide attacks since 2004, especially against the United States. In his book, Dying to Win, Pape contests that the increase in suicide attacks during the past decade is the effect of United States occupation in the Middle East and uses this idea to promote a strategy of withdrawal from the region. Pape asserts that the root goal of suicide terrorism is “to compel modern democracies to withdraw military forces from territory that the terrorists consider to be their homeland,” while Pape’s asserton is valid, I explore several other factors that also contribute to the likelihood that terrorist insurgencies choose the tactic of suicide terrorism in order to achieve a strategic goal.

The argument presented by Pape stems from two assertions, the first being that a gap exists between the occupier and the occupied society creating tensions that ultimately lead to suicide terrorism. In addition, he claims that suicide tactics are a strategy of last resort due to prior failed attempts to gain freedom from the oppression of occupying powers. Despite the fact that Pape’s assertions are reasonable explanations for suicide attacks in the case of the Islamic societies, problems exist when attempting to apply both factors on a larger scale in both the past and the present. There may exist a societal and religious gap between Western and Islamic societies, but this gap also exists between the West and other societies in regions of the world where the United States has troops deployed. Pape fails to realize that suicide attacks are not inevitable in these locations and in fact are highly unlikely. Kori Schake, a reputable foreign policy advisor, points out that the societies where United States troops are stationed have an impact on the operation. Societal and religious gaps may not be the prime-motivating factor, but Pape makes a compelling case that religion plays an important factor as a means to gain local popular support and recruit suicide bombers. The idea that suicide tactics are a last resort due to “previously failed rebellions” also has flaws. Military MapDuring the 19th and beginning half of the 20th century there were many cases in which failed rebellions occurred as a result of occupation through colonialism, but despite foreign domination there was vast shortage of suicide terrorist attacks. In fact, quite the opposite when examining the use of civil disobedience taught by Mohandas Gandhi. Economics Professor, Eli Berman, explores the economical use of suicide tactics and concludes that the likelihood of their use increases when terrorists are facing “hard targets” or targets that operate with advanced weaponry due to the unfavorable conditions being faced. I find it more compelling that suicide attack tactics are perhaps not the last resort due to previously failed attempts at freedom from oppression, but in some cases may be the only resort due to the existence of conflicts as asymmetric.

The belief that suicide attacks have increased in number fails to acknowledge a couple critical factors. First, definitional problems by Pape about the nature of suicide attack perhaps inflate his calculations. Dying to Win presents Pape’s definition as a “violent act against innocents that are committed by nongovernmental actors,” which is a common meaning of terrorism found in academia, but a vast majority of the suicide attacks that Pape uses as data in his study take place in Iraq or Afghanistan during wartime. This is problematic because it contradicts the idea that United States soldiers are innocents when in reality they are active combatants. Understanding the context in which these attacks occur and the goals of troops in the region is critical, the presence of the troops undoubtedly increases the number of attacks. As Schake points out, advancing political interests and contesting the operation of al Qaeda and the Taliban are important goals that, if abandoned through troop withdrawal, will result in fewer suicide attacks. As for the tactical nature of suicide bombing, Bruce Hoffman contends that suicide bombing is increasingly attractive due to the ease with which it can be carried out against the presence of military personnel in the occupied territory simply because the carrying out of an attack is now within the operational space of al Qaeda and the Taliban. I believe that characteristics of suicide attacks such as the improvisational nature of a manned explosive, lack of a culprit, and omission of operational connections when the mission is complete only add to the idea that if terrorist groups can continually find sacrificial lambs then suicide terrorism will remain a threat.

While Pape overlooks several important factors that help to explain the increase of suicide terrorism, he is correct in his fundamental truth that suicide terrorism has increased as a tactic in the past decade. His study makes clear that the manner in which the Bush administration conducted an anti-terrorism campaign in both Iraq and Afghanistan led to the breeding of terrorist recruits and an increase in suicide attacks. This increase makes it critical to examine whether or not the presence of United States military forces in the Middle East is currently contributing to the rise of suicide terrorist attacks. After examining Pape’s argument is it clear that U.S. presence in Iraq and Afghanistan along with the other factors I have explored provide reasons behind anti-American suicide terrorist attacks taking place today. Due to this we must consider new approaches to combating the threat of terrorism in order to ensure national security and the safety of troops abroad. Pape concludes that withdrawal and a strategy of offshore balancing are necessary in order to prevent increased anti-American sentiment and the breeding of suicide terrorists. There are many who disagree with Pape and present other alternatives. Schake claims offshore balancing would give the enemy what they want, disengagement, and the key is to keep troops on the ground to improve the capacity of partner forces. Audrey Cronin, a professor at Oxford and a terrorism expert, suggests that terrorists should be restricted to their local grievances, because if such groups and campaigns against the U.S. prove successful then they have the ability to gain legitimacy and move from an insurgency to a governing status within their society. I believe the most important factor in decreasing anti-American sentiment abroad is something that Cronin also advocates, which is the severing of connections between Islam and local support for political violence in order to increase U.S. ability to work with local groups and populations. I believe that withdrawal may stop the suicide attacks from occurring in the short run, but will negatively affect the long-term goal of ending anti-American terrorist groups and campaigns. Although it is possible that terrorism, like war, may never die.

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Sneaking out the Backdoor: U.S. Evacuation of Afghanistan

The U.S. led invasion into Afghanistan to combat terrorism has led to some issues causing a lack of trust from the Afghan people. Now, the Obama administration faces critical decisions about an exit strategy.

In my first post I discussed the possibility of the United States intervening in Somalia, a failed state, in order to protect against terrorism and increase the security of the international system. Operation Enduring Freedom is an example of a military operation that was launched in response to the threat of terrorism by intervening in a nation being used as a base for the terrorist operations of al-Qaeda. Unfortunately, the imminent threat posed by al-Qaeda was not realized until after the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001. In response, U.S.-led coalition forces invaded Afghanistan in search of Osama bin Laden and other al-Qaeda leaders as well as to remove the Taliban regime from power after their support of al-Qaeda. Despite initial success, a renewed Taliban insurgency led the United States into a lengthy war that is currently being fought and has lasted nine years to this date.

Failure to eradicate the Taliban from Afghanistan is a prime example of a counterpoint to intervention that I mentioned in my last post, that of being responsible for a broken state through long-term policing and the responsibility of nation building. In addition to being responsible for the broken state, many other issues can occur that damage perception of the interventionist state, such as civilian casualties, human rights violations, and war crimes, which in the case of Afghanistan, have occurred. I believe that in removing troops from Afghanistan efforts must be taken to leave the country with the ability to provide for the protection of its civilians. Unfortunately this might include a power sharing agreement with the Taliban insurgency or Hezbi Islami, another Islamic party with a strong presence in the country. Withdrawal from Afghanistan will undoubtably leave the nation in a security crisis but at this point withdrawal is necessary and the Afghan people must pick up the pieces left by the international forces withdrawing and rebuild, hopefully creating a stable society possessing a credible government that can ensure security for its citizens. P1-AR064_AFGHAN_G_20090809185847.jpgTaking an interest in the nature of the United State’s involvement in the Global War on Terror has led the entry this week to be an address to a relevant post on the war in Afghanistan by Jonathan Horowitz as a contribution to the reputable Huffington Post. Horowitz is a human rights specialist who has spent much of the past year working in Afghanistan for the human rights association, Open Society Foundation. Recently, Horowitz published a report on his findings in Afghanistan, which examine the deterioration of Afghan confidence in the international community due to a number of reasons. Mr. Horowitz’s post brings up the many issues that have been brought to light due to his research. My response to Mr. Horowitz’s post can be seen on his contribution to the Huffington Post, and is also re-posted below for convenience.

“Reality Check: Afghans Blame Us, Not Insurgents”
My Comment

Mr. Horowitz,

As someone who is interested in international security and the implications of U.S. foreign policy, I found your post to be very intriguing. International perception of the U.S. is constantly being shaped and in some cases mistakes that are made can have a resounding negative impact. Unfortunately, the Bush administration let the mistakes you mention such as civilian casualties, wrongful and abusive detention operations, deteriorating security, and a lack of accountability undermine the appropriate goal of combating the threat of terrorism. It is easy to see how Afghans can have such a perspective of the United States and the international forces present, which is disappointing. Not to make excuses but in your opinion, what are some of the circumstances that contributed to such a shortcoming by international forces in the invasion of Afghanistan? Perhaps some factors could have been the lack of experience dealing with an asymmetric threat or the neo-Realist mindset of the Bush administration?

Improvement in the general conduct of the occupying forces in Afghanistan is mentioned in your post, which is a positive point. Also, the introduction of a civilian surge by the Obama administration seems to present a new penetration point into the Afghan society. Ultimately, I do not believe the United States can leave the region completely whether the domestic voters want to or the Afghan people want us to. Vital economic and political interests are present in U.S. relations with the Middle East and unfortunately this conflicts with the ultimate goal of Al-Qaeda. With re-election fast approaching for President Obama do you foresee the Obama Administration simply taking short cuts in power sharing in order to guarantee the removal of troops prior to the 2012 election? I know it is an extremely difficult situation but I was wondering if you had any suggestions as to the manner of how forces should be removed from Afghanistan? In addition to the bad news for the international community as you phrase it in your post, the situation is bad news for the Afghan people in that after the international forces evacuate they must simply pick up the pieces. Overall, it is an interesting circumstance and I appreciate your investigation into the perception of U.S. policy in Afghanistan.

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Overcoming a Failed State: Intervention in Somalia

In this post I explore the changes that civil conflicts have encountered in the post-Cold War era and in examining the Somali civil war, I argue that the benefits of intervention outweigh the potential drawbacks.

The civil conflicts that exist throughout our world today are a transformed entity from those that occurred during the Cold War era. As John Mueller contests in his book, The Remnants of War, “a large number of wars emerged out of, or were notably compelled by, [the United States and Soviet Union’s] Cold War contest.” Contrasting ideological factions in Vietnam, the Middle East, and Latin America used these conflicts as a viable means for inciting change in domestic governments. But currently the majority of civil conflicts that exist in the post-Cold War world have developed from criminal factions in weak or failed states. These factions seize power in society through military means or by using the guise of national and ethnic division, making the conflict seem inevitable. As a great power within the international system, the United States is often faced with the issue of intervention when civil conflict arises. Such intervention beings along proponents and opponents, both of which present formidable arguments for and against U.S. involvement. The current crisis in Somalia as depicted by the map below, provides an example of a failed state in which the intra-clan fighting led by warlords presents an opportunity for the United States to intervene if deemed necessary. Although the United States might not be in a prime position to aid currently, some form of assistance is necessary to restore order in the region.

Intervention is an issue that raises both costs and benefits. As an anti-interventionalist, Mueller introduces two important reasons as to why great powers are ineffective in controlling conflicts and mediating peacekeeping in weak or failed societies thus making a compelling argument against intervention in foreign conflict.

somaliamap.jpgOne reason given is the “extremely low tolerance for casualties in military missions that are essentially humanitarian.” This is understandable as the military capacity and technological capabilities that the United States possesses has drastically decreased the amount of casualties in the 21st century, thus shortening the leash for the number of fatalities that the public or media will see as acceptable. Another point is the “tendency of most publics… to focus principally on domestic matters.” When nations get involved in foreign operations the public often fails to see the effect that the issue has on their lives but rather focuses on the emphasis put on settling problems abroad rather than resolving domestic issues. In the case of the Obama administration, senior officials in the White House are showing a hesitancy to get involved in Somalia in an effort to create distance from the public’s perception of the Bush administration. Another reason to forego intervention is long-term policing, an idea that the intervening nation must settle the conflict then engage in nation building in order to successfully prevent criminal factions from rising again, a prospect that has been a failure for the U.S. recently. Lastly, war and aggression is unpopular within the international community and the promotion of democratic solutions to conflict is increasing. It would be in the best interest of the United States to avoid collateral damage and actions that could lead the international community to view it as a nation with imperialist tendencies.

Intervention can also produce benefits to a weak state, a region, and the international community as a whole. One benefit to the state is the creation of a means for humanitarian aid to infiltrate society, as the population is often neglected by the controlling criminal factions. Recently Al-Shabaab, an Islamic insurgency controlling southern Somalia, has denied humanitarian aid to Somalis due to the religious or political nature of aid groups. Additionally, the weak state will benefit from intervention because it will allow political developments in a country where governments have become overrun by warlords and criminals. Military intervention in Somalia is desperately needed in order to defeat the warlord clans that maintain a strong hold on power within the country. A commanding officer in the Transitional Federal Government army admits that their forces are being increasingly weakened creating dependence on the recruitment of teenage soldiers, as seen in the image below, in order to fight the terrorist insurgency within the country.

Somalia-child-soldier.jpgA CNN report asserts that assistance is necessary if the weak attempt at a transitional government has any hope of being successful. The region will also benefit from intervention, as failed states often become safe havens for terrorists. Al-Shabaab has taken hold of much of the southern territory of Somalia and serves as a safe haven for terrorism. Lord Jopling, a senior NATO advisor on piracy, asserts that Al-Qaeda possibly receives funding from piracy off the coast of Somalia. J. Peter Pham from World Defense Review observes that Somali’s piracy is responsible for destabilizing the region’s seas, leading to increased risk on international waters worldwide. A strong foreign intervention will serve to rid the failed state of criminals because as David Keen argues in Greed and Grievance, criminal factions in failed states seek to avoid battles, pick on unarmed civilians, and make money from the anarchic environment that exists. Strengthening a failed state through intervention will ultimately increase the security in the state, region and international system.

There are many different strategies available for intervening in Somalia, some of which have been tried before and failed. Supplying humanitarian aid is one of most commmon strategies of intervention in a civil conflict, although aid is desperately needed, it alone will not resolve the crisis. In 1992, much of the humanitarian aid sent to Somalia was intercepted by armed criminals and sold back to the refugees by those in power. Another strategy is the use of force, which was employed to an extent by the United States in 1993 when military forces were sent to protect humanitarian aid shipments. Domestic desire for American presence in the region declined significantly when American troops began to face casualties leading to withdrawal of troops and causing Somalia to descend into chaos again. In order to avoid the same result experienced by the Clinton administration, an intervention by the international community must seek several objectives. First, the lack of will to act in the international community must be overcome. The importance of stabilizing Somalia, the region, and the international system must be stressed and could gain ground as senior officials in the Obama administration examine the potential threat that Somali terrorists pose to the international community. Additionally, the Somalia issue requires two components, the first being political in nature and the second being militarized. The political component must include local actors, such as Ethiopia and the African Union, which already has an operation based in Somalia, as well as international actors such as the UN and the United States. These actors should mediate a peace in the form of a ceasefire between the Somali factions and the Islamist insurgency in order for both sides to begin building a stabilized government. National sovereignty can be used as an incentive by the international community to spur political development and ensure that both sides adhere to fundamental international laws such as respect for the sovereignty of neighboring states, the guarantee of human rights standards, and denouncement of terrorist operations within Somali borders. The military component should exist in the form of a peacekeeping mission led by the UN or EU with help from Ethiopia, the African Union and others capable of supplying monitoring forces. Additionally, if a stabilized government is created, the United States could supply aid in the form of weapons to build the military capacity of the Somali government, much like the proposal for the case in Yemen. As the Obama administration tries to find a balance between military aid, development assistance, and pure military airstrikes, it is certain that the United States and the international community must be involved to some extent in Somalia in order to ensure the continued security of the international system.

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Global Insecurity: Exploring International Conflict

In order to create awareness for conflicts that have occurred or are actively occurring in our world, I have compiled a list of excellent resources in the form of websites and blogs that will educate myself and others on global conflicts that I will be examining in depth in my later blog entries.

Many international conflicts exist in our world yet awareness outside of a given conflict’s danger zone is often lacking. In order to effectively examine current global conflicts and assist readers to further their understanding, I have compiled a comprehensive list of fifteen exemplary websites and blogs pertaining to global war and conflict. The list of sites and blogs pertaining to global conflict in the field of international relations has been added to the “Recommended Sites” sidebar. While navigating the Internet for dependable resources to enhance understanding of global conflicts occurring in our world today, I used guidance from two sources. I applied the 21st Century Information Fluency criteria to blogs in order to guarantee the authority of bloggers within the field of global conflict studies, distinct points of view particular bloggers may possess, as well as the substantiality and timing of posts. As for websites, I applied the Webby Awards criteria to ensure the functionality, content and authority of the website resources discovered. I found that the use of blog engines such as Google Blog Search, Best of the Web Blog Directory, and BlogCatalog were very useful in locating resources. In addition, Google Directory and the Google search engine were useful in finding additional sites pertaining to war and global conflict.

In order to understand the history and nature of global conflicts that have recently occurred or are presently occurring I have found that Conflict Map, as seen in the image to the right,

website.jpgInsight on Conflict, Global Security, and History Guy are all excellent website resources. Additionally, Global Issues provides a great source for information limited to conflicts occurring in Africa alone. The Institute for War and Peace Reporting is a website that identifies issues and reports news from conflict areas. For information about attempts to quell conflict and efforts to manage conflicts, the International Crisis Group is a great resource. News about security developments and military capabilities in conflict areas, Jane’s Security News provides valuable news stories. Security Watch is an excellent source for current affairs news on global conflicts and political developments. Watching America is a wonderful source that I will be checking daily in order to discover news stories on conflict from non-American publications in order to gain an alternative point of view. In order to understand the impact global conflicts are having upon the native people, the Human Security Report Project provides many reports that contain studies and information. The human rights section of Change provides a perspective on the actions being taken by the American government in regards to the mistreatment of civilians in conflict regions. The Science Daily takes a more scientific approach to conflict by examining behavioral and nutritional issues linked to conflict. A couple blogs provide insight into conflicts that are occurring including Mike Hitchen Online, a blog dedicated to exploring reasoning behind conflicts and offering international political advice. Also, the New York Times At War Blog provides incite on wars in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq and other areas of conflict in the post-9/11 era. Lastly, the War Victims Monitor is a blog the examines civilian casualties in conflict areas around the world.

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