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May 31, 2009

"The Terrorist Next Door"

All too frequently in the years since September 11th the statement has been made "the United States has been infiltrated by terrorists." Perhaps, rather, it was that there were already "sleeper cells" in our midst. Could it be that they've been here all along, and we just didn't notice them? Or is it possible that through other indoctrinations, that they have morphed from being the "boy next door" to the "terrorist next door?"

The recent culmination of the yearlong sting operation in which four men were snagged just before they could stage a car bombing attack at the Jewish Center and synagogue in Riverdale NY was another reminder. Then, even more audaciously, use what they thought were Stinger missiles to down American airplanes flying over New York City, the sobering thought is that men (and probably women) who live and work nearby have adopted the cause of jihad. Our government took them down and prevented any real mayhem by using a confidential informant. One report has at least one of the would be terrorists claiming entrapment.

In the summer of 2005 as the second London terror incident was unfolding, there were some people who bemoaned the fact that the terrorist attacks had been perpetrated by "regular looking people" and basically asked the question, "what are we to do?" For years a "terror bomber" in Israel has walked into a bus or restaurant and blown himself/herself up, and in the process, killed numerous other innocents in the name of jihad. One of the clear lessons from the London bombings is the in this world, there are "terrorists among us." We all live (mostly) in a blended society. In our open society, it is difficult to ensure that terrorism will not strike from the indigenous population.

A year and a half ago, it was "strange" to read the headline of the article written by James Gordon Meek in the NY daily News, " Experts see rise in Western-looking recruits training in terrorist camps". It was "strange," not just because it was unexpected, but also because it came as a surprise to some people.

Before September 11th we already had our share of domesticated terrorists. In the U.S., we have been, and continue to be, a "melting pot" of peoples from around the world...all colors, all races, all creeds. Neither imported nor homegrown terrorism is new in the U.S. There has been a succession of domestic terror incidents. What makes Americans turn against other Americans is beyond my understanding. Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols in Oklahoma City, Eric Rudolph who bombed women's' health care clinics and was responsible for the bombing at the Centennial Olympic Park in the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, the madman acts of Theodore Kaczynski and even the bio-terror, salmonella attacks by the Rajneeshis in Oregon are all previous examples. This was actually reviewed last May in Terrorism - Domestically Speaking

In that particular incident, the arrest of Jeffrey Don Detrixhe was discussed how he planned to mix cyanide with acid to release a poisonous gas cloud. Not so reassuringly, there were some reports that despite telling the informant that he had a 25 gallon drum of cyanide pellets, that he didn't have any real intention to carry out an attack.

Of course previously, there was also the JFK Terrorist plot involving three men from Guyana and one from Trinidad in June 2007 and the case of the Lackawana (Buffalo) Six, Yemeni-Americans (by birth) who were convicted of providing support to al Qaeda. Additionally, we've had the Detroit Sleeper Cell and the planned attack on Ft. Dix, NJ.

Are there more "sleeper cells" lying in the bushes waiting for a signal to launch an attack against our citizens? By "regular looking guys?" The question remains, how do we determine who is a terrorist, and who is a "regular guy?"

We are now confronted with the altered state of perception of the war that followed the terrorist attacks of September 11th in which nearly 3000 innocent Americans brutally died in horrific circumstances, some burned to death, others pulverized by collapsing tons of building materials and glass. Apparently, it is now acceptable to minimize the importance of those attacks, and to allude to the fact that the concerns over a repeat attack are or were overdone.

A recent study funded by the Department of Homeland Security and conducted from open source information by the National Consortium of the Study of Terrorist and Responses to Terrorism (START) at the University of Maryland claims that "The events of 9-11 are the quintessential example of the high-cost, low probability event." Most accounts indicate that the attacks of September 11th cost less than $1 million.

START, based at the University of Maryland and primarily funded by DHS, analyzed more than 80,000 attacks from 1970 to 2007. Of those attacks, only 1,350 attacks, or 1.6 percent, hit American targets -- mostly overseas. This small percentage plummets to 0.08 percent when attacks on domestic targets are calculated.

As for the "probability" of the event, at least according to the series of reports of the U.S. Commission on National Security/21st Century by Gary Hart, Warren Rudman and Stephen Flynn, the was an inevitability of home soil attacks, with little uncertainty.

One of this Commission's most important conclusions in its Phase I report was that attacks against American citizens on American soil, possibly causing heavy casualties, are likely over the next quarter century. This is because both the technical means for such attacks, and the array of actors who might use such means, are proliferating despite the best efforts of American diplomacy.

Aside from the stated belief that, the attacks of September 11th cloud Americans' view of terrorism, maybe the most distressing statement is from Gary LaFree, director of START:

Because 9/11 has become the very symbol for terrorism, we tend to think of all terrorist attacks as being similar, 9/11 poses a policy dilemma. On the one hand, there is no denying its impact. On the other hand, if we consider it to be typical of terrorist attacks, we will have a very misleading view of terrorism."

Misleading view of terrorism? Is this revisionist history is now being promoted that minimizes the threat posed by terrorism intended to cleanse history of the reality of what happened on September 11th? The very fact that we weren't listening before September 11th contributed to our vulnerability that day. We need to be on guard and aware all of the time.

May 15, 2009

Words Are Just Letters Strung Together

In virtual flashes of time, the mixed messages, accusations, contradictions and changes of position are flying in Washington DC, but are visible for the whole World to see.

Congresswoman Pelosi (Speaker of the House) - "At every step of the way, the administration was misleading the Congress, and that is the issue."

Rep. Steny Hoyer, the House majority leader - "I have no idea of that. I don't have a belief of that nature because I have no basis on which to base such a belief," Hoyer said. "And I certainly hope that's not the case. And I don't draw that conclusion."

Hoyer's office later forwarded a statement to FOX News clarifying his position. "I believe the speaker's assertions when she says them," he said told MSNBC Thursday. "But again, whether I believe them, you believe them, or what she asserts as to what she knew or when she knew it, that's a stalking horse. That's a distraction."

CIA Director Leon Panetta - "It is not our policy or practice to mislead Congress," and "Our contemporaneous records from September 2002 indicate that CIA officers briefed truthfully on the interrogation of [suspected terrorist] Abu Zubaida, describing the 'enhanced techniques that had been employed." [Panetta's full statement]

"Ignore the noise and stay focused on your mission," he said. "There is a long tradition in Washington of making political hay out of our business. It predates my service with this great institution, and it will be around long after I'm gone," he said.

Words are letters strung together. Troubling, however, is that they are being played out in public. Ask the question, How Does Closing GITMO Make Us Safer? Words? Even those ill-conceived or misunderstood have impact. That impact will be determined in the days ahead.

May 11, 2009

When You Sleep With...

Against the backdrop of the replacement of top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Gen. David McKiernan with Lt. Gen. Stanley McChrystal by Defense Secretary Gates, as well as the recognition that Pakistan teeters, there is the stark pronouncement by Afghan President Hamid Karzai that he plans to power share with Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a warlord who is on the U.S. "most wanted terrorist" list.

This really should not be surprising. Almost from the moment when NATO assumed the lead in Afghanistan, the concern has been whether Karzai lived or died at the "pleasure" of the warlords. Travel back in time, and a reasoned position would have been that:

1) The Taliban had not been defeated and therefore weren't gone from Afghanistan;
2) The Warlords hadn't been neutralized;
3) The tribes, especially in the mountainous region were a dangerous and unstabilizing element in Afghanistan;
4) The future of Afghanistan was still unfolding

This power sharing deal follows the announcement that Mohammed Qasim Fahim, another warlord, was to be Karzai's running mate in the upcoming elections in August 2009. Fahim has been cited numerous times for human rights violations and for his involvement in massacres and other criminal activities.

"All the people most responsible for getting Afghanistan into the mess it's in are coming back," said a western diplomat.

None of this should be news since reports from 2003 from the Council on Foreign Relations and 2005 from the Government Accountability Office both raised questions of the stability of the Karzai government outside of the capital of Kabul. From the CFR report:

Although Karzai is trying to assert his authority outside Kabul, he lacks the means to compel compliance by recalcitrant warlords and regional leaders who control most of the countryside. Current policy for the 9,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan rules out support for Karzai against the regional warlords and also active participation in the planned effort to demobilize the 100,000-strong militias. In the Afghan setting, where the United States has the primary military power, this approach is mistaken and leaves a dangerous security void outside Kabul

The resurgence of the Taliban was among the themes of the Afghanistan Study Group's Report in January 2008.

The most immediate threat to Afghanistan comes from an anti-government insurgency that has grown considerably over the past two years....the Taliban rely on terrorism and ambushes, launching over 140 suicide bombings in 2007, with numerous attacks in the heart of the capital, Kabul....As a result, the prospect of again losing significant parts of Afghanistan to the forces of Islamic extremists has moved from the improbable to the possible.

As the next months unfold and the August election approaches it will be interesting to see how this power sharing arrangement will work out. The fragility of the Afghan government is apparent, although the implications may be less severe than the possibilities of Pakistan failing. But it needs to be recognized that tribalism, and not democracy or federalism, rule in a country like Afghanistan.

One thing however seems certain, "when you sleep with dogs, you could get fleas." Then again, maybe its sort of a "life insurance policy."

May 8, 2009

Panama Breaks Trend: Rejects Leftist In Election

Lately, the news out of Latin America has not been overly encouraging. In addition to the regional adventurism and rhetorical antagonisms of the Hugo Chavez regime in Caracas, former Sandinista strongman Daniel Ortega returned to power in Nicaragua (via the ballot box, no less) and proceeded to harangue the United States at a recent international summit. Meanwhile, off the coast of Florida, the longevity of the Castro brothers is matched only by their enduring recalcitrance.

Earlier in the week, however, American interests in the region received a slight boost when Panama's election tribunal pronounced center-right and purportedly "pro-American" candidate Ricardo Martinelli the victor in Sunday's presidential election.

A 57 year-old, U.S. educated supermarket mogul and the "founder" of the center-right Democratic Change party, Martinelli emerged victorious over Balbina Herrera of the center-left Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD). Herrera was reportedly close to former Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega and had been a member of his less than savory "Dignity Battalions" paramilitary outfit. The onetime housing minister had also been accused of supporting Hugo Chavez by Juan Carlos Navarro, the mayor of Panama City. Herrera defeated Navarro in spirited nominating contest.

Prior to his stunning electoral victory, Martinelli assured a writer from the Miami Herald that his would be a "much more pro-American government" than that of his campaign rival. If Martinelli governs accordingly, the United States will have another potential ally and bulwark against the Castro-Chavez axis in Latin America.

May 7, 2009

How Does Closing GITMO Make Us Safer?

The question is fundamentally basic.

The contrarian answers are full of nuance and little sense.

While ThreatsWatch and the Center for Threat Awareness do not endorse the GOP (which produced this video) nor any other political party or candidate, we do acknowledge the soundness of the question being asked. The decision to close the Guantanamo Bay detention facilities is an extremely dangerous policy choice, and the prospects of releasing any of the jihadi detainees into our civilian population or domestic prisons remain irresponsible considerations.

May 6, 2009

Drug Tunnels - A Threat to Security

The similarities are actually pretty striking. Both in Mexico and in Israel, underground tunnels present a significant challenge to law enforcement officials and security forces. What is actually most striking is the sudden attention being paid to the tunnels under the U.S.-Mexican border when their existence has been known since the 1990's (or before) and their sophistication has continued to evolve. The current issue of Time Magazine describes this growing threat.

As above ground border defenses and patrols get tougher, that subterranean vulnerability is becoming a growing problem. Since 2001, more than 100 tunnels have been discovered by U.S. law enforcement, compared with just 15 in the 1990s, and the pace is accelerating. Most of those have been uncovered through human intelligence, since there are no currently available technical means to reliably detect tunnels.

As in many cases, not only is it difficult for the U.S. authorities to identify the tunnels, but given the ease and relative cost of building them, the drug cartels with profits in the billions of dollars can afford to have only one of every 10 survive. Considering that nearly 90% of the cocaine entering the U.S. comes through Mexico and that it was reported weeks ago that Hezbollah was using the drug routes used by the Mexican drug cartels for access to the country, then the problem of drug tunnels becomes more pressing. The parallels being drawn now between the Middle Eastern terrorist groups and the Mexican Drug Cartels leads to looking at the ways in which Israel is trying to deal with the terrorist tunnels in Gaza. The Time Magazine article indicates that there were an estimate 800 tunnels running from Gaza to Egypt and that even when discovered, they were quickly reopened and returned to use. "By the end of March some 70 tons of weapons was smuggled in to replenish Hamas stocks, according to Israel's security chief, Yuval Diskin."

Most surprising is the observation that there really isn't technology available to reliably detect the tunnels.

May 5, 2009

A Comment On Complacency

Let this be a reminder that the memories of September 11, 2001 have not faded, at least not in the minds of many residents of New York City. Until I realized this evening that the results of the $300,000+ flyover photo-op were going to be suppressed for some reason, I was going to allow the passage of time to let the incident fade.

By now, others have commented on this incident. It was a promotional flight over lower Manhattan on April 27th by the back-up 747 known as Air Force One accompanied by F-16 fighters. Leaving politics on the table, examine the way in which NY'ers responded to the fly-over. There was true fear and panic.

In an instant, New Yorkers, whose memories are indelibly etched with the visions of the two jet planes that became missiles crumbling the World Trade Center to the ground were revived and shaken. Yet, it appears that many others have grown to forget in the complacency of no attacks since September 11th. Not unlike the explosion of the steam pipe in midtown Manhattan a few years ago, the response and reaction of New Yorkers to the site of a plane flying low over the skyline reinforces the belief that many have not forgotten. I spoke with close friends and relatives that evening and know that their fear over what was the unknown a few minutes after the 1924 steam pipe exploded was real. Time has passed and with the "uneventful passage" of that time, the question of whether complacency has once again taken over must be asked.

The global conflict against al Qaeda, its clones and spin-offs, along with other extremist terrorist organizations around the globe has been redefined. So instead of the "War on Terrorism" we have the "overseas contingency operation." Have we forgotten?

In an October 22, 2002 editorial at the time of the Beltway Sniper incident, Frank Rich wrote an editorial, What Al Qaeda Learned in D.C., and then realize that to many people may have fallen into what Gary Hart, one of the authors of the Hart-Rudman reports referred to the "it won't happen here" syndrome.

"The attitude is that it's not going to happen here." I had asked him if he agreed with my perception that terrorism seems a much less pressing threat when you talk to Americans outside the D.C.-N.Y. axis. "It's an East Coast problem, maybe a West Coast problem," he said, giving his take on the local mood. "And that's tragically mistaken. The next targets could be Denver, Cleveland, Dallas. The way you demonstrate a country's vulnerability is to attack it everywhere."

Along with the change in Administrations has complacency about September 11th set in? This is not a statement of Republican versus Democrat or liberal versus conservative, but a generalized observation. While that alone does not bode well for this country, or for the World, the fact that most people do not feel threatened is a concern. Calling "terrorism" by another name does not change the fact that it exists.

We Cannot Save Pakistan

When neither a society nor its military can muster the will to identify and fight, as a nation, a lethal enemy among them, it's over. Such is the condition in Pakistan. Pakistan, as a nation-state, is on a rapid path to implosion, disintegration and then explosion.

In short, it matters little what we do with them, what we do for them, what we give them, or what kinds of support we lend Islamabad. Unless and until the fragmented Pakistani society can uniformly identify the Taliban and al-Qaeda terrorists, no matter their heritage, as mortal enemies; and unless and until the Pakistani military can acknowledge this and muster the will to fight them and fight for the diverse society as a Pakistani nation, neither will survive.

And the above conditions seem not in the cards. And anointing Nawaz Sharif (ahem) Prime Minister once again may forestall or delay the al-Qaeda-induced and self-enabled fall of Pakistan, but it most certainly will not prevent it.

I could write a lengthy and heady analysis of the myriad conditions and complexities defining the dismal state of affairs and bleak outlook. But there you have it in a nutshell. For another succinct nutshell with the same conclusions, see John Robb.

A nation that will not save itself cannot be saved. We will simply have to adjust. And with much alacrity and urgency.

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