My piece yesterday, Obama and the Global War on Whatever, caused discussion and touched a nerve inside the Beltway for its forthright critique of this White House for its lack of seriousness in discussing our Salafi jihadist enemy. Tongues have been wagging and I’ve gotten quite a bit of feedback, some quite detailed.
Among the responses was an extended comment from an old friend who’s retired from military intelligence after a distinguished career, someone who’s “been there, done that” with me, spookily, in several countries. We don’t always agree but we always learn from each other.
He is a “name” on Planet Counterterrorism, and he works for the Pentagon now at the policy level, so writing on the record would be not, ahem, career enhancing, particularly in this most thin-skinned and vindictive of administrations. Therefore I’m letting him go to e-press anonymously, since I think this critique merits discussion. I vouch for his credentials and that he has the relevant DoD, IC and CT mugs and t-shirts. Enjoy.
Anonymous on Obama’s Global War on Whatever
As usual, John has hit upon the crux of the problem and exposed some uncomfortable truths about the conduct of the counterterrorism fight against al-Qaeda and its offspring. A salient point in a recent post should be even further sharpened because of its central importance to the discussion. Specifically, it is the continued confusion over what to call this resurgent threat and the decision that some terms, such as “radical Islam,” are off-limits. As John argues, and I agree, if the term “Salafi jihadist” fits, we should use it. In an ironic case of violent agreement, it’s because its use acknowledges the reality of what they are and all that they claim to be. It is fact, not opinion or approval.
None of this debate is new and has its roots in the Bush administration’s grappling with terminology. Back then, it was believed that the use of “mujahideen” and “jihad” conferred a mantle of legitimacy and religious justification upon the actions of Osama bin Laden and his followers. Yet, when used in context, such as trying to adopt the enemy’s perspective and understand his thinking, these terms proved extremely useful and avoided ambiguities. For example, al-Qaeda has always considered itself a global, multi-generational “movement” more than merely a “terrorist group” or “network” – a vital distinction that makes a difference.
The waters are again muddied in the “what’s in a name?” game, and the more generic “violent extremism” is preferred. The White House just announced a summit next month – delayed from last October – on countering violent extremism. This announcement was timed to show solidarity with the historic events in France. They march, we hold panel discussions – it’s the Beltway way. The summit will focus on accurately labelled threats from “terrorists” and “foreign fighters,” although it’s unclear how “radicalization” per se is a danger or even a topic of discussion if no reference to “radical Islam” is allowed. A radical departure indeed.
Also, the issue of naming (and shaming) arose over what to call the Islamic State/ISIS/ISIL and whether the term “Daesh” should be uttered at the highest levels. Taking the lead from France, John Kerry has begun to use the term, which is itself notable because the State Department is the only arm of the U.S. government that still attempts what used to be called “strategic communication” – another term consigned to the GWOT dustbin. So, in this case, it is less helpful to use a group’s preferred name due to its implied aspirations to an Islamic state and even a caliphate and more appealing to use one that they consider derogatory. To be sure, “Daesh” is a powerful tool of satire in the right hands. However, mockery is a fine policy line to walk, which President Obama discovered with his “JV” comment, and is best left to the professionals like sketch comedy performers on Middle Eastern TV. It is not apparent that policy-makers even know how to employ this rhetorical weapon to its fullest advantage. In this instance, Washington is the JV team.
As a result, we are left with more uncertainty in combating violent Salafi jihadism just as it is ascendant again. Once again, the lack of clarity is self-inflicted. The basic premise should be to deliberately choose those terms that both clarify the problem set for planners and decision-makers and create problems for the enemy by serving a larger strategic purpose. But we’ve already created a terrible dilemma by declaring the unattainable goal of the destruction of something (the Islamic State organization) that is essentially part of a much larger phenomenon, an “-ism” that threatens the Muslim world and beyond. As John already noted, we’ve over-complicated all of this while underappreciating what is at stake and inflating the wrong threats.
There are many folks, especially in the Pentagon, who are weary of this whole business and wish that the AQ-spawned thugs would just get off their national security lawn. But that’s not going to happen any time soon because al-Qaeda’s original dream of this struggle being one of the strong-stomached and zealous-minded versus the weak-willed and disinterested is still alive. Whatever else we call it, it’s a “wicked problem” that’s here to stay.
The non-appearance of President Barack Obama at last weekend’s Paris demo honoring the victims of the Charlie Hebdo assassination has been the subject of much piqued discussion, by no means exclusively on the Right. While I am always skeptical of marches-as-substitute-for-policy, image matters, especially when you’re the hegemon and the whole world is watching, and the no-show of any top-rank U.S. official in Paris or at the Washington, DC, demo either is puzzling, to say the least. I won’t even discuss that Attorney General Eric Holder was actually in Paris at the time yet somehow did not appear at the rally of world leaders.
As soon as it became obvious that this was a serious mistake, since one need not be a French official immersed with contempt for les Anglo-Saxons to find this a snub of a high order, the White House weirdly backtracked, but the damage was done. To be clear, the President is a very busy man and his no-show is understandable; that some other top official somehow could not be found to make the short jump to Paris is incomprehensible. Shows like this are what the Vice President is for, and I for one would have eagerly awaited what The Onion could have done with the Biden-in-Paris meme. And if Joe Biden wasn’t available, Bill Clinton always is, he lives for these kinds of photo ops, plus I’m sure Liz Warren’s exploratory committee would have been happy to foot the bill for Clinton Does Paris.
Instead: nobody. Why is a relevant question. The explanation widely proffered, that the White House “just goofed,” does not hold water, implying as it does that planning for the world’s biggest story last week was in the hands of a junior staffer, a twenty-three year-old without portfolio whose dad arranged a kick-ass potluck fundraiser in Ottumwa back in 2008. Not even this White House is that badly run. Besides, as this administration has been in place for six years, at this juncture it does not have “staff errors,” it has staffing errors.
There has been speculation that the Paris blow-off is of a piece with much of how Obama and his White House have approached the whole issue of terrorism. It’s no secret that Obama has long been impatient to move on from terrorism, especially Salafi jihadism, as a top national security problem. The killing of Osama bin Laden in mid-2011 was supposed to be the end of the war, per Obama’s wishes, but it has been nothing of the sort. Neither have ill-timed comments about the rising Islamic State being “the JV team” of Salafism exactly helped. As Byron York expressed it concisely:
So when the president chose not to attend the Paris march, nor to send the Vice President or Secretary of State, the problem wasn’t a tin-ear sense of public relations. It was Obama’s actual attitude toward the terror threat facing not only Europe but the United States. We’ve dealt with the big stuff, Obama has declared, now let’s move on.
It sounded good — until the bullets started flying.
Weird comments from the White House in recent days have only reinforced this narrative. Coordinating messages has been a particular challenge for this White House — again, six years in this is inexplicable — and at times Josh Earnest, the press secretary, seems to be working for a different administration. His comment this week that the term “radical Islam” is not used by this White House to describe Salafi jihadists has led to many questions, as it should.
To get my bias out there, I’ve been immersed with this issue since before 9/11. As someone who worked operational counterterrorism in the intelligence world, as well as later served as a consultant on the same to several agencies of the U.S. and Allied governments, I’ve been part of this debate virtually since its creation. The hours I have spent hashing out “strategic communication” strategies against Al-Qa’ida and its friends is nearly countless. My position is clear: Call terrorists what they call themselves. The U.S. Government has no reason to get involved in disputes about anybody’s religion — the very last thing we ever want to do is tell Muslims what their faith is or is not — but when bad guys say they’re Salafi jihadists, that means they probably are, and we must not be afraid to say so.
Lots of things motivate terrorists. Anarchists are motivated by anarchism, Irish nationalists are motivated by Irish nationalism, white supremacists are motivated by white supremacy, and Salafi jihadists are motivated by Salafi jihadism. This is only complicated if we choose to make it so. The loser-criminals who killed seventeen innocent people in Paris last weekend may be very bad Muslims, but they were Muslims all the same.
Moreover, the “they’re not really Muslims” dodge is not only dishonest, it’s an insult to the huge numbers of Muslim cops, soldiers, and spooks who have given their lives in the struggle against the Salafi jihad, many of whom made the ultimate sacrifice in U.S.-led campaigns all over the globe. The bottom line is the Islamic world is having a robust debate, sometimes settled with guns and bombs, about what it should be in the twenty-first century, and that’s a debate for Muslims — not us, we’re spectators — to have. We have plenty to do with tracking and hunting down terrorists, preferably before they kill.
I also staked out a hazardous position, years ago, by having a centrist take on political Islam: we need to talk about it, we will never understand the Salafi jihadist enemy if we don’t, but we must not obsess about it. A lot of our recent homegrown terrorists resemble spree killers who seek out Salafi jihadism — not the other way around — as an excuse to act out their sick violent fantasies. Understanding the nuances of Islamic theology is not what they are about.
That said, on the other side, we have those who seek to embroil the West in an endless war against Islam, not just radical Islam. Their worldview is nearly as absolutist as the Salafis’ and about as helpful. The motivations of such people are a mix of their own religious faith and bias, and their understanding of Islam is generally as shaky as that possessed by teenaged drug addicts seeking to redeem themselves in a martyrdom operation. When this dangerous nonsense creeps into U.S. Government anything, I have protested, sometimes publicly. Fortunately these types are usually stopped in their tracks with one simple question: “If Islam is the problem — What’s the solution?”
Yet Islamism, as distinct from Islam, is a genuine problem in many places. The terrorist element is the obvious challenge, but there’s also the problem of subversion, to bring back a Cold War term that needs rebirth, and anybody who’s looked at this issue honestly knows that Islamism pushes a worldview that is deeply incompatible with Western democracy, much less post-modern ideas on faith, society, gender, and sexuality. It’s clear now that most Egyptians don’t want to live under the Muslim Brotherhood, even though it was born there, so I can’t imagine many Westerners are eager to either.
The touchy issue of subversion must be handled discreetly by governments, but counterterrorism is a much more public matter. Here the Obama administration’s inability to call the enemy what it is has been troubling for years. I have no problem with ditching the Bush-era rhetoric of the “Global War on Terrorism” but denying that we are embroiled in a long-term campaign against Salafi jihadism that looks a lot like a war of sorts, cannot be done without dishonesty.
That Obama has been perfectly willing to employ assassination, usually with drones, against terrorists, accepting the deaths of many civilians along the way, while not being able to admit that the enemy is what he says he is, will no doubt puzzle future historians. I can attest that the White House’s ardent desire to not call Islamism Islamism has infected the whole U.S. Government from practically the first day of this administration.
The Bush administration did its own awkward dance with Salafi jihadism, making clear that the United States was in no way at war with Islam after 9/11, then going ahead and engaging in something that looked a lot like war against Islam by invading and occupying big Muslim countries halfway around the world. However, internally, Bush and his misguided officials allowed considerable debate about how to think about the Salafi jihadist enemy. I ultimately found them unduly cautious about certain aspects of the secret war against Al-Qa’ida and its friends — which I found deeply strange given the overt aggression of so many aspects of Bush-era security policies — but at least they allowed a debate to happen behind closed doors.
That debate ended abruptly in mid-January 2009. The Obama administration made clear “through channels” that terms like “Islamic” were not to be attached to terrorism, even in classified reports and in closed-door meetings. To say this had a chilling effect on a necessary discussion is an understatement, and I witnessed good programs and even successful careers in counterterrorism ended on grounds of what any fair-minded person would term political correctness. Strange comments from Josh Earnest are merely the small, public tip of a very big iceberg that has torn a deep hole under the waterline of American counterterrorism since early 2009.
Why the Obama administration is so eager to stifle any discussions, even internally, about political Islam and its connections to terrorism is something that will ultimately be left to historians. Seeking sooner explanations, some on the Right ardently believe it’s because Obama is “really” a Muslim or he’s “really” from Kenya, despite there being no more evidence for that than Obama is “really” Bigfoot.
I’m afraid the answer is nothing that interesting or mysterious. I have no direct insight into what the President’s “real” views are but Obama is the product of an elite liberal education — Punahou, Columbia, Harvard Law — and he possesses exactly the views one would expect to find in someone so educated. In case you haven’t been near an Ivy League campus in the last fifty or so years, their take on security matters, inasmuch as those get any attention, is one that tends to find blame in the West, America especially, while excusing away crimes and outrages by “the oppressed” as “really” the fault of colonialism, neo- or old school. I don’t think Obama or anybody in his National Security Council has an ounce of sympathy for Salafi jihadism; deep down, however, many of them will look for “root causes” for why terrorists are terrorists, rather than listening to what those terrorists say constantly is actually motivating them. You have to be highly educated to miss these kinds of basics.
Last weekend’s diplomatic debacle in Paris is causing even liberal stalwarts to ask, nervously, what the hell is going on at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Today, Leslie Gelb, who is nobody’s idea of a right-winger, called for Obama to fire his entire national security team and get serious, to avoid a genuinely catastrophic foreign policy mess in the next two years. I share Gelb’s frustration, and worries, and for more than a year he’s been the voice of sane liberal mavens who realize the damage Obama is doing to the West with his disastrous missteps in foreign policy, and are firing op-ed flares.
For naught, I fear. Don’t get me wrong: the day that Susan Rice, Ben Rhodes, and above all Valerie Jarrett are shown the door in the West Wing will be a great day for the Republic, but I suspect that will be two years and six days from now, and not before. Obama’s top staffing decisions on foreign and defense policy frequently have been awful, displaying little if any learning curve even after six years, and given Obama’s inability to fire anyone for anything, we’re probably stuck with the unskilled and sycophantic cadre that’s in the White House now.
This may end badly indeed. The chances of this White House escaping a major foreign policy crisis in its last two years are low, given that Putin’s assessment of Obama and his national security team makes mine look charitable. Whether or not Moscow doubles-down, as they well might, I can guarantee that Salafi jihadism isn’t going anywhere for decades, not years. This is a fight we will win, because the jihadists are enormously self-defeating at any strategic level, but how soon we triumph, and how many innocents die at the hands of terrorists, is something we can influence — and must. Avoiding institutionalized escapism by refusing to call the enemy what he calls himself is a necessary first step to victory.
As France begins to confront their crisis in the wake of the Paris terrorist attacks, not least the painful reality that there is no security or intelligence-based “fix” to what is in fact a huge political problem, the rest of Europe has been asking awkward questions about how big a problem they face too.
Germany is a major player here, with marches by the anti-Islamist activists of PEGIDA, intemperately denounced by Chancellor Angela Merkel despite their peaceful character, having seen their numbers rise after the Paris horror. I’ve previously written about how serious a problem with Islamist violence and extremism Germany confronts, and the gravity of the situation is now being realized by the public.
The extent of Germany’s challenge is made clear in a Top Secret report by the Federal Police (BKA)* whose details are revealed in a report in today’s BILD, the country’s top tabloid, which gives high priority to security issues. The leaked BKA assessment, which is based on the latest intelligence, concludes that a thousand Islamists in Germany are involved with terrorism, of whom 260 are assessed as a serious threat.
The numbers of Salafists have risen sharply in Germany in recent years, from 4,500 in 2012 to 7,000 today, of whom ten percent are assessed by the BKA as being capable of violence (i.e. jihadism). There are thirty Islamist groups active in Germany, and today they are found not just in big cities like Berlin, Düsseldorf or Frankfurt, but also in regional cities like Solingen, Aachen, Bonn, and Siegen in the western part of the country.
Islamic State violence in the Middle East is a major catalyst for the rising Salafi jihadist scene in Germany, with the BKA concluding that nearly 600 German nationals have gone to Syria or Iraq to wage jihad, among them sixty-five women, of whom about ten percent have been killed, including at least ten individuals dying in suicide bomb attacks.
More than a few of these jihadists are converts, as shown in the case of Nils B. (left), a twenty-four year-old from Dinslaken in North Rhine Westphalia, who was arrested by German police on terrorism charges just last weekend, having recently undergone training at a terrorist camp in Syria.
Berlin authorities believe that some 200 jihadists, like Nils B., have returned from Syria or Iraq already, and they represent a huge challenge for police and intelligence services. After the Paris attacks, the BKA has put in place special measures to prevent terrorism, but the numbers facing German cops and spooks are daunting. Maintaining 24/7 real-time surveillance on any target, with both HUMINT and SIGINT, requires two dozen watchers, and German authorities have nowhere near enough personnel to properly watch the hundreds of potential terrorists in the country who need watching.
The problem is not just about inadequate numbers, but deficient laws too. German officials complain that they lack the legal means to prevent terrorism. They regularly watch potential terrorists, for instance, get on trains carrying suspicious-looking backpacks, “but unless we’re absolutely sure he has a bomb in the bag,” there’s nothing to be done under the law, rued one security official.
Small wonder, then, that many German spooks and cops, including some friends of mine, privately think it’s only a matter of time before they, too, experience a Paris-like terrorist attack that will kill considerable numbers of innocents. They are not optimistic that tough talk and marches by worried politicians can change the daunting odds they face in preventing terrorism, particularly when laws work to help extremists more than the police.
*Bundeskriminalamt, which is equivalent in part to the American FBI, while the purely intelligence, versus law enforcement, part of that mission belongs to the BfV (Bundesamt für Verfassungsschutz); relations between BKA and BfV are not infrequently touchy, as I’ve previously detailed.
Now that Ed Snowden has been in Russia for more than eighteen months, having settled into a cosy domestic arrangement with his
stripper dancer girlfriend, his long-term presence in Putinistan has become a bit of an embarrassment to Ed’s admirers who possess any sense of honesty and/or decency. His sponsor and protector is a KGB thug who does smash-and-grabs against other countries, and for normals this is a tad incongruous with Snowden’s saintly status as a “human rights activist” without par.
However, rather than moderate their claims, the Snowden Operation has chosen to double-down. In a recent interview, the most famous of all NSA defectors stated, “They talk about Russia like it’s the worst place on earth. Russia’s great,” without clarifying who exactly “they” might be. Ed was at pains to make clear that he has not yet wound up the vodka-swilling basket-case that most Western defectors to Moscow become if they stay for very long.
Now we have one of the members of the Snowden Operation inner circle explaining that Russian intelligence did, in fact, attempt to recruit Ed to work for them, but he declined. According to Sarah Harrison, the pitch came in mid-2013 when Ed was stuck at Sheremetyevo airport for six weeks, but the defector “didn’t give anything to the Russians at all,” and the FSB never tried to recruit Ed again, giving him asylum without anything in return.
Sarah Harrison, of course, is the Wikileaks stalwart who was dispatched by Julian Assange, her collaborator/lover/whatever, to Hong Kong to escort Ed on his fateful trip to Moscow. I’ve pointed to Wikileaks, in particular its transparent ties to Russian intelligence, as a key aspect of the Snowden Operation, and now that Assange’s operation is parroting the latest Kremlin-approved USA-did-it disinformation about the recent Paris terrorist attacks (which today was repeated by none other than Sergey Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister), this issue needs to be explored more than ever — not to mention that it was Wikileaks that told Ed to go to Russia and stay there.
Moreover, the notion that Ed was not approached by Russian intelligence until he reached Moscow is transparently laughable to anybody even marginally acquainted with the real-world of espionage, as I explained many months ago. To repeat myself:
What can be dismissed out of hand is the notion that, while staying in Hong Kong a year ago, Ed met with Russian spies – sorry, “diplomats” – at their consulate there and, all of a sudden, decided to hop a flight to Moscow. Espionage simply does not work that way, folks. We can only guess at what was on Ed’s mind, but those who know the Russian “special services” understand that such a scenario is so implausible that it can be ruled out altogether. The Russian Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) simply does not allow American intelligence personnel they’ve just met to jump on a flight to Mother Russia. That never happens.
We also have the expert testimony, last May, of Oleg Kalugin, a retired KGB general, that “of course” Snowden is working for Russian intelligence. Kalugin “made his bones” heading Line KR, the legendary foreign counterintelligence arm of the KGB’s elite First Chief Directorate: in other words, his job was recruiting and running agents just like Ed Snowden. Unless you happen to know more about Line KR operations than MajGen Kalugin, I recommend you take his word on this one.
Sarah Harrison, after more than eighteen months of flat-out denials that Russian intelligence had anything to do with her client/buddy Ed, now concedes that the FSB did have a chat with the defector. However, she maintains:
1. Ed said no and gave the Russians nothing, ever.
2. The FSB never asked Ed again to cooperate.
3. The Kremlin was fine with this and allowed Ed to stay in Russia indefinitely despite his non-cooperation.
If you believe any of these assertions, much less all of them, please do not discuss important matters like intelligence when adults are present, since you appear a fool and Putin patsy.
As the wheels long ago came off the Snowden show as anything other than a Russian disinformation operation, Ed and his circle of helpers are now resorting to lies so laughable that you wonder how dumb they think the Western public actually is. To be fair to Putin, if Westerners can believe Ed Snowden is a “human rights hero,” despite mountains of contrary evidence, why wouldn’t they also believe that the Obama administration is “really” behind terrorism in France?
The smoke has barely cleared from the fifty-four hours of terror around Paris that captured the horrified attention of the world. The seventeen victims are journalists, police officers, average people shopping at a Jewish grocery. One terrorist remains at large at this hour, while three are dead, including the Kouachi brothers who were the centerpiece of this murderous mayhem.
That these self-styled mujahidin, native born French citizens all, went out in a blaze of glory was easily predictable — indeed I did predict it on the day this story broke, when I also pointed out that murdering “those who insult the Prophet” isn’t exactly news in Europe, while jihadists returning home from foreign wars to cause war in France in the name of Islam … well, that’s been going on for nearly twenty years, when the heavily armed Roubaix Gang went down shooting just as this new cadre of killers has just done.
That something like what has just happened was inevitable in France also did not require clairvoyance, and back in June, after Mehdi Nemmouche murdered three innocents in Brussels, I told you that more domestic terrorism was coming. Despite the fact that Nemmouche was a known radical who had spent over a year in Syria, waging jihad, and French intelligence had a thick file on him, Paris, which is simply overwhelmed by the number of potential terrorists now, lost track of the killer. As I stated a few months ago:
If French intelligence and police can lose track of a high-interest possible terrorist even when allies are helping, one has to wonder how much more terrorism is coming. It’s clear that Paris is simply overwhelmed by the sheer number of its citizens going to Syria and returning home even more radical. In response to the failure of France’s counterterrorism efforts yet again, emulating the Merah case, Bernard Squarcini, the former DCRI director, demanded “ambitious reforms” of the intelligence system to meet this rising threat, adding that “the umpteenth intelligence reform led by [Interior Minister] Manuel Valls has clearly changed nothing, since there are still some glaring shortcomings in the detection of jihadis.” There is not much time left to repair the system. Three dead in Brussels ought to be enough. If major changes are not implemented soon, more innocent people will die.
The above-mentioned Valls, now France’s prime minister, surveying the latest outburst of savagery in Paris, has told the public of “a clear failing” with “cracks” in the security apparatus. This, however, is one of those phrases tossed off by worried politicians seeking to shift blame, and is essentially meaningless.
Many are now asking how France, which is no slouch in the intelligence game, possessing competent security services and police, could have “missed” this monstrosity. The answer to that question will be unedifying to the public, which has been conditioned to expect magical performance from spies and cops, who are mere mortals overburdened by potential threats. What happened in the Nemmouche case should illustrate how imperfect French intelligence is on counterterrorism, despite its solid HUMINT, SIGINT, and collaboration with partners:
On his return, the DGSE [General Directorate of External Security, i.e. French foreign intelligence] which is supposed to track our French jihadis in Syria, apparently missed him. It was German customs that detected him in March 2013, intrigued by his meandering route home, via Malaysia, Bangkok, and Istanbul. Germany reported his crossing to Paris, and there, officially, the DCRI [Central Directorate of Domestic Intelligence, i.e. French domestic intelligence], listed him as someone that should be kept under surveillance. In other words a suspect recorded on a so-called “S” file. From March to May 30, the day of his chance arrest, so for over two months, Nemmouche completely disappeared off the radar. Meanwhile he is suspected of having perpetrated the shooting in Brussels on May 24.
The case of Mohammed Merah, the killer of seven innocents, four of them Jewish children, in the south of France in March 2012 — before he, too, went down amid shouts of jihad — provided an unheeded warning of sorts, since it turned out that French intelligence had been a good deal more informed about the twenty-three year-old jihadist than they let on at first. His travels to Afghanistan and Pakistan got Merah branded a “special target” by the secret services, but they lost track of him too.
By the fall of 2013, French intelligence was warning the public that the staggering and unprecedented numbers of French nationals traveling to Syria and Iraq to wage jihad, most of whom were likely to return home angrier and more lethal, represented a serious threat that the secret services were hard-pressed to counter, thanks to inadequate resources.
By the late summer of 2014, it was apparent that French intelligence was simply overwhelmed by the numbers of potential terrorist targets — furious young men (and women) eager to wage jihad at home. As a seasoned counterterrorism magistrate complained, French intelligence and police were finding themselves “disarmed” in the face of this new threat, while the lack of legal “teeth” meant that there was not much that the secret services could actually do about the many potential terrorists in the country. Likely trouble-makers could be arrested upon returning from jihad abroad, but they could not be kept in custody for long, and many were being released angrier than they were before, creating an explosive situation.
That, exactly, is the rub. France’s intelligence apparatus is good at what they do. The Kouachi brothers were on relevant watch-lists, their files with the secret services were surely thick and well annotated, and I have no doubt that many Western intelligence services, at some point, had tracked their goings and doings to some extent — and it’s likely much of that information was shared with foreign partners, as it’s supposed to be.
In terms of profile, these jihadist murderers fit it perfectly, to an almost comical extent: angry young losers, drug users with criminal records, coming from broken families, known unpleasantly in their community as violent troublemakers. There was even the obligatory aspiring rap artist cliche. These are essentially spree killers seeking an ideology to justify their murderous urges, and in Salafi jihadism they found it: that being the hate-based worldview of choice for many would-be terrorists these days, anywhere. When travel to foreign jihad was added to the Kouachi dossier, the French intelligence services had something to work with, but not enough to keep them off the streets for long. It was inevitable that the security apparatus — which can only track so many targets in “real time” or something close to it, and resources are always finite — placed other, more dangerous-looking jihadists higher on the list to be watched than the Paris killers.
That was a mistake, albeit one that every security service makes all the time; only on rare occasion are the consequences of such routine bad calls public and horrific. As a former spook myself, I am sympathetic to those who have to make tough calls based on invariably imperfect information. Two key points must be made. First, movies and the Snowden Operation, both of which are based in lies and fantasy, have created the impression that Western intelligence enacts 24/7 or “total” surveillance with ease. This is simply not true. Even with excellent SIGINT, as France possesses, all the information in the world — which, let it be remembered, must be analyzed by someone, looking for nuggets amid countless hours of mundane conversation by low-IQ jihadists about TV, rap artists, and problems with parents and girlfriends — only matters when action can be taken.
I suspect that the Paris outrage will turn out a lot like the 9/11 debacle in the United States, said to be an “intelligence failure” when it was really nothing of the sort. Oh, there were missed pieces of the puzzle, to be sure, dots not connected as the 9/11 Commission investigators so liked to put it, but the painful reality is that, in the run-up to what al-Qa’ida called its Planes Operation, U.S. intelligence worked pretty much as it was supposed to under the legal norms established in the 1970’s. There was only as much information sharing as the law allowed, and besides what would the FBI actually have done anyway?
I am confident that what French intelligence knew about the Kouachi brothers and their friends in the months and years before they took Paris by storm will shock the innocent and uninformed, as it will paint them correctly as violent cretins with murder on their warped minds. But that contingent is not as small in France as the public would like to think and French security simply didn’t know what to do with them. To be absolutely clear: What now looks like the obvious choice — arrest them and keep them off the streets — was never a realistic option.
To provide a relevant example, a few years ago I was discussing these sorts of things with intelligence officials from a friendly Muslim country, which like all of them possesses an extremism problem. Their solution is a deradicalization program to divert would-be troublemakers back to some sort of normal life before they kill. I am skeptical of all such deradicalization programs, since most sound too good to be true, but I listened carefully to the details of this rather well-thought out initiative.
In the first place, these spooks don’t have to worry much about civil liberties, so they track online activities carefully, and they have all potentially worrisome mosques wired too. Hence they find young men, usually maladjusted late teenagers, talking like potential jihadists and they arrest them. They are packed off to a tennis prison, a pleasant place without high walls, where for several months they get counseling from imams who gently explain that Islam is not about decapitating “apostates,” that real Muslims should improve spiritually, and they need to be law-abiding citizens. The young men receive vocational training and career counseling, plus help with job placement, with the aim of returning them soon to a normal life.
After a few months of this program, most of the inmates are released; nearly ninety percent after six months of deradicalization are assessed as fit to rejoin society. The spies track them, and at a year after release, nearly ninety percent of the “graduates” are considered to be no sort of threat. These are very impressive numbers, so, being my skeptical self, I asked the obvious question: “What about the ones who don’t deradicalize?”
Without batting an eye, the senior intelligence official responded, “Oh, we just keep them.”
There it is: would-be jihadists considered a threat to the public are kept in custody until they “get better” or forever, whichever comes first. This is a wise response, in my view, but let’s be honest here, it’s also nothing any Western law-based democracy is going to enact in 2015.
Western intelligence services since 9/11 have become very proficient at counterterrorism, with impressive collaboration in all disciplines, and France’s services rank among the best anywhere. If there was an “intelligence failure” here, and we can be sure that embarrassed Paris politicos will be looking for one, it was small-scale. The real problem is that French politicians, as in all Western countries, have absolutely no idea what to do with the burgeoning numbers of aspiring jihadist killers in their midst.
That is a political, not security, issue, that no amount of funds or personnel devoted to intelligence work can ameliorate. Besides, I sense no desire for France to become an East German-like counterintelligence state where one-third of the population is secretly reporting on the other two-thirds, including friends and family, to the secret police. Hence a political solution is required to Europe’s mounting crisis with homegrown Islamism, since there is no security solution at hand, and that knotty issue will be the subject of my next commentary.
Today, before the terrorists believed responsible have even been caught, the mainstream Russian media ran an interview in which a noted political commentator explicitly blamed U.S. intelligence for yesterday’s murderous attack on Charlie Hebdo‘s Paris office.
The extended interview with Alexey Martynov was carried on LifeNews.ru, which is not state-run but which follows the Kremlin line on most issues and has a very large audience: this is anything but a fringe network in Putin’s Russia. Martynov’s novel theory is that American intelligence was behind the attack in order to force Europe, particularly France, into closer cooperation with the United States in the name of “counterterrorism.” As for proof for this hypothesis, there is none, but Martynov claims that since the Americans are really behind the whole Islamic State thing, of course the Paris attack was really the work of the CIA … or something. This is Alex Jones-level stuff, carried on a major network with millions of viewers.
And who is Alexey Martynov? He bills himself as a political scientist and “human rights activist” — which is another of those terms that, when used in Putin’s Russia, doesn’t mean what you think it means. Martynov heads the oddly named International Institute for New States (MING, in Russian), a Moscow-based think tank that dispenses Putin-friendly propaganda posing as analysis. Before MING was founded in 2008, he headed an NGO called “For Democracy and Human Rights” which actually pushes pro-Putin messages under the “human rights” banner. He regularly gets cited in regime media for his consistently Kremlin-line take on, well, everything.
Martynov’s op-eds run the gamut of pro-Putin ramblings, mostly about the former Soviet space, but his anti-Americanism is clear; his frequent denunciations of U.S. “imperialism” and “neo-liberalism” seem to be why The Nation considers him a friendly voice. To cite only some of Martynov’s more recent rants, he praised NSA defector Edward Snowden as “a symbol of resistance to American neo-imperialism,” while talking a great deal about Ukraine which Martynov, a native of Crimea, considers to not really be an independent country but, to the extent that it is, it’s under the control of Nazis and/or Islamic extremists. Sound familiar?
Martynov’s core belief is that Russia is constantly under threat from U.S.-led “color revolutions” and, in that sense, Kremlin aggression in Ukraine isn’t aggression at all, but a legitimate and defensive act. Like jihadists, pro-Putin propagandists see their cause as under colossal, indeed existential Western threat, so any aggression they perpetrate is, cosmically speaking, defensive in nature. This is really Oliver Stone stuff, in Russian, with a faux-academic gloss.
Who is behind MING, Martynov’s think tank, isn’t exactly clear (“Funding is provided by contributions from the founders, private donations and grants”) but it proudly states, in bold, that it takes no funds from “foreign agents” — this being Putin-speak for its status as a “patriotic” outfit that’s not in bed with U.S. “neo-imperialism.” MING’s take on events can be fairly assessed as rabidly pro-Kremlin, when not slavishly so.
Martynov’s public bio is sketchy about his activities before 2007 — perhaps not coincidentally, the year Putin publicly threw down the gauntlet at America about its alleged aggressions against Russia — leading to speculation that he is a former officer of the Russian special services: of course, there is no such thing as “a former Chekist,” as Russia’s president himself has stated. Regardless of Martynov’s possible affiliations, past or present, with Russian security agencies, it’s fair to say that if the FSB were running a think tank, it would look and act a lot like MING, and it’s understood by all seasoned Kremlin-watchers that most of Russia’s “independent” pro-regime institutes actually aren’t all that independent when you examine their funding and personnel.
Yet the most interesting part of Martynov’s rant about the Paris atrocity isn’t actually his fact-free pinning it on American intelligence. He revealed what the Kremlin’s real agenda now is. He hailed Europe’s “voice of common sense, calling for the restoration of cooperation with Russia” in the face of terrorism — this being exactly what pro-Putin politicians in France like Marine Le Pen have called for — while asserting that nefarious U.S.-backed terrorism will have the opposite effect of pushing “Russia and Europe closer together in the face of common threats — terrorism and the hegemony of the United States.”
That is a perfect explanation of Moscow’s strategic aim in Europe today, as has been evident for some time to anyone with open eyes, and now Kremlin mouthpieces are saying it openly. As someone who has repeatedly warned Europeans that their rising right-wing is being co-opted by Moscow against NATO and the West, it’s an unpleasant surprise when the Russians are this unsubtle about it. Clearly Putin is feeling confident despite Russia’s dire economic predicament. Watch Paris and Madame Le Pen for the next move.
I woke today to appalling news of an atrocity in Paris. Black-clad gunmen stormed the office of a popular magazine, assassinating journalists. In truth, I was not surprised, given the rising wave of terrorism in France recently; like many in the counterterrorism community, I’ve been expecting professional-style attacks of this kind in Europe, but this news cannot fail to shock.
The story is only now coming into focus but the killers remain at large, at this hour, while at least a dozen victims are confirmed dead, including two policemen, one of whom was murdered execution-style, based on graphic footage. The target was Charlie-Hebdo, a left-wing magazine known for skewering sacred cows of many breeds, including Islam and the Prophet Muhammad. Four cartoonists who were especially reviled by extremists are confirmed dead, and the assassins are reported to have asked for them by name: think of this a jihadist version of “targeted killing.”
The real question I have, as someone who has followed jihadist terrorism in Europe, as both a scholar and practitioner, for a couple decades, is: How could anyone be surprised by this? Jihad-watchers, with quiet nods from European officials, have been warning for years about the mayhem to come when the thousands – yes, thousands – of Europeans fighting with the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria return home angry, skilled at killing, and well-armed.
Moreover, assassinating Europeans who “insult Islam” is hardly new. Theo van Gogh, the Dutch journalist-cum-provocateur who was indelicate in his attacks on Islam, was butchered on the streets of Amsterdam by an angry teenager with a knife back in 2004. A decade later, the masked killers are clad in black, bearing Kalashnikovs and a rocket-propelled grenade launcher – a marked jump in professionalism and firepower, but the intent remains the same.
Watching on-scene video, it’s clear that the assassins today did not learn how to scoot-and-shoot on the Internet. Yet even then, the idea of well-armed, hardened jihadist killers coming back to France to cause murderous mayhem isn’t ripped from today’s headlines – it was going on fully twenty years ago.
As I’ve explained in detail, back in 1995 French jihadists returned from the battlefields of Bosnia, where they were fighting with al-Qa’ida-linked units, to bring the jihad home. They pulled off several impressive armed robberies in the French-Belgian border region – they were stealing to get funds for terrorism – and the police had a tough time catching up with what they called the Roubaix Gang. When they finally did, the jihadists, who had an abundance of automatic weapons and were better armed than the cops, chose to go down in fire and glory rather than surrender. Their leader, the charismatic convert Lionel Dumont, alone escaped death, managing to evade capture for the better part of a decade by escaping to the global jihadist underground in a manner that has never fully been explained.
Despite the fact that the Roubaix Gang was all over the French media twenty years ago, not least because they came close to blowing up the G7 meeting in Lille, the story did not result in much examination of what was going on with heavily armed French citizens trying to bring jihad-of-the-sword home. The story disappeared down the memory hole and became something polite people did not want to discuss.
The trend has continued to the present day. The butchering of Jewish children and French servicemen by a self-styled jihadist was treated as an unpleasant one-off, while the rise of a young French convert to a position of power in the Islamic State in Syria has been considered more a curiosity than an alarming portent. Too many Europeans have been eager to dismiss all this as “random” or “senseless” and, at worst, the by-product of “racism” and “failures of assimilation.” Officials have sung the same tune in public, with the recent wave of car-terrorism in France being dismissed as having absolutely nothing to do with Islamism or radicalism.
The painful truth is that France today, like much of Europe, faces a profound crisis, as thousands of European Union citizens are waging jihad abroad, most of whom will eventually come home more radical and more proficient at killing. Historical patterns suggest that only five to ten percent of these returnees will engage in terrorism at home, but given the unprecedented numbers of Europeans – there were platoons of Europeans fighting in Bosnia twenty years ago; today there are whole battalions in Syria and Iraq — now serving in the ranks of the fanatical Islamic State, there is no comfort found there.
French intelligence is competent and, behind closed doors, has a realistic understanding of this threat, but they are overwhelmed and constrained by timid political masters. The scary truth is that many EU countries now face a wave of returning jihadists that no European security service can hope to monitor and deter with any degree of confidence, based on existing laws and norms. The full story of today’s atrocity will take time to emerge, but we can be sure that the details will not be comforting to progressives and bien-pensants, who per custom will attempt to play down the ugly reality. As someone who recently predicted more terrorism in Europe in 2015, some of it sure to be “mysterious,” I hate to be right so soon in this new year.
It does not help realistic debate that Europeans who try to discuss this threat are routinely shut down and marginalized, to use a favorite progressive term, by mainstream forces who desperately seek no debate at all. Last week, German Chancellor Angela Merkel castigated fellow citizens, the so-called PEGIDA movement, who since the autumn have been peacefully protesting against Islamization and radicalism. They are racists who have no place in a democratic society, the chancellor made clear, and on cue Germany’s great and good – politicos, magnates, celebrities, clerics – backed Merkel in her public effort to silence PEGIDA.
Therefore the only winner in today’s atrocity is Vladimir Putin and his European friends. As I’ve noted for some time, right-wing friends of the Kremlin are the only force in Europe that has consistently and unapologetically sought to address rising public concerns about jihadism in their midst, while mainstream parties have surrendered the field on this vital issue to people on Putin’s payroll. After today, Marine Le Pen, whose condemnation of Islamism and affection for Putin seem equally sincere, may wish to start planning her inauguration party as president of France. You can be sure her friend from Moscow will have a seat of honor.
UPDATE (1130 EST, 7 JAN): Video of the assassins includes audio of one of the terrorists speaking something that sounds an awful lot like Russian (my Russian is good, but more importantly several native speakers have said this sounds like Russian to them too); given the explosive nature of this revelation, it would be wise to wait for official voice analysis before conclusions are jumped to. That said, counterintelligence hands who know the Russians will recall that the Kremlin has a long history of using Chechen agents in false-flag terrorism going back two decades.
UPDATE (1205 EST, 7 JAN): Since I’ve heaped scorn on European politicos who refuse to seriously address the issue of jihadism, it bears noting that today, when asked about the Paris atrocity, White House spokesman Josh Earnest refused to say if it was terrorism. This from the administration that called the Fort Hood attack an “incident of workplace violence.” Seriously, if executing journalists to silence them does not count as terrorism, I’m not sure what does. Eternal shame on Obama and his minions here.
UPDATE (1615 EST, 7 JAN): French media have identified the three suspects in today’s attack, who as of this hour remain at large: Saïd Kouachi (born 1980), Chérif Kouachi (born 1982, and who appeared in a 2008 AP story about support for the Iraqi jihad), Hamyd Mourad (born 1996): they are of Algerian background, and lived in Gennevilliers (Hauts-de-Seine). The Kouachis have substantial police records — and, one expects, thick files with French intelligence — and are rumored to have recently returned from Syria. More soon ….