Yemen: A Snapshot from the Global War on Terror

By Erik Goepner

The remaining cadre of American military personnel pulled out of Yemen last week following the evacuation of U.S. Embassy staff in February. Six months earlier, President Obama hailed the U.S.-Yemen partnership as a model worthy of emulation in the fight against the Islamic State. For a decade and a half, America has expended substantial effort in the war on terror, yet the results which followed were often unanticipated and problematic.

In 2013, President Obama hosted President Hadi at the White House and thanked him for Yemen’s strong cooperation in countering terror, specifically mentioning the success enjoyed in pushing al Qaeda back in the Arabian Peninsula. If the Sunni-comprised AQAP was pushed back, it now looks like that vacuum has been filled by a different terrorist organization, this one Shia dominated. These Houthi rebels, predominately from Yemen’s north, have been in conflict with the Yemeni government for the past 11 years.

Iran appears responsible for at least part of their success. Reports indicate Iran has provided some level of assistance to the Houthi rebels—possibly arms, funds, and training. A senior Houthi advisor denied any arms support, but agreed they were otherwise working with Iran as “part of a shared vision in ‘confronting the American project’” in the region.

By some analysts count, the fall of Sana’a into the hands of Houthi rebels represents yet another victory in the making for Iran. They point to Beirut, Damascus, Baghdad, and now Sana’a as the fourth Arab capital to politically ally itself with the Persian state.

No doubt there is much history yet to unfold, but to date, America’s war on terror has delivered a number of unanticipated outcomes: a five-fold increase in global terror attacks, two on-going civil wars in the nations America invaded, and an ever-increasing Iranian influence in the region.

Image Credit: Ibrahem Qasim

Is the Islamic State the Biggest Threat Facing the U.S.?

By Erik Goepner

While the situation on the ground today remains largely unchanged to that of October last year, Americans assessing the IS threat as extremely important or critical has jumped from 36% to 84%. Might their grotesque killings and the free media advertising they receive in response explain much of the difference in threat perceptions?

Looking at the numbers, since September 10, 2001 three thousand forty-eight people have been killed by terrorists in America’s borders. If you exclude 9/11, that number drops to 51. In the 14 years before 9/11, 223 lost their lives at the hands of terrorists in the homeland.[1]

Though precisely determining the threat posed by the Islamic State is impossible, we can be more precise in defining why the threat concerns us. For many, the concern is death, more specifically a horrific death that comes as a surprise and leaves its victim feeling powerless. There is, however, no concern that the Islamic State could one day invade the U.S. or otherwise pretend to have a military force even remotely comparable to ours. They will always be Pop Warner to America’s Super Bowl winner. In the end, the concern is death.

One way, then, to compare the threat posed by the Islamic State with other threats is to look at what kills Americans. Including 9/11 and all terrorist attacks within the homeland since, an average of 234 lives have been lost per year. During the same time period, approximately 16,000 Americans have been murdered each year, 34,000 took their own lives, and more than 500,000 died annually from cancer. If you lengthen the timeframe to fifty years, the likelihood of being killed by terrorists in America roughly equates to the likelihood of being killed by a lightning strike or an allergic reaction to peanuts.[2]

Looking at the broader geo-political landscape provides another way to help place the threat of IS within the range of threats facing America. Perhaps Iran sits atop that list. On the Department of State’s list as a state sponsor of terrorism since 1984, their latest report, from 2013, notes Iran has “increased its presence in Africa and attempted to smuggle arms to Houthi separatists in Yemen.” These are the same separatists who recently overthrew the Yemeni government. Additionally, Iran is pursuing a nuclear program, peaceful or otherwise. Russia presents another potential threat.  In 2008, they invaded Georgia and in 2014 they annexed portions of Ukraine. Might a NATO country be next, such as Latvia, Estonia, or Lithuania? Other potential threats include China as it asserts its presence in the South China Sea and elsewhere, North Korea, or even America’s rising debt which may increasingly constrain future U.S. options.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons


[1] See UMD’s Global Terrorism Database.
[2] John Mueller, Overblown, see “The Limited Destructiveness of Terrorism” chapter.

What threat does the Islamic State pose to America?

By Erik Goepner 

One way to assess the threat that IS poses to America is to see what the National Terrorism Advisory System (NTAS) says. To date, NTAS has issued no alerts regarding the terrorist threat from IS. Back in 2011, NTAS replaced DHS’ memorable color-coded system. It is also worth noting that in those intervening years, the NTS has apparently not issued any alerts about terrorist threats against the homeland.

Statements by government officials provide another way to assess the threat, and they do not appear to suggest IS presents a significant threat to America. The President’s National Security Strategy (NSS), published last week, notes that “the threat of catastrophic attacks against our homeland by terrorists has diminished but still persists.” The NSS goes on to refer to “an array of terrorist threats.” As for IS in particular, the NSS mentions them as one of several “regionally focused and globally connected groups” that “could” pose a threat to the homeland.

Rolling out the new NSS at the Brookings Institution last Friday, the National Security Advisor appeared concerned that threat concerns were being unnecessarily inflated by some. Ms. Rice cautioned, “We cannot afford to be buffeted by alarmism and an instantaneous news cycle,” as she characterized the threats as not existential.

Another estimate comes from the Department of Homeland Security Deputy Assistant Secretary for Counterterrorism Policy. This past December, he testified before a House subcommittee hearing on ISIS. His assessment? “At present, DHS is unaware of any specific, credible threat to the U.S. Homeland from ISIL.”

If Americans’ perception of the threat posed by the Islamic State substantially differs from the actual threat, our unconscious biases may have something to do with it. Ms. Rice potentially alluded to one—the availability bias—when she cautioned against alarmism and the instantaneous news cycle. The availability bias suggests people estimate the likelihood of an event based on how easily they can imagine it or remember a past occurrence. Since the sensational, yet uncommon, event is often of greater interest to the media, the public may hear more about unlikely events than they do common ones. In response, people overestimate the likelihood of rare events while underestimating the probability of common ones.[1]

Additionally, people tend to overstate threats they dread, even if the evidence indicates otherwise. The Islamic State’s gruesome videos of beheadings and the recent burning alive of the Jordanian pilot effectively evoke dread in many.

Potential biases notwithstanding, those responsible for assessing the threat and keeping the homeland safe indicate that the Islamic State could pose a threat to us, but at this time, IS does not pose a specific, credible or imminent threat.

 

Image Credit: The Knight Foundation


[1] See, for example, Morgan’s “Risk Assessment and Management.”

The Islamic State as Insurgency: The Growing Strength of Salafi Jihadists

By Erik Goepner

Terrorists occupy the low-end of the power spectrum. They are weaker than guerrillas, who are weaker than insurgents, who are weaker than conventional armies, who are weaker than nuclear-equipped armies. That is a point made, more or less, by the Council of Foreign Relation’s Max Boot. Successful revolutionary, Mao Tse Tung,[1] made a similar point when he noted guerrillas are but a step towards total war and regular armies. Has the Islamic State, then, progressed the Salafi jihadist movement from the weak power position of terrorism to the mid-range power of insurgency?

RAND researcher, Seth Jones, defines a Salafi jihadist group as one that emphasizes the need to return to “pure” Islam during the time of the Salaf (“pious ancestors”) and believes that violent jihad is a duty of each member of the ummah, much like daily prayers, fasting during Ramadan, etc. Dr. Jones notes that between 2010 and 2013, the number of Salafi jihadist groups rose by 58%. Interestingly, the growth roughly coincided with the timing of U.S. surge operations in Afghanistan. At the end of that period, IS began seizing and holding terrain in Iraq and Syria, with some estimating they now control approximately 81,000 square miles, or the land mass equivalent of Great Britain. Professor Bruce Hoffman, author of the seminal work Inside Terrorism, suggests that while both insurgents and terrorists may use the same tactics, even for the same purposes, insurgents differ from terrorists in that they often operate as military units, seize and hold terrain, and include informational and psychological warfare in an effort to win over the population’s support.

If so, and if the Islamic State is winning over segments of the Iraqi and Syrian populations rather than just terrorizing them, then the problem set facing the U.S. would be substantially different. Terrorists can, in large measure, be defeated by police or military action, which the world’s premier military can accomplish unlike any other. If, however, IS now finds firm footing as an insurgency, broader issues must be tackled. Issues that can only be successfully resolved by the indigenous government—which we are not—or dictatorial occupiers—which we will not be.

Image Credit: NBC News


[1] See The Red Book of Guerrilla Warfare by Mao Zedong.

The Global War on Terror Redux

By Erik Goepner

Are we destroying the Islamic State or fighting a global war on terror?

In the past six months, the U.S. launched air strikes to neutralize the al Qaeda offshoot, Khorasan group, and the imminent threat they posed. Authorities in Ohio arrested a man—apparently self-radicalized—who was planning to target the U.S. Capitol. The Charlie Hebdo attackers reportedly received funding and guidance from Yemeni-based, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. The kosher market killer apparently had pledged allegiance to the Islamic State. Soon after, French, Belgian, and German authorities arrested more than a dozen suspected terrorists, some of whom had recently returned from Syria and allegedly may have ties to the Islamic State.

While the Islamic State dominates the headlines and Obama Administration officials repeat the defeat and destroy Daesh (nee ISIL) mantra, the President’s narrowly-named Special Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL speaks of a decidedly broader end goal. General Allen recently acknowledged “Daesh” as the immediate threat, but noted, “more broadly we’re interested in the underlying factors that create these problems.” He went on to talk of the collective action needed to eliminate the social, ethnic, religious and economic problems that have combined in the Middle East. He noted that if we are successful, there will be a government in Syria that “reflects the will of the Syrian people,” which will have “the happy second and third order effect of assisting in the creation of stability more broadly in the region.”

In words reminiscent of President Bush, “Our war on terror begins with Al Qaeda, but it does not end there,” Secretary Kerry recently shared similar thoughts. In a speech at the Saban Forum, the Secretary observed that “even once Daesh is defeated and Syria is stabilized, our work is far from over.”

These are amazingly aspirational goals. Daesh defeated. Syria stabilized. A government in Syria reflecting the will of the people. And it would seem, a stabilized Iraq and Afghanistan, too.

Again, the similarities are evident. Also speaking at the Saban Forum, though years prior, President Bush outlined similar aspirations, “Our vision for the future: a Middle East where our friends are strengthened and the extremists are discredited, where economies are open and prosperity is widespread, and where all people enjoy the life of liberty…”

Times have changed, but the mission hasn’t. However passionately or half-heartedly we approach it, America continues to wage a global war on terror and seek the remaking of the Middle East.

Image Credit: Huffington Post

Terrorist Groups Sharply Criticize Pakistani Taliban for School Attack

By Erik Goepner

Fellow extremists quickly condemned Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) for their brazen attack on Pakistani school children. The attack began the morning of December 16th as seven armed TTP gunmen entered the Army Public School and Degree College in Peshawar. They killed 148 during the eight-hour siege, including 132 children. All of the attackers died, either by detonating their suicide vests or during the fighting with Pakistani commandos.

Shortly after the attack, the Afghan Taliban called the actions un-Islamic and expressed their sympathies to the grieving families. The regional al Qaeda affiliate wrote of “hearts bursting with pain and grief” over the incident.

The noteworthy criticism from the Afghan Taliban raises the question: why would TTP specifically target children and risk pushing their allies away? TTP and the Afghan Taliban both align themselves under Mullah Omar. The TTP’s top commander, Mullah Fazlullah, fought in Afghanistan during the early 2000s and reportedly had quite favorable relations with the Afghan Taliban. Additionally, Mullah Fazlullah, as both cleric and scholar, enjoyed the respect of many fellow jihadists.

Much less is known about the regional TTP commander, Umar Mansoor (aka Umar Adizai), who apparently planned the attack. He is thought to be in his mid-30s and a father of three. According to the scant reports, he attended school in Islamabad before later entering a madrassa.

So, why might TTP have targeted the children and risked alienating allies?

Did the subordinate commander, Umar Mansoor, go rogue and disobey Fazlullah or, perhaps, fail to share his plans with the TTP leader?

While there is little reported on the relationship between Umar Mansoor and Fazlullah, what exists suggests their relationship is close. If those reports are true, it becomes more difficult to accept that Umar Mansoor acted on his own.

Was the attack related to the infighting within TTP?

Somewhat, perhaps. In 2013, Mullah Fazlullah took command of TTP. His assumption represented a significant shift in TTP leadership from that of the previous seven years, as he was neither a member of the Mehsud or Wazir tribes nor a resident of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas. Earlier this year, the factiousness bubbled over and the Mehsud tribe formally broke with TTP.

However, it is hard to see how Fazlullah would benefit from the attack. No doubt he was familiar with Mullah Omar’s previous admonitions to be discriminant in selecting targets and the application of force. Perhaps, though, the stress within TTP resulted in the horrific, and seemingly counterproductive decision.

The most likely reason, though, may just be the one given by TTP: an attack to avenge their losses, both adults and children, from sustained Pakistani military operations in the tribal areas home to many of them. Perhaps Pakistan has finally gotten serious about fighting the Taliban and other insurgent groups. When my team and I were in southern Afghanistan in 2010, Afghan government officials and village elders alike routinely criticized Pakistan and their security service for actively supporting the Taliban. Questions have long remained regarding the Pakistani government’s resolve to fight the Taliban, with many suggesting they secretly helped “good” Taliban fighting in Afghanistan, while providing an air of commitment in fighting the “bad” Taliban who conduct attacks in Pakistan. The TTP with approximately 900 attacks over the past seven years would seem to fit the bill of “bad” Taliban.

Time will tell, but perhaps Pakistan’s latest military offensive is really having an impact on the TTP. If so, the TTP may have targeted the children to both avenge their own losses and to show, in a distorted and tragic way, that their strength remains.

Image Credit: yowoto

Pandora Report 12.13.14

It’s the end of the semester, and I don’t know about all you out there, but I plan to watch a lot of TV during the next five weeks. But, as we know, the news never stops, so this week we’ve got Time’s Person of the Year, ISIS and their potential dirty bomb, the crisis of growing antibiotic resistance and of course, an Ebola update.

Have a great week!

‘Time’ names ‘Ebola Fighters’ as Person of the Year

Normally a story like this would go in the Ebola roundup, but this story is big. Big big.

Every year, Time selects a “man, woman, couple or concept that the magazine’s editors feel had the most influence on the world during the previous 12 months.” With runners up like the Ferguson, MO protestors and Vladimir Putin, this issue features people on the front lines of the outbreak in West Africa including CDC Director Tom Frieden, ambulance supervisor Foday Gallah, the first American doctor to be evacuated for treatment in the U.S. Kent Brantly, and nurse Kaci Hickox.

USA Today—“‘Ebola is a war, and a warning,” Time editor Nancy Gibbs writes in announcing the magazine’s choice for most influential newsmaker of 2014. “The global health system is nowhere close to strong enough to keep us safe from infectious disease, and ‘us’ means everyone, not just those in faraway places where this is one threat among many that claim lives every day. The rest of the world can sleep at night because a group of men and women are willing to stand and fight.’”

ISIS Has the Materials to Build a Dirty Bomb, but It’s Nothing to Worry About

This week, experts said that IS have acquired the materials necessary to make a dirty bomb, but that the weapon is more effective as a means of causing fear than causing damage. According to a twitter account belonging to a British jihadist, the materials were acquired from Mosul University, after IS seized control of the city. However, Dina Esfandiary and Matthew Cottee, research associates at the Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Program at the International Institute for Strategic Studies point out that even if IS has the materials, they likely lack the knowhow to make the bomb.

Newsweek—“‘The materials they have are not radioactive enough to cause a great deal of damage or function as a working device,” says Esfandiary. “Where the weapon is effective is to cause fear.’”

New Antibiotic Resistance Report is the Stuff of Nightmares

A report published by researchers from RAND Europe and KPMG projects that growing antibiotic resistance could lead to 10 million people dying each year by 2050. The report covers not only the mortality statistics but the projected economic effects of growing drug resistance—$100 trillion USD worldwide and a reduction of 2%-3.5% GDP.

Forbes—“Currently, deaths due to antibiotic resistance are estimated at 700,000/yr, less than car accident fatalities (1.2 million), diabetes (1.5 million), [and] cancer (8.2 million). [This] “translates to 1,917 people killed every day, or 80 every hour. Ten million extra deaths per year would mean 23,397 deaths per day, or 1,141 deaths per hour.’”

This Week in Ebola

Despite nearly 7,000 deaths in this Ebola outbreak, stories are, annoyingly, becoming harder to find. As this happens, there is worry that as the disease becomes more invisible that complacency will set in. Even in Liberia, where there are still approximately a dozen new cases per day, officials worry that Liberians aren’t worried enough and Dr. Frieden urges the nation to remain alert. A new outbreak in Sierra Leone’s Kono District has resulted in a two week Ebola ‘lockdown’ and as exponential growth has slowed, it becomes even more important to have accurate data to ensure tracking of the disease.

Stateside, Ebola Czar Ron Klain will return to his private sector job on March 1. Meanwhile, a clinical trial of a potential Ebola vaccine was halted after patients complained of joint pains in their hands and feet, and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has offered liability protection to drug makers who are developing Ebola vaccines. Lastly, an ER doctor at Texan Health Presbyterian Hospital admitted to missing key symptoms when first treating Thomas Eric Duncan and not considering Duncan’s travel history.

Stories You May Have Missed

 

Image Credit: Time.com

Terrorism in 2013

By Erik Goepner

An estimated 61% more people perished from terrorist attacks in 2013[1] than did in 2012. As the Global Terrorism Index Report authors note, those 18,000 deaths far surpassed the 3,361 deaths from terrorist attacks in 2000. Drawing on data from the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism’s Global Terrorism Database, the report and the data it contains have much to offer.

Interested in how terrorist group ideology has morphed over the past decade and a half? Check out the following graphic and observe how the religious-based groups have come to dominate terrorist activity.

Terrorism 2013(Source: Global Terrorism Index 2014, p. 31)

Who conducted the attacks? Two-thirds of the fatalities were caused by four groups: the Islamic State, Boko Haram, the Taliban, and al-Qaeda and its affiliates. As the report noted, “extreme interpretations of Wahhabi Islam” were the key commonality among the groups.

Unsurprisingly, more than 50% of the fatalities occurred in Iraq and Afghanistan. Pakistan, Nigeria and Syria accounted for another 30% of the fatalities.  In total, those five countries bore the brunt for 82% of terrorist-caused fatalities last year.

Looking at the details of the attacks, half of them resulted in no fatalities. Approximately 40% killed between one and five people, while 10% took the lives of six or more human beings. The most lethal form of attack was suicide bomber. While suicide attacks had the highest failure rate (56%), they caused an average of 11 fatalities per attack as compared to two fatalities for all other forms of terrorist attack.

Last year, suicide attacks only accounted for five percent of all terrorist attacks. Of concern, though, the Islamic State conducted 58 of the suicide attacks. By comparison, the two most prolific suicide attack groups over the past decade—al-Qaeda in Iraq and Tehrik-I-Taliban in Pakistan—have averaged 13 and 14 suicide attacks per year, respectively.

As a final note—perhaps for balance, perhaps to recognize the role of fear in terrorism—how might we understand the tragic loss of 18,000 lives to terrorism last year as compared to the 430,000[2] who were killed in homicides?

 

Image Credit: United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime and Terrorism Prevention


[1] The authors of the report note that the manner of data collection for the Global Terrorism Database became more automated in 2011. As a result, some events that may have been missed in prior years would now be collected, possibly inflating numbers for 2011 and following years. In response, they modeled three approaches. For example, their conservative model indicated the number of terrorist events rose by 475% since 2000, as compared to a 689% increase for the upper bounded model.

[2] See the Global Study on Homicide 2013 available at http://www.unodc.org/unodc/en/publications-by-date.html

Meet Your 2014 Summer Program Faculty: Charles Blair

In preparation for the GMU Summer Program in International Security, this week we will highlight the course directors. EARLY BIRD REGISTRATION HAS BEEN EXTENDED TO JUNE 15! Register by June 15 to save $300 on a three-day course and $200 on a two-day course. Use the links below for more details including registration.  Questions? Comment to this post or email spis@gmu.edu.


 

Headshot_BlairCharles P. Blair is a Washington, D.C.-based university instructor, researcher, writer, and thinker specializing in terrorism and the history, technical underpinnings, and potential futures of Weapons of Mass Destruction. He is the director for two courses in the Summer Program in International Security: 21st Century Terrorism: Emerging Trends and Evolving Tactics which runs July 14-16 and Terrorism Analysis: Quantitative and Qualitative Research Methodologies and Tools which runs July 17-18.

Since visiting Moscow as a student in 1985, Blair has worked on issues relating to globalization and the diffusion and diversification of WMD in the context of the rise of mass casualty terrorism incidents. He teaches graduate-level classes on terrorism and the technology of WMD at Johns Hopkins University and George Mason University and is a columnist for the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

Recent works include: “Terrorist Nuclear Command and Control,” which was completed under the auspices of the Department of Homeland Security; a two-year DHS-backed study which investigated the U.S. extreme right-wing and radiological and nuclear terrorism; “Target Sochi: The threat from the Caucasus Emirate,”; and  “Barely Lethal: Terrorists and Ricin.”

Mr. Blair is a Senior Fellow on State and Non-State Threats at the Federation of American Scientists. Before joining FAS, he has worked at the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START), the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, the National Nuclear Security Administration, the Anti-Defamation League, and the Center for Terrorism and Intelligence Studies.

Click here to register for 21st Century Terrorism: Emerging Trends and Evolving Tactics.

Click here to register for Terrorism Analysis: Quantitative and Qualitative Research Methodologies and Tools

Meet Your 2014 Summer Program Faculty: Charles Blair

In preparation for the GMU Summer Program in International Security, this week we will highlight the course directors. Remember, EARLY BIRD REGISTRATION ENDS MAY 15! Register by May 15 to save $300 on a three-day course and $200 on a two-day course. Use the links below for more details including registration.  Questions? Comment to this post or email spis@gmu.edu.


 

Headshot_BlairCharles P. Blair is a Washington, D.C.-based university instructor, researcher, writer, and thinker specializing in terrorism and the history, technical underpinnings, and potential futures of Weapons of Mass Destruction. He is the director for two courses in the Summer Program in International Security: 21st Century Terrorism: Emerging Trends and Evolving Tactics which runs July 14-16 and Terrorism Analysis: Quantitative and Qualitative Research Methodologies and Tools which runs July 17-18.

Since visiting Moscow as a student in 1985, Blair has worked on issues relating to globalization and the diffusion and diversification of WMD in the context of the rise of mass casualty terrorism incidents. He teaches graduate-level classes on terrorism and the technology of WMD at Johns Hopkins University and George Mason University and is a columnist for the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

Recent works include: “Terrorist Nuclear Command and Control,” which was completed under the auspices of the Department of Homeland Security; a two-year DHS-backed study which investigated the U.S. extreme right-wing and radiological and nuclear terrorism; “Target Sochi: The threat from the Caucasus Emirate,”; and  “Barely Lethal: Terrorists and Ricin.”

Mr. Blair is a Senior Fellow on State and Non-State Threats at the Federation of American Scientists. Before joining FAS, he has worked at the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START), the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, the National Nuclear Security Administration, the Anti-Defamation League, and the Center for Terrorism and Intelligence Studies.

Click here to register for 21st Century Terrorism: Emerging Trends and Evolving Tactics.

Click here to register for Terrorism Analysis: Quantitative and Qualitative Research Methodologies and Tools