New From The Biodefense Faculty

On this #FacultyFriday, we’ve got recent publications from two George Mason Biodefense faculty members.


Dr. Gregory Koblentz looks at America’s next big nuclear challenge from Iran.

The April 2 framework agreement between the P5+1 and Iran fails to address an important risk posed by Iran’s nuclear program. Through a combination of restrictions on Iran’s nuclear activities and facilities and more intrusive verification mechanisms, the framework adequately addresses two major risks posed by Iran’s nuclear program—breakout and sneakout. The framework, however, completely ignores the risk of leakout: the proliferation of nuclear technology and expertise from Iran to other countries. Iran, once the recipient of foreign nuclear assistance, is now poised to provide that assistance, either deliberately or through unauthorized acts by scientists or companies, to other countries.

His entire piece in The National Interest can be found here.


Dr. Trevor Thrall (and Pandora Report staff writer Erik Goepner) make the case against ground engagement with the Islamic State.

The most common argument made by hawks for U.S. engagement is to prevent future Islamic State-sponsored terrorism against the U.S. homeland. Our track record on homeland security since 9/11, however, reveals that a ground war is unnecessary. In the 13 years before 9/11, Islamist-inspired groups launched five attacks on U.S. soil. In the same period since 9/11, just four attacks have been carried out in the U.S. despite the rapid rise in Islamist mobilization and growth in global terrorism. From 2000 to 2013, the number of Islamic-inspired terrorist groups on the State Department’s list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations spiked 185 percent, while the estimated number of Islamist fighters rose 243 percent. Clearly, the United States’ success at limiting attacks on its homeland has come not from destroying terrorist groups abroad, but through improved intelligence and other homeland security-focused efforts.

Their piece in The Detroit News can be found here.

Worth Reading: Informative Research on the Islamic State

By Erik Goepner

“The sobering fact is that the United States has no good military options in its fight against ISIS. Neither counterterrorism, nor counterinsurgency, nor conventional warfare is likely to afford Washington a clear-cut victory against the group. For the time being, at least, the policy that best matches ends and means and that has the best chance of securing U.S. interests is one of offensive containment: combining a limited military campaign with a major diplomatic and economic effort to weaken ISIS and align the interests of the many countries that are threatened by the group’s advance.”

From Audrey Kurth-Cronin’s “ISIS is Not a Terrorist Group” in Foreign Affairs. Full article available at http://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/143043/audrey-kurth-cronin/isis-is-not-a-terrorist-group


“The United States and Europe already have effective measures in place to greatly reduce the threat of terrorism from jihadist returnees and to limit the scale of any attacks that might occur. Those measures can and should be improved—and, more importantly, adequately resourced. But the standard of success cannot be perfection. If it is, then Western governments are doomed to fail, and, worse, doomed to an overreaction which will waste resources and cause dangerous policy mistakes.”

From Daniel Byman & Jeremy Shapiro’s “Be Afraid. Be A Little Afraid: The Threat of Terrorism from Western Foreign Fighters in Syria and Iraq” in the Brookings Institution’s Foreign Policy Paper series. Full paper available at http://www.brookings.edu/research/papers/2015/01/western-foreign-fighters-in-syria-and-iraq-byman-shapiro


Finally, for a good general overview, take a look at “The Islamic State” by Zachary Laub and Jonathan Masters; a Council on Foreign Relations Backgrounder available at http://www.cfr.org/iraq/ islamic-state/p14811.

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

Islamic State Update

By Erik Goepner

The Battle for Tikrit

An estimated 20,000 to 30,000 pro-Iraqi government fighters appear poised to eject the remaining IS fighters from Tikrit, the birthplace of Saddam Hussein. Concerning on-going sectarian tensions, Shia militia reportedly constitute the vast majority of the pro-government fighting force, supported by approximately 3,000 Iraqi troops and a small group of Sunnis. No surprise, then, that U.S. officials expressed concerns over the potential for similar “sectarian alienation” between Sunnis and Shias, which left Iraq vulnerable to ISIS in the first place. In addition, Iranian advisors are participating, with the commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Quds Force, General Qasem Soleimani, helping to lead the battle. Soleimani’s presence in Iraq appears to be in violation of a 2007 U.N.-imposed travel ban stemming from the terrorist support provided by the Quds force he commands. The U.S. is not taking part in the operation, with U.S. officials saying they were not asked by Iraq to participate.

~~~~~

Foreign fighters

Twenty-thousand foreign fighters from 81 countries are estimated to have joined the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, with a fifth coming from western European nations. For additional information see “Foreign Fighters in Syria” by Richard Barrett and the Munich Security Report 2015 (p. 38).

Image Credit: U.S. Army

Pandora Report 3.15.15

For those of us at Mason, Spring Break is nearing its end. For the rest of us, however, it’s business as usual. This week we’ve got stories about engineering nuclear worries in South Africa, the eradication of guinea worm, the lasting health impacts of Ebola, and other stories you may have missed.

Have a great week, enjoy the longer daylight hours, and we’ll see you back here next weekend!

U.S. Unease about Nuclear-Weapons Fuel Takes Aim at a South African Vault

Located in a former silver vault at a nuclear research center near Pretoria, South Africa, is enough nuclear weapons explosive to fuel half a dozen bombs. Roughly 485 pounds of highly enriched uranium exist as remnants of the apartheid regime’s nuclear weapons program. U.S. officials worry that not only does this stockpile give South Africa the theoretical ability to regain its status as a nuclear-weapons state, but the stockpile’s vulnerability makes it a target for terrorist thieves. This isn’t a far-fetched concept, because in November 2007 two teams of raiders breached the fences at the nuclear center, entered the site, and broke into the central alarm station. Obama has urged President Jacob Zuma to transform the nuclear explosives into benign reactor fuel—with U.S. assistance—to no avail.

The Washington Post—“‘The bottom line is that South Africa has a crime problem,” [arms control expert Jon] Wolfsthal said. “They have a facility that is holding onto material that they don’t need and a political chip on their shoulder about giving up that material. That has rightly concerned the United States, which is trying to get rid of any cache of HEU [highly enriched uranium] that is still out there.’”

Tug of War: On the Verge of the Greatest Public Health Triumph of the 21st Century

As people work around the world to eradicate Polio, another public health enemy is about to be eliminated first—guinea worm. This parasite, found in rivers and streams, enters the body in larval form through contaminated drinking water. The larvae mature inside the body and move towards the skin’s surface in the form of a burning blister. When the infected human puts water on the blister, the worm bursts out into water, continuing the source infection cycle. However, the number of cases of guinea worm is way down—from 3.5 million cases in 1986 to 126 cases in 2014—thanks to a simple nylon filter attached to a drinking straw. The weave on the nylon is tight enough to filter out the larvae from drinking water.

Slate—“Vanquishing guinea worm would be arguably the first great public health triumph of the 21st century. It would also give new life to the human disease eradication movement, which suffered through 35 mostly frustrating years following the conquest of smallpox in 1980. The victory would prove to governments and private foundations that we can still accomplish eradication.”

Ebola Could Cause Thousands More Deaths—By Ushering in Measles

As Liberia removed their Ebola crematorium—with the declaration that the outbreak is contained—new cases of the disease are still popping up in Sierra Leone and Guinea and have resulted in nearly a dozen American volunteers returning to U.S. facilities for treatment.  And this week, in Science, researchers from NIH and four universities have warned that Ebola’s interruption in other health services—like immunization campaigns—could result in epidemics of preventable diseases with larger fatality numbers than Ebola. Specifically, they warn that up to 100,000 cases of measles could result in 16,000 additional deaths.

Wired—“Measles is already present in West Africa, so the team is not arguing that Ebola will revive an eradicated disease — although, poignantly, hard work in the three countries had recently forced measles incidence way down. “Between 1994 and 2003, the countries reported — and this is just how many they reported, not necessarily how many occurred — about 100,000 cases of measles,” Lessler said. “Whereas in the last decade, they’ve only reported 7,000. So they’ve done an excellent job of controlling the virus compared to the previous (decade).’”

Stories You May Have Missed

 

Image Credit: FEMA

Readings on the Islamic State

By Erik Goepner

What ISIS Really Wants” by Graeme Wood, The Atlantic

A provocative and interesting article, Wood suggests that while much of what the Islamic State does makes no sense to a Western mind, their actions are, largely, sensible “in light of a sincere, carefully considered commitment to returning civilization to a seventh-century legal environment, and ultimately to bringing about the apocalypse.”

Wood goes on to assert that the Islamic State is, as they claim, Islamic. He yields the point that IS has attracted some psychopaths, but that the preaching of IS results from “coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam.”

Of particular interest to policy makers, Wood argues that ignoring IS’ “intellectual genealogy” will promote U.S. responses that inadvertently strengthen the group. Similarly, he cautions against assuming that if religious ideology does not matter much in Washington, it must not matter in Iraq and Syria.

What is the State of Islamic Extremism: Key Trends, Challenges and Implications for U.S. Policy?

Testimony before the House Armed Services Committee, 13 February, by Lt Gen (ret) Flynn, Dr. Lynch, professor at George Washington, and William Braniff, Executive Director National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism.

Of note, Mr. Braniff referenced scholarly research that suggests one of the critical predictors of increased terrorist group lethality is competition among terrorist groups. Each group attempts to “outbid” the others in terms of attacks.

Image Credit: Mo Riza

The So-Called Islamic State

By Greg Mercer

Ever since al Qaeda in Iraq rebranded itself as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant in 2013 and split from al Qaeda at large, there has been some confusion as to how exactly to refer to the entity. The extremist group’s growing paramilitary force is attempting to create an independent state governed by a Wahhabist ideology. It has been referred to as the Islamic State, IS, ISIS, and ISIL, with no convention appearing to have emerged, and there has been just as much coverage about the debate surrounding this nomenclature vacuum.

The Associated Press, writing in June of 2014, notes that the Arabic name Al-Dawla Al-Islamiya fi al-Iraq wa al-Sham translates to the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, and that al-Sham, which encompasses the Middle East from southern Turkey to Egypt, and is also referred to as “the Levant.” Based on this interpretation, the AP argues that “ISIL” is both the most accurate translation and a clear indication of the group’s aims, as “Islamic State in Iraq and Syria” implies that the group is interested in only two countries. Finally, they note that ISIL is the abbreviation used by the United Nations.

Ishaan Tharoor, writing for the Washington Post in June of 2014, notes that ISIL is used by the State Department and President Obama. However, he points out that the translation leading to ISIL might not be infallible. Citing Hassan Hassan, he notes that “the Levant” might be considered an outdated term, and that “Greater Syria” can be used to refer to the area in question, in which case the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria, and thus ISIS, could be appropriate. He also notes that ISIS is attractive for the way it rolls off the tongue. Tharoor says that the difference between ISIS and ISIL is not as politically charged as, for example, the difference between “Burma” and “Myanmar.”

In September of 2014, Ian Black, writing for The Guardian (which uses ISIS as its in-house standard), noted the sordid history of Islamic State names, and explained that the French government had offered up the term “Daesh,” the Arabic acronym for Al Dawla al-Islamyia fil Iraq wa’al Sham, and which is disliked by Islamic State supporters for notably leaving out the “Islamic” signifier. CNN covered this policy as well.

”You have to name things correctly,” French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told Christiane Amanpour. “They are not a state… they are not representative of Muslims.”

Fabius noted that using the term, which is disliked by extremists for its pronunciation similar to Arabic words for “trample,” or “crush,” is an appropriate response to the group’s brutality. Daesh, then, is a much more politically charged name than IS, ISIS, or ISIL, chosen not just for accuracy, but also for the connotation that it carries for the enemy. It also, notably, leaves out “Islamic,” an attractive option for those who desire to make it clear that these extremists are not representative of Islam or Muslims.

Among this debate though, there is an underlying solidarity. The news of France’s refusal to use Islam-based names came alongside their addition to the forces conducting strikes against targets in Iraq. President Obama might have used a different term than France, but he did so in praising France’s military actions.

Referring to the term Daesh, Army Lt. Gen. James Terry said, “Our partners, at least the ones that I work with, ask us to use that, because they feel that if you use ISIL, that you legitimize a self-declared caliphate. … They feel pretty strongly that we should not be doing that.”

A Google Trends search for ISIS, ISIL, Islamic State, and Daesh reveals the overwhelming popularity for ISIS among Google searches:

ISIS GoogleGoogle

While some of the searches for ISIS can be attributed to it being a word with other connotations (an Egyptian goddess, for instance), the search volumes for all of the terms appear to spike at the same times, indicating major news events, with a much higher volume of searches containing ISIS than the other names. While this might not indicate which is the most popular among governments or news outlets, it shows that ISIS seems to be the name of choice for Google users, and the general public.

Regardless of the naming conventions that they adopt, many countries see a common threat in Iraq and Syria.

 

(Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

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.