National Security

Why Are We Afraid of the Returning Expat Terrorist?

This is not the training you get from ISIL. (Flickr/Andres Alvarez Iglesias)
One of the common refrains we hear in the reporting on ISIL is that officials are worried that Americans will go to Syria or Iraq, fight with ISIL, and then return here to launch terrorist attacks on the United States. As a discrete category of terrorist threat, this is something very odd to be afraid of. It isn't that such people might not have the motivation to carry out a terrorist attack. But if they went to fight with ISIL, they probably already had the motivation. Ah, but what about the things they learned there? This morning, I heard a reporter on NPR refer to such returnees employing their "newfound terrorist skills" against the United States. But what skills are we talking about? If you want to learn how to make a bomb, you don't have to go to Syria to acquire the knowledge. There's this thing called "the internet" where it can be found much easier. The way these potential attackers are talked about, you might think that launching a terrorist attack is something you can only...

Missiles and Rebels: What Could Possibly Go Wrong?

(Rex Features via AP Images)
L ast weekend, the New York Times reported on a meeting President Obama had with a group of foreign policy experts and pundits to talk about combatting ISIL, among other topics. "Asked by one of the columnists what he would do if his strategy did not work and he had to escalate further," reporter Peter Baker wrote, "Mr. Obama rejected the premise. 'I'm not going to anticipate failure at this point,' he said." Now of course, this meeting wasn't about soliciting ideas so much as it was about convincing important opinion leaders that the administration is on the right track, so there was naturally going to be some spinning. But now that this military campaign has begun in earnest, there are few more important questions than this one: Is the administration anticipating failure? And what are they doing about it? We've been through this once before. In 2002 and 2003, the Bush administration and its supporters told us that the Iraq War would be a piece of cake. We'd storm into Baghdad, be "...

ISIL, Iraq and Syria: Why Military Action Won’t Do The Trick

(AP Photo, File)
O n September 10, 2014, President Obama announced a new strategy aimed at “ degrading and destroying ” ISIL (also known as ISIS and the Islamic State). Ideally, the United States should avoid fighting in Iraq and Syria. Now that that the U.S. has committed itself to bombing Iraq and Syria, however, ISIL and the threat it represents should be placed into a historical context that until now has only sporadically informed U.S. plans. In 1994 the United States faced a similar Salafi Islamist non-state entity: the Afghan Taliban. ( Salafism is a strict interpretation of Islamic theology, as laid out by the Qur’an and the Hadith, wherein life must adhere as closely as possible to the conditions that existed during the religion’s first three generations). ISIL, like the Taliban, is a militant Islamist reaction to failed governance. Examining American-Taliban history can help American leaders understand the threat posed by ISIL, the dangers of trying to defeat the movement outright, as well...

So Much For the End of the War on Terror

U.S. Navy photo by Carmichael Yepez
Remember when Barack Obama was going to end the War on Terror? Well today, not only did the U.S. launch air strikes within Syria to target ISIL, we also struck against the Khorasan group, a small al-Qaeda offshoot that was purportedly plotting to blow up American airplanes, and the al-Nusra front, an al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria. Back in May of last year, Obama gave a speech meant to signal a break with the prior twelve years, in which he said, "we must define our effort not as a boundless 'global war on terror,' but rather as a series of persistent, targeted efforts to dismantle specific networks of violent extremists that threaten America." One could argue that that's a distinction without a difference, that it's only about rhetoric. You might also say that the War on Terror isn't so much a set of military actions as it is a mindset. It's the state of being terrorized, in which the nation is constantly on the edge of panic, willing to approve almost anything in the name of staying "...

Why This Will Be the Unaccountable War

He stands alone.
Yesterday the House voted 273-156 to train and equip Syrian rebels, a part of President Obama's plan to combat ISIL, and today the Senate is expected to do the same. While it might look on the surface like Congress taking a stand and accepting responsibility for this new engagement, in fact, this is likely to be a war with no accountability for any political figure other than Barack Obama himself. The "no" votes were a combination of Democrats who opposed the Iraq War in 2003 and don't want to see us pulled back into another war there, and Republicans who either want a bigger war with massive numbers of ground troops or just hate Barack Obama so much they can't cast a vote for anything he proposes (or both). Today, the Senate is expected to pass the measure as well, and we'll probably see the same thing: members from both parties on each side, with drastically different reasons for voting the same way. The whole thing is the kind of war you'd expect from the Obama presidency, defined...

Benghazi Select Committee Hearings Begin; Craziness Inevitably to Follow

Republican members of the Benghazi committee get ready to do their very serious work. (Flickr/Speaker John Boehner)
There's a lot going on in the world: we have a new war ramping up, Ebola is spreading, and various NFL players are discovered beating the crap out of women and children (and I for one am shocked that a group of men who have spent their lives being rewarded for cultivating their most violent instincts and abilities would turn out to be prone to violence). So it may have missed your notice that today marks the beginning of public hearings in the select committee on Benghazi, or as Ed Kilgore has termed it, Benghazi! In advance, Democrats on the committee have set up a website showing how all the questions the committee is asking have already been answered, while a Republican PAC is already airing Benghazi-themed ads against Hillary Clinton. But if you were hoping to tune in this afternoon for thundering denunciations and dark warnings of conspiracy, you may be disappointed, as David Corn reports : In a surprising move that might disappoint right-wingers yearning for proof that Benghazi...

Republicans Go Boldly to (Sort Of) Support Obama on ISIL

For months, when you asked Republicans what they wanted to do about ISIL, they would be quick to assure everyone that they didn't want to deploy large numbers of ground troops. Trainers, intelligence folks, coordinators, sure — but they're very clear that they aren't advocating a re-invasion of Iraq. Whether their reticence about ground troops has its roots in the politics of renewing a desperately unpopular war, or it's because they genuinely believe it would be a bad idea, they were unambiguous on that point. What they did advocate was arming and training Syrian rebels. Likewise, it might be because Barack Obama wasn't doing that and therefore it was a way to be "tougher" than him, or it might be that they think it would make a real difference. But either way, that's the policy they advocated. And now that policy is one of the pillars of the anti-ISIL strategy Obama is laying out, so that's the part Republicans in Congress are getting ready to line up behind : President Obama's plan...

Two Cheers for Obama: Nobody Makes the Best Out of Bad Situation Like He Does

(U.S. Air Force Photo/Staff Sgt. Jessica Hines)
(U.S. Air Force Photo/Staff Sgt. Jessica Hines) An F-16 Fighting Falcon takes off for Poland, September 5, 2014, from Aviano Air Base, Italy. This article originally appeared on The Huffington Post . I t took President Barack Obama a long time, and multiple stumbles, to back into a foreign policy role that looks something like leadership. If Russian President Putin is agreeing to a cease-fire in Ukraine that just might hold, the U.S.-led combination of pressure and restraint deserves much of the credit. Putin considers the loss of the Ukraine one of the great tragedies of Russian history, and before this conflict is over Putin will probably demand and get greater regional autonomy for Russian-majority Eastern Ukraine. But that beats an annexation or a war. At the outset of this conflict, Germany was prepared to subordinate the independence of Ukraine to long-standing German economic ties with Russia. Chancellor Merkel's new toughness, which helped alter the Russian calculus, would not...

Why Is President Obama the Only One Not Trying to Make the Public Afraid?

Remember this? Good times.
There's something odd going on with regard to this ISIL situation (and by the way, it would be good if we could agree on a name for it), or odd if your point of reference is the Bush era, the consequences of which we're still grappling with. Back then, the way things worked was that the president and his advisors would come out and tell us some swarthy Middle Easterners were coming to kill you and your family, and therefore it was imperative that we assent to the policies the administration wanted to pursue. When asked for evidence, they'd respond with statements like, " We don't want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud ." The secretary of Homeland Security told us all to stockpile duct tape and plastic sheeting so you'd be able to survive when al-Qaeda launched a chemical weapons attack on your street. But over time, when most Americans were not actually killed by terrorists, the fear began to subside. Today, we have a president once again asking for support for a new military...

Endless 9/11s: How the Bush-Cheney Response to the World Trade Center Attack Shaped Today’s Terrors

(AP Photo/Alexandre Fuchs)
T hirteen years ago today, al-Qaeda terrorists destroyed the World Trade Center, took out a chunk of the Pentagon, and very nearly crashed a fourth jetliner into a target assumed to be the Capitol or the White House. That attack, in the wake of the Bush administration’s willful refusal to pay attention to increasingly urgent warnings from its own counter-terrorism officials, set in motion a series of events whose aftermath we are still living through. Vice President Dick Cheney and President George W. Bush decided that the real culprit was Saddam Hussein, and made war on Iraq. ISIL is, in part, the creature of the regional destabilization and Islamist backlash that followed. The Bush administration, at first an illegitimate and feeble presidency, found a new voice and a new purpose. Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld took over. In the USA PATRIOT Act, a long wish list of the most extreme warrantless surveillance techniques was rushed into law, and the U.S. became more of...

Just How Big a Threat to the U.S. Is ISIL?

It didn't surprise anyone that most Republicans were displeased with President Obama's speech about ISIS (which he called ISIL, another of its names) last night, and it would be natural to conclude that the key division at work is between a president and party reluctant to use military force abroad, and an opposition party with near-limitless enthusiasm for military adventures. There's plenty of truth there, but there's an even more fundamental divide, even if it's not going to be spoken by President Obama or that many Democrats. The real question is whether ISIL actually constitutes a threat to the United States. For Republicans, it's so obvious that ISIS does threaten us that there isn't any use debating it . ISIL has seized large swaths of territory and picked up weapons left behind by the Iraqi army, they're well-funded thanks to pillaging banks and selling oil on the black market, and they have dreams of a caliphate spanning the entire Middle East. So of course they're a threat...

In Fight Against ISIL, Obama Finds Himself Facing Michael Corleone's Dilemma

(AP Photo/Saul Loeb, Pool)
I f you think that American power and leadership is best demonstrated by our ability to blow things up, this probably wasn’t the speech for you . While President Barack Obama laid out a number of steps he would be taking to ramp up the effort against ISIL (the “Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant,” or, as they now call themselves, the “Islamic State”), including, in addition to air strikes in Iraq, possibly striking the group inside Syria, the speech was much less than the full-throated call to war that his most hawkish critics wanted. Coming in the wake of the heinous beheadings of American journalists James Foley and Stephen Sotloff, clearly stung by criticism of his admission last week that “[w]e don’t have a strategy yet” for addressing ISIL’s presence in Syria, and pressured by relentless drumbeat to “do something”—which in Washington almost always translates to: “Make more war!” —the president obviously felt the need to explain that, yes, we are doing something, and here’s what...

Could Scottish Independence Set Off a Cascade of Secession?

(Danny Lawson/PA Wire - Press Association via AP Images)
(Danny Lawson/PA Wire - Press Association via AP Images) Scottish independence referendum. Deputy First Minister of Scotland Nicola Sturgeon and actor Alan Cumming on September 8, 2014, outside the Yes Kelvin campaign hub in Glasgow ahead of the Scottish independence referendum vote on September 18. This article originally appeared at The Huffington Post . U ntil recently, few people took seriously the possibility that Scotland might actually secede from the United Kingdom. However, with a referendum scheduled for September 18, the latest polls show secession in the lead for the first time, and gaining dramatic momentum . The British government is frantically scrambling to offer the Scots a much more autonomous form of federalism, to head off the drive for full independence. Meanwhile, the specter of a diminished Britain has led to speculative attack against the British pound. What's going on here? For one thing, with the European Union allowing membership for lots of micro-states,...

It's Time To Stop 'Managing' the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict and Just End It

Netanyahu appears to truly not believe that a negotiated agreement can end a conflict with a dedicated opponent, but there's really no other way.

(AP Photo/Majdi Mohammed)
(AP Photo/Majdi Mohammed) A Palestinian protester holds stones during a protest against the expansion of the nearby Jewish settlement of Halamish, in the West Bank village of Nabi Saleh near Ramallah, Friday, November 9, 2012. I n mid-June, a couple of aeons ago the way time is counted here in the Middle East, before rockets were falling in Tel Aviv, before the invasion of Gaza and the death count and the rubble, before "ceasefire" became a synonym for broken hope, when Israel was still an outpost of calm in the region, I took a day's reporting trip to West Bank settlements north of Jerusalem. My guide was Dror Etkes, the veteran Israeli tracker of settlement building and land theft. At a settlement known as Kokhav Ya'akov, northeast of Jerusalem, we saw earth-moving equipment clearing ground for a new development. Kokhav Ya'akov, Etkes explained, is built on what Israel has determined to be state-owned land—except for some 200 houses and a few dozen mobile homes on real estate...

The Government Program That's Equipping Police Like an Occupying Military Force

A chilling index from the Institute for Southern Studies.

(AP Photo/St. Louis Post-Dispatch, J.B. Forbes)
(AP Photo/St. Louis Post-Dispatch, J.B. Forbes) Protesters raise their hands in front of police atop an armored vehicle in Ferguson, Missouri, on Wednesday, Aug. 13, 2014. This index was originally published by Facing South , a website of the Institute for Southern Studies. ( Click here to subscribe to their newsletter.) Year in which Congress initially authorized the Defense Department to give excess arms and ammunition to law enforcement agencies for counter-drug activities, leading to the creation of what's come to be known as the 1033 program: 1990 Number of law enforcement agencies the program has given equipment to: more than 17,000 Percent of U.S. states with agencies participating in the program: 100 (Photo from the Richland County Sheriff's Department website.) Sheriff Leon Lott of Richland County, South Carolina and members of his department's Special Response Team with the military vehicle they call "The Peacemaker." Value of military equipment the program has transferred...

Pages