Your humble blogger has been furiously revising his book manuscript for quite a few days now. As my last post might have suggested, it's possible that during this frantic dash to polish up my prose, my perspective on world politics might be a bit askew.
And finally, there's this morning's news from the New York Times' Ismail Khan:
Nearly 250 prisoners escaped after a massive attack on one of the main prisons in northwestern Pakistan on Monday night, a senior security official said.
Authorities imposed a curfew in the city of Dera Ismail Khan, in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa Province, after the overnight attack on the 100-year-old central prison there, which had held more than 500 prisoners. All roads leading to neighboring restive tribal regions of North and South Waziristan were blocked and a search has begun, officials said, adding that six prisoners had been recaptured.
“The attackers have melted away in the population,” one official said.
Shahidullah Shahid, a spokesman for the banned Tehreek I Taliban Pakistan, said that around 150 fighters took part in the attack and that they freed two hundred inmates. He said two militant fighters were killed in the attack.
In the attack, more than 100 militants armed with rocket-propelled grenades and heavy arms rode in on motorbikes and vehicles and then blasted the prison walls and broke open locks on cells, freeing 243 prisoners, including 30 militants, the security official said.
Now, I'm not a big fan of conspiracy theories, but as a member of the commentariat I'm fully aware of the Rule of Three. [This rule of three?--ed. No, not that one. Oh. This rule of three?!--ed. No, not that one either!] Three similar things hapening means.... it's a trend!!
So, as I spend the next 48 hours
drinking heavily and making animal sacrifices to appease the writing gods checking my footnotes, I would appreciate it if some smart terrorism experts could confirm that what's happening right now is not some strange replay of... well.... this:
The reaction in the Boston area was pretty upbeat, but a few national security writers (including FP's Stephen Walt) have been sounding some sour notes which are worth exploring a bit. Their basic objection is whether it was appropriate to shut down an entire metropolitan area just to hunt down one wounded terrorists.
In short, two miscreants have shut down an entire metropolitan region. And we're supposed to try to not give terrorists what they want.— Jeffrey Goldberg (@JeffreyGoldberg) April 19, 2013
Trying to imagine the reaction of NYers if they were told to stay inside because a crazy person was on the loose. Here we call that Monday.— Michael Cohen (@speechboy71) April 19, 2013
So, in doing this, did the authorities in Boston let the terrorists win?
I don't think so, but I get the argument. As I said on Twitter last night, Boston wasn't in lockdown after the Marathon bombings, but after the suspects had been identified, caught in a confusing crossfire, and seemingly at large but close to capture. Plus, it wasn't like, outside the Watertown search perimeter, people were getting arrested for leaving their homes (I was in the lockdown zone -- believe me, I know). For a short period of time -- less than a day -- requesting people to stay in their homes to capture an identified violent terrorist doesn't strike me as outrageous.
There is another reason I feel this way, however, and this might be a data point in Goldberg and Cohen's favor. The reason the capture of Tsarnaev felt so good is that it provided a sense of closure. In the span of four days, there was a bombing, an identification, a shootout that left one of the bombers dead and a capture of the other one. Game over. That's feels like victory.
Now, that's obviously a simplification and an exaggeration. There's still the fifty-eight victims in critical condition in Boston-area hospitals. There's still the question of how the judicial system will cope with Tsarnaev. There's still the unanswered question of why they wanted to do it. And there's still the public policy issues that will be touched by the past week's events.
But still, Tsarnaev's capture closed a chapter. That seems pretty rare to me in counter-terrorism. In countries like Israel, senses of closure don't happen all that often. In the United States, however, we've been lucky enough to get that sense after Osama bin Laden was killed. Tsarnaev's capture feels the same way.
Maybe the thing about Americans is that, with the blessings of our geography, we want and expect policy closure on issues that defy the very idea of tidy endings -- and we're willing to temporarily sacrifice some of what makes America great for those moments of closure -- or, to put it more plainly, victory.
The question going forward is whether Americans need to reject this desire for closure. We've done it before -- when it was implemented at the start of the Cold War, containment was an indefinite strategy. There are issues where victory is a chimera. But there are also issues where victory is conceivable, so I wouldn't want that notion to be rejected as a general rule. But when it comes to counterterrorism, this shifting of frames might be necessary.
What do you think? Seriously, what do you think?
Your humble blogger awoke this AM to an automated phone call informing me to lock all my doors and not to go outside because of, well, this.
As I'm typing this, one of the suspected bombers is dead, and the other one is on the run and somewhere kinda close to where I lie.
So, I've spent the AM watching cable news and checking my Twitter feed to find out everything about the suspected Boston Marathon bombers. So here are the most useful links I've seen today, beyond the excellent tick-tock on this past evening from the New York Times that was liked above):
1) The Wall Street Journal has a solid profile on the Tsarnaev brothers suspected of being the Boston Marathon bombers. And Adam Serwer at Mother Jones has some disturbing info about Tamerlan's beliefs.
2) Business Insider has some 28 Days Later-style photos of the unpopulated Boston streets right now.
3) How do you build brand loyalty? By staying open for cops during a lockdown. Dunkin Donuts for the win.
4) So, the suspected bombers are Chechen. For useful links to that conflict, check out the Council on Foreign Relations as well as The Monkey Cage and Foreign Policy. Oh, and Chechnya's leaders ain't pleased about this.
5) According to the New York Post, it sounds like these Chechens are in league with the Evil League of Evil to smite down Glenn Beck and Infowars because the latter has been hoarding Bitcoins and -- OK, I clearly need to get off the internet.
That is all. For now.
Patriots' Day is a holiday in Massachusetts. In Boston it is known for two events -- the running of the Boston Marathon and the only Major League Baseball game of the year that starts at 11 a.m. Your humble blogger is in no danger of trying to run a marathon, so he and his family went to see the Red Sox beat the Tampa Bay Rays in a thrilling walk-off win. And as we boarded the Green Line to leave Fenway, me and mine were happy that the day had gone well for Boston sports.
Soon after we got off the train, we learned that it had not been such a great day.
This is the kind of event where our monkey brains try to search for a deeper meaning, some moral or narrative or response that can sustain us through such moments of nihilism. In many ways, that's a mistake. Sure, the "helpers" and the response to the tragedy should be highlighted. Obsessing about the tragedy itself, however, won't do any good and will do much harm. As Bruce Schneier points out, the whole point of such an attack is to maximize the attention paid to the seeming breakdown in order -- although what actually happened was that emergency providers and ordinary citizens did their utmost to bring order back to chaos. In point of fact, terrorist acts on American soil have been very, very rare since 9/11. Furthermore, as John Arquilla observes, stopping this sort of thing can be next to impossible.
As President Obama and others have pointed out, Boston is a tough, resilient town. This sort of thing will shock us in the moment. As shock fades away, what is left is something stronger and more substantive, something that a few homemade bombs cannot destroy. That's the narrative that will hopefully emerge, and it's the one that does the best job of defeating the psychology of terrorism.
The next thing that will happen is foolish, uninformed speculation about who or whom was responsible. The Boston Globe's Todd Wallack and Andrea Estes have a story quoting lots of terrorism and foreign affairs experts on the question of who was responsible. I'm quoted as well, and I'll let that be the last thing I say on this subject until we have more information:
Daniel Drezner, professor of international politics at Tufts University’s Fletcher School, cautioned that there is too little information to know who might be to blame. Some reports linked the Oklahoma City bombing to foreign terrorists, but it turned out to be the work of Timothy James McVeigh, an American seeking revenge against the government for its siege in Waco.
“Trying to speculate would be foolhardy,” Drezner said. “If anyone should learn anything from the past, it is that you shouldn’t speculate without more information.”
Your humble blogger has been busy at the U.S. Army War College's annual conference on The Future of American Landpower ... at which he's heard a lot about cyberattacks. So at the risk of violating one of my own maxims, I want to write one post about this whole cyber business. Because the more I apply my monkey brain to this, the more dubious I get about how it's being talked about, and I want to try to work my way through this.
First, if we're living in a world where the director of national intelligence thinks it's the number-one threat out there ... well, let's face it, then it's not a very scary world, is it? I mean, if industrial espionage has replaced terrorism as the biggest national security threat facing the United States ... meh. I don't want there to be industrial espionage, but let's face it, this ain't the kind of Cold War-level threat that I hear bandied about so frequently.
But, to be fair, I think concerns about "cyber" aren't just about the industrial stuff -- it's attacks on critical infrastructure and so forth. Except now we need to step back and ask under what circumstances such attacks would occur. There are terrorists of course -- which means that this is a old threat in a new domain. There are state actors -- which means that this is an even older threat in a new domain. Terrorists will most likely attempt such attacks when the opportunity arises. State actors presumably would not attempt such actions on a full-bore scale unless there were actual military hostilities. Cases like Stuxnet fall in between ... into espionage and covert action.
So, can international norms about cyberattacks be negotiated? I know NATO is trying something like this with the Tallinn Manual, and I know the United States is insisting that the laws of war apply to cyberdomains. I suspect that this has a chance of working in regulating real world interstate military conflicts, because, with any shadow of the future, most states are prepared to obey most regimes most of the time.
But let's face it -- most of the concerns about cyber aren't about what happens if a war breaks out. The concerns are about regulating such attacks during peacetime, which means this is about regulating intelligence-gathering, espionage, and covert actions. Now, let me just list below the number of international regimes that establish the rules, norms and procedures for regulating these kind of activities:
Nada. Zip. Nothing. Or, as one journal article more delicately put it, "espionage is curiously ill-defined under international law."
That's because espionage can't really be regulated. For any agreement to function, violators have to be detected and punishment has to be enforced. In the world of espionage, however, revealing your ability to detect is in and of itself an intelligence reveal that states are deeply reluctant to do.
So I don't think negotiations will work, and I sure as hell don't think smart sanctions will work either. Most of what concerns us about cyber falls under the espionage and covert action category, and that's never been regulated at the global level.
What am I missing? Seriously, what -- because what I just blogged is highly subject to change.
Greetings from Great Britain, land of delicious clotted cream and no campaign ads. In other words, pure bliss.
On this electuon day, I'm glad to see that others here at Foreign Policy are thinking about the possible catastrophes that might befall our next leader. I see that "rise of the undead" was not listed among those possible catastrophes, however.
Fortunately, Jeffrey Goldberg is on the case. For his Bloomberg column we chatted about whether Obama or Romney or someone else would be the better leader to fight the undead menace. Read the whole thing to see our takes. And happy election day!
Your humble blogger has returned from Shanghai, and would like to apologize profusely for the lack of blogging this past week. Conspiracy theorists might be wondering if it was because of The Great Firewall or rising anti-foreigner sentiment in China (which, based on personal experience and media reportage, appears to be vastly exaggerated) or whether I was some top-secret emissary of the U.S. governmment. The truth is much more banal: my laptop's power cord died during this trip, so my computer had no juice for blogging.
I will post something about Sino-American relations in due course, but in the meanwhile I see that over the past week, my departing zombie joke became... a big enough zombie story to require a CDC public response. The Huffington Post's Andy Campbell reports:
Hey, remember how the new Al Qaeda was going to be more networked and more capable of inspiring home-grown terrorism? Remember how today's threat enviroment was supposed to be worse than the Cold War?
Bear these points in mind when considering two news items that crossed my screen today. In the first, courtesy of Micah Zenko, a Pentagon official suggests that maybe, just maybe, the U.S. overrestimated Al Qaeda's capabilities:
With the benefit of more than a decade of hindsight, America may have misjudged the true threat posed by al-Qaeda in the immediate aftermath of the 2001 terrorist attacks, a top Pentagon official said Tuesday.
“Al-Qaida wasn’t as good as we thought they were on 9/11,” said Michael A. Sheehan, the assistant secretary of defense for special operations and low intensity conflict.
“Quite frankly, we, the American people, were asleep at the switch, the U.S. government, prior to 9/11. So an organization that wasn’t that good looked really great on 9/11,” Sheehan told a room full of special operators in Washington who were attending an annual Special Operations, Low Intensity Conflict Planning Conference.
“Everyone looked to the skies every day after 9/11 and said, ‘When is the next attack?’ And it didn’t come, partly because al-Qaida wasn’t that capable. They didn’t have other units here in the U.S. … Really, they didn’t have the capability to conduct a second attack.”
The true limitations of al-Qaida are one of two key reasons that America has not suffered a major terrorist attack since 2001.
“The other reason is that we actually responded … and crushed al-Qaida immediately after 9/11, and continually for the last 10 years,” Sheehan said. “We are better than we often give ourselves credit for. We have a very polarized political system and it’s very difficult for anybody to actually give credit or receive credit for how good we are.”
Well, sure, Al Qaeda abroad has been weakened, but this homegrown thing, I mean, that's probably a really big-- hey, what is Scott Shane reporting about in the New York Times?
A feared wave of homegrown terrorism by radicalized Muslim Americans has not materialized, with plots and arrests dropping sharply over the two years since an unusual peak in 2009, according to a new study by a North Carolina research group.
The study, to be released on Wednesday, found that 20 Muslim Americans were charged in violent plots or attacks in 2011, down from 26 in 2010 and a spike of 47 in 2009.
Charles Kurzman, the author of the report for the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security, called terrorism by Muslim Americans "a minuscule threat to public safety." Of about 14,000 murders in the United States last year, not a single one resulted from Islamic extremism, said Mr. Kurzman, a professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina (emphasis added).
Digging a wee bit into the actual report -- and read the whole thing, it ain't long -- I'll just reprint the closing two paragraphs below:
Repeated alerts by government officials may be issued as a precaution, even when the underlying threat is uncertain. Officials may be concerned about how they would look if an attack did take place and subsequent investigations showed that officials had failed to warn the public. But a byproduct of these alerts is a sense of heightened tension that is out of proportion to the actual number of terrorist attacks in the United States since 9/11.
This study’s findings challenge Americans to be vigilant against the threat of homegrown terrorism while maintaining a responsible sense of proportion. (emphasis added)
Now, I'm sure that the reason for this lull is that Al Qaeda's remaining assets in the United States are focusing their energies on getting all turkeys to become halal or something. That said, I'm going to continue to insist that the United States faces a much less threatening threat environment now than it did fifty years ago. Oh, and that I don't need to listen to Representative Peter King when he opens his mouth on national security issues.
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One of my guilty pleasures is Ana Marie Cox's Twitter feed, and based on what I'm reading there, there's apparently some hearings going on down in Washington about repealing the Don't Ask, Don't Tell (DADT) policy with respect to homosexuals serving in the military. The House has already voted to repeal; it's up to the Senate now. The Defense Department report seems pretty through and clear that, in the end, it's a repeal that should take place as soon as possible.
Senator John McCain, who earlier in the decade voiced cautious support for the repeal of DADT, is now
digging deeper into his bunker expressing serious reservations about any change in the policy. He wants the soldiers polled directly (though that's kinda what the DoD report already did) and wants their opinions to dictate the policy change (which kinda contradicts the 200+ year traditions of civilian control of the military and, you know, the chain of command).
In doing so, McCain seems to be undercutting his past statements on how and if/when to repeal DADT, as Jon Stewart demonstrates to devastating effect in the clip above. This has prompted much pop psychoanalysis about what's exactly driving John McCain's truculence.
My position, based on careful consideration of the matter, is as follows:
1) The perceptual bias in the testimony to date is focusing on the risks and costs of changing the status quo. Will unit cohesion be compromised? Will the change undermine national security during wartime? This partially misses the point: the status quo is undermining national security far more than any change. The rigorous enforcement of DADT is preventing competent and patriotic soldiers from serving their country, particularly in high-demand positions like, say, Arabic translators. It's fine to say that repealing DADT might have some costs -- but those costs have to be weighed against the costs of continuing as is. And from what I read, those costs are serious to the country and debilitating to the affected soldiers.
2) I therefore really and truly don't give a s**t why John McCain's position has shifted. I just want to know why the ranking minority member of the Senate Armed Services committee is throwing national security, civilian control of the military, and the hierarchical chain of command under the f***ing bus. John McCain is weakening the institution he claims to love the most. I don't care why he's doing it -- I just care that he's doing it.
That is all.
Cards on the table: having experienced one first-hand, I hate the new full body scanners being used at airports. I hate that their existence allows TSA officials to bark additional orders at me like I'm a five-year old. I hate having to hold my hands up in a surrender position to be scanned. I hate having to empty every f***ing piece of lint from my pockets before going through one. I hate that they have lengthened and not shortened the time it takes to get through security. I hate the fact that other countries with equally acute terrorist concerns are not nearly as physically invasive in their security screenings. I hate the sneaking suspicion I have that the scanners are merely a massive exercise in
kabuki security theater designed to alleviate the psychological fears of some travelers. I hate that the official response to these complaints boils down to, "we face a determined enemy." I hate the stupid reassurances that the "imaging technology that we use cannot store, export, print or transmit images," when, whoops, it turns out that this has already happened. I hate the ways in which these scanners make it so easy to mock the United States.
The thing is, right now I'm in the distinct minority of Americans.
The above chart is the result of a CBS poll released yesterday (which also found a majority of Americans to oppose racial profiling) on the question of full-body scanners in airports. The results speak for themselves.
Or do they? Here are a couple of different ways of interpreting these results.
1) Big friggin' surprise. It's pretty easy to find U.S. public opinion polls demonstrating majority support for homeland security measures ranging from crackdowns on illegal immigration to
torture enhanced interrogration techniques. As I've said in the past, when it comes to homeland security, the average American has few qualms about strengthening the national security state. This latest poll is just one more data point supporting that argument.
2) Oh, you wait... you just wait. Nate Silver ably rounds up the rages against these machines coming from angry unions, pissed-off bloggers, and generally cantankerous individuals surreptitiously taping their pat-downs.
What do these vocal members of the minority have in common? They've all had to fly recently. Silver posits that as more Americans face the indignity of these scanners, the poll numbers will start to change. Well see.
3) New Elite, meet Real America. Silver also points out that a minority of travelers comprise a majority of actual air travel:
A study by the market-research firm Arbitron found, for instance, that frequent fliers — those who take 4 or more round trips per year — account for the 57 percent majority of all air travel, even though they make up just 18 percent of air travelers and something like 7 percent of the overall American population.
At least one past survey has identified differences in perceptions about airport security procedures between frequent and occasional fliers. This was a 2007 Gallup poll, which found that while just 26 percent of occasional travels were dissatisfied with airport security, the level rose to 37 percent among those who fly more frequently.
What I think we need to know then, is how those who have actually traveled through an airport that uses the full-body scanners feel about them — particularly if they’re people who fly frequently and are therefore going to bear the burden of any inconvenience, embarrassment, invasion of privacy or health risk brought on by the new technology.
Well... maybe. Silver wants to prioritize the preferences of frequent travelers over other Americans. To be fair to the pro-scanner position, however, it's not just the people who board planes who are affected the consequences of homeland security failures. I'm not convinced that the opinions of grounded Americans shouldn't apply.
There's a deeper cultural question, however. There's an awful lot of resentment welling up in the United States against "elites." Defining just who is in the elite and who is in "Real America" is an inexact science. I can't help but wonder, however, if frequent air travel is the perfect Sorting Hat that separates the elites (i.e., the frequent travelers) from the masses (i.e., everyone else). [UPDATE: Adam Serwer makes this point as well: "The TSA's new passenger-screening measures just happen to fall on the political and economic elites who can make their complaints heard. It's not happening to those scary Arabs anymore. It's happening to 'us.'" See also Seth Masket and Kevin Drum on this point.]
This isn't necessarily a partisan divide -- conservative elites appear to be just as frosted with the TSA as liberals. Body scanners are an issue that only animates the hostility of elites, however. Real America couldn't give a flying fig one way or the other -- except if National Op-out Day gets them mad when they're traveling because of even longer security lines. But I think it's a better than 50/50 chance that they'll be angrier at the opt-outers than the TSA employees.
Maybe the scanners will quickly disappear in the face of elite protests. Or maybe it means that some clever populist will seize on this issue as a way to talk about out-of-touch elites again.
Clearly, I hope it's #2, but I don't know. With travel season upon us during the next six weeks, we'll see.....
Stephen Colbert's Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula's attempt to rally fear in the hearts of Americans through its foiled toner cartridge gambit continues to reverberate in homeland security circles. Clearly, there are still a few bugs in the system. That said, here are my quick takeaways:
1) Al Qaeda failed… again. Seriously, if al Qaeda is ostensibly the New York Yankees of terrorism, the Steinbrenners would have fired the GM and coach years ago.
2) As this New York Times round-up suggests, al Qaeda has had to adopt new tactics because its preferred tactics have been thwarted:
[It was] a rare attack aimed at the air cargo system -- one of the foundations of the global economy -- rather than the passenger system, which has received the most attention from governments working to avoid a repeat of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
The Times story goes on to bemoan the failure to ratchet up security in the cargo system, which is a fair point. An implicit conclusion to draw from this switch in tactics, however, is that al Qaeda-affiliated groups are being frustrated on the passenger front.
3) Will Juan Williams now be fearful every time he sees a toner cartridge, even though most toner cartridges are not evil?
4) A common mantra about combating terrorism is that homeland security officials have to aim for a 1.000 batting average, while terrorists just need to get lucky once. I wonder if this is really true, however. Each time a new type of attack is thwarted, government officials learn a great deal about new tactics and methods, and a treasure trove of intelligence can be quickly generated. Failed attacks are likely to discourage some al Qaeda sympathizers, leading to more informants.
No, al Qaeda doesn't need a perfect track record, but failure after failure does carry strategic and operational costs.
5) The Saudi counterintelligence effort is getting an awful lot of good press.
Am I missing anything?
Over at Wired, Spencer Ackerman assesses how low al Qaeda has fallen:
Nine years ago, al Qaeda crashed a plane into the Pentagon and came dangerously close to taking out the White House. Now it wants to hit places like Cosi and Potbelly during the lunch rush in the hope of taking out "a few government employees," writes an extremist using the name Yahya Ibrahim, who also wrote for the launch issue.
That’s not the only idea Inspire floats for al Qaeda wannabes. Got a pickup truck? Why not create the "ultimate mowing machine" by welding steel blades to the grill and driving up on crowded sidewalks to "mow down the enemies of Allah?"
But it’s "paramount" to target government workers, Ibrahim boasts, "and the location would also give the operation additional media attention," according to our friend James Gordon Meek of the New York Daily News. In other words, killing a lot of people all at once is less important than letting Americans -- and government workers in particular -- know they aren’t safe in their capitol city.
Two thoughts. First, this will be an interesting test of homeland security priorities. If al Qaeda is relying on disaffected Americans to do their dirty work for them on U.S. soil, then we will soon see just how many AQ sympathizers there really are in the United States. If nothing happens on this front before the midterms, however, then I'm going to conclude that al Qaeda's latest tactics are a big flop.
Second, even if AQ's latest gambit succeeds in fomenting one or two attacks, this is really and truly small beer. Al Qaeda is now following the narrative arc of VH1's Behind the Music franchise:
ANNOUNCER: Al Qaeda had burst onto the global scene with an array of pyrotechnic successes. After the 9/11 attacks, they seemed unstoppable. Even after losing their base in Afghanistan, Osama bin Laden's escape from Tora Bora seemed the stuff of legend. It looked like the supergroup created by a construction magnate from Saudi Arabia and a surgeon from Egypt would never fade away.
As the years passed, however, al Qaeda found it difficult to top their greatest hits. For a few years they coasted on prior successes, along with minor hits in Bali, Madrid, London, and parts of the Middle East. By 2009, however, their lack of success was becoming noticeable.
FORMER AQ MEMBER: Oh, yeah, it drove Osama crazy. He'd keep saying, "we need to top 9/11." It started to drive al-Zawahiri nuts. Why do you think he made that stupid "house Negro" tape?
ANNOUNCER: By 2010, al Qaeda was a shell of their former selves, and in a strange reversal of fortune, relied on their groupies to help them out.
TERRORIST ANALYST: You knew they were desperate when they started calling on their tribute bands to perform for them. "Bomb this for us, shoot that for us." That's the last act of a desperate group.
FORMER AQ SYMPATHIZER: That English-language Inspire magazine was the last straw for me. I mean, seriously, it was clear that they had sold out by then. I only think about their earlier work when I think of them now. Seriously, did Tucker Carlson design that thing?
ANNOUNCER: By late 2010, the Mexican drug cartels were all the rage. Al Qaeda's time… had come and gone.
Hopefully, there will be no third act in which al Qaeda bounces back with a comeback hit only to fall prey to a shame spiral.
Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images
You wouldn't know it from the blog, but for the past week I have been astonishingly productive. I've written long-overdue papers, copy-edited long-overdue page proofs, prepped long-overdue syllabi, refereed long-overdue manuscripts... you get the drift.
Why the burst of productivity? Well, one reason is that I've been avoiding the two Big Questions haunting the foreign policy blogosphere for the past week or so:
2) The whole mosque-in-lower-Manhattan imbroglio.
Sooooooo.... now that I've fully caught up in my day job, I guess it's time to wade in. Let's start with
the hallowed ground of the former Burlington Coat Factory Ground Zero Mosque Cordoba House Park51. I have only two (printable) thoughts on the matter, so let's get them out of the way:
1) Of course the mosque should be built. There is no, repeat, no ground for government at any level to prevent the construction of this structure on private property. The political and moral arguments against this mosque appear to require those making the arguments to fall back on the moral equivalency between the United States and Saudi Arabia. The other objections I've heard/seen on this issue have been either inane or curiously uninformed about the geography about Manhattan (note to smart conservatives: now would be an excellent moment to point out that there is some rough equivalency to these Ground Zero Mosque criticisms and arguments against opening up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling).
2) I'm getting really sick of "the terrorists will win" line of criticism being levied against those wishing to prevent construction of the mosque. Over the past few days, I've seen bipartisan criticism of the mosque criticism along the lines of, "this line of argumentation is the best way to help Al Qaeda." Exhibit A of this is Mark Halperin's plea to the GOP to drop this issue:
[W]]hat is happening now — the misinformation about the center and its supporters; the open declarations of war on Islam on talk radio, the Internet and other forums; the painful divisions propelled by all the overheated rhetoric — is not worth whatever political gain your party might achieve....
[A] national political fight conducted on the terms we have seen in the past few days will lead to a chain reaction at home and abroad that will have one winner — the very extreme and violent jihadists we all can claim as our true enemy.
You know, I remember oh so many years ago the constant use of "if you say X, or criticize policy Y, or challenge official Z, then the terrorists win" kind of discourse. It was horses**t then, and it's horses**t now. I'll be damned if I'm going to see debate in the United States circumscribed because of fears of how Al Qaeda will react. [But it's an inane debate!--ed. Really? More inane than death panels? Ha!!]
The truth is that Al Qaeda has been seriously weakened, and that the effect of this kind of debate on the attitude of possible AQ sympathizers is marginal. It is important for presidents and other responsible policy officials to
expose Newt Gingrich's vapidity articulate a clear message, but airheads commentators like Sarah Palin should be encouraged to bloviate articulate their side of the debate freely and fully.
To his credit, this is a distinction that Michael Gerson gets in his Washington Post column today:
Though columnists are loath to admit it, there is a difference between being a commentator and being president. Pundits have every right to raise questions about the construction of an Islamic center near Ground Zero. Where is the funding coming from? What are the motives of its supporters? Is the symbolism insensitive?
But the view from the Oval Office differs from the view from a keyboard. A president does not merely have opinions; he has duties to the Constitution and to the citizens he serves -- including millions of Muslim citizens. His primary concern is not the sifting of sensitivities but the protection of the American people and the vindication of their rights.
By this standard, Obama had no choice but the general path he took. No president, of any party or ideology, could tell millions of Americans that their sacred building desecrates American holy ground. This would understandably be taken as a presidential assault on the deepest beliefs of his fellow citizens. It would be an unprecedented act of sectarianism, alienating an entire faith tradition from the American experiment. If a church or synagogue can be built on a commercial street in Lower Manhattan, declaring a mosque off-limits would officially equate Islam with violence and terrorism. No president would consider making such a statement. And those commentators who urge the president to do so fundamentally misunderstand the presidency itself.
An inclusive rhetoric toward Islam is sometimes dismissed as mere political correctness. Having spent some time crafting such rhetoric for a president, I can attest that it is actually a matter of national interest. It is appropriate -- in my view, required -- for a president to draw a clear line between "us" and "them" in the global conflict with Muslim militants.
Should Sarah Palin, Newt Gingrich, Abe Foxman et al be criticized for making ill-informed, incoherent, and idiotic arguments? Sure, and as loudly as possible, please. But quit bringing Al Qaeda into it. Silencing debate on national security grounds is so very 2002.
TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/Getty Images
Answer: they both pretty much put me to sleep.
Call me shallow, call me jaded, call me cynical, but there's not that much there there in either effort. Day 1 of the Top Secret story was the most informative of the bunch, no doubt -- but even that story was frustratingly short on detail. Day 2 and Day 3 were worse, in that they didn't tell me anything I already know. Day 2 of Top Secret America told me that outsourcing to private contractors is bad, bad, bad, and very expensive. Day 3 was kind of like your local news teasers: "Are NSA employees living RIGHT NEXT DOOR TO YOU?!" If you live in the vicinity of BWI, it turns out the answer is, "yes, but it's not a big deal." Again... yawn.
If Top Secret America actually prompts hearings/reform efforts, then yay, dead tree journalism. Otherwise, the reveal was far less than the hype.
As for Wikileaks, Blake Hounshell and Andrew Exum sum up my feelings on the matter. So it turns out that the war in Afghanistan is not going well and Pakistan is playing a double game? Well, knock me down with a feather!!
In essence, neither story provides much in the way of new information -- they merely serve as news pegs through which intractable policy issues can be debated anew. If those debates prove fruitful, that's great -- but during a summer in which I've seen the Stupidest Topics Ever become cable show fodder, I ain't getting my hopes up.
This might be my own subfield prejudice at work. Every once in a while someone from security studies tells me that international political economy is really, really boring and that they can't understand how I could find it interesting. I think today is one of those days in which I would tell them the same thing.
Am I missing anything? Seriously, anything?
I suspect everyone inside the Beltway will be discussing the first part of the Washington Post's "Top Secret America" series on the intelligence and homeland security apparatus that has mushroomed since the 9/11 attacks. Indeed, the 5,400 word opening salvo by Dana Priest and William Arkin doesn't pull any punches in its lead:
The top-secret world the government created in response to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, has become so large, so unwieldy and so secretive that no one knows how much money it costs, how many people it employs, how many programs exist within it or exactly how many agencies do the same work.
These are some of the findings of a two-year investigation by The Washington Post that discovered what amounts to an alternative geography of the United States, a Top Secret America hidden from public view and lacking in thorough oversight. After nine years of unprecedented spending and growth, the result is that the system put in place to keep the United States safe is so massive that its effectiveness is impossible to determine.
The investigation's other findings include:
* Some 1,271 government organizations and 1,931 private companies work on programs related to counterterrorism, homeland security and intelligence in about 10,000 locations across the United States.
* An estimated 854,000 people, nearly 1.5 times as many people as live in Washington, D.C., hold top-secret security clearances.
* In Washington and the surrounding area, 33 building complexes for top-secret intelligence work are under construction or have been built since September 2001. Together they occupy the equivalent of almost three Pentagons or 22 U.S. Capitol buildings - about 17 million square feet of space.
* Many security and intelligence agencies do the same work, creating redundancy and waste. For example, 51 federal organizations and military commands, operating in 15 U.S. cities, track the flow of money to and from terrorist networks.
* Analysts who make sense of documents and conversations obtained by foreign and domestic spying share their judgment by publishing 50,000 intelligence reports each year - a volume so large that many are routinely ignored.
Priest and Arkin are top-notch reporters and analysts, and a lot of the material in this report is pretty damning. It's well worth the read.
I have one small quibble, however, which is with the "redundancy and waste" argument about multiple agencies doing the same work. This is a standard argument in favor of rationalization, and it's not always wrong. It should be noted, however, that some redundancy is actually a good thing, particularly on an issue like counter-terrorism.
Say a single bureaucracy is tasked with intelligence gathering about threat X. Let's say this bureaucracy represents the best of the best of the best -- the A-Team. The A-Team does it's job and catches 95% of the emergent threats from X. That's still 5% that is missed.
Now say you have another independent bureaucracy with a similar remit. This agency is staffed by different people with their own set of blind spots. Let's even stipulate that we're talking about the B-team here, and they'll only catch 80% of the emergent threats from X.
If thesr two bureaucracies are working independently -- and this is an important if -- then the odds that a threat would go unobserved by both bureaucracies is .05*.2 = .01 = 1%. So, by adding another bureaucracy, even a less competent one, the chances of an undetected threat getting through are cut from 5% to 1%. That ain't nothing.
Now, there are a lot of assumptions that need to hold for this effect to hold. Priest and Arkin suggest that some of these assumptions don't hold (many inteligence analysts relying on the same information). They also note the rise of segemented information, however, which leads me to think that some redundancy might be a good thing.
Admittedly, a world of 1,271 agencies tackling this question is probably one of redundancy run amok. I'm just saying that a little redundancy is a very good thing.
Win McNamee/Getty Images
Over the weekend, CIA chief Leon Panetta had a chat with This Week's Jake Tapper, and provided the following assessment of Al Qaeda' capabilities:
TAPPER: How many Al Qaida do you think are in Afghanistan?
PANETTA: I think the estimate on the number of Al Qaida is actually relatively small. I think at most, we're looking at maybe 60 to 100, maybe less. It's in that vicinity. There's no question that the main location of Al Qaida is in tribal areas of Pakistan....
PANETTA: I think what's happened is that the more we put pressure on the Al Qaida leadership in the tribal areas in Pakistan -- and I would say that as a result of our operations, that the Taliban leadership is probably at its weakest point since 9/11 and their escape from Afghanistan into Pakistan. Having said that, they clearly are continuing to plan, continuing to try to attack this country, and they are using other ways to do it.
TAPPER: Al Qaida you're talking about.
PANETTA: That's correct. They are continuing to do that, and they're using other ways to do it, which are in some ways more difficult to try to track. One is the individual who has no record of terrorism. That was true for the Detroit bomber in some ways. It was true for others.
They're using somebody who doesn't have a record in terrorism, it's tougher to track them. If they're using people who are already here, who are in hiding and suddenly decide to come out and do an attack, that's another potential threat that they're engaged in. The third is the individual who decides to self-radicalize. Hasan did that in the Fort Hood shootings. Those are the kinds of threats that we see and we're getting intelligence that shows that's the kind of stream of threats that we face, much more difficult to track. At the same time, I think we're doing a good job of moving against those threats. We've stopped some attacks, we continue to work the intelligence in all of these areas. But that area, those kinds of threats represent I think the most serious threat to the United States right now. (emphasis added)
Seriously? 60-100 guys? That's it? As Philip Giraldi points out, this kind of assessment raises some Very Important Questions, like: "If CIA Director Leon Panetta is correct and al-Qaeda has been reduced to a tiny remnant why are we spending nearly a trillion dollars a year on defense, intelligence, and homeland security?"
It's a fair question -- shouldn't these guys be able to deal with 60-100 guys?
The easy answers here are A) path dependence; and B) concerns about U.S. reputation. There's a harder answer here, however, that is buried within Panetta's comments, as well as those of just about every other counter-terrorism expert. Let's call it the Counter-Terrorism Mantra, which consists of the following:
1) Al Qaeda is nowhere near as powerful as it was a decade ago
2) Al Qaeda is now really unpopular among Muslims worldwide
3) Because of their desperate straits, Al Qaeda is encouraging anyone and everyone to try attacking the United States
4) One of these homegrown, disgruntled sorts might
not be a moron be smart and lucky enough to succeed.
I understand why the Counter-Terrorism Mantra is used -- because the political costs of underestimating Al Qaeda's capabilities are far greater than overestimating their capabilities. That said, this kind of mantra leads to Very Stupid and Costly policies.
The fact is, Al Qaeda's abilities to execute Grand Guignol-kind of attacks appears to be nil. There have been plenty of opportunities over the past five years for AQ to launch the kind of attack that would put fear into the heart of the West -- the USA-England World Cup match, most recently -- and there's been nothing. Even if Captain Underpants or the Times Square bomber had succeeded, the carnage would have been on a far lower scale than the 9/11 attacks.
Isn't it time that some rational cost-benefit analysis was applied to counter-terrorism policies? In a world where "The [defense budget] gusher has been turned off, and will stay off for a good period of time," isn't it time for political leaders to argue in favor of resource retrenchment, even if it increases the probability of a successful attack just a smidgen?
I can ask this question, because I can be dismissed as an out-of-touch, elities, zombie-loving, pointy-headed academic who knows nothing about counter-terrorism. What I'd like to see is a few bona-fide counterterrorism experts have the stones to ask a similar question.
Alex Wong/Getty Images
Your humble blogger has been relatively sanguine about the attempted Times Square bombing effort. That said, Bruce Hoffman's National Interest essay -- published before the attempt -- is a sobering read that is worth a close look. The paragraph that stood out for me:
We have failed to acknowledge that al-Qaeda has a strategy and, moreover, that it is one designed to overwhelm us. It is a strategy of attrition. And it is a strategy of attrition that focuses on strengthening its own capabilities and expanding its recruitment pool, particularly on our shores, while weakening our ability to fight. It seeks to flood already-stressed intelligence systems with “noise” and with low-level threats from “lone wolves” and other jihadi hangers-on (i.e., low-hanging fruit) that will consume the attention of law-enforcement and intelligence agencies in the hope that these distractions will allow more serious operations to slip by unnoticed.
Food for thought.
Believing that this killer whale acted alone is a fool's errand. This is clearly a harbinger of future killer whale attacks. I demand that the Department of Homeland Security launch a Killer Whale Division immediately. These killer mammals of the
theme park ocean must be brought to heed.
Some analysts might argue that this is simply a misunderstanding, and that better communication would help. This is national security naivite at its most extreme. Indeed, according to the Los Angeles Times, this whale "had been involved in two previous deaths, including one at the water park in 1999." I bet authorities are Mirandizing the whale as I type this.
Negotiating with killer whales will accomplish nothing -- after all, they are killer whales. We cannot rest unless we have put the largest mammals in the world in their proper place.
Longtime readers might have noticed that I did not blog about the Captain Underpants Bomber from Christmas Day 2009. Why not? Well,
two three reasons:
Peter Beinart, Marc Lynch and Fareed Zakaria have already said 90% of what I wanted to say. My only additional observation is one I'm reluctant to bring to the attention of terrorists, but the professor in me can't resist.
It's striking how Al Qaeda and its emanations have demonstrated zero creativity in their past decade of attempts to strike the United States. It's all about airplanes, airplanes, airplanes -- even though their ability to use the planes themselves as large bombs has been effectively neutralized.
Any Hollywood hack could devise far more inventive acts of terrorism -- which is why I think we need to treat those hacks the same way we treat nuclear scientists. Don't ever let Michael Bay shoot on location in Yemen (I confess to being on the fence about Megan Fox and/or Shia Labeouf).
Beyond that, everyone just relax a bit.
[Drat!!--ed. C'mon, pay up. I was sure you couldn't connect Captain Underpants to Megan Fox!!--ed. And that's why I get the big blog bucks, my imaginary friend.]
I found out about the 9/11 on the phone in Heathrow Airport waiting to board a plane home. I was trying to call my wife (and having difficulty getting through) to let her know that my flight had been mysteriously delayed. Then she told me what happened.
My first thought once I recovered from the shock? It could have been worse.
It really could have been. For the next few weeks, I kept imagining follow-up scenarios to ratchet up the mayhem and panic. Thankfully, none of them have come to pass. But I wasn't the only one to envision ever-worsening scenarios.
Eight years on, it's good to see that the scar of 9/11, though always present, has faded. In the New York Times, N.R. Kleinfield interviews various New Yorkers about their post-9/11 expectations -- and their pleasant surprise that the city's vitality has exceeded those expectations:
So much has been said and written about what happened on 9/11. The following day is forgotten, just another dulled interlude in the aftermath of an incoherent morning.
But New Yorkers were introduced that day to irreducible presumptions about their wounded city that many believed would harden and become chiseled into the event’s enduring legacy.
New York would become a fortress city, choked by apprehension and resignation, forever patrolled by soldiers and submarines. Another attack was coming. And soon.
Tourists? Well, who would ever come again? Work in one of the city’s skyscrapers? Not likely. The Fire Department, gutted by 343 deaths, could never recuperate.
If a crippled downtown Manhattan were to have any chance of regeneration, ground zero had to be rebuilt quickly, a bricks and mortar nose-thumbing to terror.
Eight years later, those presumptions are cobwebbed memories that never came to pass. Indeed, glimpses into a few aspects of the city help measure the gap between what was predicted and what actually came to be.
If the best revenge is living well, then the city of New York has exacted its revenge many times over.
Ooooh, William Broad has a story in the New York Times that is the secret fantasy dream article for anyone wanting to criticize the Obama administration on national security grounds. The first few paragraphs consist of gift after gift:
The federal government mistakenly made public a 266-page report, its pages marked “highly confidential,” that gives detailed information about hundreds of the nation’s civilian nuclear sites and programs, including maps showing the precise locations of stockpiles of fuel for nuclear weapons.
The publication of the document was revealed Monday in an on-line newsletter devoted to issues of federal secrecy. That publicity set off a debate among nuclear experts about what dangers, if any, the disclosures posed. It also prompted a flurry of investigations in Washington into why the document was made public.
On Tuesday evening, after inquiries from The New York Times, the document was withdrawn from a Government Printing Office Web site.
Several nuclear experts argued that any dangers from the disclosure were minimal, given that the general outlines of the most sensitive information were already known publicly.
“These screw-ups happen,” said John M. Deutch, a former Director of Central Intelligence and Deputy Secretary of Defense who is now at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “It’s going further than I would have gone but doesn’t look like a serious breach.”
But David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security, a private group in Washington that tracks nuclear proliferation, said information that shows where nuclear fuels are stored “can provide thieves or terrorists inside information that can help them seize the material, which is why that kind of data is not given out. It can become a physical security threat.”
The information, considered sensitive but not classified, was assembled for transmission later this year to the International Atomic Energy Agency as part of a process by which the United States is opening itself up to more stringent inspections in hopes that foreign countries will do likewise, especially Iran and other states believed to be clandestinely developing nuclear arms.
President Obama sent the document to Congress on May 5 for Congressional review and possible revision, and the Government Printing Office subsequently posted the draft declaration on its web site.
[Um, isn't this really the fault of the Government Printing Office, and not Obama per se?--ed.] Well, the GPO is the proximate source of the blame, sure. Stepping back, however, we have the following:
Have at it, conservatives!
What did you think?
Here are Tufts University Political Science Professor Dan Drezner and Stanford Philosophy Professor Joshua Cohen demonstrating how good-hearted, profoundly reasonable, oh-so-intellectually sophisticated Americans diligently struggle with -- torture themselves over -- what they have convinced themselves is the vexing question of whether our leaders should be considered "war criminals" by virtue of . . . . having committed unambiguous war crimes.... This is now the conventional wisdom, the settled consensus, of our political and media elites with regard to America's torture program. It's perfectly appropriate that Drezner cites and heaps praise on the self-consciously open-minded meditation on the torture question from The Atlantic's Ross Douthat because -- as I wrote in response to Douthat -- our political elites have now, virtually in unison, convinced themselves that ambiguity and understanding with regard to American war crimes are the hallmarks of both intellectual and moral superiority.... This is the justifying argument the political class has latched onto -- one that was spawned, revealingly enough, by Bush DOJ official Jack Goldsmith: sure, some of this might have been excessive and arguably wrong, but it was all done for the right reasons, by people who are good at heart. So common is this self-justifying American rationalization that it has now even infected the mentality of long-time Bush critics, such as The Los Angeles Times Editorial Page, which today argued that prosecutions for Bush officials are inappropriate, even though they clearly broke multiple laws, because "they did so as part of a post- 9/11 response to terrorism." As this excellent reply from Diane at Cab Drollery puts it: "civility and understanding is far more important to them than simple justice."Yes, because we all know that the exact administration of justice is best when it lacks understanding. This is certainly true of Greenwald, who appears not to have actually listened to what Cohen and I actually said to each other. I was pretty explicit about the following:
[H]e's concerned about the effect of rhetoric from some hate groups or individuals during the campaign. "There's a general level of intemperateness in the discussion as we approach the election,'' he said. ``Do I worry that it could trigger in a disturbed individual a desire to do something? Absolutely, I worry about it.'' (emphasis added).Gee, whichever campaign could Chertoff be talking about? [UPDATE: Ross Douthat points out that Chertoff should also be concerned about campaign artwork.] And before all the Obama supporters get all giddy about this, let me add that I have some decidedly mixed feelings about this statement comming from the head of DHS. Here's my question: in what way is Chertoff's statement here different from the much-lambasted Ari Fleischer statement that, "Americans... need to watch what they say, watch what they do. This is not a time for remarks like that; there never is."? (on the disputed meaning of Fleischer's remarks, click here and here.) To be fair to Chertoff, this is a quote from a reporter -- I'd like to know everything he said on this question. I guess my point is, that Chertoff might want to follow Fleischer's advice. UPDATE: Via Andrew Sullivan, this video suggests how the McCain campaign should be handling this sort of problem.
[O]fficials said the bridge?s design had been considered outmoded for decades because a single failure of a structural part could bring down the whole bridge. About 11 percent of the nation?s steel bridges, mostly from the 1950s and 1960s, lack the redundant protection to reduce these failures, federal officials said. Over all, the bridge was rated 4 on a scale of zero to 9, with 9 being perfect and zero requiring a shutdown. An inspection report last year said the supporting structure was in ?poor condition,? far from the lowest category. Hundreds of other working bridges are in similar shape, but the report did indicate that the bridge had possible issues that needed to be regularly inspected. The bridge has been inspected annually since 1993, but independent engineers acknowledged yesterday that there are well-known limits to how useful an inspection can be. Bridges, they said, are prone to a variety of problems, and some are hard to spot. At the Minnesota Department of Transportation, shaken engineers made it clear that they knew something crucial had somehow been overlooked. ?We thought we had done all we could,? said Daniel L. Dorgan, bridge engineer at the department?s bridges division. ?Obviously something went terribly wrong.? (emphasis added)What on God's green earth would be lower than a "poor" rating? A "Jeebus, we're lucky we got off the bridge in time to file this report" rating?
Known inside the agency as the ?family jewels,? the 702 pages of documents catalog domestic wiretapping operations, failed assassination plots, mind-control experiments and spying on journalists from the early years of the C.I.A. The papers provide evidence of paranoia and occasional incompetence as the agency began a string of illegal spying operations in the 1960s and 1970s, often to hunt links between Communist governments and the domestic protests that roiled the nation in that period. Yet the long-awaited documents leave out a great deal. Large sections are censored, showing that the C.I.A. still cannot bring itself to expose all the skeletons in its closet. And many activities about overseas operations disclosed years ago by journalists, Congressional investigators and a presidential commission ? which led to reforms of the nation?s intelligence agencies ? are not detailed in the papers.The Times has also set up a blog by intellligence experts -- including danieldrezner.com's Official Go-To Person for All Things Intelligent, Ms. Amy Zegart. Another contributor, Philip Taubman, concludes:
Reading through the litany of C.I.A. domestic spying abuses and other questionable activities during the cold war years, including plots to assassinate foreign leaders, it?s hard not to wonder what the men and women of the C.I.A. (mostly men, in those days) were thinking as they wandered far afield from the C.I.A.?s own charter.
DP World, a leading global marine terminal operator, has become the first global company in the transport and logistics industry to gain certification to an international standard for its security management systems and operations. Lloyds Register Quality Assurance (LRQA), an independent international certification body, has audited DP World for compliance with the international standard ISO/PAS 28000:2005 at both the corporate head office in Dubai, UAE, and its chosen site, Djibouti Container Terminal.... As a consequence of DP World?s adoption and implementation of the standard, its network of ports will have the ability to effectively implement mechanisms and processes to address any security vulnerabilities at strategic and operational levels, as well as establish preventive action plans. All terminals will also be required to continually assess security measurements in place to both protect its business interests and ensure compliance with international regulatory requirements such as the ISPS Code and other international supply chain security initiatives. The standard will complement all international security legislative codes DP World already conforms to at its terminals.Hat tip: Michael Levi.
Now, the Syrian attack does not qualify as a drive-by shooting. At the same time, the odds of success of such an enterprise in Damascus seem very low -- as the Guardian points out:While security officials are largely focused on organized terror groups like Al Qaeda, lone attackers like Mr. Jaoura present a new challenge. They are hard to track and even harder to stop, making them an especially difficult target for the police and security officials. "No force on earth could have prevented an attack like this," said a senior Jordanian security official, who said Mr. Jaoura was surprisingly forthcoming under interrogation. "He was not an Islamist. He was isolated, and he did it on his own." With tensions soaring high in much of the Middle East in the aftermath of Israel's war with Hezbollah in Lebanon, the risk of copycat attacks has grown higher....If you read the whole story, this seems like the kind of attack that, in the United States, would qualify as a drive-by shooting rather than "Islamofascism."
Peter Ford, Britain's ambassador to Syria, told CNN that the incident did not seem similar to an al-Qaida attack, but appeared to be "an operation by a small group". Security forces have clashed with Islamist militants several times since last year, usually in raids carried out to arrest them. Hugh Macleod, a freelance reporter at the scene, said hundreds of troops and other security personnel were at the embassy following the attack. "This looks to have been a suicide mission by Islamist militants," Macleod told Guardian Unlimited. "This is one of the most heavily guarded streets in Damascus. "President Bashar al-Assad has his office on the same street, the EU building is here ... there are a number of embassies, including the Chinese embassy, which is next to the US building."So, either a) Al Qaeda's having a really bad draft year, or; b) This was a local operation with zero ties to AQ. I'll leave it to the commenters to sort this out.
Daniel W. Drezner is professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.