U.S. operates drones from secret bases in Somalia

Foreign Policy reports: Some say the Americans are everywhere. Some say they are nowhere. Still others say they are everywhere and nowhere at once. But the shadowy U.S. presence in this strategic port city in war-torn southern Somalia has clear consequences for anyone with a share of power here. That includes Somali regional officials who are quick to praise American counterterrorism efforts, African Union forces who rely on U.S. intelligence as they battle back al-Shabab, and even the al Qaeda-linked militants themselves, who are increasingly hemmed in by a lethal combination of AU-led counterinsurgency, airstrikes, and raids by U.S. special operators.

Based out of a fortress of fading green Hesco barriers at the ramshackle airport in Kismayo, a team of special operators from the Joint Special Operations Command, the elite U.S. military organization famous for killing Osama bin Laden, flies drones and carries out other counterterrorism activities, multiple Somali government and African Union sources have confirmed. Their presence in this volatile city, which until 2012 was controlled by al-Shabab, has not previously been reported. Nor has the United States acknowledged operating drones from Somali soil. (Unmanned armed and surveillance flights are said to originate from Camp Lemonnier in nearby Djibouti or from bases in neighboring Kenya and Ethiopia.)

“They have a base over there,” Abdighani Abdi Jama, state minister for the presidency in the interim regional administration in Kismayo, said of U.S. forces, gesturing to a heavily fortified compound not far from the airport’s small terminal. He confirmed that as many as 40 U.S. military personnel are currently stationed in Kismayo, roughly 300 miles south of the capital of Mogadishu, where he said they operate drones from the airport’s single runway and carry out covert “intelligence” and “counterterrorism” operations. [Continue reading…]

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How the CIA ran a ‘billion dollar spy’ in Moscow

David E. Hoffman writes: The spy had vanished.

He was the most successful and valued agent the United States had run inside the Soviet Union in two decades. His documents and drawings had unlocked the secrets of Soviet radars and weapons research years into the future. He had smuggled circuit boards and blueprints out of his military laboratory. His espionage put the United States in position to dominate the skies in aerial combat and confirmed the vulnerability of Soviet air defenses — showing that American cruise missiles and strategic bombers could fly under the radar.

In the late autumn and early winter of 1982, the CIA lost touch with him. Five scheduled meetings were missed. KGB surveillance on the street was overwhelming. Even the “deep cover” officers of the CIA’s Moscow station, invisible to the KGB, could not break through.

On the evening of Dec. 7, the next scheduled meeting date, the future of the operation was put in the hands of Bill Plunkert. After a stint as a Navy aviator, Plunkert had joined the CIA and trained as a clandestine operations officer. He was in his mid-30s, 6-foot-2, and had arrived at the Moscow station in the summer. His mission was to give the slip to the KGB and make contact. [Continue reading…]

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U.S. runs hundreds of counter-terrorism investigations: DOJ official

Reuters reports: U.S. authorities are pursuing hundreds of active counter-terrorism investigations embracing all 50 American states, a senior U.S. Justice Department official said on Wednesday.

John Carlin, Assistant U.S. Attorney General in charge of the department’s National Security Division, speaking to journalists in London, said in the last two weeks alone, federal authorities had made 10 counter-terrorism related arrests.

A second U.S. official indicated that investigators believed some of these cases involved potentially active attack plots, though he provided no details.

The Islamic State “wants individuals to conduct an attack in the United States and they are doing everything they can to try to advance that goal,” said Carlin, whose visit to Britain included consultations with British security officials.

Over the last six months, Carlin said, U.S. investigators had noticed a change in tactics by the Syria-based Islamic State group. The group had become particularly adept at using social media to pitch sophisticated recruitment messages towards an increasingly young target audience.

Sixty percent of the Islamic State’s target audience, by the official’s estimate, is aged 25 or younger and a substantial subset of that group are under 21, including many juveniles. [Continue reading…]

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As Blackwater threatened to kill a State Dept investigator in Iraq, U.S. officials defended Blackwater

The New York Times reports: Just weeks before Blackwater guards fatally shot 17 civilians at Baghdad’s Nisour Square in 2007, the State Department began investigating the security contractor’s operations in Iraq. But the inquiry was abandoned after Blackwater’s top manager there issued a threat: “that he could kill” the government’s chief investigator and “no one could or would do anything about it as we were in Iraq,” according to department reports.

American Embassy officials in Baghdad sided with Blackwater rather than the State Department investigators as a dispute over the probe escalated in August 2007, the previously undisclosed documents show. The officials told the investigators that they had disrupted the embassy’s relationship with the security contractor and ordered them to leave the country, according to the reports.

After returning to Washington, the chief investigator wrote a scathing report to State Department officials documenting misconduct by Blackwater employees and warning that lax oversight of the company, which had a contract worth more than $1 billion to protect American diplomats, had created “an environment full of liability and negligence.” [Continue reading…]

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Supreme Court: If it’s worth it for corporations, pollution may be okay

Jay Michaelson writes: While LGBTs and healthcare reformers are still nursing their celebratory hangovers, the final Supreme Court case of the 2014-15 term just junked twenty years of environmental regulations.

The case, Michigan v. EPA, specifically dealt with the EPA’s regulation of mercury emissions from power plants under the Clean Air Act—a long, twenty-year process that has been opposed by industry at every turn, even as mercury air pollution from coal-fired power plants has ++irreparably poisoned the Great Lakes .

Today, the clock has been set back. In its third 5-4 decision of the day, with Justice Kennedy again providing the swing vote, industry has prevailed. Writing for the court, Justice Scalia held that the EPA had to factor in costs in deciding whether to regulate, not just how to regulate. [Continue reading…]

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PTSD calls for collective healing

Sebastian Junger writes: In two American studies of middle-class families during the 1980s, 85 percent of young children slept alone — a figure that rose to 95 percent among families considered “well-educated.” Northern European societies, including America, are the only ones in history to make very young children sleep alone in such numbers. The isolation is thought to trigger fears that make many children bond intensely with stuffed animals for reassurance. Only in Northern European societies do children go through the well-known developmental stage of bonding with stuffed animals; elsewhere, children get their sense of safety from the adults sleeping near them.

More broadly, in most human societies, almost nobody sleeps alone. Sleeping in family groups of one sort or another has been the norm throughout human history and is still commonplace in most of the world. Again, Northern European societies are among the few where people sleep alone or with a partner in a private room. When I was with American soldiers at a remote outpost in Afghanistan, we slept in narrow plywood huts where I could reach out and touch three other men from where I slept. They snored, they talked, they got up in the middle of the night to use the piss tubes, but we felt safe because we were in a group. The Taliban attacked the position regularly, and the most determined attacks often came at dawn. Another unit in a nearby valley was almost overrun and took 50 percent casualties in just such an attack. And yet I slept better surrounded by those noisy, snoring men than I ever did camping alone in the woods of New England.

Many soldiers will tell you that one of the hardest things about coming home is learning to sleep without the security of a group of heavily armed men around them. In that sense, being in a war zone with your platoon feels safer than being in an American suburb by yourself. I know a vet who felt so threatened at home that he would get up in the middle of the night to build fighting positions out of the living-room furniture. This is a radically different experience from what warriors in other societies go through, such as the Yanomami, of the Orinoco and Amazon Basins, who go to war with their entire age cohort and return to face, together, whatever the psychological consequences may be. As one anthropologist pointed out to me, trauma is usually a group experience, so trauma recovery should be a group experience as well. But in our society it’s not.

“Our whole approach to mental health has been hijacked by pharmaceutical logic,” I was told by Gary Barker, an anthropologist whose group, Promundo, is dedicated to understanding and preventing violence. “PTSD is a crisis of connection and disruption, not an illness that you carry within you.”

This individualizing of mental health is not just an American problem, or a veteran problem; it affects everybody. A British anthropologist named Bill West told me that the extreme poverty of the 1930s and the collective trauma of the Blitz served to unify an entire generation of English people. “I link the experience of the Blitz to voting in the Labour Party in 1945, and the establishing of the National Health Service and a strong welfare state,” he said. “Those policies were supported well into the 60s by all political parties. That kind of cultural cohesiveness, along with Christianity, was very helpful after the war. It’s an open question whether people’s problems are located in the individual. If enough people in society are sick, you have to wonder whether it isn’t actually society that’s sick.”

Ideally, we would compare hunter-gatherer society to post-industrial society to see which one copes better with PTSD. When the Sioux, Cheyenne, and Arapaho fighters returned to their camps after annihilating Custer and his regiment at Little Bighorn, for example, were they traumatized and alienated by the experience — or did they fit right back into society? There is no way to know for sure, but less direct comparisons can still illuminate how cohesiveness affects trauma. In experiments with lab rats, for example, a subject that is traumatized — but not injured — after an attack by a larger rat usually recovers within 48 hours unless it is kept in isolation, according to data published in 2005 in Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews. The ones that are kept apart from other rats are the only ones that develop long-term traumatic symptoms. And a study of risk factors for PTSD in humans closely mirrored those results. In a 2000 study in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, “lack of social support” was found to be around two times more reliable at predicting who got PTSD and who didn’t than the severity of the trauma itself. You could be mildly traumatized, in other words—on a par with, say, an ordinary rear-base deployment to Afghanistan — and experience long-term PTSD simply because of a lack of social support back home.

Anthropologist and psychiatrist Brandon Kohrt found a similar phenomenon in the villages of southern Nepal, where a civil war has been rumbling for years. Kohrt explained to me that there are two kinds of villages there: exclusively Hindu ones, which are extremely stratified, and mixed Buddhist/Hindu ones, which are far more open and cohesive. He said that child soldiers, both male and female, who go back to Hindu villages can remain traumatized for years, while those from mixed-religion villages tended to recover very quickly. “PTSD is a disorder of recovery, and if treatment only focuses on identifying symptoms, it pathologizes and alienates vets,” according to Kohrt. “But if the focus is on family and community, it puts them in a situation of collective healing.” [Continue reading…]

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Assad chemical threat mounts in Syria

The Wall Street Journal reports: U.S. intelligence agencies believe there is a strong possibility the Assad regime will use chemical weapons on a large scale as part of a last-ditch effort to protect key Syrian government strongholds if Islamist fighters and other rebels try to overrun them, U.S. officials said.

Analysts and policy makers have been poring over all available intelligence hoping to determine what types of chemical weapons the regime might be able to deploy and what event or events might trigger their use, according to officials briefed on the matter.

Last year, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad let international inspectors oversee the removal of what President Barack Obama called the regime’s most deadly chemical weapons. The deal averted U.S. airstrikes that would have come in retaliation for an Aug. 21, 2013, sarin-gas attack that killed more than 1,400 people.

Since then, the U.S. officials said, the Assad regime has developed and deployed a new type of chemical bomb filled with chlorine, which Mr. Assad could now decide to use on a larger scale in key areas. U.S. officials also suspect the regime may have squirreled away at least a small reserve of the chemical precursors needed to make nerve agents sarin or VX. Use of those chemicals would raise greater international concerns because they are more deadly than chlorine and were supposed to have been eliminated.

The intelligence is “being taken very seriously because he’s getting desperate” and because of doubts within the U.S. intelligence community that Mr. Assad gave up all of his deadliest chemical weapons, a senior U.S. official said.

Syrian officials in Damascus and New York didn’t respond to repeated requests for comment. The Syrian regime has denied using chemical weapons of any kind, disputing allegations made by the U.S. and other Western governments.

Any large-scale use of chemical weapons would exacerbate the dilemma the Syria conflict poses for the Obama administration. Mr. Obama has long called for Mr. Assad to step down, given his crackdown on opposition groups and the brutality of what became an all-encompassing civil war.

But U.S. officials say they don’t want his departure to create a security vacuum in areas controlled by the regime, allowing Sunni militants affiliated with Islamic State or the al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front to seize more territory. The U.S. officials are concerned that chemical weapons could fall into militants’ hands.

A new intelligence analysis suggests Mr. Assad could use those chemicals as a weapon of last resort to protect key installations, or if the regime felt it had no other way to defend the core territory of its most reliable supporters, the Alawites.

The analysis underlines what U.S. officials describe as growing signs of the Assad regime’s desperation on the battlefield.

Islamic State militants and competing rebel forces, some aligned with al Qaeda and others backed by the Central Intelligence Agency, have been whittling away at territory controlled by the regime, leaving critical military bases and supply lines vulnerable, particularly in the country’s northeast and south.

The regime’s weakness was apparent during recent defeats in the northwest province of Idlib and the city of Palmyra. Regime forces withdrew quickly rather than fight a prolonged battle, according to rebel commanders and U.S. officials. The regime controls only about one-quarter of the country, with the rest held by Islamic State, various opposition rebels and Kurdish groups, according to monitoring groups and diplomats. [Continue reading…]

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U.S. currently training just 100 Syrians to fight ISIS

The Associated Press reports: Fewer than 100 Syrian rebels are currently being trained by the U.S. military to fight the Islamic State group, a tiny total for a sputtering program with a stated goal of producing 5,400 fighters a year.

The training effort is moving so slowly that critics question whether it can produce enough capable fighters quickly enough to make a difference. Military officials said last week that they still hope for 3,000 by year’s end. Privately, they acknowledge the trend is moving in the wrong direction.

On June 26, 2014, the White House said it was asking Congress for $500 million for a three-year train-and-equip program. It only got started in May, however.

That program, together with a more advanced but also troubled parallel effort to rebuild the Iraqi army, is central to the U.S.-led effort to create ground forces capable of fighting IS without involving U.S. ground combat troops. [Continue reading…]

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White supremacists in the U.S. military

Matt Kennard writes: After the horrific massacre at Charleston’s historic black church, Americans are slowly realizing the threat posed by white supremacist and neo-Nazi movements. But few know that their presence has grown within one of the most powerful institutions in America: the US military.

According to the FBI, there are hundreds of white supremacists in the US army or in the veteran community. Some analysts even estimate the number is in the thousands. In America, 203 white supremacist “extremist cases” investigated by the Bureau from 2001 to 2008 involved veterans. The problem hasn’t gone away. Neo-Nazi veteran Wade Michael Page attacked six worshippers at the Sikh Temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, in 2012.

I spent a number of years investigating how neo-Nazis and white supremacists had infiltrated the US military, with very little push back from the Pentagon, which was desperate to keep the supply of troops flowing for the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan.

As part of my research, I spoke to veterans who had become white supremacists before service and joined to gain access to weapons and training, as well as veterans who had been radicalized after returning from the war.

Charles Wilson, spokesman for the National Socialist Movement, one of the top neo-Nazi groups in America, was frank about his attempts to populate the US armed forces with extremists: “We do encourage [our members] to sign up for the military. We can use the training to secure the resistance to our government. Every one of them takes a pact of secrecy … Our military doesn’t agree with our political beliefs, they are not supposed to be in the military, but they’re there, in ever greater numbers.” He claimed to have 190 members serving. [Continue reading…]

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CIA photos of ‘black sites’ could complicate Gitmo trials

The Washington Post reports: Military prosecutors this year learned about a massive cache of CIA photographs of its former overseas “black sites” while reviewing material collected for the Senate investigation of the agency’s interrogation program, U.S. officials said.

The existence of the approximately 14,000 photographs will probably cause yet another delay in the military commissions at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, as attorneys for the defendants demand that all the images be turned over and the government wades through the material to decide what it thinks is relevant to the proceedings.

Defense attorneys said they have not yet been informed about the photographs and said it is unacceptable that they should come to light now, more than three years after the arraignment of Khalid Sheik Mohammed and four other defendants accused of planning the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. [Continue reading…]

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Constructing a cyber superpower

DefenseNews reports: The site of an Army golf course named for US President Dwight Eisenhower, one long drive from the National Security Agency, is an active construction site, the future of US military cyber.

Where there were once bunkers, greens and tees is a large gray building due to become an NSA-run 600,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art server farm, a skeletal structure that will one day house US Cyber Command’s joint operations center, with plots reserved for individual Marine Corps and Navy cyber facilities.

The plans reflect the growth in ambition, manpower and resources for the five-year-old US Cyber Command. One measure of this rapid expansion is the command’s budget — $120 million at its inception in 2010 rising to $509 million for 2015.

Another measure is the $1.8 billion in construction at Fort Meade, much of it related to Cyber Command. Though Cyber Command’s service components and tactical teams are spread across the country, the headquarters for Cyber Command, the NSA and Defense Information Systems Agency make Fort Meade a growing hub for military cyber.

Earlier this year, Defense Secretary Ash Carter announced a new cyber strategy that acknowledges in the strongest terms that the Pentagon may wage offensive cyber warfare. The strategy emphasizes deterrence and sets up a reliance on the commercial technology sector, hinging on a push to strengthen ties between Silicon Valley and the Pentagon. [Continue reading…]

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How one U.S. soldier blew the whistle on a cold-blooded war crime in Iraq

William Langewiesche writes: Jess Cunningham was a staff sergeant in a mechanized unit of the U.S. Army—Alpha Company, First Battalion, 18th Infantry Regiment, First Infantry Division—during the intensified fighting that accompanied the surge of American troops in Baghdad in 2007. This was his second tour in Iraq, and his first with Alpha Company. He had been a high-school football star in Bakersfield, California, before heading off to war. He had excelled in the army, rising rapidly through the ranks. Now 26, he was strong, alert, and accustomed to battle. He had a bright future.

But he also had a problem. Although Alpha Company appeared from the outside to be like any other infantry unit, neatly integrated into the larger American force structure, on the inside it revolved to an unusual degree around a single personality—that of an imposing first sergeant, a hard-charging 18-year veteran named John Hatley, who dominated the company. Hatley was a burly Texan who spoke with a drawl. He carried his 240 pounds on a six-foot frame, and at the age of 40 still achieved a perfect 300 on the army’s physical-fitness test. He had been the company’s first sergeant for three years and had delayed a promotion to sergeant major in order to return with his men to the fight. He reveled in his power. He made it clear that the rules of engagement that mattered were the ones he alone defined. Cunningham had never encountered such a sergeant before. He himself was a team player and not immune to Hatley’s leadership qualities, but over the first few months in Baghdad he began to struggle privately with doubts. The company called itself Wolf Pack and sometimes seemed to act like one. Cunningham did not question the war itself, but he wondered about the treatment of Iraqi detainees and the actions of certain gunners who seemed to be playing loose with their justifications for killing.

Alpha Company’s area of operations lay in southwest Baghdad, one of the most active battlefields in Iraq. Sunnis and Shiites were fighting over the neighborhoods, and insurgents from both groups were warring on American patrols. The U.S. mission was to promote stability. This boiled down to convoys of recent American high-school graduates lumbering around in Bradley troop carriers and armored Humvees from which they could barely see, struggling to distinguish combatants from civilians in an indecipherable city, and waiting to get attacked. Cunningham served as a squad leader in the company’s Second Platoon. They were based with Hatley’s headquarters platoon at a fortified combat outpost called Angry Dragon, which also housed the company’s Tactical Operations Center, an office and briefing room known as Wolf Den on the radios. Wolf Pack, Wolf Den, Angry Dragon—the bravura was probably useful, given the youth of the soldiers. The engagements were frequent and anything but child’s play. They resulted in uncounted numbers of Iraqi deaths. By contrast, the accounting of American losses was carefully done. During Alpha Company’s 14 months on the ground, six soldiers were killed and three were gravely wounded—a toll that amounted to a casualty rate of about 15 percent in Cunningham’s platoon alone. The first soldier died four months into the fight, on February 27, 2007. He was a tall, 22-year-old staff sergeant named Karl Soto-Pinedo, who was shot in the head by a sniper after he rose too high above the hatch of his Bradley. Three weeks later, on March 17, 2007, a 30-year-old specialist named Marieo Guerrero was lost to a jerry-rigged land mine, an I.E.D. [Continue reading…]

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The VA’s broken promise to thousands of vets intentionally exposed to mustard gas

NPR reports: In secret chemical weapons experiments conducted during World War II, the U.S. military exposed thousands of American troops to mustard gas.

When those experiments were formally declassified in the 1990s, the Department of Veterans Affairs made two promises: to locate about 4,000 men who were used in the most extreme tests, and to compensate those who had permanent injuries.
Charlie Cavell at his home in Virginia. He is one of 60,000 World War II veterans exposed to mustard gas as part of secret experiments by the U.S. military.

But the VA didn’t uphold those promises, an NPR investigation has found.

NPR interviewed more than 40 living test subjects and family members, and they describe an unending cycle of appeals and denials as they struggled to get government benefits for mustard gas exposure. Some gave up out of frustration.

In more than 20 years, the VA attempted to reach just 610 of the men, with a single letter sent in the mail. Brad Flohr, a VA senior adviser for benefits, says the agency couldn’t find the rest, because military records of the experiments were incomplete.

“There was no identifying information,” he says. “No Social Security numbers, no addresses, no … way of identifying them. Although, we tried.”

Yet in just two months, an NPR research librarian located more than 1,200 of them, using the VA’s own list of test subjects and public records. [Continue reading…]

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Families of American hostages held captive in Syria felt U.S. officials had abandoned them

Lawrence Wright writes: Five American families, each harboring a grave secret, took their seats around a vast dining table at the home of David Bradley, a Washington, D.C., entrepreneur who owns the media company that publishes The Atlantic. It was May 13, 2014, and in the garden beyond the French doors, where magnolias and dogwoods were in bloom, a tent had been erected for an event that Bradley’s wife, Katherine, was hosting the following evening. The Bradleys’ gracious Georgian town house, on Embassy Row, is one of the city’s salons: reporters and politicians cross paths at off-the-record dinners with Supreme Court Justices, software billionaires, and heads of state.

The families weren’t accustomed to great wealth or influence. Indeed, most of them had never been to Washington before. Until recently, they had not known of one another, or of the unexpected benefactor who had brought them together. They were the parents of five Americans who had been kidnapped in Syria. The Federal Bureau of Investigation had warned the families not to talk publicly about their missing children — and the captors had threatened to kill their hostages if word leaked out — so each family had been going to work and to church month after month and reassuring colleagues and neighbors and relatives that nothing was wrong, only to come home and face new threats and ransom demands. After hiding the truth for so long, the families were heartened to learn that others were going through the same ordeal, and they hoped that by working together they might bring their children home. [Continue reading…]

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Rainbow White House

Quartz: The White House was quick to celebrate today’s historic decision by the US Supreme Court that legalized gay marriage in all 50 states of the nation.

Soon after the Supreme Court announced its decision, the White House Facebook page changed its profile photo to a picture of the iconic building’s walls in the colors of the rainbow, the universal symbol of the gay rights movement.

At 11am, the President addressed a crowd in the Rose Garden behind the White House—whose walls, alas, remain white despite the Facebook change—heralding the Supreme Court’s decision as “justice that arrives like a thunderbolt.”

“This ruling is a victory for America,” Obama said. “This decision affirms what millions of Americans already believe in their hearts: When all Americans are treated as equal, we are all more free.”

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Former U.S. military personnel urge drone pilots to walk away from controls

The Guardian reports: Forty-five former US military personnel, including a retired army colonel, have issued a joint appeal to the pilots of aerial drones operating in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Syria and elsewhere, calling on them to refuse to carry out the deadly missions.

In a joint letter, the retired and former military members call on air force pilots based at Creech air force base in Nevada and Beale air force base in California to refuse to carry out their duties. They say the missions, which have become an increasingly dominant feature of US military strategy in recent years, “profoundly violate domestic and international laws”.

“At least 6,000 lives have been unjustly taken by US drone attacks in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, Iraq, the Philippines, Libya and Syria. These attacks are also undermining principles of international law and human rights,” the authors write. [Continue reading…]

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Arming Iraq’s Sunni militias to fight ISIS might only add fuel to the fire

Benjamin Bahney, Patrick B. Johnston, and Patrick Ryan write: In the weeks since the Islamic State captured the Iraqi city of Ramadi, a loud and diverse chorus of voices, including the New York Times editorial board, has called for the Iraqi government and the United States to arm Sunni militias to fight the extremist group’s advance. The administration increased the number of U.S. trainers last week, adding an additional 450 as early as this summer to the 3,100 American troops already in Iraq. Regardless, current political and military dynamics on the ground may merit giving arms to Sunni fighters if the Islamic State can’t be pushed back soon.

But the decision to hand weapons over to the Sunni militias also poses risks. Before directly arming more ethnic- or sectarian-aligned militias, both U.S. policymakers and the public should have a deeper understanding of our potential allies’ past and their possible future interests. And what the unintended consequences of arming these Sunni militias might be.

Newly declassified documents from the Islamic State’s predecessor, captured during a U.S.-Iraqi raid in 2010 and published by the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, suggest that some of Iraq’s most prominent Sunni politicians collaborated with the Islamic State’s predecessor in 2009, when the group faced its darkest hour. Some of these senior figures may have worked with the Islamic State to benefit themselves, some to benefit the Sunnis, and some to weaken the hand of the Kurds in Iraq’s ethnically mixed areas in the country’s north. While the threat of the Islamic State has moved these dynamics to the back burner today, they will likely reemerge if and when the security environment improves. And now some of these same politicians are lobbying the United States to send money and weapons to the militias from their territories.

While most of the U.S. public hadn’t heard of the Islamic State before its breakout last summer, the group declared an “Islamic State of Iraq” back in 2006 and maintained a presence in the northern city of Mosul through the U.S. military’s withdrawal in 2011. Conventional wisdom says that the Islamic State’s place in Iraq’s sectarian political strife rose out of the disarray that followed the U.S. withdrawal. It was at that moment that Iraq’s Sunnis were left to fend for themselves against the domineering, Shiite-oriented central government. The Islamic State’s resurgence in Iraq in 2013 and 2014 came at a time when the country’s Sunni minority was ripe to accept the group as a bulwark against political marginalization and crackdowns at the hands of then-Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government.

In this telling, which has dominated U.S. media and policy circles, Maliki and his Shiite allies in the Iraqi government bear the brunt of the blame for inciting the renewed sectarian tensions that enabled the Islamic State to reemerge and unleash the brutal campaign that has arrested the world’s attention.

The new documents published by the CTC suggest the need to approach this conventional wisdom with caution. They have important implications for understanding Iraq’s sectarian schism and for informing the ongoing policy debate on how to stabilize the war-torn country.

A key document sent to Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, who preceded Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as the group’s leader, suggests that the Islamic State established cooperative relationships with key Sunni politicians by 2009 that gave it access to extortion opportunities, kickbacks, and other revenue-generating activities in and around Mosul. Assuming the document is authentic — for the moment, there is no evidence to suggest it is not — these revelations should give pause to those recommending that the Iraqis train and equip local Sunni forces under the auspices of the provincial governments in Nineveh and Anbar. Reporting from Mosul indicates that similar ties between Sunni government officials and the Islamic State likely continued after U.S. troops withdrew from Iraq, and Maliki’s government began to intensify its repression of Sunni political leaders.

It is impossible to know the specific motivations of these officials — Sunni politicians may simply have been buying themselves protection in an environment where no other party was able or willing to provide it. But what is clear is this: For the Islamic State, these relationships enabled the group to access tens of millions of dollars to finance its operations in 2009 and after, some of which may have been diverted from Western reconstruction aid through political favors and phony contracts. The Islamic State likely used these funds to expand its extortion and intimidation networks in Mosul even prior to the 2011 U.S. withdrawal. This would go far in explaining how it had become so rich, even before it seized over $400 million from Mosul’s bank vaults last June. [Continue reading…]

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Inaction on climate change would cost billions, major EPA study finds

The Washington Post reports: A global agreement to curb greenhouse gas emissions would prevent nearly 70,000 premature American deaths annually by the end of the century while sparing the country hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of economic losses, according to a major government study on the cost of climate change.

Slowing the carbon build-up in the atmosphere would also prevent severe damage to a wide range of critical ecosystems, from Hawaiian coral reefs that support tourism to shellfish beds off the East Coast, said the report released by the White House on Monday.

The report, a five-year, peer-reviewed analysis that assesses the benefits of alternative strategies for dealing with climate change, concludes that every region of the country could be spared severe economic disruptions that would result if greenhouse gas concentrations continue to soar. [Continue reading…]

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