French authorities given broader powers to fight terrorism

The New York Times reports: The French Parliament on Wednesday approved a law that gives the police and judicial authorities new powers to detain terrorism suspects, put people under house arrest and use deadly force to stop attacks.

The Senate, France’s upper house of Parliament, approved the bill by a show of hands. The National Assembly, the lower house, had already approved it.

The measure is the latest in a series of legislative changes that the government of President François Hollande has pushed through to give the authorities greater policing powers after the deadly terrorist attacks in Paris last year, sometimes prompting debates over civil liberties. [Continue reading…]


Cavorting with extremism: UK cracks down at home, befriends extremists abroad

By Brian Whitaker, May 18, 2016

Today Queen Elizabeth will deliver her annual speech to the British parliament setting out the government’s programme for the next 12 months. High on the list of proposals is a renewed effort to combat “extremism”, and one idea is to establish a register of “extremists” – similar to the register of sex offenders – intended “to stop radicals infiltrating schools, colleges, charities and care homes, where they could brainwash vulnerable young people or disabled adults into violence”.

The problem with this, as with the rest of the government’s “counter-extremism” policy, is how to define “extremism”. In a recent article for The Independent, Liberal Democrat MP Alistair Carmichael explained:

“The [government’s] current definition of extremism as ‘the vocal or active opposition to our fundamental values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and the mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs’ is drafted so widely that it will not only catch terrorist sympathisers but perhaps even those who oppose the government, believe the monarchy should be abolished or disagree with same-sex marriage.”

But the problem goes deeper than that. Last Sunday a spectacular event featuring TV celebrities and 900 horses was held at Windsor Castle to mark the Queen’s 90th birthday. The royal family were in attendance and, seated at the Queen’s right-hand side was a man who by any reasonable interpretation of the government’s definition would be considered an extremist: the king of Bahrain.

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How to stop prisons from turning criminals into terrorists


Cullen Thomas writes: Each time I learn of another terrorist who spent time in prison, I’m taken back to my own prison time. In 1994, I was caught smuggling hashish into South Korea and spent three and a half years imprisoned there. Since then I’ve struggled to understand the nature of confinement and its effects on the individual.

It’s a striking and clear pattern that many of the most notorious terrorists of the modern era spent time in prison. Salah Abdeslam, the suspect behind the Paris and Brussels terror attacks, was imprisoned in Belgium with Abdelhamid Abaaoud, who lead the Friday the 13th attacks in Paris last November.

Chérif Kouachi and Amedy Coulibaly, responsible for the Charlie Hebdo and kosher supermarket attacks in Paris earlier in 2015, were imprisoned in France’s massive Fleury-Mérogis, Europe’s largest prison.

Ayman al-Zawahiri, before he became right-hand man to Osama bin Laden, was radicalised in Egyptian prisons. As Lawrence Wright, author of The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 (2006), put it, Zawahiri ‘entered prison a surgeon. He came out of it a butcher.’ [Continue reading…]


Invasion of Iraq ‘undoubtedly increased the threat’ of terrorist attacks in UK, said then-head of MI5

Richard Norton-Taylor writes: We can confidently make some assumptions about the Chilcot inquiry, whose report has just been delivered to the Cabinet Office for “national security checks”. It will strongly criticise Tony Blair for promising George Bush that the UK would join the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 but keeping parliament and the public in the dark; attack ministers, mandarins and top brass alike for allowing Blair to delay military preparations; and damn the catastrophic failure to prepare for the subsequent occupation of the country.

What has received far less attention is the devastating evidence Chilcot heard about the invasion making Britain more vulnerable to terrorism. Blair has always dismissed suggestions that his foreign policy decisions were in any way responsible for encouraging terrorist attacks and “radicalising” young British Muslims as a charge perpetuated by “the left”.

The evidence to Chilcot contradicts his assertion. Lady Manningham-Buller, head of MI5 at the time, bluntly told the inquiry the invasion “undoubtedly increased the threat” of terrorist attacks in Britain.

She said she communicated her view to Blair via Whitehall’s Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC). “The number of plots, the number of leads, the number of people identified, and statements of people as to why they were involved,” all pointed to the increased terrorist threat to the UK. [Continue reading…]


Anders Behring Breivik’s inexplicable crime


Karl Ove Knausgaard writes: Norway is a small country. It is also relatively homogeneous and egalitarian. This means that the distance from top to bottom is short, and that great disasters affect the entire populace. For example, every Norwegian knows someone who knows someone who died when the Alexander Kielland drilling rig capsized, in 1980 — I recall that my brother had a schoolmate whose father died in the disaster — or when, a decade later, a ferry, the Scandinavian Star, burned and a hundred and fifty-eight of the passengers died. There is also something deeply sincere, almost innocent, about Norwegian culture. Practically every time something about Norway or one of its people appears in the foreign press, the Norwegian media mention this with pride. And every May 17th, National Constitution Day, people don their nicest clothes, whether these be bunads, suits, or dresses, retrieve their flags and ribbons with Norwegian colors, and spill onto the streets to watch children sing songs about Norway, while everyone shouts hurrah and waves flags in a show of patriotism that encompasses every layer of society and plays out in every part of the country. The celebration takes place without irony and is essentially unpolitical — both the left and the right are united in this sea of flags and children. This says something about the country’s egotism, but also about its harmlessness.

It was out of this world that the thirty-two-year-old Anders Behring Breivik stepped when, on the afternoon of July 22, 2011, he set out from his mother’s flat in Oslo’s West End, changed into a police uniform, parked a van containing a bomb, which he had spent the spring and summer making, outside Regjeringskvartalet, lit the fuse, and left the scene. While the catastrophic images of the attack, which killed eight people, were being broadcast across the world, Breivik headed to Utøya. That was where the Workers’ Youth League had its annual summer camp. There Breivik shot and killed sixty-nine people, in a massacre that lasted for more than an hour, right until the police arrived, when he immediately surrendered.

He wanted to save Norway. Just a few hours before detonating the bomb, Breivik e-mailed a fifteen-hundred-page manifesto to a thousand recipients, in which he said that we were at war with Muslims and multiculturalism and that the slaughter of the campers was meant to be a wake-up call. He also uploaded to YouTube a twelve-minute video that revealed, with propagandistic simplicity, what was about to happen in Europe: the Muslim invasion.

The shock in Norway was total. After the Second World War, the most serious political assault in the country had been the so-called Hadeland Murders, in 1981. Two young men, members of a small neo-Nazi underground movement, Norges Germanske Armé, were killed. Breivik’s crime was radically different. The television broadcasts of the scene were chaotic; the journalists and anchorpeople were just as affected by the events as the people they were interviewing; one read in their eyes and their body language incredulity, shock, confusion. The usual detachment with which news is delivered had collapsed. Indeed, at that moment it seemed as if the world stood open. [Continue reading…]

The New York Times reports: Anders Behring Breivik, the Norwegian extremist who killed 77 people in a bomb and gun rampage in 2011, lives in conditions that would seem luxurious by American incarceration standards: a three-room suite with windows that includes a treadmill, a fridge, a television with DVD player and even a Sony PlayStation.

But on Wednesday, a Norwegian court found that the government had violated his human rights, concluding that his long-term solitary confinement posed a threat to his mental health. Mr. Breivik has virtually no contact with other inmates and is subjected to frequent strip searches and searches of his cell. At a trial in March, he argued that his isolation amounted to torture.

Judge Helen Andenaes Sekulic of the Oslo District Court, who oversaw the trial, which was held at the prison for security reasons, found on Wednesday that prison officials had violated an article of the European Convention of Human Rights that prohibits “inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.” She directed the government to reduce the extent of Mr. Breivik’s isolation — though she did not specify how — and ordered the government to pay Mr. Breivik’s legal fees of 331,000 kroner, or about $40,600. [Continue reading…]


Obama’s counterterrorism strategy ‘an abject failure,’ says former official


The New York Times reports: The banging on the door jolted Sal Shafi awake. F.B.I. agents were looking for his son. “Where’s Adam?” they yelled. “Where’s Adam?”

Terrified, Mr. Shafi led the agents, guns drawn, up the stairs toward his son’s bedroom. He watched as they led his 22-year-old son away in handcuffs, backed by evidence of Adam Shafi’s terrorist ambitions.

He had come to the attention of officials not by a well-placed informant or a sting operation. His father, concerned and looking for help, had simply picked up the phone and led the government right to his son. For months, over the objections of his lawyer, Mr. Shafi had been talking to the F.B.I., believing he was doing the right thing.

“My God,” he thought, soon after the arrest in July. “I just destroyed Adam.”

Had things been different, Mr. Shafi, 62, a Silicon Valley executive, might have become a much-needed spokesman for the Obama administration’s counterradicalization campaign. Who better to talk to other parents about the seductive pull of terror organizations? Trust the government, he would tell them. They do not want to take away your children.

Despite nascent efforts to steer young people away from terrorism, the government’s strategy remains largely built on persuading people to call the F.B.I. when they first suspect a problem. [Continue reading…]


What is a dirty bomb and how dangerous is it?

By Robert J Downes, King’s College London

The worrying news that individuals affiliated with the so-called Islamic State have undertaken hostile surveillance at a Belgian nuclear research facility has created growing speculation about the group’s nuclear ambitions.

Nuclear weapons and dirty bombs are frequently mentioned in the same breath. However, they are two distinct technologies. Understanding the differences between these weapons and the damage they can cause can ground speculation in reality – and help us work out the most likely route a terrorist organisation such as Islamic State may take in the future.

There are two types of actual nuclear weapon – fission and thermonuclear devices. Fission bombs are fuelled with fissile material such as uranium and plutonium. When detonated, the atoms in the weapon’s core split and release huge amounts of energy – producing a nuclear explosion. Thermonuclear weapons use a fission bomb to ignite special fuel, consisting of light hydrogen isotopes. These nuclei are forced together – undergoing nuclear fusion – releasing an even larger explosion.

There are no indications that a terrorist group has obtained any fissile material to date. If they could it would be possible for them to build a fission device, although this does pose a huge technical challenge. While highly engineered weapons need only a few kilograms of fissile material, a crude terrorist-built design would require far more. Thermonuclear weapons, on the other hand, are too complex for terrorist groups to develop.

An easier option for a terrorist group would be to build a dirty bomb or, technically, a radiological dispersal device. These do not rely on complex nuclear reactions. Instead, conventional explosives are used to disperse radioactive material, contaminating an area with elements such as radioactive isotopes of cobalt, caesium or americium.

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No, America isn’t 100 percent safe from terrorism. And that’s a good thing

Juliette Kayyem writes: Admit it. After the terrorist attacks in Brussels this past week, after the brief reflection for those lost or wounded and the sense of “oh, no, not again” passed, other thoughts quickly followed. My own selfish but natural worry, as a mother of three: Should we cancel that trip to Europe this summer?

In the nearly 15 years since 9/11, the questions I’ve fielded from family and friends have varied but never ceased: Should I buy a gun? (Only with training and safety measures at home, and certainly not to combat Islamic terrorists.) Is Times Square safe on New Year’s Eve? (Like every crowd scene, you have to stay alert, but security is high at events like that.) Or my personal favorite, because it combines parental insecurities with disaster management: Is Tulane a good school so many years after Hurricane Katrina? (Yes; it had a few rough months, but your kid should still apply.)

All these queries about a world in mayhem boil down to: Is my family safe? The answer is both simple and liberating: No, not entirely. America was built vulnerable, and thank goodness for that. [Continue reading…]


What makes fighters risk their lives?

Harvey Whithouse writes: Misrata, Libya, 2011. I am ushered into the boardroom of what was once an oil investment corporation. I am surrounded by youths with Kalashnikovs. On the other side of the table are several of Libya’s most respected rebel leaders, foremost among them Salim Jawha, a former colonel in Muammar Gaddafi’s army who defected on the first day of the revolution.

In the preceding months, over 1,000 rebels have been killed and many thousands more horrifically injured. Stories of heroism are commonplace. For example, on March 6, Gaddafi’s forces — supported by seven tanks and some 25 or so vehicles with mounted machine guns — attempted to re-take the city but were ambushed and overcome by rebels. Despite the imbalance of military hardware and heavy loss of life, the rebels prevailed through astonishing courage and determination.

I’m here because I want to know what motivated thousands of civilians, most of whom had never even held a gun before, to take up arms as part of a popular uprising in which death was far likelier than victory. A more general version of this question has been guiding my research for some years, in my work with a wide variety of military groups ranging from tribal warriors in the rainforests of Papua New Guinea to highly trained soldiers in the British special forces and Royal Marines. One of the themes that continually surfaces in these conversations is that fighters don’t put their lives on the line for abstract values like “king and country” or “God, freedom, and democracy.” They do it for each other.

At the University of Oxford, I lead an international network of researchers dedicated to understanding what makes bonds so strong that people will fight and die for the group when it is threatened. Our research suggests that one of the most powerful causes of extreme pro-group action is the sharing of self-defining experiences. If so, this has profound implications for the way we should approach conflict resolution and counter-terrorism. Public debate and policymaking has been dominated for years by the view that extreme beliefs are what motivate extreme behaviors. I disagree — but with such a tide of popular opinion against me, I need evidence not only from the laboratory or even from the assault course and training camp, but also from the frontlines. This has brought me to Libya. [Continue reading…]


Why terrorism doesn’t help Donald Trump

Jamelle Bouie writes: Americans who read outlets like the New York Times woke up to detailed and largely accurate information about Tuesday’s attacks in Brussels, which killed and wounded dozens. Americans who watched cable news, on the other hand, woke up to Donald Trump, who presented these attacks—like the ones in Paris—as a boon for his campaign. “This is a subject that is very dear and near to my heart, because I’ve been talking about it much more than anybody else,” he said. “And it’s probably why I’m No. 1 in the polls. Because of the fact that I say we have to have strong borders. We have to be very vigilant and careful who we allow into our country.”

Meanwhile, some journalists were frustrated with the networks’ choice to give attention to Trump and essentially let him campaign on the destruction in Brussels before the bodies had even been counted. “ ‘Terrorist attacks help Trump’ isn’t a thing that just happens. It happens because after attacks, voters see his face on every TV network,” wrote Jill Filipovic, a columnist for the Guardian. “America may be one major terrorist attack from Donald Trump as president,” said Blake Hounshell, editorial director at Politico.

Both Trump and his critics are operating from the belief that terrorism, even abroad, helps the most reactionary and illiberal candidates in an election. Trump was the chief GOP beneficiary of the Paris attacks, which helped him build a larger lead over his rivals. In an apparently anti-establishment year, with many Americans driven variously by economic anxiety, racism, and deep fears of external threat, it’s easy to believe that Trump could ride the Brussels attack to more votes and a shorter path to the White House.

At the same time, there’s reason to think this just isn’t true. Americans do become more conservative in the face of physical threat. Fears over terrorism, for example, helped George W. Bush win a second term. But Bush was a sitting president who led the national response after the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. For millions of Americans, he was a credible voice on the subject.

The same is not true of Donald Trump. As evidenced by his almost absurdist dialogue with the editorial board of the Washington Post, Trump doesn’t know anything about terrorism or national security. [Continue reading…]


Brussels attacks: A throwback to pre-9/11 terrorism

By Steve Hewitt, University of Birmingham

The terrible scenes in Brussels following a terrorist attack now claimed by Islamic State are a reminder of just how vulnerable airports can be.

In the years since the September 11 attacks in the US in 2001, a clear priority of western security agencies has been to protect airlines from bombings and hijackings. And, of course, this threat is real and has been persistent.

This attack in Belgium is something of a throwback to the pre-9/11 era. The fact that it occurred in the unsecured section of a major airport is significant and will raise difficult questions for the authorities.

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France’s state of emergency

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Didier Fassin writes: The state of emergency that François Hollande declared on 14 November, the day after 130 people were killed and more than 300 wounded by the attackers in Paris, is still in force. It’s worth noting how exceptional this situation is. Neither José María Aznar after the 2004 Madrid bombings that killed 191 people and injured 1800 nor Tony Blair after the 2005 London bombings in which 52 people were killed and 700 injured invoked any such measures. In France, it was only the second time under the Fifth Republic that a state of emergency had been applied to the entire country (the first was in April 1961, after the Algiers putsch, the generals’ failed coup against Charles de Gaulle). ‘France is at war,’ Hollande announced on 16 November, having convened a special congress at the Palace of Versailles to argue that the state of emergency should in due course be written into the constitution and, in the meantime, extended for three months; two days after his speech, 551 of 558 National Assembly representatives voted in favour of the extension. A poll indicated that 91 per cent of the public supported it, the approval rate showing little variation across party lines: 93 per cent among Socialists and 98 per cent among Republicans. Since then, support has remained very high. Why are these measures, which other heads of state, confronted with similar events, did not deem necessary, so popular at large?

The state of emergency, in general terms, gives the executive branch of government extraordinary powers over the mobilisation of the army, control of the borders, limitation of movement and setting of curfews. But in practice it has four main concrete consequences. The police can conduct searches in private and public spaces at any time without judicial warrant. The minister of the interior can put anyone considered a threat to public security under house arrest. State authorities can ban demonstrations and gatherings on the same grounds. Law enforcement officers can stop and search anyone without specific justification. Anticipating appeals to the European Court of Human Rights against the measures, the French government pre-emptively informed the Council of Europe on 27 November of ‘its decision to contravene the European Convention on Human Rights’.

You would think that these restrictions on public liberties and fundamental rights would be unpopular, and might even lead to public protest. In fact, the reverse has happened. In poll after poll, a large majority continues to support the emergency measures. There are two reasons: first, they are widely thought to be effective in countering terrorism; second, most of the population never gets to see the negative consequences. [Continue reading…]


How the changing media is changing terrorism

Jason Burke writes: Mohamed Merah, a 23-year-old petty criminal, spent much of the last 36 hours of his life crouched over a laptop in his small apartment in the south‑western French city of Toulouse. It was March 2012. Outside, armed police and journalists gathered. Merah reheated frozen food in a microwave and checked his weapons. He spoke with negotiators and described how he had travelled to Pakistan a few months earlier to receive some desultory training from a faction linked to al-Qaida. He also explained, incoherently, why he had killed seven people over the previous two weeks in a series of shootings. But most of the time, Merah worked on his computer.

Just a few hours before he was killed by armed police after a sustained firefight, Merah finished editing a 24-minute video clip. It was a compilation of images from the GoPro camera that he had attached to his body armour before each of his killings. GoPro primarily caters to practitioners of extreme sports who wish to obtain point-of-view footage of their adrenalin-charged exploits. Merah had filmed his preparations, the murders themselves and his motorbike getaways. His first three victims were off-duty soldiers, two Muslims and a Catholic. The others, a rabbi and three children, had died when he had attacked a Jewish school. The images showed how Merah had chased and caught one of those children: eight-year-old Miriam Monsonego, who had hesitated for a second when others ran, reluctant to abandon her school bag. Merah grabbed her by the hair, changed his weapon when the first jammed, and then finally shot the girl in the head.

Roughly 24 hours after police located Merah and surrounded his building, he managed to slip through a gap in the security cordon. He did not take the opportunity to escape. Instead, he walked to a postbox, deposited a package containing a USB stick with the video on it, and then returned to his home to await his own death.

The package he dropped into the postbox was addressed to al-Jazeera, the Qatar-based TV network. Merah was confident that al-Jazeera would broadcast the material because, in his words, it constantly showed “massacres and bombs and suchlike”. In fact, al-Jazeera did not show any of the clip because, the network said in a statement, Merah’s images did not “add any information” not already in the public domain and breached its ethical code.

The network’s decision did little to diminish the stream of horrendous violence that has been disseminated by Islamic militant groups and individuals in recent years. Since Merah’s death, the use and broadcast of graphic and violent images has reached an unprecedented level. Much of this is due to the emergence of the Islamic State (Isis), which launched its campaign to carve out an enclave in eastern Syria and western Iraq at around the time Merah was planning his killings. But much is also a result of the capabilities of the new technology that Isis has been able to exploit. [Continue reading…]


A requiem for the European dream

Olivier Guez writes: Even though radical Islam, mass migrations, Russian revanchism and military interventions are challenges that no European state can meet alone, political sentiments across the Continent are all in the wrong direction. Frightened Europeans retreat into their sovereign little states, propelled by the popular right and xenophobia. In Hungary and Poland, those forces have taken power. By 2017, they may well do so in France, and Britons may have quit Europe altogether. That would leave no nation in a position to take the reins from France or Germany in leading Europe’s imperfect union.

So what comes next? Can we reasonably believe Europe will snap out of it? Will there be a Franco-German turnaround in shamed memory of the slaughter at Verdun 100 years ago? I don’t think so.

It is a matter of leadership. In the 1990s, François Mitterrand and Helmut Kohl, like Adenauer and De Gaulle before them, could work together, in part because they had experienced the ultimate alternative — the horrors of war. But those giants have long left the stage. There exists today neither any guiding program nor true solidarity, and historical memories have grown very short. Ms. Merkel and Mr. Hollande are more than ever focused on their own national conundrums: for France, how to control terrorism; for Germany, how to treat refugees.

What Europe’s heads of state have not done, and simply must begin to do, is prepare their citizens for the one great requirement for progress toward more unity — an enormous leap of faith and optimism, even while in the grip of fear. Instead, they betray their peoples’ fondest dreams by pecking at one another. And even my generation, who were 15 to 20 years old when the Berlin Wall fell, fails to stand up to them and demand that they save the dream we were promised — a Europe finally at permanent peace and working in unison after all the divisions and horrors of the 20th century. [Continue reading…]


Mayors across the U.S. see Donald Trump as a threat to national security

Politico Magazine’s fourth national Mayors Survey (which had 73 participants) found that: mayors of varying constituencies and political stripes agreed on one key priority: diversity training and outreach, with a focus on tolerance and inclusion. Sixty-two percent of mayors said their police forces had a program to engage the Muslim community, and over a quarter of respondents cited “community relations and distrust of law enforcement” as a key challenge to counter-terrorism efforts.

“It’s prudent for us to establish real and sustainable relationships with immigrant and Muslim communities,” wrote Newark Mayor Ras Baraka. “It is equally important to address those that are marginalized and secluded of all groups, particularly youth, to stabilize communities and lower the opportunities for recruitment and propaganda.”

Wrote one mayor anonymously: “Communities are still very much segregated. And public education needs to be intentional about teaching respect in a diverse society.” One mayor cited as a key accomplishment “strengthening our relationships with the many ethnic groups who live [here]. 1 of 4 residents were not born in the US and 1 of 3 are a person of color.”

National politicians, the mayors charged, are harming counter-terrorism efforts through anti-Muslim rhetoric. “Islamophobia is a huge threat to the well-being of my constituents,” wrote a mayor of a major Midwest city. “The president gets that, congress doesn’t.” Added another: “Some candidates for President and Congressional leaders don’t understand that good relations, tolerant policies, and community outreach is critical to getting tips and leads on terrorist activity and keeping our cities safe.”

Asked which presidential contender would be the worst for security, 51 percent named a certain billionaire real estate mogul.

“Donald Trump will be the worst,” wrote Mayor Marilyn Strickland of Tacoma, Washington, population 203,000. “Peddling hate, fear and xenophobia will not make us more safe.”

“Trump would be a disaster,” concurred Mary Salas, of Chula Vista, California, whose city has a population of about a quarter of a million.“He’d create terrible foreign relations — a dangerous climate.”

Still, some mayors took a contrarian view on where the real terrorist threat is emanating from.

“Austin’s experience with terrorism, whether it’s someone flying his plane into the IRS building or shooting at the police station and the Mexican Consulate, has been exclusively domestic in origin,” said Austin Mayor Steve Adler. Said Kitty Piercy, of Eugene, Oregon: “I think having a national wildlife refuge taken over by out of state militia is pretty frightening. We may need to think of American terrorism in whole new ways.” [Continue reading…]