The Trump administration seems poised to further unleash the CIA’s paramilitary branch

Joshua Kurlantzick writes: [T]he Trump administration is poised to accelerate a transformation that has been happening, in fits and starts, since the 1960s, with the CIA becoming less of an outfit focused on spying and more of a paramilitary organization with a central role in violent conflicts.

Further increasing the use of CIA paramilitaries and the Pentagon’s Special Forces in places such as Syria and Afghanistan would have potentially grave consequences for U.S. foreign policy — and for the United States’ leadership in the world. These paramilitaries are almost totally unaccountable, and unaccountability encourages rash, even criminal, behavior, including disdain for civilian lives, torture and other abuses. And, as demonstrated by a secret war in the 1960s and early ’70s — the most important precedent for today’s war on terror — it’s hard to win by using the CIA and Special Forces rather than conventional troops.

Fifty-six years ago, another incoming president decided to empower the CIA’s paramilitaries, relying on covert war rather than conventional fighting.

Before taking the oath of office in 1961, John F. Kennedy had (privately) squabbled with some CIA leaders, who saw him as inexperienced and potentially reckless.

The CIA was only 14 years old then and a relatively small player in the American policymaking apparatus, one with far less power and fewer resources than the Departments of Defense and State. The agency mostly concentrated on traditional intelligence and political work, such as spying and trying to overthrow foreign governments believed unfriendly to the United States. It did a small amount of training of foreign forces, but no battlefield commanding.

Once in office, however, Kennedy approved the expansion of what would become the largest covert U.S. operation in history, in the tiny Southeast Asian nation of Laos. In a shift that could prove familiar in 2017, his decision dramatically empowered the same CIA that had worried about the new president.

The political climate at the time Kennedy took office also was in some ways similar to today’s. After a bloody stalemate in Korea, and the defeat of U.S.-backed French troops in Vietnam in 1954, many Americans were tired of conventional war and interventionism in general. Yet foreign policy elites believed that the United States faced an existential threat: Communism was spreading through Asia, first to China and North Vietnam and then to Laos, and possibly beyond. A secret war, one that used relatively few U.S. combatants and relied on foreign proxy forces and bombing from above, came to be seen as the safest choice, politically, for the Kennedy administration.

The CIA’s involvement in Laos, which expanded in 1961 with a small training program for anti-communist fighters, ramped up quickly. It would grow over the course of the 1960s and into the early 1970s, with few Americans, and not even many members of Congress, knowing anything about it. The CIA recruited tens of thousands of U.S. contractors, paramilitary fighters and local Laotian warriors in an ultimately futile attempt to transform Laotian guerillas into a conventional army capable of stopping Hanoi and its local allies. U.S. bombers, working in concert with CIA paramilitaries, destroyed much of Laos while attacking Laotian and North Vietnamese communists. They dropped more bombs on Laos than on Germany and Japan combined in World War II. The country was left with so much unexploded ordnance that, in the four decades since Laos’s civil war ended in 1975, the leftover bombs have killed 20,000 Laotians.

The war cemented the CIA’s place as an organization with power on par with the Departments of Defense and State — and one increasingly dedicated to activities such as arming and advising foreign forces, managing conflicts and even overseeing targeted killings. CIA operatives went on to play roles in covert wars in Central America and Afghanistan in the 1980s, as well as in conflict zones in the war on terror. As Foreign Policy magazine has characterized it, the CIA is now “pulling the strings of U.S. foreign policy” — overseeing drone strikes and managing many aspects of the fight against the Islamic State. And according to documents released by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden, the CIA’s budget appears to be greater than the State Department’s, a dramatic reversal from the early Cold War. While Brennan is recognized for leading an effort to reduce walls between operatives and analysts and fortify some of the agency’s traditional functions, he also oversaw an increase in the strength of paramilitary operations. In 2015, he promoted a paramilitary operative to head the clandestine branch — reportedly the first time a paramilitary officer took on the top undercover position.

Although Trump’s rhetoric suggests that he could rein in the CIA, the reality, as during Kennedy’s time, will probably be the reverse. The agency’s paramilitary branch, along with the military’s Special Forces — the two have become intertwined in policy and practice — will be further unleashed in a twilight war. [Continue reading…]

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The coming war on ‘radical Islam’

Uri Friedman writes: Where Obama sees a weak enemy that is getting weaker, his critics see a strong enemy that is getting stronger. Where Obama sees limits to what the U.S. can do on its own to eradicate radical interpretations of Islam, his critics see an appalling lack of effort by the U.S. government. Where Obama sees a serious but manageable national-security threat, his critics see an ideological and civilizational challenge to the free world.

Trump has gone further than many other Republican leaders in advancing the counterargument to Obama — not just in his proposed policies, like banning or severely restricting Muslim immigration to the United States, but also in his rhetoric. “I think Islam hates us,” Trump said earlier this year. Asked if he was referring to “radical Islam,” he responded, “It’s radical, but it’s very hard to define. It’s very hard to separate. Because you don’t know who’s who.”

Several members of Trump’s emerging team have described the threat in similarly stark and broad ways. “We’re in a world war against a messianic mass movement of evil people, most of them inspired by a totalitarian ideology: Radical Islam. But we are not permitted to speak or write those two words, which is potentially fatal to our culture,” writes Michael Flynn, Trump’s pick for national-security adviser, in a book he published this summer with the conservative writer Michael Ledeen.

“I don’t believe all cultures are morally equivalent, and I think the West, and especially America, is far more civilized, far more ethical and moral, than the system our main enemies want to impose on us,” Flynn adds.

“Not all the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims are extremists or terrorists. Not by a long shot,” wrote Flynn’s incoming deputy, K.T. McFarland, in March. “But even if just 10 percent of 1 percent are radicalized, that’s a staggering 1.6 million people bent on destroying Western civilization and the values we hold dear. The fascists wanted to control the world. So did the communists. But the Islamists want to brutally kill a significant percentage of the world — and that is anyone standing in the way of their end-times caliphate.” Jeff Sessions, Trump’s choice for attorney general, has invoked America’s “containment” strategy during the Cold War, noting that there “can be no compromise with this form of radical Islam.”

As the head of Breitbart News, Steve Bannon hosted a radio show featuring numerous guests who claimed that radical Muslim ideologues were clandestinely infiltrating the U.S. government and trying to extend their belief system across the country. (Flynn has similarly warned, falsely, that Islamic Sharia law is encroaching on the U.S. legal system.) In a 2014 speech to the Human Dignity Institute in the Vatican, Bannon, who will be Trump’s chief strategist in the White House, characterized the current war against “jihadist Islamic fascism” as the latest stage of an existential, centuries-old struggle between the Judeo-Christian West and the Islamic world: [Continue reading…]

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U.S. military operations are biggest motivation for homegrown terrorism, FBI study finds

The Intercept reports: A secret FBI study found that anger over U.S. military operations abroad was the most commonly cited motivation for individuals involved in cases of “homegrown” terrorism. The report also identified no coherent pattern to “radicalization,” concluding that it remained near impossible to predict future violent acts.

The study, reviewed by The Intercept, was conducted in 2012 by a unit in the FBI’s counterterrorism division and surveyed intelligence analysts and FBI special agents across the United States who were responsible for nearly 200 cases, both open and closed, involving “homegrown violent extremists.” The survey responses reinforced the FBI’s conclusion that such individuals “frequently believe the U.S. military is committing atrocities in Muslim countries, thereby justifying their violent aspirations.”

Online relationships and exposure to English-language militant propaganda and “ideologues” like Anwar al-Awlaki are also cited as “key factors” driving extremism. But grievances over U.S. military action ranked far above any other factor, turning up in 18 percent of all cases, with additional cases citing a “perceived war against Islam,” “perceived discrimination,” or other more specific incidents. The report notes that between 2009 and 2012, 10 out of 16 attempted or successful terrorist attacks in the United States targeted military facilities or personnel. [Continue reading…]

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How U.S. torture left legacy of damaged minds

The New York Times reports: Before the United States permitted a terrifying way of interrogating prisoners, government lawyers and intelligence officials assured themselves of one crucial outcome. They knew that the methods inflicted on terrorism suspects would be painful, shocking and far beyond what the country had ever accepted. But none of it, they concluded, would cause long lasting psychological harm.

Fifteen years later, it is clear they were wrong.

Today in Slovakia, Hussein al-Marfadi describes permanent headaches and disturbed sleep, plagued by memories of dogs inside a blackened jail. In Kazakhstan, Lutfi bin Ali is haunted by nightmares of suffocating at the bottom of a well. In Libya, the radio from a passing car spurs rage in Majid Mokhtar Sasy al-Maghrebi, reminding him of the C.I.A. prison where earsplitting music was just one assault to his senses.

And then there is the despair of men who say they are no longer themselves. “I am living this kind of depression,” said Younous Chekkouri, a Moroccan, who fears going outside because he sees faces in crowds as Guantánamo Bay guards. “I’m not normal anymore.”

After enduring agonizing treatment in secret C.I.A. prisons around the world or coercive practices at the military detention camp at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, dozens of detainees developed persistent mental health problems, according to previously undisclosed medical records, government documents and interviews with former prisoners and military and civilian doctors. Some emerged with the same symptoms as American prisoners of war who were brutalized decades earlier by some of the world’s cruelest regimes. [Continue reading…]

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America has spent almost $5 trillion on wars since 9/11

The Intercept reports: The total U.S. budgetary cost of war since 2001 is $4.79 trillion, according to a report released this week from Brown University’s Watson Institute. That’s the highest estimate yet.

Neta Crawford of Boston University, the author of the report, included interest on borrowing, future veterans needs, and the cost of homeland security in her calculations.

The amount of $4.79 trillion, “so large as to be almost incomprehensible,” she writes, adds up like this: [Continue reading…]

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Rosa Brooks examines war’s expanding boundaries

In a review of Rosa Brooks’ new book, How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything, Harold Evans writes: Is Rosa Brooks psychic? Her book had gone to press before the killings of July 2016 broke upon us. Did she have a crystal ball to yield an image of the ambush in Dallas in which, from a sniper’s vantage point, a veteran of the ­Afghan war in body armor machine-gunned 12 policemen, killing five? Or of the military bomb squad robot that ended the terror without the police risking more lives? Or of the ambush in Baton Rouge by a veteran who shot three policemen to death? Or of another loner in Orlando, Fla., who was able to walk into a gun shop to buy what Army Special Ops calls a “Black Mamba”? That’s a Sig Sauer MCX assault rifle capable of firing 24 bullets in nine seconds, advertised by its makers as “an innovative weapon system built around a battle-proven core.” Forty-nine people died innovatively in the ­battle-proven core of the Pulse nightclub.

All these elements of the infiltration of military weapons and methods into American life are within the broad compass of Brooks’s perceptive book, “How Everything ­Became War and the Military Became Everything.” She has seen the paradoxical effects of the inflation of metaphor on law and institutions: how the police have become more like the military, and how soldiers, in nation-building efforts, have become more like police (and farmers); how police forces have bought hundreds of armored cars from the Pentagon for “the war on terror”; how “the war on drugs” has incarcerated more than one million Americans; how large cities now have SWAT (special weapons and tactics) teams. And she has seen how a quiet word in a drone command center can end the life of a young terror suspect thousands of miles away.

In impressive and often fascinating detail, she documents that the boundaries between war and peace have grown so hazy as to undermine hard-won ­global gains in human rights and the rule of law. [Continue reading…]

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The consequences of Durand’s border blunder continue to shape world politics

Rafia Zakaria writes: By the year 1871, British officials stationed in India had learned to ride elephants. This was in fact exactly what Sir Henry Durand, Lieutenant Governor of Punjab, was doing when he fell to his death. In the sad record of the event, Sir Henry is described riding in a howdah atop an elephant while traveling through the North-West Frontier Province, ‘which was in his charge’. The elephant, which belonged to an Indian chief, was led through a covered gateway that was ‘too low for it to pass through’. As a result, Durand the younger writes: ‘My father, a man of great height, was forced backward and thrown out across a low wall, which so injured his spine that he died the same day.’

The unceremonious death of Durand the elder, the ‘man of great height’, can well be a study of the British in India at the time. They had quashed a mutiny in 1857, and conquered both the fertile province of Punjab and the southern province of Sindh. Yet they remained curiously vulnerable to surprises on the wild edge of the northwestern corner of their empire. Mortimer Durand, then in his 20s, would attempt to tame the frontier which had taken his father. It was Mortimer, and not the elephant-riding Sir Henry, who would be the architect, and namesake, of a border that remains a frontline for battles between superpowers to this day.

Durand the son arrived in India not long after his father’s death. He was searching not simply for accolades as a diplomat and colonial administrator, but also for a connection with his much adored but distant, and now late, father. Durand left his mark on the land, literally carving a border where there was none. [Continue reading…]

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Rebecca Gordon: Justice for torturers?

If you happen to be a potential American war criminal, you’ve had a few banner weeks.  On May 9th, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter presented former Secretary of State and National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger with the Department of Defense Distinguished Public Service Award, that institution’s highest honorary award for private citizens.”  In bestowing it on the 92-year-old who is evidently still consulting for the Pentagon, he offered this praise: “While his contributions are far from complete, we are now beginning to appreciate what his service has provided our country, how it has changed the way we think about strategy, and how he has helped provide greater security for our citizens and people around the world.”

Certainly people “around the world” will remember the “greater security” offered by the man who, relaying an order from President Richard Nixon for a “massive” secret bombing campaign in Cambodia, used a line that may almost be the definition of a war crime: “Anything that flies on anything that moves.”  The result: half a million tons of bombs dropped on that country between 1969 and 1973 and at least 100,000 dead civilians.  And that’s just to start down the well-cratered road to the millions of dead he undoubtedly has some responsibility for.  Public service indeed.

Meanwhile, speaking of American crimes in the Vietnam era, former Nebraska Senator Bob Kerrey, who ran for president of the U.S. and then became the president of the New School in New York City, was just appointed to “lead” Fulbright University Vietnam, the first private American-backed school there.  Its opening was announced by President Obama on his recent visit to that country.  Only one small problem: we already know of some children who won’t be able to apply for admission.  I’m thinking of the progeny-who-never-were of the 13 children killed by a team of U.S. SEALs under Kerrey’s command and on his orders in South Vietnam in 1969 (along with a pregnant woman, and an elderly couple whose three grandchildren were stabbed to death by the raiders) — all of whom were reported at the time as dead Vietcong guerillas.

It seems that if you are a distinguished citizen of the most exceptional country on the planet, even war crimes have their rewards.  Consider, for instance, the millions of dollars that were paid for memoirs by top Bush administration officials responsible for creating an American offshore torture regime at CIA “black sites” around the world.  Must-reads all!  With that in mind, turn to TomDispatch regular Rebecca Gordon, author most recently of American Nuremberg: The U.S. Officials Who Should Stand Trial for Post-9/11 War Crimes, to consider what “justice” for such figures might look like in a different and better world. Tom Engelhardt 

Crimes of the War on Terror
Should George Bush, Dick Cheney, and others be jailed?
By Rebecca Gordon

“The cold was terrible but the screams were worse,” Sara Mendez told the BBC. “The screams of those who were being tortured were the first thing you heard and they made you shiver. That’s why there was a radio blasting day and night.”

In the 1970s, Mendez was a young Uruguayan teacher with leftist leanings. In 1973, when the military seized power in her country (a few months before General Augusto Pinochet’s more famous coup in Chile), Mendez fled to Argentina. She lived there in safety until that country suffered its own coup in 1976. That July, a joint Uruguayan-Argentine military commando group kidnapped her in Buenos Aires and deposited her at Automotores Orletti, a former auto repair shop that would become infamous as a torture site and paramilitary command center. There she was indeed tortured, and there, too, her torturers stole her 20-day-old baby, Simón, giving him to a policeman’s family to raise.

[Read more…]

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The radical future of interrogation

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Robert Kolker writes: The trouble with modern interrogation technique… is that, despite its scientific pose, it has almost no science to back it up. Reid and Inbau [authors of Criminal Interrogation and Confessions, which in 1962 set the mold for police interrogations in America] claimed, for instance, that a well-trained investigator could catch suspects lying with 85 percent accuracy; their manual instructs detectives to conduct an initial, nonaccusatory “behavioral analysis interview,” in which they should look for physical tells like fidgeting and broken eye contact. But when German forensic psychologist Günter Köhnken actually studied the matter in 1987, he found that trained police officers were no better than the average person at detecting lies. Several subsequent studies have cast doubt on the notion that there are any clear-cut behavioral tells. (Truth tellers often fidget more than liars.) In fact, the more confident police officers are about their judgments, the more likely they are to be wrong.

But the scientific case against police interrogations really began to mount in the early 1990s, when the first DNA-based exonerations started rolling in. According to the Innocence Project, a group dedicated to freeing the wrongfully imprisoned, about a third of the 337 people who’ve had their convictions overturned by DNA evidence confessed or incriminated themselves falsely. These and other exonera­tions furnished scientists with dozens of known false-confession cases to study, giving rise to a veritable subfield of social psychology and the behavioral sciences. (At least one confession elicited by John Reid himself — in a 1955 murder case — turned out to be inaccurate; the real killer confessed 23 years later.)

Researchers have even broken down these false confession cases into categories. There are “voluntary” false confessions, like the many presumably unstable people who claimed credit for the Lindbergh baby kidnapping in order to get attention. Then there are “compliant,” or “coerced,” false confessions, in which people are so ground down by an intense interrogation that, out of desperation and naïveté, they think that confessing will be better for them in the long run. The third category, “persuaded,” or “internalized,” false confessions, may be the most poignant. Here, the interrogator’s Reid-style theming is so relentless, the deployment of lies so persuasive, that suspects — often young and impressionable or mentally impaired — end up believing they did it, however fleetingly. [Continue reading…]

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The war on terror has turned the whole world into a battlefield

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Arun Kundnani writes: When opinion polls find that most Muslims think Westerners are selfish, immoral and violent, we have no idea of the real causes. And so we assume such opinions must be an expression of their culture rather than our politics.

Donald Trump and Ted Cruz have exploited these reactions with their appeals to Islamophobia. But most liberals also assume that religious extremism is the root cause of terrorism. President Obama, for example, has spoken of “a violent, radical, fanatical, nihilistic interpretation of Islam by a faction — a tiny faction — within the Muslim community that is our enemy, and that has to be defeated.”

Based on this assumption, think-tanks, intelligence agencies and academic departments linked to the national security apparatus have spent millions of dollars since 9/11 conducting research on radicalization. They hoped to find a correlation between having extremist religious ideas, however defined, and involvement in terrorism.

In fact, no such correlation exists, as empirical evidence demonstrates — witness the European Islamic State volunteers who arrive in Syria with copies of “Islam for Dummies” or the alleged leader of the November 2015 Paris attacks, Abdelhamid Abaaoud, who was reported to have drunk whisky and smoked cannabis. But this has not stopped national security agencies, such as the FBI, from using radicalization models that assume devout religious beliefs are an indicator of potential terrorism.

The process of radicalization is easily understood if we imagine how we would respond to a foreign government dropping 22,000 bombs on us. Large numbers of patriots would be volunteering to fight the perpetrators. And nationalist and religious ideologies would compete with each other to lead that movement and give its adherents a sense of purpose.

Similarly, the Islamic State does not primarily recruit through theological arguments but through a militarized identity politics. It says there is a global war between the West and Islam, a heroic struggle, with truth and justice on one side and lies, depravity and corruption on the other. It shows images of innocents victimized and battles gloriously waged. In other words, it recruits in the same way that any other armed group recruits, including the U.S. military.

That means that when we also deploy our own militarized identity politics to narrate our response to terrorism, we inadvertently reinforce the Islamic State’s message to its potential recruits. When British Prime Minister David Cameron talks about a “generational struggle” between Western values and Islamic extremism, he is assisting the militants’ own propaganda. When French President François Hollande talks of “a war which will be pitiless,” he is doing the same.

What is distinctive about the Islamic State’s message is that it also offers a utopian and apocalyptic vision of an alternative society in the making. The reality of that alternative is, of course, oppression of women, enslavement of minorities and hatred of freedom.

But the message works, to some extent, because it claims to be an answer to real problems of poverty, authoritarian regimes and Western aggression. Significantly, it thrives in environments where other radical alternatives to a discredited status quo have been suppressed by government repression. What’s corrupting the Islamic State’s volunteers is not ideology but by the end of ideology: they have grown up in an era with no alternatives to capitalist globalization. The organization has gained support, in part, because the Arab revolutions of 2011 were defeated, in many cases by regimes allied with and funded by the U.S.

After 14 years of the “war on terror,” we are no closer to achieving peace. The fault does not lie with any one administration but with the assumption that war can defeat terrorism. The lesson of the Islamic State is that war creates terrorism. [Continue reading…]

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Who was more prescient: Clinton or Awlaki? And why is YouTube helping promote a Trump conspiracy theory?

After a 52-minute video made by al-Kataib, the media outlet of Somalia’s al-Qaeda-affiliate, al-Shabaab, was posted on YouTube yesterday, it was swiftly removed. YouTube has a long-standing policy of banning videos that incite violence.

As the ABC News report above shows, the element in the video which has grabbed the media’s attention is its use of Donald Trump’s recent call for Muslims to be prohibited from entering the United States.

Here’s the part of the video which features Trump — although, by the time you read this post, YouTube will have removed this clip, which is why I’m also posting a transcript:

First we see the American imam, Anwar al-Awlaki, making a prediction about the fate of Muslims who continue living in the U.S. — Awlaki was killed by a U.S. drone strike in Yemen in 2011. Then comes a clip of Trump and then Awalaki again.

Awlaki, date unknown: Muslims of the West, take heed and learn from the lessons of history. There are ominous clouds gathering in your horizon.

Yesterday, America was a land of slavery, segregation, lynching, and Ku Klux Klan. And tomorrow it will be a land of religious discrimination and concentration camps.

Trump speaking at a campaign rally on December 7: Guys remember this and listen: Donald J Trump is calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States [cheers] until our country’s representatives can figure out what [expletive bleeped] is going on [cheers and applause].

Awlaki: The West will eventually turn against its Muslim citizens. Hence, my advice to you is this: You have two choices, either hijra or jihad. You either leave or you fight. You leave and live among Muslims, or you stay behind and follow the example of Nidal Hassan [perpetrator of the Fort Hood mass shooting] and others who fulfilled their duty of fighting for Allah’s cause.

In response to pressure from Western governments, YouTube and other social media channels are becoming increasingly aggressive in blocking the distribution of terrorist propaganda. There is understandable frustration at the fact that the internet is being used to threaten the very societies within which this global communications system was created.

Censorship can easily backfire, however, and this is happening with the removal of clips of the new al-Shabaab video.

After the full-length version had been removed, snippets which just showed the al-Awalaki statement and Trump, have also been removed (as I noted above).

It is clear that these videos are being posted by Trump critics rather than al-Shabaab supporters and their removal is breathing life into a conspiracy theory being propagated by some Trump supporters: that the al-Shabaab video itself is a fabrication created by the Clinton campaign!

It seems likely that there are some Trump supporters who — following the lead of Bashar al-Assad supporters — are using YouTube’s community guidelines in order to silence criticism.

Although in the short clips of the al-Shabaab, Awlaki is indeed inciting violence, the clips themselves are clearly not being posted in order to incite violence — they have been posted to show how Trump’s rhetoric serves as a propaganda gift for jihadists.

By removing these clips, YouTube is playing straight into the hands of conspiracy theorists.

At the same time, censorship also buttresses the perception among ISIS and al Qaeda supporters, that the West feels threatened by “the truth.”

It’s worth remembering the trajectory Awlaki followed which eventually led to him promoting terrorism from Yemen.

In 2000, he supported George Bush’s campaign to become president and after 9/11 believed his own emerging role must be to serve as bridge between America and all Muslims.

Last August, Scott Shane wrote:

At midnight on Sept. 14, 2001, Awlaki, then a young Yemeni-American imam at the prominent Dar al-Hijrah mosque in Falls Church, Va., finished a long day by answering an email from his younger brother about the terrorist attacks of a few days before. ‘‘I personally think it was horrible,’’ he wrote to Ammar, a college student in New Mexico at the time. ‘‘I am very upset about it.’’ He added, ‘‘The media are all over us.’’ Anwar was disconcerted, but perhaps also pleased that an onslaught of reporters had turned his Friday prayers, or jummah, into a circus. ‘‘At jummah today we had ABC, NBC, CBS and The Washington Post.’’ He closed on a positive note, hinting at a noble purpose, to be sure, but also displaying a trace of personal ambition: ‘‘I hope we can use this for the good of all of us.’’

Though the country was in mourning, a sense of defiant unity emerged. A non-Muslim neighbor of Dar al-Hijrah organized a candlelight vigil around the building to show solidarity with the mosque. Roughly 80 residents of a nearby apartment building sent over a note saying, ‘‘We want your congregation to know that we welcome you in this community.’’ Journalists, hunting for an authoritative voice from the Muslim community, began to pass regularly under the mosque’s grand marble arches or to gather in Awlaki’s modest family home. He denounced the 9/11 attacks but in the same breath would criticize America’s record in the Middle East. Reporters were impressed. The New York Times wrote that Awlaki, just 30, was being ‘‘held up as a new generation of Muslim leader capable of merging East and West.’’ He relished the spotlight. He seemed to be quite self-consciously auditioning for a dual role: explainer of Islam to America and of America to Muslims. ‘‘We came here to build, not to destroy,’’ he declared from his pulpit. ‘‘We are the bridge between America and one billion Muslims worldwide.’’

The challenge presented by ISIS, al Qaeda and other jihadist groups is more than one of security and communications. At its core, this is a moral challenge.

The jihadists present themselves as offering the solution to a moral problem: a way for Muslims to confront the immorality, corruption, and hypocrisy they see in the contemporary Western-dominated world.

An effective counter-jihadist strategy cannot simply brush off this critique of the West. It has to present an alternative solution.

Currently, who has the more credible voice? Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, or Anwar al-Awlaki?

Unfortunately, it’s Awlaki.

As Shane observed:

Awlaki’s pronouncements seem to carry greater authority today than when he was living, because America killed him.

Right now, it’s easy to castigate Trump for providing terrorists with fodder for propaganda, but we mustn’t forget the extent to which the U.S. led by Bush and then Obama, has helped reinforce the jihadists’ narrative — by opening Guantanamo; through the use of torture, rendition and secret prisons; through the disastrous war in Iraq; through drone strikes in Afghanistan, Yemen, and Somalia; through continuing to prop up authoritarian regimes across the Middle East; through allowing the Assad regime to destroy Syria, and through failing to broker an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The real challenge for Western political leaders and whoever becomes the next U.S. president is not whether they can destroy ISIS and effectively tackle global terrorism.

It is this: How can they regain sufficient moral authority that their words carry weight? How can they restore some much-needed respect for democracy?

In a global failure of governance, the Middle East can be viewed as the emergency room, while in the West, governance suffers from chronic illness for which symptom-relief is the only treatment on offer.

It’s time we face up to the fact that terrorism is just a symptom what ails the world. Indeed, much of the time a global obsession with terrorism is having the effect of turning our attention away from broader issues that undermine the health of societies and our ability to survive on this planet.

This isn’t a question of striving for some kind of unattainable and contestable moral purity. No one wants to live under the control of zealots. It’s about trying to create societies in which government is no longer a dirty word, where ordinary citizens receive the respect they deserve, and in which individuals are no longer cynical about the possibilities for securing collective interests.

In a word, it’s about the restoration of honesty in public life.

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The Italian Job: An ex-CIA officer speaks out

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The global surge in terrorism

The Atlantic reports: The grisly attacks in France and Lebanon last week have fixed attention on the violence perpetrated by ISIS. But a study published this week indicates that the world’s deadliest terrorist organization actually operates thousands of miles south of Paris and Beirut, in Nigeria.

The 2015 Global Terrorism Index, published by the Institute for Economics & Peace, found that Boko Haram, the Nigerian jihadist group, was responsible for 6,644 deaths in 2014, compared with 6,073 at the hands of ISIS. Boko Haram, which was founded in 2002 as an Islamist movement against Western education and morphed into an armed insurgency in 2009, has rapidly expanded its scope and ambitions over the past two years, achieving international notoriety in the spring of 2014 by kidnapping more than 200 schoolgirls. Much like ISIS, the organization controls territory in Nigeria (although it has lost some of it over the past year) and has declared a caliphate in that territory. The group is also international; although based in northeastern Nigeria, it has launched attacks in Cameroon, Chad, and Niger. In the latest incident, Boko Haram is the suspected author of an attack in the Nigerian city of Yola that has left more than 30 people dead. [Continue reading…]

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Americans fear terrorism because they are easy to terrify

Mark Edmundson writes: Among the puzzling questions of world history and national identity, a few stand out. How, one might ask, did the Vikings, once the roving terrors of the world, manage to become equable Nordic socialists with lessons to teach us in the arts of decency and fairness? And how did the tough, soldierly Romans, conquerors of the world, manage to evolve into the charming, pleasure-loving Italians, with their gifts for good food, good wine, and civic instability?

Soon, a similarly unexpected question may be asked about Americans. How did a people who settled a continent, created enormous wealth, and fought and (mostly) won war after war devolve into a nation of such tremulous souls? And how did it happen so quickly? Where once there was the generation of the Second World War, ready to leave home and fight fascists on the far sides of the world, we now have a nation that at times seems composed largely of field mice, prone to quiver when they detect an unfriendly shadow. As a people, we seem to value security and prosperity above all. When someone threatens either, or seems about to, we become (in this order) confused, then terrified, and then very angry.

Those who dislike us around the world (and of course there are more than a few) tend to see us as a powerful, imperial beast, brutally pursuing our own ends across the globe. We are strong and violent, and when we want something, we assert ourselves with overwhelming force. But is that really the case?

What appear to the outside world as instances of bullying, and what appear to us as expressions of strength, may reveal themselves, on closer examination, to be actions driven by fear. We are a people obsessed with security. Our imagination of what counts as a threat to our security is hyperactive and becoming more so all the time. Two years into World War II, it took the fierce attack on Pearl Harbor to persuade Americans that it was finally time to fight. Once persuaded, they did. Now it takes only the least incitement to make us feel threatened. When even the most shadowy forces and conditions imperil what we call “our security,” we assault them with the furor of the easily scared. [Continue reading…]

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Power Wars: How Obama continued Bush’s national security state after campaigning against it

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Rebecca Gordon: Flying the unfriendly skies of America

Rebecca Gordon’s piece today triggered a little repressed memory of mine of a trip I took in 2003. Arriving at the airport, I turned my suitcase over to the ticket agent, only to be told that it had been singled out for special inspection. I was already running TomDispatch and I couldn’t help wondering, somewhat nervously, if my activities had preceded me to the airport. I was directed to another spot in the terminal where I lifted the suitcase onto a table in front of a Transportation Security Administration agent. She promptly unzipped the bag, flipped it open, and front and center, face up atop my folded clothes, was a book that had “Unabomber” in big letters in its title. It felt as if a jolt of electricity had shot through my body and my eyes were bugging out of my head at my obvious stupidity. As if to confirm that feeling, the agent looked stunned, too. We were both silent for a too-long moment, contemplating the reckless passenger who had a book about the Unabomber conspicuously displayed in his bag.  Then she said, “How is it?”

It was the last question I expected to hear and I stumbled far too quickly to respond with something like: “I don’t know. I haven’t read it yet. A newspaper asked me to review it.” (All true, but in translation it clearly meant: “Hey, I know this looks terrible, but I’m a reputable book reviewer, not your basic terror-lovin’ sorta guy.”) Not much else was said, but believe me, my bag and backpack were inspected with a thoroughness that had to be seen to be believed. A second agent was even called in to lend a hand. In the end, the bag was cleared for departure and, chastened, I headed for the security line, already unfastening my belt.

And there’s a little p.s. to this episode. Not so long after, I set out on another trip, this time carrying Tariq Ali’s book, Clash of Fundamentalisms: Crusades, Jihads, and Modernity, with me. As I was packing, I noticed that its cover featured George Bush’s face superimposed on Osama bin Laden’s. It was a striking image and in a split second I was slipping the jacket off the book to leave at home. If I got singled out again, I had no intention of letting an agent find a cloned bin Laden-Bush image among my possessions.

In this way, microscopic act by microscopic act, whoever we are, whatever we think we think, we can’t help but absorb the limits, the directives, the intentions that our ascendant national security state wants to impose on us. In all sorts of devious ways, without serious thought, in acts that hardly register, we make their agendas, their surveillance, their searches our own; we turn their taste in reading and thinking and expressing themselves into ours. Someday, there’s a great book to be written on all the hidden triumphs of that ever-more powerful shadow state that has embedded its version of the American way of life inside our own. In the meantime, check out TomDispatch regular Rebecca Gordon’s account of how we create our own no-fly lists and become our own no-fliers in the unfriendly skies of twenty-first-century America. Tom Engelhardt      

The no-fly follies
How to censor yourself before the government even has the chance
By Rebecca Gordon

It was August 2002. My partner Jan Adams and I were just beginning our annual pilgrimage to Massachusetts to visit my father and stepmother. At the check-in line at San Francisco International Airport, we handed over our driver’s licenses and waited for the airline ticket agent to find our flight and reservation. Suddenly, she got a funny look on her face. “There’s something wrong with the computer,” she said. “I need to talk to my supervisor.”

So began a day of confusion and fear, followed by several years of indignation, frustration, and litigation, as we struggled to find out why — as the agent’s supervisor soon informed us with a similarly strange look on her face — we’d both “turned up on the FBI’s no-fly list.” Her eyes grew wide as she looked us over. “I don’t understand it,” she said. “You don’t fit the profile.”

She was right, of course. A pair of middle-aged, middle-class, white lesbians did not fit the profile of the “Arab terrorists” she expected the no-fly list to contain. What she didn’t know was that our suitcases held hundreds of copies of War Times/Tiempo de guerras, a free, bilingual antiwar tabloid we’d helped start. Could aging pacifists have fit the danger-to-America profile?

[Read more…]

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