Saturday, January 09, 2010

Airport security

I was flying this week and had the opportunity to test out the new scanning system on my way home. Unfortunately I didn't get to see how I looked -- I just know it presumably confirmed that I wasn't carrying any dangerous items.

On that trip my luggage contained some heavy pieces of metal -- family silver, a big tuned windchime made of hollow tubes, and a mantel clock from the 19th century. When we got home we found notices from the Transportation Safety Administration that the luggage had been checked and if TSA busted something, well, sorry but those are the breaks. I found that reassuring. They ought to be able to catch suspicious tubes etc. in my luggage.

It was all dealt with without anyone being obnoxious.

Update: Then there is this.

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Hard-hitting quote

From the New York Times, on America's imperial overstretch affecting relations with Yemen:

The administration doubled Yemen’s economic aid last year, but as Barbara K. Bodine, another former ambassador, pointed out, the amount “works out to $1.60 per Yemeni.”

“That won’t even buy you a cup of coffee in Yemen,” she added, “and they invented coffee.”

Ethiopians, BTW, have a widely-accepted claim on coffee.

Image:Yemen Hufashi green coffee beans.

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Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Defeat by 1000 cuts?

Mark LeVine in Al Jazeera:
Indeed, far from heralding a more successful US effort to stamp out Islamist terrorism, the soon to be deepening footprint in Yemen is a sure sign of America's defeat in the war against violent extremism in the Muslim world...

Think about it. One angry young man with about three ounces (around 80 grams) of explosive material, $2,000, and a pair of specially tailored underwear has completely disrupted the US aviation system.

It does not even matter that he failed to blow up the plane.

The costs associated with preventing the next attack from succeeding will measure in the tens of billions of dollars - new technologies, added law enforcement and security personnel on and off planes, lost revenues for airline companies and more expensive plane tickets, and of course, the expansion of the 'war on terror' full on to yet another country, Yemen.

And what happens when the next attacker turns out to have received ideological or logistical training in yet another country? Perhaps in Nigeria, which is home to a strong and violent Salafi movement, or anyone of a dozen other African, Gulf, Middle Eastern or South East Asian countries where al-Qaeda has set up shop?

Will the US ramp up its efforts in a new country each time there is an attempted attack, putting US "boots on the ground" against an enemy that is impossible to defeat?

Such a policy would fulfill al-Qaeda's wildest dreams, as the US suffers death by a thousand cuts, bleeding out in an ever wider web of interconnected and unsustainable global conflicts.
Looking at US initiatives since 2001 it is hard to day he's wrong.

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Monday, January 04, 2010

Yemen and al-Qaeda

A discouraging report from an expert in the journal Foreign Policy. Desertification meets terrorism.

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Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Juan Cole explains the limitations of the US media

Discussing coverage of yesterday's coordinated bombings in Baghdad, he makes this worthwhile point:

Aljazeera notes that some US media outlets did not bother to cover these attacks in Iraq, and wonders if the story will return. I think the answer depends on the journalistic integrity of the outlet. For many, the answer will be no. Many US media are nationalist media, and cover stories having to do with US national projects. Americans have already decided that Iraq was a mistake, and they know the US military is leaving, and so what happens there is not "news" as much of the corporate media defines it (i.e. a story that generates profits because of wide public interest in it).
This may strike some readers as too charitable, but I think it captures one dimension of the problem of the US media. If you really want to know what is going on in the world, you've got to sample other sources.

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Saturday, October 31, 2009

A bit of Iraqi reality leaks through

Of course it comes from the admirable Inside Iraq:

October 30, 2009
Dumb and Dumber

There are more than 200 checkpoints in Baghdad; some of these checkpoints are manned by policemen, some by Iraqi army and some by both. Many of these checkpoints are equipped with explosive detectors that were supposed to enable the Iraqi forces to stop transporting explosives around the city or basically car bombs.

Most of these checkpoints are located at entry points to bridges and neighborhoods. Other checkpoints are on the main roads of Baghdad to the limit that the city is literally suffocating because of these checkpoints and the resulted traffic jam.

Before starting telling you what happens in most of the checkpoints you should know about the “explosives detectors”. The device is carried by security man who stops your car and walk beside it carrying the device. The device’s pointer changes its direction when passed by a car that supposedly carries explosives.

But the main flaw it points also if there is any chemical material like detergents or even medicine.

What happens in these checkpoints and how they are distributed in the city?!

First Scenario:

You drive into the checkpoint, and the explosives detector does not point to your car, Iraqi security orders you to drive and continue your magical trip through the elegant safe capital’s roads.

Second Scenario:

The detector points at your car, the security men orders you to drive into searching area, if there is one sometimes simply stop you in mid of the street, to search your car. The soldier responsible for searching asks the dumb and dumber questions:

- Where are you coming from and where are you going?

- Do you carry weapons?

If you answered with a wide smile, coming from X neighborhood and going to Y neighborhood and no I don’t carry weapons, you probably would leave without further questions or being searched.

Third Scenario

Detectors point at your car, you go to search, you answer the dumb and dumber two questions with a wide smile but yet the soldier insists to search your car. The search will be the following: open the trunk, soldiers will order you and that’s it.

Fourth Scenario

Your friend is a soldier or you have a badge that says you are a member of Iraqi security forces, no need to worry then, because every day we see tens of them passing all Baghdad’s checkpoints without being searched.

And till now, the government and the Iraqi forces are still insisting on depending on these checkpoints as the main tactic to control the apparently unstoppable attacks of car bombs.

I wonder, what did the American military or NATO trained the new Iraqi forces?

Image: Third scenario.

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Saturday, October 17, 2009

What's happening in Pakistan?

The Independent out of the UK has the best connected account I have seen.
Note this passage:

Ordinary Pakistanis have been left bewildered [by recent terrorist attacks], unable still to believe that the danger comes from within the country.

"Only God knows where such people come from because I know that Muslims cannot kill other Muslims," said Mohammad Yousaf, a 55-year-old, who runs a tea shop near one of the police training schools in Lahore and spent several hours hiding instead his store Thursday as gunfire and explosions engulfed the area.

Image: Outside Army HQ after the attack on it this month.

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Sunday, April 05, 2009

How long do these fads last?

In my last lecture for the Islamic civilization course, I tried to balance negative and positive aspects of the current situation (current being since September 2000). One thing I felt compelled to point out to my young students, who might be under the impression that suicide bombing was a long-standing phenomenon in the Islamic world or the Middle East, was that this is not the case. The very first suicide bombing in Afghanistan was on September 10, 2001. Now it is a standard part of the operations of the Afghan/Pakistani Taliban to praise suicide bombing as an Islamic act and to indoctrinate children in preparation for using them later; but before 2001, that was never done.

I thought about this for quite a bit after the lecture was over. I thought back to the end of the 19th century, when the bomb-throwing anarchist was a common figure. One day, even though they were still violent dissenters and explosive materials, the symbolism of throwing bombs to express dissent lost its charm, and people who in another time would have been bomb-throwing anarchists started doing something else. One can hope that a few of them found something constructive to do. But in any case, there were no longer recognizable bomb-throwing anarchists except in cartoons.

I wonder why? How do these violent fads get started, and why do they end? Is anyone investigating the life and death of such trends? It strikes me as a crucial topic in both mass psychology and history as a whole.

One phenomenon worth investigating and comparing to so-called Islamic terrorism would be terrorism in Ireland, which seems to be winding down. Of course, even in Belfast and Londonderry in Northern Ireland, most people of whatever religious identity took no part in terrorism, but there were enough looking for freedom or revenge or religious liberty or whatever who believed their cause justified killing. Now just about everyone is sick of it, and they have leaned on the rest in an effort to discourage the hardest of hardliners continuing the cycle. It took, however, decades to reach this point, and as we've recently seen there is no guarantee that the old grievances can't be brought back to life in the short or long term. If it is over, why now? If it is not over, how come? If everyone lives peacefully for half a century and then the old hatreds are revived and bombs start going off, why will it have happened?

Think of this as a problem in public health.

If you're interested in the recent history of suicide bombing, I found a well researched article on in the Washington Post from from 2005. Here are a few excerpts:
Unheard of only a few decades ago, suicide bombings have rapidly evolved into perhaps the most common method of terrorism in the world, moving west from the civil war in Sri Lanka in the 1980s to the Palestinian intifada of recent years to Iraq today. Since the Sept. 11, 2001, suicide attacks in the United States, suicide bombers have struck from Indonesia to India, from Russia to Morocco.

Now governments throughout the West -- including the United States -- are bracing to cope with similar challenges in the wake of the deadly July 7 subway bombings in London, which marked the first time that suicide bombers had successfully mounted an attack in Western Europe.

The pace of such attacks is quickening. According to data compiled by the Rand Corp., about three-quarters of all suicide bombings have occurred since the Sept. 11 attacks.

The numbers in Iraq alone are breathtaking: About 400 suicide bombings have shaken Iraq since the U.S. invasion in 2003, and suicide now plays a role in two out of every three insurgent bombings. In May, an estimated 90 suicide bombings were carried out in the war-torn country -- nearly as many as the Israeli government has documented in the conflict with Palestinians since 1993.

Yesterday, a suicide bomber detonated explosives strapped to his body inside a Shiite mosque south of Baghdad, triggering a huge fuel-tanker explosion that killed at least 54 people, according to police.

The bombings in London, which killed 55 people, illustrate the profound difficulty of preventing such attacks, experts say. Intelligence officials believe the bombers, in a common pattern, were foot soldiers recruited for the occasion, young men of Pakistani and Jamaican backgrounds reared in Britain who had recently converted to radical Islam. The four bombings required no exit strategy and were pulled off with devices that apparently were made in a bathtub and were small enough to fit in backpacks.

"With the exception of weapons of mass destruction, there is no other type of attack that is more effective than suicide terrorism," said Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism expert who heads the Washington office of Rand, a California think tank. "The perception is that it's impossible to guard against."

The motives behind suicide bombings are often mixed. Terrorism experts and intelligence officials disagree on the extent to which political strategy and religious fervor have led to the rising frequency of such attacks. But in addition to the death toll, a key objective of such bombings is clearly to sow terror by violating deeply held cultural and religious taboos against suicide, experts say.


History of Suicide Attacks

The use of suicide attacks is not new. Japanese kamikaze pilots in World War II tried to cause maximum damage by crashing their fighter planes into U.S. ships. Walter Laqueur, an expert in the history of terrorism, also says that, for centuries, any attack on military or political leaders was a form of suicide because the act usually occurred at close quarters and brought swift and certain death for the killer.

One watershed came in 1983, when a Hezbollah operative drove his truck into the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut, killing 241 U.S. service members in an attack that remains the deadliest terrorist strike on Americans overseas. Hezbollah would later carry out several dozen more suicide attacks.

Most experts agree that the modern style of suicide bombings first gained its greatest prominence outside the Middle East, in the island nation of Sri Lanka.

The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, popularly known as the Tamil Tigers, is an avowedly secular rebel movement of the country's Tamil ethnic minority. It carried out scores of suicide bombings from the late 1980s until a cease-fire in 2002. The conflict between the Tigers and the government, which is dominated by members of the Sinhalese majority, began in 1983 and claimed an estimated 65,000 lives.

Though dominated by Hindus, the Tigers are predominantly ethnic and nationalist in outlook, with religion not playing a significant role in their actions. The Tigers' early and aggressive use of suicide attacks, analysts say, reflected a pragmatic calculation of the need to level the military playing field against a larger and better-equipped foe.

The group created an elite force to carry out such attacks, the Black Tigers, whose members underwent rigorous training and were reportedly treated to dinner with rebel leader Velupillai Prabhakaran before being sent on their missions.

The rebels carried out their first suicide bombing in 1987, when a captain blew himself up along with 40 government troops at an army camp in the northern part of the country...
As you might guess from my remarks above I am not so sure that continued suicide bombing is really simply a pragmatic choice of the weaker side. As the article says somewhere else, in reference to the West Bank,
The boys all know the way to Ahmed Abu Khalil's house, tucked along an alley in a neighborhood of the West Bank town of Atil known as Two Martyrs. Abu Khalil, 18, became its third after he blew himself up Tuesday near a shopping mall in the Israeli city of Netanya.

It is safe to say Abu Khalil knew how he would be remembered here for his twilight attack outside the HaSharon Mall, which killed five Israelis, including two 16-year-old girls who were lifelong best friends. Scores more were injured in Israel's third suicide bombing this year.

The neighborhood is named for two local members of Islamic Jihad, the radical Palestinian group, who died fighting in the West Bank city of Jenin in 2003. The stylized posters of young men, posing with assault rifles and draped with ammunition belts, wallpaper the city. Graffiti urges uprising.

"This has given us a lot of pride, what he has done in Netanya," said Ibrahim Shoukri, 14, who used to follow Abu Khalil to prayer at the mosque. "We hope all of us will be like him."

The cult of glorification -- a mix of nationalist, personal and religious fervor -- that surrounds suicide bombers has long been one of the most difficult challenges facing Israeli security officials. Religious justification taught in the more radical West Bank mosques and intense familial pride -- at least in the days immediately after the attacks -- often outweigh the Israeli deterrent measures designed to make would-be suicide bombers think twice.
Just at a guess, as long as the neighborhood is named after the two martyrs, and their story is known there and the underlying conflict still exists, that neighborhood has a chance of producing more of the same, as in the case of Abu Khalil. And as long as there is a big deal sectarian marching season in Northern Ireland, there is a chance that those who take part or do not take part in those marches may remember the old causes and act on those memories.

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Sunday, December 28, 2008

Anti-extremist strategy in Lebanon

You may be interested in this end-of-the-year article, Beirut seems to have upper hand against extremists, from Lebanon's Daily Star. And more on Lebanese domestic politics from the Washington Post, here.

a prosperous street in downtown Beirut.

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Sunday, November 30, 2008


Juan Cole at Informed Comment is hoping that India does not make the mistakes that the USA did after 9/11. His piece includes this worthwhile passage:

There is a danger in India as we speak of mob action against Muslims, which will ineluctably drag the country into communal violence. The terrorists that attacked Mumbai were not Muslims in any meaningful sense of the word. They were cultists. Some of them brought stocks of alcohol for the siege they knew they would provoke. They were not pious. They killed and wounded Muslims along with other kinds of Indians.

Muslims in general must not be punished for the actions of a handful of unbalanced fanatics. Down that road lies the end of civilization. It should be remembered that Hindu extremists have killed 100 Christians in eastern India in recent weeks. But that would be no excuse for a Christian crusade against Hindus or Hinduism.

We could call the extremist cult the "Rivers of Blood" party. They would rather create rivers of blood than let people, say, rent videos at the corner store. Whatever specific thing is "bad," rivers of blood, or military spending, or labor camps are always "good."

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Thursday, September 11, 2008

Al Qaeda: defeated?

I was not going to post on the anniversary of the September 11 attacks, since I had nothing unique or new to say.

I still don't, but I just got around to reading Juan Cole's post for today at his blog Informed Comment. Cole is an expert on Shiism, speaks and reads Arabic, and is a strong critic of the destructive Bush-Cheney policies, so when he says that the original Al Qaeda has been defeated, and surveys the state of terrorist organizations in the Middle East to prove his point, he's worth listening to.

Canadians will be interested in what he has to say about Afghanistan.

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Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Five years of the Iraq war

Here it is, summed up by one of the Iraqi bloggers at McClatchy.

And here's a Pentagon briefing about where those terrorists in Iraq came from, as reported by Spencer Ackerman at The American Prospect.

A key quote:

Here is what that enemy looks like. I'll call him Mr. AQI.

Mr. AQI is a man in his early-to-mid 20s. Chances are he came to Iraq from either north Africa or Saudi Arabia. He's single. He's lower-middle class and has some high school experience, but probably not a diploma. To earn his wages he worked in construction or maybe drove a taxi. Mr. AQI probably didn't have any significant military experience prior to joining AQI. His relationship with his dad isn't so great. And while he's been religious for as long as he can remember, he wasn't, you know, a nut about it.

So what brought Mr. AQI to Iraq? At the mosque, he met a man who could tell Mr. AQI just wanted to belong to something. That man told Mr. AQI he had something Mr. AQI needed to see. Very often, according to Colonel Bacon, it was an image from Abu Ghraib. Or it was a spliced-together propaganda film of Americans killing or abusing Iraqis. The narrative that weighed heavily on Mr. AQI, Colonel Bacon said, was that it was his "religious duty go to Iraq," where he would serve as "an avenger of abused Iraqs."

But Iraq wasn't what he thought it would be. Mr. AQI wasn't an infantryman, where he'd bravely stand and fight Americans, he was pressured into being a suicide bomber. Nor were his targets the Americans he wanted to hit -- they were the Iraqis he came to avenge. According to Colonel Bacon, in some cases, Mr. AQI was happy to be in American custody, where he would no longer cause Iraq any more pain.

I'll have more to say about "wanting to belong to something" in a later post.

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Friday, December 14, 2007


It revolts me that we have to say more about torture than, "the torturers are the bad guys, all the same bad guys, whatever they call themselves," but we do. And since we do, it is good to note that the inglorious Washington Post, enabler of so many government lies over the past five years, has published a useful article by Darius Rejali on Five Myths About Torture.

In further torture news, high ranking American officials are doing their level best to dissociate themselves from torture by destroying evidence and blocking investigations. See the invaluable Talking Points Memo on obstructionism by Republican senators to prevent a torture ban, obstructionism by the Department of Justice in an investigation of the CIA torture tapes, and a refusal from the Attorney General to discuss with Congress the now-destroyed torture tapes.

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Friday, November 16, 2007

Canadian government complicit in Afghan torture, and ministers lied to cover up

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

What motivates terrorists

It's often said that terrorists, especially those who are genuinely willing to die for their cause, are desperate and poor and marginalized. The fact that the latest round of bombers in Britain were doctors challenges us to look past that easy generalization. Juan Cole has what I think is a sensible consideration of the subject.

I should point out that several commenters say, wait until they are charged with something before analyzing their motives. I still think that the scenario Cole sketches is a plausible one.

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