The most important weapons of al-Qaeda and the rest of the Islamist terror network are the suicide bomber and the suicide thinker. The suicide bomber is typically a Muslim fanatic whose mission it is to spread terror; the suicide thinker is typically a Western academic or journalist or politician whose mission it is to destroy the West’s will to resist not just terrorism but any ideological challenge at all.
But al-Qaeda didn’t create the ugly streak of nihilism and self-loathing that afflicts too many Western intellectuals. Nor, I believe, is it a natural development. It was brought to us by Department V of the KGB, which was charged during the Cold War with conducting memetic warfare that would destroy the will of the West’s intelligentsia to resist a Communist takeover. This they did with such magnificent effect that the infection outlasted the Soviet Union itself and remains a pervasive disease of contemporary Western intellectual life.
Consider the following propositions:
- There is no truth, only competing agendas.
- All Western (and especially American) claims to moral superiority over Communism/Fascism/Islam are vitiated by the West’s history of racism and colonialism.
- There are no objective standards by which we may judge one culture to be better than another. Anyone who claims that there are such standards is an evil oppressor.
- The prosperity of the West is built on ruthless exploitation of the Third World; therefore Westerners actually deserve to be impoverished and miserable.
- Crime is the fault of society, not the individual criminal. Poor criminals are entitled to what they take. Submitting to criminal predation is more virtuous than resisting it.
- The poor are victims. Criminals are victims. And only victims are virtuous. Therefore only the poor and criminals are virtuous. (Rich people can borrow some virtue by identifying with poor people and criminals.)
- For a virtuous person, violence and war are never justified. It is always better to be a victim than to fight, or even to defend oneself. But “oppressed” people are allowed to use violence anyway; they are merely reflecting the evil of their oppressors.
- When confronted with terror, the only moral course for a Westerner is to apologize for past sins, understand the terrorist’s point of view, and make concessions.
These ideas travel under many labels: postmodernism, nihilism, multiculturalism, Third-World-ism, pacifism, “political correctness” to name just a few. It is time to recognize them for what they are, and call them by their right name: suicidalism.
Trace any of these back far enough (e.g. to the period between 1930 and 1950 when Department V was at its most effective) and you’ll find a Stalinist at the bottom. Among the more notorious examples are: Paul de Man — racist and Nazi propagandist turned Stalinist, and founder of postmodernism; Jean-Paul Sarte, who described the effects of Stalinism as “humane terror” and helped invent existentialism; and Paul Baran, who developed the thesis that capitalism depended on the immiseration of the Third World after Marx’s immiseration of the proletariat failed to materialize.
Al-Qaeda didn’t launch any of these memes into the noosphere, but it relies on them for political cover. They have another effect as well: when Islamists characterize the West as “decadent”, and aver that it is waiting to collapse in on itself at the touch of jihad, they are describing quite correctly and accurately the effects of Western suicidalism.
Stalinist agitprop created Western suicidalism by successfully building on the Christian idea that self-sacrifice (and even self-loathing) are the primary indicators of virtue. In this way of thinking, when we surrender our well-being to others we store up grace in Heaven that is far more important than the momentary discomfort of submitting to criminals, predatory governments, and terrorists.
Eric S. Raymond, “Suicidalism”, Armed and Dangerous, 2005-09-13.
May 22, 2016
February 18, 2015
In The Atlantic, Graeme Wood discusses what the Islamic State is and where it came from so recently:
The group seized Mosul, Iraq, last June, and already rules an area larger than the United Kingdom. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has been its leader since May 2010, but until last summer, his most recent known appearance on film was a grainy mug shot from a stay in U.S. captivity at Camp Bucca during the occupation of Iraq. Then, on July 5 of last year, he stepped into the pulpit of the Great Mosque of al-Nuri in Mosul, to deliver a Ramadan sermon as the first caliph in generations — upgrading his resolution from grainy to high-definition, and his position from hunted guerrilla to commander of all Muslims. The inflow of jihadists that followed, from around the world, was unprecedented in its pace and volume, and is continuing.
Our ignorance of the Islamic State is in some ways understandable: It is a hermit kingdom; few have gone there and returned. Baghdadi has spoken on camera only once. But his address, and the Islamic State’s countless other propaganda videos and encyclicals, are online, and the caliphate’s supporters have toiled mightily to make their project knowable. We can gather that their state rejects peace as a matter of principle; that it hungers for genocide; that its religious views make it constitutionally incapable of certain types of change, even if that change might ensure its survival; and that it considers itself a harbinger of — and headline player in — the imminent end of the world.
The Islamic State, also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), follows a distinctive variety of Islam whose beliefs about the path to the Day of Judgment matter to its strategy, and can help the West know its enemy and predict its behavior. Its rise to power is less like the triumph of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt (a group whose leaders the Islamic State considers apostates) than like the realization of a dystopian alternate reality in which David Koresh or Jim Jones survived to wield absolute power over not just a few hundred people, but some 8 million.
We have misunderstood the nature of the Islamic State in at least two ways. First, we tend to see jihadism as monolithic, and to apply the logic of al‑Qaeda to an organization that has decisively eclipsed it. The Islamic State supporters I spoke with still refer to Osama bin Laden as “Sheikh Osama,” a title of honor. But jihadism has evolved since al-Qaeda’s heyday, from about 1998 to 2003, and many jihadists disdain the group’s priorities and current leadership.
Bin Laden viewed his terrorism as a prologue to a caliphate he did not expect to see in his lifetime. His organization was flexible, operating as a geographically diffuse network of autonomous cells. The Islamic State, by contrast, requires territory to remain legitimate, and a top-down structure to rule it. (Its bureaucracy is divided into civil and military arms, and its territory into provinces.)
February 6, 2015
Western politicians on terrorism – “I am appalled by the evidence that they actually believe what they are saying”
David Warren on the fecklessness of western politicians and the utter seriousness of the terror organizations and their backers:
The response to it in the West, and particularly from the United States government, is incompetent on a scale so breathtaking that I sometimes miss my slot as a daily news pundit. (And by inviting Netanyahu to address the U.S. Congress, Boehner proved himself as dumb as Obama.) What distresses me is not that characters like Obama and Kerry say “terrorism” has nothing to do with Islam. They are politicians: of course they spout drivel. Rather, I am appalled by the evidence that they actually believe what they are saying.
This goes beyond noticing that the terrorists cry Allahu Akbar! after every strike. To understand current events one must notice the war being fought within Islam. And this is not as hard as it might seem. It is a war between not one, but two radical factions: Shia fanatics, and Sunni fanatics.
“Al-Qaeda,” “the Caliphate,” “Hamas,” and some other groupings, though rivals for the leadership, are united in their aspirations for the Sunni side. Revolutionary Iran and its proxy Hezbollah provide the united leadership for the Shia side. Every formerly Western-allied government in the region, including that of the Wahabi sheikhs in Saudi Arabia, fears both sides; but they fear Iran more. And after Iran, they probably fear Turkey, which has the potential of becoming patron to the fanatic Sunnis on the analogy of Iran.
We could get into blaming Islam itself for the mess, but that won’t be necessary for today’s purpose. It is only necessary insofar as we must understand that the words Allahu Akbar are not uttered lightly, and are not insincere.
While both sides look forward to murdering us next, their attention is first focused on murdering each other. Attacks on Western targets must be understood in this context: for neither party is so naive as to think they can out-gun us, or even out-gun Israel. Moreover, many of their stunts (including video beheadings) are designed to manipulate Western public opinion — against themselves, in order to win allies within the region. The “Je suis Charlie” demonstrations in France, for instance, were a godsend to the Sunni fanatics: they triggered massive anti-Western demonstrations among less fanatic Muslims across the Middle East, and thereby magnified their claim to represent Islam.
October 23, 2014
Charles Stross tells a sad tale of woe about his “Laundry” series of SF/Occult novels:
There’s some kind of bizarre curse hanging over my Laundry Files series. Or maybe it’s a deeper underlying problem with writing fiction set in the very near future (or past): I’m not sure which. All I’m sure is that that for the past decade, reality has been out to get me: and I’m fed up.
My first intimation came a long time ago — in 2001. I’d just finished writing The Atrocity Archive and it was being edited for serial publication in issues 7-9 of the Scottish SF magazine Spectrum SF (which folded a couple of issues later, in 2003). It was late September, and I found myself reading a terse email from the editor, Paul Fraser: “Charlie, about your story — do you think you can possibly find some new bad guys for Chapter 4? Because you’ve just been overtaken by current events …”
In Chapter 4 of The Atrocity Archive Bob learns from Angleton who the middle eastern bad guys who kidnapped Mo, intending to use her sacrifice to open a gateway to somewhere bad, really were … and when I originally wrote the story, in 1999-2000, they were a relatively obscure bunch of anti-American zealots who’d blown up the USS Stark and an embassy in Africa. I know this may boggle the imagination of younger or more forgetful readers, but Al Quaida and Osama bin Laden had not at that time hijacked any airliners, much less etched themselves into the pages of world history: they were not, at that time, the Emmanuel Goldstein of the New World Order.
October 7, 2014
The worst reaction I’ve ever gotten to a blog post was when I wrote about the death of Osama bin Laden. I’ve written all sorts of stuff about race and gender and politics and whatever, but that was the worst.
I didn’t come out and say I was happy he was dead. But some people interpreted it that way, and there followed a bunch of comments and emails and Facebook messages about how could I possibly be happy about the death of another human being, even if he was a bad person? Everyone, even Osama, is a human being, and we should never rejoice in the death of a fellow man. One commenter came out and said:
I’m surprised at your reaction. As far as people I casually stalk on the internet (ie, LJ and Facebook), you are the first out of the “intelligent, reasoned and thoughtful” group to be uncomplicatedly happy about this development and not to be, say, disgusted at the reactions of the other 90% or so.
This commenter was right. Of the “intelligent, reasoned, and thoughtful” people I knew, the overwhelming emotion was conspicuous disgust that other people could be happy about his death. I hastily backtracked and said I wasn’t happy per se, just surprised and relieved that all of this was finally behind us.
And I genuinely believed that day that I had found some unexpected good in people – that everyone I knew was so humane and compassionate that they were unable to rejoice even in the death of someone who hated them and everything they stood for.
Then a few years later, Margaret Thatcher died. And on my Facebook wall – made of these same “intelligent, reasoned, and thoughtful” people – the most common response was to quote some portion of the song “Ding Dong, The Witch Is Dead”. Another popular response was to link the videos of British people spontaneously throwing parties in the street, with comments like “I wish I was there so I could join in”. From this exact same group of people, not a single expression of disgust or a “c’mon, guys, we’re all human beings here.”
I gently pointed this out at the time, and mostly got a bunch of “yeah, so what?”, combined with links to an article claiming that “the demand for respectful silence in the wake of a public figure’s death is not just misguided but dangerous”.
And that was when something clicked for me.
You can talk all you want about Islamophobia, but my friend’s “intelligent, reasoned, and thoughtful people” – her name for the Blue Tribe – can’t get together enough energy to really hate Osama, let alone Muslims in general. We understand that what he did was bad, but it didn’t anger us personally. When he died, we were able to very rationally apply our better nature and our Far Mode beliefs about how it’s never right to be happy about anyone else’s death.
On the other hand, that same group absolutely loathed Thatcher. Most of us (though not all) can agree, if the question is posed explicitly, that Osama was a worse person than Thatcher. But in terms of actual gut feeling? Osama provokes a snap judgment of “flawed human being”, Thatcher a snap judgment of “scum”.
And my hypothesis, stated plainly, is that if you’re part of the Blue Tribe, then your outgroup isn’t al-Qaeda, or Muslims, or blacks, or gays, or transpeople, or Jews, or atheists – it’s the Red Tribe.
Scott Alexander, “I Can Tolerate Anything Except The Outgroup”, Slate Star Codex, 2014-09-30.
June 24, 2014
In Slate, Will Saletan explains how ISIS deliberately cast aside Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda’s “seven rules for effective terrorism”. Is this evidence that ISIS is too extreme and will destroy itself or is it wishful thinking?
The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria is scaring the hell out of everyone. It has infested Syria, overrun Iraq, alarmed Iran, and convinced U.S. politicians it’s the most dangerous terrorist organization ever. But frightening everyone isn’t a long-term growth strategy. ISIS is destroying itself.
Al-Qaida, the organization from which ISIS recently split, understands this truth. For years, Osama Bin Laden and his lieutenants tried to explain to their affiliates the folly of unchecked brutality. In letters and directives captured in the 2011 raid on his compound, Bin Laden stressed the importance of patience, discretion, and public opinion. His advice, boiled down to seven rules, forms a clear outline of ISIS’s mistakes.
1. Don’t fight civil wars. Bin Laden recognized that battling for territory against local governments was a lousy way to get to theocracy. […]
2. Don’t kill civilians. That was Bin Laden’s principal regret. He called for guidelines that would instruct jihadists to avoid “unnecessary civilian casualties.” […]
3. Don’t flaunt your bloodlust. One of the captured al-Qaida letters, believed to have been written by Bin Laden or his aide, Atiyah Abd al-Rahman, urges al-Qaida’s Yemeni affiliate to “stay away from words that will affect the people’s support to the mujahidin.” […]
4. Don’t rule harshly. Bin Laden was a theocratic fundamentalist, but he cautioned his allies to avoid the “alienation from harshness” that was “taking over the public opinion.” […]
5. Don’t claim territory unless you can feed the people. […]
6. Don’t fight with your allies. Bin Laden tried to rein in the fratricidal belligerence of ISIS’s precursor organization, al-Qaida in Iraq. […]
7. Don’t alarm your enemies prematurely. In 2010, Bin Laden advised his followers in Yemen not to escalate the war there, in part because “the emergence of a force in control of the Mujahidin in Yemen is a matter that provokes our enemies internationally and locally and puts them on a great state of alert.”
June 19, 2014
One of the most destructive wars in Europe ran from 1618 to 1648 and involved the repeated devastation of much of central Europe. The term “Thirty Years’ War” is a convenient term for the series of overlapping and interlinked conflicts between and among the combatants originally religious in nature (Protestant versus Catholic) and later becoming more of a struggle for political control (Wikipedia‘s entry covers most of the issues).
In the Spectator, Douglas Murray says this is a good model to help us understand what is happening right now in the middle east:
Syria has fallen apart. Major cities in Iraq have fallen to al-Qa’eda. Egypt may have stabilised slightly after a counter-coup. But Lebanon is starting once again to fragment. Beneath all these facts — beneath all the explosions, exhortations and blood — certain themes are emerging.
Some years ago, before the Arab ‘Spring’ ever sprung, I remember asking one top security official about the region. What, I wondered, was their single biggest fear? The answer was striking and precise: ‘That the region will clarify.’ That is a fear which now appears to be coming true.
The Middle East is not simply falling apart. It is taking a different shape, along very clear lines — far older ones than those the western powers rudely imposed on the region nearly a century ago. Across the whole continent those borders are in the process of cracking and breaking. But while that happens the region’s two most ambitious centres of power — the house of Saud and the Ayatollahs in Iran — find themselves fighting each other not just for influence but even, perhaps, for survival.
There are those who think that the region as a whole may be starting to go through something similar to what Europe went through in the early 17th century during the Thirty Years’ War, when Protestant and Catholic states battled it out. This is a conflict which is not only bigger than al-Qa’eda and similar groups, but far bigger than any of us. It is one which will re-align not only the Middle East, but the religion of Islam.
Over the last decade, many people have “explained” the unsettled and unstable situation among the various middle eastern Islamic states by pointing out that Islam never went through the sort of wrenching religious/political upheaval like the Protestant Reformation in Europe. We may actually be seeing this process live right now.
June 16, 2014
Clive Crook talks about the strengths and weaknesses of US foreign policy for Bloomberg View:
As Iraq unravels, a painful truth about U.S. politics and foreign policy is becoming more evident: The U.S. is very good in all-or-nothing situations, but all-or-nothing situations don’t often arise.
This is a country that can and will meet existential threats with unity of purpose and vast resources. In this regard, even now, it stands alone. Few threats rise to that level. Lesser dangers can still be serious, without commanding or justifying that kind of response. Precisely for that reason, they put greater stress on democratic politics, and U.S. politics seems ever less able to cope.
Cordesman’s advice on conducting “non-wars against non-terrorists” boils down to this: Lower your expectations and be patient. In many countries, that way of thinking is of necessity the default. In the U.S., it isn’t. Americans want victory, and they want it now. And if they can’t win, they ask, why get involved at all?
In the foreseeable future, there’ll be no victory against jihadism. That’s partly because it doesn’t pose enough of a threat to justify total war against it. Yet the idea that jihadism poses no threat to the U.S. and can simply be ignored is risible. The danger can’t be crushed; it can only be managed. This means confronting it intelligently and patiently — with allies wherever possible, and always measuring the (uncertain) benefits of action against the (uncertain) costs.
“Mission accomplished” illustrates what Cordesman calls the end-state fallacy — the idea that deep-seated conflicts can be brought neatly to an end. So does President Barack Obama’s remark on the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq in 2011: “We’re leaving behind a sovereign, stable and self-reliant Iraq.”
Another fallacy is to organize policy around the idea that every conflict has a good side and a bad side. Foreign policy isn’t a morality play. Nouri al-Maliki in Iraq and Hamid Karzai in Afghanistan exemplify this second error. Perhaps, at the time, both men were better than the alternatives. Even if they were, they were bound to remain part of the problem.
H/T to Jonathan Rauch for the link.
— Jonathan Rauch (@jon_rauch) June 16, 2014
June 14, 2014
The Islamic militant group ISIS didn’t come from nowhere, but most of us only started hearing about them quite recently. Defense One has a guide to the group that has been tearing up Iraq:
Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), a predominantly Sunni jihadist group, seeks to sow civil unrest in Iraq and the Levant with the aim of establishing a caliphate — a single, transnational Islamic state based on sharia. The group emerged in the ashes of the U.S.-led invasion to oust Saddam Hussein as al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), and the insurgency that followed provided it with fertile ground to wage a guerrilla war against coalition forces and their domestic allies.
After a U.S. counterterrorism campaign and Sunni efforts to maintain local security in what was known as the Tribal Awakening, AQI violence diminished from its peak in 2006–2007. But since the withdrawal of U.S. forces in late 2011, the group has increased attacks on mainly Shiite targets in what is seen as an attempt to reignite conflict between Iraq’s Sunni minority and the Shiite-dominated government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Burgeoning violence in 2013 left nearly eight thousand civilians dead, making it Iraq’s bloodiest year since 2008, according to the United Nations. Meanwhile, in 2012 the group adopted its new moniker, ISIS (sometimes translated as Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL) as an expression of its broadened ambitions as its fighters have crossed into neighboring Syria to challenge both the Assad regime and secular and Islamist opposition groups there. By June 2014, the group’s fighters had routed the Iraqi military in the major cities of Fallujah and Mosul and established territorial control and administrative structures on both sides of the Iraqi-Syrian border.
At odds with al-Qaeda’s aims, ISIS has since expanded its territorial control, establishing a “de facto state in the borderlands of Syria and Iraq” that exhibits some of the traditional markers of sovereignty, note Douglas A. Ollivant and Fishman. Beyond fielding a militia, it provides limited services and administers its ultraconservative brand of justice. Much of Anbar province has remained outside the central government’s authority since January 2014, and in June, ISIS wrested control of Mosul and its environs after the army, hobbled by desertions, retreated overnight. The takeovers highlighted Baghdad’s weakness: In Fallujah, Maliki called on Sunni tribesmen to resist ISIS, and in Mosul, which had been considered a model for the surge and Awakening, he called on the Kurdish security forces, the Peshmerga, to do the same.
Insurgents’ consolidation of territorial control is a concern for the United States, which believes such areas outside of state authority may become safe havens for those jihadis with ambitions oriented toward the “far enemy” — the West. The Obama administration has responded to the regional resurgence by increasing the CIA’s support for the Maliki government, including assistance to elite counterterrorism units that report directly to the prime minister, and providing Hellfire missiles and surveillance drones. After Iraqi forces retreated from Mosul, the insurgents who routed them released more than one thousand prisoners and picked up troves of U.S.-supplied matériel.
August 16, 2013
In Foreign Affairs, Jacob Shapiro looks at the management side of the terror “business”:
But the deeper part of the answer is that the managers of terrorist organizations face the same basic challenges as the managers of any large organization. What is true for Walmart is true for al Qaeda: Managers need to keep tabs on what their people are doing and devote resources to motivate their underlings to pursue the organization’s aims. In fact, terrorist managers face a much tougher challenge. Whereas most businesses have the blunt goal of maximizing profits, terrorists’ aims are more precisely calibrated: An attack that is too violent can be just as damaging to the cause as an attack that is not violent enough. Al Qaeda in Iraq learned this lesson in Anbar Province in 2006, when the local population turned against them, partly in response to the group’s violence against civilians who disagreed with it.
Terrorist leaders also face a stubborn human resources problem: Their talent pool is inherently unstable. Terrorists are obliged to seek out recruits who are predisposed to violence — that is to say, young men with a chip on their shoulder. Unsurprisingly, these recruits are not usually disposed to following orders or recognizing authority figures. Terrorist managers can craft meticulous long-term strategies, but those are of little use if the people tasked with carrying them out want to make a name for themselves right now.
Terrorist managers are also obliged to place a premium on bureaucratic control, because they lack other channels to discipline the ranks. When Walmart managers want to deal with an unruly employee or a supplier who is defaulting on a contract, they can turn to formal legal procedures. Terrorists have no such option. David Ervine, a deceased Irish Unionist politician and onetime bomb maker for the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), neatly described this dilemma to me in 2006. “We had some very heinous and counterproductive activities being carried out that the leadership didn’t punish because they had to maintain the hearts and minds within the organization,” he said, referring to a period in the late 1980s when he and the other leaders had made a strategic calculation that the Unionist cause was best served by focusing on nonviolent political competition. In Ervine’s (admittedly self-interested) telling, the UVF’s senior leaders would have ceased violence much earlier than the eventual 1994 cease-fire, but they could not do so because the rank and file would have turned on them. For terrorist managers, the only way to combat those “counterproductive activities” is to keep a tight rein on the organization. Recruiting only the most zealous will not do the trick, because, as the alleged chief of the Palestinian group Black September wrote in his memoir, “diehard extremists are either imbeciles or traitors.”
June 21, 2013
It’s guaranteed to get on a lot of thin-skinned people’s radar:
Amidst cries of outrage and controversy, Activision unveiled the latest addition to the Call of Duty franchise at the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) last week, entitled Call of Jihad: Scourge of the Infidels. The first-person shooter, developed in conjunction with some of al-Qaeda’s top field experts, will be launched for both Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 for release on September 11, 2013.
Like previous titles in the series, Call of Jihad will feature campaign, online multiplayer and a “Suicide” mode — reminiscent of “Survival” in Modern Warfare 3 — with the objective being to slaughter as many innocents as possible before a quick-reaction force arrives.
The campaign takes place in an alternate reality where infamous al-Qaeda operatives like Osama bin Laden and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi are still alive and Khalid Sheik Mohammed is a free man. The opening mission of the campaign, displayed as part of a teaser trailer at E3, takes place in the Pakistani compound raided by SEAL Team Six. The player must single-handedly dispatch the American commandos as Bin Laden escapes on a camel before time elapses.
Game developers also confirmed the martyrdom perk would always be turned on.
“It’s fucking sick!” squealed die-hard gamer Bryan Campbell, 17, of Manhattan, New York. “I give it two severed heads up!”
March 20, 2013
In Reason, Jacob Sullum explains why the ruling against the promiscuous use of National Security Letters was needed:
After 9/11, Congress loosened restrictions on national security letters (NSLs), a kind of administrative subpoena, first authorized in 1986, that the FBI uses to demand information from phone companies, Internet service providers, and financial institutions. According to the Justice Department’s inspector general, NSL “requests” skyrocketed from a total of 8,500 between 1986 and 2000 to more than 56,000 in 2004 alone.
The Obama administration has made liberal use of NSLs, which in 2010 allowed the FBI to peruse information about 14,212 American citizens and permanent residents — a new record — without bothering to get clearance from a judge. If you were one of those people, the odds are that you will never know, because NSLs are almost always accompanied by instructions that prohibit recipients from discussing them.
[. . .]
Secrecy frustrates challenges to counterterrorism tactics even in the case of Obama’s most startling claim to executive power: the authority to kill people he identifies as members or allies of Al Qaeda. In January a federal judge ruled that the Freedom of Information Act does not require Obama to disclose the Justice Department memos that explain the legal rationale for this license to kill.
U.S. District Judge Colleen McMahon expressed frustration with this result, saying, “I can find no way around the thicket of laws and precedents that effectively allow the Executive Branch of our Government to proclaim as perfectly lawful certain actions that seem on their face incompatible with our Constitution and laws, while keeping the reasons for their conclusion a secret.” In his State of the Union address the following month, Obama promised to make his “targeting” of suspected terrorists “even more transparent.” I’ll disbelieve it when I don’t see it.
February 5, 2013
At Reason, Jacob Sullum has a few concerns about the information that came to light in a Department of Justice memo leaked to the media:
The Justice Department white paper on “The Lawfulness of a Lethal Operation Directed Against a U.S. Citizen Who Is a Senior Operational Leader of Al-Qa’ida or an Associated Force,” noted earlier tonight by Mike Riggs, fills in the fine print of the license to kill claimed by President Obama in several ways, none of them reassuring. The main conclusion of the paper, which was obtained by NBC News, is that “it would be lawful for the United States to conduct a lethal operation outside the United States against a U.S. citizen who is a senior, operational leader of al-Qa’ida or an associated force of al-Qa’ida without violating the Constitution or…federal statutes…under the following conditions: (1) an informed, high-level official of the U.S. government has determined that the targeted individual poses an imminent threat of violent attack against the United States; (2) capture is infeasible, and the United States continues to monitor whether capture becomes feasible; and (3) the operation is conducted in a manner consistent with the four fundamental principles of the laws of war governing the use of force” — i.e., “necessity, distinction, proportionality, and humanity.”
[. . .]
More generally, the white paper fleshes out the Obama administration’s argument that U.S. citizens killed by drones are getting all the process that is appropriate in the circumstances; hence the Fifth Amendment, though implicated, is not violated. And since these targeted killings are lawful acts of self-defense, the Justice Department says, they do not violate the law against killing U.S. nationals in foreign countries or the executive order banning assassination. After all, “A lawful killing in self-defense is not an assassination.” Duh.
The problem is that to accept this position, you have to put complete trust in the competence, wisdom, and ethics of the president, his underlings, and their successors. You have to believe they are properly defining and inerrantly identifying people who pose an imminent (or quasi-imminent) threat to national security and eliminating that threat through the only feasible means, which involves blowing people up from a distance. If mere mortals deserved that kind of faith, we would not need a Fifth Amendment, or the rest of the Constitution.
February 3, 2013
Sheldon Richman explains why it could be a problem if the American presence in northwestern Africa is further expanded:
Ominously but unsurprisingly, the U.S. military’s Africa Command wants to increase its footprint in northwest Africa. What began as low-profile assistance to France’s campaign to wrest control of northern Mali (a former colony) from unwelcome jihadists could end up becoming something more.
The Washington Post reports that Africom “is preparing to establish a drone base in northwest Africa [probably Niger] so that it can increase surveillance missions on the local affiliate of Al Qaeda and other Islamist extremist groups that American and other Western officials say pose a growing menace to the region.” But before that word “surveillance” can bring a sigh of relief, the Post adds, “For now, officials say they envision flying only unarmed surveillance drones from the base, though they have not ruled out conducting missile strikes at some point if the threat worsens.”
Meanwhile Bloomberg, citing American military officials, says Niger and the U.S. government have “reached an agreement allowing American military personnel to be stationed in the West African country and enabling them to take on Islamist militants in neighboring Mali, according to U.S. officials.… No decision has been made to station the drones.”
The irony is that surveillance drones could become the reason the “threat worsens,” and could provide the pretext to use drones armed with Hellfire missiles — the same kind used over 400 times in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia, killing hundreds of noncombatants. Moving from surveillance to lethal strikes would be a boost for jihadist recruiters.
January 13, 2013
In the Guardian, Simon Jenkins discusses the negative aspects of the drone war:
The greatest threat to world peace is not from nuclear weapons and their possible proliferation. It is from drones and their certain proliferation. Nuclear bombs are useless weapons, playthings for the powerful or those aspiring to power. Drones are now sweeping the global arms market. There are some 10,000 said to be in service, of which a thousand are armed and mostly American. Some reports say they have killed more non-combatant civilians than died in 9/11.
I have not read one independent study of the current drone wars in Afghanistan, Pakistan and the horn of Africa that suggests these weapons serve any strategic purpose. Their “success” is expressed solely in body count, the number of so-called “al-Qaida-linked commanders” killed. If body count were victory, the Germans would have won Stalingrad and the Americans Vietnam.
Neither the legality nor the ethics of drone attacks bear examination. Last year’s exhaustive report by lawyers from Stanford and New York universities concluded that they were in many cases illegal, killed civilians, and were militarily counter-productive. Among the deaths were an estimated 176 children. Such slaughter would have an infantry unit court-martialled. Air forces enjoy such prestige that civilian deaths are excused as a price worth paying for not jeopardising pilots’ lives.
[. . .]
Since the drone war began in earnest in 2008, there has been no decline in Taliban or al-Qaida performance attributable to it. Any let-up in recruitment is merely awaiting Nato’s departure. The Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, has called the attacks “in no way justifiable”. The Pakistan government, at whose territory they are increasingly directed, has withdrawn all permission.
The young Yemeni writer Ibrahim Mothana protested in the New York Times of the carnage drones are wreaking on the politics of his country, erasing “years of progress and trust-building with tribes”. Yemenis now face al-Qaida recruiters waving pictures of drone-butchered women and children in their faces. Notional membership of al-Qaida in Yemen is reported to have grown by three times since 2009.