Category Archives: Terrorism

Feckless Or Empowering? Hashtag Diplomacy Can Work.

There is a peculiar debate going on in the media about the #BringBackOurGirls hashtag response to Boko Haram’s kidnapping and forced conversion of more than 200 Nigerian schoolgirls. The rancor reflects both sides’ failure to reasonably consider the merits of the opposing point of view. There is nothing inherently wrong with publicizing a hashtag to raise awareness of this obscure group’s heinous attack. However, Boko Haram is an aggressive, violent organization that has been terrorizing Nigeria for a decade, and it is a mistake to give even the impression that a hashtag is a substantive part of U.S. policy.

Boko Haram seeks to establish an Islamic state governed by Sharia law. “Boko Haram” means, approximately, “non-Islamic teaching is forbidden.” Contrary to Dean Obeidallah’s outburst, Boko Haram is an Islamist terrorist organization. For more background on Boko Haram, read Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s May 8 Op-Ed in the Wall Street Journal.

After a decade of terrorizing Nigeria in obscurity, on April 15, armed members of Boko Haram kidnapped between two and three-hundred school girls in Northeast Nigeria. Although the #BringBackOurGirls hashtag was first used on April 23, it did not create an immediate stir. But by May 4, former Secretary of State tweeted:

Then on May 6, Agence France Presse publicized a video of Boko Haram’s leader, Abubakar Shekau, saying “I abducted your girls. I will sell them in the market, by Allah.” CNN picked up the Agence France Presse video and story, and the horror of Boko Haram’s attack became general knowledge. The video’s blunt brutality made world news.

On May 7, First Lady Michelle Obama tweeted a picture of herself holding a #BringBackOurGirls placard:

On May 12, the Senate’s female members joined to tweet a picture with the hashtag:

In the space of a month, Boko Haram went from a niche topic for foreign policy wonks to public notoriety.

Reaction to political figures’ participation in the hashtag campaign has been mixed and vitriolic. Critics say that relying on social media reflects a severe lack of seriousness. Boko Haram is, after all, a murderous, oppressive Islamist organization waging a religious war to overthrow a relatively Western-oriented government in an unstable region. These are not issue to be taken lightly or given short shrift.

Supporters note that Mrs. Obama’s tweet has been retweeted more than 57,000 times and Mrs. Clinton’s more than 13,000. As of May 14, the #BringBackOurGirls hashtag is tweeted dozens of times per minute. In this way, the hashtag and these two prominent, female figures have succeeded at raising awareness of the kidnapping.

Both of these positions are correct and misguided in turns. Critics are right that the hashtag campaign gives a pitiful impression, and publicity is not necessarily a good thing. As William Kristol wrote:

Let us pause to note the near-perfection of the “Bring Back Our Girls” hashtag. “Our Girls” nicely captures modern liberalism’s cloying faux-universalism. “Bring Back” epitomizes the pseudo-tough use of the imperative voice—but with no assumption of responsibility for action by the speaker.

Mrs. Clinton tweeted that “[w]e must stand up to terror,” but as Secretary of State opposed formally designating Boko Haram a Foreign Terrorist Organization under U.S. law. In her tweeted picture, Mrs. Obama looks defeated, pleading and desperate. Together, these leave the sorry impression that possibly the two most influential women in America today are sad but helpless about this sorry thing happening in Nigeria.

Further, it’s not clear what influence Clinton and Obama had in the first instance. The hashtag was multiplying rapidly by the time of Mrs. Clinton’s tweet, and was very much in the public eye by the time of Mrs. Obama’s. In addition, the Agence France Presse report that made global headlines came before Mrs. Obama’s tweet, meaning that “awareness” was already quite high.

Finally, it is not clear that the publicity wrought from the hashtag campaign is having a positive influence. At last report, Nigeria was considering releasing Boko Haram prisoners in exchange for the kidnapping victims’ release. This is balm for the victims and their families, but creates terrible incentives for future Boko Haram attacks. And say Boko Haram does release the girls, then what? Will the hashtag campaigners declare victory and forget that Boko Haram has been murdering, raping and pillaging for a decade? Will tweeting sate keyboard activists’ sense of obligation? Will this social-media campaign go the way of Iran’s “twitter revolution” and whither from lack of concrete action? The twitter “campaign” may give participants a false sense of accomplishment without having actually done anything.

These objections aside, though, and as noted by Laura Olin in Time, the #BringBackOurGirls campaign has brought sustained, wide-spread attention to Boko Haram for the first time. And #BringBackOurGirls was started by Nigerian activists specifically to stir awareness of the kidnap victims’ plight, so in this they were successful. Even if somewhat belated, Mrs. Obama and Mrs. Clinton multiplied the publicity by lending their own personal celebrity. Raised awareness of the Boko Haram kidnappings, stirring public awareness of Boko Haram, and instigating governmental responses are good things.

Also, the mass publicity pushed Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan to accept foreign participation in combating Boko Haram after years of ham-handed, abusive and often counterproductive efforts. As noted by the Washington Post’s editors, paramilitary teams from the U.S., Britain and Israel are deploying to Nigeria. A targeted, disciplined counter-insurgency strategy is probably the only means of defeating Boko Haram in the long term, and getting experienced, knowledgeable people into Nigeria to set up and assist that effort is a major victory. Critics are wrong to demean the hashtag campaign as pointless.

So how do we reconcile these opposed and seemingly mutual exclusive views? Is this hashtag diplomacy stupid and silly, or empowering and motivating?

Yes, the hashtag raises public awareness and attendant public pressure to force change, but since when do U.S. public figures resort to hashtags to effect change, and at the end of the day it’s going to be men with guns who stop Boko Haram, isn’t it? Yes, the hashtag thing is a little weak and feckless, but millions of people saw it and responded, and for the first time Nigeria is actually changing its approach to Boko Haram in a positive way, right?

Ultimately, President Obama’s foreign policy team will have to decide how to capitalize on this newfound awareness of and attention to Boko Haram’s reign of terror. Since the #BringBackOurGirls campaign now has quasi-official U.S. government imprimatur, it is essential that the U.S. government now see it through and do something to put an end to Boko Haram’s immediate and long-term threats. Otherwise #BringBackOurGirls is just so much digital commiserating.

Don’t Fall For Iran’s Sham Deal (Again)

Despite President Obama’s triumphal assertions regarding progress in reduction of Iran’s nuclear research program, the Joint Plan of Action (JPA) reached between Iran and the P5+1 negotiating team in late 2013 is clearly a sham. For more than a decade, Iran diffused Western opposition to its nuclear capability through a strategy of deceptions, stalls and illusory concessions learned from North Korea’s success in the same game. When the JPA expires in June without measurable benefit, the United States must finally confront the reality that Iran will not peaceably give up its nuclear ambitions.

    History of Iran’s Nuclear Program

Western efforts to bring an end to Iran’s nuclear development, and Iran’s defeat of those efforts, are well documented. Iran’s nuclear program nominally dates to the 1960s, when the U.S. supplied the Shah with the Tehran research reactor, and 1970s, when work began on the Bushehr light-water reactor. That Bushehr project proceeded in fits and starts, halted at times by the Iran-Iraq war and contractual disputes between Iran and its various foreign sponsors and contractors.

But the story of Iran’s covert nuclear program and the world’s failed efforts to stop it begins in earnest the early 2000s. In 2002, the Mujahideen-e-Khalq (MEK), an anti-Ayatollah, Iranian militant organization based in Iraq, revealed Iran’s Natanz centrifuge enrichment plant and the Arak heavy-water reactor. In 2005, the U.S. intelligence showed Iran was researching the process for weaponizing plutonium. In 2006, the plant producing heavy water needed to operate the Arak reactor opened. In 2009, Western powers discovered the Fordow uranium enrichment plant, deep under a mountain near Qum.

In February, 2010, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) formally reported that Iran had a program to develop a nuclear warhead. In February, 2011, the IAEA expanded on its 2010 report, saying Iran conducted “activities relevant to the development of a nuclear device” at its Parchin military base. Bushehr went online in 2011. In 2012 and 2013, Iran installed new, advanced centrifuges at Natanz and Fordow.

Iran has used misdirection, duplicity and faux concessions to make these advances despite active U.S. and international efforts to interrupt Iran’s nuclear capability. After IAEA inspectors found traces of highly-enriched uranium, and with hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops in neighboring Iraq, Iran agreed to suspend weapons-related research and uranium enrichment in October, 2003. In November, 2004, Iran demanded additional economic concessions in exchange for another temporary suspension of enrichment activity. In January, 2006, Iran nevertheless restarted enrichment at Natanz. Talks between Iran and various international mediators collapsed in July, 2008, and then again in May, 2012. In the meantime, successive rounds of ever harsher sanctions against Iran went into effect in 2006, 2011, 2012, and in three different tranches in 2013.

Iran’s nuclear development also came in the face of a series of paramilitary operations against it. Cyber-attacks in 2008 and 2010 caused significant damage to the centrifuge cascades used for uranium enrichment. In 2010 and 2012, key scientists in Iran’s nuclear program were assassinated, possibly by MEK operatives.

In short, diplomatic and covert efforts to halt Iran’s nuclear program have failed. In ten years, Iran’s has turned a small, relatively fledgling nuclear program into an array of widespread, sophisticated and increasingly-hardened facilities across Iran. As the IAEA reported in 2013, Iran has made significant progress in all aspects of its nuclear program. This includes parallel weaponization routes through uranium enrichment at Natanz and Fordow and plutonium production expected to begin at Arak sometime in 2014 or 2015.

    The Joint Plan Of Action

In 2010, then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates warned that the United States has no effective policy to address Iran’s drive for nuclear weaponry. In the next four years, the U.S. imposed a broad array of unilateral and multi-national sanctions to good effect. By the summer of 2013, Iran was cut-off from foreign markets and the economy was reeling under 40% inflation in the summer of 2013.

But in November, 2013, President Obama then announced that a deal had been struck. In the JPA, finalized in December, 2013, the parties agreed that Iran would receive economic inducements including six months of sanctions relief in exchange for putative concessions regarding its nuclear program.

Once the JPA’s final terms were announced, its flaws immediately obvious. Iran received substantial sanctions relief totaling approximately $20 billion, or a bit less than 4% of its GDP. Iran’s concessions were nominal. Iran did not close any facilities and did not give up its enriched uranium. Iran did not even agree to stop installing new, advanced centrifuges that will allow it to rapidly further enrich its existing stockpile of uranium to weapons grade when the JPA expires. Instead Iran merely agreed not to enrich more uranium above a certain level during the pendency of the six-month plan.

Nothing in the JPA provides any assurance that a final resolution will be reached.

To the contrary, Iran has received lasting sanctions relief whether or not negotiations proceed. The JPA lasts for six months (expiring in July, 2014), after which Iran’s meager obligations and the sanctions relief both expire. In reality, though, sanctions relief cannot be put back in place with the stroke of a pen or a phone call because those sanctions were built over the course of more than a decade and through a vast network of cooperating international public and private entities. European businesses in particular flocked to Tehran when sanctions relief was announced, and now they and their governments have a vested interest in permanently ending sanctions. Ranking officials within the Obama Administration have admitted as much, saying re-implementing sanctions would be a cumbersome process, if doable at all. Iran, on the other hand, can re-start its enrichment immediately and at higher rates than ever before.

In this light the JPA is an abject failure. From November, 2013, to June, 2014, Iran will have received $20 billion in direct economic relief, plus permanently reduced sanctions, in exchange for a six-month, partial enrichment pause. The structure and scope of Iranian nuclear facilities, plans, research and development are unchanged.

The State Department’s Coordinator for Sanctions Policy defended the JPA by saying it was a success because the parties would negotiate during the six-month window. The goal, according to this senior State Department official, was not to end Iran’s nuclear program. Instead, it was to talk to Iran about ending its nuclear program.

    Next Steps

Now that the JPA is set to expire shortly and the parties have made no progress, Iran has reverted to stall tactics. Iran has just offered to produce a “comprehensive” report on its nuclear facilities, but warns the process will be “time-consuming” and they “hope to have it finished in eight months.” No doubt if sanctions ramp up again after the JPA expires, Iran will cry foul and bad faith, and refuse to proceed with its chimerical report.

Iran promises concessions and disclosure sometime in the indeterminate future, but will capitalize on the thinnest new provocation by reneging. The Obama Administration is left to decide either to believe the Iranian promise and withhold sanctions (freeing Iran from the penalties associated with the JPA’s failure), or to re-impose sanctions as far as possible and revert to pre-November, 2013, posture.

Obama will be sorely tempted to take the former option for purely political purposes. The Administration was roundly criticized for accepting a bad deal when the JPA and its predecessor agreement were announced in November and December, 2013, but justified the deal as a first step to a final resolution. Obama is under enormous pressure to ensure that some final resolution actually materializes, and there is significant risk that the political expediency of achieving a paper “final agreement” will overwhelm national security interests in neutralizing the Iranian nuclear threat.

If President Obama fails to lead and take vigorous action against Iran, Congress must act instead. Congress threatened to pass additional sanctions when the JPA’s poor terms were announced, but demurred in deference to pressure from the administration. When the JPA expires Congress should pass measures not only restoring the sanctions ex ante, but imposing whatever new sanctions are possible. Better yet, Congress should pass the law now, with a trigger that additional sanctions go into effect simultaneously with the JPA’s expiration.

Further, Congress should authorize and subsidize sale of additional military equipment and munitions to Israel. President Obama has made any threat of military action by the United States implausible. Israeli warnings remain quite viable, though, and even more so if backed by the U.S.’s best bunker-busting munitions and additional airborne refueling tankers. The threat of Israeli action might spur Iran to make real, verifiable, permanent concessions.

The two core options are either to accept a nuclear Iran or to forcibly prevent it. The relative merits of these choices have been debated at length and deserve their own fulsome discussion not to be undertaken here. Suffice to say that the argument that Iran should be allowed to go nuclear and then contained is severely flawed because it imbues the Iranian regime with moral and rational norms it does not necessarily possess. Further, deterrence is inadequate to prevent a nuclear race among Iran’s regional rivals in, at a minimum, Saudi Arabia.

None of the above is new, or classified, or leaked information. This is all public. Yet somehow U.S. foreign policy makers have failed to grasp the fundamental fact that Iran cannot be coaxed into giving up its nuclear program. It is time to accept this basic fact and choose how to respond.

Islam, Terror and Self-Deception

The United States’ failure to accept that Islamist terrorists believe Islam requires them to wage war on the United States and Western liberalism is undermining counter-terrorism efforts. Understanding Islamists’ motivations is critical to defeating them, yet the United States government actively prevents clear thinking on the objective linkage between Islam and terror. The United States will be better able to comprehend and defeat Islamism once its leadership stops assuming Western social norms are universal, and focuses on Islamists’ view of what Islam requires of them.

The effort to uncouple Islam from Islamist violence and repression has been ongoing since at least the Clinton administration. In 1999, President Clinton called the Taliban’s treatment of women “a terrible perversion.” In 2001, the State Department deemed the Taliban’s destruction of the 1500 year-old Bamiyan Buddhas as a violation of “one of Islam’s basic tenets – tolerance for other religions.” Shortly after 9/11, President Bush said the attacks violated “fundamental tenets of the Islamic faith.” In his June 4, 2009, Cairo speech, President Obama declared a new beginning for the United States and Muslims, “based upon the truth that America and Islam . . . overlap, and share common principles – principles of justice and progress; tolerance and the dignity of all human beings.” As recently as August, 2013, a State Department release called the Islamist perpetrators of a terrorist attack “enemies of Islam.”

Yet the targets of these Presidential rebukes responded with incredulity, often emphasizing their own belief that terrorism and anti-liberalism are not only sanctioned, but required by Islam. When President Clinton arrogated himself the judge of whether the Taliban’s treatment of women was proper under Islam, the Taliban responded that “[t]his Clinton is not a Muslim and does not know anything about Islam and Muslims.” The Taliban likewise rejected President Bush’s assertion that Islam is non-violent by asking “Is he some kind of Islamic scholar? Has he ever actually read the Koran?”

Projecting liberal Western values onto all of Islam distracts from the pertinent question of what the Islamists believe Islam allows and requires. As Stephen Coughlin, a Major in the Army Reserves and former civilian contractor with the Joint Chiefs of Staff put it, “If the enemy says he’s fighting in the name of green cheese, then we’ve got to know green cheese!” Since at least 1979, when Islamists took over Iran, organizations fighting in the name of Islam to destroy the United States and the West have proliferated. To defeat these men who believe Islam compels them to violence, national defense personnel must understand their ideology and develop strategies for defeating them in light of that ideology.

Yet in the war on terror, discussion of Islam’s role in terrorism is not merely ignored, it is repressed. As Jonathan Tobin wrote for Commentary last week, demands to remove references to jihad and Islamism from a film that will be part of the 9/11 memorial are emblematic of a broader effort to separate Islam from 9/11 in the American psyche. Accordingly, the Obama Administration turned the War on Terror into “overseas contingency operations.” Obama labeled the Fort Hood attack as workplace violence, despite perpetrator Nidal Hassan’s self-identification as a “soldier of Allah.” The Department of Defense non-renewed Coughlin’s contract following complaints from the Pentagon’s Muslim-outreach program about his criticism of an organization the Department of Justice deems a Muslim Brotherhood front. And in 2011, the FBI edited its counter-terrorism training manual and removed the words Islam, Muslim, jihad, Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, Hezbollah, al Qaeda, caliphate and Shariah.[1]

This campaign to purge Islam from terrorism in Western minds is a work of pure self-deception. There are people who believe Islam requires them to wage war on the West generally and the United States in particular. Ignoring this fact will not make it less true. Yet U.S. national security organs not only ignore the linkage between Islam and terrorism, they train and develop policy under the false impression there is no connection.

 

[1] It is unclear whether agents receive specialty training as appropriate. That is to say, an agent assigned to investigating or tracking Hamas may receive training on Hamas’s belief that Islam requires its violence.