Posts In Category

Terrorism and Security

Photo of Vladimir Putin seated at table in front of flags.

Last week, the Monkey Cage published a post by Alexander Motyl, a Ukrainian specialist at Rutgers-Newark, on the Five fatal flaws in realist analysis of Russia and Ukraine. Motyl claims that: “Realists want to have it both ways — arguing for and against rationality in general and in the Russian context in particular. Consistency can be reestablished, but only if realists finally agree that Putin is or is not rational and stick to one, and only one, interpretation.” While he identifies some inconsistencies in American realist analysis of the Ukrainian conflict, his purported cure might be more damaging than the supposed disease. I have five particular points here, but in general, I claim that a more balanced perspective reveals that, while realism doesn’t have all of the answers, it is more potent than Motyl admits.

The recent passage of Theresa May’s controversial Counter-Terrorism and Security Act has been met with a flurry of criticism, reiterating a familiar critique of the government’s counter-extremism strategy, Prevent. Responding to the growing support for ISIS among British citizens, the act introduces a range of more aggressive restrictions on suspected terrorists and new obligations for airlines and internet providers. Most controversially, the act places a “statutory duty” on colleges, schools, prisons, and councils to prevent terrorism, giving the Home Office rights to enforce its counter-terrorism guidance. Whereas the earlier Prevent program had been discussed in the language of community responsibility, the government’s counter-extremism strategy is now a legal obligation for a range of public sector institutions. The act falls short in several places and has been criticized for limiting academic freedoms and continuing to alienate Muslim communities in Britain. Perhaps more concerning, however, the act reveals the national government’s ongoing confusion about how to address the threat of terrorism. The definition of extremism remains vague and dissatisfying. The extent to which local communities can continue adapting the Prevent strategy to their local context is unclear. Finally, the bill leaves lingering questions about the strength of the central government’s commitment to its counter-extremism strategy.

Yemen continues to lurch from crisis to crisis. Last September, Houthi rebels (Zaydi Shi’ites from Yemen’s north) overran the capital Sana’a and have continued their push for geographical and political domination. After kidnapping the Yemeni President’s Chief of Staff on 19 January, in the following days they went on to besiege the Presidential Palace and demand changes to Yemen’s new draft constitution. Following failed attempts to implement a power-sharing agreement, on 22 January Yemen’s President, Prime Minister and Cabinet all resigned, stating that “we don’t want to be party to what is going on and what is going to happen”. That same day, Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah died. While the Saudi transition appears smooth and promises continuity, where is the Arabian Peninsula heading?

Drones were among the most popular Christmas gifts in 2014 — so popular, in fact, that British authorities warned recreational drone users to make sure to use their toys lawfully, or to expect hefty fines. Similarly, the US FAA released a video just before the holidays, teaching aspiring drone users how to “stay off the naughty list”. More and more people are becoming familiar with drones as the number of ‘hobby droners’ (yes, this is a term) grows. Businesses are discovering drones as well: drones carry mistletoe in restaurants (with questionable results), or are used to give real-estate buyers a better view of their property. Beyond this, hundreds if not thousands of commercial drone users are waiting in the wings for a few last technical details to be figured out (especially sense-and-avoid technology) and for the implementation of legal regulations allowing drones to share airspace with manned aircraft. These developments are exciting, but they are also interesting for those working with military drones. The widespread use of drones for commercial purposes is likely to increase awareness about the history and the many applications of drones, which may help to overcome their exclusive association with targeted killings.

On 18 July 2014 the world awakened to yet another tragedy: the downing of the Malaysian Airlines flight HM17 over pro-Russian separatist territory of Ukraine, which in its horrendous totality shocked the collective conscience of the public. Claims of responsibility for the tragedy spread over the then innocuous social media portal, Twitter, and instantly internationalized what had been perceived as a largely domestic conflict. What gradually came into view was the deployment of Twitter as a propaganda tool and a means for nefarious communication, subject to virtual deletion and emendation for the purposes of advancing a military objective and a political cause. References to tweets and videos bearing an imprint of responsibility were invoked in the Security Council’s emergency meeting hours later, where the US Ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, cited them in her impassioned speech. This raises a legal conundrum, namely, what is the legal status of a boastful Twitter confession by separatist leaders of a state-sponsored rebel group containing first-hand accounts and admissions of responsibility for shooting down a plane in the midst of a conflict? Are tweets a novel form of incriminating evidence in a rapidly changing terrain of modern warfare? What ought to be their evidentiary value and legal status under international criminal law, international law of armed conflict and international humanitarian law? Finally, what criminal liability should those claiming responsibility bear under domestic and international law?

There are two stories in the media this week that touch on the nature of a free society. The first is headline news in the major newspapers and television networks, while the second is largely relegated to the Buzzfeed-esque websites. I’m referring to the terrorist attack on Charlie Hebdo in Paris, where 12 people were killed by alleged Islamic terrorists, and that Mia Khalifa has become the most popular porn star on the internet’s more saucier websites. If people make a connection between the two stories it will probably be Islam. Charlie Hebdo is well known for courting controversy by offending the religious, especially Muslims. The attack is presumably motivated by their publication of cartoons featuring Mohammed and general mockery. Ms Khalifa, as someone who works in pornography, no doubt offends a wide array of people from anti-pornography feminists to the intuitively prudish. However, she has attracted a great deal of abuse online, including death threats, because she is a Lebanese-American and many people in the Levant take exception to her career on religious grounds.

Israeli diplomacy faces a challenge: on the one hand, it has to project an image of Israel as a powerful country; on the other, it has to project an image of Israel as a vulnerable country. Striking the right balance between the two is perhaps the most difficult challenge facing Israeli diplomacy. Israel has to convey an image of power to deter and an image of vulnerability to convince. Israel is both powerful and vulnerable; conveying such an image to an international audience, often impressed by images devoid of context, is a particularly daunting task.

There is a tendency, even among scholars, to view civil wars as involving two actors—the “government” and “rebels.” This presumption likely arises because historical civil wars that have received the most attention—such as the American and Chinese civil wars—were generally fought between two recognized, organized combatants. Yet, many civil wars (both historical and modern) involve more than two actors. Take the current civil war in Syria. The Syrian government battles a series of rebel groups that generate a large number of acronyms—ISIS, SLA, SIF, and so on—and that frequently fight amongst themselves. These groups often seek to form coalitions to coordinate their opposition, but the coalitions are unstable and have difficulty controlling their constituent parts. The Syrian conflict also has a large level of external involvement, with the government receiving direct military support from Iran and Hezbollah plus a large number of additional external states and non-state actors seeking to turn the course of the war. The Syrian opposition’s fragmentation is extreme, but the multiparty nature of the conflict is by no means unique. In fact, many of the wars that have received the most international attention in recent decades—such as in Afghanistan, Columbia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Iraq, the Palestinian conflict in Israel, the Darfuri war in Sudan, and Somalia—have involved several rebel groups and significant external involvement.