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Security in an Era of Uncertainty (by Chris Milburn)

Wednesday, February 22nd, 2017

The United States has new leadership. Among many notable changes made immediately by the new administration, the president has authorized religion-based immigration restrictions and has taken action to focus solely on Islam as a source of violent extremism within the United States. These early actions indicate a newly institutionalized “Islamophobia” that could prove to be disastrous for national security efforts if not addressed correctly by security practitioners.

Islam is the second largest religion in the world, and is as vast and complex as any of the world’s other faiths. As with all religions, understandings of its holy texts and traditions range from liberal to conservative on a spectrum with an infinite number of points in between. Muslims range from the intensely practical to mystical, from socially active to intensely private. Among this diverse group of Muslims, a branch known as Islamism has emerged from chaotic social conditions in the Middle East.

Islamism generally refers to a particular activist ideology with specific territorial, political, and social aspirations, and represents only a small fraction of the religion of Islam. Islamist extremists have threatened to upset global efforts toward peace and human rights by suppressing other Muslim groups and focusing some of their efforts toward western nations such as the U.S. and her allies. One of their most important ideas is the claim that the U.S. is at war with all Muslims, and they consistently produce evidence that they use to support their claim.

Islamist groups – such as al-Qaida and the Islamic State – specifically attempt to inflate their appearance by claiming to represent the true face of Islam. In falsely adopting the whole identity of Islam, these violent extremists aspire to appear larger and more threatening than they really are. The symbolic violence associated with terrorism functions in precisely the same way. Disproportionate fear of the terrorist often causes the target group to sacrifice its own freedoms for the sake of increasing security. The promise of improved security, of course, cannot be quantified, but is used to justify austere authoritarian measures when promised to a group living in fear.

In terms of Muslim beliefs, it is the violent Islamist ideology that is of most concern to the homeland security enterprise. But in treating all Muslims with suspicion, Americans play directly into the hands of those very few extremists seeking ownership of the Muslim identity. Suspicion leads to scapegoating, and the suppression of group rights is rarely far behind. Muslims seem to make easy targets for suspicious Americans, and this impulse to scapegoat “others” is often difficult to suppress in times of uncertainty.

It is fundamentally important to accurately identify sources of violent extremism. Homeland security efforts are most effective when approached with analytical precision and a constitutional foundation. Painting the adversary with a broad brush is the easy approach – one that is rarely effective and usually counterproductive. The American homeland security enterprise must painstakingly distinguish between peaceful religious practitioners and those seeking to commit violence using the false cover of an entire religion. American efforts should undoubtedly focus on violent ideologies and take measures to prevent their proliferation. Violent Islamism is one of these, but it is not by any means the sole producer of terrorist violence within the U.S.

By all indications, the years ahead could pose significant challenges for national security and counterterrorism efforts. Security experts in western nations will be expected to perform increasingly complex tasks in an amorphous and ambiguous environment. Consistency will be maintained when security efforts remain analytical and evidence-driven, while applying rigorous frameworks to understand social conflicts. Security practitioners should bear in mind that rigorous threat analysis will always outperform both hysteria and generalities in national security efforts.

U.S. security efforts must maintain an essential American character in which violence is not tolerated while constitutional protections remain intact. It is of the utmost importance that security efforts support the free expression of religion while seeking to disrupt violent ideologies that threaten the United States. Homeland security actions that interfere with Muslims’ abilities to exist as ordinary Americans will be devastating to American values. In this way, the battle for the identity of Islam is a battle for the identity of the United States. The success of homeland security efforts over the coming few years will depend on practitioners’ firm individual commitments to measured, precise strategies that resist the tendency to generalize the nature of the threat.

ISIS and the Existential Threat (by Chris Milburn)

Tuesday, August 9th, 2016

In the wake of violent attacks on civilians in the U.S. and Europe, ISIS, also known as the self-proclaimed “Islamic State”, poses a unique and unprecedented challenge to the western world. Americans, in particular, struggle to understand the group, its motivations, and capabilities. Among the most important points of conversation is the recurrent question: Does ISIS pose an “existential” threat to the United States?

Opinions on this matter vary widely. An existential threat would be one that threatens the existence of the United States, but the nature of the threat from violent jihadists remains unclear. In the past, an existential threat may be have been described as a uniformed enemy capable of overtaking a nation’s territory or resources. But acquisition of physical territory and large-scale force become less relevant to conflict as it intensifies in a world dominated by communication.

War remains a physically violent conflict, but the symbolic elements of war take on greater importance in a globalized world. The murder of Father Jacques Hamel, the French priest in Normandy, is but one gruesome illustration of this theory in action; a single murder, carried out in highly symbolic fashion, becomes an act of terrorism gaining notoriety on the global stage. Indeed, it is this type of decentralized symbolic violence that has allowed ISIS to extend their reach into Europe and the United States.

As ISIS continues to assert their claim to Islamic authority by executing effective symbolic violence, they have forced the two major U.S. political parties to divide into two opposing positions. Democrats refuse to acknowledge the ideological roots of the spreading violence while Republicans propose to exclude immigrants based on their religious practices or ethnic background. Both positions overlook significant elements of the intensifying conflict and open the door for the Islamic State to continue to thrive.

The United States president has set the tone for the Democratic Party’s response by rhetorically asserting that nothing would be accomplished by acknowledging that ISIS’ violence is the product of radical ideas rooted in Islamic belief – a blatant analytical bias certainly preventing his administration from properly engaging the threat posed by the Islamic State. The Republican Party’s presidential candidate has repeatedly proposed banning Muslims from the United States – a vague yet alarming proposal that is not only impractical, but also unconstitutional.

Contrary to the president’s declaration, an analysis of any such violent ideology must address the political, social, religious, and territorial claims of the violent actors. In the past and under different conditions, blunt military force may have been sufficient to prevent the advances of certain hostile armies. But if effective counter-measures are to be employed in the current conflict, the complexity of the new operating environment demands an accurate analysis of the ideological conditions leading to violence. American inaction in this regard allows violent Islamists to gain a strategic upper hand by manipulating a particularly compelling narrative of the United States to their advantage. This approach also ignores the decentralized nature of modern terrorism, a fundamental factor contributing to the problems understood by westerners as “radicalization” and “violent extremism.” The Islamic State’s influence flourishes in these conditions.

The Republican proposal predictably takes the opposite approach in recommending that Muslims be prevented from entering the United States. Proposing that any religious adherents be banned from the United States “until our country’s representatives figure out what is going on” is a massive shift away from the core American tenet of freedom of religious expression. Further, this proposal inflames fears of immigrants and outsiders (perhaps intentionally) by erroneously branding an entire population with the horrible violence of a few. Such a ban would be an egregious assault on the very identity of the United States itself. This, too, creates an environment in which the Islamic State’s influence flourishes.

Finding the way forward in such a conflict is not easy. An effective approach will require a nuanced view of humanity and social interactions, and a clear vision of a desirable United States identity. Perhaps the Islamic State does not pose an existential threat in any traditionally understood sense of the term; Islamist soldiers are not likely to arrive on the beaches of North America and forcibly overtake the United States. But the Islamic State threatens the existence of the U.S. when Americans allow their national identity to be manipulated by fear. When America no longer exists as a strategic global peacekeeper or the champion of freedom, liberty, and justice, it will have succumbed to the existential threat of ISIS.

The Wicked Problems of Low-tech Terrorism (by Gregg Favre)

Saturday, July 16th, 2016

When ideology is primary, the “means” is a matter of access

In France, the investigation into the Bastille Day attack is in its infancy. During the nation’s declared days of mourning, specialists will confer to uncover the specifics of how this horrific event occurred. Over the coming days and weeks, details will emerge about the driver, his networks and, perhaps most importantly, his motivations. But what is known now is that a rented delivery truck evaded security measures and menacingly ran down innocent men, women and children. While many share the brutality of the attack, its lack of sophistication should come as a surprise to few.


Dallas Reflections (by Max Geron)

Saturday, July 9th, 2016

“Hey man this is Reuben. I don’t know if you heard but there’s a city-wide assist and reports of officers down at the demonstration. I’ve got some guys and we’re headed that way and I just wanted you to know in case you hadn’t heard.”

That was my first indication that something had gone horribly wrong. I glanced at social media and immediately saw throngs of people scattering from the anti-police brutality protests going on in downtown Dallas. I knew it was bad. They reported one officer having been evac’d to the hospital in a squad car – you know it’s bad when cops are evacuating other cops in squad cars and not waiting for ambulances.


The Problem with Radicalization (by Douglas Weeks)

Monday, May 30th, 2016

The advent of ‘new terrorism’ studies that began in the 1970’s remains as robust as ever. Exacerbated by 9/11, 3/11, 7/7, the Arab Spring, the rise of the Islamic State, the two Paris attacks, and more recently the San Bernardino attack to name but a few, terrorism research is here to stay. Couched under the banner of Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) governments around the globe have sought to manage risk and build resilience through securitization and engagement. Convinced that radicalization is the ultimate evil, an enormous amount of research has focused on radicalization and ‘Islamic radicalization’ in particular. However, despite years of research, what is known about radicalization is defined more by what it is not rather than what it is.


Security, Social Media and Encryption (by Joseph Campos)

Monday, May 30th, 2016

The November 13, 2015 attacks in Paris, France that killed 150 people and wounded more than 350, and the San Bernardino, U.S. on December 2, 2015, that killed 14 people, raise questions as to the conflation of security and democratic principles, especially that of privacy. Smart phones and other devices have an array of applications/tools that enable users to encrypt various forms of communication. The question for the security apparatus in democratic societies is how do we continue to promote ideals of freedom and privacy while ensuring security.


Counter Terrorism through Dialogue (by Joseph Campos)

Wednesday, April 27th, 2016

The anti-immigration, pro-security, and pro-enhanced tactics rhetoric over the past eight months, in various debates to secure the presidential nomination for both parties, is not a new phenomena. This fevered rhetoric traces its origins to the very beginnings of Operation Enduring Freedom and the U.S. “war on terrorism”. Specifically, George W. Bush announced on June 12, 2001, that the world had to address the “new threats of the 21st century if we’re to have a peaceful continent and a peaceful world.”[1]

The rhetoric of the United States’ “War on Terrorism” has come to contains a specific discourse that conjoins moral authority, application of meaning, infinite justice, and a prescribed search for peace with terrorism’s overarching incorporative aspect, revealing an ideological and cultural interpretation of both the U.S. state and its position in the world as the archetypal virtuous state.


Destruction of Art and Antiquities: Acts of Terrorist Influence (by Angi English)

Sunday, April 10th, 2016

A cultural cleansing by the slaughter of art, antiquities and architecture in the Middle East is as powerful a representative act as the grinding slaughter of human beings in genocide.

From humankind’s early beginning, graphic depictions of daily life such as paintings on cave walls tell stories of daily struggles. People have always sought to create representative images of ritual and meaning through art and architecture, and thoughtful humankind has sought to preserve them.

In the 1970’s, when I was studying for my BA in Fine Art, I grew to appreciate art and architecture as statements about culture, religion and social interactions. Working my way through school, I spent several summers working near Asheville, North Carolina. I made frequent trips to the Biltmore House and Gardens and learned that during World War II, it housed many of the wonderful pieces of art of Europe. The Nazi’s were plundering it and selling it on the black market or destroying it. In 2014, the movie Monuments Men tells the story of an elite group of soldiers whose sole purpose from the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives program was to find and save pieces of art and other culturally important items before the Nazi’s could destroy it. Fast-forward to today and the world is witnessing another cultural artistic cleansing.


Warriors of the Web (by Chris Milburn)

Tuesday, March 29th, 2016

Images from videos released by the Islamic State – also called ISIS and ISIL – have become instantly recognizable to Americans. Featuring Islamist fighters in black balaclava masks displaying their signature version of the black shahada flag, these videos are commonly discussed by westerners using the terms “recruitment” and “propaganda.” But approaching these productions as recruitment materials or manipulative propaganda overlooks important characteristics of the Islamic State and the real threat posed by their strategic communication.


On the Brussels Attack (by Bruce Hoffman)

Tuesday, March 22nd, 2016

Today’s tragic events in Belgium once again underscore the complexity of the current terrorist threat. ISIS has built a terrorist infrastructure in Belgium that facilitated these attacks. They were carried out by determined individuals with the requisite skill set, tradecraft, technical knowledge and discipline to execute simultaneous suicide attacks. There is a world of difference between this type of terrorist operation–and the infrastructure that has long been in place to support it–and the more spontaneous, often idiosyncratic violence coming from isolated individuals or lone wolves, such as the husband and wife team responsible for last year’s shootings in San Bernadino. Today, the terrorist threat for law enforcement and intelligence agencies is not an either/or proposition: it is posed by both lone wolves and established terrorist cells within existing organizations. The threat from the established cells has always shown itself to be more lethal and consequential in terms of body count.  The challenge is to avoid becoming so consumed and preoccupied with the former so that insufficient attention is paid to and inadequate resources are devoted to that latter. Overwhelming law enforcement and intelligence with isolated, individual threats is an intrinsic part of the strategy of terrorist groups today.