Sunday, November 17, 2013

National Journal piece on "the next Bin Laden"

Michael Hirsh from National Journal has a long report about small wars terrorist Abu Musab al-Suri, otherwise known as Setmariam Nasar, or the "Red Headed Terrorist". Hirsh wonders aloud if al-Suri is 'the next bin Laden'. The column is worth some analysis.

First, on al-Suri's whereabouts.  Reports surfaced in the early days of the Syrian civil war that Bashar Assad had released him as sort of a punishment to the west.  Hirsh finds some problems with that:
Yet even the senior diplomatic, intelligence, and defense officials who run the U.S. government's "Rewards for Justice" program, which offers money for tips leading to top terrorists, are unsure whether al-Suri is at large: A State Department official told National Journal this week that defense and intelligence agencies are still discussing whether to put him back on the wanted list.
Interesting, most assumed he was on the loose.  But hold on a sec, how can the State Dept talk to the NJ about deliberations regarding putting al-Suri on the list--a guy who some say might be the next UBL--but won't comment to Fox or AP on whether they've even deliberated over placing any of the Benghazi suspects on the list?  Then come back later and say they are actually on the list but in stealth mode due to 'sensitivities' with the investigation?  Bin Laden was pretty sensitive.  Perhaps it has to do with Nasar himself--maybe he moved to Libya or has been directing arms flows into Syria from elsewhere.  Oh to be a fly on the wall of the secret interrogation of Abu Anas al-Libi.  

Anyway, Hirsh sets up al-Suri as an ideological foe of UBL, saying Binny was "deeply opposed" to his ideas of small guerrilla jihad (UBL wanted spectacular attacks). Yet in the same article Hirsh admits that al-Suri's perfect attack would end in the use of WMDs, which sounds pretty darned spectacular, even if on a small scale.   We know UBL was not opposed to the use of WMD nor is the current Numero Uno, who tried to get an anthrax program launched in the years before 9/11.

Interestingly enough, al-Suri was never a member of AQ and did not pledge allegiance to the big guy. He was involved in the radical arm of the Muslim Brotherhood and allegedly took part in the 1982 uprising against Bashar Assad's father in Syria, which was reportedly crushed by using chemical weapons.  He then fled Syria and went, well, somewhere..
He then joined the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood organisation in exile, receiving training at their bases and safe houses in Iraq and Jordan.
The idea he was in Iraq is somewhat controversial for obvious reasons, since it brings in the possibility that Saddam knew about it and looked the other way. Saddam certainly wasn't BFF with the Assads despite their shared Ba'athist philosophy for many reasons, the most obvious being their Iranian connections. Would it be surprising to learn that Iraq approved of the Syrian Brotherhood's 'safe houses' in their country?  It's not like they hadn't been dabbling in the affairs of Lebanon during the time of the uprising.  And all were Sunnis.  Enemy of my enemy stuff. 

But OK, al-Suri is the new breed of international terrorist, favoring Boston bombing or Kenya Mall style attacks. How can these be stopped? 
And the consensus of senior defense and intelligence officials in the U.S. government is that NSA surveillance may well be the only thing that can stop the next terrorist from blowing apart innocent Americans, as happened in Boston last April. "Al-Qaida is far more a problem a dozen years after 9/11 than it was back then," Arquilla says.
Interesting, considering that neither the Boston or Nairobi attacks were smoked out by the NSA trolling.  Continuing, Hirsh quotes former NSA Director Hayden on the cause-effect of Congressional or constitutional interference in data trolling:
Says Michael Hayden: "People have to understand these actions [against the NSA] will have consequences." He adds that the U.S. intelligence community believes that it is mostly on top of the "big, complicated, multiple-actor, slow-moving plot [like 9/11]. But [the terrorists] are not doing that now. They're into much lower-in-threshold things. Which again demand very good intelligence, very comprehensive intelligence" that casts as wide a net as possible around the world.
But if they are on top of the big 9/11 plots then it seems anything smaller done by the terrorists, like Boston, should be 'manageable' and handled with law enforcement.  Do we want to throw our liberty out the window to possibly thwart small attacks?  Speaking of which:
Obama administration officials say they know about the mushrooming new threat and insist they did not mislead the American public by claiming success against core al-Qaida.
Only in the world of Obama can AQ be "mushrooming" as they run off to the horizon clinging to the end of their ropes.  But these are the same guys who said if you like you policy you could keep your policy, period.  Right now a blue ribbon panel is discussing the NSA collection methods (the preferred method of kicking a scandal down the road) and will probably report back around Christmas Eve that the NSA collection program is pretty awesome and should be increased.  Meanwhile,
Obama administration officials hope many of these new jihadist groups will remain mostly engaged in local fights, as against the Syrian regime. And that if they do attack U.S. interests at home or abroad, they are expected to focus on small-scale terrorist acts, like the Marathon bombings.
That's why Obama says the United States should stop calling the conflict with radical Islamists a "war" and view it instead as it was seen pre-9/11, as an inevitable, but manageable, law-enforcement problem.
Following that logic?  AQ is decimated but mushrooming, so we should treat them the same as liquor store robbers but we must use a nationwide dragnet against the population to stop this.  Does the NSA get involved in trolling the phone lines of future liquor store robbers?  After all, four people might die in the holdup or an ensuing high speed chase.  And God forbid Obama ever have to consider using drones or bombers to stop AQ terrorists in Iraq, who appear to be free to operate without fear of retribution as long as they focus on Syria.

Of course this is not like liquor store robberies at all, it's still a GWoT run by fanatics who aren't afraid to die and who want to create as many mass casualties as possible.  Liberals have always wanted it both ways--Kerry ran on the law enforcement approach in 2004--because a global war/threat must be addressed with all our assets, including far-flung military resources, which drains tax monies from their domestic spending agendas amidst a 17.5 trillion dollar debt.  Can't very well decrease the military spending in favor of food stamps if Setmariam Suri bin Laden is waiting around the corner to release chemicals on Times Square or a Navy ship or one of our embassies.

It's clear from reading the piece it's a veiled defense of the current NSA surveillance program. Not everyone is automatically opposed to such methods to defend the nation, by the way.  Some believed president Bush when he said the program was designed to track terrorists making phone calls to people in the United States and vice versa.  That turned out to be a lie--it was much larger.  The irony is that Hirsh hobnobbed in the same liberal circle of those who thought Bush's program was unconstitutional yet now seems to be defending an even larger program during Obama because national security.  That old fear of overreach is much more nuanced now..
Yes, there is ample reason to think the NSA has overreached in recent years—as even Secretary of State John Kerry has conceded—by prowling for diplomatic and economic information from rival and even friendly powers rather than focusing narrowly on counterterrorism. German Chancellor Merkel's cell phone and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon's conversations may be a SIGINT bridge too far, causing unnecessary disruption of diplomatic relations and global stability for meager intelligence returns.
Spying on external targets is the mission of the NSA. Funny how that now represents the "bridge too far" when during the previous administration the far bridge was merely listening to the phone calls of people who might be dialing up the likes of an al-Suri.  Here's the closing comment:
But the very real danger now is that, in seeking to prevent the NSA from conducting such operations in the future, Congress may throw out the baby with the bathwater. And the world of omnipresent terror that Abu Musab al-Suri wants to create could become a far more perilous one for Americans.
Actually some are concerned that the "baby" is actually the founding document, or as some liberals once claimed Bush called it, that 'GD piece of paper'.

Look, if we could trust the NSA to just collect phone call records of Americans, available for review if a warrant were issued with requisite probable cause--based only on their legal snooping of foreign persons--that may be acceptable to some degree. We are still threatened.  And if they are correct about al-Suri, we are threatened with terrible weapons, even if on a smaller scale.

But as the Snowden leaks point out it's too easy for the protectors to go too far.  Who watches the watchers?  If we lose the country we lose the war.  If indeed the jihadist threat has been minimized to the local scale, within the capabilities of law enforcement, then perhaps it's time for the constitutional scholar-in-chief to have an adult conversation with Americans to discuss the cost of protecting our liberties.  But if the trans-national threat is still as bad as it was on 9/10/01--or even close--then maybe that conversation should be about the trade-off of giving away some liberty to gain a little temporary security.  

Yeah, sounds naive.  We can't really handle brutal honesty

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