The importance of circumspection

Cybersecurity is, along with many other things, not my forte. So if I get terms wrong here or otherwise screw up, please leave some constructive criticism in the comments.

The story of this weekend was the release of almost 20,000 emails hacked from the Democratic National Committee’s servers by…somebody (we’re getting to that) at some point in the past couple of months, and distributed via WikiLeaks. The emails are very embarrassing, as you’d expect, and in particular appear to confirm the suspicions of Bernie Sanders supporters (and Sanders himself) that the DNC was effectively working on behalf of Hillary Clinton throughout the primary process, when it was supposed to be a neutral party. This is not exactly revelatory, but it’s one thing for a candidate’s partisans to suspect that the party is screwing their candidate over, and quite another for tangible proof of that screwing over to suddenly surface. DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz has, mercifully, agreed to step down from that job after this week’s convention, something she could have done years ago to the party’s great benefit. The hope is that Sanders supporters will be mollified enough at her departure to put aside their renewed frustration with the primary process and stay in, or come in to, the Clinton camp. We’ll see.

While the Democrats actually are in disarray, the more controversial aspect of this story has to do with the provenance of the DNC hack. Ostensibly the hack was conducted by one person, “Guccifer 2.0.” The problem is that nobody really has any idea who “Guccifer 2.0” is or if he/she even exists. By contrast, the cybersecurity firm CrowdStrike investigated the DNC intrusion a month ago, well before these emails were released, and concluded that they were undertaken by two adversaries, “Cozy Bear” and “Fancy Bear,” that are known to be connected to Russian intelligence agencies. Further research since CrowdStrike announced its findings seems to support the idea that the hackers were Russian, at least to my again admittedly untrained eyes. There are also people who will tell you that WikiLeaks is basically an arm of Russian intelligence itself, though I’m unconvinced of that. The CrowdStrike piece, of whose existence I have to shamefully admit I had no idea until a couple of hours ago, strikes me as the most definitive collection of evidence in support of the new conspiracy du jour, that Russia hacked the DNC and released these emails in order to help Donald Trump, because Vladimir Putin wants Trump to be elected in November.

Talking Points Memo’s Josh Marshall put together probably the most comprehensive collection of the evidence being used to suggest that Trump is working, albeit probably unwittingly, on behalf of Putin’s nefarious schemes for world domination. It’s a compelling collection of what are still largely circumstantial links, but the whole thing takes on a “where there’s smoke” kind of a feel. The upshot is that: Continue reading

Terror attacks, and how we Americans approach them

A Syrian refugee who was reportedly denied asylum and was about to be deported detonated a backpack bomb outside of a crowded festival in Ansbach, Germany, yesterday evening. Fortunately it appears that only the terrorist was killed, but 15 others were reportedly injured in the blast–he was apparently denied entry into the festival before he blew himself up, so this could have been much worse. Video found on the bomber’s cell phone shows him making a pledge to ISIS, so unlike the as-yet unproven motives behind the Munich shooter, this guy’s motives seem pretty clear. It’s possible that the decision to deny him asylum, which happened a year ago, contributed to his radicalization, but it’s equally possible that the decision to deny him asylum was made because he’d already been radicalized–although it’s hard to figure out why he’d been allowed to stay in the country for another year if that’s why his request was denied. German authorities say that he’s been in and out of psychiatric care and had tried twice before to kill himself, but frankly I think you can start to parse these things too finely. The guy pledged himself to ISIS before he tried to explode a bomb inside a venue packed with other human beings. He’s a terrorist.

Also, in Baghdad, an ISIS suicide bombing on Sunday killed at least 21 people and injured another 35 in the predominantly Shiʿa neighborhood of Kazimiyah (often–and incorrectly in my opinion–transliterated as “Kadhimiya”). And this morning, another ISIS suicide bombing in the town of Khalis (about 80 km north of Baghdad) killed at least 16 people. Khalis is located in Diyala province, which is shifting demographically but is still mixed confessionally, and the target per ISIS’s announcement was military, though women and children were among the victims. ISIS’s continued ability to strike inside territory controlled by the Iraqi government, particularly its ability to continue striking Baghdad despite having lost its nearby staging area in Fallujah, is troubling enough that the government of Haider al-Abadi might be well-advised to put a hold on its plans to keep advancing towards Mosul and put some additional resources into cleaning up its own backyard.

Also also, in Afghanistan, a new report released today found that levels of violence there continue to climb: <!–more–>

Civilian casualties in Afghanistan hit a record high in the first half of 2016, the UN has said, with a particular surge in the number of children killed or wounded.

The report, released by the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) on Monday, said there were 5,166 documented civilian casualties in the first half of 2016, an increase of four percent in total civilian casualties as compared to the first six months of 2015.

One-third of casualties between January and June were children, with 388 killed and 1,121 wounded, 18 percent more than in the first half of 2015, a figure the UN described as “alarming and shameful”.

The number of civilian casualties in Afghanistan keeps trending in the wrong direction:


Source: UNAMA

None of these stories has managed to break through the “RUSSIA HACKED THE DNC” story that’s currently dominating the day’s news, but of the three I probably don’t have to tell you which one has gotten the most coverage in the US. This is a phenomenon to which I keep coming back here, but this time, via LobeLog, you can read FAIR’s Adam Johnson discussing it instead, and with actual facts to boot:

A survey conducted by FAIR of US media coverage of ISIS or ISIS-inspired attacks in Europe and the Middle East reveals a disparity of coverage, showing that European deaths are roughly 1,800 percent more newsworthy than deaths in the Middle East.

For the purposes of this survey, both articles and video reports were included. We chose the three most-circulated “traditional media” newspapers and Buzzfeed, one of the most popular newsites for “Millennials,” to get another perspective. The list was compiled using a combination of the Nexis news database and Google.

Building on a survey of media mentions from March (AlterNet, 3/31/16) of mass attacks on civilians that are either connected to or perceived to be connected to ISIS (note: The Nice attack has yet to be confirmed as an ISIS-inspired attack), one finds that a death in Europe, broadly speaking, is seen as 19 times more newsworthy as one in the Middle East. Setting aside Baghdad, which one could categorize as a “war zone” (unlike Turkey or Lebanon), deaths in non-Western attacks are nine times less likely to garner news coverage.


New #brand, same organization

Brookings terrorism expert Charles Lister, who focuses particularly on extremist groups within the Syrian rebel universe, like (especially) Jabhat al-Nusra, broke a potentially significant story on Twitter yesterday:

It’s past “tomorrow” in Syria and as far as I can tell there’s been no announcement of a split, so this report remains unconfirmed. And as it’s Sunday, and late, and this whole thing amounts to one giant shrug emoji


Yes, that’ll do

I hope you’ll forgive me if I don’t have any particularly impressive insights about it right now. Jabhat al-Nusra (“the Support Front”) is, until further notice of course, al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate. It is also an active participant in the Syrian civil war, fighting, of course, on the side of the Syrian rebels. Unlike its former al-Qaeda cousin, ISIS, Nusra has chosen to work within the broader rebel…whatever it is. Coalition, I guess, but that implies levels of collaboration that don’t always exist among Syria’s various rebel factions. Where ISIS made the decision back in 2013-early 2014 (or had the decision made for it) to wage war against both the other anti-Assad forces and Assad himself (and, truth be told, until fairly recently it focused a lot more on fighting the former than the latter), Nusra has opted to fight alongside several other rebel groups, usually of the extreme Salafi variety (in particular Ahrar al-Sham). ISIS decided very early on that its goal was to create a new state, and to do that it had to carve out territory at everybody’s expense. Nusra, by contrast, has been focused on defeating Assad first, then worrying about territory after–though that may be changing.

Nusra’s alliance with Ahrar al-Sham in the “Army of Conquest” (Jaysh al-Fatah) has produced some of the rebels’ (from now on when I say “rebels” you can assume I’m excluding ISIS) biggest and most enduring victories of the war, in Idlib province. Jaysh al-Fatah’s conquest of Idlib back in took an entire province of Syria out of Assad’s hands and put him in enough peril that Russia was finally motivated to immerse itself in Assad’s problems–though it’s worth noting that for all Russia has done to turn the tide of the war, especially around Aleppo, Idlib is still in rebel hands.

Jabhat al-Nusra’s close affiliation with other rebel factions has been something of a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it’s undeniable that Nusra has been one of the most effective rebel fighting forces. The Idlib offensive wouldn’t have happened without them. On the other hand, the United States, for obvious reasons, won’t directly arm or aid rebel groups with known links to al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate. That’s not to say that US weapons haven’t found their way to Nusra, just that it’s had to happen by circuitous routes. And rebel supporters in, for example, and just hypothetically speaking, the Persian Gulf can’t really touch Nusra (not openly, anyway) either, also because of its al-Qaeda ties. So for some time now, there has been a growing sense that Nusra might break ties with al-Qaeda and change its #brand to something less toxic. Other Syrian factions like Ahrar al-Sham have reportedly been encouraging this step, as have the aforementioned but still totally hypothetical Gulf patrons, but Nusra hasn’t actually been willing to cut the cord yet. Instead, they’ve tried doing some genuine PR work to portray themselves as really reasonable, moderate dudes who just want to do right by Syria, not the hardcore jihadi terrorists you’d expect they’d be because of the fact that they’re AQ franchisees.

Only the PR campaign hasn’t worked. The US still won’t overtly get anywhere near Nusra or groups collaborating with them, and has instead been negotiating with Russia on combining their air campaigns over Syria–to target ISIS, of course, but also to target Nusra without spillover onto rebel groups Washington considers more moderate (so far Russia has largely been unwilling to make that distinction). Those negotiations haven’t really gone anywhere yet, but if they do it could make things more difficult for those rebel groups that have been working with Nusra to keep working with Nusra. The Obama administration has reportedly been telling rebels with whom it has any sway to make a clean break with Nusra in order to get themselves out of the way of airstrikes, and has been telling reporters that it sees Nusra as nearly as big a threat to the United States as ISIS. Nusra’s #brand may be more toxic than ever. But there’s likely little the rebels can actually do to separate themselves from Nusra, so tightly are they interconnected, and that’s even assuming they would want to do so. As desperate as the situation in Aleppo is, it’s almost inconceivable that other rebel factions would want to worry about divesting themselves of their relationship with, again, a group that has had proven battlefield success against Assad’s forces. Something has to give.

Something else, besides Aleppo and those US-Russian talks, has changed in the Nusra-AQ dynamic recently involved a statement from one of al-Qaeda’s spiritual leaders:

Analysts and people close to Nusra reportedly indicated that about a third of the group was prepared to renounce terrorism and that the split had the backing of a leading cleric.

Influential Jordanian-based Sheikh Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi supported cutting ties with al-Qaeda, according to The Times. “If the name of Nusra is a justification to target its affiliates, then changing or abdicating it is not abdicating the Koran,” he wrote in a statement. “And disengaging [from al-Qaeda] is not apostasy when there’s a need.”

It’s also worth noting that in May, al-Qaeda’s nominal boss, Ayman al-Zawahiri, reportedly gave his blessing for Nusra to establish an “emirate” in Idlib in order to compete with ISIS. There wasn’t any talk about Nusra dropping its al-Qaeda affiliation at that point, but it’s clear that everybody’s been thinking about new steps for Nusra to take. And this leads to the key question: would Nusra be quitting al-Qaeda, if that’s indeed what happens, with al-Qaeda’s tacit approval? I mean, look, we can talk about how Nusra is full of reasonable guys who aren’t interested in, I don’t know, massacring Alawite civilians or whatever, but talk is all that would be. The same people will still be running Nusra, or whatever they decide to call it after the hypothetical split, and there’s no reason to expect that those people have suddenly changed ideologies. It wouldn’t be at all out of the question for Nusra’s leadership to wink-wink their way out of al-Qaeda while the heat is turned up, with the understanding that they’ll still be in the fold for all purposes except outward appearances.

It also wouldn’t be out of the question, assuming the split is genuine (or, hell, maybe even if it isn’t) to see this move cause a revolt among die-hard AQ supporters within the group. So you might see Nusra itself splintering at some point. Nusra’s hope will be that eliminating its connection to al-Qaeda (at least overtly) will open the groups with which it collaborates up for more assistance from the US, and will open those groups as well as Nusra itself up for more assistance from the Gulf. And hey, if Russia and the US are going to start collaborating on striking Jabhat al-Nusra, maybe it’s best if Jabhat al-Nusra no longer exists. For this all to work the way they want it to, though, Nusra needs the US and its allies to avoid checking out the man behind the curtain. We’ll see.

One fun thing to watch will be to see which Serious US National Security Figure first pushes the idea that the US should directly arm whatever Jabhat al-Nusra decides to call itself after the divorce. Hell, two-time “America’s Next Top General” champion David Petraeus was pushing the idea of arming “moderate” Nusra elements months ago, when Nusra was still very much part of al-Qaeda. Imagine how much people will push for it if Nusra divests itself of that baggage.


ISIS bombing kills 80+ in Kabul

A peaceful protest involving thousands of people from Afghanistan’s Hazara minority became the scene of yet another ISIS atrocity today, as three suicide bombers (only one seems to have been successful) attacked the protesters, killing at least 80 people and injuring more than 230 others:

The Afghan Interior Ministry, in a statement, said the attack on thousands of Hazaras, an ethnic minority group staging the protest, had been a suicide mission.

“The attack was carried out by three suicide bombers: The first person carried out a blast, the second one failed at his detonation, and the third terrorist was killed in shooting by the security forces,” the ministry said.

The second assailant was presumed to be at large, a security official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity as he was not authorized to discuss intelligence matters.

Despite ISIS’s best efforts it hasn’t been particularly successful at making inroads into Afghanistan; it’s expanded into the country, of course, but as extremist Muslim organizations in Afghanistan go, the Taliban remains easily more powerful and imposing. I suppose this is partly a credit to the Taliban, if you’re looking for a reason to give them credit for something (they condemned today’s bombing as an attempt to foment civil war in Afghanistan). But this attack targeting Hazaras exhibits one of the organization’s trademarks: killing Shiʿa. ISIS has attacked Shiʿa targets in Iraq, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and also previously in Afghanistan, and it’s probably the case that those attacks have won it some Sunni support in those places. This is more of the same.

For those who don’t know who the Hazaras are, well, that’s what I’m here for. Continue reading

Munich update

The 18 year old boy who murdered nine people in Munich yesterday does not seem to have had any ties to nor to have drawn any inspiration from any jihadi terror groups like al-Qaeda or ISIS. If anything, he may have drawn inspiration from the Anders Breivik case, though that connection is still mostly speculation based on the fact that yesterday was the fifth anniversary of Breivik’s attacks in Oslo. The murderer does appear to have suffered from some psychiatric issues, though again its too early to say that those caused his actions yesterday. The only solid piece of evidence so far seems to be that the killer was deeply interested in mass shootings:

Following a police search of the attacker’s room, where a book on teenage shooting sprees was discovered, Munich police chief Hubertus Andrae all but ruled out an Islamist militant link to the attack.

“Based on the searches, there are no indications whatsoever that there is a connection to Islamic State” or to the issue of refugees, he told a news conference.

“Documents on shooting sprees were found, so the perpetrator obviously researched this subject intensively.”

The gunman was born and brought up in the Munich area and had spent time in psychiatric care, and there was no evidence to suggest he had had an accomplice, Andrae said.

The killer apparently lured victims to a McDonald’s with the promise of free food and then shot them. Seven of the victims were teenagers and it’s possible he was specifically targeting young people (suggestions that the shooter had been a bullying victim have also been brought up). He later shot himself, which in itself circumstantially argues against his having been steeped in ISIS-inspired ideology (ISIS and ISIS-inspired attackers tend to die either by bomb or by cop, while committing some kind of action that causes the deaths of others in the process, genuine suicide being strictly proscribed in Islam).

At this point not only does this attack not appear to be related to Islamic terrorism, it doesn’t even appear to be terrorism at all. Yes there’s the Breivik anniversary, but that’s very circumstantial. There are also the reports that the killer shouted anti-immigrant slogans as he was shooting, but other reports have him shouting “Allahu Akbar,” which (if both are true) makes for a muddled message (and may reflect that he was simply deranged). A high proportion of his victims were immigrants: three Turks, three Kosovar Albanians, and a Greek–but, again, very circumstantial.

Terrorism doesn’t have to involve Islam, but it does have to have a political motive. If this guy carried out his attack in an homage to Breivik, then it’s terrorism. If it turns out he was motivated by jihadi sentiments, then it’s terrorism. If this was simply a disturbed spree shooter, then it’s probably not terrorism.


Today in Middle Eastern history: Egypt’s 23 July Revolution (1952)

Hey, check it out, I’m in reruns!


Then again, so is Egypt! BOOM!


and that's the way it was

Today marks 63 years since one of the most important events in 20th century Middle East history, the overthrow of the Egyptian monarchy by the Free Officers Movement. This was a group of military officers ostensibly led by General Muhammad Naguib, but really led by Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser, who was gracious enough to let Naguib have a short turn as Egypt’s president from 1953-1954 before pushing him out and officially taking power.

Nasser (right) and Naguib in July 1954; Nasser would have Naguib’s job by November (Wikimedia)

The proximate cause of the coup that ousted King Farouk was the drubbing that Egypt, along with every other Arab state, had received at the hands of the Israelis during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. The officers blamed Egypt’s corrupt monarchy, which was totally under British control anyway, for the defeat (when the 1967 Six Day War rolled around, and Israel…

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Today in European history: the Siege of Belgrade ends (1456)

Mehmed II earned the epithet Fatih or “the Conqueror” when he captured Constantinople in 1453, and it’s lucky for him that he did, really. If he didn’t already have a slick nickname by the time of his failed effort to capture Belgrade, I can imagine he might have been saddled with a much less flattering one instead. Well, at least behind his back, anyway.

After Constantinople fell, Mehmed’s gaze naturally kept moving west (he was particularly keen on reuniting the “two Romes” by capturing the actual Rome), and the next major target on the road to central Europe was Hungary. The regular reader and/or fan of late medieval European history will note that 15th century Hungary was a genuine military heavyweight, capable of slugging it out with the Ottomans or, really, just about anybody. They owed their military success to two factors: their early adoption of firearms and field artillery (and of innovative tactics employing those weapons like the “wagon fortress”), and the presence of their great general, John Hunyadi (d. 1456 but that’s not a spoiler), the warlord of Transylvania. Hunyadi had laid a few significant defeats on the Ottomans in the early 1440s, and though the Ottomans had achieved a measure of revenge by defeating Hunyadi at the Battle of Varna in 1444 and the (Second) Battle of Kosovo in 1448, he was still around and his army was still a pretty tough nut to crack.

The road through Hungary began at Belgrade. Continue reading