It’s been a long summer for proponents of American hard power in the Middle East, as the conflict against ISIS grinds on in Fallujah, Ramadi and elsewhere. But the seductive pull of America’s soft power remains ever-powerful, pulling even our terrorist enemies into its orbit.
Don’t believe me? Here are five examples that prove otherwise:
Exhibit A: Omar al-Shishani, the Islamic State’s recently-deceased Minister of War. He might have hated Western infidels with the fury of a thousand burning suns, but he still thinks The North Face hats are pretty cool:
Exhibit B: Islamic State just released a scripted drama featuring a sensitive young millennial thinking about joining the group in Raqqa, Syria. But he loves his Abercrombie and Fitch:
How do you fight an idea?
Governments and NGOs are trying to do so in a variety of ways—community outreach, tough policing, aggressive tweeting—in the quest to ‘counter violent extremism,’ mostly of the ISIS and al Qaeda variety.
But the jury remains out whether these high-minded efforts are indeed generating desired results. One only has to glance at the scientific studies that show how arguing with, say, anti-vaccination activists makes them cling more tightly to their beliefs. It’s possible deploying earnest arguments with the ISIS-curious may paradoxically end up reinforcing their worldview.
So let’s try something different than just being earnest and serious. Instead, let’s ridicule ISIS on a global scale.
This might end up being a more potent long-term weapon than dropping bombs over Syria. After all, ridicule and humor (and the assistance of Superman) helped deflate the KKK in the late 1940s.
High-minded seriousness only gets one so far—it’s doubtful the 1980s egg-bubbling imagery from the War on Drugs era actually had much effect to stop *anyone* from smoking, say, marijuana. Beyond launching a thousand parodies, the ad may not have persuaded too many people from doing drugs.
Why? Because peers did it, and many of them didn’t end up splattered in a frying pan. And if one happens to be a hard-core drug user, one’s life has enough readily-apparent problems that one won’t be ‘scared straight’ by a public service announcement.
Same with hardened jihadists. There are certainly individuals that have gone over the bend that law enforcement over here—or the military and intelligence services over there—must confront. Countering terrorism can sometimes be ugly, and require applying force and violence.
But many are still impressionable, ISIS-curious types who are persuadable in one way or another—and some of the weapons are ridicule and humor to make it socially unacceptable to even consider joining ISIS. We should endeavor to make thinking about joining a jihadist group as off-putting as, say, calling for organized racial segregation.
The top of the world had a new navy visit its waters recently.
When five Chinese warships were spotted off the coast of Alaska last summer, the Pentagon announced, although no threatening activities had been detected, the vessels’ intent was unclear. Never before had Chinese ships been seen in that area. Though they were in international waters and passed without incident, the flotilla, made up of three combat ships, a supply ship, and an amphibious vessel came as close as twelve miles to the Alaskan coastline.
Beijing’s navy might become a more common occurrence in the Arctic, and the US had better get used to it.
One of the foremost reasons are the economic prospects of the Arctic that can be attributed to the emergence of new waterways caused by melting ice. These newly accessible waterways have turned the Arctic into a more navigable ocean and allowed access to billions in untapped resources. The United States Geological Survey believes the area north of the Arctic Circle contains an estimated 90 billion barrels of oil and 30% of the world’s undiscovered natural gas. Continue Reading
America is about to have the distinction of having not one, but two intelligence officers appear on its currency. With the US Treasury’s announcement last month that Harriet Tubman will be replacing Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill, she joins spymaster George Washington on America’s legal tender.
While Tubman is best known for her efforts to help lead escaping slaves to freedom on the Underground Railroad– Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew said she was “not just a historical figure but a role model for leadership and participation in our democracy,” she was also a dedicated intelligence officer during the Civil War.
The following is adapted from a six-part series, titled, “The Intelligence Community: Smart People Looking At Computers,” which is available in its entirety at alexzfinley.com.
The front line in any country’s national security is its intelligence service. Luckily for us, we’ve got sixteen different intelligence agencies and one Big Daddy agency to make sure all the intelligence kids play nicely with each other. If you measure our security by how big our security apparatus is, we are incredibly secure. But, “effectiveness” is a secondary concern, because it is really hard to fit in a metric.
But in true American fashion, everyone can and does contribute, just by participating. So let’s take a brief tour of some of the more interesting members of our Intelligence Community (IC).
If the IC were a school, the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) would be the uncool principal. He makes sure all the kids play nicely together and to break up turf wars.
Sad to say, he has no authority over anyone. So if the math teacher (NSA) and history teacher (State Department) start fighting, he can’t fire either one of them. But he might ask them to write an essay about how they can work better together in the future.
One of Overt Action’s contributing writers, Alex Finley, just published a new novel, Victor in the Rubble: A Satire of the CIA and the War on Terror. It’s about chasing bad guys while working within CIA’s Counterterrorism Center (recently renamed the “Counterterrorism Mission Center”). We recently caught up with Alex and asked her about the challenges she had to face while putting this novel together.
This interview has been lightly edited.
Why did you write this book?
Victor in the Rubble started as a catharsis. It was my way of dealing with the trauma that was forced on the Intelligence Community in the wake of 9/11, Iraq, and the 2004 intelligence reform.
One day, I was at the office when something blew up in Yemen (it is a sign of the times that I no longer recall what, exactly, blew up) and a manager in the office I was in approached a case officer at his desk. On a nearby TV screen, we could see the fire in Yemen burning, people carrying out the dead. The manager asked the case officer—at that point a 12-year veteran of the Agency’s Counterterrorism Center—why he hadn’t yet filled out a survey on Agency employee satisfaction.
I thought the case officer’s head was going to explode. He managed to keep his cool just long enough to say to the manager (loud enough for the entire office to hear), “The terrorists aren’t filling out any [expletive] forms.” Then he walked out.
And I thought: What if terrorists did have to fill out forms? That would be hilarious.
When I left the Agency, I pulled together the bureaucratic ridiculousness I had experienced myself, combined it with some pretty great anecdotes from friends and colleagues, and decided to transpose that bureaucratic system on the terrorists. Indeed, what if terrorists had to fill out forms and go through the same bureaucratic rigmarole our Intelligence Community must go through? And just like that, I had a novel.
What kind of problems did you run into when putting this together?
Mark Twain once said that truth is stranger than fiction. That proved a real challenge for me, making true stories believable, even when they were completely absurd. There were several instances when the editor I was working with commented that a certain episode in the book was so absurd it didn’t seem possible and should be cut. I wanted to scream, “But that part actually happened!”
But of course I couldn’t tell her that.
– Belgium is one of the top nations sending Western European fighters in Syria.
– Days after the Paris attacks the Belgian government announced 18 new counterterrorism measures, though a majority of those steps have not been implemented. One measure would allow 24hr house searches in terrorism investigations. Previously house searches were prohibited between 9pm and 5am.
– Before the Belgian parliament votes on measures like these, it must first be cleared by Belgium’s privacy authority. That said, Belgium is said to have a “completely outdated” procedure for criminal investigations. Once an investigation into a terrorist case begins, Belgian security services are removed from the process, and no information revealed in the investigation is passed to them.
– Currently, Belgian intelligence service are not allowed to surveil the phones of suspected terrorists, nor are they allowed hack suspected terrorist’s phones or computers.
– Belgium has a population of around 11 million, yet they only spend close to 56 million on intelligence services. Staffing issues have been pointed to as part of the problem. Belgian federal prosecutor Frédéric Van Leeuw said that prosecutors opened 315 new terrorism cases in 2015 alone and have already opened 60 new cases this year.
-According to The Guardian, “Belgian security services appeared–despite the quality of many individual officials–overwhelmed. It was revealed that a few hundred agents were supposed to watch over thousands of potential militants. ‘We are simply exhausted,’ one senior security official said in an email.”
– Belgium is “plagued by social rifts and rivalry between jurisdictions.” For example, Brussels has six police forces but each one answers to a different mayor.
Last year I had the opportunity to do something most intelligence professionals never do: I took a year off away from the community, and I studied analysis as an academic subject. In researching the topic, I also got to think a lot about what it means to create strategic intelligence and how well we really do it. Much of that year’s thinking was channeled into a graduate course on analysis that I’ll be teaching this summer through American University.
Looking in-depth at our history and our culture revealed more to me than nine years of working down in the trenches—and that’s telling. Granted, without those trench years, I wouldn’t have the foundation of experience to question or validate outside perspectives. But at the same time, it revealed the degree to which our culture and our processes inside the IC blind us to a honest evaluation of our capabilities, our strengths, and our shortcomings. That blindness is so routine that it has become part of our worldview.
Blindness? Well, more precisely myopia: the condition of being able to see things right in front of you clearly, while not being able to see things farther away. For this reason—and others—I began using “The Eye of Sauron” as a metaphor when I talk with my students about the powers and limitations of US intelligence.
If you’ve seen the Lord of the Rings movies (or read the books), you probably remember the image: a giant, red, lidless eye hovering in the air, casting a searchlight-like beam of baleful maleficence out over the lands of Middle Earth. (An aside: I’ve never managed to get “baleful maleficence” past PDB editors, much to my chagrin.) Like the Eye, we have enormous capability and reach—but we still miss things that could kill us.
In Tolkein’s story, The Eye represents the hidden, oppressive surveillance that threatens to detect any misstep in the journey. (As some have said, one does not simply walk into Mordor.) Like The Eye, the surveillance and detection capabilities of the U.S Intelligence Community today are seemingly omnipotent. While analysts used to have to wait days to obtain collection taken from separate sensors, collection systems, and sources, today we increasingly can see a holistic, near-real time picture using fused collection inputs and sophisticated visualization. At its best, the “Eye” can see through cloud cover, past darkness, around walls—it can sometimes even fill in gaps and see things that aren’t there.
Earlier this year, the Central Intelligence Agency revealed its new Diversity and Inclusion Strategy, an intensive three-year push to address some of the Agency’s longstanding diversity shortfalls. No sooner was the strategy announced than several journalists and commentators questioned whether diversity and inclusion merited priority status at an Agency where being right is the only thing that should matter. Was the CIA simply being politically correct, some wondered? After all shouldn’t expertise be the only criteria for hiring and advancement?
Such arguments are outdated and ill-informed. Research over the last ten years is demonstrating that a diverse workforce strongly correlates with better performance for organizations across domains and disciplines. Diversity makes you more right!
Much of this recent research is summarized in a 2014 Scientific American article by Katherine W. Phillips, a senior vice-dean at Columbia Business School: How Diversity Makes us Smarter. She cites the numerous studies that show how companies with diverse management teams routinely outperform companies with homogeneous C-Suites.
But the research I found most compelling and applicable to the Intelligence Community was an effort to understand how racial diversity affected decision-making in small groups. Three-person teams—some homogeneous, some not—were tasked with solving murder mysteries, an exercise not dissimilar from analytic work. The groups with racial diversity significantly outperformed the groups without.
Yet as an intelligence analyst, I’m not satisfied with this correlation. I need to understand how diversity leads to better analysis and decisions. The new research also sheds light on this question. Phillips notes that it’s not just that people with diverse background bring different perspectives and value other kinds of information.
With the capture of Salah Abdeslam, decease the last living attacker in ISIS’ horrific attacks in Paris, French and Belgian authorities can now further determine what exactly happened on that terrible night in November. But the police would have never caught up to him had it not been for, well, a lucky break.
As CNN’s Paul Cruickshank noted,
“The trail had gone completely cold until Tuesday when police went to an address in Brussels that they believe was linked to the Paris attacks, but they had no idea that Salah Abdeslam or any other terrorists were inside.
There was a big firefight and two of the terrorists managed to escape. They believe that one of those was probably Salah Abdeslam and then they’ve been working 24/7 since then to try to get him and they have just got him into custody and they have got him alive.”
Taking advantage of good fortune plays a larger role in fighting terrorism than one might first suppose. As I recounted in Find Fix Finish, sheer luck was the reason why authorities in the Philippines were able to crack the infamous “Bojinka” plot—a Ramsi Yousef operation to destroy several US airliners leaving from Asia in midair—during the 1990s:
In the early morning of January 7, 1995, a member of the terrorist group accidentally ignited a chemical fire in the apartment’s kitchenette, forcing the evacuation of the apartment complex.