2.24.2010

Stratfor: General Aviation: A Reminder of Vulnerability

(Ron's Note: I find Stratfor's analysis and perspective a refreshing alternative to the ever shrill and adrenaline charged agitation of the commercial media. Many of my readers agree with me. I hope you will, too.)


By Scott Stewart

On Feb. 18, 2010, Joseph Andrew Stack flew his single-engine airplane into a seven-story office building in northwest Austin, Texas. The building housed an office of the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), along with several other tenants. According to a statement he posted to the Internet before taking off on his suicide flight, Stack intentionally targeted the IRS due to a long history of problems he had had with the agency. In the statement, Stack said he hoped that his action would cause "American zombies to wake up and revolt" against the government. Stack also expressed his hope that his message of violence would be one the government could not ignore.

Stack's use of violence to attempt to foster an uprising against the government and to alter government policy means that his attack against the IRS building was an act of domestic terrorism. (Terrorism is defined by the intent of the actor, not the effectiveness of the attack, a topic we will discuss in more detail at another time.) While Stack's terrorist attack ultimately will fail to attain either of his stated goals, he did succeed in killing himself and one victim and injuring some 13 other people. The fire resulting from the crash also caused extensive damage to the building. We have received credible reports that Stack had removed some of the seats from his aircraft and loaded a drum of aviation fuel inside the passenger compartment of his plane. This extra fuel may account for the extensive fire damage at the scene. According to STRATFOR analysts present at the scene, it appears that Stack's plane struck the concrete slab between floors. Had the aircraft not struck the slab head-on, it may have been able to penetrate the building more deeply, and this deeper penetration could have resulted in even more damage and a higher casualty count.

For many years now, STRATFOR has discussed the security vulnerability posed by general aviation and cargo aircraft. Stack's attack against the IRS building using his private plane provides a vivid reminder of this vulnerability.

Framing the Threat

As we have previously noted, jihadists, including al Qaeda's central core, have long had a fixation on attacks involving aircraft. This focus on aviation-related attacks includes not only attacks designed to take down passenger aircraft, like Operation Bojinka, the 2001 shoe bomb plot and the Heathrow liquid explosives plot, but also attacks that use aircraft as weapons, as evidenced by the 9/11 strikes and in the thwarted Library Tower plot, among others -- aircraft as human-guided cruise missiles, if you will. These aviation-focused plots are not just something from the past, or something confined just to the al Qaeda core leadership. The Christmas Day attempt to destroy Northwest Airlines Flight 253 demonstrated that the threat is current, and that at least some al Qaeda franchise groups (al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP, in this case) are also interested in aviation-focused plots.

Jihadists are not the only ones interested. Over the past several decades, a number of other actors have also conducted attacks against aviation-related targets, including such diverse actors as Palestinian, Lebanese, Japanese and Sikh militant groups, Colombian cartels, and the Libyan and North Korean intelligence services. Stack and people like Theodore Kaczynski, the "Unabomber," demonstrate that domestic terrorists can also view aviation as a target and a weapon. (UNABOM is an FBI acronym that stood for university and airline bomber, the targets Kaczynski initially focused on.)

The long history of airline hijackings and attacks has resulted in increased screening of airline passengers and an increase in the security measures afforded to the commercial aviation sector. These security measures have largely been reactive, and in spite of them, serious gaps in airline security persist.

Now, while some security vulnerabilities do exist, it is our belief that any future plans involving aircraft as weapons will be less likely to incorporate highly fueled commercial airliners, like those used on 9/11. In addition to newer federal security measures, such as expansion of the air marshal program, hardened cockpits and programs to allow pilots to carry firearms, there has also been a substantial psychological shift among airline crews and the traveling public. As Flight 93 demonstrated on Sept. 11, 2001, the new "let's roll" mentality of passengers and aircrews will make it more difficult for malefactors to gain control of a passenger aircraft without a fight. Before 9/11, crews (and even law enforcement officers traveling while armed) were taught to comply with hijackers' demands and not to openly confront them. The expectation was that a hijacked aircraft and passengers would be held hostage, not used as a weapon killing all aboard. The do-not-resist paradigm is long gone, and most attacks involving aircraft since 9/11 have focused on destroying aircraft in flight rather than on commandeering aircraft for use as weapons.

Paradigm Shift

This change in the security paradigm has altered the ability of jihadists and other militants to plan certain types of terrorist attacks, but that is just one half of the repetitive cycle. As security measures change, those planning attacks come up with new and innovative ways to counter the changes, whether they involve physical security measures or security procedures. Then when the new attack methods are revealed, security adjusts accordingly. For example, the shoe bomb attempt resulted in the screening of footwear. AQAP shifted the attack paradigm by concealing explosives in an operative's underwear. In the case of planners wanting to use aircraft as human-guided cruise missiles, one way the attack paradigm can be shifted is by turning their efforts away from passenger aircraft toward general aviation and cargo aircraft.

Most security upgrades in the aviation security realm have been focused on commercial air travel. While some general aviation terminals (referred to as FBOs, short for fixed base operators) have increased security in the post 9/11 world, like the Signature FBO at Boston's Logan Airport, which has walk-through metal detectors for crews and passengers and uses X-ray machines to screen luggage, many FBOs have very little security. Some smaller airports like the one used by Stack have little or no staffing at all, and pilots and visitors can come and go as they please. There are no security checks and the pilot only has to make a radio call before taking off.

This difference in FBO security stems from the fact that FBOs are owned by a wide variety of operators. Some are owned by private for-profit companies, while others are run by a city or county authority and some are even operated by the state government. The bottom line is that it is very easy for someone who is a pilot to show up at an airport and rent an aircraft. All he or she has to do is fill out a few forms, present a license and logbook and go for a check ride. Mohamed Atta, the commander of the 9/11 operation, was a pilot, and one of the great mysteries after his death was the reason behind some of his general aviation activity. It is known that he rented small aircraft in cities like Miami and Atlanta, but it is not known what he did while aloft in them. It is possible that he was just honing his skills as a pilot, but there are concerns that he may also have been conducting aerial surveillance of potential targets.

But general aviation doesn't just encompass small, single-engine airplanes like the ones owned by Stack and rented by Atta. Anyone with the money can charter a private passenger aircraft from a company such as NetJets or Flexjet, or even a private cargo aircraft. The size of these aircraft can vary from small Learjets to large Boeing Business Jets (a modified 737) and 747 cargo aircraft. In many places it is even possible for passengers to board a charter flight with no security checks of themselves or their baggage. In such a scenario, it would not be difficult for individuals such as Atta and his colleagues to take control of an aircraft from the crew -- especially if the crew is unarmed.

As seen on 9/11, or even in the Stack case, there is very little that can be done to stop an airplane flown by a suicidal pilot. The North American Aerospace Defense Command launched two F-16 fighters in response to the Stack incident, but they were not dispatched until after the incident was over. Only in the case where there is restricted airspace that is constantly patrolled is there much hope of military aircraft responding in time to stop such an attack. The 1994 incident in which an unemployed Maryland truck driver crashed a stolen Cessna into the South Lawn of the White House highlighted how there is very little that can be done to protect a building from this type of threat -- and the level of security at the White House in 1994 was far greater than the security afforded to almost any other building today. The difficulty of protecting buildings from aerial attack demonstrates the need to secure aircraft so they cannot be used in such a manner.

The bottom line, however, is that it would be prohibitively expensive to totally lock down all airports and aircraft nationwide in an effort to prevent them from being used in attacks like the one conducted by Stack. In the face of this reality, the best that can be hoped for is to keep the largest (and therefore most destructive) aircraft safe from this sort of misuse.

There is currently no one authority, like the Transportation Safety Commission, that controls security at all the small airports and FBOs. In the absence of any policy or regulations tightening the security at these facilities and requiring the screening of charter aircraft passengers, the best defense against the threat posed by this vulnerability will be to educate those in the FBO and charter aircraft business and encourage them to exercise a heightened state of situational awareness.


This report may be forwarded or republished on your website with attribution to www.stratfor.com.

Copyright 2010 Stratfor.

2.22.2010

Stratfor: The Utility of Assassination

By George Friedman, Copyright 2010 Stratfor.

Republished with permission of www.stratfor.com.

The apparent Israeli assassination of a Hamas operative in the United Arab Emirates turned into a bizarre event replete with numerous fraudulent passports, alleged Israeli operatives caught on videotape and international outrage (much of it feigned), more over the use of fraudulent passports than over the operative's death. If we are to believe the media, it took nearly 20 people and an international incident to kill him.

STRATFOR has written on the details of the killing as we have learned of them, but we see this as an occasion to address a broader question: the role of assassination in international politics.

Defining Assassination
We should begin by defining what we mean by assassination. It is the killing of a particular individual for political purposes. It differs from the killing of a spouse's lover because it is political. It differs from the killing of a soldier on the battlefield in that the soldier is anonymous and is not killed because of who he is but because of the army he is serving in.

The question of assassination, in the current jargon "targeted killing," raises the issue of its purpose. Apart from malice and revenge, as in Abraham Lincoln's assassination, the purpose of assassination is to achieve a particular political end by weakening an enemy in some way. Thus, the killing of Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto by the Americans in World War II was a targeted killing, an assassination. His movements were known, and the Americans had the opportunity to kill him. Killing an incompetent commander would be counterproductive, but Yamamoto was a superb strategist, without peer in the Japanese navy. Killing him would weaken Japan's war effort, or at least have a reasonable chance of doing so. With all the others dying around him in the midst of war, the moral choice did not seem complex then, nor does it seem complex now.

Such occasions rarely occur on the battlefield. There are few commanders who could not readily be replaced, and perhaps even replaced by someone more able. In any event, it is difficult to locate enemy commanders, meaning the opportunity to kill them rarely arises. And as commanders ask their troops to risk their lives, they have no moral claim to immunity from danger.

Now, take another case. Assume that the leader of a country were singular and irreplaceable, something very few are. But think of Fidel Castro, whose central role in the Cuban government was undeniable. Assume that he is the enemy of another country like the United States. It is an unofficial hostility -- no war has been declared -- but a very real one nonetheless. Is it illegitimate to try to kill such a leader in a bid to destroy his regime? Let's move that question to Adolph Hitler, the gold standard of evil. Would it be inappropriate to have sought to kill him in 1938 based on the type of regime he had created and what he said that he would do with it?

If the position is that killing Hitler would have been immoral, then we have a serious question about the moral standards being used. The more complex case is Castro. He is certainly no Hitler, but neither is he the romantic democratic revolutionary some have painted him as being. But if it is legitimate to kill Castro, then where is the line drawn? Who is it not legitimate to kill?

As with Yamamoto, the number of instances in which killing a political leader would make a difference in policy or in the regime's strength is extremely limited. In most cases, the argument against assassination is not moral but practical: It would make no difference if the target in question lives or dies. But where it would make a difference, the moral argument becomes difficult. If we establish that Hitler was a legitimate target, than we have established that there is not an absolute ban on political assassination. The question is what the threshold must be.

All of this is a preface to the killing in the United Arab Emirates, because that represents a third case. Since the rise of the modern intelligence apparatus, covert arms have frequently been attached to them. The nation-states of the 20th century all had intelligence organizations. These organizations carried out a range of clandestine operations beyond collecting intelligence, from supplying weapons to friendly political groups in foreign countries to overthrowing regimes to underwriting terrorist operations.

During the latter half of the century, nonstate-based covert organizations were developed. As European empires collapsed, political movements wishing to take control created covert warfare apparatuses to force the Europeans out or defeat political competitors. Israel's state-based intelligence system emerged from one created before the Jewish state's independence. The various Palestinian factions created their own. Beyond this, of course, groups like al Qaeda created their own covert capabilities, against which the United States has arrayed its own massive covert capability.

Assassinations Today
The contemporary reality is not a battlefield on which a Yamamoto might be singled out or a charismatic political leader whose death might destroy his regime. Rather, a great deal of contemporary international politics and warfare is built around these covert capabilities. In the case of Hamas, the mission of these covert operations is to secure the resources necessary for Hamas to engage Israeli forces on terms favorable to them, from terror to rocket attacks. For Israel, covert operations exist to shut off resources to Hamas (and other groups), leaving them unable to engage or resist Israel.

Expressed this way, covert warfare makes sense, particularly for the Israelis when they engage the clandestine efforts of Hamas. Hamas is moving covertly to secure resources. Its game is to evade the Israelis. The Israeli goal is to identify and eliminate the covert capability. Hamas is the hunted, Israel the hunter here. Apparently the hunter and hunted met in the United Arab Emirates, and the hunted was killed.

But there are complexities here. First, in warfare, the goal is to render the enemy incapable of resisting. Killing just any group of enemy soldiers is not the point. Indeed, diverting resources to engage the enemy on the margins, leaving the center of gravity of the enemy force untouched, harms far more than it helps. Covert warfare is different from conventional warfare, but the essential question stands: Is the target you are destroying essential to the enemy's ability to fight? And even more important, as the end of all war is political, does defeating this enemy bring you closer to your political goals?

Covert organizations, like armies, are designed to survive attrition. It is expected that operatives will be detected and killed; the system is designed to survive that. The goal of covert warfare is either to penetrate the enemy so deeply, or destroy one or more people so essential to the operation of the group, that the covert organization stops functioning. All covert organizations are designed to stop this from happening.

They achieve this through redundancy and regeneration. After the massacre at the Munich Olympics in 1972, the Israelis mounted an intense covert operation to identify, penetrate and destroy the movement -- called Black September -- that mounted the attack. Black September was not simply a separate movement but a front for various Palestinian factions. Killing those involved with Munich would not paralyze Black September, and destroying Black September did not destroy the Palestinian movement. That movement had redundancy -- the ability to shift new capable people into the roles of those killed -- and therefore could regenerate, training and deploying fresh operatives.

The mission was successfully carried out, but the mission was poorly designed. Like a general using overwhelming force to destroy a marginal element of the enemy army, the Israelis focused their covert capability to destroy elements whose destruction would not give the Israelis what they wanted -- the destruction of the various Palestinian covert capabilities. It might have been politically necessary for the Israeli public, it might have been emotionally satisfying, but the Israeli's enemies weren't broken. Consider that Entebbe occurred in 1976. If Israel's goal in targeting Black September was the suppression of terrorism by Palestinian groups, the assault on one group did not end the threat from other groups.

Therefore, the political ends the Israelis sought were not achieved. The Palestinians did not become weaker. The year 1972 was not the high point of the Palestinian movement politically. It became stronger over time, gaining substantial international legitimacy. If the mission was to break the Palestinian covert apparatus to weaken the Palestinian capability and weaken its political power, the covert war of eliminating specific individuals identified as enemy operatives failed. The operatives very often were killed, but the operation did not yield the desired outcome.

And here lies the real dilemma of assassination. It is extraordinarily rare to identify a person whose death would materially weaken a substantial political movement in some definitive sense -- i.e., where if the person died, then the movement would be finished. This is particularly true for nationalist movements that can draw on a very large pool of people and talent. It is equally hard to reduce a movement quickly enough to destroy the organization's redundancy and regenerative capability. Doing so requires extraordinary intelligence penetration as well as a massive covert effort, so such an effort quickly reveals the penetration and identifies your own operatives.

A single swift, global blow is what is dreamt of. Covert war actually works as a battle of attrition, involving the slow accumulation of intelligence, the organization of the strike, the assassination. At that point, one man is dead, a man whose replacement is undoubtedly already trained. Others are killed, but the critical mass is never reached, and there is no one target who if killed would cause everything to change.

In war there is a terrible tension between the emotions of the public and the cold logic that must drive the general. In covert warfare, there is tremendous emotional satisfaction to the country when it is revealed that someone it regards as not only an enemy, but someone responsible for the deaths of their countryman, has been killed. But the generals or directors of intelligence can't afford this satisfaction. They have limited resources, which must be devoted to achieving their country's political goals and assuring its safety. Those resources have to be used effectively.

There are few Hitlers whose death is morally demanded and might have a practical effect. Most such killings are both morally and practically ambiguous. In covert warfare, even if you concede every moral point about the wickedness of your enemy, you must raise the question as to whether all of your efforts are having any real effect on the enemy in the long run. If they can simply replace the man you killed, while training ten more operatives in the meantime, you have achieved little. If the enemy keeps becoming politically more successful, then the strategy must be re-examined.

We are not writing this as pacifists; we do not believe the killing of enemies is to be avoided. And we certainly do not believe that the morally incoherent strictures of what is called international law should guide any country in protecting itself. What we are addressing here is the effectiveness of assassination in waging covert warfare. Too frequently, it does not, in our mind, represent a successful solution to the military and political threat posed by covert organizations. It might bring an enemy to justice, and it might well disrupt an organization for a while or even render a specific organization untenable. But in the covert wars of the 20th century, the occasions when covert operations -- including assassinations -- achieved the political ends being pursued were rare. That does not mean they never did. It does mean that the utility of assassination as a main part of covert warfare needs to be considered carefully. Assassination is not without cost, and in war, all actions must be evaluated rigorously in terms of cost versus benefit.


This report may be forwarded or republished on your website with attribution to www.stratfor.com.

Copyright 2010 Stratfor.

2.19.2010

Visa Security: Getting back to the Basics

By Fred Burton and Scott Stewart, (C) 2010 Stratfor (www.stratfor.com)


Usually in the STRATFOR Global Security and Intelligence Report, we focus on the tactical details of terrorism and security issues in an effort to explain those issues and place them in perspective for our readers. Occasionally, though, we turn our focus away from the tactical realm in order to examine the bureaucratic processes that shape the way things run in the counterterrorism, counterintelligence and security arena. This look into the struggle by the U.S. government to ensure visa security is one of those analyses.

As STRATFOR has noted for many years now, document-fraud investigations are a very useful weapon in the counterterrorism arsenal. Foreigners who wish to travel to the United States to conduct a terrorist attack must either have a valid passport from their country of citizenship and a valid U.S. visa, or just a valid passport from their home country if they are a citizen of a country that does not require a visa for short-term trips (called visa-waiver countries).

In some early jihadist attacks against the United States, such as the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, the operatives dispatched to conduct the attacks made very clumsy attempts at document fraud. In that case, the two operational commanders dispatched from Afghanistan to conduct the attack arrived at New York's Kennedy Airport after having used photo-substituted passports (passports where the photographs are literally switched) of militants from visa-waiver countries who died while fighting in Afghanistan. Ahmed Ajaj (a Palestinian) used a Swedish passport in the name of Khurram Khan, and Abdul Basit (a Pakistani also known as Ramzi Yousef) used a British passport in the name of Mohamed Azan. Ajaj attempted to enter through U.S. Immigration at Kennedy Airport using the obviously photo-substituted passport and was arrested on the spot. Basit used the altered British passport to board the aircraft in Karachi, Pakistan, but upon arrival in New York he used a fraudulently obtained but genuine Iraqi passport in the name of Ramzi Yousef to claim political asylum and was released pending his asylum hearing.

But the jihadist planners learned from amateurish cases like Ajaj's and that of Ghazi Ibrahim Abu Mezer, a Palestinian who attempted to conduct a suicide attack against the New York subway system. U.S. immigration officials arrested him on three occasions in the Pacific Northwest as he attempted to cross into the United States illegally from Canada. By the Millennium Bomb Plot in late 1999, Ahmed Ressam, an Algerian who initially entered Canada using a photo-substituted French passport, had obtained a genuine Canadian passport using a fraudulent baptismal certificate. He then used that genuine passport to attempt to enter the United States in order to bomb Los Angeles International Airport. Ressam was caught not because of his documentation but because of his demeanor -- and an alert customs inspector prevented him from entering the country.

So by the time the 9/11 attacks occurred, we were seeing groups like al Qaeda preferring to use genuine travel documents rather than altered or counterfeit documents. Indeed, some operatives, such as Ramzi bin al-Shibh, a Yemeni, were unable to obtain U.S. visas and were therefore not permitted to participate in the 9/11 plot. Instead, bin al-Shibh took on a support role, serving as the communications cutout between al Qaeda's operational planner, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, and al Qaeda's tactical commander for the operation, Mohamed Atta. It is important to note, however, that the 19 9/11 operatives had obtained a large assortment of driver's licenses and state identification cards, many of them fraudulent. Such documents are far easier to obtain than passports.

After the Sept. 11 attacks and the 9/11 Commission report, which shed a great deal of light on the terrorist use of document fraud, the U.S. government increased the attention devoted to immigration fraud and the use of fraudulent travel documents by terrorist suspects. This emphasis on detecting document fraud, along with the widespread adoption of more difficult to counterfeit passports and visas (no document is impossible to counterfeit), has influenced jihadists, who have continued their shift away from the use of fraudulent documents (especially poor quality documents). Indeed, in many post-9/11 attacks directed against the United States we have seen jihadist groups use U.S. citizens (Jose Padilla and Najibullah Zazi), citizens of visa-waiver countries (Richard Reid and Abdulla Ahmed Ali), and other operatives who possess or can obtain valid U.S. visas such as Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab. These operatives are, for the most part, using authentic documents issued in their true identities.

Concerns expressed by the 9/11 Commission over the vulnerability created by the visa-waiver program also prompted the U.S. government to establish the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA), which is a mandatory program that prescreens visa-waiver travelers, including those transiting through the United States. The ESTA, which became functional in January 2009, requires travelers from visa-waiver countries to apply for travel authorization at least 72 hours prior to travel. This time period permits the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to conduct background checks on pending travelers.

Growing Complexity

Counterfeit visas are not as large a problem as they were 20 years ago. Advances in technology have made it very difficult for all but the most high-end document vendors to counterfeit them, and it is often cheaper and easier to obtain an authentic visa by malfeasance -- bribing a consular officer -- than it is to acquire a machine-readable counterfeit visa that will work. Obtaining a genuine U.S. passport or one from a visa-waiver country by using fraudulent breeder documents (driver's licenses and birth certificates, as Ahmed Ressam did) is also cheaper and easier. But in the case of non-visa waiver countries, this shift to the use of genuine identities and identity documents now highlights the need to secure the visa issuance process from fraud and malfeasance.

This shift to genuine-identity documents also means that most visa fraud cases involving potential terrorist operatives are going to be very complex. Rather than relying on obvious flags like false identities, the visa team consisting of clerks, consular officers, visa-fraud coordinators and Diplomatic Security Service (DSS) special agents needs to examine carefully not just the applicant's identity but also his or her story in an attempt to determine if it is legitimate, and if there are any subtle indicators that the applicant has ties to radical groups (like people who lose their passports to disguise travel to places like Pakistan and Yemen). As in many other security programs, however, demeanor is also critically important, and a good investigator can often spot signs of deception during a visa interview (if one is conducted).

If the applicant's documents and story check out, and there are no indicators of radical connections, it is very difficult to determine that an applicant is up to no good unless the U.S. government possesses some sort of intelligence indicating that the person may be involved in such activity. In terms of intelligence, there are a number of different databases, such as the Consular Lookout and Support System (CLASS), the main State Department database and the terrorism-specific Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment (TIDE) system. The databases are checked in order to determine if there is any derogatory information that would preclude a suspect from receiving a visa. These databases allow a number of U.S. government agencies to provide input -- CLASS is tied into the Interagency Border Inspection System (IBIS) -- and they allow these other agencies to have a stake in the visa issuance process. (It must be noted that, like any database, foreign language issues -- such as the many ways to transliterate the name Mohammed into English -- can often complicate the accuracy of visa lookout database entries and checks.)

Today the lookout databases are a far cry from what they were even 15 years ago, when many of the lists were contained on microfiche and checking them was laborious. During the microfiche era, mistakes were easily made, and some officers skipped the step of running the time-consuming name checks on people who did not appear to be potential terrorists. This is what happened in the case of a poor old blind imam who showed up at the U.S. Embassy in Khartoum in 1990 -- and who turned out to be terrorist leader Sheikh Omar Ali Ahmed Abdul-Rahman. As an aside, although Rahman, known as the Blind Sheikh, did receive a U.S. visa, DSS special agents who investigated his case were able to document that he made material false statements on his visa application (such as claiming he had never been arrested) and were therefore able to build a visa fraud case against the Sheikh. The case never proceeded to trial, since the Sheikh was convicted on seditious conspiracy charges and sentenced to life in prison.

The U.S. government's visa fraud investigation specialists are the special agents assigned to the U.S. Department of State's DSS. In much the same way that U.S. Secret Service special agents work to ensure the integrity of the U.S. currency system through investigations of counterfeiting, DSS agents work to ensure the inviolability of U.S. passports and visas by investigating passport and visa fraud. The DSS has long assigned special agents to high fraud-threat countries like Nigeria to investigate passport and visa fraud in conjunction with the post's consular affairs officers. In the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004, Congress ordered the State Department to establish a visa and passport security program. In response to this legislation, a memorandum of understanding was signed between the Bureau of Consular Affairs and the DSS to establish the Overseas Criminal Investigations Branch (OCI). The purpose of the OCI was to conduct investigations related to illegal passport and visa issuances or use and other investigations at U.S. embassies overseas. A special agent assigned to these duties at an overseas post is referred to as an investigative Assistant Regional Security Officer (or ARSO-I).

While the OCI and the ARSO-I program seemed promising at first, circumstance and bureaucratic hurdles have prevented the program from running to the best of its ability and meeting the expectations of the U.S. Congress.

Bureaucratic Shenanigans

As we've previously noted, there is a powerful element within the State Department that is averse to security and does its best to thwart security programs. DSS special agents refer to these people as Black Dragons. Even when Congress provides clear guidance to the State Department regarding issues of security (e.g., the Omnibus Diplomatic Security and Antiterrorism Act of 1986), the Black Dragons do their best to strangle the programs, and this constant struggle produces discernable boom-and-bust cycles, as Congress provides money for new security programs and the Black Dragons, who consider security counterproductive for diplomacy and armed State Department special agents undiplomatic, use their bureaucratic power to cut off those programs.

Compounding this perennial battle over security funding has been the incredible increase in protective responsibilities that the DSS has had to shoulder since 9/11. The bureau has had to provide a large number of agents to protect U.S. diplomats in places like Afghanistan and Pakistan and even staffed and supervised the protective detail for Afghan President Hamid Karzai for a few years. Two DSS special agents were also killed while protecting the huge number of U.S diplomats assigned to reconstruction efforts in Iraq. One agent was killed in a rocket attack on the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad and the other by a suicide car-bomb attack in Mosul.

The demands of protection and bureaucratic strangulation by the Black Dragons, who have not embraced the concept of the ARSO-I program, has resulted in the OCI program being deployed very slowly. This means that of the 200 positions envisioned and internally programmed by Bureau of Consular Affairs and DSS in 2004, only 50 ARSO-I agents have been assigned to posts abroad as of this writing, and a total of 123 ARSO-I agents are supposed to be deployed by the end of 2011. The other 77 ARSO-I positions were taken away from the OCI program by the department and used to provide more secretarial positions.

In the wake of State Department heel-dragging, other agencies are now seeking to fill the void.

The Vultures Are Circling

In a Feb. 9, 2010, editorial on GovernmentExecutive.com, former DHS Under Secretary for Border and Transportation Security Asa Hutchinson made a pitch for the DHS to become more involved in the visa-security process overseas, and he is pushing for funding more DHS positions at U.S. embassies abroad. To support his case that more DHS officers are needed for visa security, Hutchinson used the case of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab as an example of why DHS needed a larger presence overseas.

Unfortunately, the Abdulmutallab case had nothing to do with visa fraud, and the presence of a DHS officer at post would certainly not have prevented him from receiving his initial visa. Abdulmutallab was first issued a U.S. visa in 2004, before he was radicalized during his university studies in the United Kingdom from 2005 to 2008, and he qualified for that visa according to the guidelines established by the U.S. government without fraud or deception. Of course, the fact that he came from a prominent Nigerian family certainly helped.

The problem in the Abdulmutallab case was not in the issuance of his visa in 2004. His identity and story checked out. There was no negative information about him in the databases checked for visa applicants. He also traveled to the United States in 2004 and left the country without overstaying his visa, and was not yet listed in any of the lookout databases, so his visa renewal in June 2008 in London was also not surprising.

The real problem in the Abdulmutallab case began when the CIA handled the interview of Abdulmutallab's father when he walked into the embassy in November 2009 to report that his son had become radicalized and that he feared his son was preparing for a suicide mission. The CIA did not share the information gleaned from that interview in a terrorism report cable (TERREP), or with the regional security officer at post or the ARSO-I. (The fact that the CIA, FBI and other agencies have assumed control over the walk-in program in recent years is also a serious problem, but that is a matter to be addressed separately.) Due to that lack of information-sharing, Abdulmutallab's visa was not canceled as it could have and should have been. His name was also not added to the U.S. government's no-fly list.

Again, had there been a DHS officer assigned to the embassy, he would not have been able to do any more than the ARSO-I already assigned to post, since he also would not have received the information from the CIA that would have indicated that Abdulmutallab's visa needed to be revoked.

Once again, information was not shared in a counterterrorism case -- a recurring theme in recent years. And once again the lack of information would have proved deadly had Abdulmutallab's device not malfunctioned. Unfortunately, information-sharing is never facilitated by the addition of layers of bureaucracy. This is the reason why the addition of the huge new bureaucracy called the Office of the Director of National Intelligence has not solved the issue of information-sharing among intelligence agencies.

Hutchinson is correct when he notes that the DHS must go back to basics, but DHS has numerous other domestic programs that it must master the basics of -- things like securing the border, overseeing port and cargo security, interior immigration and customs enforcement and ensuring airline security -- before it should even consider expanding its presence overseas.

Adding another layer of DHS involvement in overseeing visa issuance and investigating visa fraud at diplomatic posts abroad is simply not going to assist in the flow of information in visa cases, whether criminal or terrorist in nature. Having another U.S. law enforcement agency interfacing with the host country police and security agencies regarding visa matters will also serve to cause confusion and hamper efficient information flow. The problem illustrated by the Abdulmutallab case is not that the U.S. government lacks enough agencies operating in overseas posts; the problem is that the myriad agencies already there simply need to return to doing basic things like talking to each other. Getting the ARSO-I program funded and back on track is a basic step necessary to help in securing the visa process, but even that will not be totally effective unless the agencies at post do a better job of basic tasks like coordination and communication.


This report may be forwarded or republished on your website with attribution to www.stratfor.com.

Copyright 2010 Stratfor.

2.17.2010

The Meaning of Marijah

By Kamran Bokhari, Peter Zeihan and Nathan Hughes

On Feb. 13, some 6,000 U.S. Marines, soldiers and Afghan National Army (ANA) troops launched a sustained assault on the town of Marjah in Helmand province. Until this latest offensive, the U.S. and NATO effort in Afghanistan had been constrained by other considerations, most notably Iraq. Western forces viewed the Afghan conflict as a matter of holding the line or pursuing targets of opportunity. But now, armed with larger forces and a new strategy, the war -- the real war -- has begun. The most recent offensive -- dubbed Operation Moshtarak ("Moshtarak" is Dari for "together") -- is the largest joint U.S.-NATO-Afghan operation in history. It also is the first major offensive conducted by the first units deployed as part of the surge of 30,000 troops promised by U.S. President Barack Obama.

The United States originally entered Afghanistan in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks. In those days of fear and fury, American goals could be simply stated: A non-state actor -- al Qaeda -- had attacked the American homeland and needed to be destroyed. Al Qaeda was based in Afghanistan at the invitation of a near-state actor -- the Taliban, which at the time were Afghanistan's de facto governing force. Since the Taliban were unwilling to hand al Qaeda over, the United States attacked. By the end of the year, al Qaeda had relocated to neighboring Pakistan and the Taliban retreated into the arid, mountainous countryside in their southern heartland and began waging a guerrilla conflict. In time, American attention became split between searching for al Qaeda and clashing with the Taliban over control of Afghanistan.

But from the earliest days following 9/11, the White House was eyeing Iraq, and with the Taliban having largely declined combat in the initial invasion, the path seemed clear. The U.S. military and diplomatic focus was shifted, and as the years wore on, the conflict absorbed more and more U.S. troops, even as other issues -- a resurgent Russia and a defiant Iran -- began to demand American attention. All of this and more consumed American bandwidth, and the Afghan conflict melted into the background. The United States maintained its Afghan force in what could accurately be described as a holding action as the bulk of its forces operated elsewhere. That has more or less been the state of affairs for eight years.

That has changed with the series of offensive operations that most recently culminated at Marjah.

Why Marjah? The key is the geography of Afghanistan and the nature of the conflict itself. Most of Afghanistan is custom-made for a guerrilla war. Much of the country is mountainous, encouraging local identities and militias, as well as complicating the task of any foreign military force. The country's aridity discourages dense population centers, making it very easy for irregular combatants to melt into the countryside. Afghanistan lacks navigable rivers or ports, drastically reducing the region's likelihood of developing commerce. No commerce to tax means fewer resources to fund a meaningful government or military and encourages the smuggling of every good imaginable -- and that smuggling provides the perfect funding for guerrillas.

Rooting out insurgents is no simple task. It requires three things:

Massively superior numbers so that occupiers can limit the zones to which the insurgents have easy access.
The support of the locals in order to limit the places that the guerillas can disappear into.
Superior intelligence so that the fight can be consistently taken to the insurgents rather than vice versa.

Without those three things -- and American-led forces in Afghanistan lack all three -- the insurgents can simply take the fight to the occupiers, retreat to rearm and regroup and return again shortly thereafter.

But the insurgents hardly hold all the cards. Guerrilla forces are by their very nature irregular. Their capacity to organize and strike is quite limited, and while they can turn a region into a hellish morass for an opponent, they have great difficulty holding territory -- particularly territory that a regular force chooses to contest. Should they mass into a force that could achieve a major battlefield victory, a regular force -- which is by definition better-funded, -trained, -organized and -armed -- will almost always smash the irregulars. As such, the default guerrilla tactic is to attrit and harass the occupier into giving up and going home. The guerrillas always decline combat in the face of a superior military force only to come back and fight at a time and place of their choosing. Time is always on the guerrilla's side if the regular force is not a local one.

But while the guerrillas don't require basing locations that are as large or as formalized as those required by regular forces, they are still bound by basic economics. They need resources -- money, men and weapons -- to operate. The larger these locations are, the better economies of scale they can achieve and the more effectively they can fight their war.

Marjah is perhaps the quintessential example of a good location from which to base. It is in a region sympathetic to the Taliban; Helmand province is part of the Taliban's heartland. Marjah is very close to Kandahar, Afghanistan's second city, the religious center of the local brand of Islam, the birthplace of the Taliban, and due to the presence of American forces, an excellent target. Helmand alone produces more heroin than any country on the planet, and Marjah is at the center of that trade. By some estimates, this center alone supplies the Taliban with a monthly income of $200,000. And it is defensible: The farmland is crisscrossed with irrigation canals and dotted with mud-brick compounds -- and, given time to prepare, a veritable plague of IEDs.

Simply put, regardless of the Taliban's strategic or tactical goals, Marjah is a critical node in their operations.

The American Strategy
Though operations have approached Marjah in the past, it has not been something NATO's International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) ever has tried to hold. The British, Canadian and Danish troops holding the line in the country's restive south had their hands full enough. Despite Marjah's importance to the Taliban, ISAF forces were too few to engage the Taliban everywhere (and they remain as such). But American priorities started changing about two years ago. The surge of forces into Iraq changed the position of many a player in the country. Those changes allowed a reshaping of the Iraq conflict that laid the groundwork for the current "stability" and American withdrawal. At the same time, the Taliban began to resurge in a big way. Since then the Bush and then Obama administrations inched toward applying a similar strategy to Afghanistan, a strategy that focuses less on battlefield success and more on altering the parameters of the country itself.

As the Obama administration's strategy has begun to take shape, it has started thinking about endgames. A decades-long occupation and pacification of Afghanistan is simply not in the cards. A withdrawal is, but only a withdrawal where the security free-for-all that allowed al Qaeda to thrive will not return. And this is where Marjah comes in.

Denying the Taliban control of poppy farming communities like Marjah and the key population centers along the Helmand River Valley -- and areas like them around the country -- is the first goal of the American strategy. The fewer key population centers the Taliban can count on, the more dispersed -- and militarily inefficient -- their forces will be. This will hardly destroy the Taliban, but destruction isn't the goal. The Taliban are not simply a militant Islamist force. At times they are a flag of convenience for businessmen or thugs; they can even be, simply, the least-bad alternative for villagers desperate for basic security and civil services. In many parts of Afghanistan, the Taliban are not only pervasive but also the sole option for governance and civil authority.

So destruction of what is in essence part of the local cultural and political fabric is not an American goal. Instead, the goal is to prevent the Taliban from mounting large-scale operations that could overwhelm any particular location. Remember, the Americans do not wish to pacify Afghanistan; the Americans wish to leave Afghanistan in a form that will not cause the United States severe problems down the road. In effect, achieving the first goal simply aims to shape the ground for a shot at achieving the second.

That second goal is to establish a domestic authority that can stand up to the Taliban in the long run. Most of the surge of forces into Afghanistan is not designed to battle the Taliban now but to secure the population and train the Afghan security forces to battle the Taliban later. To do this, the Taliban must be weak enough in a formal military sense to be unable to launch massive or coordinated attacks. Capturing key population centers along the Helmand River Valley is the first step in a strategy designed to create the breathing room necessary to create a replacement force, preferably a replacement force that provides Afghans with a viable alternative to the Taliban.

That is no small task. In recent years, in places where the official government has been corrupt, inept or defunct, the Taliban have in many cases stepped in to provide basic governance and civil authority. And this is why even the Americans are publicly flirting with holding talks with certain factions of the Taliban in hopes that at least some of the fighters can be dissuaded from battling the Americans (assisting with the first goal) and perhaps even joining the nascent Afghan government (assisting with the second).

The bottom line is that this battle does not mark the turning of the tide of the war. Instead, it is part of the application of a new strategy that accurately takes into account Afghanistan's geography and all the weaknesses and challenges that geography poses. Marjah marks the first time the United States has applied a plan not to hold the line, but actually to reshape the country. We are not saying that the strategy will bear fruit. Afghanistan is a corrupt mess populated by citizens who are far more comfortable thinking and acting locally and tribally than nationally. In such a place indigenous guerrillas will always hold the advantage. No one has ever attempted this sort of national restructuring in Afghanistan, and the Americans are attempting to do so in a short period on a shoestring budget.

At the time of this writing, this first step appears to be going well for American-NATO-Afghan forces. Casualties have been light and most of Marjah already has been secured. But do not read this as a massive battlefield success. The assault required weeks of obvious preparation, and very few Taliban fighters chose to remain and contest the territory against the more numerous and better armed attackers. The American challenge lies not so much in assaulting or capturing Marjah but in continuing to deny it to the Taliban. If the Americans cannot actually hold places like Marjah, then they are simply engaging in an exhausting and reactive strategy of chasing a dispersed and mobile target.

A "government-in-a-box" of civilian administrators is already poised to move into Marjah to step into the vacuum left by the Taliban. We obviously have major doubts about how effective this box government can be at building up civil authority in a town that has been governed by the Taliban for most of the last decade. Yet what happens in Marjah and places like it in the coming months will be the foundation upon which the success or failure of this effort will be built. But assessing that process is simply impossible, because the only measure that matters cannot be judged until the Afghans are left to themselves.


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Copyright 2010 Stratfor.

2.02.2010

517

In Bernard Cornwell's historical novel "Sharpe's Eagle," the author recounts a battle in 1809 in which the not yet Duke of Wellington Wellesley's army is arrayed in Talavera, Spain against Napoleon's forces. One thread of the story describes a "bought" Lt. Colonel looking over the battalion he raised with his own money and through his own political connections in England. A political rival of Wellesley back home, Sir Henry Simmerson is anxious for the opportunity to prove Wellesley reckless and himself worthy of becoming a "new kind" of General, more sensible, more intellectual, more - scientific.

In this particular battle, and from his vantage point above, Lt. Colonel Simmerson surveys his troops and the French that oppose them. His enemy are arraying fresh battalions agains the British line after the British successfully repulse an initial French attack. Wise and skilled commander that he sees himself to be, Simmerson perceives Wellesley's recklessness anew and in it, his own road to Glory. The French will destroy Wellesley's army and his own troops. But he, Lt. Colonel Sir Henry Simmerson, will be hailed in the British Parliament as the one commander with the foresight to withdraw from the coming onslaught, preserving his troops - if he withdraws them now. He proceeds to order the retreat of his battalion. In turn he leaves a gaping hole in the British Line and endangers the balance of Wellesley's forces. Nestled in the flower of Simmerson's withdrawal are the seeds of a self-fulfilling prophesy.

In the circumstance of our lives, how often do we face risk, and rather than engaging in the battle that threatens our peace, succumb to the temptation to withdraw? How often do we try to preserve the very thing that is needed right now? How often do we conjure up excuses that masquerade as wisdom? Like the foolish servant given a single gold bar in the parable of the talents, how often have we said "See Master, here is your talent! Knowing you to be a hard man I buried it!" And how often, like that foolish servant, are we astonished that our wisdom is not only rebuked, but condemned?

As I turn 53 today, I am acutely aware of the times that, like Simmerson and the foolish servant, I have disengaged from a challenge in order to preserve for another day something that was intended to be used in that very moment? I am reminded of the words I've used to explain away my action. Some call these excuses, others cowardice. But I am also aware that I'm here for a purpose, that I am to steward the resources of my life, my job, my savings, my family, my friends, my talents, and my gifts. These are not set pieces of a pretend life, or trophies for some retired afterlife. They are gifts from my Creator to be relied upon now, and for such a moment as this.

In the parable of the talents, the wicked servant's now un-buried talent is given to the servant who had previously proven his worth and earned his Master's trust. In Cornwell's story, Simmerson is relieved of duty as he is retreating from the field as a consequence of his cowardice. His battalion is re-deployed by a leader who was willing to act with the resources at hand, resources intended (and needed) for precisely that moment.

We may not control all outcomes, but we do control our actions. Do we engage, or do we withdraw?

Oh, and 517? That's the time I woke up this morning. And today's blog is one of today's challenges I had to engage. You can judge its outcome.

~r