Center for World Conflict and Peace

Center for World Conflict and Peace

Friday, January 16, 2015

Boko Haram: The "Other" Terrorist Attack

In early January, according to Amnesty International, Boko Haram terrorists in northeast Nigeria reportedly killed as many as 2000 people. Accounts of the attacks tell of bloodthirsty terrorists razing anything and killing anyone that they encountered on their rampage through Nigerian villages. The attacks have forced about 20,000 people to flee to neighboring countries for safe haven. Alarmingly, there are reports that Boko Haram has used young girls in their attacks, including a 10 year-old, who on the 10th, “detonated powerful explosives concealed under her veil at a crowded northern Nigeria market on Saturday, killing as many as 20 people and wounding many more.”

What’s more, national elections in Nigeria are scheduled for next month. There is strong international concern that this violence, as bad as it is already, could spike as voters head to the polls. In fact, the upcoming elections might have been a motivating factor in Boko Haram's mayhem, as reports indicate that the BH terrorists commanded those who survived not to participate in the polls. In fact, Ian Bremmer goes even further, making an interesting point: "Boko Haram wants to force the country’s electoral commission to cancel or indefinitely postpone the vote there. We’ll likely see at least some voting there, though only under heavy security, making it easier for losers to challenge the integrity of the results."

Alas, despite the large number of fatalities in Nigeria, the terror attacks there have gone largely underreported. It’s been the terror attacks in France that have dominated world news over the past week or two, pushing the Nigerian events to the back burner. Even though we now have a steady stream of 24-hour cable and satellite news outlets, as well as the Internet, media chatter and attention is still primarily driven by only issue at a time. Of course, the downside to that is that lots of other issues—at times, important issues—fly under the radar. The terror attack launched by Boko Haram is the latest example of the single-issue focus of the media. The brutality of Boko Haram has gotten barely a peep from news and policy journals, newspapers, etc., especially here in the States.

Of course, the idea of a single-issue media simply begs the question: Why has the media privileged the attacks in France over those in Nigeria? Why didn’t the events in Nigeria bump the coverage of France off the media’s agenda? Or at least, why didn’t the Nigeria and French attacks receive more equal coverage? After all, think of it this way: the Nigerian violence resulted in roughly 100 times the death toll of all events surrounding the French terror-counterterror violence. So what gives? What’s going on?
Well, just thinking about the US and its media, I can come up with a few factors:  

1. France is America’s friend and ally, its partner on a host of consequential issues; Nigeria isn’t.

2. Western Europe feels close to America, both geographically and in spirit and culture. Yes, France is closer in distance, but it’s more than that. Many within the US speak French, are knowledgeable about French history, and routinely travel there for business and vacation. Those things really don’t apply to Nigeria. And as a result, Nigeria feels remote and distant.
3. There are very low expectations of Africa. Within the States, the prevailing view of Africa is that it’s unstable and war-torn and violent. Such views don’t exist about France. So the terrorism in Nigeria likely generates a sense of sameness, that’s its not so abnormal. With respect to France, however, the terror attacks were framed as something completely different: that it’s an outlier incident, something out-of-the-ordinary, and thus more newsworthy.

Unfortunately, the relative media blackout on the Nigerian attack hasn't been confined just to the US. Basically, it’s held across the world. To explain this almost global media blackout, Max Abrahms, a professor at Northeastern University and a terrorism expert, put forward several general, universal arguments in a Tweet: (1) there aren't many experts on Boko Haram (2) Nigeria is plagued by a weak, ineffective local media (3) the Goodluck administration has likely tried to muffle news of attacks from getting out (4) racism.
In an interview with Fusion, Abrahms fleshed out his Tweet.
Boko Haram is not an official affiliate of al Qaeda, and there aren’t a lot of terrorism experts on this specific group, Abrahms said. Plus, there’s a weak media presence in that area in general, which means fewer photographers and reporters to cover the story. And the Nigerian government “has an interest in suppressing these kinds of stories.” (President Goodluck Jonathan is running for re-election next month. Voting will take place in areas controlled by Boko Haram.)
Another explanation: prejudice.
“Both the perpetrators and the victims are black, and I think if we were talking about 3,000 white people, there might be more attention, particularly in the West,” Abrahms said. The #bringbackourgirls hashtag, Abrahms speculated, connected with a wider audience likely because the victims were young girls, a particularly disturbing detail. (Boko Haram was also accused of using a 10-year-old girl to detonate a bomb at a market on Saturday, killing nearly a dozen people.)
Given all of the above, it seems that an important first step that we all can take is to help get the word out regarding the atrocities in Nigeria. This blog post is my effort to do so. Greater awareness of what’s happened in Nigeria is a good thing, and just might create some momentum--both inside Nigeria and internationally--for a resolution to the violence.

If you're looking for additional information on Boko Haram and the recent violence in Nigeria, here are some sources I encourage you to peruse:
The Council on Foreign Relations has a useful "Backgrounder" on Boko Haram.

Max Fisher has written a nice, short overview of what's happened in Nigeria.

Writing for WaPo's Monkey Cage, Hillary Matfess distinguishes Boko Haram from ISIS and AQ.

Ian Bremmer's piece for Time lists five "facts" that explain the threat from Boko Haram.

And if you're on Twitter, you might want to check out the Twitter feeds of Max Abrahms and Mia Bloom, two scholars who specialize on terrorism and have banged the drum regarding the violence in Nigeria, shining a light on the what's occurred and calling out for more world attention to the death and destruction there.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

A Friend in Need: Franco-American Relations in Light of Charlie Hebdo

 One thing about international relations that we have learned since 9/11: a mutual terrorist threat is not a strong enough foundation for two countries to establish a brad strategic partnership. In my blog post following the Boston bombing, I highlighted the fact that mistrust between Russia and the US hindered cooperation on a very real threat. The France-US relationship, while generally good, has not always been smooth. Perhaps my fears are misplaced, but I wonder if the US may not cooperate as much as we should with France because of fractures in our relations. I write this today to make an appeal against this possibility.

The France-US relationship is unique among America's bilateral relations. It is not nearly as smooth as the Canada-US or UK-US relationship, nor is it as antagonistic as the current state of Russia-US ties. But neither is it complicated in the same way that the so-called Pakistan-US alliance is (I personally consider Pakistan to be an outright enemy, but that is neither here nor there). The France-US relationship is peerless in the level and nature of it complication. Some authors, such as John J. Miller and Mark Molesky have gone as far as to call France "our oldest enemy", and I have also written on this blog about French intelligence operations against the US.

The most recent wave of Francophobia in the US came around the time of the invasion of Iraq. Of course there were general expressions of it such as the famous "freedom fries", and it even took on political undertones in the bitter presidential election of 2004 (I distinctly remember driving home from school one afternoon and seeing a bumper sticker that said "John Kerry for president of France", implying that Kerry was weak, as the French supposedly were). It seems that we quickly forgot how, shortly after 9/11, the prominent French newspaper Le Monde published a headline stating "Nous sommes tous Américains (We are all Americans)".

I'd like to take a moment and make an appeal, one that is partly based on the emotion of anguish I feel at the loss of life and shaken sense of security in France, on the security imperative of combating terrorism, and also on the basis of history. As an American, while pondering the deeper meaning of the attacks yesterday, I was struck by the fact that France played a major role in helping the United States to secure our own right to free speech. During the American Revolutionary War, French commanders such as La Fayette and Rochambeau played critical roles in securing the US victory, culminating in the surrender of Lord Cornwallis at Yorktown. With this, the US was able to enact its First Amendment guaranteeing free speech. For better or worse, this means that we have to suffer the likes of Rush Limbaugh and Don Imus, but we are also able to openly criticize our government and not have to worry about repercussions.

Later, Alexis de Toqueville traveled the nascent American nation and wrote his famous Democracy in America in which he extolled America's dedication to liberty. The work had a major impact on the political development of modern France. So in some way, we managed to return the favor, but not by a longshot.

The France-US relationship has deep roots, and what's more important, it is grounded in the preservation of liberty, the very fabric of our civilization. The US may not always see eye-to-eye with France, and we may often feel that the French are intransigent or difficult. Many on online discussion threads have even implied the French "had it coming" with its policy of allowing so many Muslims into the country. All that aside, I implore my fellow Americans to look back at the common bonds of history and the values we hold with France, and to support and assist our friends the French. This may be on a governmental level, or it may be on more of a people-to-people level. This is a moment when we must put aside our differences, and recognize that, at the end of the day, France really is our friend.
If I may take a leaf from Le Monde's book, I'd like to say "Nous sommes tous français."

Wednesday, January 7, 2015


Embedded image permalink
Cartoon by David Pope.

Earlier today three Islamic terrorists unleashed their fury at the personnel of Charlie Hebdo, an Onion-like French publication, gunning down 12 people, including two police officers. The main targets were the cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo who had drawn and published images of the so-called prophet Muhammad—a big no-no to radical Islamists, who have consistently over the last decade issued threats of violence, and on occasion committed violence against those who do so (including the 2011 firebombing of CH offices in 2011)—and have lampooned Islam more generally. After committing the heinous acts, the three assailants—eventually identified as Said Kouachi and Cherif Kouachi, both French, from Paris, and in their early 30s, and 18-year-old Hamyd Mourad, from Reims—escaped into a getaway car and were on the loose for hours. The latest report, according to Agence France-Presse, is that Mourad has surrendered to police; there are conflicting reports regarding the whereabouts of the other two terrorists.

Certainly, this was a sad day for the friends and families of the victims, for France, and for advocates of free speech and a liberal society worldwide. This attack was calculated and deliberate, not a haphazard or random act of violence. It was designed to assassinate people who freely wield the pen, who write or draw what they want—which is a hallmark of classical liberalism, as it is a key element of speaking truth to power structures, whether domestic or foreign. Of course, the killings weren’t only done to take out various Charlie Hebdo staff, but also to send a signal to other journalists—in France, in the West, around the globe—that they too are under threat if they don’t watch what they say about Islam. One of their goals is to place restraints on freedoms of speech by forcing journalists to self-censor their work, which shouldn’t be surprising.

After all, Islamic terrorists abhor freedom and democracy, believing they are human creations that place man, not God or Allah, at the center of politics and society. Since these terrorists don’t pose an existential threat to Western countries—yes, they can attack people and things, but can’t take over Western states and institutions—the next best thing is to hollow out Western institutions and ideals. Censorship—via foreign or domestic coercion—effectively enervates the foundations of liberal rights and freedoms, and by extension democracy itself as well.  

It is interesting that this incident comes so soon after the fiasco involving “The Interview.” Different actors, different methods, of course, but a similar goal by the perpetrators in both cases. The North Korean hackers sought revenge over the content of the movie, which was all about the assassination of Kim Jong Un, and tried to leverage influence over the public release of the movie. At first, Sony caved in, canceling the public release, then, in response to American outcry, placed the movie online and held a limited Christmas-day release. But Sony’s later moves weren’t enough to compensate for the millions of dollars likely lost as a result of its initial cancellation; moreover, they sent a chilling message to bad guys around the world that it’s indeed possible to leverage a veto, even if only temporary, over what the U.S. does. So In effect, then, the North Koreans were successful in effecting a form of censorship on the U.S.

Unfortunately, immediately after the attacks, reports surfaced that CNN and the Associated Press, taking their cues from Sony, were reluctant to show images of the cartoons that were deemed incendiary by Islamic radicals and terrorists. Sure, these media outlets need to exercise caution because the security of their employees could be in jeopardy, depending on the decisions they make. Yet, at the same time, they have a responsibility to tell the full story of the attacks, and a part of that story is the work of the cartoonists—not just a description of their work, but the images, pictures of the actual cartoons. In fact, by showing the the cartoonists’ work, media sources can actually celebrate their lives as well as their liberal ideals—the right to create, to stimulate discussion, to provoke, to critique. But by exercising a degree of self-censorship, CNN and the AP are caving into the terrorists’ interests and demands. Sounds trite, yes, but it’s also true. Why should we value the interests and values of terrorists over those who embrace and reflect the best of humanity?

On the positive side, many posters on Facebook and Twitter have showed images of Charlie Hebdo cartoons. It’s this kind of resilience and spirit that keeps liberal values alive and well, and both will be needed to continue to fight the spread of the virulent strain of Islamic radicalism that exists today.

Monday, December 22, 2014

2014 Person of the Year: Vladimir Putin

Maxim Zmeyev/Reuters

My choice for 2014 world politics Person of the Year is Vladimir Putin. Of course, my selection isn’t because he was a good guy. On the other hand, my choice of Putin isn’t solely because he was a bad guy, though, yes, that’s part of the story. Instead, I chose Putin because, in my view, he was the most newsworthy actor in world politics in 2014, both in terms of the importance of his actions and policies as well as the length of time they have dominated the news. Russia and IR watchers more generally have focused heaps of attention on him throughout the entire year. Just consider these series of events, all of which were orchestrated by Putin and his cabal, which stretch from February to December 2014: The Winter Olympics, Russia’s capture of Crimea, the unrest in Eastern Ukraine, the finalization of Putin’s planned Eurasian Economic Union, the collapse of the Russian Ruble.
Certainly, Putin’s most profound move was to create instability in Ukraine. Under his watch, Russia has effectively dismembered Ukraine. Russia has seized Crimea and played a huge part in fomenting a resistance in Eastern Ukraine, leaving Ukraine a shell of what it once was. Putin’s excellent adventures in Ukraine have created another Russian-made frozen conflict that has no end in sight. They patently violate international law and norms on sovereignty and self-determination. They potentially send a signal to other would-be aggressors, such as China, that conquest is permissible in world politics. They have also sent shivers throughout neighboring countries, such as Kazakhstan, which worry that they could be next on Putin’s hit list.
Russian actions in Ukraine were motivated by several factors, including Putin’s narcissism and ego and his quest to restore Russia as a major world power. Arguably, the most consequential factor has been Putin’s desire to show the Western powers, particularly the U.S., who the real boss is.
In Putin’s view, Russia has languished for the past two plus decades as a humiliated, defanged country, and the main culprit is America. Russia lost the cold war and lost it on American terms. After all, Germany unified and became a member of the Western camp, and the EU and NATO, because of U.S. hegemonic ambitions, has expanded into Central and Eastern Europe, the Soviets old stomping grounds. Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, Russia has had to suffer the indignity of seeing the U.S., as the sole dominant power, throw its weight around the world, starting wars around the world, even going so far as to use military bases of former Soviet states. More recently, the Western-led invasion of Libya exacerbated these feelings of humiliation: Russia never agreed to the ouster to Gaddafi, only to the assistance and protection of Libyans thought to be in harm’s way.
Prior to Putin’s shenanigans in the spring of 2014, decision-making calculus was shaped by his perception of Western resolve and credibility. Although those two terms are widely overused in policy and academic analysis, they are appropriate here. Putin saw the U.S. and its NATO partners as weak, reluctant to confront him head-on. Western criticisms of Russian behavior in Ukraine would remain in word only; the West would do little follow-up to punish Russia. As a result, because of few fears of external punishment, Putin believed there was little downside to challenging EU countries and the U.S. He also received a domestic benefit from asserting himself in Ukraine: challenging the Washington plays well internally in Russia, as it capitalizes on longstanding negative attitudes toward the U.S. and stimulates Russian nationalism.
The major narrative in the West, especially in the U.S., by the summer of 2014 was that Putin won the battle over Ukraine. American pundits were falling over themselves in lavishing praise on Putin. Putin was a strategic genius who boxed in the West, which was flummoxed to come up with a strong response to Russia’s moves. EU countries didn’t want to impose harsh sanctions on Russia, because they desperately need Russia for energy supplies. President Obama, knowing well that Ukraine isn’t an American national priority and having his hands full with turmoil and violence in the Middle East, wasn’t inclined to demonstrate much leadership on the matters there. The punchline was that the world simply had to accept the fact of a resurgent, aggressive Russia, led by a master-level strategic thinker and player.
Ah, but times have changed. At this point, the big question now is whether Putin has overplayed his hand. It’s very likely he has. The markets have responded to Russian aggression and they’re not happy. Money has been flying out of the country and the Russian Ruble is virtually worthless. Oil prices, which Putin relies on so much for his continued rule and muscle flexing, have fallen through the floor. But not only that, Putin, or his successors, must eventually come to grips with the idea that Ukraine will probably become a full-fledged member of the West. Putin has alienated many ethnic Ukrainians, who now no longer want to be under his thumb. And a significant number of ethnic Russian Ukrainians living in Crimea are now Russians, as a result of the land grab, which could prove to tip the balance once and for all in the ongoing debate over Ukraine’s future: lean West or East?

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Lessons from the North Korean Cyber Attack

In his 2010 book Cyber War, former US counter-terrorism czar Richard Clarke described some very scary potential results from a foreign cyber attack on US infrastructure. Cyber attacks have happened both on their own (such as alleged Chinese attacks on the Pentagon) as well as to complement a larger conventional war (such as Russian cyber attacks against Georgia during the war in August, 2008).  The recent cyber attack against Sony has been likened to stifling free speech. President Obama criticized Sony’s decision to cancel the movie, stating  "We cannot have a society in which some dictator someplace can start imposing censorship in the United States."

North Korea threatened to launch attacks against the US if The Interview were released, because of the supposed dishonor to the North Korean leader it would be. As a resident of South Korea, I was of course initially slightly worried- even though I had a pretty good idea that would not happen, I’m still enough of a greenhorn in this country to at least think for a second about it. Of course, North Korea was rather upset at the release of Team America in 2004 (a movie which I found to be quite hilarious as an immature, pubescent high schooler). It seems, however, they’ve managed to do that without firing a shot or a missile.

The US Department of Defense issued a report stating that while North Korea likely had some sort of cyber warfare capabilities, the impoverished nation was unlikely to have enough capabilities for a powerful, large-scale attack. Conversely, it would stand to reason that as company like Sony would have the latest and most state-of-the-art cyber security capabilities. People’s general conception of cyber war has centered on the notion of national militaries using cyber capabilities to attack each other. Other incidents such as the Target Corporation data breach were seen more as criminal acts rather than acts of war. Newt Gingrich has been quick to assert that the US “just lost its first cyber war” in a famous tweet. I’m not sure this was “our first cyber war”, but it is a very telling incident.

I have no way of knowing if it really and truly was North Korea that carried out the attack, and not some techie sitting in a remote cabin in the mountains of Washington state (yes, I know someone like that). But I have to assume that US authorities are correct in assigning blame to North Korea. In which case, there are several valuable lessons to be learned from this whole fiasco. It’s interesting that something which was carried out by a state actor (North Korea) against a private corporation (Sony) is now being primarily handled by the US Justice Department (the FBI in particular). In fact, this type of attack in which law enforcement is the primary responder is usually a case of corporate espionage.

Thus, there are several fundamental points we can gather from this attack on Sony Pictures. The first is that we cannot afford to be complacent about the capabilities of a small, cash-strapped country to attack a much more powerful one. This is especially true because a cyber attack is a much more cost-effective solution to attacking a country than investing in conventional weapons. Also, it goes to show that in this day and age, there are no longer clear distinctions between the public and the private in national security. While much worse things could happen than the cyber attack against Sony, it’s clear that anything, and any one, can become a target, and that countries will have to be prepared to meet a variety of threats from a large number of sources to ensure their own security.  

North Korea's Cyberwar

First of all, let me say this: no, I was not planning to watch "The Interview." Not that I am averse to the premise of assassinating a sitting, living foreign leader, mind you. I just don't like James Franco and Seth Rogen's juvenile style of humor.

The cancellation of The Interview shows that it is very easy for any country to engage in cyber war while it is actually very difficult for the defending country to retaliate. In fact, it is very difficult to really pinpoint whom to blame, which is actually the advantage of cyberwarfare  -- unless, of course, you admit it in order to win an election.

Not surprisingly there are people, regardless of their views toward the administration, who have looked darkly on this issue.

Even though the Obama administration still unwilling to name who is behind the attack finally accused North Korea of masterminding the attack, which in turn was met with an unsurprising denial by Pyongyang, it is very difficult to determine what would be the appropriate retaliation for the attack, especially to a country so completely off the grid like North Korea. And the fact that the North Koreans could still strike again has made the Obama administration wary to escalate the situation needlessly.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Opening Up to Cuba

Photo Doug Mills-Pool/Getty Images

Yesterday, in a reversal of five plus decades of U.S. foreign policy, President Barack Obama announced that his administration will move toward restoring relations with Cuba. His plan includes opening an embassy in Havana, a State Department review of Cuba's designation as a terrorist state, a relaxation on existing travel restrictions to Cuba, and a raise on remittances to Cuban nationals, among other things. Other moves, such as lifting the banking and travel embargo, will require the consent of the legislature, an unlikely prospect, at least right now, in a Republican-dominated Congress.

Obama characterized his new Cuba policy as an attempt to discard an outdated past, a relic from the cold war era that no longer exists. He stated:
We will end an outdated approach that, for decades, has failed to advance our interests, and instead we will begin to normalize relations between our two countries. Through these changes, we intend to create more opportunities for the American and Cuban people, and begin a new chapter among the nations of the Americas....Neither the American, nor Cuban people are well served by a rigid policy that is rooted in events that took place before most of us were born.  Consider that for more than 35 years, we’ve had relations with China –- a far larger country also governed by a Communist Party. Nearly two decades ago, we reestablished relations with Vietnam, where we fought a war that claimed more Americans than any Cold War confrontation.
Of course, the immediate beneficiaries from Obama's policy shift was Alan Gross, the American contractor who was held in Cuba for the past five years, an unnamed U.S. intelligence agent, held for almost two decades in Cuba, and three Cuban agents, who, likewise, were in U.S. prisons for years. Almost simultaneous with Obama's announcement was the release of Gross, the American spy and the three Cubans.

Not everyone is happy about this new opening to Cuba, though. For instance, according to Senator Marco Rubio, a son of Cuban immigrants, "This entire policy shift announced today is based on an illusion, on a lie, the lie and the illusion that more commerce and access to money and goods will translate to political freedom for the Cuban people....All this is going to do is give the Castro regime, which controls every aspect of Cuban life, the opportunity to manipulate these changes to perpetuate itself in power.”

Perhaps, and human rights and good governance aren't things we should ignore. That said, Rubio's statement isn't a strong enough reason to continue to keep Cuba in exile. Opening up to Cuba is the right course, in my estimation. But my argument isn't based on the so-called power of engagement, a go-to point made by liberal policymakers and analysts and academics.

No, instead, my argument derives directly from realist international relations logic. A growing and increasingly muscular China is expanding its interests around the world, even in America's backyard, as it looks to compete with the U.S. for global power, influence and leadership. Cuba is a perfect political match for China's interests going forward. A closed, isolated and communist Cuba, one that is poor and desperate, is ripe for China to insert itself in a significant way. And currently, China is in a good position to keep Cuba's economy afloat, something that's needed in Havana, especially now that Venezuela, its main backer, is suffering from its own economic troubles. But more importantly, China can use Cuba as a client state to frustrate and undermine, even threaten, America's position in the Western Hemisphere. In short, China can use Cuba much the same way the Soviets did during the cold war. In this case, just like Washington seeks to pin down China in the broader Asia, making it difficult for China to spread its wings, Beijing will very likely seek to do the same to the U.S. in Washington's neighborhood, as that will make it hard for America to spend the time, effort and resources to contain China. This is where Cuba-China relations were headed as long as America continued to freeze Cuba from the extant regional and international orders.

Developing better relations with Cuba makes good strategic sense. As of now, the U.S. is vulnerable to Chinese penetration in America's backyard. Why allow these security vulnerabilities to continue to exist and perhaps fester over time? Opening up to Cuba doesn't mean that Washington will be able to completely ameliorate these things. But it does mean that the U.S. doesn't intend to cede Cuba to China. China will have to compete for Cuba, something, I'm sure, it didn't anticipate. And in a best case scenario, if the U.S. establishes good ties with Cuba, it might well be able to remove a point of access in its neighborhood.