Center for World Conflict and Peace

Center for World Conflict and Peace

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Russia-U.S. Intel Relations and the Need for a Delicate Balance

In light of the Boston Marathon bombings, the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation has come under scrutiny for its handling of a request made by the Russian government in 2011 that Tamerlan Tsarnaev be questioned by federal agents for his possible adoption of radical Islam. Apparently, federal officials found no reason to pursue the accusations after preliminary questioning back in 2011, having deemed Tsarnaev not to be a threat--something which we now, most unfortunately, know not to have been the case.

Senator Susan Collins (R- Maine) was quoted by the Associated Press as citing "serious problems with sharing information, including critical investigative information... not only among agencies but also within the same agency in one case," after a closed hearing by the Senate Intelligence Committee. Senator Collins' colleague, Senator Saxby Chambliss (R- Georgia), said he could not see "anybody yet that dropped the ball," but was still looking into whether information was properly shared. “If it wasn't, we've got to fix this," he stated according to the AP. Later during a closed briefing by the House intelligence committee, Congressman Charles “Dutch” Ruppensberger (D- Maryland) stated that, based on testimony, the FBI followed proper procedures, which ultimately led to the closing of the Tsarnaev case in 2011.

Whatever happened, this is a case-in-point of a disadvantageous overall trend in Russia-U.S. intelligence relations. Make no mistake, Russian intelligence activity directed against the West has come back with a vengeance, thanks, in part, to the fact that Russia’s chief political leader is a former lieutenant colonel in the KGB, and that several top positions in government and business (often interlinked) have gone to former KGB colleagues (collectively known as the siloviki, which translates loosely as “strongmen”).
The bottom line is that there was a dangerous lack of cooperation between the Russian and U.S. intelligence communities, yet at the same time, given so much overt hostility between the two sides, this should not come as a great surprise. Nevertheless, it is a deficiency which must be corrected, for while counterintelligence against Russian espionage threats are, and should remain, remain a top priority for the U.S. and its chief allies, Russia and the United States do, at the same time, face mutual threats to their respective national securities. It is imperative that U.S. intelligence officers devise a way to cooperate with Russia on areas of mutual concern while also safeguarding America's national security against the threat of Russian intelligence – in short, to strike a delicate balance between cooperation and caution.

Russian intelligence activity against the U.S. and its allies (especially Australia, Canada and the United Kingdom, with which the U.S. has extensive intelligence-sharing agreements, such as the UKUSA Agreement of 1946) has continued well after the Cold War. In 1994 and 2001, two U.S. citizens (Aldrich Ames of the CIA, and Robert Hansson of the FBI, respectively) were arrested and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole for selling secrets to Russian intelligence officials.
More recently, we have seen a spread of Russian espionage activity, such as the Illegals Program involving Anna Chapman, the sale of nanotechnology by Texas-based businessman Alexander Fishenko to Russian military intelligence, and attempted penetration of the British and Canadian navies by Russian intelligence. Jonathan Evans, director of MI5, the U.K.’s domestic intelligence agency, famously stated that Russian espionage activity in Britain was back at “Cold War levels,” a reality which, once again, has direct implications for U.S. national security. With all of this Russian activity, it is completely understandable that the U.S. intelligence community should be wary of Moscow and its intentions.

The U.S. Intelligence Community’s Worldwide Threat Assessment, published every year by the Director of National Intelligence, has consistently cited both counter-terrorism and counter-intelligence as top security priorities for the U.S. over the past several years. While Russian espionage activity has been a major target of American counter-intel operations (although China is cited as the biggest threat in corporate and cyber espionage), both Russia and the U.S. face a mutual threat in Islamic terrorism.
The cause for independence in the predominantly Muslim republics in southern Russia (such as Chechnya and Dagestan) has become hijacked by the broader, worldwide Islamic jihad, with deadly results for the Russian people. Thus, not only do Russia and the U.S. face a mutual threat from Islamic terrorism, the threat emanating from this particular region extends to both Russia and the U.S. (as an aside- the FBI’s recruitment website,, lists “Caucasian languages” as a critical skill needed in the recruitment of Intelligence Analysts, which is evidence of how the North Caucasus is also a security priority for the U.S.).

While we cannot be certain of anything at this point, we must entertain the possibility that part of the reason the FBI did not see Tsarnaev as a threat in 2011 was because of the FBI’s relationship with the FSB (essentially, the FBI’s Russian counterpart, and successor to the KGB), which we can imagine must be rather poor and fraught with mistrust. The FBI states that they received an initial tip from the Russians, but when the FBI asked for a follow up on the allegations, they did not receive anything from the Russian security services, and thus, followed the proper protocol by closing the case against Tsarnaev. The Russian security services should have been more diligent in its relationship with the FBI, the failure of which to do so has cost lives and untold damage.

Recently, we have seen not only a dangerous lack of cooperation but even overt hostility between Russian and U.S. law enforcement and intelligence organizations in fields other than counter-terrorism, such as Russian attempts to stem U.S. counter-narcotics activities in Central Asia: a strong presence by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration in Central Asia is seen as encroaching upon not only the FSKN (the DEA’s Russian opposite number) but Russian geopolitical hegemony in the region in general. Never mind that the Central Asian drug trade, mostly emanating from Afghanistan and Tajikistan, presents a threat to both Russia and the U.S., especially since much of the money earned from this illicit trade is used to fund terrorism (I will be publishing more on this topic soon).  

Obviously, much of the findings produced from closed Congressional hearings, internal investigations, and the like, will not be known or made for public consumption, except in the event that something should be leaked to the media, of course. And as Senator Chambliss has stated, we still don’t have any conclusive evidence of a failure or mishandling by the FBI, but the notoriously poor relations between the Russian and U.S. intelligence communities may indicate that such a lack of cooperation on certain issues can have deadly and destructive results. Thankfully, we have seen an indication of acknowledgement to correct these relationships. “The need to open FSB and FBI offices in the U.S. and Russia respectively has been mooted for years. The latest situation proves that this is necessary,” says retired KGB colonel Gennady Gudkov.

The specter of Russia-U.S. cooperation on security issues to meet a common threat is not without precedent. Of course Russia (then as the Soviet Union) and the U.S. came together to defeat the mutual threat of Nazi Germany and, toward the end of the war, Imperial Japan. More recently, a group of former Russian and U.S. intelligence officials based at Harvard’s Belfer Center, known as the Elbe Group, have come together to work on ways to prevent that most unthinkable and horrific threat, namely, nuclear terrorism.
If, in both of these cases, two groups of people otherwise opposed to one another can come together in cooperation--not based on a feel-good spirit of solidarity but rather the need for survival and security--then there must be a way that Russian and U.S. intelligence communities can find a way to cooperate more closely on other issues of mutual concern. To be frank, it is a tall order, but if the U.S. is to protect its own national security, the U.S. Intelligence Community will need to devise a way to counteract Russian intelligence penetration of its security organs, while at the same time, not letting this defensiveness inhibit cooperation between the two countries on very real threats of mutual interest. Likewise, Russia would do well to be more diligent in its relations with the U.S. intelligence community. It is, after all, not a polite request, but a matter of security for both countries.  

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

A Clearer Picture of the Boston Attacks

New details in the Boston attacks are emerging drip by drip on a daily basis. With that in mind, I thought I'd update my last post. Here's my preliminary working theory of what happened.

First, let's look at Tamerlan, the older brother. Yes, he was an ethnic Chechen, and, yes, he was a follower of Islam. But in my view, those characteristics--so heavily emphasized in post-9/11 America--are overshadowing other important factors. Notably, based on testimonials, he was an angry guy. A number of people have come forward stating that Tamerlan was often brusque, unfriendly, mean, even militant.

Furthermore, consider these things: Tamerlan was a boxer, someone who lived to beat people up for a living. Of course, by itself, the fact that he boxed isn't very significant; but it is, at least to me, when seen in a larger context of his other actions. He was arrested in 2009 for domestic assault and battery after he hit his then-girlfriend. Tamerlan was prone to angry public outbursts, which, on at least on occasion, forced leaders at a local mosque to kick him out of a sermon. His friends now suspect that he played a role in the unsolved gruesome murders of three mutual friends in 2011, something the police are now investigating. (He never attended the funerals.)

I suspect that he gravitated to extremist Islam because of his personality, not because he was extraordinarily devout or even particularly anti-American. Tamerlan was an angry Muslim; and that's what 21st century extremist Islam is all about. It's about anger, overcoming feelings of humiliation, retribution, violence. This form of Islam was likely an easy fit for him.

Now, how did he find his way to extremist Islam? We're not exactly sure yet, though an interesting AP story indicates that Tamerlan might have been steered toward it by a mysterious Armenian native named Misha, who allegedly met the older brother in 2008 or 2009. Regardless, once Tamerlan got caught up in extremist Islam, that seems to be when his anger was channeled into Jihadist talk and an extremist worldview. For at that point, he started to read Jihadist web sites and publications, including, al-Qaeda's Inspire magazine, post and comment on extremist Islamic videos, and even force his wife to dress in traditional Muslim clothes.

So how was (extremist) Islam important here? Extremist Islam gave meaning to and directed Tamerlan's anger. In particular, it informed him who to hate (America), how to engage with these folks (attack, kill), and how to attack them (improvised devices).

As for Dzhokhar, or Jahar as he's commonly known, the younger brother? I think Yohanes hit the nail on the head. It might eventually be revealed that he was a committed Islamic radical, a real true believer, but my guess is that he was guided, maybe even coaxed, into the bombings by his older brother.

By all accounts, Jahar was a relatively easy-going guy who mixed and mingled freely and happily with Americans. Yet at the same time, unfortunately, he was a follower by nature and looked up to Tamerlan as a role model. It just so happens that Tamerlan had a dominant personality and was a bad guy, all of which was a toxic combination for the brothers. For in the end, Tamerlan was likely able to manipulate his more impressionable, weaker younger brother, leading--maybe through persuasion, perhaps via coercion, or even some mixture of the two--Jahar into the darkness of extremist Islam. Whether to please Tamerlan, to create a bonding experience, or because of some other brotherly dynamic, Jahar was motivated enough to co-author the Boston bombings.

To be clear, I'm not absolving Jahar of his role in the bombings. That would be absurd. He's clearly filmed dropping his backpack near a crowd of onlookers at the Boston Marathon, at the precise spot one of the explosions took place. He is directly responsible for killing and maiming people. The point I am making, though, is that his role in the bombings is more complicated than how pundits, talking heads, and other commenters have characterized it.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Boston and Columbine

"I don't have a single American friend. I don't understand them."

That's Tamerlan Tsarnaev's oft quoted remarks in the recent articles on the Boston Marathon bombings. It won't be surprising if that sentence will spark an entire cottage industry of apologists, amateur psychoanalysts, etc., asking "what went wrong" and "how society has failed them," which is exactly what Ramzan Kadyrov, the Chechen President, suggests:
However, any attempt to connect the brothers to Chechnya is in vain, Kadyrov continued. The boys were raised in the United States, and therefore their beliefs were formed there and not in Chechnya, he said.
"It is necessary to seek the roots of evil in America,"
And as noted by Jean-François Ratelle, a post-doctoral researcher at George Washington University and an expert in Chechen radicalism:
He said the brothers seemed to be not well integrated into American society, especially Tamerlan. Often, he said, young people turn to radical Islam to find answers or a society and peer network that accepts them.
Ultimately, of course, Tom Brokaw:
Former NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw strongly suggested Sunday that America is partly to blame for the gruesome terrorists attacks in Boston, because the young, Muslim men involved may have felt “alienated” and angry over U.S. drone strikes on “innocent civilians” in Muslim countries abroad.
We have seen this kind of "questions" before. Back in 1999. In Columbine.

Keep in mind, however, I am not arguing here that these two incidents are basically the same. Two points. First, I propose that we need to dig in very carefully before attributing any certain factor as the main cause of this terrible event. This will help us to avoid implementing a bad responses (e.g. stereotyping loners as potential killers) or taking an easy way out that does not, in the end, tell us anything about what motivated the bombers (e.g. blaming society).

Second, even though Columbine happened more than a decade ago, there are still, surprisingly, important nuggets to be gleaned from that case that could provide interesting contexts/patterns that could apply to this case.

For instance, remember the isolated goth, trench-coat mafia? Turns out, however, that was not the case. As Dave Cullen noted in his excellent book, Columbine, the two killers were two good students with lots of friends:
Eric and Dylan had very active social calendars, and far more friends than the average adolescent. They fit in with a whole thriving subculture.
Back to the Boston Marathon bombers.

Here are several testimonials:
Those who remember him at the school suggest he was well integrated in its diverse community. "[Dzhokhar] wasn't 'them'. He was 'us'. He was Cambridge," Andrea Kramer – whose son studied with Dzhokhar – told the Wall Street Journal.
"He was a familiar part of the community, he didn't isolate himself," said former classmate Rebecca Mazur. 
Those who trained with Tamerlan, a talented young boxer known to them as "Tom", seemed as surprised as his brother's friends were that he had emerged as prime suspect in the bombing.
"In the ring, he could knock a man out with one punch,'' Gene McCarthy, founder of the Somerville Boxing Club, told the Boston Globe. "But when he sat at a piano, he could play classical music like you wouldn't believe. The Tom I knew was a sweetheart.''
Albrecht Ammon, 18, who lived directly below the flat shared by the brothers, said he recently saw Tamerlan in a pizzeria, where they argued about religion and US foreign policy. Tsarnaev argued that many US wars are based on the Bible, used as "an excuse for invading other countries". But even then he added he had nothing against the American people. 
Granted, these testimonials are not ultimate, bullet-proof evidence, but what we have here is a complex, nuanced picture about the bombers. Mass killers and murderers are not necessarily isolated, crazy misfits that cannot blend in the society. They might isolate themselves, but it is more of a matter of choice, as in Columbine:
"The impression I always got from them was they kind of wanted to be outcasts," another classmate said. "It wasn't that they were labeled that way. It's what they chose to be."
Columbine can also shed some lights about the relationship between the two killers. In Columbine, it was noted that Eric Harris was the psychopathic mastermind of the killing, with Dylan Klebold joining in as an accomplice, under the strong influence of Harris. Klebold was a follower type, doing whatever Harris wanted, most likely because he didn't want to lose his best friend. Meantime, in Boston:
"My feeling is that the reason that Jahar was involved has entirely to do with his brother ... Given that his brother essentially raised him, I think this is an awful case of evil being perpetuated because of the trust and love Jahar had for his brother."
"In what I've seen of their personalities, the brain behind this is the older brother," Vasquez said. "When it comes to the two of them, he would lead and the little brother followed."
Therefore, while it is tempting to ascribe some societal motive on the bombers, we probably would be better off looking at an incident with similar patterns -- Columbine -- in order to really understand what made these two brothers make their fateful choice on April 15, 2013.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

The Motives of the Boston Bombers

Now that the Brothers Tsarnaev have either been caught or killed, thereby giving the residents of Boston some relief, the next topic of discussion in this saga is patently clear: the motives of the bombers. In fact, already, quite a bit of ink has been spilled on this topic. Unfortunately, much of the discussion, especially on television, has centered on wild speculation, worst-case scenarios, fear-mongering.

Let's take a deep breath, at least for a moment. Perhaps that will help. For at this point, we need clear-eyed analysis to focus on what the facts, not our biases and prejudices, tell us.

Sure, the brothers committed a terrorist act, insofar as they terrorized millions of Americans. But are their actions actually terrorism? Honestly, it's not certain that they are. Terrorism denotes political motives. Based on what we know right now, were the Tsarnaevs politically motivated to kill Americans? At this point, we don't know.

The Chechnya angle has been repeatedly mentioned, since the brothers are ethnic Chechens. If you recall, Chechnya has been a war-torn territory for decades, a hotbed for violence and Muslim terror groups. Not surprisingly, American talking heads are already on the prowl for any evidence to prove the brothers are international Jihadis. What's been lost in this loose talk is that an overwhelming majority of Chechen extremists are militants who seek to retaliate against Russian in response to Moscow's vice-like grip over the country. If the Tsarnaevs thought of themselves as freedom fighters, they would likely target the Russian embassy or Russian officials stationed in the U.S.

So maybe, after all, they were Jihadis, plugged, in some way, into the wider network of anti-Western, anti-American terror groups. Keep in mind, though, only a sliver of Chechen extremists terrorists are Jihadis. Put simply, kicking out the Russians and the Russian puppets trumps any ideas of building a regional caliphate. Moreover, the evidence tying the brothers to this community, such as the older brother's visit to Russia last year, is so far circumstantial at best. That said, it's possible that the brothers fit within this category, though it's not certain. We need more evidence to surface.

We also can't rule out that only one of the brothers was/is a committed Jihadi. If true, given that the younger brother, Dzhokhar, is still at an impressionable age and possibly looked up to his older brother, I'd suspect that the older brother, Tamerlan, became radicalized and then roped his younger brother into his violent schemes.

In the end, the Tsarneavs could simply be two disaffected guys who took out their frustrations and demons out on innocents, with no political angle to their actions. Remember, people commit all sorts of violence for non-political reasons; there is no reason to assume they were politically inclined actors. If so, their crimes would be similar to the Sandy Hook or Columbine tragedies.

In the meantime, let's give the authorities a chance do their jobs, let the facts emerge, and then see what kinds of conclusions can be made about the motives of the Tsarnaevs. There's no need to rush to judgment. Let's get the full and correct story. For only then can we generate the proper lessons learned and implement the appropriate security measures.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Self-Introspection: Prediction and Foreign Policy Analysis

Sometimes it is a good thing, I think, to sit back and re-read some of our previous analyses and predictions and reflect on how actual, real world events either diverged from or loosely fit with our expectations.

In the past couple of days, I managed to finish two really good books that I recommend people read. The first one is Phil Tetlock's Expert Political Judgment and the other is Nate Silver's Signal and the Noise. I heartily recommend these two books to anyone who is interested in doing policy analysis.

The take home point of both books is that it is difficult to do good analysis. Experts make mistakes and often their predictions are wrong. Nate Silver adds that analysts to some degree get distracted by the "noise," information that does nothing but skew analyses.

I concur with both Tetlock and Silver. I would also add that it is very easy to get swept in the euphoria of the moment, especially in regard to big changes and major events. For instance, regular readers of this blog might find that this blog's largest intellectual outputs happened in 2011, during the Arab Spring, when we got swept in the excitement of trying to figure out where events would take North Africa and the Middle East.

We tried to be very objective -- based on the available information to us. My feeling now, as I reread that post, is that even though Brad might tease me as the pessimist of this blog, to some extent, I actually think that I was still overly optimistic back then.

Take the example of these two articles: "A Conversation: The Impact of the 2011 Uprisings on World Politics, The Final Word" and "Thoughts on Egypt, Libya, and the U.S."

According to the first article, I underestimated the role of Al-Qaeda, especially in the light of what is currently unfolding in Mali, where al-Qaeda militants from Libya have managed to cause much havoc. Granted, I wrote the first article in the beginning of the Libyan Civil War, and at that time, the rebels rejected the presence of al-Qaeda among them, hoping to attract much needed Western support.

In light of what we really know and understand now about al-Qaeda's presence in the Magreb region, though, I should not have easily dismissed their influence. As fighting intensified, they were at first cautiously welcomed and probably grudgingly accepted as part of the opposition -- a pattern that has been replicated in Syria.

Regarding the second article, I freely admit that I underestimated the role of Ikhwanul Muslimin during the street protest, though I did make a prediction that they would hijack the revolution, and so far I am vindicated on that point. Still, I am not sure whether that was an easy cop-out, as if I tried to paper over an originally failed analysis.

Overall, does a lack of foresight mar our analyses? Probably, yes, in term of our predictive capabilities. At the same time, given my intellectual predispositions, I probably could easily make very dire and gloomy analyses on virtually everything, seeing worst-case scenarios, which means my work is at risk of bias.

Still, I don't know, I might be too harsh on myself. I do think that we have to continue to be honest in our work, otherwise we won't actually add anything to the discourse or even help better our predictive analyses.

What do you think?

Monday, April 1, 2013

Kim Jong Un = Saddam Hussein Redux?

On March 27, 2013, North Korea declared that it finally cut off "the last remaining military hot lines with South Korea." At this point, however, the world reacted with a collective yawns and shrugs. In fact, many analysts seem to concur that this is just another boring and tiresome "escalation," which as this Foreign Policy article notes, is more of a stylistic move than a substantive one.

Perhaps, though North Korea could still inflict some pain on South Korea, most notably its ability to bombard Seoul, which lies so close to its border. Yet, most South Koreans seem to shrug it off, looking at North Korea's latest provocations as a way to ask for more money and food, not dissimilar to a reaction toward a child's tantrums.

Thus the question: why would a regime keep bluffing until its threats are no longer credible?

I believe North Korea's threats are actually a symptom of the regime's weaknesses and Kim Jong Un's desperation to gain international legitimacy, which benefit him domestically.

As a new inexperienced leader who gained the position of ultimate power in North Korea simply through the death of his father, the North Korean regime and Kim Jong Un is desperately trying to increase his stature domestically. First, even before the death of his father, the regime had agreed to sink a South Korean navy corvette, simply to show him as a strong military leader, willing to take risk. Then, he tried to show the North Koreans that he was another benevolent leader and father, with a disastrous result.

Really can't resist to show this photo
The failed missile test, followed by a successful one later, and a nuclear test was supposed to cement Kim Jong Un's position and show the outside world that North Korea meant business, that they had to take North Korea seriously -- including giving him more food and money. Yet again, the reaction from outside world was more indignation and further sanctions, with even China showing its displeasure as North Korea's intransigence also disturbed Beijing's leadership transition.

What Kim Jong Un is looking for is a way to show his domestic audience that he is a true leader, feared by North Korea's enemies and allies alike. He has neither, which further undermines his position, forcing him to act more and more bellicose. Otherwise, his hold on the military could start to unravel. Moreover, with North Korea's economy in a mess, he is rapidly running out of food and money -- and he needs both desperately.

Therefore, I would make a bold prediction here that when push comes to shove, North Korea is actually incapable to walk the talk. In essence, he is another Saddam Hussein, who bluffed his ownership of weapons of mass destruction due to his fear that Iran (and his domestic opposition) would find out his weaknesses.

So rest assure, Austin. It is highly unlikely that Kim Jong Un can hit you, regardless of how much he wanted to due to your snub.