On Boston

What happened at the Boston Marathon is something I can’t even put up into words. The last thing anyone needs is another prognostication on the tactics or techniques or perpetrators. So I just have my thoughts.

I was born in Boston and lived there until my family moved out to Concord when I was six. Work and school called me away, but that siren song of Winthrop’s shining city on a hill has never diminished. I grew up attending the yearly reenactments of the Battles of Concord and Lexington, with local folk playing the roles of Redcoat and Patriot in full costume and with the one cannon still belonging to the Concord Battery firing away. One of my proudest days was getting to march as a flagbearer along with the Fenn School Marching Band in the annual parade. Patriots Day is the coming of Spring. It’s the earliest baseball game in all of MLB. It’s Marathon Monday, and despite the fact that records set there never seem to count for anything in the eyes of the IAAF, we all know that it’s the best and most important marathon in the world. Boston is the Hub of the Universe, and Patriots Day is our coming-out party every year. Growing up in that environment – steeped in history and patriotism and pride – means that to commit an act of terror on Patriots Day, of all days, is especially cruel. I fear it will never be the same.

I fear that Patriots Day, one of the brightest spots in the third week in April, a week otherwise marred by remembrances and anniversaries of Waco and Columbine and Virginia Tech and Oklahoma City and Hitler’s birthday and Tax Day, will join that long list as another sad anniversary.

So Monday hit me in a way 9/11 never did.

I don’t know if it’s just that I was too young or too geographically removed from New York and Washington to understand, but aside from a sort of numb feeling, it was like watching a disaster movie happen to someone else. Only the consequences were far too lasting. And in the years since, when has Boston been a target outside of Fringe episodes and the occasional police procedural? It’s unthinkable.

But at this point I think my generation is much more capable of realizing the impact of Monday’s terrorism, and is in more of a position to respond. I also think, and hope, that we’re better equipped to channel our emotions – our sadness and anger and need for vengeance and utter despair – into more productive avenues than we did in September of 2001. I understand the reaction we had then. I get how overwhelmed and powerless we must have felt then, because lord knows I feel it too. From removing trash cans from streets to invading unrelated countries, I hope that we’re ready to not repeat our mistakes. I think we’ve learned from them. I think we’ve spent the last ten years asking if there was anything we should have, or could have done differently. And I think that that, if anything, that could be the one silver lining in this cowardly act of terror.

There’s too much to say, too much to feel, even a couple days removed from the bombing. And really, there’s only so much I can say. For everything else you should read this piece by Caitlin Fitzgerald, a true Bostonian if ever there was one and who says all the things I can’t find the words for.

I’m not a praying man, but I pray for Boston just the same. And I’ve never been more glad to be going home for the weekend.

La Guerre de Longue Durée

So I wrote most of this over the weekend. In light of recent events, it may be more or less relevant. But presumably no less true.

Interesting read from the War Nerd (who is back with a vengeance) comparing Al Qaeda with the IRA. He comes to a somewhat surprising conclusion: the IRA was far more professional, they truly took the long view, and they essentially won.

Al Qaeda played all out, spent all its assets in a few years. In my dumb-ass 2005 article, I called the Al Qaeda method “real war” and the IRA’s slow-perc campaign “nerf war.” That was ignorance talking, boyish war-loving ignorance. I wanted more action, that was all. I saw what an easy target the London transport system made for a few amateur Al Qaeda recruits and just thought that since the IRA had several long-term sleeper teams in place in London, they could have wreaked a million times more havoc. Which was true, they could’ve. But could’ve and should’ve are different things, and a guerrilla group that goes all-out, does everything it can, is doomed.

The first job of a guerrilla force is to continue to exist…

That’s how every modern guerrilla army except Al Qaeda has played, and that’s why every one of those groups has lasted longer than Al Qaeda did.

This seems to ring true. Looking at the pattern of terrorist attacks in the United States and Europe since 9/11, here’s what came next (and seemed at least vaguely Islamic extremism-related, so not necessarily Al Qaeda even):

  • December 2001 – Richard Reid’s attempted shoe-bombing.
  • October 2004 – Indonesian Embassy in Paris is bombed by the “French Armed Islamic Front,” though presumably Algeria-related.
  • July 2005 – the 7/7 Tube Bombings in London.
  • July 2005 – attempted duplication of 7/7; minor damage.
  • March 2006 – Mohammed Reza Taheri-azar drives an SUV onto the UNC Chapel Hill campus to “avenge Muslims,” injuring nine.
  • July 2006 – attempted suitcase bombings in Dortmund and Koblenz, in retaliation for the Muhammad cartoon publication. Failed to detonate.
  • August 2006 – foiled transatlantic plot between Heathrow and the United States.
  • August 2006 – Afghan Muslim Omeed Aziz Popal hits 19 pedestrians with an SUV in San Francisco, killing one.
  • December 2009 – the attempted “underwear bombing.”

There is very little in that list that was an objectively “successful” terror attack, in the sense that with the exception of the 7/7 Bombings, few people were killed in total. Yet somehow, every single one of these – including if not especially the failed attempts – has provoked a stronger and more intrusive security backlash.

There are a few possibilities with Al Qaeda today. The first is that they’ve been so disrupted and shattered that there’s no organizational capacity left to stage large terror attacks. The second is that they’re biding their time, rebuilding capabilities in order to strike. And the third is that we’ve reduced Al Qaeda to a shadow of its former self, yet preserved enough of the command structure that we can keep tabs on all of its associates and prevent any strikes by them.

But even if that leaves them unable to mount much more than a failed pants bombing around Christmas, that might just be all they need (see: failure as a strategy). Look at what that ‘attack’ – which killed and injured none – has wrought: the whole Yemen affair, a bigger bureaucratic push for the “rape scanners,” and a whole revamp of the no-fly lists to include Nigerian nationals and other useless security theater. They don’t need to succeed to have catastrophic effects on American politics and the ever-so-delicate American psyche. Even non-Al Qaeda actions, such as walking through airport security the wrong way, can paralyze an entire transportation corridor for hours and hours.

So where does the IRA come in? While Al Qaeda is still active and deadly in the immediate theater (Iraq, Afghanistan, etc.), it has little reach beyond its borders. Especially not as an organization its trying to kill people. Instead, the IRA strategy of as few casualties as possible – in many cases zero – aided by numerous telephoned warnings and carefully-chosen targets has enabled the organization to not be the target it might have been.

The IRA had this “Nerf” strategy of…not killing civilians, which seemed weak to me. But it worked way, way better than I could have imagined. First of all, by not reacting to LVF hit teams, the IRA kept the focus on the Brits, who they considered the real enemy. The Loyalist hit teams, I realize now, were a classic SAS attempt to turn the whole Ulster fight into a tribal war, so the British could come off as the impartial referees trying to keep the savages from tearing each other apart. If the IRA had settled for taking all these Loyalists down into nice soundproofed basements and giving them some hands-on experience of their favorite games, it would’ve been satisfying short-term but would have fed right into the enemy propaganda model.

Not only was the IRA never systematically wiped out, it was incorporated into peace efforts and brought into the government itself after the Good Friday accords.

The point is that in the long run, killing civilians – if you’re fighting an insurgent, guerrilla, terrorist-style war – is counterproductive. That’s not to say that for these groups ‘terrorism’ in and of itself might be ineffective. Rather, it’s all about targeting. If instead of the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and (presumably) the White House, bin Laden had selected a virtually empty Statue of Liberty, an early-morning deserted Lincoln Memorial, or the Washington Monument, wouldn’t the blow to our psyche have been nearly as great? But even if we were just as horrified, would we have pursued him for ten years with the same fervor?

Either way, whatever command hierarchy Al Qaeda once had will now certainly cease to be. The rigid discipline required to avoid killing civilians at all costs will be impossible to impose on disparate, franchised mini-Qaedas – and that might, in the long run, lead to shooting themselves in the foot. One can only hope.

Black Bloc = False Flag?

A group of protesters all wearing black destroy a police car as the authorities stood nearby. June 26, 2010 in Toronto, Canada.

A comment on my (self-described) hilarious post on the wanton destruction of a Tim Horton’s during the G20 protests raises some interesting, if alarming questions as to their legitimacy. Now, any article from a site that has main categories like “US NATO War Agenda” and “Crimes Against Humanity” obviously deserves to be taken with a grain of salt – a massive grain of salt – but nevertheless its allegations that at least some of the ‘Black Bloc’ protesters are in fact undercover police officers seem to be partially borne out by their photographic evidence.

Some of the evidence offered, like the argument that one black-clad protester has the physique not of a “seedy ‘anarchist'” but rather “the fit strong body of a trained soldier,” seems subjective at best. Their main charge, that some of the Black Bloc-types are wearing the same heavy-duty combat boots as the riot police,  is much more possible. According to this line of thinking, the wanton destruction committed by the Black Bloc is an attempt to discredit the entire protest movement, a sort of ‘false flag‘ operation.

There are two main problems with this, the first being that reaction to the Black Bloc is tending more towards the “those guys are ruining an otherwise perfectly legitimate protest,” rather than something like “all protesters are this capable of violence!” At the same time, the credibility of photographic evidence in any form has been called into doubt (especially with the release of the near-magical Photoshop CS5). So I don’t know how much stock I put in the thesis, but it’s worth thinking about.

One other possibility is that it’s a reverse false flag op, and that the Black Bloc protesters specifically sought out the same issue combat boots as the police are using. The targets of their demolition could point in either direction; they are utterly predictable:

For the most part, their targets are specific and symbolic: As the crowd tore across Queen St., they hammered police cruisers, attacked banks and other corporate companies. Yet they left a record store, a local tavern and an independent hardware shop untouched.

This is all more food for thought than any kind of accusation. One more idea: would we want to use any kind of false flag operations in Afghanistan? Are the Taliban doing so? Perhaps it’s an idea best consigned to the Cold War; one can only hope this is the case.

TSA Carry-on Rules or: Why I Should Probably Repack Before Leaving Tomorrow

A partial list of items banned from carry-on luggage by the Transportation Security Administration, as of June 2010:

  • Ice picks
  • Vehicle airbags
  • Gel shoe inserts
  • Meat cleavers
  • Sabers
  • Swords
  • Cricket bats
  • Spear guns
  • Cattle prods
  • Billy clubs
  • Nunchakus
  • Throwing stars
  • Blasting caps
  • Dynamite
  • Hand grenades

And “snow globes… even with documentation.”

Via Futility Closet.

Different Strokes for Different Folks, or, Whatever Floats Your Boat

Regardless of what the true story is with the Israeli interception of a Gaza-bound flotilla, all sides and interested parties will take away from it what they want to. Much like the al-Durrah incident in 2000, the flotilla intercept will be used a prism through which any side can view the conflict as a whole.

For instance, the earliest reports that were unable to describe anything more detailed than Israelis boarding the flotilla and killing ten implied a massacre for which Jerusalem was directly responsible. But already video has come out with the true nature of the “peace activists” revealed (via Information Dissemination):

Of course, this in no exonerates Israel of responsibility for the raid in the first pace. If nothing else, this was a public relations catastrophe that could easily spark a third intifada. And it’s hard to see how the result couldn’t be predicted on either side. Galrahn calls it a given:

It is hard for Americans to draw any analogies, because we don’t have a relationship like the one between Israel and Palestine.

But if 1000 people from Mexico, whom our government presumed was mostly made up of drug cartel supporters, tried to sail into San Diego with the expectation of running the blockade of the Coast Guard and creating a political demonstration through confrontation – I assure you the odds of people getting killed would be pretty high.

Just like they were in this situation.

Either the flotilla itself was an intentional provocation – or not. It really does push the limits of the imagination to assert that no one had any idea a flotilla like that would possibly provoke Israel. But as Abu Muqawama explains, it’s Israel that should have had an even clearer idea of the possible consequences:

But for the sake of argument, and putting ourselves in the shoes of an Israeli naval commander, let’s assume the most malevolent of motivations for the people participating in the peace flotilla. If I am in charge of doing that for the Israeli Navy, I am going to assume these people are smart and are deliberately trying to provoke a crazy response from my sailors and soldiers that will produce ready-for-television images that both isolate Israel within the international community and further raise the ire of the Arabic-speaking and Islamic worlds. I mean, that is my base assumption for what this group is trying to do. So naturally, the last thing I would want my forces to do would be to overreact, right? [emphasis in original]

One need not assign blame to anyone in order to see this as the colossal fuckup that it is. As usual, absolutely no one wins this game.

Jumping to Conclusions

Well, um, whoops. Not so much the teabagging type, but rather “a Connecticut man, a naturalized United States citizen from Pakistan” named Faisal Shahzad.

So yes, mea culpa. Though the white guy in his 40s remains a ‘person of interest’, clearly he’s not the focus of the investigation, and for that I apologize. But I do think we’re overdue for a reckoning with the enemies of a domestic variety, as all the commentary spouted that subtly sympathizes with them might even serve to legitimize their cause. It certainly increases the likelihood of a right-wing Times Square bomber, though there probably aren’t enough government buildings there to hold their interest for long.

Michael Sheehan has a perfect analysis of this in the New York Times, as well as suggestions on how to stave off ‘lone wolf’ or ‘home grown’ terrorists:

Law enforcement has to focus on preventing sophisticated terrorist organizations from establishing a presence within the United States. The good news is that we know how to do this. The bad news is we aren’t doing it enough. No other American city even attempts to do what New York has accomplished.


For society as a whole, paying for a handful of detectives at the local level is far more efficient than spending billions inside the Beltway on bloated bureaucracies and large-scale defensive measures that will most likely have little practical effect. And while issues of civil liberties are important, they can be managed with close legal oversight of terrorism investigations.

Attacks won’t come from the center, but from the fringes. You can’t centralize national security, nor can you completely disperse it.

Until then, keep following. And keep following afterward. Remain vigilant.

Big Bust in the Big Apple, Cont’d

New development from the ongoing Times Square car bomb story:

Police and federal agents on Sunday were reviewing surveillance footage that shows a possible suspect in the failed Times Square car bombing, describing him as a white man in his 40s who was walking away from the area where the vehicle was parked, looking furtively over his shoulder and removing a layer of clothing, officials said [emphasis mine].

Is it possible that the poorly-veiled, separatist, militia-oriented, violent uprising-style rhetoric of the ignorant sectors of the right has taken root? In case you need a reminder:

The 18 percent of Americans who identify themselves as Tea Party supporters tend to be Republican, white, male, married and older than 45 [emphasis mine].

One nut begets another. Black swans on the horizon…

Big Bust in the Big Apple

A police officer in a bomb suit examined a Nissan Pathfinder sport utility vehicle.

If you haven’t been following, a pretty poor VBIED was found in Times Square today after a t-shirt vendor notified a horse cop that there was a smoking SUV parked at a strange angle. Quick evac of the area and speedy response from the NYPD. Turns out it was in the midst of detonating, but was shoddily constructed and thus never actually went off. Possibly a downside to open-source warfare, etc. : you can have the plans and the equipment, but actually following those instructions may prove difficult. Ever try to assemble something from Ikea?

But so far, the reaction from Bloomberg and the NYPD has been pretty stellar. And no one is panicking a la the Pants Bomber. In this case, at least, failure as a strategy has proven to be no more than just a plain failure.

The vendor who found the bomb is absolutely Mr. Cool:

He said that he was reluctant to speak with members of the media because they had twisted his words when they interviewed him in recent years.

He got into the back seat of the taxi, took off his hat and used it to fan his face.

Before he left, he was asked what he had to say to New Yorkers.

See something, say something,” he said.

Another Canary

Smoke billowed from a seven-story building after a small private plane crashed into a building that houses an office of the federal tax agency in Austin, Tex.

The Metro Gunman – John Patrick Bedell –  who shot two policemen at the Pentagon metro station on Thursday, is the second anti-government terrorist to attack in as many weeks. Joe Stack was the first. While their respective manifestos differ in focus, they share a number of common elements that indicates there is more to come. Bedell is more of a conspiracy theorist (particularly harping on James Sadow, the marine killed in 1991) and wanted to establish “the truth of events such as the September 11 demolitions.”

We haven’t reached critical mass yet, but we’re getting there. Stack and now Bedell are each a “canary in the coal mine,” as John Robb puts it. He lays out three main drivers for this kind of terrorism: extreme frustration/hopelessness, few mitigating influences, and rage and a loss of government legitimacy. And while Stack and Bedell do have their differences, the crucial part is that they both came to the same conclusion.

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Outside the Box

Foreign Policy just ran an article on “The World’s Most Bizarre Terror Threats.” A collection of five ‘wacky’, ‘zany’ (note: those are not actual quotes), potential terrorist threats, they’re pretty roundly dismissed by Kayvan Farzaneh. Unfortunately, a quick ruling-out of these threat vectors is not something to be taken lightly. It was said that 9/11 was “unimaginable” and that the use of commercial airliners to strike American landmarks was an inconceivable event.

Yet, Tom Clancy described such a scenario in the Jack Ryan novel Debt of Honor – which he wrote in 1994. It must have seemed pretty crazy at the time. After the conclusion of a shooting war between Japan and the United States, a disgruntled JAL pilot – whose brothers were killed during the war – crashes his 747 into the Capitol Building during a full joint session of Congress, decapitating the federal government in one fell swoop.

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