About Michael Williams

Michael is Research Associate at the NESA Center focusing on WMD proliferation and terrorism issues, as well as other transnational threats like illicit trafficking networks and cybersecurity. Follow him on Twitter, at @mmwilliamsDC

Chemical Weapons Used – Now What?

President Obama recently acknowledged chemical weapons use in Syria, but underscored the lack of evidence required to link the attack to the Assad regime, saying, “What we don’t know is who used them. We don’t have a chain of custody.” During his press conference, Obama cautioned against “rushing to judgment without hard, effective evidence” because it would ultimately negatively impact our ability to “mobilize the international community to support what we do.” For the time being, he advocated continuing a rigorous investigation, using “all assets and resources at our disposal, as well as “working with neighboring countries to establish a clear baseline of facts,” and calling on the UN to lead the investigation.

Not surprisingly, Obama’s response to the chemical weapons accusations has generated a wide range of commentary. Many of the president’s critics, like senators Lindsay Graham and John McCain, for example, repeatedly call for greater US involvement in Syria, particularly in arming rebels and creating a no-fly zone. The New York Times editorial board recently challenged the senators, suggesting that such critics fail to offer a “coherent argument for how a more muscular approach might be accomplished without dragging the United States into another extended and costly war.”

Anne-Marie Slaughter, formerly part of the Obama administration and current professor at Princeton University, recently wrote an opinion piece for The Washington Post, also criticizing Obama’s inaction on Syria, essentially accusing him of ignoring “evidence” of chemical weapons attacks, saying that “evidence has been squelched again and again,” but notes that British, French and Israeli statements confirming the attacks have forced the administration to finally acknowledge the problem. John Allen Gay, assistant editor of The National Interest, suggests that Slaughter’s “evidence” should be viewed with caution, however. Regarding the cable sent by the US consul in Istanbul last December referenced by Slaughter, Gay explains that there are “multiple discrepancies in reports of what happened… yet Slaughter’s account removes all this subtlety and contradiction.” Gay further warns that this “seemingly willful blindness to shades of gray in the interpretation of intelligence should awaken memories of the rush to war in Iraq,” and that “Slaughter’s Cheneyesque reading of the Istanbul cable is a fresh reminder of the eargerness for war in some circles – right and left.”    

George Friedman, founder and chairman of Stratfor, a geopolitical intelligence firm, carefully reviews a long list of complex issues associated with intervention in Syria, frequently drawing on lessons learned in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya. He also specifically addresses the current rush towards intervention on both sides of the political aisle, harshly stating:

“The difference between right-wing and left-wing interventionists is the illusions they harbor. In spite of experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq, right-wing interventionists continue to believe that the United States and Europe have the power not only to depose regimes but also to pacify the affected countries and create Western-style democracies. The left believes that there is such a thing as a neutral intervention — one in which the United States and Europe intervene to end a particular evil, and with that evil gone, the country will now freely select a Western-style constitutional democracy. Where the right-wing interventionists cannot absorb the lessons of Afghanistan and Iraq, the left-wing interventionists cannot absorb the lessons of Libya.”

Fortunately, current government officials in positions of influence are still advocating a more cautious approach in handling Syria. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Dempsey, for example, explained that employing the “military instrument of power” will not necessarily end violence, stabilize Syria, or lead to political reconciliation. He  underscored differences between Libya and Syria’s air defense systems, noting that, “in Syria, there are five times more air defense systems, some of which are high end. The US military has the capability to defeat that system,” he explained, “but it would be a greater challenge, take longer, and require more resources.”

Like General Dempsey, the Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, has also expressed apprehension regarding a US-led intervention, and questioned, specifically, whether the US could even secure chemical weapons stockpiles in Syria.

Obama is wise to defer to the UN for a resolution on the chemical weapons use issue. As Bruce Riedel states, “The Bush administration’s weapons-of-mass-destruction debacle in Iraq unfortunately means that only a UN confirmation of Syrian chemical weapons use will have real international credibility. The US, UK, and Israeli intelligence assessments carry too much baggage to convince skeptics.” Obtaining this confirmation, if played correctly, can help Obama convince Putin that Russia can no longer support Assad’s brutal regime, he argues. In severing this relationship, China will adjust its stance, too, as it “will not stand alone against a UN Security Council consensus,” Riedel explains.

Undoubtedly, the Syria crisis is ugly and complicated, and becoming more so. Eli Lake of The Daily Beast reported that, according to “recent intelligence community assessments,” the Syrian military has “transferred more and more of its stock of sarin and mustard gas from storage sites to trucks where they are being moved around the country.” To make matters worse, officials warn that militias tied to Assad are receiving training on how to use the weapons. If these statements are indeed true, they demonstrate the time sensitivity involved in the decision-making process. On the other hand, while the chemical weapons issue is urgent, exercising prudence and caution are critical, especially if we hope to avoid another entanglement reminiscent of the all-too-recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

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Cyber Threats Given New Sense of Urgency

This week, several top American intelligence officials gathered for an annual Senate Intelligence Committee hearing to discuss top threats to US security. Chief among their concerns were threats emanating from cyberspace. National Intelligence Director John Clapper sounded the alarm, saying, “It’s hard to overemphasize its significance… These capabilities put all sectors of our country at risk – from government and private networks to critical infrastructure.”  FBI Director Rober Mueller echoed Clapper’s remarks, noting that cyber threats are “right up there” with terrorism.  While Clapper underscored the issue’s urgency, he explained that there is only a “remote chance” that a cyberattack would “result in long-term, wide-scale disruption of services, such as a regional power outage.”

In a separate hearing before the House Armed Services Committee, General Keith Alexander, chief of Cyber Command and the National Security Agency, offered a rare glimpse into US cyber strategy. According to General Alexander, “13 teams of programmers and computer experts,” described as a “defend-the-nation team,” could be used to launch offensive cyber strikes against foreign states who have attacked the US.

Following the intelligence officials’ hearings on the Hill, President Obama reiterated the danger of cyberwarfare in an ABC News interview, and singled out China in particular, stating, “We’ve made it very clear to China and some other state actors that, you know, we expect them to follow international norms and abide by international rules… And we’ll have some pretty tough talk with them. We already have.” Obama demonstrated this tougher posture one day later in a phone call to China’s new president Xi Jinping. After congratulating him on his new position, Obama used the opportunity to reiterate “US concerns about computer hacking,” while also noting how the cyber threat reflects a “shared challenge,” Reuters reports.

Typically, China has responded to the US hacking allegations by denying responsibility. Departing Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi, for example, addressed the accusations during a news conference, saying, “Anyone who tries to fabricate or piece together a sensational story to serve a political motive will not be able to blacken the name of others or whitewash themselves.” The minister did offer a glimmer of hope, though, suggesting that “Cyberspace needs not war, but rules and cooperation.”

Given the high level attention the issue received this week, it’s clear that cybersecurity is now truly a top priority, especially as both the public and private sectors continuously suffer tremendous economic losses at the hands of state-sponsored hackers in China. Recognizing the financial impact and need for new legislation, Obama met privately with CEOs to discuss the threat, further demonstrating a sense of urgency.

The President’s willingness to broach the sensitive subject with new Chinese leadership, coupled with recent remarks by China’s Foreign Minister, indicate that “cooperation” might be a possibility on some levels. Still, Obama is wise to understand the broad spectrum of threats. While China is at the forefront of cyberattacks, other states and non-state actors create cause for concern, as well. At a government level, it is encouraging to see the formation of a “defend-the-nation” team, as General Alexander outlined. It is also important that the government and private sector work collaboratively to develop new strategies and share information. Ultimately, it is a combination of approaches involving a variety of key players that will strengthen defenses, safeguard intellectual property, and protect citizens’ private information.  

Please note that the views expressed in this piece do not represent the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

Cybersecurity in 2013

Cybersecurity is a hot topic this month. President Obama highlighted the issue during his State of the Union address, saying,

“We know hackers steal people’s identities and infiltrate private e-mail. We know foreign countries and companies swipe our corporate secrets. Now our enemies are also seeking the ability to sabotage our power grid, our financial institutions, and our air traffic control systems. We cannot look back years from now and wonder why we did nothing in the face of real threats to our security and our economy.”

In response to this threat, Obama further indicated that he signed an executive order, designed to “strengthen our cyber defenses by increasing information sharing, and developing standards to protect our national security, our jobs, and our privacy,” but emphasized that Congress still needs to do more to “give our government a greater capacity to secure our networks and deter attacks” (NYT).

A recent Bloomberg article offers a better understanding of the executive order, while addressing the political barriers blocking effective cybersecurity legislation. Essentially, it requires federal government to “develop voluntary cybersecurity standards for companies operating the nation’s vital infrastructure.” As mentioned in his address, “information sharing” also plays an important role in combating emerging cyber threats. According to Bloomberg, “the order expands a government program for sharing classified threat data with defense contractors and Internet-service providers to include infrastructure owners and the companies that provide them with network security.” With regards to cyber legislation pushed by both the House and Senate, the political objections are predictable – conservatives consider strict compliance standards as “burdensome regulation,” while the left expresses unease with companies potentially sharing customers’ personal data with the government.

The executive order’s focus on protecting critical infrastructure comes as companies reported a significant increase in attacks on their computer systems, up 52 percent in 2012, according to the US Department of Homeland Security. At the forefront of this aggressive campaign is China. The New York Times article, “Chinese Army Unit Is Seen as Tied to Hacking Against US,” reviews the findings of Mandiant, an American computer security firm responsible for linking a series of cyberattacks to one group based in Shanghai, known as “Comment Crew.” Based on Mandiant’s analysis, as well as the recent National Intelligence Estimate’s findings, Comment Crew is likely a state-sponsored group whose aim is to not only steal sensitive information for economic gain, but to obtain access to critical infrastructure in the US, as well. As The New York Times reveals, one company targeted by the group had “remote access to more than 60 percent of oil and gas pipelines in North America.”

China’s increased focus on American infrastructure raises the question – why? Greg Austin, director of policy innovation at the EastWest Institute, suggests that if a war broke out between China and Taiwan, and the US intervened, then the Chinese could retaliate by targeting American infrastructure (NYT). 

Richard Andres explores this concept of state-sponsored cyber-militias in “Cyber-Gang Warfare”. These autonomous militias, Andres argues, allow states to “deflect responsibility for attacks originating directly or indirectly from the state sponsor,” essentially complicating the victim’s ability to attribute an attack to a specific entity. He notes that states also benefit tremendously from stealing intellectual property, and, as evidence, cites the theft of American F-35 design plans, which eventually led to the development of the Chinese J-31 stealth fighter, a replica of the American model.  

Andres also emphasizes how cyberwarfare places states on an equal playing field. Referencing the recent Iranian attacks on US banks, he notes that they have the “potential to inflict much greater costs than the Iranian military could extract in a conventional war.” Furthermore, Andres warns that these attacks send a worrisome message to other states, because they demonstrate how to inflict damage without fear of reprisal.  

Aside from threats posed by states and the cyber-militias they support, NPR recently featured a story on the dangers of flawed computer software. To a hacker, the glitch acts as a “potential back door into the computer network”; unfortunately, demand for this information is on the rise, and researchers frequently sell secrets no questions asked, reports NPR. One “vulnerability seller” explained, “I don’t see bad guys or good guys, it’s just business.” This mentality grants states or cyber criminals a chance to inflict significant damage, especially given the absence of regulation on the vulnerability market.

In combatting cyber threats, experts offer a range of options. Most often, companies are encouraged to improve their cyber defense capabilities, but some in the private sector are adopting offensive tactics in hopes of deterring and disrupting criminal activity. Former top FBI cyber-attorney Steven Chabinsky advocates this approach, saying, “There is no way we are going to win the cybersecurity effort on defense. We have to go on the offensive.” This approach, however, is met with some skepticism, prompting concerns that this tactic amounts to vigilante justice.

Richard Clarke, chairman of Good Harbor Security Risk Management and former special advisor for cybersecurity during the George W. Bush administration, highlights significant gaps in international cyberdefense policy, and presents a variety of remedies in his op-ed for The Washington Post. For Clarke, international cooperation is a vital component in combating transnational threats; in the cyber realm, he advocates creating an international cybercrime center capable of deploying “fly-away teams” to conduct investigations and help countries suffering from cyberattacks. He also encourages norm-building, focusing first on areas of joint concern. Since nations worldwide have an economic stake in secure global markets and financial institutions, Clarke recommends that cooperation begin on this front. Similarly, he advocates protecting the infrastructure that supports cyberspace.

Cyber threats won’t dissipate anytime soon, especially as states and non-state actors view cyberspace as an arena placing them on par with global superpowers. For the US, effectively confronting threats should start at home – first by pushing Congress to pass legislation with teeth. It’s also important this legislation be timely and flexible, written in such a way to keep pace with rapidly changing technologies. Though politically sensitive, requiring private companies to improve their cyber defense capabilities in order to better safeguard data, intellectual property, and customers’ private information is critical. As Obama’s new executive order establishes, the private sector won’t manage risks alone, but work closely with the federal government to pinpoint vulnerabilities, identify perpetrators, and eliminate threats altogether. Time is critical, though, and another day wasted on political bickering is yet another opportunity for states to steal valuable secrets, or even target critical American infrastructure.

Please note that the views expressed in this piece do not represent the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

Sanctioning Iran: The Human Impact

The Wall Street Journal recently published an excellent article, detailing the current impact of sanctions on Iran. The coordinated effort by the US and the EU now essentially resembles a “complete trade embargo” on the country, with damaging economic consequences permeating all segments of society, reports the paper. For the first time, Iran’s oil minister, Rostam Qasemi, has acknowledged their effect, indicating that oil exports and sales are down 40 percent. Total oil production significantly decreased over the past year, too, falling from 2.4 million barrels per day in 2011 to 1 million barrels per day in 2012 (NYT).

While the West pushes forward with tougher measures, and Iranian leadership steadfastly continues its nuclear research track, it’s Iran’s civilian population that suffers most. According to the Financial Times, one consequence of the rial’s rapid devaluation and growing unemployment is the rise in crime, primarily street robberies and assaults. Judiciary chief, Ayatollah Sadegh Amoli-Larijani, emphasized that “people’s security is more essential than bread,” and therefore encouraged new policing strategies for combating such threats.

Perhaps an even lesser-known consequence of sanctions is their impact on public health. Last month, Reuters reported that a combination of sanctions and “government mismanagement” created a severe medicine shortage; as a result, doctors, medical institutions and pharmacists publicly condemned the West. In a letter to UN General Ban Ki-Moon, Dr. Alireza Marandi, of Iran’s Academy of Medical Sciences, expressed frustration, writing, “These brutal measures have… led to a significant rise in suffering as well as increased mortality rates.”

This issue also earned attention here in the US, prompting one young Iranian art student, currently studying in Chicago, to stage a protest near the UN headquarters in New York. During her demonstration, Sanaz Sohrabi “sat silently before thousands of pill capsules filled with strips of paper telling the stories of 40 Iranians who say they have not been able to attain medicine or medical help as a result of the sanctions.”

Although US Treasury officials attempt to counter messages and cast the Iranian regime as the guilty culprit, their statements fail to gain traction. Undoubtedly, many Iranians equate strains on access to healthcare with the same sanctions that drove up commodity prices and unemployment, ultimately leading to an overall decline in the quality of life. Here, perceptions are key – and the West would do well to recognize the broader human impact of its policies and craft strategies which, at a minimum, preserve the civilian population’s access to medical treatment.

Please note that the views expressed in this piece do not represent the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

Vaccination Campaigns Derailed by Violent Extremists as More Children Die in Disease Outbreaks

Extremist violence targeting Pakistani civilians continues. On January 1, 2013, gunmen killed seven teachers and health workers (six were women) in northwest Pakistan. According to The New York Times, the aid group, formed more than two decades ago, focused its projects on Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and South Waziristan. While a group has yet to claim responsibility for the attack, experts suspect either the Pakistani Taliban (TTP) or other violent religious extremists are to blame.

This attack follows a larger coordinated assault against aid workers on December 18 and 19, which left nine dead across the country. The Economist named the “Pakistani Taliban or allied groups” as the murderers, and underscored how the attack prompted a shut down of the UN’s polio vaccination campaign in Pakistan.

As the UN decision to cease operations demonstrates, targeted killings negatively impact health missions underway throughout the country. Afiya Shehrbano Zia, of The Guardian cites a study by the British Medical Journal, which details the effects of extremism on healthcare in Pakistan, stating:

“Not only did overall infrastructure of community health suffer drastically, but maternal mortality increased, and individual [lady health workers] LHWs were socially ostracized through a vilification campaign, while many left or stopped working due to direct threats to their lives.”

Certainly their fears are justified, as 15 health and aid workers were killed in Pakistan last year.

The targeted killings are but a piece of the bigger picture. Also troubling is the reported increase in measles cases in Pakistan. According to the World Health Organization (WHO) spokeswoman, Mayam Yunus, 306 children died from the disease in 2012, up from 64 in 2011. Though Yunus did not provide a reason for the increase, a health official from the Sindh province noted that most cases stemmed from areas where children were not vaccinated. Undoubtedly, continued, restricted access to these areas will only lead to further disease outbreaks.

In a PBS News Hour interview, Pamela Constable of The Washington Post underscored several important points regarding heightened violence, stating that almost all of the health groups are comprised of local workers, many of which are women subject to repressive tactics by militant groups who “do not think women should be out in public” period. When asked whether the government could protect aid workers, Constable replied that the lack of political will complicates its ability to do so, as the growing influence of the religious right keeps government officials from speaking out. The solution, she proposes, requires leadership from both the military and political establishment to “say this simply is not acceptable.”

A key aspect of this message should focus on debunking the notion that vaccines are a Western plot designed to harm Pakistanis or sterilize Muslims. Unfortunately, in a land rife with conspiracy theories and anti-Americanism, the arrest and 33-year sentence of a Pakistani doctor tied to the CIA’s hunt for bin Laden gave weight to extremists’ seeking to discredit health campaigns, as the doctor was “convicted of treason for using a vaccination drive to try to gather DNA sample from the Abbottabad compound where bin Laden was in hiding,” reported The Washington Post.

Constable is right to encourage Pakistani leadership on this issue in particular, but combating the broader conspiratorial atmosphere will benefit a wider range of issues and undermine violent extremism. This is a tall order, however, given that many of these radical groups are state-sponsored and serve the interests of Pakistan.

Please note that the views expressed in this piece do not represent the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

Jabhat Al-Nusrah’s Expanding Influence

Recently, the US State Department designated Jabhat al-Nusrah, an Islamist rebel group currently operating in Syria, as a terrorist organization, claiming that the group’s name serves as an alias for Al Qaeda in Iraq. The State Department underscored al-Nusrah’s responsibility for almost 600 attacks since November 2011 (40 of which were suicide attacks) and warned against providing the group with any form of assistance.

As anticipated, the designation sparked a backlash in Syria almost immediately, igniting protests and prompting a flood of statements by well-known organizations like the Syrian National Council and the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood – both of which condemned the designation outright, emphasizing that Assad and his regime were far more deserving of the terrorist label.    

While heated debate regarding the designation will undoubtedly continue, both sides can agree on one thing: that al-Nusrah is growing and its influence expanding. David Ignatius of The Washington Post notes that “rough” estimates put al-Nusrah’s size “somewhere between 6,000 and 10,000 fighters, according to officials of a non-governmental organization that represents the more moderate wing of the Free Syrian Army (FSA).” Of the FSA’s fighters, Al Qaeda “accounts for 7.5 percent to 9 percent” of the total, Ignatius writes. The Economist provides a similar size estimate, stating that al-Nusrah totals approximately 7,000 fighters, and, in Aleppo, is “one of the four biggest brigades fighting on the front line.”

Al-Nusrah’s seemingly strategic behavior and calculated maneuvers have only won the organization more support. Given its steady stream of funding from donors in the Gulf and weapons acquisitions, al-Nusrah is emerging as a prime fighting force amongst the opposition groups; in turn, attracting the attention of new recruits. Off the battlefield, al-Nusrah is making further gains, as well. In his Foreign Policy piece, Aaron Zelin writes, “[T]here are tentative signs that Jabhat al-Nusra has also been providing local services,” and “becoming embedded within the social fabric of the population.”

Al-Nusrah makes no effort to hide its ultimate end goal of establishing an Islamic Caliphate, and this objective has left many religious minorities fearful that its end state resembles “Taliban-style rule,” Reuters reports. As the organization grows and expands its reach, the West faces increased pressure to counter al-Nusrah’s influence, so that it doesn’t fill the governance vacuum left over by Assad’s regime. Unfortunately, the terrorist designation has already backfired on the US, and could ultimately lead to the unintentional empowerment of al-Nusrah. This dangerous possibility warrants immediate address and new strategic thinking because an al-Nusrah with any amount of influence will likely instigate sectarianism and disrupt Syria’s path towards peace.      

Please note that the views expressed in this piece do not represent the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

Pakistan’s Blasphemy Problem

Recently, the Pew Research Center reported that “nearly half (47%) of the countries and territories in the world have laws or policies that penalize blasphemy, apostasy (abandoning one’s faith) or defamation.” According to Pew, “remarks or actions considered to be contemptuous of God or the divine,” constitute blasphemy. Of the thirty-two countries with anti-blasphemy laws, Pakistan frequently draws international attention for its seemingly absurd application of its law. Pamela Constable examines the topic in a chapter of her book, Playing with Fire, noting that while state executions have never been carried out, “dozens of defendants have been given life sentences, and some have been killed by enraged Muslims while awaiting trial.”

In 2012 alone, NPR reports that nearly thirty cases were filed. Most recently, Iftikhar Shaikhm, a US national, is under investigation after his nephew claimed Shaikhm wrote “blasphemous words” about the Prophet Muhammad in his newly published book. Other cases this year have earned more attention. Most notable, perhaps, was the case involving a young Christian girl, Rimsha Masih, whose neighbor, a cleric, accused her of burning pages from the Koran. As a result, an angry mob descended on the girl’s home, demanding that authorities arrest her. Ultimately, a Pakistani court dropped the charges based on lack of evidence.

The apparent ease with which accusations are made in Pakistan is troubling, leaving many human rights groups, according to The New York Times, to draw attention to its disproportionate application against religious minorities. Masih’s arrest, for instance, sent reverberations throughout her Christian community, prompting many to flee.  

Frequently, blasphemy accusations “turn out to be about something else, often settling personal scores or grabbing property.” The attack on Farooqi Girls High School helps illustrate this point. The vice principal from a nearby madrassa accused one of the school teachers of insulting the Prophet, which incited a mob attack on the building, and ultimately led to the arrest of Farooqi’s principal and sent the accused teacher into hiding. Salman Hameed of  The Guardian argues that the real driver behind the attack was “envy,” stating that “the burning of the school [was] probably about a clash between the upwardly mobile, educated middle class and the frustrated, poor and uneducated class.” He adds that being a well-resourced girls’ school likely amplified resentment.   

 Unfortunately, few prominent Pakistani officials dedicate sufficient talk to reforming the law, recognizing that previous critics were assassinated – both Punjab Governor Salman Taseer and Religious Minorities Minister Shahbaz Bhatti were killed in 2011. Alarmingly, Taseer’s killer won praise across the country for his commitment to Islam; in turn, scaring many political figures away from addressing the blasphemy issue.

 Still, there are individuals, like Sherry Rehman, Pakistan’s ambassador to the US, who, in 2010 as a parliamentarian, advocated  making religious offenses the jurisdiction of higher courts; thereby, requiring higher standards of evidence for prosecution. Though Rehman’s proposal was blocked by religious conservatives, it certainly proves a step in the right direction.

 Perhaps now is the time for politicians to revisit the issue and ride the wave of international condemnation focused on the attack of Malala Yousufzai, who was accused of leading “a campaign against Islam and Shariah,” a charge similar to those faced by the alleged blasphemers mentioned above. The lack of attention on Iftikhar Shaikhm’s arrest, however, sadly suggests that the focus on violent extremism and abuse of the anti-blasphemy law has nearly dissipated.

Please note that the views expressed in this piece do not represent the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.