The Paris terrorist attacks were the center for focus for the Washington think tank community this week. Many of the think tanks commented on the attacks – several of which are included here.
The Monitor Analysis looks at Washington’s security response to the attacks. However, improved security involves many issues – many of the political. These include a confused and failed Syrian foreign policy, the ongoing debate on immigration, and an admission by Obama that his war on terror strategy has failed.
Think Tanks Activity Summary
The Heritage Foundation says the recent Paris terrorist attacks make it imperative that the US refocus on European security issues. They note, “This is the time for Washington to focus on strengthening ties with major allies in both Eastern and Western Europe. The threat posed by an increasingly aggressive Russia, as well as an array of Islamist terrorist groups, from ISIS to al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), has made the need for transatlantic military, security, and intelligence cooperation an urgent priority. An estimated 3,000 Islamists based in Europe have traveled to Iraq and Syria to fight with the Islamist State. Many have returned to Europe to plot terrorist attacks on European soil.”
The German Marshall Fund looks at the Paris terrorist’s attacks and its impact on France and the war on terror. They see a change in type of terrorist involved in attacks today. They note, “The profiles of the Charlie Hebdo attackers bring to light some challenges specific to France, but also some that are relevant to the European and transatlantic fight against terrorism. First, their biographies underline the need to improve our understanding of a new form of post-9/11 terrorism — one that is much more fluid, Internet-driven, and fueled by a rage against Western society — and of the radicalization process that leads young delinquents to Jihadism, often during time served in prison. Second, police and intelligence services should rightfully see their resources increased to address the growing number of threats, but they do not — and will never — have the capabilities to keep track of all radicals. They can only be one part of prevention policies. Third, the revelations by U.S. intelligence regarding the training of one of the perpetrators, Saïd Kouachi, in Yemen emphasize the need for enhanced European and transatlantic intelligence cooperation to improve our ability to recognize potential threats and coordinate counter-terrorist strategies.”
The Brookings Institution looks at the threat of foreign fighters in the Syrian civil war. They conclude, “The United States and Europe already have effective measures in place to greatly reduce the threat of terrorism from jihadist returnees and to limit the scale of any attacks that might occur. Those measures can and should be improved—and, more importantly, adequately resourced. But the standard of success cannot be perfection. If it is, then Western governments are doomed to fail, and, worse, doomed to an overreaction which will waste resources and cause dangerous policy mistakes.”
The Foreign Policy Research Institute looks at the war on ISIS, Iraq, and the collapsing oil prices. They conclude, “The combination of falling world oil prices and the ISIS conflict has resulted in the most serious fiscal and exchange rate challenges since the 2003 invasion. It is tempting for the new government of Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi to seek only limited modifications of fiscal and exchange rate policies so as not to run the risk of further destabilizing an already complex situation. And if low – sub-$100 a barrel – oil prices are a temporary phenomenon with higher oil prices returning in 2016, then this limited strategy should work. However, if deceased oil demand from the BRIC countries combined with an increased oil supply driven by both the fracking revolution in the United States and Saudi Arabian attempts to rein in the world oil market, then Iraq may face several years of oil prices substantially below $100 a barrel…A future of low oil prices will require difficult and, to a great extent, irrevocable decisions about both fiscal and exchange rate policies. Rich countries with long histories of stable government can afford to make stupid decisions. Iraq cannot.”
The Heritage Foundation looks at the Palestinian Authority’s policy to gain international recognition. They note, “PA has sought to use the United Nations and other international organizations to achieve its objectives absent negotiations. Most recently, the Palestinians proffered a Security Council resolution setting a deadline for withdrawal of Israel to its pre-1967 borders. When the resolution did not pass, the Palestinians applied for accession to the International Criminal Court (ICC). This is a continuation of Palestinian tactics over the past few years to exploit the U.N. and other international organizations to bolster its unilateral statehood claims in a deliberate attempt to isolate and delegitimize Israel and avoid concessions that would be necessary in negotiating a peace agreement. This effort runs counter to U.S. policy and U.S. interests and should elicit a firm response, including ending U.S. bilateral assistance to the PA and all U.S. funding to international organizations that grant the Palestinians membership and support treaties to which they become a party.”
The Washington Institute looks at American military financing of Egypt and what is to be gained and lost. They conclude, “Repressive and otherwise ill-advised Egyptian policies have no doubt fueled some of the Obama administration’s reticence to issue waivers and provide military support. Indeed, Cairo’s behavior is problematic and perhaps even counterproductive to the state’s long-term stability, and many in Washington would prefer to withhold military funding as leverage for improvements in human rights. But a full cutoff in U.S. assistance — especially in the midst of the Sinai insurgency — would neither improve Cairo’s conduct nor enhance the already fraught U.S.-Egyptian relationship. Indeed, precedent suggests that withholding assistance would aggravate — not moderate — the worst tendencies in Egyptian governance. For example, between October 2013 and December 2014, when U.S. funding was conditioned on democratic progress, Cairo passed a draconian new anti-protest law, implemented a more restrictive NGO law, and witnessed Sisi win the presidential election with 97 percent of the popular vote…Washington has already signaled its distaste for some of Cairo’s policies. It can further demonstrate its aversion to repression in Egypt by taking steps to end the courtesy of “cash flow financing,” which allows Cairo to commit to purchasing expensive weapons systems from American defense contractors and cover them with projected future FMF grants. For the time being, though, there is little to be gained and potentially much to be lost by waiting for Egypt’s FMF accounts at the Federal Reserve to zero out.”
The CSIS looks at the latest Saudi succession crisis. Despite concerns, CSIS notes, “As succession crises go, however, the choice of next Saudi king is likely to be a non-crisis. The Kingdom has come a long way since the struggle that brought Ibn Saud to power. It is now a modern state by most standards, and its royal politics – while both interesting and uncertain – seem unlikely to be a serious source of instability or lead to serious shifts in its strategic role and partnership with the United States.”
As the Iranian nuclear talks restart, AEI looks at Iranian negotiating strategy. They note, “Iran’s negotiating position as the P5+1 talks restart this week will be an important indicator of the direction of the Supreme Leader’s thinking. If Rouhani is winning the argument with the Supreme Leader, then we would expect to see Foreign Minister Javad Zarif with more room to maneuver, especially on the number of centrifuges. If we don’t see new bargaining positions from Iran, then we can deduce that Khameini is just not willing to go there yet.”
The CSIS looks at the transition in Afghanistan. It raises serious questions about the political unity of the country and the effectiveness of its government, provides a detailed analysis of the problems resulting fromthe recent election, a growing Afghan budget crisis, and critical problems with power brokers and corruption. The report indicates that the military situation is far worse than the US Department of Defense and ISAF have reported, and provides detailed graphs and maps showing the real risks of the current security situation. It also provides a detailed analysis of the problems in the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) and the limits in their capability, as well as the weaknesses in past and planned US and allied force development and training efforts. The report suggests that President Obama’s insistence on rapid cuts in the US advisory presence and its near elimination by the end of 2016 could cripple the Transition effort, and that a large and longer conditions-based effort may be critical to success.
America Tightens Security in Wake of Paris Terrorist Attacks
The terrorist attacks in Paris last week and the cyber attacks on Centcom’s social media sites have forced the United States to tighten its security arrangements.
House Homeland Security Committee chair Representative Mike McCaul (R – Texas) said on CBS that he expects to “see more and more” of the Paris style attacks take place around the world. “I believe… larger scale, 9/11-style [attacks] are more difficult to pull off – a bigger cell we can detect, a small cell like this one, very difficult to detect, deter and disrupt which is really our goal. I think we’ll see more and more of these taking place, whether it be foreign fighters going to the warfare in return or whether it be someone getting on the internet as John Miller talked about, very sophisticated social media program then radicalizing over the internet,” McCaul said. McCaul called the Paris attack, “the most successful foreign fighter terrorist attack that we have seen to date.”
The terrorism threat is clearly a bipartisan concern. Democratic Senator Feinstein said, “I think there are sleeper cells, not only in France, but certainly in other countries, and, yes, even in our own.” She went on to say, “So I think this calls for vigilance. It calls for seeing that the national security organizations of our country — the intelligence community — is funded fully, is directed ably, is cooperating with … British intelligence, French intelligence, German intelligence, as we do.”
There is already evidence that the Paris attack may be spurring attacks in America. The FBI arrested a 20-year-old Ohio man for allegedly plotting to carry out a terrorist attack on the US Capitol. Government documents filed in the case indicate that the 20-year-old Christopher Lee Cornell, who also goes by the name Raheel Mahrus Ubaydah, allegedly planned to detonate pipe bombs in the Capitol and then open fire on people fleeing the building. He had posted statements on social media sites stating that he supported the acts of ISIS, and that he believed Muslims should wage Jihad by setting up attacks in America.
But, physical attacks aren’t the only threat to the US. Centcom was forced to shut down its Twitter and YouTube accounts this week after they were hacked into by a group calling itself the Cyber Caliphate. There were tweets praising ISIS and threatening American soldiers such as “AMERICAN SOLDIERS. WE ARE COMING. WATCH YOUR BACK. ISIS.” The hackers also published the phone numbers and e-mail accounts of high ranking Army officers while videos glorifying ISIS found their way onto the YouTube account.
Obama’s critics assert that tightening security in the US involves more than additional security at airports and such, to them, the issue is more a political problem than one of reallocating resources to vulnerable targets in the US.
The first problem is that in many ways, the Obama Administration has encouraged and assisted radical forces like ISIS and al Qaeda with its surrogate war in Syria. Obama’s Syrian policy was unfocused and had no clear cut objective, aside from removing Assad from power. It was also suffered from fits and starts as the administration vacillated from a “hands off” policy, to remote drone attacks, to arming and training various militias in Syria. In the meantime, the war in Syria has become a training ground for potential terrorists, who eventually return home to Europe and North America.
Additional security measures will also fall afoul of the immigration debate. Last month, Congress only funded the Department of Homeland Security for two months so it could address Obama’s controversial immigration amnesty. By withholding funding for DHS, Congress could limit any immigration action that DHS could take. However, with the Paris attack, the administration is arguing that failure to quickly fund DHS could hurt the agency’s war on terrorism. But, despite this concern, Obama has threatened to veto any funding that doesn’t allow him to continue his immigration policy.
Another problem is that admitting that the Paris attacks pose a real threat also means that Obama has to admit that much of his anti-terrorism policy has failed. Just recently, Obama noted that al Qaeda in Yemen – the same group that took credit for the Paris attack – had been successfully defeated by America. Therefore, any push to tighten security is to admit that his highly touted anti-terrorism policy has failed.
Despite the political issues, the US is trying to address the threat. The White House announced that President Obama will host an anti-extremism summit February 18 to discuss ways to stop the radicalization and recruitment of Americans by terrorist groups like al Qaeda and ISIS. However, critics say there is some question about the seriousness of the White House in calling this meeting and insist that it was done in order to seem more concerned about terrorism.
No doubt, there is a greater interest in increasing security at other levels of the government. The Department of Homeland Security announced that its increased measures include increasing random screenings of passengers at airports as well as ordering the Transportation Security Administration to conduct a short-term review as to whether more is needed.
DHS secretary Jeh Johnson has also ordered heightened security around government buildings, adding to the previous tightening of security procedures that began in October after a shooter attacked Canada’s Parliament. “The precise locations at which we are enhancing security is law-enforcement sensitive, will vary and shift from location to location, and will be continually re-evaluated,” he said.
Johnson said the US would continue to share information with the French and other allies about terrorist threats, suspicious individuals, and foreign fighters. Johnson added that the DHS is providing state and local law enforcement with FBI training in incident response. He said he personally met with community leaders in Columbus, Chicago, Minneapolis, Boston, and Los Angeles to engage them in countering violent extremism and he is looking forward to a White House summit on countering violent extremism on February 18.
But, this additional security is being met by more sophisticated terrorist methods by ISIS and al Qaeda. Al Qaeda recently posted detailed airplane bombing instructions in its online magazine, including how to build the devices, get them past security, and where to sit on the plane to cause maximum damage. Homeland Security secretary Johnson says there is no specific threat at this time, but explosives expert Kevin Barry said it appeared to be one of the most “sophisticated” non-metallic explosives devices he’s seen, which could especially be a problem for smaller airports that don’t employ high-tech body imaging security devices.
Al Qaeda in Yemen, previously attempted to bring down an American airliner on Christmas Day 2009, but the would-be bomber couldn’t get the device to detonate. That bomber, Umar Farouk Abdulmuttalab, reportedly crossed paths in Yemen with one of the men who executed the Paris terror attack last week. In response to the accelerated threat, airport security has reportedly been directed to conduct more random searches of both passengers and luggage. The device that al Qaeda described is designed to go undetected by airport metal detectors, but will probably be detectable by the newer full body scanners found at larger airports.
There is also additional concern being shown about America’s rail system, which is a critical people mover in the Eastern US. Smoke and fire plagued two of the nation’s major metro rail stations this week, raising justified questions about safety and preparedness. On Monday, one person died and 84 fell ill after heavy smoke filled the L’Enfant Plaza Metro in Washington, D.C. Officials believe an “electrical arcing event” caused the lethal Beltway incident. A probe into the cause of the arcing — as well as an investigation into evacuation delays that trapped hundreds of passengers — is underway.
On Tuesday, an estimated 150 New York Fire Department personnel responded to a three-alarm fire at Penn Station that started before 2:30 a.m. Two firefighters suffered injuries battling the Big Apple blaze, which was initially deemed “suspicious” and then “accidental.” There is some concern about the reason for the fire as a militant ISIS sympathizer published multiple threats on Twitter a few hours before the fire, warning that “tomorrow New York will burn” and predicting a “3:00 a.m. bomb.”
There is good reason for America’s Homeland Security to be worried. Rail attacks have been a domestic and worldwide threat for more than 15 years, from the 1997 NYC subway-bombing plot to New Delhi, Mumbai, Chechnya, Madrid and London. Since 9/11, there have been 1,800 worldwide terrorist attacks on surface transport systems, which have claimed 4,000 innocent lives. Al Qaeda mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, told interrogators in 2003 of al Qaeda’s plot to target the D.C. metro rail system.
This is clearly a security problem as three years ago the Government Accounting Office (GAO) concluded that the Transportation Safety Administration (TSA) was failing to collect and analyze rail security threat data. The audit found that oversight and enforcement of transit security measures were “inconsistent” and inspections so spotty that “three of 19 rail agencies GAO contacted were not inspected from January 2011 through June 2012, including a large (unnamed) metropolitan rail agency.” The Department of Homeland Security “accepted” the recommendations, but issued no timeframe to address the deficiencies.
There are also concerns about specific probes around government installations. For instance, the military has tightened security at New Castle Air National Guard Base in Delaware after unknown suspects apparently tried to probe the base for security weaknesses. The FBI, the Air Force, the Joint Terrorism Task Force and Delaware police are investigating at least five attempted probes of the base perimeter this week. Vice President Biden has frequently landed and taken off from the base.
The recent cyber attacks on Sony and Centcom have also added cyber security to the more traditional role of physical security. This week Obama unveiled legislation that would fight cyber terrorism by allowing companies and the government to share information about potential cyber threats and security vulnerabilities.
The proposal, officially announced in a speech at the National Cyber security and Communications Integration Center, hopes to provide incentives to the private sector for participating in information-sharing with the federal government by offering them liability protection. The plan seeks to address privacy concerns by requiring participating companies to comply with a set of restrictions, such as removing “unnecessary personal information,” though the White House fact didn’t specify what those restrictions would entail.
However, the proposal is already facing opposition from privacy advocates, who warn that information-sharing legislation could bolster the government’s surveillance powers. Several groups have insisted that no information sharing bill should be considered before substantial National Security Agency reform.
According to the National Journal, “The Sony hacks demonstrates a failure of corporate digital security, and not a need for greater government information-sharing,” said Amie Stepanovich, senior policy counsel with Access, a digital-freedom group. “The administration’s attempt to use Sony to justify increased transfer of information to the government is difficult to understand, particularly in the absence of substantive NSA reform, a subject the administration has yet to comment on in the new year.”
Although Congress – both Republicans and Democrats – are interested in improving cyber security, the troubling issue of personal privacy is the stumbling block. Revelations about the extent of the NSA’s spying on Americans have only made any bill that doesn’t provide considerable protection from government spying nearly impossible.
One legislative solution that will receive serious consideration is the current visa program. Congressman McCaul, said that his House Homeland Security Committee plans to launch an investigation to identify potential security loopholes in the visa waiver program. “I think we need to take a look at the visa waiver program again, and see what we can do to prevent this kind of thing from happening, because I believe it will happen, if it hasn’t already,” McCaul said.
There is also support for this on the other side of the political spectrum. Democratic Senator Feinstein pointed out that had the two terrorists who had attacked the newspaper wanted to enter the US, they could have done so using a fake passport. “They can come back from training, they go through a visa waiver country, and they come into this country,” Feinstein said. “We have a big problem here.”
Although the events in Paris have definitely heightened security in the US, there is no guarantee that it will stop any attack. As has been mentioned before, lone wolf attacks are very difficult to detect and stop. While DHS may be able to stop larger, more coordinated attacks, they can’t be everywhere.
Ironically, Gun lobby in U.S. and its advocates are claiming that it may be the American right to own firearms that may protect much of the country from such an attack. While cities like Washington and New York City have restrictive gun laws, most Americans can own firearms and several million Americans are legally allowed to carry a firearm in public. As one American noted after the Paris attacks, “This would have never happened in Van Horn, Texas.”
Provocative Palestinian U.N. Actions Require Strong U.S. Response
By Brett D. Schaefer and James Phillips
January 12, 2015
The U.S. has provided billions of dollars in assistance to facilitate peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. Despite America’s financial support and its repeated diplomatic efforts, the Palestinian Authority (PA) has demonstrated little serious interest in negotiating a peace agreement that recognizes Israel’s right to exist, commits the Palestinians to preventing terrorist activity against Israel, and resolves disagreements over borders, security arrangements, Israeli settlements, and Palestinian refugees. Instead, the PA has sought to use the United Nations and other international organizations to achieve its objectives absent negotiations. Most recently, the Palestinians proffered a Security Council resolution setting a deadline for withdrawal of Israel to its pre-1967 borders. When the resolution did not pass, the Palestinians applied for accession to the International Criminal Court (ICC). This is a continuation of Palestinian tactics over the past few years to exploit the U.N. and other international organizations to bolster its unilateral statehood claims in a deliberate attempt to isolate and delegitimize Israel and avoid concessions that would be necessary in negotiating a peace agreement.
Top Five Policy Priorities for Europe in 2015
By Luke Coffey, Theodore R. Bromund, and Nile Gardiner
January 14, 2015
Issue Brief #4331
The United States faces mounting challenges in Europe in 2015. Russia is on the march in Ukraine, many of America’s oldest allies question its commitment to transatlantic security, and the economies of Europe have still not fully recovered from the Euro crisis. In addition, the specter of Islamist terrorism has raised its ugly head again in Europe, with the brutal slaying of 17 people in France, including eight journalists at the offices of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris. It is time for the U.S. to renew its commitment to European security, to make NATO relevant again, and to promote economic freedom across the continent. Here are the top five foreign policy priorities in the European region for the Administration and Congress in 2015.
Transition in Afghanistan: Losing the Forgotten War?
By Anthony H. Cordesman
Center for Strategic and International Studies
January 12, 2015
The US role in Afghanistan formally transitioned from a combat role to one of supporting the Afghan government at the end of 2014. It is far from clear, however, that Afghanistan can develop the level of effective political unity, governance and security forces, or viable economy for this transition to work. Moreover, the US faces significant challenges in dealing with Pakistan, and developing a new strategic posture in Central Asia.
The True Nature of the Saudi Succession “Crisis”
By Anthony H. Cordesman
Center for Strategic and International Studies
January 9, 2015
Every time a Saudi king gets seriously ill or dies, this triggers yet another media frenzy over a Saudi succession crisis. There is yet another round of speculation about major conflicts within the royal family, the destabilization of Saudi Arabia, and how the various tensions within the Kingdom could somehow trigger a civil crisis or conflict. King Abdullah’s illness is no exception. Anyone who has written on Saudi Arabia already has a flood of calls about what will happen if he dies, whether Saudi Arabia will have a massive political crisis, the royal family will self-destruct, or it will somehow be taken over by jihadist extremists. Some of this concern is natural. King Abdullah has been an exceptional ruler, and one who has led Saudi Arabia through a remarkably turbulent period in the Middle East.
Special Report: Possible changes in Iranian foreign policy
By J. Matthew McInnis
American Enterprise Institute
January 14, 2015
President Rouhani and Supreme Leader Khamenei’s recent rhetoric portrays an Iranian regime weighing significant shifts in its foreign and economic policies, including its negotiating position at the nuclear talks. Rouhani has fought since his 2013 election to correct serious flaws he sees in Iranian policy: an excessively confrontational relationship with the United States, unnecessary and damaging isolation from the international community, pervasive public corruption, and an IRGC overly dominant in the economy. Rouhani argues that these problems threaten the economic and political viability of the Islamic Republic. The recent collapse of oil prices has given his warnings new urgency.
ISIS and Oil: Iraq’s Perfect Storm
By Frank R. Gunter
Foreign Policy Research Institute
The combination of the ISIS insurgency and low oil prices are producing an economic shock unprecedented in Iraq’s troubled history. The ongoing conflict will require a sharp rise in security expenditures at the same time that government oil export revenues are collapsing, forcing the government into deficit spending. This deficit spending, combined with a loss in reserves from the Central Bank of Iraq, calls into question the much-vaunted stability of the Iraqi dinar. In the eleven years since the U.S.-led invasion overthrew Saddam Hussein, Iraq has faced brutal conflict and sharp drops in oil prices but – until mid-2014 – never both at the same time. Following the destruction of the Golden Mosque, Iraq descended into what many analysts saw as a full-fledged civil war in 2006-7. However, not only was a large proportion of Iraqi security expenses paid for by the United States but also world oil prices rose sharply. Combined with a gradual increase in oil export volume, this resulted in a substantial growth in government revenues. And when oil prices collapsed in 2009, the level of violence and associated expenses was the lowest since before the 2003 invasion. The recent combination of an acceleration in violence and an oil price collapse is unprecedented.
France’s March to Unity — or Further Fragmentation?
By Alexandra de Hoop Scheffer and Martin Quencez
German Marshall Fund
January 13, 2015
On Sunday, around 4 million people marched in France to show national unity against the terrorist attacks that killed 17 in Paris last week. These attacks came in the context of increased terrorist threats and communal tensions in France. The estimated 2,000 French citizens fighting in Syria and Iraq constitute the largest group of Europeans there; about 200 have now returned home. Both al Qaeda and the Islamic State group have called for more terrorist acts in France in response to the interventions in Libya and Mali. Three years after Mohamed Merah’s gun attacks in Toulouse killed seven, and ten months after the murder of four people at the Brussels’ Jewish Museum, which may have involved a French jihadist, the events at the Charlie Hebdo offices and the kosher grocery reinforce the fear that France will be repeatedly targeted by Islamist terrorist attacks in the coming years. In response, the French government is likely to redefine its homeland and foreign security policies, with repercussions for the transatlantic community.
A Moment of Decision on Egypt
By David Schenker
January 14, 2015
Although Egypt is an important strategic asset for the United States — granting priority Suez Canal access to American warships and unrestricted overflights to American military aircraft — the new government led by former military commander Abdul Fattah al-Sisi is increasingly repressive. Accordingly, the Obama administration has been reluctant to resume full military and economic assistance to the longtime U.S. aid recipient. If Washington does not deliver in the coming weeks, U.S. foreign military financing (FMF) to Egypt — a constant since Cairo’s 1979 peace treaty with Israel — will run out, damaging the already tenuous bilateral relationship.
Be Afraid. Be A Little Afraid: The Threat of Terrorism from Western Foreign Fighters in Syria and Iraq
By: Daniel L. Byman and Jeremy Shapiro
Many U.S. and European intelligence officials fear that a wave of terrorism will sweep over Europe, driven by the civil war in Syria and continuing instability in Iraq. Many of the concerns stem from the large number of foreign fighters involved. Despite these fears and the real danger that motivates them, the Syrian and Iraqi foreign fighter threat can easily be exaggerated. Previous cases and information emerging from Syria suggest several mitigating effects that may reduce—but hardly eliminate—the potential terrorist threat from foreign fighters who have gone to Syria.
Mounzer A. Sleiman Ph.D.
Center for American and Arab Studies
Think Tanks Monitor
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