- Sixteen Years After 9/11: Assessing the Terrorist Threat | Monday, September 11 | 12:15 pm – 1:45 pm | New America | Register Here | Sixteen years have passed since the attacks of 9/11, and three presidents have now wrestled with calibrating an effective American response to the threat of jihadist terrorism. Where does the terrorist threat stand today? How effective has the Trump administration been in confronting the threat? What will the threat look like tomorrow? To address these questions, New America welcomes Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and CEO of Valens Global, a private firm focused on the challenge posed by violent non-state actors; Joshua Geltzer, a fellow in New America’s International Security program, who served from 2015 to 2017 as senior director for counterterrorism at the National Security Council staff, having served previously as deputy legal advisor to the National Security Council and as counsel to the assistant attorney general for national security at the Department of Justice; and Nadia Oweidat, a Middle East fellow at New America, who holds a D.Phil. in Oriental Studies from the University of Oxford, and who is currently working on a book on social media and positive change among Arabic speakers.
- Unclear Physics: Why Iraq and Libya Failed to Build Nuclear Weapons | Wednesday, September 13 | 3:30 – 5:00 pm | Wilson Center | Register Here | Many authoritarian leaders want nuclear weapons, but few manage to acquire them. Autocrats seeking nuclear weapons fail in different ways and to varying degrees—Iraq almost managed it; Libya did not come close. In this seminar, Målfrid Braut-Hegghammer compares the two failed nuclear weapons programs, arguing that state capacity played a crucial role in the trajectory and outcomes of both projects. This analysis is based on a rich set of new primary sources, collected during years of research in archives, fieldwork across the Middle East, and interviews with scientists and decision makers from both states. The analysis reveals contemporary perspectives from scientists and regime officials on the opportunities and challenges facing each project. Many of the findings challenge the conventional wisdom about clandestine weapons programs in closed authoritarian states, particularly the level of oversight and control by regime officials, and offers novel arguments about their prospects of success or failure.
- America’s Role in the World – Global Threats, Global Perspectives | Thursday, September 14 | 5:00 pm | Atlantic Council | Register Here | The day’s discussion will explore the results of Pew Research Center’s survey, which focused on global perspectives on the greatest risks facing the world today, from national security concerns to broader global issues such as climate change, and the economy, and included thirty-eight countries. Does the existential threat of ISIS affect people outside of the Middle East and Europe? Where are worries of the influence of the United States, Russia, or China most acute? Following a short presentation of the report, the panelists will evaluate the circumstances and tenuous relationships that may account for the findings. The conversation will feature Jacob Poushter of the Pew Research Center, Ellen Laipson of the Stimson Center, David Anderson of Zurich North America, and Mathew Burrows of the Atlantic Council. The panel will be moderated by Kate Brannen, the Deputy Managing Editor at Just Security.
- Pushback: Exposing and Countering Iran | Thursday, September 14 | 12:00 pm | Atlantic Council | Register Here | Much is said about Iran’s “destabilizing activities” throughout the Middle East, but often without fully describing the activities, tools, and methods Iran uses to wield influence in neighboring states. What do we really know about Iran’s activities in the region? What are the primary factors driving Iran’s foreign policy? These are the questions the Atlantic Council seeks to answer through a new project entitled Pushback: Exposing and Countering Iran. This series examines the drivers, prospects, and constraints underpinning Iran’s efforts to undermine US policy in the Middle East and restructure the regional order to its liking. Drawing on new digital forensic evidence and expert analysis, this effort offers strategic and policy recommendations to address the growing challenge Iran poses to stability in the Middle East. Center for Strategic and International Studies senior fellow and deputy director Melissa Dalton, Atlantic Council nonresident fellow Elisabeth Kendall, Conflict Armament Research’s Tim Michetti, and Shia militia group researcher Phillip Smyth will discuss Iran’s regional tactics, while Middle East Institute director and senior fellow Bilal Y. Saab, American Enterprise Institute resident scholar Ken Pollack, Johns Hopkins SAIS’s Mara Karlin, former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Arabian Peninsula Affairs Susan Ziadeh, and New York Times Washington correspondent David Sanger, will discuss the United States’ strategic options for countering Iran’s influence.
Much lower I fear. While he has given a couple of half-sane, scripted speeches prepared with Chief of Staff Kelly’s approval, President Trump is still doing what he can to offend as soon as he is off the Teleprompter. Those who don’t approve of him are at this point about 60% of Americans and far higher percentages in most other countries. Russia and Israel are the exceptions. He is still launching ferocious attacks on the American media, retweeting anti-Semitic and racist tweeps, and slamming both Senate supporters and antagonists.
With August waning and an early Labor Day (September 4) looming in the US, prospects are for a difficult fall. The first item of business in the US Congress will be raising the debt ceiling and passing some sort of budget resolution. Trump has made that more difficult by insisting that the budget include money for the wall on the border he has promised the Mexicans would pay for. That’s a non-starter for the Democrats, who have some say in the Senate because 60 votes are needed on the budget issues. Tax reform, which so far means a big tax cut to businesses like Trump’s own, will have to wait. Never mind the promised trillion-dollar infrastructure program.
Trump wants the budget resolved by eliminating the filibuster and allowing bills to pass in the Senate with a simple majority. That is a proposition even more controversial than the wall, so he is publicly hounding Senate Majority leader McConnell into changing Senate rules to allow it. That’s not a way to make friends in the Senate, but so long as the Republicans control the House Trump can be sure it won’t impeach him (which has to precede sending him to the Senate for trial).
While America tries to sort out its internal political mess, the rest of the world is trying to make do without much clarity from Washington. In Asia, China is seizing the initiative on trade and finance, pushing its “belt and road” projects all the way to the Middle East and Africa. North Korea hasn’t tested a missile lately, and there seem to be talks about talks going on behind the scenes with the US, but the prospects of denuclearizing Pyongyang have dropped to zero.
In the Middle East, Syria’s President Assad is still advancing, as are the US-supported, Kurdish-led forces trying to take Raqqa from the Islamic State. The Syrian opposition is being pressed by the UN and everyone else to drop its demand that Assad step aside. Civilian casualties from American and other air attacks in the battle for Raqqa are mounting.
Defense Secretary Mattis is promising Turkey the US will help fight against Kurdish rebels inside Turkey and in Iraq, even as it supports their affiliates in Syria. That’s going to be a hard circle to square. Iraq is also making progress against the Islamic State, but Baghdad still hasn’t convinced its own Kurdistan to call off its independence referendum, scheduled for September 25 but increasingly in doubt.
Jared Kushner is plugging away at the Israel/Palestine issues, in visits to Ramallah, Cairo and Jerusalem. No one is expecting much to come of his efforts. The State Department has refused to reiterate US commitment to a two-state solution, which (as Matt Duss pointed out on Twitter) represents the single largest concession the Palestinians have made to date. Not that anyone had much doubt about which side the Trump Administration was on. We’ll presumably now be treated to the spectacle of Israel and the US proposing various confidence-building measures meant to make life and the economy more palatable for the occupied territories on the West Bank, while Jewish settlements expand and kill off any remaining hope for a two-state solution.
This is enabled in part by some Arab states coming to the conclusion that they care more about countering Iran than supporting the Palestinians. The Saudis and Emiratis seem prepared to collaborate with Israel against Iran, even if Qatar, Iraq, and Oman are headed in the opposite direction. Yemen no longer counts, since it is being obliterated in the Gulf-led war against the Houthi rebellion. Libya, Tunisia, and Morocco are likewise out of the game for now. Egypt and Jordan have made their peace with Israel and have no choice but to keep it.
Trump is increasingly marginalized from all these developments. Weakness at home leads to weakness abroad. His only major push on foreign policy lately has been the renewal and expansion of the American military push in Afghanistan. This allegedly new strategy closely resembles his predecessor’s effort to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table. Like Obama, Trump doesn’t want to be blamed for losing Afghanistan, even if it proves impossible to keep his promise to win there.
We can still sink lower: North Korea could test another missile, the Palestinians could tell Kushner where to go, Trump could renounce the Iran nuclear deal, and the country’s long recovery from the financial crisis of 2007/8 could end. But most of all: we could continue to fail to deal with a president who is unqualified, mean-spirited, incompetent, and divisive. Let’s hope Special Counsel Mueller comes up with something compelling, sooner rather than later.
For those who are thinking, what difference does all this make? So the President wrote a fib for his son about a meeting with Russian agents, the Republicans failed to pass Trumpcare by just one vote, the potty-mouthed Communications Director got fired before he was hired? This is all small beans compared to today’s challenges: North Korea with nuclear weapons and missiles that can reach the US, Hizbollah running rampant in Iraq and Syria, Venezuela coming apart at the seams.
Yes, it is small beans, but that makes it more harmful rather than less. The President is weak domestically and disdained internationally:He is unable to manage even small issues without embarrassing himself. International support is evaporating. Japan and South Korea have no choice but to align with the US against Kim Jong-un, but the rest of Asia is still reeling from Trump’s sinking the Trans Pacific Partnership, most of Europe and Latin America are lost to American leadership, and the Middle East is consuming itself.
Adversaries are encouraged. Only friendly dictators are comforted, knowing that Trump will not criticize the homicidal crackdown on drug traffickers in the Philippines or the restoration of military dictatorship in Egypt, never mind the absolute monarchy in Saudi Arabia or the elected autocracy in Turkey.
America’s two biggest challenges right now are China and Russia. The Chinese are bemused by Trump’s warmth one day followed by bluster and threats the next. He has given the Chinese no compelling reason to be helpful on anything: the South China Sea, North Korea, or trade. Beijing hasn’t done anything dramatic to show off its advantages, but it doesn’t really need to. Xi Jinping gets better ratings than Trump, even if he lags Angela Merkel:
Russia is less shy. It is expelling most of the US embassy, with nary a tweet yet from Trump in protest, and assembling a massive military exercise on the border with NATO. President Putin is disappointed in the return on his investment in Trump, but for the moment at least he seems prepared to take it out on the US government rather than Trump’s business empire, which depends on Russian purchasers and investors. That is odds-on the reason for Trump refusing to make his tax returns public, but it will be clear enough the day Russia decides to yank Trump’s personal chain.
I know lots of people think America looked weak under President Obama, who purposefully set out to reduce American commitments around the world. In withdrawing from the Middle East, he left a vacuum that others exploited. But Trump is continuing that policy, with a lot less finesse. Ending aid to the Syrian opposition, declaring that the US has no interest in Libya, allowing President Erdogan to reverse Turkey’s democratic evolution, and failing to oppose Kurdistan’s referendum on independence are decisions that will have serious consequences for a decade or more. His policy proposals are disliked worldwide:
Can the situation be saved by a retired general as White House Chief of Staff? No more than it has been saved by a general as Defense Secretary and another as National Security Adviser. The fish rots from the head, as the late lamented Communications Director averred. General Kelly may impose some order on the policy process, but the President will still say and tweet what he wants, the family will confer with him at will, and the white supremacists, alt right freaks, and Fox news friends he likes so much (except when they won’t fire the Special Prosecutor) will still have his rapt attention. None of that will change what the world thinks of the man and the country he now leads so badly:
Source for the lovely graphs: Trump Unpopular Worldwide, American Image Suffers | Pew Research Center
My piece in the Washington Post this morning concludes:
Washington can hope the Iraqi Kurds and Arabs will restrain themselves and negotiate a peaceful and mutually agreed outcome. But hope is not a policy. It is also still possible the referendum will be postponed, but if held, it is likely to undermine the fight against the Islamic State, heighten tension between Baghdad and Irbil, and cause fighting over the territories they dispute. It could also encourage independence movements in South Yemen, eastern Libya (Cyrenaica) and Syria as well as validate Russian-supported independence claims in Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine. None of that would be good for the United States, which should be doing what it can to block the referendum and insist on a successful negotiation before it is held, not afterwards.
That’s what the Supreme Court has decided you need: a bona fide (genuine, real, sincere, non-deceptive) relationship with an individual or entity in the US to come here from six Muslim-majority countries (Iran, Libya, Somalia, Syria, Sudan, and Yemen). President Trump is claiming this vindicates his effort to block all immigration and refugees from these allegedly dangerous countries, from which no terrorist has arrived since 9/11.
Far from it. The merits of the bans he ordered will be considered in the fall. For now, all the Court has decided is that people without a bona fide relationship with the US are not entitled to the ban on the travel ban issued by lower courts.
The question then becomes: what is a bona fide relationship? The Court made clear that category includes familial relations as well as contractual ones, like documented admission to a US university. The only clearly excluded category would be relationships that are deceptive, for example one entered into for the sole purpose of getting into the US.
So the consequence of this decision, as the dissenting minority that wanted to back Trump more fully said, will be a flood of litigation to determine what is a bona fide relationship with a US individual (notable: not necessarily a citizen) or entity. Is an invitation to speak at a conference evidence of such a relationship? Do hotel reservations or airline tickets qualify? What about acceptance into a refugee resettlement program sponsored by the State Department? I’m fairly confident this is a slippery slope to admitting many people.
The problem is that the public image will lean heavily in Trump’s direction, not least because of his exaggerated claim to vindication. This will encourage immigration officials to take a draconian attitude towards enforcement. It will also offend Muslims worldwide, who don’t like the restrictions:
In fact, the countries where majorities like the restrictions are mainly those where ethnic nationalism is rampant: Hungary, Poland, Russia, and Israel fit that category.
Al Qaeda and the Islamic State also relish Trump’s hostility to Muslims, which confirms their assertions about the US and the need to attack it. Trump’s crowing about this Supreme Court decision could easily boost extremist recruitment, both inside and outside the US. The restrictions will likely cause more terrorism than they prevent–it will take only one such act inside the US by someone from one of these countries to prove that point.
Trump however will try to use any terrorist attack in the opposite direction. He all too obviously sees such attacks as opportunities to make his political points. He has used each and every attack in Europe as an opportunity to generate antipathy toward Muslims in general. He’ll no doubt amplify that attitude if and when there is an attack in the US, thus generating more resentment and helping extremist recruitment.
It is true of course that he also has friends in the Muslim world: autocrats like Saudi Arabia’s King Salman, Turkey’s President Erdogan and Egypt’s President Sissi have nothing to fear from this president, who has ignored their brutal and indiscriminate crackdowns on liberal democrats as well as terrorists. Citizens, residents and travelers through those three countries have been involved in terrorist acts in Europe and the US since 9/11, but Trump wouldn’t want to offend his friends by blocking their citizens from the US.
We face another round on the immigration ban at the Supreme Court in the fall, with lots of litigation in the meanwhile. This Administration is a big boon for lawyers.
PS: If you don’t like that chart, try this one:
On Tuesday, the Atlantic Council hosted a forum featuring experts Jason Pack, Rhiannon Smith, and Karim Mezran to mark the release of their collaborative report, “The Origins and Evolution of ISIS in Libya.” Christopher Chivvis, a senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation and Associate Director at the International Security and Defense Policy Center, joined the three authors. The report—which seeks to understand the trajectory of jihadist organizations in Libya through a study of the Islamic State—emphasized the crisis of a weak and divided central authority, the allure of Islamist opposition, and the adaptability of jihadist groups in Libya.
In the wake of longtime Libyan autocrat Muammar Qaddafi’s deposition and demise in 2011, the state collapsed into a series of territorial struggles. Libyan jihadism emerged out of this turbulent climate. Pack, Smith, and Mezran report produces three key findings:
- A divided political climate and weak state control enabled the growth of ISIS in Libya.
- The majority of Libyans oppose ISIS, expressing distaste for the organization’s brutal policies and techniques.
- Libyan jihadism is driven by Libyan concerns, despite the dressing of Salafist religious rhetoric.
The crisis of governance in Libya “opened the door for local jihadist groups,” noted Chivvis. In particular, ISIS strategy targeted “under-governed” cities with historical links to global jihadist networks, such as Derna in the east. As jihadist militias proliferated and tensions between Islamists and anti-Islamist General Khalifa Haftar’s forces escalated, increasing numbers of jihadist commanders pledged allegiance to ISIS. Ultimately, ISIS seized Derna in October 2014.
Rival jihadist group Derna Mujahideen Shura Council (DMSC) expelled ISIS from Derna in May 2016 . However, notes the report, “jihadist organizations have been able to survive and thrive in Libya because they offer governance functions to a population that is starved for them.” Jihadist groups will continue to take advantage of weak governmental authority and local instability.
For this reason, a purely counterterror approach is insufficient. Smith and Pack noted that any successful foreign effort to combat ISIS in Libya must involve targeted capacity building to fill vacuums in Libyan industry and government. The upcoming 2018 national elections could help fill this void, provided that sufficient centralized authority exists at that time to carry them out.
“ISIS is the symptom,” reiterated Pack, “not the cause. The underlying disease is statelessness.”
The lack of a strong national government and consequent decentralization of authority in Libya also means that loyalties—whether to militia leaders or ISIS commanders—are predominantly local. For this reason, Pack explained, it is vitally important that concerned foreign actors focus their efforts on empowering local councils and institutions. Yet since 2011, both the Obama and Trump administrations have limited themselves to assassinations and air strikes in the region. While reluctance to deploy troops is understandable, deferring the problem could lead to perpetual instability, Chivvis cautioned.
Feelings of abandonment are another force driving jihadism in the country. Sirte is a prime example. One of the last Qaddafi holdouts, the city fell to National Transitional Council (NTC) rebel forces in 2011. After NTC control waned, ISIS seized control of the city only to be expelled by Misratan forces allied with the new national authority (the Government of National Accord). Disaffected citizens embraced Islamist opposition in the form of al-Qaeda-affiliated Ansar ash-Sharia. Now that Ansar ash-Sharia has also been expelled, Tuesday’s panelists fear the power vacuum left in its wake. Pack cautioned that the cycle of government control followed by superseding jihadist or Islamist opposition may persist.
The great danger and advantage of jihadist groups is adaptability. Although ISIS has lost territory, warned Smith, it now possesses the freedom to mutate—especially if conflict breaks out once again in Sirte.
Networks between Libyan cities and the Levant remain active. In Pack’s estimation, the country functions as a kind of “postgrad for jihadists”: prospective agents are trained in Syria, but learn how to survive and innovate in outposts like Libya. According to Chivvis, ISIS actively sought to build a new front in the country.
Despite the dire situation in Libya, there remains staunch resistance to jihadism. Smith suggests that the Libyan people possess a deep-seated mistrust of foreign interference that ultimately places them in opposition to foreign-based groups like ISIS. This may extend to regional jihadist groups as well.
“The lesser evil of 2011 was, ‘Let’s work with Islamists.’ The lesser evil of 2016 is, ‘Let’s work with French and British and American forces to rid our country of jihadists,’” observed Pack.