Lucky or Good?

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The debate occurring under the surface of the Boston coverage is summed up by the question: were the Tsarnaev brothers lucky or good? The obvious answer is “Yes.” Any time you can pull off a hostile operation in enemy territory, luck plays a role. Ask Anna Chapman, the Russian mole whose 11-member sleeper-cell had been activated for six months before being rolled up by the FBI. But from what we are learning of Dzhokhar’s communication with authorities, they were also taking the advice of al Qaeda, as published in al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s (AQAP’s) online English-language magazine Inspire.

The problem (for both sides) is one of scale. The FBI has been spectacularly successful in penetrating and foiling big plots – splashy, high-profile attempts like October 17 2012, when Bangladeshi national Quazi Nafis was arrested as part of an FBI sting operation after he attempted to detonate a vehicle borne improvised explosive device outside New York’s Federal Reserve Bank, among many others. The problem with these has been that the plan is larger than the expertise contained within the cell planning the attack. When they reach out for funds, expertise or materials, the FBI intercepts the query and offers undercover help. This is the scale problem for the perpetrators.

In reacting to the increased difficulty in sending professional terrorists into the United States, al Qaeda countered by sending in suicide attackers to take out the plane in-flight. Their first attempt – the now famous December 25 2009 crotch-bomber – failed through poor tradecraft (the bomber, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, perspired into the PETN[1] explosives in his underwear, severely degrading the charge) and heroic passengers (who subdued Mr Abdulmutallab until landing). That was followed on October 29 2010 by the UPS printer cartridge bombs intercepted in the UAE and England after a frantic search initiated by Saudi intelligence. These were ingenious devices, build by Ibrahim Hassan al-Asiri, AQAP’s master bombmaker, each containing 300 to 400 grams of C4 and a detonating mechanism.

It was after these failures that al Qaeda decided to shift tactics. To change scale. Actually, the first mention of going smaller was in 2009 in their Arabic-language magazine Sada al-Malahim. The al Qaeda core organization embraced this approach in May 2010 in an English-language video featuring Adam Gadahn, the Oregon-born senior al Qaeda operator, who serves as cultural advisor, media expert and English-language spokesman. But the change of heart fully kicked-in with the November 2010 issue of Inspire, when a letter from the editor, the late Samir Khan, in his “death by a thousand cuts” missive, advised “…to bring down America we do not need to strike big. In such an environment of security phobia that is sweeping America, it is more feasible to stage smaller attacks that involve fewer players and less time to launch and thus we may circumvent the security barriers America has worked so hard to erect. This strategy of attacking the enemy with smaller, but more frequent operations is what some may refer to the strategy of a thousand cuts. The aim is to bleed the enemy to death.” This was the official beginning of al Qaeda’s Lone Wolf tactic, encouraging domestic followers to “use what is at hand – a knife, a gun, things in your mother’s kitchen” and to strike at small soft targets in greater numbers that it takes to mount a larger strike.

Timothy McVeigh et al[2] and Major Nidal Hasan[3] are held up as prime examples of this “small ball” approach. While the Oklahoma City bombing wasn’t related to al Qaeda-esque militant Islam, it serves as an example of the difficulty to intercept a dedicated lone wolf, the Fort Hood shooting was related, and is illustrative of the dangers of allowing political correctness to taint tradecraft on the part of the authorities. The brothers Tsarnaev serve as a further example of the efficacy of lone wolf attacks.

Major Hasan was bristling with so many pre-attack red flags that luck played the largest role in his ability to carry out his horrific spasm. His business card carried the notation SoA(SWT), known to mean “Soldier of Allah” (Subhanahu aw ta’ala), the latter translating to “Glory to God.” He had put out a PowerPoint presentation while serving at Walter Reed entitled The Qur’anic Worldview as it Relates to Muslims in the US Military, which emphasized allegiance to Allah above all other allegiances. He exchanged eMails with the late Anwar al-Awlaki, the New Mexico-born master propagandist for al Qaeda, operating out of northern Yemen. He so worried and disturbed co-workers that he was promoted and transferred by commander after commander to “give the problem to someone else.” Major Hasan was a walking caricature of a homegrown terrorist. Nobody dared mention “radical Islam” as a danger dwelling within Major Hasan because it just wasn’t talked about in polite circles within government. The “Allahu akbar” shooting itself was hilariously branded as “workplace violence” by the Obama administration.

Now to Boston. Pressure cooker bombs aren’t new, they’re just new here. They’ve been used for years in Iraq and Afghanistan to much more effect – military-grade explosives are pandemic in war zones – as the Tsamaev brothers had to make do with fireworks charges and black powder. These devices are widely discussed on Islamist websites and how-to articles have appeared in Inspire, which Dzhokhar has freely admitted to the FBI that he and his brother regularly read. Al Qaeda encourages familial cells – parent-children, siblings, cousins etc – for security reasons. Almost automatic loyalty helps strengthen operational security among cell members running up to the attack, particularly among amateurs or first-timers.

Where Fort Hood sounds an alarm about the lack of scrutiny to warning signs, Boston demonstrates the scale problem of “a thousand cuts” for the authorities. Small, isolated, self-contained plots are hellishly difficult to detect, almost requiring friends and neighbors to provide any pre-attack intelligence for any hope of interception. And while the Tsamaevs are ethnic Chechens, tracing their roots back to that troubled region of southern Russia known to export violence, it is far more likely that the older brother was radicalized by militant Islamism and brought his younger brother along for the ride.

But the message is clear. We may be in for a spate of attacks that are much harder to preemptively stop, even if the post-attack tracking of the perpetrators is as efficient as it was in Boston. They also demonstrate an axiom of al Qaeda that is alien to the Western mind – they don’t mind in the least throwing away the shooter in the attack. As Abu al-Zarqawi[4] famously said, “You value life, we live for death.” It may also be of interest that there are numerous tutorials on the construction of suicide vests online.


[1] C5H8N4O12 or [3-Nitrooxy-2,2-bis(nitrooxymethyl)propyl] nitrate, commonly called Pentaerythritol tetranitrate, and abbreviated as PETN.

[2] Terry Nichols and Michael Fortier were also convicted as conspirators in the Oklahoma City bombing.

[3] The Fort Hood [Texas] shooter.

[4] Leader of al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) up to his June 7 2006 killing via American air strike.

Another Interesting Session – Take Two

Another Interesting SessionTake Two

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This week’s SCOTUS activity was interesting on two counts – one for a refusal of certiorari, and one for the orals it did hear.

There are several Second Amendment cases wending their way through the appellate court system having to do with restrictive concealed carry state laws, and New York’s case (Kachalsky v Cacace) finished first, the 2nd US Circuit Court of Appeals having decided that New York’s restrictive permitting of individuals to carry a weapon in public (only one-half of one percent of New Yorkers have concealed carry permits, compared to the average in neighboring states of ~6%) to be constitutional. Plaintiffs filed a writ of certiorari before the United States Supreme Court, which was declined Monday without dissent or comment by the Justices.

The High Court, in other words, deferred to the state as long as a citizen’s right to reasonably bear firearms is not infringed.

Notable among the other cases is an Illinois case challenging the state’s outright ban of carrying a firearm in public, which the 7th US Court of Appeals overturned, Judge Richard Posner writing that the Legislature had 180 days to produce a law that “shows some awareness of the Constitution.” Colorado’s 10th US Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a law requiring concealed carry permits to awarded only to Colorado residents. California and Hawaii had three cases before the legendary 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals, summed up by Peruta v San Diego, which challenged California’s restrictive concealed carry law that requires an applicant to demonstrate a need to carry. The Court issued a summary judgment upholding existing law. In North Carolina, there is a challenge to a law permitting concealed carry in restaurants and bars. Most others have to do with legal aliens’ challenging various state laws prohibiting non-citizens from gaining concealed carry permits. As there are a number of issues involved in these various cases, some will undoubtedly be granted certiorari as they exhaust their appeals court runs.

In the case they did hear Monday, Association for Molecular Pathology v Myriad Genetics, the Court is deciding if a human gene can be patented. Not unlike Windsor and Hollingsworth, discussed in Another Interesting Session (in these pages on 28 March) this case involves a lot of visceral emotion which may cloud the legal questions raised by this case. At issue in AMP v Myriad is Myriad’s patenting of the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes, commonly referred to as the “breast cancer genes,” as their mutations are present in most breast and many ovarian cancers. Myriad, which is working feverously on developing and perfecting tests to detect these mutations, has patented the two genes so as not to endanger their $500 million investment in this work. Revenues from BRCA tests ($405.5 million in its last fiscal year) represents 80% of Myriad’s profits.

Challenging the upholding of the patents by two Courts of Appeals, AMP represents several women’s groups and medical associations, holding that human DNA is a naturally occurring entity (equated to trees, clouds and the sun in their brief), and is therefore a nonsensible candidate for patenting, which according to US case law and patent statute, can be awarded only for human inventions. There is also anecdotal evidence of women unaware of, or unable to afford, Myriad’s BRCA tests developing preventable cancers because, in the opinion of physicians, those tests cannot be part of standard screening owing to Myriad’s monopoly.

I think this case may break the 5-4 tradition of the Kennedy Court and break large in favor of overturning the ability to patent human DNA or any portion thereof.

Zero Dark Thirty

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I watched Zero Dark Thirty last night, and can recommend it. A lot of the story was compressed, and I can understand that – the hunt consumed a decade in real time – but overall, the story Ms Bigelow wanted to tell was well told.

It faithfully demonstrates how mostly boring, often confusing and frequently frustrating intelligence collection and analysis can be. The painstaking task of piecing together a mosaic of dribs and drabs into a coherent picture of what is going on is not for the impatient. The episodes of “enhanced” interrogation were collapsed into an abbreviated sequence heavier on brutality than how it actually works, but it would take a film in its own right to try to “explain” the techniques to a movie audience. I’m alright with how it was handled – as part of a larger story. The narrowing-down of suspects, wading through a swamp of noms de guerre to isolate actual people, the confirming of suspicions about certain actors, all was well told here.

The mission-specific preparation of SEAL Team Six for the operation was entirely left out (not even a mention of the construction of a duplicate of bin Laden’s compound for endless rehearsals), substituted perhaps for the political drudgery of trying to convince the politicians of the degree of confidence that bin Laden was in the compound – also a necessary part of the story, but too bad other important facets were sacrificed in its favor. Sprinkled through were high profile incidents: the bombing of Kobar Towers in Riyadh; the thwarted Times Square bombing attempt; the killing of a CIA officer working on the bin Laden hunt at the intelligence headquarters in Kandahar’s Maruf district – all were documented in the film.

The centerpiece of the effort focuses on “Maya,” the fictitious name of the real CIA analyst who relentlessly pursued bin Laden’s location for a decade (“Jen,” in Navy SEAL Matt Bissonnette’s No Easy Day, a first-hand account of the operation), was excellently played by Jessica Chastain, with whom I was unfamiliar before seeing the film. The operation itself was a fitting end for the story, well and accurately told, if compressed for cinematic and pacing reasons – all acceptable in my view.

Overall, Zero Dark Thirty is good film with the benefit of treating CIA, warts and all, honestly – right up there with Charlie Wilson’s War and The Good Shepherd. It takes a few obligatory Hollywood left-wing shots, but the overriding treatment is told evenhandedly and without preaching.