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June 30, 2009

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in other news, the US govt has decided to fill all the Pentagon fire extinguishers with Exxon premium unleaded, stating that the best way to put out a fire is by burning all of its fuel as quickly as possible.

It's not as if we haven't already intervened in Somalia, to disastrous effect.

Maybe the admonition to never get involved in a land war in Asia is a little too narrow.

It's not as if we haven't already intervened in Somalia, to disastrous effect.

True. So true, in fact, that I think it would be more accurate to say that "it's not as if we've stopped intervening in Somalia over the past 15-20 years, to disastrous effect."

Maybe the admonition to never get involved in a land war in Asia is a little too narrow.

Word.

I was thinking of Abdi House and Black Hawk Down, but there's certainly more to it than those things.

Silly Eric. Dontchyaknow it's either "with us" or "against us"? There no place for wishy washy "neutral" or "unaligned" or whatever. WE ARE AT WAR!!! Pick a side and man-up man! I mean, the Germans, French, English, Japanese, Italians, Chinese, Russians, are all actively sending arms to their favored factions in Somalia in order to, uh, do something, aren't they? We's gots to get in there!! Our vital interests are at stake! Ohterwise, it's sharia her in the United States by August.

Pity. I'm off to the UK in August, so I might miss it.

Now if someone can send me 40 tons of ammunition for my war on typos in my previous comment, I would appreciate it.

Given the "guns and ammunition" theme, a better title line might have been "And all the peacemaker turn war officer".

But easier to be a critic, most likely.

And all the peacemaker turn war officer

We would have accepted that answer and given full credit.

Nas, One Love? Good for a 'No Prize'? You in competition with Coates over at the Atlantic for most classic rap lics in a post's title?

S Moore: You get 100 ObWi Points. Which can be used toward boosting your pride, and not much else.

As for Coates, no competition, but I do appreciate his style (even if I was doing it first).

I'd wonder if some or maybe even most of this won't end up being brandished at a some oil tanker in the Indian Ocean. Various pirates are the richest people in Somalia at this point, right?

That's probably a better case scenario than it continuing to be used in an endless civil war on land, though.

I've had this argument before*, but this misses a key point:

"Terrorism is a phenomenon that can exist in a variety of states."

Namely, not all terrorist attacks are the same -- the ghettos of Europe can recruit train bombers, but to pull off an attack on the level of 9/11, you need an international network. Which itself needs a safe-haven.

Steven actually makes a much better point in the second paragraph:

"Al-Qaeda was able to set up a permanent base for operations only with the help of the Taliban, which exerted powerful rule over the country. Terrorists need a stable environment, it does them no good to be involved in civil wars, as that only misdirects their energy and resources."

Of course, the civil war itself has some pretty nasty international effects (e.g. piracy). Eric certainly got one thing right when he said "there are no clear or easy solutions". But just because they aren't clear or easy doesn't mean they're not there.

*sorry, can't find link

but to pull off an attack on the level of 9/11, you need an international network. Which itself needs a safe-haven.

Does it? Why? What was it about the safe-haven in Afghanistan was necessary to pulling off 9/11 - that is, what could not be easily replicated in numerous other locales around the world, including in some instances, the Western world.

But just because they aren't clear or easy doesn't mean they're not there.

Well, what are they? It does us little good if solutions "are there" in some hypothetical sense. That being said, I'm not opposed to using soft power to try to ameliorate the situation. If there are, in fact, solutions, that's likely where they reside.

Eric

To your second question -- I'm sorry if I came off as having an answer; I am not an expert in this field by any stretch. While I certainly don't think we're omnipotent, I do know that we are faced with a problem that affects us all. Beyond that, I just don't believe in no-win scenarios.* (Completely amateur, but specific, ideas -- development aid, enforcing the no dumping and overfishing laws in Somali waters.)

As to your first question -- short version, large attacks require extensive planning and a not small sum of upfront capital. So you need a central planner, or at least a common point in the network -- a "base", as it were -- to connect parties to each other, secure the funds, etc., and -- in some scarier scenarios -- arrange for acquiring special materials (dirty bombs, etc.).

A "base" needs to breathe -- as Steve pointed out, it can't coordinate large attacks if its occupied, whether from getting bogged down in a civil war or hiding from the authorities. Hence the need for a safe-haven.

*Yes, yes -- laugh if you want. Man arrogantly refuses to see hopelessness of scenario he admits to not understanding. Maybe it's a medical condition, who knows?

large attacks require extensive planning and a not small sum of upfront capital. So you need a central planner, or at least a common point in the network -- a "base", as it were -- to connect parties to each other, secure the funds, etc., and -- in some scarier scenarios -- arrange for acquiring special materials (dirty bombs, etc.).

I guess I remain unconvinced as to why this can't be accomplished in other locations via the Internet or other technology.

Planning can be done by any group capable of, well, planning. This can be done from an apartment in Hamburg as well as a cave in Tora Bora since the group involved does not need to be large.

Funds, likewise, can be secured in Western Europe as easily as in Tora Bora.

It helps to have a central location for recruitment, networking, etc., granted. But still, these arguments seem like truisms just waiting to be proven wrong (heavan forbid) by a large scale attack not arising out of a safe haven.

A "base" needs to breathe -- as Steve pointed out, it can't coordinate large attacks if its occupied, whether from getting bogged down in a civil war or hiding from the authorities. Hence the need for a safe-haven.

This is generally true. Law enforcement is the best way to interdict. But breathing room can be found in a number of scenarios/settings.

"I mean, the Germans, French, English, Japanese, Italians, Chinese, Russians, are all actively sending arms to their favored factions in Somalia in order to, uh, do something, aren't they?"

Perdicaris alive, or Raisuli dead.

There's got to be a Perdicaris in there somewhere, surely?

"Now if someone can send me 40 tons of ammunition for my war on typos in my previous comment, I would appreciate it."

I'll do you a great bargain, my friend, and correct all your typos for a mere $10,000 a year, rather than $10,000,000!

Offer open to all!

"So you need a central planner, or at least a common point in the network -- a 'base', as it were -- to connect parties to each other, secure the funds, etc., and -- in some scarier scenarios -- arrange for acquiring special materials (dirty bombs, etc.)."

I'm missing where having a sympathetic government comes into this. Which part of September 11th, 2001, needed that, again, and how?

And I'm reasonably sure the IRA managed to pull off quite a bit of terrorism.

Eric, I'm a musical fogey, so I'm thinking a possible title for the post could have been "Send Lawyers, Guns, and Money."

Eric

On the first rebuttal, the problem with using the internet to plan a large scale attack is that it risks putting a high risk operation essentially out in the open (hackers, and whatnot). Beyond that, I don't know how to argue against something being "a truism waiting to be proven wrong".

On the second rebuttal -- "breathing room can be found in a number of scenarios/settings" -- I think that anytime you put together something like a 9/11 or a dirty bomb attack, your going to leave a trail; people will notice.

So, unless we're talking about a coordinated attack without a coordinator, that means that if there are authorities who aren't sympathetic to these central players (planners, etc.) about, they will invariably go after them. The "base" -- whether it's a planner, a point man, or a safe meeting place -- essentially needs to be locally untouchable to get breathing room.

Gary

On the IRA, I believe I mentioned that "not all terrorist attacks are the same".

Beyond that, I just don't believe in no-win scenarios.* (Completely amateur, but specific, ideas -- development aid, enforcing the no dumping and overfishing laws in Somali waters.)

Um, there are a lot of no-win scenarios in life. They do not suddenly become winnable merely because you refuse to acknowledge their impossibility. Insisting otherwise harms your credibility.

I don't think your suggested ideas are even remotely practical. Development aid at this point would just funnel cash from developed nations to warlords. This makes development aid politically untenable. Serious development requires a base level of political and economic stability that Somalia at present lacks.

Enforcing various laws in Somali waters seems a little bit crazy. The US government has no interest in paying for lots of naval vessels to operate indefinitely in Somali waters nor does the US Navy have the legal authority to enter those waters and interdict other craft. And even if they did, how exactly would American sailors ascertain whether some ragtag fishing boat was legitimately Somali? What do they do with a boat full of toxic substances that is not actively dumping? Even if they were absolutely certain they had found bad guys, what should they do with them? Drop them into the sea? Take them to the legitimate governing authority in Somalia?

As to your first question -- short version, large attacks require extensive planning and a not small sum of upfront capital. So you need a central planner, or at least a common point in the network -- a "base", as it were -- to connect parties to each other, secure the funds, etc., and -- in some scarier scenarios -- arrange for acquiring special materials (dirty bombs, etc.).

On the contrary, 9/11 is estimated to have cost $500K. That's a lot of money for an individual, but many small organizations deal with cash on that scale every day. I've worked in small companies that were completely distributed and had contracts on the order of a few hundred thousand dollars. It is really not hard. Al Queda's financing network is fairly well distributed already; where illicit money is concerned, centralization is a serious negative. The last thing you want is for the money guys to be getting too close to the operations guys.

I think the phrase "central planner" is doing a lot of work in that sentence. What does that even mean? A handful of people can coordinate together over the internet or via in-person meetings. Neither option requires a "base"; in fact, operational security is probably improved by doing either of those things rather than meeting at a central "base."

On the first rebuttal, the problem with using the internet to plan a large scale attack is that it risks putting a high risk operation essentially out in the open (hackers, and whatnot).

This is completely wrong. There are many organizations that work over the internet in a secure fashion. Secure internet communications are basically free and even insecure communications are protected by the sheer volume of internet traffic.

the problem with using the internet to plan a large scale attack is that it risks putting a high risk operation essentially out in the open (hackers, and whatnot)

All locations carry risks. Most of the recent attacks have been planned via the Internet (or at least networked via the Internet). Check out Leaderless Jihad by Marc Sageman.

I think that anytime you put together something like a 9/11 or a dirty bomb attack, your going to leave a trail; people will notice.

Well, a dirty bomb is hard no matter where you are. But people will notice even if you are in Afghanistan or some other "base." That's because they're being watched everywhere now. It's not like it was before 9/11, period. Even in Somalia.

"But people will notice even if you are in Afghanistan or some other "base." That's because they're being watched everywhere now. It's not like it was before 9/11, period."

That gets to my point -- it has become impossible for a terrorist network capable of pulling off large scale attacks to find the safe haven needed to establish a "base". And we want to keep it that way.

Let me also state once more that I'm talking about large scale terrorist attacks -- on the level of 9/11, or worse. I remember hearing about the book you referenced when it came out -- if Sageman thinks a Leaderless Jihad is capable of pulling this off, I'd be glad to give it a read.

"On the first rebuttal, the problem with using the internet to plan a large scale attack is that it risks putting a high risk operation essentially out in the open (hackers, and whatnot)."

Any and every means of communication risks detection.

"The 'base' -- whether it's a planner, a point man, or a safe meeting place -- essentially needs to be locally untouchable to get breathing room.'

Most of the coordination for 9/11 took place in Germany.

"Um, there are a lot of no-win scenarios in life."

I thought this was a pretty obvious Star Trek joke, myself, but perhaps I was underestimating the seriousness it was used with here.

"A handful of people can coordinate together over the internet or via in-person meetings."

Handful? Hell, you can get thousands of people together in flash crowds, albeit this hasn't been done with any kind of high security.

"There are many organizations that work over the internet in a secure fashion."

Any smart 12-year-old can work a PGP program.

"Well, a dirty bomb is hard no matter where you are."

This would tend to explain why no such attack has yet taken place. (It's almost surprising, actually; moreover, if I were an al Qaeda mucky-muck, I'd be encouraging a bunch of random snipers and such similar low-level pinprick attacks; it seems to me they must be really underestimating just how much that would get on the nerves of Americans; fortunately, they seem to think that they need to top themselves, or not bother.)

"Throw weapons at it" has been a cornerstone of U.S. foreign policy for decades. It's never worked, but it doesn't stop us.

"Most of the coordination for 9/11 took place in Germany."

Ah, but the key introductions -- the coordination that assembled the team that laid the plans -- happened in Tora Bora. Getting guys together to plot something like this, you can't just put an ad on craigslist (or, at the time, in the classifieds). Once everyone knows that everyone in the room can be trusted, you can start investing heavy money and time into a high risk operation.

"Fortunately, they seem to think that they need to top themselves, or not bother."

The US got hit by smaller scale terrorist attacks before 9/11, and, for the most part, we mostly shrugged it off; Europe's doing much the same thing now.

But LSTAs are a whole other matter -- albeit, for the time being, it remains a one-time phenomenon.

I was actually surprised that 9/11 was not followed by derailed trains on 9/12 and a sunk ferry or two on 9/13. Everyone concentrated on airports at the cost of everything else (at least it seemed that way). Also, if graffiti sprayers have no problems to 'tag' trains carrying dangerous chemicals (e.g. liquid chlorine*), then terrorists should have no problems to blow such a train up while it's going through Washington. Neither of these actions would require a network.
On the other hand: from Al Qaeda's perspective it was not necessary to do more in the US since 9/11 proved sufficient to get George on his magnificient adventure trail.
More to the actual topic of the thread. If those weapons are small arms, then there is already ample supply in place (just another log on the fire and not a very big one**). Anything larger and the effect of the shipment shrinks even more. (40 tons would be a single tank).

*I have read estimates that a single tank wagon bursting would lead to more than 10000 casualties within half an hour, provided the wind blew in the right direction.
**still not the best of ideas

Getting guys together to plot something like this, you can't just put an ad on craigslist (or, at the time, in the classifieds). Once everyone knows that everyone in the room can be trusted, you can start investing heavy money and time into a high risk operation.

But you can use the Internet. Attacks have been planned this way. The next one could be planned this way. There was nothing about Tora Bora that made it unique in this respect.

"But you can use the Internet. Attacks have been planned this way."

Again -- and I'm wondering if we need a more detailed conversation on this* -- I'm talking about large scale terrorist attacks, on the level of 9/11, or worse with regard to deaths and psychological impact.

Yes, coordinating a series of bombs to go off the same day in a subway system can be coordinated on the internet; driving a truck with explosives on a busy street, you just need to get your hands on some basic explosives and some guys you can trust to drive. And if you get caught, you haven't lost much -- a couple of prison terms aside -- and the cause is in no worse shape.

But when you're playing for bigger stakes -- like killing over 2000 people instantly and throwing a major city into not just panic, but full shut down; or getting your hands on a major weapon, sneaking it into a country, and setting it off at just the right spot -- you're going to put in a lot of effort, planning, networking, and capital investment. You screw this up though, that's a lot of resources wasted on nothing -- so you need a sure player, somebody who knows people who can be trusted to aid and fund your operation. You have to know you're not being watched.

On the other hand, if somebody blows up a car in the basement of the WTC every couple of years, people can get used to it; you slam a couple of jets into them and bring them down, they won't stand for it. Meaning you've changed the game.

(asterix to follow)

*Seriously, there have been a number of rebuttals on this point that "terrorist attacks were planned without a center", when what we're (or at least I'm) talking about is something at a whole other level.

I'm thinking "large scale terrorist attack" may be a problematic term, precisely because there's still a tendency to think of it as just another terrorist attack (or, conversely, every other terrorist attack as another 9/11).

Maybe we need to call this major attacks something else; any ideas?

You screw this up though, that's a lot of resources wasted on nothing -- so you need a sure player, somebody who knows people who can be trusted to aid and fund your operation. You have to know you're not being watched.

Most al-Qaeda recruits were ex-pats recruited in mosques in their new country of origin. Then they are vetted up the chain of command until they became operational. Nothing about that structure is dependent on a geographical safe haven in some distant land.

Most of the planning and meeting took place in Germany.

Obama didn't need Afghanistan to gather money. He could do that from anywhere.

Getting a WMD and sneaking it into a country would be no easier from Somalia. The problems related to such an enterprise are not about a safe haven in Somalia.

I just think that there's a risk that we describe the way AQ pulled off 9/11 and then assume that it needs to have exactly those conditions to do it again. I'm still not persuaded as to why the physical safe haven akin to what AQ had in Afghanistan is either: necessary or, even then, likely with even a minimal amount of US attention/interdiction (short of, say, supporting an invasion by Ethiopia of Somalia).

"Obama didn't need Afghanistan to gather money. He could do that from anywhere."

Selling hats and mugs worked well for him elsewhere.

To help define (or re-term) "large scale terrorist attacks", I looked at some other examples of non-state mass murder --

Turns out, after 9/11, the runner up* wasn't a terrorist attack so much as an act of ethnic cleansing.

So -- tentatively -- let's try this definition: an act of deliberate violence by a non-state actor directly resulting in the deaths of over 500.

Does this make sense to understand this as a threat (and/or event) to treat differently than the vast majority of terrorist attacks?

*(Third place, at less than half the deaths, was really a botched hostage situation.)

But when you're playing for bigger stakes -- like killing over 2000 people instantly and throwing a major city into not just panic, but full shut down; or getting your hands on a major weapon, sneaking it into a country, and setting it off at just the right spot -- you're going to put in a lot of effort, planning, networking, and capital investment. You screw this up though, that's a lot of resources wasted on nothing -- so you need a sure player, somebody who knows people who can be trusted to aid and fund your operation. You have to know you're not being watched.

I think you overestimate the degree of planning, skill, and cash needed for a major attack. Consider these scenarios:

(1) New York City gets most of its electricity from two major high voltage transmission lines that go through long stretches of empty country. AQ decides to build a dozen small remote controlled explosive devices and installs them, at night, on randomly selected transmission line towers. One day, they remotely detonate one of the bombs. This takes down one of the towers and shuts down the trunk line. After NYC loses 40% of its power, the electrical network destabilizes and they have to shut the entire thing down. No power in the city. Emergency utility crews are dispatched to try and rebuild the tower but that will take at least a day, probably more, especially with the extra security needed (no one can be sure that the tower isn't booby trapped). Maybe every day or two they set off another bomb. My guess is that they could keep this up for a week or two in which they completely deprive America's biggest city of electrical power. Financial networks would be seriously harmed. Air traffic would be greatly hindered. If they're lucky, taking NYC out might destabilize a portion of the regional power grid, cutting out the lights throughout the north east.

What would this require? A dozen small explosive devices with timers. A crew of a two or three guys to drive out to different towers over a week or so at night with night vision gear to attach the bombs. The whole thing probably costs less than a hundred grand. No one needs to die, so recruitment is a lot easier.

(2) AQ spends a month buying up fertilizer from all around the bay area. They rent two small U-haul trucks, set up fertilizer bombs in each, and send the trucks to park in the middle of the Golden Gate and Oakland Bay bridges in San Francisco. After the drivers park the trucks, they jump onto waiting motorcycles that have been following them and race off the bridge. Five minutes later, both trucks blow. They probably can't destroy either bridge, but they could easily do enough damage such that it would take a few weeks to repair them. Like all municipalities, San Fran doesn't have a lot of cash and neither does CA, so the work will take a while. Meanwhile, millions of commuters around the country will be petrified every time they get on a bridge and traffic into and out of San Fran will be crippled.

This requires four guys who, again, survive the operation. No need for martyrdom, which has to help recruiting. The only coordination you need is a cell phone. Send two teams to rent small houses, have them buy a bunch of fake IDs and send them all over CA to every hardware and gardening store they can find to buy fertilizer. The whole thing costs a hundred grand tops.


I've seen children's birthday parties that were more operationally complex than the schemes I've described above. And those are only the crappy plans I could come up with.

Eric,

I'll get to your point on the chain of command in a bit (or latter, or at some point... hard to know). But a couple of notes:

"Getting a WMD and sneaking it into a country would be no easier from Somalia. The problems related to such an enterprise are not about a safe haven in Somalia."

I am not saying Somalia would be a good safe haven; in fact, at the moment, it would likely be a horrible choice for a "base". And I absolutely agree that backing Ethiopia's invasion was a bad idea.

"Obama didn't need Afghanistan to gather money. He could do that from anywhere."

Well, Gary beat me to it, but really...

Just so you know, I'm really enjoying this; since this is kind of no longer on Afghanistan, you want to do a new thread?

Obama didn't need Afghanistan to gather money. He could do that from anywhere

[email protected]#([email protected](#*[email protected]#(*$~!!!!!!

I'll see about a new thread, but we can use this one for now. And I enjoy it too.

Honestly, it's a question on which I go back and forth in my mind a lot. My bottom line:

On the one hand, a safe haven does make it easier to plan and pull off bigger, more complex attacks.

On the other hand, a safe haven is not necessary to plan and pull off bigger, more complex attacks

Thus, all this talk about spending trillions of dollars, and/or involving the US in all manner of local conflicts, under the vague goal of "depriving AQ a safehaven" is a policy that demands closer scrutinty.

Maybe this gets to the heart of it:

"On the other hand, a safe haven is not necessary to plan and pull off bigger, more complex attacks."

See, I'm not sure I buy that -- not sure, mind you.

On the one hand, there really has been only one example of "a bigger, more complex attack"*.

On the other hand, the safe haven was integral to pulling off that very attack -- even if other key parts were planned in other parts of the world, those meetings were arranged with the help of the base.

Beyond that, there's only speculation. My sense is, if you want to murder over half a thousand people in a wealthy country, you're going to need a lot up front, and that means covering your bases.

Point, can you explain precisely why a safe haven is needed for executing the scenarios I described in my earlier comment? Because I'm just not seeing it.

"On the other hand, the safe haven was integral to pulling off that very attack"

I continue to not see the case for that, I'm afraid. Why was it integral? That is, why was it necessary to have the cooperation of the government of the country, not to have the kind of operating bases that al Qaeda had, but specifically in order to pull off the September 11th attacks? What aspect of September 11th required the active linkage of the Taliban and al Qaeda? Why wouldn't a country that's merely a failed state, or with wide areas that aren't particularly under governmental control -- such as, you know, the FATA in Pakistan, or chunks of the Golden Triangle in Southeast Asia, or even portions of Latin America, as well as areas in Africa, do? Or why couldn't terrist folks just meet up in, say, some rural area of India, or perhaps Albania, or Brazil, or...?

And I'm not even clear why they couldn't have just done everything they wanted in Germany, at the time, albeit now I'd agree that would be far far more difficult. (I surely hope! :-))

"What aspect of September 11th required the active linkage of the Taliban and al Qaeda? Why wouldn't a country that's merely a failed state, or with wide areas that aren't particularly under governmental control... do?"

As long as they didn't get dragged into and distracted by any local civil wars, it is my understanding that they could.

"And I'm not even clear why they couldn't have just done everything they wanted in Germany..."

Even at the time, the people putting the conspiracy together (as opposed to tactical planning) were attracting a lot of attention -- if the meetings in Tora Bora happened in Germany, it would have been a reckless gamble, on the part of the terrorists.

Even at the time, the people putting the conspiracy together (as opposed to tactical planning) were attracting a lot of attention -- if the meetings in Tora Bora happened in Germany, it would have been a reckless gamble, on the part of the terrorists.

Cite please?


I'm still waiting for an explanation of why a safe haven is needed or even helpful in executing the attacks I described above.

To expand on my scenario above:
Needed personnel: 1-2
Needed Tools: a few pounds of explosives, some working tools, maybe a pickaxe, cellphones (optional), a few cans of spray-colour (optional), handguns (optional), a vise or other object that can be clamped easily to rails.

Preparations:
Go to Washington and obtain a timetable for freight trains or take a few days to deduct the patterns by observing the railway tracks. Locate a position where trains slow down or where stop signs are. You may ask graffitti sprayers for that info, although that carries a certain risk. You may disguise yourself as a graffitti guy.

Action:
1) Get in advance to the location and wait for the train transporting chemicals (ideally chlorine or phosgene)
2) Manipulate the stop sign or put the vise on the rail, hopefully stopping or even derailing the train
3) (optional) shoot the engine driver.
4) If train still able to move, uncouple engine from wagons
5) go to the tank cars and put explosives on the outlet valves/plugs or irreversibly open them in other ways
6) Get away before things blow up or die where you are (optional)
7) If you are not completely unlucky with the wind, the expected casualties (dead or severely ill) will exceed 9/11.

Second guy can act as spotter and go to work while you deal with the engine/driver but that is optional.
Unfortunately the deadly cloud is unlikely to reach the big cheeses and will hit mainly poor people but one cannot have everything, especially, if it does not require that much effort. Plan should be appealing to white supremacists too, it would kill or maim lots of n-words.

Don't give me credit, a journalist already tested the viability (in principle) of this plan years ago.

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