Obama presses ‘reset’ button for war on terror

Photo Credit: Flickr/White House

Photo Credit: Flickr/White House

In his national security speech on 23 May, President Obama may have focused on the specific issues of the Guantanamo detention centre and drone strikes, but he also used the speech to set out a new approach to national security and counter-terrorism that his administration has been working towards for the past four years.

This speech could mark the point at which the US government begins to shift away from a counter-terrorism approach that has become excessive and unsustainable, towards one that enables resources to be redirected towards more salient national-security issues. Obama noted that the United States could not remain at war forever and needed an exit strategy; the threat from terrorism was now from ‘lethal, yet less capable, al-Qaeda affiliates, threats to diplomatic facilities and businesses abroad, homegrown extremists’.

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Getting real about cybersecurity

By Nigel Inkster, Director, Transnational Threats and Political Risk

On 12 October 2012, US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta said that cyberattacks could inflict more damage on the US than 9/11. Shortly afterwards, British Foreign Secretary William Hague said the United Kingdom suffers from thousands of cyberattacks – mostly criminal – each day.

Our vulnerability to cyberattacks is increasing as we become dependent on ICT-networked systems for almost all aspects of daily life, and in particular for the smooth operation of global trading and financial systems.

At a conference on cybernorms that I attended last month at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a key takeaway was that governments were starting to repatriate the Internet within the confines of national sovereignty. And, at the Budapest Cyber Conference, I found myself chairing a session of non-governmental speakers addressing the reality that cyberspace was becoming militarised.

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The battle for cyber security

Senator Joseph Lieberman urges his Senate colleagues to pass the Cybersecurity Bill 2012

By Nigel Inkster, Director of Transnational Threats and Political Risk

The recent failure of a major cyber security bill in the Senate shows just how complicated it is going be to properly protect the United States’ infrastructure from hackers and online spies. With the nation’s power grids, transportation and water supply all heavily dependent on computer networks, national security officials have long argued that regulation and minimum security standards will be necessary to guard against cyber attacks. But there is political resistance to introducing these, because of privacy concerns and questions over the role of government.

An estimated 85% of US infrastructure is owned and operated by private companies.

According to National Security Agency (NSA) Director and Head of US Cyber Command General Keith Alexander, there was a 17-fold increase in cyber attacks on critical infrastructure between 2009 and 2011. He has rated America’s ability to cope with a major attack at three out of ten.

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On the trail of Hizbullah and Iran

Burgas airport sign. Photo Flick user ztephen

Israel has blamed a deadly bus bombing at Burgas airport in Bulgaria on Iran and Hizbullah, but local authorities say they are still investigating who’s responsible

By Nigel Inkster, Director of Transnational Threats and Political Risk

Both under pressure, Iran and Hizbullah seem to be involved in a ‘shadow war’ with Israel. Iran’s economy is suffering from international sanctions imposed because of concerns over its nuclear programme, and the risk of an Israeli military attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities, possibly before the US presidential election, remains a real possibility. Its ally Hizbullah, the powerful Lebanese Shia group founded in the 1980s with Iranian backing, is also concerned about the possible demise of the Syrian regime of President Bashar al-Assad, which could cut off vital supply lines to Iran.

Iran has linked Israel (and the United States) to the deaths of five Iranian nuclear scientists since 2007. Meanwhile, Iran and Hizbullah have been implicated in more than half a dozen incidents targeting Israeli, Saudi Arabian and US interests.

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Drugs: A war lost in Afghanistan

US Marine patrols a poppy field. U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. David A. Perez

Nigel Inkster, the IISS’s Director of Transnational Threats and Political Risk, has a piece in Foreign Policy examining the failure of the drugs war in Afghanistan. The article – which draws on Drugs, Insecurity and Failed States: the Problems of Prohibition, a recent Adelphi book Inkster co-authored with Virginia Comolli – looks at the failure of eradication programmes, the limited quantities of trafficked drugs seized, and the largely fruitless efforts to persuade Afghan farmers to grow less profitable or less hardy crops.

Afghanistan is the source of around 60% of the planet’s illicit opium and 80% of illegal heroin, he writes.The United Nations recently reported there had been a 61% rebound in opium production in 2011, and prices were soaring. This is a worrying trend, which seems set to continue after NATO troops leave.’

But with so many vested interests in the trade inside Afghanistan, and global demand for this highly profitable, highly transportable commodity remaining strong, can there ever be a solution? Maybe, suggests Inkster, ‘but not while current conditions of high insecurity and pervasive corruption persist’…

Read more in Foreign Policy

Explaining the UK’s ‘secret justice’ bill

Kenneth Clarke and the Lord Chief Justice. Photo Ministry of Justice UK

By Nigel Inkster, Director of Transnational Threats and Political Risk

The United Kingdom justice and security bill published yesterday has been widely criticised by lawyers and civil-rights campaigners for allowing courts to hear evidence in closed sessions in cases of national security. They argue that this erodes a long-established right to open justice. Even UK Justice Secretary Kenneth Clarke (above, left) has acknowledged that the bill is ‘less than perfect‘. However, since a Green Paper was introduced last year for discussion, the bill has undergone substantial modifications to try to assuage some of its critics.

The final bill only applies to civil cases involving national security, instead of all cases dealing with sensitive information. Judges, rather than ministers, will determine whether the national-security argument is valid, and whether the use of ‘Closed Material Proceedings’ (CMP) offers the best option for balancing national security and justice. Coroners’ inquests dealing with classified material will never be held in camera.

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‘Abandon the knee-jerk response on drugs’

Nigel Inkster and Virginia Comolli at the US launch of Drugs, Insecurity, Failed States

Violence related to the illegal drugs trade should prompt a rethink of global drugs policy, IISS Director for Transnational Threats and Political Risk Nigel Inkster and IISS Research Analyst Virginia Comolli said at the US launch of their Adelphi book, Drugs, Insecurity and Failed States: The Problems of Prohibition, at IISS-US last week.

As Inkster and Comolli explained, the prohibition of drugs was originally intended to reduce social ills associated with drug use. However, because drugs fell into the class of goods that were easy to conceal during transport, the global ‘prohibition regime’ had not succeeded in its purpose. Rather, it has only served to create a lucrative and illegal drugs smuggling industry.

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From our Abbottabad correspondent …

Letters from Abbottabad, cover of CTC publicationBy Nigel Inkster, Director of Transnational Threats and Political Risk

Yesterday, a small sample of documents seized from Osama bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad was released by the Combating Terrorism Center (CTC) at West Point. The 17 documents and notes were found on thumb drives, memory cards or the hard drive of bin Laden’s computer by the US Navy Seals who found and killed the terrorist leader last year.

The 17 documents published are part of a cache of more than 6,000, and the criteria for choosing them have not been made clear. However, it would be a reasonable assumption that the documents not released are in some way of operational use. The earliest letter is dated September 2006, the latest April 2011, and some are undated. Except for those addressed to bin Laden, ‘it cannot be ascertained whether any of these electronic letters actually reached their intended destinations’, the CTC cautions.

Some commentators have speculated that the selection of documents published may reflect an effort to portray al-Qaeda and its erstwhile leader in a particular light. There may be some truth in this, but the picture of al-Qaeda that emerges from the correspondence is broadly in line with that discernible from other open-source information – namely of an organisation that is, in the words of US Deputy National Security Advisor John Brennan, ‘a shadow of its former self’, struggling largely without success to impose control on affiliated groups and maintain relevance in a rapidly changing world.

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‘Time for an open, informed drugs debate’

Rising prices of cocaine and heroin through the distribution system
Latin American leaders have said recently that the West’s ‘war on drugs’ has failed, and a new book from the IISS agrees. At this week’s launch of Drugs, insecurity and failed states: The problems of prohibition, IISS expert and former MI6 deputy director Nigel Inkster said a new approach was needed in which drugs were treated as an issue to be managed rather than as a problem to be solved. Co-author Virginia Comolli pointed out that since the ‘war on drugs’ began in 1961 with the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs to deter trafficking and possession, none of the international treaty’s objectives had been achieved.

Worse, both authors said, banning drugs had fuelled violence and instability in the developing world, through the creation of a global black market dominated by powerful criminal groups. In some countries there had been ‘state capture’, or subversion of institutions, by criminal networks. Other nations, where drugs now overshadowed legitimate businesses, were surviving on ‘junkie economies’.

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