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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A new path for drug law enforcement

Navy and Coast Guard personnel come alongside USS Nicholas to transfer contraband.

Navy and Coast Guard personnel come alongside USS Nicholas to transfer contraband. Photo Credit: Flickr/US Navy.

By Virginia Comolli, Research Associate for Transnational Threats

New approaches to combat the illegal drugs trade that focus on reducing the harm caused by drug markets are being debated, and have in some places been implemented, but changing the existing prohibition and enforcement ‘culture’ is proving difficult.

‘Zero tolerance’ approaches to combating the trade and use of illegal drugs, such as mandatory minimum sentences and automatic penalties, have often failed to reduce the violence associated with illicit trade. They have in some cases also led to human-rights abuses by police forces, putting them at odds with their intended role of protecting the communities they serve.

The merits of different approaches to drug law enforcement were discussed at a day-long seminar hosted by the IISS on 21 March. Part of a larger project by the International Drug Policy Consortium (IDPC), with the International Security Research Department at Chatham House and the IISS,  the seminar was aimed at law enforcement professionals and discussed global and local drug policing efforts to evaluate how police forces can help reduce the consequential harms of the drug trade.

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Yongbyon restart: North Korea’s new threat

Siegfried Hecker examining lathes from Yongbyon machine shop Phot W Keith Luse via Stanford University

By Mark Fitzpatrick, Director, Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Programme

Among Pyongyang’s recent inflated threats, the announced intention to ‘readjust and restart’ its nuclear facilities is the most worrisome.

If implemented, North Korea will be producing both kinds of fissile material that can create nuclear explosions: plutonium and highly enriched uranium.

The handful of nuclear weapons – from four to 10 – that North Korea presumably already possesses are based on plutonium that was produced at the small 5MW reactor at Yongbyon prior to mid-2007.

Whether it also has uranium weapons is unknown.

Why North Korea abandoned the plutonium programme and instead prioritised uranium enrichment has been a mystery.

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Managing risks in cyber warfare

Navy Cyber Defense Operations Command, Watchfloor
By Dr William Choong, Shangri-La Dialogue Senior Fellow for Asia-Pacific Security

It is a nondescript 12-storey building in Shanghai, but its alleged exploits in cyber hacking into American-based computers has put it at the centre of intensified tensions between China and the United States.

The alleged intrusions by China-based hackers are not entirely new. In past years, the Pentagon and Google have alleged that Chinese hackers had broken into their networks. In 2011, it was alleged that Operation Shady RAT had targeted more than 70 organisations over five years. This included the United Nations, government agencies in the US, Canada, South Korea, Taiwan and Vietnam.

But the mounting evidence of China’s support for the hacking and the growing threat posed to US infrastructure, if proven to be true, would represent an emerging Chinese way of war that is truly worrying.

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The battle south of Algiers

The In Amenas gas installation in Algeria. Photo: BP

By Virginia Comolli, Research Associate for Transnational Threats

Until it permitted the French air force to fly through its airspace into Mali this weekend, Algeria had been protesting for months that it would not welcome any outside military intervention to quell the rebellion in its southern neighbour. The hostage crisis unfolding in the Algerian desert, following an attack by militants on the In Amenas gas plant, one of the country’s largest, has starkly demonstrated the risks of reprisal.

So one of the most interesting questions is what accounted for Algeria’s change of heart. This is difficult to answer because decision-making in Algiers is famously opaque, and the country often takes an ambiguous stance on regional security issues.

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UK cyber security under fire

A satellite communications dish outside the UK Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) Photo MoD under an Open Government Licence

By Islam Al Tayeb, Research Analyst, IISS-Middle East

The British military could be ‘fatally compromised’ by a major cyber attack because it lacks clear contingency plans and depends on technology with no verifiable back-up systems. This was the principal warning contained within the Defence and Cyber Security Report 2013 published last week in the UK. The report said the armed forces were now completely reliant on IT, but the MPs on the committee said they were uncertain who would be responsible for what in the event of a prolonged cyber attack. ‘The government should set out details of the contingency plans it has in place should such an attack occur,’ they say. ‘If it has none, it should say so – and urgently create some.’

The report called on the government more broadly to act ‘with vigour’ to boost efforts on cyber security. ‘The cyber threat is, like some other emerging threats, one which has the capacity to evolve with almost unimaginable speed and with serious consequences for the nation’s security,’ it insisted. ‘The government needs to put in place – as it has not yet done – mechanisms, people, education, skills, thinking and policies which take into account both the opportunities and the vulnerabilities which cyber presents.’

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Another small step forward in El Salvador

phoca_thumb_l_foro6 President Funes

By Antonio Sampaio, Research Assistant, Survival and the Armed Conflict Database

Earlier this month, leaders of the violent street gangs of El Salvador, or maras, agreed to create safe havens (or ‘sanctuary cities’) in which they would cease to operate. This plan to stay out of ten designated municipalities, under the supervision of the International Committee of the Red Cross, involves five street gangs, among them the two largest – the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and Barrio 18. Those two groups’ ceasefire in March this year significantly reduced the number of homicides in El Salvador – from 14 to five a day, the authorities say.

Justice and Security Minister Gen David Munguia Payes has welcomed the ‘sanctuary cities’ plan. When the retired army general was appointed to the role a little more than a year ago, there were widespread fears that he would step up the ‘iron fist’ (or mano dura) approach towards criminal gangs. Instead, Munguia Payes appears to have turned into a great supporter of a negotiated truce.

Although there is a large gap between agreeing to cease criminal activity and actually doing so, this month’s announcement is an important landmark for security policies in Central America. El Salvador’s security forces were previously unable to turn the tide of rising gang violence, which in 2010 reached 71 murders per 100,000, putting the country among the world’s most dangerous. But developments this year demonstrate how political negotiation with criminal and other groups can make a difference.

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