Middle East studies in the News
'Not in a Good Place': Scholars, Officials and Experts Survey the Security Landscape 15 Years After 9/11 [incl. Bernard Haykel]
by Robert Zullo
Like many a traveler, Richmond International Airport Police Chief Richard "R.J." Clark once upon a time groused about removing his footwear for security screening before flying.
"I didn't like taking my shoes off. I just thought it was frustrating," said Clark, a former Henrico County police lieutenant and tactical services commander who took the helm of the airport police department about two years ago.
A training program in Chantilly that included a segment on "underwear bomber" Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who tried to detonate an explosive device on a Detroit-bound flight on Christmas Day 2009, convinced him otherwise.
"I sat through one class," Clark said. "I will take my shoes off."
Clark is one cog in a vast international security machine that was assembled at immense cost by national, local and state governments after the Sept. 11, 2001, al-Qaida attacks, when commercial jets loaded with passengers became terrorist-piloted missiles that struck the World Trade Center and Pentagon.
A third hijacked jet, United Flight 93, crashed in a field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania, after passengers stormed the cockpit in an attempt to thwart the terrorists.
Clark's long experience with Henrico's SWAT team helped get him his current job. That experience is an attractive attribute in the post-9/11 world, said airport President and CEO Jon Mathiasen.
"It brought a whole new educational level and training to our department that we felt was needed, knowing what's going on in the world these days, with a lot of tragedies in public areas," Mathiasen said.
Clark and airport Public Safety Director Victor Williams are responsible for preparing the airport's 30-officer police force and other employees for a universe of threats that can seem impossibly broad. Those include some that largely were absent from the vernacular a generation ago, when "active shooter" might plausibly have been thought to refer to an avid target or trap-and-skeet enthusiast.
"It's a constant learning cycle and it can be anything from active shooter to bombs or hazardous-materials response," Clark said. "You have everything, suicide bombers, the list goes on and on.
"You just have to prepare and make sure that your team and your fellow employees are all ready to respond. ... The psyche of it in general is you just have to do the best you can do. ... You can't be ready for every single opportunity; there are so many different things that can happen.
"You just have to do the best to have your fundamentals down and your networks in place."
And what happens thousands of miles away can have immediate local implications as security officials work to shore up gaps exposed by attacks elsewhere.
"Everything is global now. It doesn't matter if it happens in Russia or Turkey or Alaska or South America," Clark said. "It has an impact on us."
'We're not in a good place'
Including the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. has spent about $7.6 trillion on defense and homeland security since the Sept. 11 attacks, according to the Nobel Prize-nominated National Priorities Project, a nonprofit, nonpartisan group that examines the federal budget.
Some security experts and academics who study terrorism wonder what all that money has achieved, especially with the rise of the Islamic State during the past several years and its ability to harness social media to horrific effect, inspiring even previously unaffiliated attackers to commit atrocities in its name around the world, from Paris to San Bernardino, California.
"We're not in a good place," said Scott Atran, a psychologist, anthropologist, University of Michigan adjunct professor, director of research at France's National Center for Government Research and co-founder of Oxford University's Centre for Resolution of Intractable Conflict.
Atran and other scholars noted that Osama bin Laden, the head of al-Qaida who was killed in a raid by U.S. Navy SEALs in 2011, bragged about spending roughly half a million dollars on the 9/11 attacks.
"The global threat has arguably increased. In just the last two years, ISIS created the largest volunteer fighting force since World War II," said Atran, who has interviewed al-Qaida and ISIS fighters and operatives and wrote "Talking to the Enemy," a book about how terrorists see themselves. "In terms of official policy and understanding, we've haven't progressed too well or too far."
Atran and other scholars see the U.S. decision in 2003 to invade Iraq and topple Saddam Hussein, as well as the lack of planning for the aftermath of the war and ignorance of the complex balance of tribal loyalties and Sunni and Shiite power dynamics, as one of most colossal mistakes of the post-9/11 years.
"By any measure, it's been a failed campaign. The loss of life, the cost, the consequences to the Middle East have dramatically outweighed any benefit of eliminating a dictator," said William Pelfrey Jr., an associate professor of homeland security and emergency preparedness at Virginia Commonwealth University.
Bernard Haykel, a professor of Near Eastern studies at Princeton University and a scholar of Islam, said the invasion was disastrous for the region and created the conditions for ISIS to emerge.
"I don't think we would have had ISIS if it wasn't for the invasion of Iraq," Haykel said.
Atran also links the handling of Iraq with ISIS' rise, particularly prison environments that brought together Sunni Baathists arrested after the fall of Saddam's regime and jihadists.
"The U.S. comes in and says we're going to have a vote and democracy will win," Atran said. "You get tyranny of the majority. The Shia, who'd been shafted for 100 years or more, suddenly were shafting the Sunni. ... All the ISIS young guys I was interviewing were Sunnis who grew up under U.S. and Shia rule."
'Impossible to prevent'
In 2001, the recognized threat was from fairly sizable, hierarchical, well-organized groups such as al-Qaida, and the main way to fight them was to target their leaders for killing or capture, the scholars said.
"Finally, people realized this decapitation strategy had diminishing returns, primarily in preventing new people from joining," Atran said.
Pelfrey says at present the largest threat is posed by homegrown terrorism, "far-right extremists or radicalized U.S. citizens."
"We're seeing that play out in Europe. Most of the acts in Europe over the past few years are radicalized residents who have become enamored of the Islamic State and their propaganda," Pelfrey said.
Omar Mateen, the 29-year-old security guard who pledged allegiance to ISIS in the midst of his massacre of 49 people at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, in June, was claimed as a "soldier of the caliphate" after the fact, though evidence that he was in contact with the group before the killings has yet to emerge.
That type of "lone wolf" radicalized via the internet and not a foreign implant hiding in a "sleeper cell," as was feared in the immediate post-9/11 atmosphere, is a much different and more difficult danger to confront, several scholars said.
"It's impossible to prevent those. The best we can do is a counter-philosophy campaign, and I think the United States has been really behind in that," Pelfrey said. "We don't put as much effort into countering their ideology. That's been our biggest deficit thus far in the war on terrorism."
And some civil liberties and human rights groups, as well as scholars, have criticized the prevalence of undercover sting operations, particularly those involving confidential informants, to foil domestic terrorism plots. The FBI and federal prosecutors have defended the practice and call it a necessary means for identifying and thwarting potential terrorists.
In a 2012 article in the FBI's Law Enforcement Bulletin titled "Avoiding the Entrapment Defense in a Post-9/11 World," FBI Assistant General Counsel David Gottfried wrote that law enforcement officials "cannot afford to wait for a terrorist plot to mature before they break it up."
"In other words, law enforcement must, in a controlled manner, divert someone determined to harm the United States and its people into a plot bound to fail from the outset, instead of one that might succeed," he wrote.
The U.S. Attorney's Office for the Eastern District of Virginia, based in Arlington County, leads the nation in prosecutions of international terrorism cases, according to a Syracuse University report. In July, Joseph Farrokh, 29, of Woodbridge, was sentenced to more than 8½ in prison for attempting to travel to Syria to join ISIS, a plan he concocted with another man, Mahmoud Amin Elhassan, 25, also of Woodbridge.
Farrokh was arrested at Richmond International Airport in January. Elhassan was arrested the same day in Woodbridge.
Both arrests were partly the result of information obtained from a "confidential human source" with prior criminal convictions who was paid "over $10,000 by the FBI in the course of his cooperation," as well as two other confidential human sources, an affidavit supporting Farrokh's arrest says.
Atran suggested that more than half of such arrests have been "pure entrapment cases" that took "extraordinary government involvement" to lure suspects into breaking the law.
In June, Michael German, a former undercover FBI agent who now researches national security law at New York University's Brennan Center for Justice, told The New York Times that the FBI is "manufacturing terrorism cases" through the use of informants to coax suspects into plots they would not attempt on their own.
"There's a lot of effort put into entrapment, but there's no effort put into steering people away from it," Atran said.
That could change. In July, the Department of Homeland Security began a $10 million Countering Violent Extremism Grant Program, which it called the "first federal grant funding available to nongovernmental organizations and institutions of higher education to carry out countering violent-extremism programs."
The program provides funding for religious groups, mental health and social service providers, educators and others for programs that "enhance the resilience of communities being targeted by violent extremists, provide alternatives to individuals who have started down a road to violent extremism and create or amplify alternative messages to terrorist/violent extremist recruitment and radicalization efforts," the department said.
It also "seeks to develop and support efforts that counter violent extremists' online recruitment efforts."
"We should be much more intelligent about how we fight this group," Haykel said of ISIS. "This group wants to change our lifestyle. They want to bleed us financially and militarily, and we shouldn't be willing to do their bidding.
"We should hit them in a very intelligent way and without draining our resources. ... This is a fight that is ideological. It's not something that you can defeat militarily."
'A stupid game'
According to the University of Maryland's National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism, there were 510 terrorist attacks in the U.S. from 1995 to 2014 that caused 3,264 deaths, the vast majority of which occurred on Sept. 11, 2001, when nearly 3,000 people were killed.
From 2006 to 2014 in the U.S., lightning strikes killed five times as many people as terrorist attacks, 287 to 57.
And in 2015 alone, 35,092 people died in traffic wrecks in this country, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
For at least some who study security, it's time to inject more common sense into the debate around transportation safety.
"It's amazing how the psychology of security wins," said Bruce Schneier, a security technologist and lecturer at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government.
"The taxi ride to the airport is the most dangerous part of your trip, by far. It's not even close. ... Fifteen years is not a long time; that's what we're learning."
Schneier said the U.S. security apparatus invests most of its time and energy fighting "the last attack."
"We screen shoes, they use liquids," he said. "This is a stupid game, and it makes no sense to play at."
Schneier called 9/11 a "singular event" that exploited unique vulnerabilities and says it's long past time to go back to what he calls "sensible security."
"It's really not surprising that 9/11 wasn't repeated again," Schneier said. "We are reactive. We respond to things that actually happen. Not things that might have happened but didn't. ... In a sense, airport security is the last line of defense, and it's not a very good one."
The Transportation Security Administration — the agency created after 9/11 and much maligned ever since as a result of security lapses, widespread morale issues and its spot as the most visible arm of the federal government for frustrated travelers — started its PreCheck program in 2011 and has expanded it in recent years.
Prescreened travelers who enroll in the program, which costs them $85 and covers five years, usually don't have to remove shoes, laptops, liquids, belts and light jackets but must submit to fingerprinting and a background check.
About 3 million travelers have signed up for the program, well below what the agency hoped in its estimates to Congress. Getting infrequent travelers to pay the fee and undergo the application process has been problematic, though in states such as Virginia, where PreCheck registration is available at Department of Motor Vehicles locations, officials expect the numbers to grow.
"If you only fly a few times a year, it's not worth it," said Schneier, who sees something akin to a PreCheck level of security for everyone, without the application process or fee, as the way forward.
He pointed to the TSA's record when tested by federal overseers, who last year managed to smuggle simulated explosives and weapons through checkpoints 95 percent of the time.
"If TSA is that bad, why aren't planes falling out of the sky? The only explanation is, nobody's trying. Because if they were trying, there would be successes," Schneier said.
The politics, however, of scaling back security can be difficult.
"To be the guy who says we don't need to do liquids anymore, what's in it for you?" Schneier said "If you're wrong, your career is over."
'It just isn't that easy'
But Mathiasen, the Richmond airport president and CEO, said the relationship between the airport and the nearly 200 TSA employees here has been positive.
He added that airport and airline decisions, such as moving hubs and providing enough space for screening, also can create the traffic jams usually attributed to the TSA.
"Our relationship's been good. It doesn't mean we agree on everything," Mathiasen said.
"Sometimes it's not about TSA local. It's usually about TSA headquarters [wanting] to pass a new policy or rule, which in turn ends up trying to be an unfunded mandate that costs a lot of money or a tremendous amount of inconvenience for the airport operator, the passenger or both."
Mathiasen said that about a year and a half ago, the TSA tried to shift responsibility for staffing the exit lanes for secured areas to airports.
"The industry basically said, 'No, unless you want to pay us,'" Mathiasen said.
And often, the TSA, which some argue never was given the funding equal to its mission, is being pressured from above.
"In their defense, when something happens like you've seen in other countries and so on, sometimes, our elected officials, they want to pull the rabbit out of the hat and make everything well. Well, it just isn't that easy; it just isn't that easy in a free society like we live in," he said.
Mathiasen said he frequently is asked about whether airport security is effective. He says it is. There are more cameras, more security personnel and more awareness by everyone from police to passengers to baggage handlers about potential threats than ever before.
But there are also limits to what that can achieve. He noted that other modes of transportation have been left out of the security transformation the airline industry has undergone. For example, at Amtrak's Staples Mill Road station — the busiest in the South — on the Friday before Labor Day, scores of people boarded and disembarked from trains without any screening of their persons or luggage.
Mathiasen sees the future of combating travel threats in technology and better identifying potential terrorists before they strike.
"You need a greater, larger, FBI-type agency going after these people on a much greater basis than we are right now," he said.
Once they get to the airport, he added, "you're at the end of the road."Note: Articles listed under "Middle East studies in the News" provide information on current developments concerning Middle East studies on North American campuses. These reports do not necessarily reflect the views of Campus Watch and do not necessarily correspond to Campus Watch's critique.
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