Story of a War Foretold: Why we’re fighting ISIS
By Nafeez Mosaddeq Ahmed – Atlantic Jan/Feb 2015
As the US, UK and French governments escalate military action in Iraq and Syria against the ‘Islamic State’, in an operation slated to last “years,” they are moving fast to justify the need for mass surveillance measures at home, while neutering calls for surveillance reform. The end result could well be accelerated regional violence and increasing criminalisation of Muslims and activists in the West.
Intervention abroad, policymakers are arguing, must be tied to increased domestic surveillance and vigilance at home. But US and British military experts warn that officials have overlooked the extent to which western policies in the region have not just stoked the rise of IS, but will continue to inflame the current crisis. The consequences could be dire – while governments exploit the turmoil in the Middle East to justify an effective re-invasion of Iraq along with intensified powers of surveillance and control – the end result could well be accelerated regional violence and increasing criminalization of Muslims and activists.
Pre-empting ‘social contagions’
In a recent article in Defense One, technology editor Patrick Tucker interviewed Dr Erin Fitzgerald, the head of the Pentagon’s controversial Minerva Research Initiative, about how Big Data analytics could have predicted the emergence of the Islamic State.
Founded in 2008, the year of the global financial crash, the Minerva initiative is a multi-million dollar programme funding social science research at universities around the world to support US defence policy. Minerva-funded projects have focused on studying and modelling the origins and trajectories of “social contagions” to track the propensity for civil unrest and insurgencies that could undermine US strategic interests at home and abroad.
This has included developing powerful new data-mining tools capable of in-depth analysis and automated threat-assessment of social media posts by nonviolent social movements, civil society networks, NGOs, and political activists, as well as potentially those by violent or extreme groups and organisations. These algorithms, according to NSA whistleblower Thomas Drake, could be used, for instance, to fine-tune CIA kill lists for drone warfare at a time when the US defence industry is actively (and successfully) lobbying federal and local government to militarise the homeland with drone technology.
Even academic specialists advising the Pentagon research programme admit that a major deficiency of Minerva is its use of fluid and imprecise definitions of “nonviolent activism” and “political radicalism,” which tend to equate even peaceful activists with “supporters of political violence.” Official Pentagon responses to my repeated questions about how they would safeguard against demonising or criminalising innocent activists consistently ignored this issue.
Pentagon spokesperson: Minerva research needed to predict groups like ISIS
According to Tucker, the US Department of Defense’s Minerva “program managers feel that the rise of IS, and the intelligence community’s inability to anticipate it, imbues their work with a timely importance.” He quotes Fitzgerald, who tells him: “Recent security issues such as the emergence of terror groups like ISIS… highlight the type of critical knowledge gaps that Minerva research aims to address.”
Big Data has provided an ideal opportunity to innovate new ways of predicting the future. It’s an excellent time for data-driven social science research. But is the military the best outfit to fund it at its most innovative? The sort of research being supported by Minerva is about closing “a big gap” in “intent intelligence” – the capacity to predict human intent. The US intelligence community did anticipate the rise of IS. President Obama was given detailed and specific intelligence about the rise of the Islamic State as part of his daily briefing for at least a year, but no order was given. In some cases, targets were tracked for a long period of time but then slipped away, A catastrophe like the fall of Mosul wasn’t just predictable… They repeatedly warned the Obama administration that something like this was going to happen.
It was predicted that al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) also known as Iraq and Levant (ISIL)… probably will attempt to take territory in Iraq and Syria to exhibit its strength in 2014, as demonstrated recently in Ramadi and Fallujah. Some Sunni tribes and insurgent groups appear willing to work tactically with AQI as they share common anti-government goals. Baghdad was criticised for its refusal to address long-standing Sunni grievances and heavy-handed approach to counter-terror operations which has led some Sunni tribes in Anbar to be more permissive of AQI’s presence. ISIL has exploited this permissive security environment to increase its operations and presence in many locations in Iraq, as well as into Syria and Lebanon, which is inflaming “tensions throughout the region.
US intelligence also appears to have been fully cognisant of Iraq’s inability to repel a prospective ISIS attack on Iraq. The Iraqi army has been unable to stem rising violence” and would be unable to suppress AQI or other internal threats particularly in Sunni areas like Ramadi, Falluja, or mixed areas like Anbar and Ninewa provinces. As Iraq’s forces lack cohesion, are undermanned, and are poorly trained, equipped and supplied, they are vulnerable to terrorist attack, infiltration and corruption.
Iraqi and American intelligence had anticipated an ISIS attack on Iraq, and specifically on Mosul, as early as August 2013, although intelligence was not precise on the exact timing of the assault. Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey played a key role in supporting ISIS at this time, but the UAE played a bigger role in financial support than the others, which is not widely recognised.
Yet when asked whether the Americans had attempted to coordinate with Iraq on preparations for the expected ISIS assault this year, particularly due to the recognised inability of the Iraqi army to withstand such an attack, nothing of the sort had happened. Perhaps they screwed up, the same way they screwed up over WMD.
Algorithms ‘for the field’
If Minerva research is not really about addressing a non-existent gap in assessing threats in the Middle East, what is it about? In contrast to data-mining system development or intelligence analysis, Minerva-funded basic research uses rigorous methodology to investigate the ‘why’ and ‘how’ of phenomena such as influence, conflict escalation and societal resilience.”
The reality is different. Minerva is attempting to develop new tools capable of assessing social movements through a wide range of variables many of which can be derived from data-mining of social media posts, as well as from analyses of private metadata – all informed by sociological modelling with input from subject-area social science experts. Models and tools woule be integrated with operations. Unique analytical methods transform text into networks that represent author intent.
To find information and patterns in large volumes of streaming text including news media, email, and even human conversation. Regional and subject-area academic specialists were asked to rate and scale the threat-level to US interests posed by purportedly Muslim civil society organisations and networks in Britain, Western Europe and Southeast Asia, A significant number of organisations being threat-assessed were simply anti-war, human rights and pro-democracy groups that were not remotely Islamic organisations.
The Pentagon’s Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) and US intelligence community’s capacity to conduct wide-ranging predictive behavioural analysis of groups and individuals in the homeland and abroad had an inherent danger of categorising activists as potential terror suspects, and at worst, identifying potential targets for the CIA’s drone warfare kill lists. Given the problematic nature of the Pentagon’s understanding of political violence, though, rather than fine-tuning the intelligence community’s capacity to meaningfully identify threats, this instead maximises the capacity to see threats where none exist.
According to a former NSA mathematician, scientists at the agency are employed on condition that they would not be told how their mathematical or scientific research would be used. “The intelligence community has a dearth in the kind of scientific expertise necessary to understand and analyse much of the data that is collected,” he said:
“Even most of the mathematicians at the NSA are ex-military. They’re already comfortable with the intelligence community using their work as it sees fit. That’s why the NSA and other agencies require mechanisms to harness the expertise in the academic community. It’s not so easy to convince independent academics whose specialised knowledge is needed to inform intelligence analysis of complex societies and foreign regions that they don’t need to know how their research will be used. But an external funding programme like Minerva makes it easier to overcome this hurdle. All academics need to know is that they’re aiding the fight against terrorists who want to kill American citizens.”
Islamic State paves the way to kill surveillance reform
No wonder then that Western governments have moved fast on the back of the IS threat to justify the need for mass surveillance and Big Data analysis, while neutering calls for surveillance reform due to systemic violations of privacy.
The USA Freedom Act, which was supposed to restrict the NSA’s authority to spy on American citizens, has now been stalled in the Senate, ostensibly because of IS. Stephen Vladeck, a law professor at American University, told Foreign Policy: “There was a lot of movement on surveillance reform in Congress… but it has been totally overtaken by ISIS. The Senate will still have to pass something, but the urgency is gone.”
Now the UN Security Council is about to endorse a new resolution granting unprecedented powers to government law-enforcement agencies to monitor and suppress the travel of terror suspects, including stripping people of their passports. The resolution does not require any criminal conduct as a precondition for the use of such enforcement powers.
The problem is that neither of the main approaches to dealing with IS – mass surveillance and military bombardment – are likely to work. The New America Foundation’s detailed report, released at the beginning of this year, found that surveillance “has had no discernible impact on preventing acts of terrorism”; while military action and dubious alliances with regional powers is precisely what led to the current crisis.
Unfortunately, as anthropologist Prof David Price told Defense One’s Patrick Tucker about the Pentagon’s regressive approach to the appropriation of social science: “I just don’t see Minerva funding a study of how American civilian, military, and intelligence activities in the Middle East contributed to the rise of the Islamic State.”
The elephant in the room is foreign policy
According to security analyst Charles Shoebridge, a former British Army and Metropolitan Police counter terrorism intelligence officer, the crisis across Iraq and Syria cannot be resolved without first addressing the extent to which western policies created the crisis in the first place.
“The US, UK and France contributed to the collapse of governance [in Syria]… by funding, training and equipping ‘moderate’ rebels with little realistic consideration of with whom such funds, trained fighters and ‘non lethal’ aid (such as armoured vehicles, body armour, secure military radios and weapon sights) would end up. Similarly, the West did nothing to discourage vast flows of funds and arms from their allies Saudi Arabia, Qatar and others towards rebel groups irrespective of, or perhaps because of, their extreme interpretations of Sunni Islam.
The US and UK in particular, through the covert work of MI6 and the CIA, appear to have played a key role in facilitating the flow of arms and jihadist fighters to Syria from such places as Libya, the Caucuses and Balkans, with the aim of militarily boosting those fighting Assad.
Currently, the success of the new US-led strategy in Iraq and Syria is premised on the notion of a clear and discernible distinction between the ‘moderate’ rebels and extremists linked to al-Qaeda or IS. But this distinction, then and now, is virtually meaningless. The ‘moderate’ rebels the US and UK support themselves openly welcomed the arrival of such extremists. Indeed, the Free Syria Army backed by the West was allied with ISIS, until ISIS attacked them at the end of 2013. Still today, ‘moderate’ rebels backed by the US and UK are allied with Syrian al Qaeda affiliate al Nusra, despite the US and UK having banned this group at home.”
Turning a blind eye
By some estimates, up to 500 Britons are suspected of having gone to fight in Syria. With reports that many of them are planning to return to the UK, some of them due to being disillusioned with IS, the government is exploring new powers to prevent British terror suspects from traveling abroad or re-entering the country. UK authorities have tacitly allowed this terror-funnel to consolidate and expand, until it began to grow out of control last year. Britain turned a blind eye to the travelling of its own jihadists to Syria, notwithstanding ample video etc. evidence of their crimes there. Despite such overseas terrorism having been illegal in the UK since 2006, only towards the end of 2013 when ISIS turned against the West’s preferred rebels, and perhaps also when the tipping point between foreign policy usefulness and MI5 fears of domestic terrorist blowback was reached, did the UK authorities begin to take serious steps to tackle the flow of UK jihadists.
The US-UK direct and tacit support for jihadists, he said, had made Syria the safest place for regional terrorists fearing drone strikes for more than two years. Syria was the only place British jihadists could fight without fear of US drones or arrest back home… likely because, unlike if similar numbers of UK jihadists had been travelling to for example Yemen or Afghanistan, this suited the US and UK’s anti Assad foreign policy.
Deep reservations about the current course of military action are concerned that airstrikes alone could never ‘defeat’ ISIS. The absolute automatic, certain reaction ISIS would take has been taken: they changed the way they operate, move, and where they live. They are now more deeply embedded in the civilian infrastructure so that continued striking is going to build up more and more civilian casualties – which ISIS and other organisations will certainly publicise, making us look very bad. So it should have been known, 100%, that airpower alone wouldn’t succeed.
The failure of air strikes to quell IS could pave the way for an inevitable ground invasion, which however would only result in a deeper quagmire: What do you do next? Stop bombing? Bomb more? What more targets do you engage; which additional targets will you engage? Or will you bring in Western ground troops to fight? That has been tried and conclusively failed.
In much the same way that the devastation of Iraq in the context of the 2003 Iraq War, and the US-backed imposition of a repressive, sectarian regime there, have acted as a recruiting sergeant for Islamist extremists, further air strikes are likely to have a similar counterproductive impact now.
Civilians in Iraq and Syria, the US official said, “were first victimised and brutalized by ISIS, and now many of them have already been killed and wounded by the airstrikes. Their homes, businesses, and schools have been turned to rubble; their economy almost eliminated. What do we think all these people will think of the West now? Even if we eventually defeated ISIS – highly unlikely – the devastation against these innocents will engender such animosity towards us, the results might be worse than what we have now.”
Any solution to the crisis, he said, would require a dramatic change of approach to the region, including serious introspection on the west’s contribution to the conditions which have fed the grievances of groups like al-Qaeda and IS.
Neither the US or UK have been willing to even consider, much less admit, that a good chunk of the causality for this current mess originated with our actions in 2003 and ever since. In effect, the very bad policy and military actions we’ve taken in the past decade to help inflame this region – through considerable kinetic action and the funnelling in of huge amounts of weapons and ammunition – will be deepened and expanded… So long as we don’t concede our actions have contributed greatly to this instability (not all, but a significant portion), we will be doomed to deepening the situation.
The sheer incompetence of the US-UK’s reactionary response raises probing questions about whether their strategies have been willingly compromised by commitments to their allies, many of whom played key roles with US and UK support in supporting Islamist extremists in Syria.
For the US and UK, to find an answer as to a way out of the mess that is now the Islamic State one must first ask whether for their foreign policy it’s actually a mess at all. Certainly ISIS remains a potent and useful tool for key US and UK allies such as Saudi Arabia, and perhaps also Israel, which seek the destabilisation of enemies Syria and Iraq, as well as a means for applying pressure on more friendly states such as Lebanon and Jordan. It’s understandable therefore that many question the seriousness of US and UK resolve to destroy ISIS, particularly given that for years their horrific crimes against civilians, particularly minorities, in Syria were expediently largely unmentioned by the West’s governments or media.
Whether or not the west is serious about defeating IS, there can be little doubt that the acceleration of western military intervention in Iraq and Syria is pitched to aggravate regional crisis, while permitting policymakers to dramatically extend the unaccountable powers of the surveillance state.