Archive for May, 2008

More on the Worrying Implications of the Terrorism Act

27 May, 2008

Following on from recent posts on KOW ‘Beyond Stupid‘ and on IRG ‘Worrying Implications of the Terrorism Act for Insurgency Researchers‘ about the arrest and detainment of a Nottingham University student researching Al Qaeda terror tactics I received the contribution from a reader and friend who wishes to remain anonymous. I do not think I am making a mountain of a molehill with this case. The threat to academic freedom is not really the main issue; rather it is the wider impact on radicalization which is caused or accelerated by the sorts of police measures we see in this story–particularly damagingly amongst precisely those individuals who are the most vital assets in the ‘war of ideas’. I think our anonymous contributor, a thoughtful, highly-educated student of international affairs, illustrates extremely well why this story is important. Read the whole thing:

The First and Second Story of Radicalization: Why Ideas Matter!

Submitted by an anonymous onlooker

In an academic debate, personal experiences hardly seem appropriate; however, having been held under the anti-terror legislation soon after 7/7, I can say that it’s a pretty shattering process. Unlike our colleague in Nottingham, I was not taken to a police station, or interrogated for six days. But I was stopped on a rather peaceful afternoon in a quiet town in South England, only because my skin tone and age fit the profile the police squad had drawn up. Details aside, the specter of being stopped in a populated town square, having semi-automatic weapons pointed to your head, and being told, rather politely I might add, that I was being searched in accordance with the anti terror law – did little to temper my anxiety. I was kept in the square, surrounded by a yellow police ribbon, asked to stretch my hands wide and not move! After about 25 minutes of standing with my hands stretched – and another 15 minutes or so of my credentials being checked – the ribbon was removed, and a sergeant explained to me that I was held under suspicion because an unidentified object had been placed in the nearby railway station by a group of three young persons of Asian origin. I was hence, a suspected terrorist!

In the end, my training as a research student in the area of terrorism and insurgency allowed me to rationalize the entire 40 minutes in the square. In the preceding week or so, the image of standing in a square with a gun pointed at my head – observed by almost everyone in this small town, became a recurring theme. I toyed with a number of explanations. 7/7 had injected a degree of fear syndrome – hence I reasoned that I should not be surprised that I was stopped under the conditions explained to me. All this was part of a larger strategy to keep me safe, even if in this particular case I might have served as a target victim for the anti terror law. In between this obvious rationality, there were enough and more times that I felt a genuine spur of anger, humiliation, and even disgrace. I was angry at a society that held me in contempt for the way that I looked, even if it was for only 40 minutes. I felt humiliation every time I passed by that square, it seemed to me as though everyone their recognized me (when of course they could not have cared less) and remembered my incident with the police.

In the end, my story ended with a lot of thinking, some writing, and a degree of understanding. In this case, I would even argue that perhaps the anti-terror law was in fact effective. The reality of the situation was that young people of Asian origin had dropped off an unidentified object at a railway station. This, just a few days after a group of youngsters of Asian/South Asian origin had been caught on camera, before embarking on an act of violence that threatened the multi-cultural fabric of this nation (7/7). I was treated well, during the relatively brief investigation, once my credentials were checked and my body searched – I was told why I had been stopped, and then I was freed. Yes, it took a bit of time to find reason in this whole episode. But in the end, that July afternoon remains a distant memory.

The end point is that the anti-terror laws has a number of merits, but imagine if I was a Mosque going student closely related to one of the many Islamic groups in UK universities. Imagine if I cared to narrate my story to the local Mullah as well as a particular brand of Muslim friends. The rationalization process that I had the luxury to conduct wholly on my own might just have provided someone else with fodder for their respective agendas. If this can happen to X, imagine what can happen to Y? We need to stay together? The mosque will shelter you from the infidels? This might very well have been the support base I would have turned to provide myself with an explanation. Aggression, rather than reason might well have ingrained my mind with the politics of division, of sectarianism and eventually, disaster.

Racial profiling is a double edged sword! It serves as a deterrent to potential terrorists or those engaging in terrorist activities in the homeland, and makes it a little bit more difficult for imported Mullahs and their brethren to thrive in increasingly sensitive Western societies. However, the down side is that the physical action of deploying the advantages provided to law and enforcement agencies by the anti-terror law is manipulated by those seeking a Caliphate to recruit their aspirants. I had the fortune of returning from my brief ordeal to a university where I could spend hours talking to professors of international relations and colleagues engaged in academic research. They understood the contradiction that haunted me, and provided me with the support to move on whilst allowing me to confront my fears. Mr. X or Mrs. Y, do not necessarily enjoy these advantages. They return to their homes in East London, Bradford and Manchester. For salvation and reason they turn to their spiritual leader, and for protection, to their local youth groups. They begin attending lectures and sermons delivered via tele conference from Quetta and Karachi. Soon, the brightest of these, who was once but just an innocent bystander, is asked to visit Pakistan and meet with senior Mullahs and thinkers. In two or three years, his minute encounter with a police officer in London or New York is turned into a tale of how the infidel had launched a war against Islam. Having been trained in the art of warfare, and spurred on by a particular brand of ideology that incites the myth of after life and seventy virgins, X and Y return to their country of origin to carry out their chosen Fatwa!

This is the first story of radicalization. The one confronted by Western societies on a daily basis. Already, better intelligence gathering, reconciliation efforts by the UK Home Office, and the abandonment of Islamisist Mullahs – who have little understanding of the peaceful religion that is Islam, have helped temper the anxieties of the many Xs’ and Ys’ in our body-politik. But what we must not forget is that this is just the first story, the second, and more confusing story lies in the fact that Islam, like Christianity, does not recognize color or creed. A Caucasian youngster, born in the Muslim ghettos of Chechnya or Bosnia and living in the UK – will most certainly serve as the next Mr. X or Mrs. Y – waiting to be honed in by the priests of Islamism (not to be confused with Islam in itself) to wage Jihad against anything ‘modern’ or vaguely Western? We, in the academic community need to figure this out faster than the ‘other’ side. Pre-empting the initialization or deployment of the second story lies not with the anti-terror legislation, but with greater efforts to maintain the balance between drying the swamps in far off lands as well as fighting and winning the battle of ideas here, at home! How we do this, is certainly a worthy cause for a presumably far sighted group such as the IRG!


Admin Note

25 May, 2008

Posting will be light over the next two weeks as I’m travelling.  Normal service will resume on 8 June.

Worrying Implications of the Terrorism Act for Insurgency Researchers

24 May, 2008

In a disturbing development of particular relevance to IRG members doing insurgency research in the War Studies Department at King’s – and to anyone working in the field in the UK – a masters student researching terrorist tactics at Nottingham University has been arrested and held for six days under the Terrorism Act after downloading Al-Qaeda related material from the internet.

Despite his Nottingham University supervisors insisting the materials were directly relevant to his research, Rizwaan Sabir, 22, was held for nearly a week under the Terrorism Act, accused of downloading the materials for illegal use. The student had obtained a copy of the al-Qaida training manual from a US government website for his research into terrorist tactics.

The case highlights what lecturers are claiming is a direct assault on academic freedom led by the government which, in its attempt to establish a “prevent agenda” against terrorist activity, is putting pressure on academics to become police informers.

Sabir was arrested on May 14 after the document was found by a university staff member on an administrator’s computer. The administrator, Hisham Yezza, an acquaintance of Sabir, had been asked by the student to print the 1,500-page document because Sabir could not afford the printing fees. The pair were arrested under the Terrorism Act, Sabir’s family home was searched and their computer and mobile phones seized. They were released uncharged six days later but Yezza, who is Algerian, was immediately rearrested on unrelated immigration charges and now faces deportation.


Sabir’s solicitor, Tayab Ali, said: “This could have been dealt with sensibly if the university had discussed the issue with Rizwaan and his tutors. This is the worrying aspect of the extension of detention [under the Terrorism Act]. They can use hugely powerful arrest powers before investigating.”

As well as the obvious implications for those conducting such valuable research, and for academic freedom in general, this incident raises other uncomfortable questions.

Since the passing of the Terrorism Act in 2006 it has been clear that the breadth of its provisions could potentially criminalise many people involved in legitimate research, indeed many people doing work in academia and in the private sector that is absolutely essential if we are to make progress in the ongoing ‘long war’. As such, it has also been clear that the authorities would therefore be relying upon a considerable amount of discretionary judgement when determining whether or not someone should actually be prosecuted under this legislation, which in turn raises questions as to how these discretionary judgements are to be made. Such discretionary judgements are not an ideal basis for any law, let alone one so sensitive, and one has to wonder whether in this case it was the Muslim identity of the individuals in question that prompted the arrests.

In many respects the Terrorism Act represents an important step in recognising and addressing the role played by the internet, and by radicalisation processes in general, in the current campaign being waged by Al-Qaeda and its decentralised affiliates. However, as this incident demonstrates, it is potentially highly problematic, and considerable care is going to be required if its implementation is not itself going to be a cause of further alienation and radicalisation among the UK’s Muslims.

Read the Guardian’s coverage of the arrests here.

Update: David here. I’ve blogged this also over at Kings of War:

Student researching al-Qaida tactics held for six days | higher news |

WTF is going on with the police?

A masters student researching terrorist tactics who was arrested and detained for six days after his university informed police about al-Qaida-related material he downloaded has spoken of the “psychological torture” he endured in custody.

Despite his Nottingham University supervisors insisting the materials were directly relevant to his research, Rizwaan Sabir, 22, was held for nearly a week under the Terrorism Act, accused of downloading the materials for illegal use. The student had obtained a copy of the al-Qaida training manual from a US government website for his research into terrorist tactics.

The case highlights what lecturers are claiming is a direct assault on academic freedom led by the government which, in its attempt to establish a “prevent agenda” against terrorist activity, is putting pressure on academics to become police informers.

I don’t get the reasoning behind this action. How can he be prosecuted for downloading something from a US government website? Why do those responsible not recognize that the AQ manual is required reading for anyone in this field? Get a grip!

Update: The more I think about this case the more puzzled I get. The article is portraying this as a threat to academic freedom and our commenters reckon its an example of profiling in action. Probably true on both counts but possibly defensible also (there really is a terror threat and radicalism is prevalent in universities). That said, the article mentions a ‘1,500 page’ Al Qaeda training manual which I am assuming (because its logical and about the right length) must be the Encyclopedia of Jihad downloaded from a ‘US gov’t website’. But I cannot find the full-length document on any government website. If anybody has a link please send it to me. What’s available are heavily redacted and translated versions. The real thing is available, I am told, in Arabic, on Jihadi websites. So, is the article wrong and he did not get it off a US government website? Or is the article wrong and what he had access to was the redacted version (which would be less worrisome and make the police look even worse)? Or something else? The story as reported just doesn’t add up. In any case, the basic point remains that discouraging precisely those students who possess the language skills and background from doing research on AQ terrorism is self-defeating.

UK CT & COIN Features – 24 May 2008

24 May, 2008

A round-up of today’s newspaper articles covering the UK’s involvement in counterterrorism and counterinsurgency operations at home and abroad.


Bureaucratic facade and political realities of disarmament and demobilisation in Afghanistan

22 May, 2008

Antonio Giustozzi, author of Koran, Kalashnikov and Laptop: The Neo-Taliban Insurgency in Afghanistan, has a paper on DDR in Afghanistan published in the Conflict, Security & Development journal.


Internationally sponsored disarmament and demobilisation in Afghanistan was characterised by a marked divergence between the bureaucratic process designed by the UN and the political reality of disarmament. The bureaucratic process had several flaws of its own, which were particularly obvious in the case of DIAG, but the main reason for the substantial failure of disarmament was the absence of political will among key Afghan partners. International players in the process choose to compromise on rather unfavourable terms, saving the facade of demobilisation thanks to the formal disbandment of the militias incorporated under the Ministry of Defence, but in fact allowing thousands of militias to continue operating throughout the country.

The article shows how the very limited impact of DDR and even more so DIAG was already obvious in the early stages of the process and was deliberately ignored. The article concludes that the compromise could at least have achieved some limited aims, such as delegitimising the militias, had not many of their leaders been allowed to compete successfully for parliamentary seats shortly afterwards.

Access the paper here:

Bureaucratic facade and political realities of disarmament and demobilisation in Afghanistan
Update: Free version no longer available.

UK CT & COIN Features – 22 May 2008

22 May, 2008

A round-up of today’s newspaper articles covering the UK’s involvement in counterterrorism and counterinsurgency operations at home and abroad.


UK CT & COIN Features – 21 May 2008

22 May, 2008

A round-up of today’s newspaper articles covering the UK’s involvement in counterterrorism and counterinsurgency operations at home and abroad.


The ‘Sons of Iraq’ and Elections in Iraq and the US

21 May, 2008

IRG member David Ucko has published an article in the World Politics Review on the Sons of Iraq phenomenon. The article is reproduced in full below.

The analysis is nuanced and also very timely, in that both Iraq and the United States are approaching elections that will, each in their own way, be critical to the future of Iraq. Examining the origins and evolution of the SoI partnerships, the article challenges some of the spin to surround this important issue.

The article concludes with some sobering analysis of the phenomenon, focusing in particular on the intransigence of the incumbent central government in Iraq to consolidate or react constructively to the new partnerships with tribal elements and former insurgents. The article argues that the US discussion on Iraq must now abandon the either-or option of staying or withdrawing and focus more closely on events on the ground, as they develop in the run-up to the Iraqi provincial elections in October 2008, and the US elections soon thereafter.

Read the full article below.


Upcoming Iraqi Elections Must Consolidate Security Gains of ‘Sons of Iraq’ – David Ucko

In the typically polarized debate on Iraq, the significance of the “Sons of Iraq” — the predominantly Sunni militias now allied with the U.S. military against insurgents and terrorists — can easily be lost. Depending on one’s point of view, the U.S. military’s new Sunni friends are either “concerned local citizens” or “opportunist insurgents” — with pro- and anti-war camps each using the phenomenon to support pre-existing political positions. As Iraq approaches provincial elections in October, however, and the United States nears its own presidential vote, it is high time to abandon easy slogans and to examine the fresh challenges and many opportunities presented by recent events in Iraq. Among such events, the emergence of the Sons of Iraq stands out as particularly important.

Sons of Iraq (SOI) is the collective name used for the tribal elements, insurgents and civilians that turned against extremist groups active in Iraq and began working instead with the U.S. military. With the help of U.S. soldiers and Marines, the SOI have been largely responsible for the decrease in violence seen since the onset of the so-called “surge” in early 2007. The phenomenon, however, predates the surge, finding its origins in al-Anbar province in late 2006. There, the U.S. military and local Sunni tribes were able to seal security pacts with locals to work together against al-Qaida in Iraq (AQI) and other Islamist armed groups. This pattern soon repeated itself in other parts of Iraq, bringing stability to former insurgent and AQI strongholds. At present, an estimated 103,000 Sons of Iraq (70 percent Sunni; 30 percent Shiite) are working with the U.S.-led coalition.

The Sunni community was for a long time excluded from the state-building project in Iraq: Their ethnic affiliation suggested close proximity to the former regime and their tribal structure clashed with the democratic foundations on which the future Iraqi state was to be built. The decision to disband Baathist security forces also alienated the many Sunnis serving in the Iraqi Army. The added alienation of Sunnis from government — through U.S. military operations, which overwhelmingly targeted the Sunni community, and the ensuing Sunni sense of victimization, leading to their boycott of the January 2005 elections — made this community a natural ally of the insurgents and extremists establishing themselves in Iraq’s power vacuums. Such alliances were based on shared Sunni identity, opposition to the sectarian, Shiite-dominated central government, and to its protector, the American-led coalition. U.S. strategy, meanwhile, seldom differentiated between elements of the Sunni community. The few attempts by various U.S. military units to create and exploit extant rifts were on the whole unsuccessful.

In late 2006, two related factors changed this state of affairs. First, AQI rendered itself deeply unpopular among the Anbar tribes by disrupting or taking over informal business networks, seeking to marry into the higher tribal echelons and through its intimidation and violence. These efforts resulted in a backlash. It was not, as is commonly reported, primarily a matter of AQI brutality — though this aspect certainly accelerated the breakdown in relations. More fundamentally, the backlash grew out of a wider competition over resources, financial networks, social influence and political power. Differences in these areas were what fuelled the violence, itself a crude attempt by AQI to coerce the tribes into submission.

Secondly, the U.S. military changed its strategy, assisting and even enabling the decoupling of Sunni tribes and extremist groups. In short, a number of U.S. brigades moved from a narrow focus on rooting out the insurgency to a broader effort to “end the cycle of violence,” primarily by examining and engaging U.S. adversaries’ various motivations for picking up arms in the first place. This effort resulted in the identification of individuals within the insurgency with whom cooperation would be possible. By pursuing a strategy of co-opting and cooperating with the middle ground, the U.S. military helped achieve the common goal of greater stability while marginalizing more extremist elements.


UK CT & COIN Features – 20 May 2008

20 May, 2008

A round-up of today’s newspaper articles covering the UK’s involvement in counterterrorism and counterinsurgency operations at home and abroad.


German Special Forces in Afghanistan – Not Licensed to Kill

20 May, 2008

Much has been made by various commentators in recent months about the negative impact national caveats are having on Nato/ISAF operational capabilities in Afghanistan. As well as affecting operational effectiveness, such caveats – which place self-imposed restrictions on the way in which individual national forces may be deployed – are having a corrosive effect on relations between contributing Nato countries, and on overall ISAF morale.

Although forces from all 26 Nato member states are deployed in Afghanistan, only Britain, America, Canada, Denmark and Holland have not used caveats to limit the rules of engagement of their troops. While the French, Italians and Spanish have all come in for criticism in the past, particular ire has been directed at the German contingent, whose forces may only be deployed in a non-combat role in the relatively peaceful north.

Such criticism is only likely to intensify following the revelation yesterday by Der Spiegel that an important Taliban commander – said to be responsible for the November 2007 Baghlan bombing which killed 79 people, including dozens of children – was allowed to escape by German KSK special forces as they were not authorised to use lethal force.

The case has caused disquiet at the headquarters of the ISAF peacekeeping force in Kabul. The current strategy for fighting the enemy is to buy as many Taliban sympathizers as possible, to at least win them over for a while — and to “eliminate” the hardliners through targeted assassinations.

From a military point of view, the so-called targeting has been a success. Close to one-third of the Taliban leaders, about 150 commanders, have since been “neutralized,” meaning they are either dead or captured. Most of the capture-or-kill missions, as the operations are called in military jargon, are undertaken by British or American special forces.

But so far the Germans haven’t wanted to take part. And that causes problems, because the insurgents are increasingly gaining influence in the nine provinces under German command.


Nonetheless, even in a time of growing threats in Afghanistan, Berlin is sticking to its “principle of proportionality,” stressed one high-ranking official in the Defense Ministry. A fugitive like the Baghlan bomber is not an aggressor and should not be shot unless necessary, the official explains.

Soldiers from Britain’s British Special Air Service or the US’s Delta Force are less bothered about such hair-splitting. For them, this is a war in which it comes down to “kill or be killed,” say sources in military circles in Kabul. The “targets” are identified, tracked down and — often with the help of laser-guided weapons systems — “eliminated.”

The Germans have considerable misgivings about such an approach. They have secretly given “clarification notes” to NATO with far-ranging instructions for their soldiers which expressly contradict the usual procedures: “The use of lethal force is prohibited unless an attack is taking place or is imminent.” Sources in NATO circles regard the confidential document as a “national exception,” a caveat which places restrictions on operational capability. The Germans, for their part, always avoid using the word caveat, out of diplomatic considerations vis-à-vis their allies.

The most remarkable thing about the secret document is its stated justification. The German government considers its allies’ approach as “not being in conformity with international law.” Little wonder that NATO’s mission in Afghanistan is marked by tension and friction.

While the principle of proportionality is an important one in counterinsurgency, the German position epitomised by this incident is clearly pushing the principle to the point of absurdity. However, irrespective of how ridiculous this individual incident is, it is the underlying issue of national caveats that is ultimately at fault, and here the Germans are by no means solely to blame.

Speaking in March, ISAF commander Gen Dan McNeill said that he “would like the caveats to be eliminated”, claiming they were “frustrating in how they impinge upon my ability to properly plan, resource and prosecute effective military operations”. Unfortunately, there does not currently seem any realistic prospect that such wishes are likely to be fulfilled.

Read the full Der Spiegel article here.

[Der Spiegel]
Der Spiegel