Why Terrorism Fails: A Discussion with Max Abrahms

We know that terrorism succeeds at terrorizing its targets but does it help the groups behind it achieve their political goals? In this episode I’m joined by Northeastern University professor and terrorism theorist Max Abrahms who makes a persuasive case that terrorism does not succeed where other more selective uses of violence might. I made a similar argument in episode 7 when I said that the much discussed (and very barbaric) ISIS social media campaign would ultimately be considered a failure because it had helped permanently undermine any possibility that the group could ever transition to political legitimacy.

You can follow Max on Twitter @MaxAbrahms and read his work at https://neu.academia.edu/MaxAbrahms. I also recommend reading The Political Effectiveness of Terrorism Revisited for a more comprehensive breakdown of Max’s research and arguments on this subject.

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Crypto Wars: Winners, Losers, and the Case for Compromise

In episode three of the Covert Contact podcast (Subscribe via iTunes) I’m focusing on a single critical topic – the struggle between privacy advocates and governments over cryptography. This is a sensitive topic and there are a lot of extreme positions on the matter. I attempt to take a balanced look at both sides of the issue, offer my thoughts about who might win the war, and I explore what the eventual outcome might mean for intelligence professionals. However, I also argue that if either side “wins” the war without understanding and accommodating the positions of the other, we all stand to lose.

This is a slightly shorter and more focused episode but I’m exploring this format with the intention of releasing more than one episode per week. Please let me know what you think about the format change. You can do that on the Covert Contact Facebook Page or by connecting with me on Twitter @CovertContact.

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A Different Kind of Veteran: Thoughts on Countering Australian Jihadis from Clint Arizmendi and John Little

Thoughts on Countering Australian Jihadis from Clint Arizmendi and John Little

Clint Arizmendi is a researcher in the Emerging Threats and Opportunities section of the Directorate of Future Land Warfare. The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect those of the Australian Army, Australian Department of Defence or the Australian Government. John Little comments on national security issues at Blogs of War and beyond.


In the first half of 2014, a number of articles and blog posts identified the emerging threat that Australians fighting in Syria’s and Iraq’s civil wars represent for domestic security. The concern is that these battle-hardened local jihadis have received training and indoctrination to carry out politically motivated violence in Australia, perhaps at high profile political events such as the G20 in Brisbane this November. While there is potential for direct physical threat, the real danger to Australian security that this handful of returned ‘veterans’ pose is through the strength of the narrative they can disseminate. They represent a new combat veteran typology – someone far removed from sanctioned service and slouch hats, yet experienced in a foreign theatre of conflict who is willing and able to share stories of their time on ‘the frontline’ with an impressionable audience.

This newfound street cred will act as a force multiplier for their message. Individuals such as the Syrian Alumni now have the ability to exert greater influence upon public perception, to facilitate sympathy for their political causes – potentially under the guise of humanitarian endeavours – and to recruit aspiring jihadists. Though the reality may be that the individual’s combat experience is more Walter Mitty than Andy McNabb, the credibility that their overseas experience brings to their narrative is a threat that must be analysed, understood and ultimately neutralised.

Returning fighters and jihadist preachers challenge the state’s ability to educate people about the risks of travelling overseas to fight in civil conflicts. They can directly encourage individuals to emulate their experience. A prime example is Zeky Mallah, the first Australian charged and acquitted under anti-terrorism law and one of the first to spend time with the Free Syrian Army. His Facebook page provided instruction on how to contribute to a conflict without becoming a combatant. Regardless of how he contributed to the conflict, or the accuracy of his information, his subscribers, followers and fans grew, spreading his ideas to a domestic audience.

As safe havens for jihadists expand, and as Australian nationals continue to migrate to battle zones, organizations such as ISIL will have an increasing ability to craft communications very specifically tuned for an Australian audience. Leveraging social media and other online channels will remove the risk of return, as Australians recruit their fellow citizens directly from a battlefield that they may have no intention of ever leaving.

This ability to plug Australian recruits into information operations on a large scale, coupled with the massive reach of social media, stands to significantly increase the potential effectiveness of jihadist communications. The relative clumsiness of messaging aimed at potential Western recruits seen in the previous decade will quickly fade as individual Australian recruits organically, and jihadist movements strategically, reach back to foreign fighters’ homelands in a style that is effortlessly culturally attuned. The matrix of permanently “deployed” Australian nationals tied to jihadist leadership on the battlefield and returning “veterans” who can serve as discrete facilitators for terrorist operations and/or recruiting efforts will prove to be a potent combination.

In order to counter the emerging threat of such narratives, the continuation of Whole-of-Government collaboration – and specifically the coordination of joint information actions – will be increasingly important. Legislation and formal Commonwealth agreements clearly delineate the powers of defence, intelligence and security agencies in Australia and overseas. However, as threat groups and individuals move between countries and their narratives transcend geographic boundaries, definitions of domestic and overseas security may no longer be adequate. This necessitates a more collaborative approach to establishing and sustaining the dominant narrative, and re-examining combined joint inter-agency coordination in the field of information activities.

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DIA Director Lieutenant General Michael T. Flynn Shares His Thoughts on Threats, Opportunities, and 33 Years of Service

DIA Director Lieutenant General Michael T. Flynn Shares His Thoughts on Threats, Opportunities, and 33 Years of Service

Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn has had a long and distinguished intelligence career. His bio-sketch could easily run longer than this interview. His relentless, no-nonsense approach to innovation, an approach that at times cost him political capital, is well-known. However, that same drive and willingness to take risks also propelled him into his current role as Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency. His critics can point to a rocky tenure at DIA but they will have missed the point. Flynn chose his battles, fought them with integrity, and rose to the top of his profession. He sought profound change and constant improvement in environments known for resisting both. It has been incredibly interesting to watch it all unfold from the sidelines. I am deeply appreciative of his willingness to speak to Blogs of War readers directly.


John Little: Jihadist movements are expanding. Terrorist attacks, while mostly regional, also continue to rise. Looking at these trends, looking at the explosive success of groups such as ISIS (now the Islamic State), and looking at the ongoing destabilization of the Middle East and Africa how would you describe the United States’ current position in this conflict?

Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn: I would say that the scale of threats that we face around the world are unprecedented, certainly in my 30-plus years of being an intelligence officer, and I think what we face in the years ahead will be even more staggering.

However, I think that our ability to be able to monitor and manage strategic surprise actually has been pretty good, not great, but I would tell you that we have a dedicated workforce of men and women that are on 24/7, 365 days a year, protecting the United States from these threats.

Still, in the Middle East there will always be best-case scenarios and worst-case scenarios. Honestly, I can’t sit here today and tell you that there are any really good scenarios especially for Syria or Iraq. I believe that we are in a period where options are becoming fewer and fewer and I think the longer that we wait the cost of those options certainly increases. It increases financially, it increases in terms of human lives, and the risk to peace in the Middle East certainly increases.

What the United States has to do is work with our international partners to shape the outcome of these events into what is in the best interests of the region, and for our regional allies and partners. We have to shape it so they’re secure in their own ability to continue to contribute to greater good of the region. Our international partnerships are key to this process.

John Little: The U.S. intelligence, special forces, and law enforcement communities have developed successful strategies for knocking jihadists down on the battlefield but at times we seem to lack the deep strategic understanding that would come from significant human intelligence programs. Is there broad understanding at the policy and intelligence community leadership level that human intelligence is lacking or that we need to do more to better understand our enemies?

Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn: The Defense Intelligence Agency, and the Intelligence Community as a whole, has men and women all over the world working every day to understand exactly what is happening on the ground. We provide strategic warning; some strategic space to begin to think about the likely scenarios that the United States will be facing – political scenarios, economic scenarios, military scenarios.

We do pretty well with strategic warning. Tactical warning–exact timing, specific places-is much more difficult. Our enemies frankly don’t want us to know those things. In the intelligence community we work to forecast what is likely to happen. We have to be right all the time, every time; sometimes it’s very difficult.

John Little: Recent betrayals by contractors and military personnel have exposed significant intelligence programs. The vulnerabilities inherent in phone and internet communications have never been more widely understood by your targets. Are we seeing signs that groups like the Islamic State are benefiting from these disclosures and does this also underscore the need for enhancing our human intelligence capabilities?

Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn: It is absolutely essential to maintain a diverse, highly agile
human intelligence capability in any case given the number of conflicts and hotspots we’re going to continue to deal with into the foreseeable future. In terms of maintaining a capability that is diverse, we need a multitude of people from different backgrounds, who speak different languages, and understand the cultures in areas where the conditions are set for potential conflict. So really, this is something we need regardless of the exposure of other intelligence programs.

John Little: You have championed integration and broader sharing of information inside the intelligence community. While there is no doubt that breaking down silos can enhance analysis, the integration of networks and data stores seems to have vastly eased collection for insider threats such as Edward Snowden. Is the intelligence community going to seriously re-think the technical architectures and security models at the heart of its networks in an effort to balance effectiveness and security?

Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn: Data security is a problem everywhere these days–not just in the IC. So I think we need to all rethink it in terms of who needs what and monitoring. That said, there is no turning back on breaking down silos and integrating both people and information. This is becoming even more critical due to the sheer growth of data, as our people are facing the prospects of not having the time or tools to go through it all. So despite the inherent risks that come with it, we’re going to continue focusing on making the right data available to the right people at the right time. Integration is the cornerstone of this strategy. To do otherwise would mean for us to be irrelevant in the 21st Century.

John Little: Prior to the rise of Wikileaks, and disclosures by people like Edward Snowden, the U.S. intelligence community seemed to be making significant progress in winning the hearts and minds of hackers. Much of that progress has been lost thanks to these events. How does the intelligence community win back a much needed resource and how can it win back the trust of the general public it protects?

Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn: Unfortunately, trust of the US intelligence community has ebbed and flowed throughout its history. All I ask is for the American people–and people everywhere–to remember what the U.S. intelligence community spends most of its time on: providing intelligence to policymakers so they can make key decisions. We do strategic warning. While it is much easier to see when the U.S. IC fails to spot a problem in advance, it is much more difficult to see all of the work we do on a daily basis to inform U.S. leaders from the Secretary of Defense through the President. We spend a lot of our time identifying where the conditions for conflict and instability are occurring and in turn warning our leaders. That strategic warning then enables them to pick up the phone, call foreign leaders, and work to broker peace.

John Little: You famously advocated for intelligence community innovation in your 2010 white paper Fixing Intel: A Blueprint for Making Intelligence Relevant in Afghanistan. Following the report you were catapulted into a senior leadership role that, on paper at least, seemed to be a platform that would allow you to implement your vision. But innovation in a bureaucracy is difficult (whatever your title) and your time at DIA has been challenging. As your time at the agency winds down where do you feel that you made the most progress? How would you characterize your tenure?

Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn: Coming into the agency, I was given two objectives, if you will. The first was dealing with skyrocketing intelligence requirements with an increasing scale of threats to cover. The second was facing a fiscal crisis in the coming years ahead. Given those two conditions, DIA needed to take a hard look at how it incorporates what we have learned in the last 10-plus years of war inside of DIA in order to make it more operationally focused and more capable given significant reductions, and reductions that we actually have taken in the last couple years.

So the biggest thing for me was to try to the key lessons that we learned from the last decade and incorporate them in how we are organized and how we operate. I would say the number one success is integrating our capabilities out in the battlefield, and we created fusion cells that integrated operations and intelligence elements. We created interagency task forces that brought together multiple organizations and agencies from across the U.S. government and made them to work together, and it succeeded.

So what we’ve done in DIA is to create these conditions inside of DIA by forming integrated centers that are inside of our organization that then reach out to the 11 four-star commands that we support around the world, our combatant commands. The integration inside of DIA and then externally integrating with our combatant commands, our supported war fighters, was really important, and I think that’s probably the single biggest initiative that we took on, and the most successful.

John Little: Lastly, what is on the agenda for you personally and professionally after DIA?

Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn:: I’m at a place where I feel very good about the 33 years that I’ve served, five of the last ten in combat, and I feel really good about where the Defense Intelligence Agency is in right now. I think it’s very well-postured for the future, and we have a highly skilled workforce and even better talent that will come in behind me.

As for me, I don’t know yet and that’s part of the excitement, I think. It’s part of the uncertainty. You know, we’ve been dealing with uncertainty for a long time, and certainly in my career, uncertain environments that I’ve had to deploy to, uncertain periods of time when I’ve been apart from my family. So we’re going to be together a lot more. We’ll make some decisions here in the next couple months, but I do want to continue to contribute to the national security of the United States.

Still, most importantly, I’m going to focus on my family. It’s a vital part of what I’ve done over the years and who I am as a person. I cannot thank them enough for their sacrifice and the love they’ve shown me over the years.

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