Archive | Terrorism

Targeted Killing, Safe Havens, and the President’s West Point Speech

Several times in his West Point speech on Afghanistan and Pakistan, President Obama declared that the US would not permit Al Qaeda or “violent extremists” the use of safe havens.  He specifically noted Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia.  The President unsurprisingly never overtly mentioned Predator or drone missile strikes, or the CIA as the operational agents in many instances of these far-from-covert actions.  But there is little doubt that both in the speech and in actual doctrine, targeted killing through drone strikes has been endorsed and indeed extended.

It was a tactic initiated by the Bush administration, but it was embraced and championed by the Obama administration, expanded and made a centerpiece of operations by it, as news stories before and after this speech in the NYT and Washington Post have repeatedly reported.  But an important question remains as to whether the administration is preserving through use and ‘opinio juris’ the legal authority and doctrines that support these sensible tactics.

Not the only tool of US will, of course – the President went to great lengths to discuss diplomacy, values, and many “soft power” options.  Targeted killing is a means, and a limited one; moreover it is not a strategic end in itself.  And it is also quite true that although speeches of this kind are often constructed so as to make oblique references to be understood as such, it is also a mistake to interpret a large policy pronouncement by reference to particular phrases and oblique references in isolation from the larger whole.  But reading the whole speech, there is little doubt that targeted killing is included among the vital tools for the projection of US power – not just in Afghanistan, not just in Pakistan (and the speech several times referred to Afghanistan and Pakistan together, for obvious […]

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President Obama is not a jihadi

A local controversy here in Colorado involves an auto dealer who used the billboard on his property to ask the question “PRESIDENT or JIHAD?” The rest of the billboard attempts (not very successfully in my view) to connect this question to the issue of Obama’s birth certificate. Last night I was briefly interviewed about the billboard by Channel 7 News, the local affiliate of ABC. My view is that there is not a scintilla of evidence to suggest that our President is a jihadi. Accordingly, I exercised my First Amendment rights to criticize someone else’s foolish use of his own First Amendment rights. As is the norm, not every portion of a taped interview gets used on the air. One portion that didn’t make the cut was my equating the allegation of “jihad?” with the earlier claims of some mean-spirited extremists that President Bush was as evil as Hitler. […]

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Reading While Traveling, Hard Copy and No Internet

I’ve been traveling recently, and so have been away from posting.  One of the enforced virtues of traveling – one of the few virtues of traveling for me these days – is the plane flight with no internet.  And if the big guy in front of me reclines his seat, as he always does, I can’t even get to my computer.  So I read  on flights.  I should have some reading gadget, Kindle or whatever, but I’m not that far along yet, and for that matter I should get an economy class friendly little word-processor to use on flights, but I’m cheap.  Here’s a selection across the varied reading on my flights.  No particular theme or order, I’m afraid (on account of the mixed-up topics here, I think I won’t open to comments; too jumbled to be productive). […]

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Retrospective on the Iranian Hostage Crisis

Last week, I was interviewed by Radio Free Europe’s Russian-language station about the 30th anniversary of the Iranian seizure of American diplomatic hostages in Tehran. The transcript, in Russian, is here. For the fraction of VC readers who do not read Russian (a fraction that is smaller than almost any other U.S. law/policy weblog), here’s a summary of my key points: The hostage crisis initially helped President Carter fend off a primary challenge from Sen. Ted Kennedy, as Carter stayed in the White House attending to the issue. However, as the kidnapping wore on, Carter’s weakness became increasingly evident to the American people; it was observed that Soviet government diplomat do not get seized, because everyone realized that the Soviets would respond forcefully. Accordingly, one result of the hostage crisis was the election of Ronald Reagan. (Who of course later made his own terrible mistakes in thinking that he could establish a working relationship with the Iranian tyrants.) Today, Iran is still ruled by tyrants who hate the West in general, and the U.S. in particular, and the West has new leaders who, like many of their predecessors, cling to the vain hope that the Iranian regime can be pacified by concessions. The world’s largest exporter of terrorism, the Iranian regime aims to  dominate the Near East and the Muslim world. With nuclear weapons, the the Iranian regime threatens the whole civilized world. Everything would be different if the Khomeni revolution had been stopped at the very beginning. The longer that regime change in Iranian is delayed, the worse for everyone. […]

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The Psychology of a Terrorist

There seems to be a strange subtext in some press stories hinting that the suspect in the Fort Hood shootings, Nidal Malik Hasan, had psychological problems or motivations of a kind that would somehow render his acts inconsistent with terrorism or with Islamic terrorism. Does the press realize that the psychological profile of a typical suicide bomber or religious mass murderer is hardly one of complete normality?

The scholarship on the psychological makeup of terrorists is somewhat spotty, but in his 2005 Journal of Conflict Resolution article reviewing the literature, Jeff Victoroff identifies the following four characteristics in “typical” terrorists:

a. High affective valence regarding an ideological issue

[here Islam, jihad, or the Iraqi or Afghan Wars]

b. A personal stake—such as strongly perceived oppression, humiliation, or persecution; an extraordinary need for identity, glory, or vengeance; or a drive for expression of intrinsic aggressivity—that distinguishes him or her from the vast majority of those who fulfill characteristic a

[here probably strongly perceived oppression, humiliation, or persecution]

c. Low cognitive flexibility, low tolerance for ambiguity, and elevated tendency toward attribution error

[here there is alleged rigidity in personal relations consistent with low cognitive flexibility and low tolerance for ambiguity; we do not yet know if there was attribution error, such as unreasonably blaming Americans or Jews]

d. A capacity to suppress both instinctive and learned moral constraints against harming innocents, whether due to intrinsic or acquired factors, individual or group forces—probably influenced by a, b, and c.

[here we have not only Hasan’s actions as evidence, but also his words and the words of some of his friends]

Jeff Victoroff, “The Mind of the Terrorist: A Review and Critique of Psychological Approaches,” Journal of Conflict Resolution, 49: 3-42, 35 (Feb.


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