A Vortex Caused by the Confluence of Terrorism, Domestic Violence, and International Volatility

For those who don’t remember it we seem to be living through a not so well produced reprisal of the long hot summer of 1968.  Back then we were four years into the Vietnam War which was going badly; the Soviet Union was ascertaining the Brezhnev Doctrine in Czechoslovakia; in the aftermath of Martin Luther King’s assassination the Black Panthers were calling for violence against whites; and protest demonstrations at the Democratic National Convention turned violent.  Fast forwarding to the present, Mark Twain appears to have been right:  history doesn’t repeat itself but it does seem to rhyme.

I am not sure if the period from 7 to 17 July 2016 is historic or just frightening, but the events of these 10 days have been traumatizing and confusing in a way I have not sensed in America since the 9/11 attacks in 2001.  With the police shootings in Dallas and Baton Rouge on 7 and 17 July, respectively and the horrific carnage in Nice on  July 14th caused by single terrorist driving a 21 ton commercial truck at high speed down a crowded promenade, the American people (still with San Bernardino, Orlando, Brussels, and Paris in their recent memory) don’t know if their safety is more threatened by ISIS terrorists, self-radicalized lone-wolf Islamists, Americans with a domestic agenda, or police officers with a hair trigger anxiety.  We are in a vortex caused by the confluence of terrorism, domestic violence, and international volatility.

This domestic unease is only made more acute by an international environment that that is growing increasingly unpredictable and worrisome.  In this same 7 to 17 July time frame China raised the potential for confrontation when it rejected a Hague 12 July ruling that its claims to maritime sovereignty in the South China Sea are without merit; the British referendum to leave the European Union (Britex) resulted on 13 July in the relatively unknown Theresa May replacing David Cameron as Prime Minister; and on 14/15 July a failed  coup in Turkey will allow ( at least in the short run) President Erdogan to make his regime both more autocratic and Islamist. Already China is warning that any effort to challenge its sovereignty claims in the South China Sea will be forcibly resisted. It remains to be seen what the impact of United Kingdom’s departure means but it doesn’t strengthen either the European Union or NATO as Russia begins again to assert itself in Europe.  Erdogan’s post-coup purges of secularists from the government and armed forces raises questions about how dependable Turkey will be going forward in the fight against ISIS and in managing the flow of refugees coming to Europe.  Regardless, I am relatively certain that the immediate ramping up of attacks on American citizens and the police officers protecting them while the national political conventions are going on will turn America’s attention inward.

In a sound bite, everyone who has not “checked out” for the summer senses imminent danger but doesn’t know where the threat is coming from or how the government can protect them, so nobody feels safe.  Some say this is just the new normal and we have to get use to any large gathering being a potential shooting gallery.  The alternative is to use massive data collection (OK, surveillance) available to us in combination with high performance computing and machine learning to deter, detect, and disrupt those planning mass murder to advance some cause.

Certainly the terrorist violence the world has experienced in 2016 coupled with the targeted shootings of American police officers this July has both the law enforcement and intelligence communities redoubling their efforts to protect the Republican and Democratic National Conventions from life threatening violence.  Nice reminds all those attending or responsible for the safety and security of the conventions in Cleveland and Philadelphia that individuals using fire arms and explosives is only one of many ways death, injury, or chaos can be visited on these high visibility events.  Anthrax, drones, and cyber come immediately to mind as low cost/high impact yet to be used ways of striking citizens or cops to cause fear and disruption if not death and destruction.

The rising level of ISIS related terrorist attacks, of course, is neither new nor surprising. Earlier this year, ISIS spokesperson Mohammad al-Adnani, said, “While, we’re being reduced on the physical battlefield, the caliphate is physically shrinking. So, you should take the battle. Don’t come to Iraq and Syria, take the battle to wherever you are and attack infidels wherever you are.” CIA Director John Brennan in his 16 June testimony to the Senate Select Committee for Intelligence (SSCI) warned:

The group’s [ISIS’] foreign branches and global networks can help preserve its capacity for terrorism regardless of events in Iraq and Syria. In fact, as the pressure mounts on ISIL, we judge that it will intensify its global terror campaign to maintain its dominance of the global terrorism agenda.

It mystified me that none of the senators nor any media pundits observed in the moment (or since) that if this is true (as events are proving it to be) then our strategy of fighting ISIS “over there” is actually making them more dangerous “back here!” Perversely, our ongoing military efforts to “degrade, disrupt, and defeat ISIS with military operations in Iraq and Syria are not achieving their strategic intent of reducing terrorism in CONUS to the nuisance level.

Adding to the danger of the ISIS terrorist threat is the lone wolf targeting of police officers as vigilante responses to black males being shot while being taken into police custody.  I am sure it has already occurred to ISIS and its sympathizers in the U.S., that if they too begin to take action against cops they could enflame violence between white and black radicals as we move towards our national elections in November.

The current comingling of domestic violence with ISIS inspired terrorism by US citizens (San Bernardino and Orlando) tells me that the systemic seam that exists between domestic and foreign intelligence in the US Intelligence Community (IC) makes it harder than it should be to thwart either terrorism or domestic violence.  This is because seams in national security are where bad things go to happen.

Finally, the question – or is it an opportunity? – raised by this current month of discontent is this: Are the American people willing to debate as part of the Presidential electoral process  the pros and cons of more government surveillance in exchange for increasing the chances that intelligence agencies and  law enforcement can afford them more protection and security?  Surely San Bernardino, Orlando, Dallas, and Baton Rouge tell us it is irresponsible in terms of public safety to limit intelligence and law enforcement to surveillance of foreign nationals as it becomes seemingly impossible  to discern who is a domestic criminal from an ISIS terrorist.  Without doubt their motives are different, but criminals and terrorists (whether foreign or domestic) are using the same tactics, techniques and procedures (TTPs) to threaten our national peace and tranquility in order to advance their causes.

However, if the bar for “probable cause” is to be lowered to enable more effective surveillance and investigation against those persons foreign or domestic who mean to do us arm, then the government standards for transparency also need to be raised accordingly.  This transparency must inform the American people who is subject to what forms of surveillance for what purposes and how personal information will be protected from inappropriate access.  To prevent abuse, oversight of any  broader surveillance powers granted to the Intelligence Community for homeland security will need to be rigorous, independent and subject to public review.

That’s what I think; what do you think?

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