AQ has an HR Problem

This article by the Associated Press is pretty funny. OK, there’s the serious stuff, like a terrorist carrying out terrible kidnappings and the like; but that Moktar Belmoktar hated expense accounts and never answered his calls? That’s a testament to bureaucracy run amok. The document from which this information comes–found in Timbuktu by the AP–is a fascinating view into branding and franchising terrorist groups. A topic which, by the way, I tackle in my book. If you find this article interesting, you’ll love my book. So stay tuned!

Total Disconnect

A new theme is emerging in many books coming out these days about war zones and other unstable regions: the yawning chasm between directives handed down by First World cubicle dwellers and the realities faced by workers on the ground.

One I just came across is Doing Bad by Doing Good: Why Humanitarian Action Fails, by Christopher Coyne. Full disclosure: I haven’t actually read this book yet, as I just discovered its existence. But this review, by Peter Van Buren, who has suffered his own disillusionment with nation building, makes me think it’s a must-read.

As Van Buren points out, Coyne’s book outlines how “internal political rewards drive spending decisions, not on-the-ground needs. A bureaucrat, removed from the standard profit-loss equation that governs businesses, allocates aid in ways that make Himself look good, in ways that please his boss and in ways that produce what look like short-term gains, neat photo-ops and the like. The Man is not incentivized by a Washington tied to a 24 hour news cycle to take the long, slow view that real development requires. The institutions The Man serves (State, Defense, USAID) are also slow to decide, very slow to change, nearly immune from boots-on-the-ground feedback and notoriously bad at information sharing both internally and with each other. They rarely seek local input. Failure is inevitable.”

This is the same theme of my book, Victor in the Rubble, where our hero, Victor Caro is trying to catch a terrorist. But Victor faces more challenges from his own bureaucracy and its short-term objectives than from the terrorist group he is chasing.

Maybe we’ve hired too many consultants. I feel like everything has been boiled down to metrics that look great on a Power Point slide but have no connection to the often messy reality on the ground. And the same metrics are applied, no matter the situation and with no input from the field. A recipe for failure, indeed.

Any ideas on how to fix this? Let me know!


Islamic Extremists in the Sahel: Why We Should Care

The takeover of much of the Sahel by Islamic extremists barely registered with Americans, with the exception of a minor blip back in January when France decided to intervene militarily and the U.S. agreed to provide intelligence support.

Since then, this region of western and northern Africa has disappeared from the U.S. foreign policy priority list. Washington policymakers have hardly noticed the fact that al-Qaida in the Lands of the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) is now verbally threatening France and giving the go ahead to its adherents to go after French targets anywhere in the world. Just last month, a car bomb exploded in front of the French embassy in Libya. AQIM was likely responsible.

To most Americans—and most policymakers, apparently—this all seems very far away. I recently attended a conference where the overwhelming majority of “experts” on the region said AQIM had taken the al-Qaida name only for branding purposes and does not have the ability or desire to take on international targets. Its priority, they said, was regional influence.

Years ago, way back in the 20th century, an Egyptian doctor named Ayman al-Zawahiri wanted to take down the Egyptian government. That was his sole aim: to take down a secularist government in his home country. But as the years went on and he traveled to Afghanistan and Pakistan, where the mujahedeen were fighting the Soviets at the time, he developed the idea of the far enemy: that dictatorships like the one in Egypt were being propped up by the U.S. and as such, the U.S. was the true enemy.

Very few people thought a group of mujahedeen in the middle of Afghanistan could threaten the United States. And then we had 9/11.

AQIM is more than just a ragtag Islamic group in the desert that took on the al-Qaida name for brand recognition purposes. Many of its fighters have fought in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Yemen. And they all know, having seen Zawahiri—now the head of al-Qaida since bin Laden’s death—the way to international recognition is to threaten and hit the United States.

And they have already likely done so, by the way. These are almost certainly the same people who attacked the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, killing the ambassador and three other Americans.

And many of them probably already have French or British passports, making travel to Europe and the United States incredibly easy.

Nobody thought these people could plan a 9/11-style attack from Afghanistan. And now policymakers seem to be ready to exhibit the same kind of ignorance, choosing to believe AQIM does not pose a security threat to the United States (despite its success in Benghazi). This is short-sighted and I hope President Obama’s Africa and counter-terrorism policymakers push the Sahel to the top of the priority list.

What do you think? Should the Sahel be a foreign policy priority for the United States? Send me your thoughts!

Props for Karin Tanabe’s The List

I’ve just finished reading the book The List, about a DC journalist and her quest to make a name for herself in Washington’s overflowing power smorgasbord. The author, Karin Tanabe, was a reporter at Politico, that most inside-the-beltway of publications that has grown to set the media (and often political) agenda of the nation’s capital.

Tanabe clearly has a great sense of humor and a handful of self-deprecation to boot. Through her affable voice, she captures the incestuous nature of DC and its navel-gazing culture. She adds to the realism with some badly dressed bureaucrats who are enthralled with their own power. (I find Washington to be the frumpiest city I have ever been to. But many Washingtonians think that adding a badge on a lanyard makes a polyester suit classy.)

Many of her descriptions of trying to interview important people in the so-called halls of power brought me back to my time in the mosh pit of Washington journalism. I discovered that the halls of power were more like the halls of high school, with every wannabe prom king or queen manipulating the masses for votes, often using the most childish tactics. This is a place where legislative correspondents speak as though they are saving the world, rather than opening mail from constituents.

It is this same culture that I try to capture in Victor in the Rubble. While my manuscript deals with an intelligence officer, the overall theme is Washington’s inability to see beyond itself.

Check out The List. And take a Sneak Peek at Victor in the Rubble.

And send me comments about both, or either, or anything at all. Even if it’s just to tell me it’s raining where you are. Where are you, by the way?

Judith Miller’s Absurd Take on Boston

Judith Miller’s recent article in the Wall Street Journal, titled “How to Stop Terrorists Before They Kill,” is just as bad as you think it would be.

In its basest form, Miller’s article contrasts the New York Police Department’s robust counterterrorism program with Boston officialdom’s jester-like handling of the Boston marathon bombings. She even goes so far as to state, “some terrorism experts say that the attack…may well have been prevented entirely had the perpetrators lived in New York City.”

Leaving aside the questions of who “some terrorism experts” are, Miller’s own questionable track record as an expert reporter, and the article’s completely ridiculous title, this piece is both meaningless and mean. It pits New York against Boston in the aftermath of a tragedy so bad that even the Yankees came out with support for Boston.

Miller’s article is so full of such subjunctive phrases as “almost surely would have” and “would likely have,” that even a politician’s response to sexual allegations sounds more straightforward.

She also quotes experts who have a stake in pimping for New York’s program, since they helped build it. They play Monday morning quarterback like pros, saying things like, “[Tsarnaev’s] behavioral changes alone—never mind his overseas trip and Russia’s warning to the FBI that he was a radical—would have been more than enough to trigger NYPD scrutiny.”

Sure, maybe. Maybe not. Let’s not forget that the would-be Times Square car bomber only came to NYPD’s attention after some street vendors noticed smoke coming from the car.

And according to Miller, “In New York, Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s mosque quarrel and his sudden behavioral changes might well have been reported by concerned worshipers, the imam himself, or other fellow Muslims. The NYPD maintains close ties to Muslim preachers and community leaders, as well as a network of tipsters and undercover operatives.” There’s that subjunctive phrasing again, “might well have been reported,” falling well below any threshold of certainty. In addition, Miller fails to supply any evidence to say such relationships between law enforcement and the community did not (or do not continue to) exist in Boston.

She concludes, “Finally, there is the NYPD’s continuing effort to understand Muslim communities and follow tips and leads by sending plainclothes officers to mosques, restaurants and other public venues where Muslims congregate. This effort—which follows court-ordered guidelines—might have secured information preventing last week’s bombings.” Again, using her subjunctive phrasing, she fails to prove that such efforts did not take place in Boston.

It is true that New York has an incredibly robust counterterrorism program. The program has its supporters and its critics. But no matter what you think of it, writing an article that essentially sets New York against Boston in the sport of counterterrorism, as if New York is sneering at Beantown saying, “Ha-ha, we would have done better than you,” is just simply absurd.

Let me know what you think. Do you approve of the NYPD’s program? Do you think Boston  officials dropped the ball? Send me your comments!