Sunday, November 30, 2008

Mumbai attacks: NY Times Piece says "it's personal"

The New York Times “Week in Review” has a pointed article by Anand Giridharads, “The Special Sting of Personal Terrorism”, in the Sunday Nov. 30, 2008 paper (first page of section) with a red-caped picture of a woman, rather Hitchcock like. She says that citizens in India understand this as war, not terror. Perhaps that relates to the long standing feud, with many incidents and escalations, of Pakistan. The link is here. What comes to mind for Americans is the 2002 sniping spree of Mohammed and Malvo in the DC area and surroundings (and several other states), leading to their apprehension at a Maryland interstate rest stop and a death sentence and life without parole in Virginia. But this is different. In fact, it seems that it was mostly western visitors (not natives) who were targeted in the Mumbai attacks, but it also seems that the “cause” has a lot to do with the feud with Pakistan as much as it has to do with the “grievances” of radical Islam in a larger sense, as has become well known since 9/11.

I saw “Slumdog Millionaire” today, filmed on location in Mumbai, around some of the same areas involved in the attacks. It’s pretty easy to see how the tribal resentments and corruption can percolate all the way to the top, even if this was a “feel good” movie at the end, oddly timely now. (See the movies blog.)

The other incredible fiasco overseas right now is the tens of thousands of international passengers stranded in Bangkok because of a total breakdown in the current government It’s incredible. These days, one travels in the third world at one’s peril. And people have travel to dangerous areas to work and volunteer.

Even so, some day I hope to take the high speed train in China to Tibet. And to see the Altiplano and Tiahuanaco site in Peru and Bolivia, an opportunity that I missed in 1974 when I changed jobs.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Russia eavesdrops on sensitive US information

Various media reports indicate that hackers from Russia have stolen “unclassified” but “sensitive” (in combination) information from government systems, according to multiple media reports today. A typical story is in the BBC here and apparently much of the work was gathered by the Los Angeles Times. The report certainly reinforces recent tensions with Russia, as over missile deployments and whether Russia will test the new Obama administration.

The report came from the National Infrastructure Protection Center of the FBI, with director Michael A. Vatis. A major statement of the Center’s work appears on the Commission for Accreditation of Law Enforcement Agencies, or CALEA Online, link here.

The report suggests a phenomenon known well in intelligence. Many individual facts (as about personnel) are themselves insignificant and sometimes are public. But when they are assembled or correlated in certain ways, they can point out vulnerabilities to outside enemies. This is more or less a matter of “social engineering” and “psychological operations.”

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Mumbai, India suffers multiple attacks; potentially largest incident worldwide since 9/11

In what is rapidly turning into “India’s 9/11”, at least 101 persons have died in at least twelve separate sniper and bomb attacks on a number of locations in Mumbai, India, including hotels, trains stations and theaters. The attacks occurred the day before Thanksgiving, Wednesday, Nov. 26, 2008. The attacks appear to be low-tech and coordinated among many individuals. The most visible target, often shown in the media, is the Taj Mahal Hotel. Many persons, including American and western visitors, have been taken hostage. Terrorists appear to have selected locations where they believed they would find westerners. A group called the “Deccan Mujahedeen” has claimed responsibility. It was not immediately clear if it has ties to Al Qaeda or to specific elements of the ongoing conflict with Pakistan.

There are many reports. Typical among these is a story in the Washington Post online this morning, Thanksgiving Day, by Emily Wax and Debbi Wilgoren from the Washington Post Foreign Service, “Indian troops work to free hostages: series of attacks in Mumbai leave at least 101 people dead”, link here. Wikipedia already has a specific entry early Thanksgiving morning, here.

Mumbai used to be called Bombay, and I recall the city on “Global Pursuit” board games as a boy.

Other attacks have occurred in Asia. The largest may have been in Bali, Indonesia, in October 2002. Shortly thereafter, and for a long time continually afterward, a number of suspects were apprehended and eventually tried (the Wikipedia details are here. A few days after the attack I received a bizarre personal email about another “club” in Bali (geographically near the attacked one) myself; it did not look like typical spam and I had no idea why it was sent to me other than the controversy of my own websites, and I passed it on to a local FBI. (I make no claims of “protecting sources” in a case like this even though I support journalistic shield as a public policy that should be followed; see my Issues blog March 3, 2008). There were other attacks in Indonesia Christmas Eve 2000, before 9/11 but after the USS Cole incident in October 2000.

The Mumbai attacks seem as large as London and Madrid and could eventually become the largest terrorist attack sequence in fatalities since 9/11. As of later Thursday, the death toll was 118. In July 2006, some attacks on Mumbai resulted in 187 fatalities.

Picture: Pearl Harbor, at National Museum of American History, Smithsonian, Washington DC.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

UK Medical Journal envisions end of African AIDS epidemic

The British medical journal the Lancet, on November 26, 2008, has an article (subscription for full text) “Universal voluntary HIV testing with immediate antiretroviral therapy as a strategy for elimination of HIV transmission: a mathematical model”. The link is here.

The article is a “thought experiment” but suggests aggressive testing and drug treatment for HIV could effectively end the epidemic of AIDS in Africa in about ten years.

I got free copies of the Lancet, a compact publication with a white magazine-like cover, from another manager in the workplace at a Dallas employer in the 1980s when I was tracking the emerging AIDS epidemic then, which already was viewed as a heterosexually transmitted disease in Sub Saharan Africa. The presence of other sexually transmitted diseases in the populations (especially female) was thought to be a major explanation.

David Brown has an article in the Nov. 26 Washington Post on p A4, “Model Predicts Halt to Africa’s AIDS Epidemic,” summarizing the Lancet article, link here.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Journalists reporting Mexican border drug war face reprisals

William Booth has a story on the front page of today’s (Nov. 25) Washington Post “Violence against journalists grows in Mexico’s drug war,” link here.

This problem has been known in Iraq and Afghanistan. But this story refers to dangers faced by reporters who work the drug wars in Ciudad Jaurez, across the border from El Paso, TX. Newspapers in the area do not identify writers of stories on the drug wars.

A typical story in today’s El Paso Times is this.

I visited El Paso the weekend of my move from New York to Dallas on the first weekend of January 1979. I flew from New York through Dallas to El Paso to explore the area before starting work Monday morning in Dallas. On Saturday, I drove the rent car into Juarez a few miles, probably not a good idea. A coworker took a car trip deep into Mexico and got into trouble that year; not a real good idea. (Remember the Brad Pitt film “The Mexican”).

Monday, November 24, 2008

Internet list of British right wing group circumvents UK's libel laws

The New York Times today (Nov. 24) carries a bizarre story about a list of members of a right-wing “British National Party” on a site hosted in the UK. The site is remarkable because of Britain’s strict libel laws, which reverse the American presumption that free expression trumps. The site gives names and home addresses of persons, including 45 Americans, in specific connection with a “controversial” organization. Britain’s libel laws have been the subject of attention recently because of the “libel tourism” issue.

The story, on p B3, is by Noam Cohen and is called “Link by Link: In Britain, Outwitting Strict Laws Against Libel”, link here.

As of today, Wikileaks ("We help you safely get the truth out") has information about the "BNP members" National Party list on its strike page, and says that there are 11,211 members in England and Wales.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Iran has enough enriched uranium for one weapon (IAEA)

The Global Security Newswire of the Nuclear Threat Initiative reported today that Iran has accumulated about enough enriched uranium to make one atomic bomb. Iran has even more incentive to develop nuclear power than previously accepted because of the rapidly falling price of oil with global recession and deflation.

Iran has been considered a potential threat to Israel, and possibly even the United States, given bellicose press statements, if a rogue group could fire a nuclear missile at the United States from open sea from a covert ship, or possibly at high altitude for a disabling EMP strike.

However, to carry out such speculative threats, it would probably have to acquire loose nuclear material from other parts of the world, like the former Soviet Union, rather than just on its own.

Iran has supposedly manufactured about 1390 pounds of enriched uranium. The link for the story on the NTI site is here. It was also linked from the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Nuclear Threat Initiative issues sobering 2008 report

The Nuclear Threat Initiative has released a detailed report “Securing The Bomb 2008” by Matthew Burn. The report is in three parts: an Executive Summary (18 pages0, a Full Report (205 pages), and “Preventing Nuclear Terrorism: An Agenda for the Next President” (205 pages), all PDF files. There is also a formal Press Release.

The basic link for the reports is this.
There is a detailed appraisal of nuclear safety in all parts of the world, especially Russia and Pakistan. There are many charts. There is discussion of a break-in in South Africa.

There is also a “latest developments” section that leads to a detailed table of over twenty major diplomatic or political events regarding nuclear safety.

The reports do not mention EMP risks, a subject recently discussed in conservative newspapers like The Washington Times and discussed in the House (by conservatives) in July, as documented on YouTube.

Columnist reports that yellowcake was recovered from Iraq

Carter Andress has a major column this morning on p A19 of The Washington Times, “Yellowcake from Saddam”, link here. Mr. Andress is an owner of a company called American-Iraqi Solutions and author of “Contractor Combatants: Tales of an Imbedded Capitalist,” from Thomas Nelson publishers.

Andress reports that several months ago the U.S. Armed Forces recovered over 550 metric tons of “yellowcake” (ammonium or sodium diuranate – a good compound to mention in AP chemistry classes). Andress argues that, with centrifuge and other equipment on the black market in places like Pakistan, Libya and Iran, terrorists could have manufactured up to 140 nuclear devices. We have all read recently about the exploits of A. Q. Khan. Such devices would not necessarily have been used by Saddam Hussein himself; they could have found their way into the hands of Al Qaeda or Palestinian-related groups. Conservative columnists have, in recent months, upped the discussion of the risks of nuclear weapons falling into the wrong hands, the use of dirty bombs or even the detonation of nuclear weapons for EMP effects.

Is this some kind of vindication of President Bush’s invasion of Iraq? Why hasn’t the administration said more about this? The Left has always said, “no WMD’s were found.” That no longer seems so. But the same diligence is necessary in securing all potentially loose nuclear material around the world, in the former Soviet Union, and in various other locations, including Africa.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Piracy off of Somalia is a big security threat

Today, there were multiple media reports about “Pirates of the Indian Ocean”, mainly off the coast of Somalia, for as far as 400 miles. Today a Saudi super-tanker had to drop anchor near Somalia. Some of these tankers can be three times the size of an aircraft carrier, like the carrier I visited at Patriot Point (Charleston, SC) in 1993. The US Navy says it is unable to police the entire area, and NATO says it is limited in the actions it can take. Nevertheless, the British Navy recently arrested some pirates.

Piracy can earn each participant $10000-$50000 per incident, in a poor country. Money from piracy buys weapons and even missiles that can be used by terrorists, even though piracy is motivated by “bully” economics, rather than politics or religion.

A risk could develop that Al Qaeda or a group from Iran could infiltrate a pirate group and use it for missile strikes against developed countries in the Middle East, including Israel, or even Saudi Arabia or Dubai. This is especially dangerous if such groups had nuclear weapons or were capable of something like an EMP strike. That is another reason why piracy is so dangerous, especially to that part of the world.

Some oil companies are going around the Horn of Africa to avoid the region, at increased cost.

Somalia, of course, was the site of President Clinton's debacle in 1993, that led to the movie "Black Hawk Down."

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Financial crisis increases security concerns; alarming media reports mount quickly

So, as G20 meets in the National Building Museum this weekend, the media is finally getting open about the multi-faceted danger that the financial crisis will make a future terror attacks on the west more likely.

There are several reasons for this. Some of this has to do with less money to upgrade homeland defense systems. But more of it would have to do with more social unrest in the developing world, particularly Muslim countries like Yemen and Pakistan. The front page story on Nov. 15, 2008 in The Washington Post is by Joby Warrick, “Experts see security risk in downturn: global financial crisis may fuel instability and weaken U.S. defense,” here.

It’s important to notice that in the US the ability of defense and intelligence agencies to “connect the dots” has been boosted by establishing the National Counterterrorism Center, the NCTC, link here. There is an interesting video available there. This mission is supposed to increase the odds that the significance of intelligence data “out of context” is not overlooked, but it obviously needs big time funding.

On the left side of the political spectrum, Alternet has an article, by Joshua Holland, about the dire economic risks, “Our economy is in a death spiral – will Washington stop the bleeding?,” here. Rapid deflation is hurting debtors even more, and probably contributing to extreme social unrest. It seems that the economic downturn started with Wall Street’s behavior but was exported overseas and is hitting even harder overseas now than at home. With deflationary depression, people simply do not buy the goods and services that are produced and hoard cash. Even so, there may be some encouraging signs that the US stock market is finding a "reliable" bottom of support levels from people who don't have to sell quickly.

The news reports that trickle in recently sound alarming, even in a world that seems elated by the political change signaled by the results of the US election. The major media outlets suddenly have run many somewhat sensationalistic stories about increased concerns about security for the new president. And in at least one frightening recent police case in suburban Maryland, a moderate level employee in intelligence might have been targeted in open auto traffic just because of where he worked.

People who grew up in my generation, the Cold War, feel we have seen some of this before. Two Alfred Hitchcock films that I rented from Netflix and watched this week ("Topaz" and particularly "Saboteur" (back to WWII)) show that these asymmetric concerns are not as new as they seem.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Columnists are starting to question EU progress in global warming

Paul Driessen, senior policy advisor for the Congress on Racial Equality and the Stop the War on the Poor Campaign, has a number of “devil’s advocate” columns in the Washington Times questioning the sincerity of the world on meeting climate change. You can search on his last name and find them at the Times site. Today (Nov. 14), on p A18 he has a column “Second thoughts on warming.”

Driessen points out that a number of European countries are, in 2008, way above their Kyoto carbon targets, including Italy, Portugal, Spain, Denmark and Austria. America is above what it would have agreed to had it signed Kyoto, but now, Driessen claims, our carbon emission growth rate is just 0.2% a year.

There is a good question as to how worldwide recession (or depression) will affect emissions. Lower demand would seem to reduce fossil fuel consumption for a while (look at oil prices now), but it also slows investment in alternative energy. Furthermore, society remains very vulnerable to a sudden incident, such as a terrorist strike on major oil fields in Saudi Arabia. I recall, in fact, back in the early 1980s there was a TV movie “World War III” predicated on the idea that the Soviets would attack America’s Alaska oil production and pipeline.

Monday, November 10, 2008

London Arab newspaper warns of plans for major 9/11-style attack against the U.S. homeland

Australian sources this morning are reporting a story in the London Arab newspaper Al-Quds Al-Arabi (edited by Abdel al-Bari Atwan) that Osama bin Laden (or Usana bin Laden) is deep into planning another major attack against the United States, to be bigger than 9/11. The reports seems to involve the United States rather than western Europe. So far the United States says there is no specific intelligence to that effect. Al-Bari is thought to have interviewed bin Laden in 1996. Stories say that he is the last such journalist, but I believe that British-raised foreign journalist and book author Peter Bergen interviewed him in 1997.

One major news story is by Paola Totaro, in the Canberra Times, here.

The story was repeated briefly on ABC “Good Morning America” Monday morning Nov. 10.

The Homeland Security National Terror Alert has a version of the story "Report - Bin Laden May Be Planning Large Scale Terror Attack Against U.S." here.

Conservative newspapers like the Washington Times have recently run a lot of material about novel WMD’s, such as EMP devices, that could be launched from sea without interdiction by normal American or European inspection procedures at ports and border. A lot of attention has been paid recently to reigning in on loose nuclear weapons components, and the issue was mentioned by candidates (especially Joe Biden) during the recent presidential campaign. See the posting on this blog Oct. 14 2008 about the Washington Times story. Joe Biden (now the Vice President elect), after running for president himself last spring, had said in October that a new President Obama would be tested by a major foreign crisis early in his administration, a remark that McCain's campaign tried to capitalize on.

It is still unclear how bin Laden is communicating with the outside world, by ground couriers in tribal areas. It is possible for newspaper like the one above to fabricate a story.

There is a blog entry about the report on "Public Secrets" here.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Russia may deploy missiles near Poland, in response to Bush's plan to defend Europe from rogue missiles

Russian president Dmitri Medvedev told a television audience Wednesday that he will place short-range missiles near the western border if a new President Obama carries out the Bush administration’s plan to install short range missile defenses in Poland.

President Bush has said that the new missile systems are needed to protect Europe from Iran and from rogue actors, not from Russia. Under the table, of some concern could the be possibility of an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) attack with a high altitude detonation.

The Washington Post story (Nov. 6, 2008, on p A01) by Philip P. Pan of the Washington Post Foreign Service , and Michael Abramowitz, is “Russia Gives Obama Brisk Warning: Kremlin Plans Missiles Targeting NATO if U.S. Defense Shield Proceeds”, with link here.

The AP story by Steve Gutterman and Vladimir Isachenkov seems to suggest that Russia will deploy the missiles near Poland anyway.

Russian nationalism and the rise of an authoritarian “state capitalist” government has been seen as a risk for reigniting a kind of Cold War. The possibility could seriously disrupt international markets. Russia’s stock market has been especially hard hit by the world financial crisis which seem to start in the United States with the securitization of bad mortgages and the sale to worldwide investors.

President Obama might be inclined to appoint Republicans or more conservative officials to defense and foreign policy positions, in order to appear stronger in international matters, or to maintain more continuity in actual job experience. He could, for example, decide to keep Condoleezza Rice in his administration.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

UN "blacklist" of suspected terrorists faces legal setback

Craig Whitlock, of the Washington Post Foreign Service, has an important story on the front page of The Washington Post, Sunday Nov. 2, “Terrorism Financing Blacklists at Risk: Global system faces multiple challenges,” link here.

The United Nations maintains a “blacklist” of 503 entities (including a few individuals) imposing a travel ban on them and freezing their assets. However, in September the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg declared that the blacklist violates the fundamental rights of those named. One reason is that it does not allow disclosure of the charges or any effective challenge, and violates what would be constitutional procedural safeguards in many countries, including the United States.

A copy of the judgment (in English) is available on a website in Germany in PDF format, here.