All posts by John Quinn

John holds an MA from the War Studies Department at King's College London. Prior to pursuing an advanced degree he worked for a democracy and civics education non-profit. He currently resides in Washington, DC.

No SOFA: US Troops In Post 2014 Afghanistan

The discussions surrounding US troop numbers in post 2014 Afghanistan are valuable, but only to the extent that US policymakers and military leadership are confident that they will be able to keep any troops in the country at all.




On Tuesday, in testimony before the House Armed Services Committee, General Mattis stated that he believed the proper number of NATO troops to remain in Afghanistan after 2014 would be 20,000, 13,600 being American. This number is significantly higher than what was discussed at a recent NATO summit, where preliminary estimates were 9,500 US troops and 6000 troops from other NATO nations. The White House has yet to come out with an official number.

These discussions, while important to have for the Administration, Congress, and military leaders to get on the same page, in many ways put the cart before the horse. Before any US troops can be committed to post 2014 Afghanistan, the question of a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) has to be resolved. While there are many things covered in a SOFA, the most important and most controversial points are those which grant immunity to US troops from criminal prosecution under Afghan law.

President Karzai has said that he will not make the decision but will make the case for a SOFA to the Afghan people and leave the choice to a Loya Jirga, a meeting of elders. However President Karzai is also the same leader who demanded security contractors leave the country and that US and NATO troops leave Afghanistan’s villages. It seems then that Karzai wants, or understands the necessity of, continued US and NATO presence in Afghanistan, but does not want to be the one held responsible for its potential consequences. By leaving the decision to a Loya Jirga, President Karzai can say “this is what you wanted”, deflecting blame from potentially unsavory US action.

While it would be purely speculative to asses whether a SOFA will be approved by Afghan elders, it is worth highlighting that acknowledging that US troops are needed and agreeing that they should have legal immunity is not the same thing. Local leaders may see the utility in a continued US presence for preventing al Qaeda to regain a foothold, however selling legal immunity to their “constituents” is a horse of a different color. Indeed this is the same problem Prime Minister Maliki faced in the failure to build sufficient support for a SOFA in Iraq. Both alleged criminal actions from US service members, such as Staff Sergeant Robert Bales, and civilian casualties from NATO operations, most recently the accidental killing of two young boys gathering firewood who were thought to be Taliban, are likely to be sticking points for the approval of a SOFA by Afghans.

A SOFA is far from settled and without this agreement there will be no US presence in Afghanistan after 2014. As President Obama said in January:

 “It will not be possible for us to have any kind of US troop presence post-2014 without assurances that our men and women who are operating there are (not) in some way subject to the jurisdiction of another country,”

With this line being drawn and a SOFA still unresolved, the discussions surrounding troop numbers in post 2014 Afghanistan are still valuable, but only to the extent that US policymakers and military leadership are confident that they will be able to keep any troops in the country at all. Without legal immunity under a SOFA, the debate over 20,000 or 13,000 troops is a moot point.


Photo Credit:  isafmedia

Hezbollah: A History of the “Party of God”

Hezbollah: A History of the “Party of God” is an exceptional dispassionate analysis of Hezbollah’s early and later years, and should be required reading for anyone interested in the organization or Lebanese history.


Hezbollah flag


Hezbollah: A History of the “Party of God”
Harvard University Press
ISBN 978-0-674-06651-9
Pages: 244

Hezbollah is a movement full of contradictions operating in a country that challenges mainstream Western perceptions of the Middle East. This is the group which has an acute awareness of new media and propaganda, creating a video game and museum surrounding the 2006 war with Israel along with agreeing to play paintball with a group Western journalists and researchers in 2011. The group has also been a suspected actor in attacks on Western targets, most notably the bus bombing in Bulgaria last July, an event which has resulted in recent pressure from Israel and the US for the group to be added to the EU’s designated terrorist list. The group has also been on the US State Department’s Foreign Terrorist Organizations list since 1997.

One of the first things done in Dominique Avon and Anaïs-Trissa Khatchadourains’ book, Hezbollah: A History of the “Party of God”, is to state that they will be writing clearly about the organization. This means avoiding terms like ‘terrorism’ or ‘terrorist’. For the authors engaging in the debate about what these terms mean (if anything), in an academic context, is neither useful or necessary.The authors brilliantly expose the contractions demonstrated by Hezbollah, summed up in this passage:

When the battles are few, the gap grows between the daily practice of its sympathizers and its discourse. That presents a Cornelian dilemma: the Hezbollah cannot call for an Islamic regime, which would run the risk of losing it allies and some its followers; it also cannot declare that such is not is long-term objective, since that would run the risk of acknowledging that the Islamic Republic of Iran did no inaugurate an era of “God’s government on earth” and that its fundamental structure is not superior to a liberal state, one that is pluralist to varying degrees.

The text is full of nuanced sections such as this. Presenting a fair, accurate, and compelling analysis of the Hezbollah. This is a welcome departure from the information typicallly disseminated by governments and journalists on the organization. The core question explored is how does an organization balance its revolutionary rhetoric with its responsibilities as a member of government.

One critique is of the book’s format. Part I includes 90 or so pages of Hezbollah history in three chapters from 1982-2009. Then the book shifts to 60 plus pages of reproducing Hezbollah documents in English, including the organization’s Political Charter of 2009 and the Open Letter of 1985. The authors then return to their own analysis for a concluding chapter. This is a difficult transition for the reader, from historical analysis, to primary sources, and then back to analysis. One wonders why the authors did not make their argument using quotes from primary sources in a narrative and then provide the primary sources in their entirety in an appendix.

Despite their odd placement, having a solid English translation of these documents in English is an extremely useful resource for the casual reader and researcher alike. In addition to primary source documents the authors have also included a lexicon, which is exceptional at demystifying terms that new researchers to the topic might not know (Adū) and  clarifying the meaning of terms readers may think that they know (Jihād). Two useful maps are located in the back of the text, including one showing the ethno-religious geography of Lebanon and the layout of Beirut. The text also includes a portraits section, detailing significant biographical information on the organization’s key actors. However the most useful supplementary material is the Organizational Chart of the Hezbollah detailing the political, social, and military wings of the party.

Despite its brevity (under 120 pages when not including the translated primary sources) the book feels quite dense. Some of this may be due to the fact that it was written in French and then translated to English by Jane Marie Todd. Practically his means that the text is a bit of a slog to get through, this is further exacerbated by the confusing shift to primary documents and then back to narrative discussed above. Despite these shortcomings, the book is an exceptional dispassionate analysis of Hezbollah’s early and later years and should be required reading for anyone interested in the organization or Lebanese history.


Photo Credit:  upyernoz

Robot Dog Army Patrolling Your Neighborhood? … Not Quite

HuffPost Live had an interesting discussion on Tuesday surrounding technology and warfare, focusing specifically on the development of the DARPA robotics project best known for its two YouTube sensation prototypes Big Dog and Alpha Dog.

These robots resemble headless four legged animals and can eerily mimic the reactions of living creatures to maintain stability when walking up steep terrain, on ice, or even when someone attempts to push one over. Watch this video for some context of what they can do:

For many, their mind immediately goes to the potential warfare applications of such technology. One can imagine a platoon of weaponized Big Dogs galloping over a ridge and unleashing all of Hell’s fury on some unsuspecting insurgents. Others speculate that these robots will be adopted in a law enforcement capacity and will soon be patrolling occupied or dangerous neighborhoods both abroad and possibly at home. RoboCop 2 particularly comes to mind in the latter scenario. These possibilities no doubt come from being steeped in a scifi culture, but also from a contemporary (and extremely legitimate) debate about not only how technology is applied in warfare, but how technology is shaping warfare.

No doubt military use is why this technology is being developed and we should ask these important ethical questions. However it would be a mistake to pigeon hole our thinking. We should think about the humanitarian and scientific use of such technology as well. Researchers in the Antarctic could take advantage of the robot’s sure footing to collect samples and make observations in places humans cannot go. New areas of Mars could be explored with a walking rover. Robots could be used in disaster areas to locate survivors. In a security context, these robots could use their precision steps to map and navigate mine fields, opening up areas for re-population and development. Further down the line it seems feasible that transport for the disabled or even prosthetics could be adapted from this technology. The possibilities seem endless. Let’s not forget that the Internet began as a DARPA project.

This is all to say that we should think broadly and with optimism about emerging technologies. After all, not every technological development, even those with a military origin, are the sign of the robot apocalypse.

Finally, in the event that quadrupedal robot armies become self-aware, hostile, and commence an attempt at world conquest, Star Wars has provided us with the tactical knowledge for how to fight back.


Photo credit: nic_r

Fiscal Cliff Averted, But What’s Next?

The Fiscal Cliff has been averted. Due to savvy political maneuvering and the dedication of senior lawmakers, the self-created asteroid of austerity set to strike at the heart of American economic recovery has been disintegrated by the atmosphere of bipartisanship and compromise… well… sort of. While the President has managed to get enough Republicans in line with his vision on taxes, the issue of spending has still not been addressed. Through the legislation, the automatic across-the-board cuts (know as the sequester) have been put off for two months.

So technically the cliff hasn’t been avoided, it’s been cut into two less scary hills or, maybe, two moderately imposing sets of stairs, one of which still looms ahead. Ridiculous metaphors aside, this means the discussion on spending will happen at the same time as the debate about raising the debt ceiling. On the latter point the President articulated in last night’s briefing that:

‘I will not have another debate with this Congress about whether they should pay the bills that they’ve already racked up.’

This is a firm position to take and is indeed an attempt by the White House to capitalize on its recent victory and set the tone for the upcoming debt ceiling discussion by saying it’s not up for discussion at all. Whether this is wishful thinking remains to be seen, but one thing is for sure, the discussions surrounding the other major issue, spending, will be ugly.

The GOP, in the House particularly, just sacrificed on some pretty fundamental points of their economic ideology, namely that if you tax rich people less they’re inclined to invest more that this creates jobs. The most substantive gain that the GOP got was raising the income threshold for tax hikes from $250,000 to $450,000. A number they could have had at $1 million had they taken up Speaker Boehner’s Plan B. Simply put, they come out of this discussion looking like the losers and will be fighting hard for a win on spending.

While the President can walk tall after his recent victory, in the upcoming spending discussions he has less to negotiate on. The tax issue has been put to bed so options for compromise are limited. However he does hold one card that the GOP lacks, the President doesn’t need to run for re-election.


Photo Credit: United States Government

The Trial Of Staff Sergeant Robert Bales

The trial of Staff Sergeant Robert Bales takes two major issues of the past 11 years of war, mental illness among troops and civilian casualties, and rolls them into one. As a result this case has meaning beyond the fate of the Staff Sergeant.



In the early morning hours of March 11, 2012, U.S. Army Staff Sergeant Robert Bales left Camp Belambay base in Kandahar Province, Afghanistan, visited two villages and killed 16 Afghans, 9 of whom were children. SSG. Bales’s defense team is arguing that a mix of “alcohol, steroids, and sleeping aids” in the defendant’s system should raise questions about what his state of mind was during the killings. These substances along with the “kinetic and high-pressure” environment appear to be the major points of their defense.

These statements were made as Army prosecutors announced on Tuesday that they will pursue the case as a capital crime, meaning that SSG. Bales potentially faces the death penalty if convicted. The last US military execution was a hanging carried out in April of 1961 and while there have been military capital convictions since then (15) almost all of them have either been overturned, commuted, are in the appeals process, or a stay of execution has been issued (in the case of Ronald Gray).

SSG. Bales’s case is also unique because of those on the military’s death row, he would be the only one charged with killing civilians in a combat zone.  The others awaiting execution have all either committed capital crimes against civilians in the United States or have killed (or attempted to kill) fellow members of the armed services.

While a capital conviction, in a court martial, can be secured by a unanimous vote of the jury, the signature of the President is required to approve the execution. Speaking about capital punishment generally in his memoir, The Audacity of Hope, President Obama wrote

 “While the evidence tells me that the death penalty does little to deter crime, I believe there are some crimes—mass murder, the rape and murder of a child—so heinous, so beyond the pale, that the community is justified in expressing the full measure of its outrage by meting out the ultimate punishment.”

Does the murder of 16 people, including 9 children meet the threshold described above? Does the President’s perspective differ in the case of the military? In recent years capital punishment has been a non-starter in American politics. Some states have pushed bans forward through their legislatures, but the discussion on the Federal level has been non-existent. Where there is advocacy it tends to focus on the racial and socioeconomic inequalities presented in the execution of the death penalty (and the judicial system at large) and on its uselessness as a deterrent to crime rather than a moral critique of the state’s right to end life.

Back to the context in which this will play out, the military justice system, this case will likely bring forward some important questions about how mental illness is recognized and confronted in the armed services. If the defense is able to successfully make it about this then it seems unlikely that a conviction will come back from the jury comprised of fellow service members who may know a colleague suffering from (or experienced themselves) a service related mental illness. The fact that SSG. Bales committed the attacks while wearing a cape, and reports of his intoxication earlier in the night, have lead some to question his mental state.

The prosecution will have to prove that mental illness and mind altering substances were not to blame and that SSG. Bales was fully aware of what he was doing.  SSG. Bales made several statements shortly after the attack which suggest that this was the case, that he was lucid, coherent, and knew what he did was wrong or at the very least illegal.

There are also soft-power implications for how this case translates for Afghans or indeed the Muslim world at large. If SSG. Bales is found guilty and President Obama does not sign off on the execution it would indeed send a mixed message to the those living in countries where there has been civilian collateral damage as a result of US operations, “We won’t hold our own accountable”. If the President does sign off on the order it could have a serious impact on morale in the armed forces and could communicate that the administration does not take mental illness in the military seriously (even if it is determined that SSG. Bales was of sound mind the risk of that interpretation is still there).

I would not expect to see many comments from politicians, the President included, during the trial. There is a tendency, and rightfully so, to let the military’s judicial system sort out its own issues removed from political influence. However once a verdict is reached the ball is back in the President’s court and to some extent becomes a political issue. In many ways this case takes two major issues of the past 11 years of war, mental illness and civilian casualties, and rolls them into one. As a result this case has meaning beyond the fate of SSG Bales.


Photo Credit: Eric Dietrich

Security & Multicultural Integration In The UK: A Conflation Of Agendas

The UK’s approach to multiculturalism has contributed to homegrown Islamist terrorism in the UK. Do you agree?
{Department of War Studies, King’s College London}


Mohammed Siddique Khan


This essay forms part of our series on multiculturalism.


There is a terrorist threat in the United Kingdom (UK) that comes not just from foreign nationals, but also from its own citizens.[1]  In an attempt to understand and counter this threat there has been a conflation of the integration and counterterrorism agendas, this has resulted in multiculturalism being identified as the barrier to both.[2]  The assertion that multiculturalism has contributed to homegrown terrorism in the UK is incomplete and simplifies the complex process of radicalisation and how that might translate into violent action.  Multiculturalism may create an environment that is favorable to the development of risk factors associated with radicalisation, namely a crisis in identity leading to the adoption of extremist ideology; but this does not fully consider relevant social drivers.  Also, it cannot be empirically shown that holding radical views will necessarily lead to committing or supporting acts of terrorism.

Multiculturalism means that ethnic minority groups require unique treatment and support from the state in order to fully exercise their citizenship.[3]  In the case of the UK, the policies which shaped multiculturalism came out of the 1960s when there was a realisation that many immigrants who had initially come to Britain for work did not plan on returning to their countries of origin.[4]  These policies were further developed in the wake of the 1981 riots, focusing on the needs of specific ethnic groups and moving towards a more racially equitable society.[5]  In recent years there has been significant criticism of multiculturalism in the UK, some have argued that it has decreased cross cultural dialogue and that it has driven communities to live separate lives from one another.[6]  These recent criticisms have also taken the form of security concerns, as articulated by Prime Minister David Cameron, who has argued that a lack of national identity in the UK has opened the door to extremism for young Muslims.[7]

The revised Prevent Strategy, the UK’s community based approach to stopping extremism, is critical of multiculturalism, placing an emphasis on integration, democratic participation, and greater dialogue between communities as essential in fighting extremism.[8]  This assessment makes a significant assumption that the key to fighting terrorism is a strong, common identity.  There is evidence to suggest that an identity crisis can serve as a cognitive opening for individuals to embrace extremist ideology. Many young Muslims in Europe, who are second or third generation, may feel alienated from their parents traditional values but also do not feel welcome in Western societies because of perceived discrimination and socioeconomic disadvantage. [9]  The move towards extremism by young British Muslims is a rejection not only of perceived British or Western culture and values, but a rejection of previously held community values represented by their parents and traditional religious institutions.[10]  The concept of the ummah, or global Muslim community, promoted by Islamists, offers an alternative identity to both the world of their parents and Western society.[11]  The key point, missed by critics of multiculturalism, is that the global ummah is a foreign concept and external force to the communities comprised of ethnic minorities, which multiculturalism supports.  While there are mosques in the UK that have been connected with terrorism,[12] there are also examples of minority ethnic communities showing resilience against extremist views and violence, showing the capacity for self-policing.  The 7/7 bombers were expelled from mosques,[13] and reformed Islamist, Ed Husain, reflects on similar experiences when he was trying to propagate extremist views as a member of Hizb ut-Tahrir, in the ethnically Bangladeshi, East London Mosque.[14]  Extreme elements that may exist within a mosque often times have little to do with the officially hierarchy, they are outside elements who are operating under the radar of mosque administration.[15]  It would seem then that the problem is not with the existence of distinct ethnic communities under multiculturalism, but with the capacity of leadership within those communities to confront extremist elements.

Linking multiculturalism to terrorism also looks to ideology as being an important factor contributing to moves towards violent extremism.  Critics of multiculturalism argue that even non-violent extremism can create an atmosphere that supports terrorism and can popularise ideas that terrorists use.[16]  However, to be radical is to reject the status quo of society; this does not always mean violence.[17]  It would be incorrect to think of the radicalisation process as a neat, linear progression from an identity crisis, leading to the adoption of extremist ideology, leading directly to participation in acts of terrorism. In fact, a major debate is whether groups that promote non-violent radical ideas are one stop on a conveyor belt towards terrorism or whether they serve as a firewall or safety-valve, preventing moves towards violence.[18]  Associating homegrown terrorism with multiculturalism misses this critical link, the connection between radicalisation and terrorism.  In comparing these two distinct groups, non-violent radicals and terrorist, there is evidence that both aspire to some of the same ideological points, the concept of kuffar (non-believers), the goals of a Caliphate and Sharia law, exposure to and promotion of similar texts and thinkers, and a belief that violent jihad can be justified.[19]  Ideological differences in these groups are related to context in which religious points are understood.[20]  Perceived discrimination, which could create a cognitive opening for extremist views to take hold,[21] could be a factor in a divided, multicultural society.  However, non-violent radicals and terrorists also experience the same levels of perceived discrimination.[22]  Even if multiculturalism creates an environment which supports the adoption of extremist ideology it still cannot be shown that ideology will necessarily translate into action.

A focus simply on identity and ideology also ignores the social factors that have been shown to play a role in for individuals pursuing terrorism.  The 7/7 bombers were all seemingly well integrated members of British society.  Mohammed Sidique Kahn, the group’s leader, grew up in a religiously lenient household and married a non-Muslim woman.[23]  All of the group’s members experienced alienation and an identity crisis; however their move towards violence did not occur until after they came together.[24]  Groups are helpful in ensuring prospective terrorists that their choice is the correct one.[25]  Supporting acts of terrorism carries significant risk; before someone takes part in such action social relationships are very important.[26]  Social networks present the opportunity for ideas to be translated into action.[27]  Many radicalised individuals watch extremist videos depicting graphic and violent content, but the difference between terrorists is that they often watch those videos in groups ‘creating a culture of violence.’[28]  Other social factors such as personal experiences, friendship, and group dynamics also play a role in influencing an individual to pursue acts of terrorism.[29]  Older men, who speak Arabic and may claim to have links to the global jihad, may be influential over younger, second or third generation Muslims, who have limited knowledge of Islam.[30]  Factors, including an emotional pull, thrill seeking, status and an internal code of honour, and peer pressure might be responsible for the non-violent to violent link.[31]  Furthermore, even if an individual is socialised to commit acts of violence, there is no guarantee that violence means terrorism.[32]

Multiculturalism is a controversial policy in the center of public debate.  Policy makers should have rigorous discussions about what is best for the UK moving forward concerning issues of integration and social cohesion.  There may be many valuable reasons for the pursuit of a stronger British national identity and the reform or elimination of multiculturalism as policy; however what must be avoided is a conflation of the two distinct agendas of integration and counterterrorism.  It cannot be empirically shown that there is a link between multiculturalism and homegrown terrorism.  There are many factors that may contribute to radicalisation, some influenced by multiculturalism; identity and ideology, and some not: social factors.  Even if some factors can be shown to influence radicalisation, radicalisation does not mean violence, and violence does not mean terrorism.

[toggle title=”Citations & Bibliography”]

[1]            HM Government (2011), p. 1

[2]            Meer & Modood (2009), p. 481

[3]            Ibid., p. 479

[4]            Brighton (2007), pp. 5-6

[5]            Thomas (2009), p. 285

[6]            Cantel (2001), p. 9

[7]            ‘State multiculturalism has failed, says David Cameron’,, 9 March 2012

[8]            HM Government (2011), p. 27

[9]            Helmus (2009), p. 81

[10]            Neumann & Rogers (2007), p. 16

[11]            Daalgard-Nielsen (2010), p. 800

[12]            ‘Profile: Abu Hamza’,, 16 March 2012

[13]            Kirby (2007), p. 418

[14]            Husain (2007), p. 115

[15]            HM Government (2006), p. 31

[16]            ‘New Prevent strategy launched’,, 16 March 2012

[17]            Bartlett & Miller (2012), p. 2

[18]            Vidino (2010), p. 7

[19]            Bartlett & Miller (2012), pp. 10-12

[20]            Ibid., p. 10.

[21]            Wiktorowicz (no date), pp. 7-8

[22]            Bartlett & Miller (2012), p. 8

[23]            Kirby (2007), p. 417

[24]            Ibid., p. 423

[25]            Helmus (2009), p. 96

[26]            Wiktorowicz (no date), p. 5

[27]            della Porta & Diani (2006), p. 119

[28]            Bartlett & Miller (2012), p. 14.

[29]            European Commission’s Expert Group on Violent Radicalisation (2008), p. 9

[30]            Sageman (2008), p. 79

[31]            Bartlett & Miller (2012), p. 13

[32]            European Commission’s Expert Group on Violent Radicalisation (2008), p. 5



Bartlett, Jamie & Miller, Carl (2012), ‘The Edge of Violence: Towards Telling the Difference Between Violent and Non-Violent Radicalization’, Terrorism and Political Violence, Vol. 24, No. 1, pp. 1-21

Brighton, Shane (2007), ‘British Muslims, multiculturalism and UK foreign policy: “integration” and “cohesion” in and beyond the state’, International Affairs, Vol. 83, No. 1, pp. 1-17

Cantel, Ted (2001), Community Cohesion: A Report of the Independent Review Team, (London: Home Office),, 9 March 2012

Daalgard-Nielsen, Anja (2010), ‘Violent Radicalisation in Europe: What We Know and What We Do Not Know’, Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, Vol. 33, No. 9, pp. 797-814

della Porta, Donatella & Diani, Mario (2006), Social Movements: An Introduction, 2nd ed., (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing)

European Commission’s Expert Group on Violent Radicalisation (2008), Radicalisation Processes Leading to Acts of Terrorism, (Brussels & Luxembourg: European Commission),, 19 March 2012

Helmus, Todd (2009), ‘Why and How Some People Become Terrorists’, in Paul K. Davis and Kim Cragin, eds., Social Science for Counterterrorism: Putting the Pieces Together, (Santa Monica: RAND Corporation), pp. 71-111,, 19 March 2012

HM Government (2011), Prevent Strategy, (London: Home Office),, 9 March 2012

HM Government (2006), Report of the Official Account of the Bombings in London on 7th July 2005, (London: Home Office),, 17 March 2012

Husain, Ed (2007), The Islamist, (London: Penguin Books)

Kirby, Aidan (2007), ‘The London Bombers as “Self Starters”: A Case Study in Indigenous Radicalization and the Emergence of Autonomous Cliques’, Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, Vol. 30, No. 5, pp. 415-428.

Meer, Nasar & Modood, Tariq (2009), ‘The Multicultural State We’re In: Muslims, “Multiculture” and the “Civic Re-balancing” of British Multiculturalism’, Political Studies, Vol. 57, pp. 473-497

Neumann, Peter & Rogers, Brooke (2007), Recruitment and Mobilisation for the Islamist Militant Movement in Europe, (London: International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation),, 19 March 2012

Sageman, Marc (2008), Leaderless JihadTerror Networks in the Twenty-First Century, (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press)

Thomas, Paul (2009), ‘Between Two Stools? The Governments “Preventing Violent Extremism” Agenda’, Political Quarterly, Vol. 80, No. 2, pp. 282-291

Vidino, Lorenzo (2010), Countering Radicalization in America: Lessons from Europe, (Washington: United States Institute of Peace),, 18 March 2012

Wiktorowicz, Quintan (no date), Joining the Cause: al-Muhajiroun and Radical Islam (Rhodes College research paper),, 19 March 2012



Obamacare & New Democrat Political Dilemmas

If the mainstay of the debate surrounding the forthcoming American presidential elections centres on Obamacare, the  President will not be staying in the White House for a second term.


Romney Obamacare


[dropcap]I[/dropcap]n what seemed to add insult to injury the Democrats trounced the Republicans, 18-5, in the 75th annual Congressional Baseball game in Washington last night. Chants of ‘We won healthcare!’ from the Democratic staffers and supporters at Nationals Park echoed through the stadium, referencing the largely favorable Supreme Court ruling on the Obamacare law earlier that day. For a moment, the energy felt like the massive electoral victories of 2006 or 2008. While supporters of the law and President should indeed celebrate the Court’s ruling, they should also be cautious and consider some unintended political consequences that could arise:

  • The win could be an energizing factor for the Republican base in November. Democrats will have to carefully balance how they frame the victory while on the campaign trail. The country is sharply divided over the ruling as shown in a recent Gallup poll and many independents could be pushed away if the law is a central talking point. Republicans can easily be critical of the law and demand a repeal. Democrats need to avoid making November an effective referendum on the law.
  • Governor Romney will attempt to make the election a referendum on Obamacare. In his response to the ruling the presumptive Republican nominee said ‘What the court did not do on its last day in session, I will do on my first day if elected president of the United States. And that is I will act to repeal Obamacare.’  The Romney narrative is that ‘Obamacare’ is a tax hiking, deficit increasing, job killing, personally invasive law. This rhetoric doesn’t need to be true in order for it to be effective. If every Obama campaign stop is a retort to Romney’s claims and the defense of a law that the President expended substantial political capital to pass two years ago, it will eat up valuable time and resources that could be spent talking about other issues (job creation, counter-terrorism success, and Wall Street reform to name a few).
  • Key Senate races have become a lot more interesting. While the House can pass a repeal now it will most certainly stop in the Senate. The Republicans will frame the Senate (and the Presidency) as operating against the will of the people (true or not) and claim that controlling the upper house as central to removing the law. With vulnerable open seats in ND, WI, and VA and Senators Tester (MT), McCaskill (MO), and Nelson (FL) on the chopping block there is a substantial risk of the body turning red. While the Republicans will not gain a supermajority in the Senate (enough to overcome a filibuster), forcing a potential Senate Democratic minority to resort to a procedural road block to defend the law will push tensions to an all time high and will be extremely unpopular politically. The worst-case scenario for supporters of the law is moderate Democrats voting for repeal out of political fear.

Democrats should indeed be happy with the Court’s ruling however one must ask the question whether a negative decision on Obamacare would have made things easier in November. Democrats in sensitive districts will need to defend the law while simultaneously downplaying their support for it. The President is unable to downplay his support for the law but will need to balance his response to Romney’s attacks with the discussion of policy successes in other realms.  If the debate is focused around Obamacare, the President will lose.

Terrorism & Entrapment Within The Occupy Movement

Small, tight knit groups may begin to break away from Occupy and choose a different strategy, a violent one, in the pursuit of the same goals.



[dropcap]L[/dropcap]ast Thursday 5 men were indicted in Ohio on multiple charges related to an attempt to blow up a bridge in Brecksville, just south of Cleveland. The men have been described by the government as ‘anarchists’ and were acting ‘out of anger against corporate America and the government’. The men had connections, of varying degrees, with Occupy Cleveland and this foiled plot and the investigation surrounding it present some interesting and pressing points about how domestic terrorism cases are pursued and the state of left-wing terrorism in America.

FBI Informants

The FBI is likely thrilled with this latest bust, not only from a homeland security standpoint, but because it relieves a little bit of the pressure from civil rights groups who claim that the Bureau unfairly uses informants in Muslim communities for domestic terrorism investigations. This bust, where fake explosives were provided by an FBI informant, sends a message that, fair or unfair, the FBI uses informant based prosecutions for everyone. Entrapment? Perhaps, but at least they’re not profiling!

However, regarding entrapment, this raises two questions: 1) When did the FBI informant make contact with the group? Before or after they had mobilized and committed themselves to violent action? Understanding this is crucial in determining what the process of radicalization was like and how much guidance the informant had in the development of the plot. This distinction has proven to be legally irrelevant in the past, but in assessing the likelihood of future plots from former occupiers this could prove important. And 2) How many informants does the FBI have within the Occupy movement and what is their directive? Are they being sent in with the express purpose of making counterterrorism busts? Are they being given specific targets or broad instructions to make cases?

An Emerging Left-wing Threat?

Occupy was quick to distance themselves from the Ohio 5, however some on the right have highlighted that an ideological connection exists between Occupy and the plotters and additional evidence shows that some were involved in Occupy at a fairly high level (leasing property for the movement). With its broad reach and agenda for societal change, Occupy can best be classified as a social movement. Social movements can provide the necessary milieus from which for more extreme forms of political action, sometimes violent, can emerge. People can meet, exchange ideas, and form cliques. The Weather Underground in the U.S. and the Red Army Faction in West Germany both emerged from the broader left-wing social movements of their day. The major debate is over whether these milieus should be regarded as ‘conveyor belts’ or ‘safety-valves’, moving individuals or groups towards violent extremism, or serving as a non-violent political outlet. The Ohio case seems to provide evidence favoring the former but it’s also important to keep in mind that outside of this incident the movement has been almost entirely peaceful. So what does Occupy have to do with the Ohio 5? I would argue nothing when it comes to endorsing, planning, funding, or supporting a terror plot but the existence of the Occupy milieu provides a base from which violent extremism can emerge.

Whether more, frustrated occupiers choose to pursue violence remains to be seen, but it’s important to remember that non-violence is not exclusively a moral choice in conflict, it’s also a strategic one. Simply because individuals have used non-violence in the past does not necessarily mean they are opposed to violence in principle. Especially in a large, international movement it’s impossible to assess what every participant’s moral stance on the use of violence is, even if there is nearly universal strategic unity on non-violence at the moment. Small, tight knit groups may begin to break away and choose a different strategy, a violent one, in the pursuit of the same goals. I’m not writing this as an alarmist, it would be irresponsible and unfounded to predict a new wave of left-wing terrorism, but large, decentralized social movements comprised of educated and unemployed young people, who frankly have achieved little through non-violent means throw up some red flags.

Hopefully this case will serve as an impetus for the leaders of Occupy to reassert their commitment to a non-violent strategy, and become tactically innovative within that realm. However the alternative scenario is that this serves as inspiration for frustrated individuals who may undergo a risky shift.

Buddy Roemer: The Best Candidate You’ve Never Heard Of

Accepting Mr. Roemer’s diagnosis of the American political system is accepting that American democracy is not only sick, it has stage IV cancer.



[dropcap]I[/dropcap]n the recent history of American Presidential elections, apart from the two major party candidates there’s been a tradition of the scrappy third-party candidate with no shot of winning the race (or even a single electoral vote) but with the ability to shake things up and perhaps add to the conversation. In 1992 Ross Perot, running on the Reform Party ticket, took close to 19% of the popular vote. In 1996 Mr. Perot again made a, much smaller, dent with almost 8.5% of the popular vote. Perhaps most infamously, in the 2000 election Ralph Nader took only 2.7% of the popular vote nationally, but 97,388 votes in Florida. Votes that many contend would have gone to Vice-President Al Gore had Mr Nader not been in the race, changing the outcome of the race in George Bush’s favour. In 2004 and 2008 third party candidates dropped off the map, arguably because of Mr Nader’s 2000 impact, registering miniscule numbers in both elections.

Here we are in 2012, enter Buddy Roemer. Mr. Roemer is a former member of the United States House of Representatives and former Governor of Louisiana. This election cycle he ran unsuccessfully for the Republican nomination, finishing last in the Iowa Caucus (behind ‘No Preference’) and has been denied space at every Republican debate. He is now running independently without the endorsement of a third-party.

Mr. Roemer believes his campaign can find common ground between the two biggest American political movements of the last four years, the Tea Party and Occupy. The overlap, he claims, is the role that money plays in politics. In theory this appeals to the Tea Party because corporations lobby for laws that favour them; this makes government bigger, and it appeals to Occupy because it limits the influence of corporations in politics.

This above all has been his campaign’s main focus and thus far they’ve practiced what they preach. The Roemer campaign accepts no money from PACs, does not have a Super PAC, and does not accept individual donations over $100. He is running on a platform which pushes for full disclosure of every campaign contribution, real-time electronic reporting of campaign contributions, elimination of Super PACs, limiting PAC donations to the same as individual donations, prohibiting lobbyists from participating in fundraising, and criminalizing violations to campaign finance laws.

On other issues Mr. Roemer comes down as center-right. He would support a repeal of Obamacare but keep the coverage for pre-existing conditions. He would have a flat income tax of 17% with a $50,000 exemption and close tax loopholes for corporations. On national security he supports the use of drones and questions the productivity of a cash-based foreign policy. This is not exhaustive and you can view his full platform on his campaign’s website.

The other thing about Mr. Roemer is that he is surprisingly of the ‘establishment’. He holds a BA and an MBA from Harvard and he has held State and national office, as both a Democrat and a Republican. He is in everyway middle of the road, and his major issue, money in politics, is something that would unquestionably benefit the average voter by making government accountable to people, not to special interest. When you hear him speak with his Louisiana twang, you get riled up, you get angry, he brings you in, and he’s speaking directly to you.

So why is he totally and completely unelectable?

Fundamentally I think it’s this, accepting Mr. Roemer’s diagnosis of the American political system is accepting that American democracy, which one is taught to think is exceptional, is not only sick, it has stage IV cancer. You have to accept that under the current circumstances your vote, your advocacy, and your voice are meaningless; you are powerless. The leaders that you ‘elect’, no matter how much they talk about ‘hope’, ‘change’, or their belief in America, are really bought and paid for.

This is a bitter pill to swallow but it’s time America wakes up and gets some treatment.

A Case For Ending The US Embargo Against Cuba

Looking at the political situation surrounding the US embargo against Cuba it seems unlikely that any further reforms or a repeal are possible in the near future.



The other day I was walking down High Holborn Street in London and I spotted a foreign flag. Not a terribly unique occurrence in this town, with embassies and high commissions popping up all over the landscape of central London. However what was different about this flag was that it was Cuban and for the first time in my life I was looking at an official piece of the Cuban state, a country that sits 90 miles of the coast of my own but has been virtually inaccessible for half a century.

February marked the 50year anniversary of the US embargo against Cuba. This policy was initially enacted at the height of the Cold War to restrict the flow of cash and goods to the small island nation with the hope of crippling the Castro regime. The policy also placed a travel ban on US citizens visiting the island (with the exception of journalists, academics, religious institutions, and other individuals who could show a non-tourism/business related reason for the visit). In recent years the Obama administration has relaxedmany of the embargo’s harsher points. Family members can now visit relatives, there are fewer restrictions on remittances, and telecommunications companies can begin to establish links. These reforms are predicated upon the thinking that promoting more person-to-person connections with the people of Cuba will start a “grassroots democracy” movement.

These reforms have been met with criticism, specifically from Members of Congress who represent districts where there are large Cuban-Diaspora populations who have strong feelings of hostility towards the Castro regime. One such district is represented by Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, who also chairs the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, where a bill repealing the embargo would have to go through. These parties oppose removing the embargo and feel that these reforms will do nothing to help the people of Cuba and will aid the regime.

Looking at the political situation surrounding this issue within the context of broader US debates regarding economic and foreign policy (at the moment focused narrowly on Iran) it seems unlikely that any further reforms or a repeal are possible in the near future simply because the White House will not use its limited political capital on the Hill to push it through. This is s shame because the current reforms will most certainly do nothing.

It is naive to think that simply allowing family members and religious groups to visit the island will have any substantive impact on the cultivation of democracy. After all, what about the close to 3 million visitors annually, many from Canada and Europe’s liberal democracies? If democratic ideals can simply be spread through contact wouldn’t these visitors from other free states have had some kind of impact over the past 50 years? What the US embargo gives the regime is a clear enemy, an entity that can absorb blame for all of the nation’s problems. The best course of action to liberalize Cuba is the full repeal of this Cold War relic and the re-establishment of full diplomatic relations. Will this aid the Castro regime? Probably in the short term, with an increase in revenue and an ability to claim that they ‘won’ the stalemate, but in the long term it significantly impedes their ability to demonize the US.

As the late Czech dissident Vaclav Havel astutely observed in his 1978 essay, ‘The Power of the Powerless’, restrictive systems of thought rely on ritual to sustain themselves. In the case of the Castro Regime this ritual is focused on the US as their main enemy. Removing the embargo challenges this ritual and the grievances of Cubans could then be focused on the regime itself rather than an external ‘boogey man’. Only when Cubans realize what is truly holding them back from democratic and accountable government, will any kind of movement be able to grow. Lets just hope it’s not another 50 years.

Provoking Islamism: The Banning Of The Burqa

Populist political theater parading as a measure to increase social cohesion.



Last Friday the Dutch cabinet announced plans to move forward with the question of banning the wearing of burqas, along with other clothing such as ski-masks that cover the face, in public. The decision still requires approval by the Dutch Parliament, but if passed the Netherlands would be the third EU nation (France and Belgium already have a ban) to ban the religious garment. The arguments put forth in favor of such bans generally take the tack of public safety and social cohesion. Those opposed usually cite individual rights to religious expression. It seems there is little room for resolution between these two viewpoints and most importantly neither address the threat posed from violent extremism. Banning the wearing of the burqa in public is bad policy, from a national security standpoint, because it provides Islamists with what they perceive as additional evidence backing up their narrative that the West is at war with Islam.

Narrative is crucial to how extremist organisations maintain popular support, recruit, and justify violent action. Events and policies are not viewed in a vacuum, but are instead contextualised as part of a particular narrative. For example, in Northern Ireland during the Troubles, an encounter where a young Catholic is beaten or otherwise abused by British soldiers, despite the specifics of the particular situation, is contextualized as part of a long story of British abuse and exploitation that has gone back centuries. Violent response can then be seen as honorable and in the spirit of fondly remembered revolutionary action. The late IRA operative, Eamon Collins, reflects on this in his memoir, Killing Rage: ‘I felt those heroes of 1916 were like the priests who had died for us at Cromwellian hands. I felt my mother must be right: the struggle for our faith was not yet over.’ Later, when he was university aged, Collins had a run-in with soldiers from the British Parachute Regiment in his neighborhood where he was beaten while in custody. This encounter was not interpreted as an isolated incident but as part of the war against Republicanism and his ethnic identity. This experience is remembered as a key point in his radicalisation.

Back to 2012. For Islamists the banning of the burqa is not an issue of religious freedom, which they do not support. The banning of the burqa may be contextualised to young Muslims like this: ‘The West is killing innocent muslims in Afghanistan and Iraq and they support the Jewish occupation and oppression of your brothers and sisters in Palestine. Now in Paris, Brussels, and Amsterdam they are dishonoring our sisters, mothers, and wives.’ For those who have bought into the Islamist narrative this is a powerful symbol of oppression that is not thousands of miles away, but on their doorstep. Ed Husain talks about similar tactics that he used as a member of Hizb ut-Tahrir to stir up animosity in Muslim circles in the UK: ‘We had been trained always to link local issues to the global concerns of Muslims.’ These tactics allow extremist organisations to draw connections that miscontextualise local events, they can convince followers that they are living in a front in the the war on Islam.

There are policies that states must enact to ensure that their citizens are secure, many of them controversial. These decisions, from law enforcement and prosecution considerations at home to military and intelligence intervention abroad, should be debated vigorously and publicly on their security benefits and their potential impact on civil liberties. It must also be mentioned that the impact of these policies on the Islamist narrative should not always be a major consideration because it is likely that those who propagate or subscribe to that ideology will approve of very little that Western states do. However, what policy makers can be sure of is that banning a religious garment will do nothing to make theirs states safer and will certainly be made part of the ‘war on Islam’ narrative. The Dutch attempt at a burqa ban is a piece of populist political theater aimed at galvanising supporters against a largely peaceful religious minority within their borders. If the Dutch government wants to fight extremism it should focus on policies that engage moderate Muslims with Dutch society, not policies that agitate and alienate.

What The Military Justice System Gets Right

What can we learn from U.S. Court Martials?



There was an exceptionally informative post on on Saturday that detailed the specifics of how a U.S. military court martial is carried out, in anticipation of this instrument being used to determine the future of Army Pfc. Bradley Manning, the soldier charged with disclosing American secrets to WikiLeaks. The inclination that I think most people have is that a court martial is fundamentally less fair than a civilian criminal trial, that the accused have fewer rights, that the culture of the military, with a low tolerance for dissent, would mean decisions are rendered with more prejudice towards the defendant. I know this was my own view. Upon reading the article I found myself pleasantly surprised that the military justice system affords those accused with rights and procedures, identical, if not slightly more favorable than a U.S. civilian trial. I began thinking, what are some of the inadequacies in our civilian justice system that a military court martial identifies and corrects? Below I have outlined what I think are some good ideas and while they may be difficult or even impossible to adopt from the military, at the very least they can encourage discussion on where we can do better.

Jury Selection

The jurors are not chosen randomly from voter registration rolls, like they are in the civilian world, they are chosen because they are known to be educated, experienced, and have a developed ‘judicial temperament’.  If my future was on the line I would want critical thinkers who wouldn’t be swayed by a prosecutor’s parlor tricks and those who could understand and make sense of complex arguments. I would want civically engaged and community minded people rendering a decision impacting the rest of my life. I would want the most educated and balanced group of my peers listening to both sides of the arguments presented.

Who are Your Peers?

The military anticipates the problems that can arise from prejudices in social standing influencing decisions. In the case of Manning, because he is enlisted, 1/3 of the jury has to be enlisted. Imagine if this quality and equity was applied in the civilian world. What if in a civilian trial there was a mandate that your income, ethnicity, religion, occupation, education, and other social factors had to be represented in the jury? This is accomplished to some degree by the attorneys collaborating on jury selection before the trial, but what if it was codified and quantified? The military jury that Manning will face will likely be a closer sample of his peers than a random selection of fellow citizens chosen for a civilian jury.


In a court martial sentencing is also carried out by the jury, not by the judge, who generally determines the punishment in a civilian court. More severe sentences require a larger percentage of jurors voting in favor, and in the case of a capital punishment, a jury comprised of twelve people and a unanimous vote is needed. Looking at the civilian world, in some parts of the U.S., judges are elected, not appointed. This means they have the proclivity to give out harsher sentences because they can then use that record in a campaign as an example of how they are ‘tough on crime’. Manning’s sentence will be decided by a group of people with different emotions, experiences, and interpretations of the facts, not politicians looking for an easy campaign slogan.

There are of course elements of a court martial that are inherently less fair. The fact that Manning effectively put fellow members of the armed forces at risk through his actions will likely not sit well with a jury comprised of members of the armed forces who probably have very developed and hostile opinions on the matter. However, we should consider what these proceedings will do well, how they will give someone who will probably spend the rest of his life in prison and is charged with a crime in a time of war, all the protections and rights that any of us would want. Manning will be able to defend himself in a public forum (U.S. court martials are open to the public) before a jury that is comprised of educated people who will evaluate both sides of his case with an even temper and a critical eye. If any of us are ever unfortunately on trial for our lives I think we would want the same.

Before Occupy Was Cool

Occupation has been attempted before Occupy, and it can indeed be effective.



In the US, 2011 will likely be remembered as the year of the Occupy Movement. From Oakland, California to St. Paul’s Cathedral here in London, students, the unemployed, activists, and to be honest, a good amount of nutters took to the streets in locally organized, but globally inspired protests claiming to represent the voice of the ‘99%’ who were being ignored and exploited by corporate special interest. ‘Occupation’ is an interesting political strategy. It is a symbolic seizure, a claim, a hostile (even if non-violent) assertion of control. In the case of the Occupy movement this ‘control’ of the streets was a reaction to the perceived lack of control and marginalization in the democratic process. This strategy, while for the first time executed on a global scale, is not new and brings to mind an important but often forgotten incident from American history, the 19 month long occupation of Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay by American Indian civil rights activists.

The Occupation of Alcatraz

On November 20, 1969 about 80 activists peacefully took over the former prison island, until that point under the jurisdiction of the federal government. While this was the most effective attempt, the first occupation was in 1964 when five Sioux Indians made a claim to the island based on the 1868 Fort Laramie Sioux Treaty, which allowed Sioux Indians to take over surplus federal land. Alcatraz, no longer a functioning prison, in their view fit this criteria. The occupation was also part of a much larger American Indian Movement (AIM). The movement’s aims were to achieve tribal self-determination and to end the 1950s federal policy of ‘termination’, which was actually a series of policies that sought to assimilate Natives into American society and end the sovereign-to-sovereign relationship between tribes and the federal government. The 1969 occupiers were also fighting for local improvements, including the return of Alcatraz to American Indians and the funds to build a cultural center and university on the island. The group quickly elected a governing council for the island and established supply lines back to the mainland. The movement began to pick up steam and garnered wide-spread media attention.

The movement encountered many of the problems experienced by Occupy in 2011. Issues such as electricity, water, and safety became practical barriers to a continued occupation. A young girl, a step-daughter of one of the movement’s leaders fell on a concrete slab and died in January of 1970. Leadership and other occupiers began to leave Alcatraz. The movement also began to lose focus when members of the hippie and counter-culture communities from San Francisco began to join the Native American protesters. These factors signalled the end of the movement’s effectiveness, which officially ended on June 11, 1971 when FBI agents escorted the final 15 protesters off the island. They put up no resistance.

The occupation itself and the satisfaction of local demands could be regarded as a failure. As is evident from the current state of affairs, Alcatraz is a tourist destination in the Bay Area for it’s history as a notorious prison and it was never ceded to tribal control. What the occupation accomplished though was raising awareness about the AIM movement more broadly. In 1970 President Nixon officially ended the 20+ year policy of ‘termination’ and heralded a new era of tribal self-determination. For this reason, somewhat surprisingly, Richard Nixon is still held in high regard by Native Americans to this day.

In the words of Dr. LaNada Boyer, a leader of the occupation:

‘Alcatraz was symbolic in the rebirth of Indian people to be recognized as a people, as human beings, whereas before, we were not. We were not recognized, we were not legitimate… but we were able to raise not only the consciousness of other American people, but of own people as well, to reestablish our identity as Indian people, as a culture, as political entities.’

This legacy as tribes operating as ‘political entities’ is a powerful one. Tribes operate exceptionally effectively on Capitol Hill, pushing for broad reforms through organizations such as a the United South and Eastern Tribes (USET) and even on specific issues such as education through the National Indian Education Association (NIEA).

It would be presumptuous to assume that the 2011 occupiers could learn from the 1969 occupation of Alcatraz. The issues and groups involved are indeed very different. It is also different occupying an uninhabited island than a populated urban center. What can be taken away though is that as a strategy, occupations can be effective. They can forge a common identity among protesters and raise awareness that would otherwise not be possible. In the case of Native Americans this is an identity that stood the test of decades and lead to increased economic and cultural prosperity.