Why the Obama Administration Changed Its Hostage Policy

ASPEN, Colo.—After years of complaints about the federal government’s handling of cases involving Americans held hostage abroad, the Obama administration moved last week to overhaul its approach. That, Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes said on Monday, represented an acknowledgement by the administration that “we made mistakes; we weren’t doing as good a job as we could’ve.”

Families of hostages were largely left to their own devices, contacting various government agencies and receiving contradictory guidance and conflicting information. Rhodes spoke of “families who said, ‘I didn’t know who to call.’” This, he said, “made an already confusing and heartbreaking situation more difficult.”

Rhodes, speaking at the Aspen Ideas Festival, which is organized by the Aspen Institute and The Atlantic, reviewed the three-part plan to improve the administration’s response. The first step stems from an understanding that, for many government officials, “if something is not their expressed mission, it does not get the focus it demands.” So the government is creating new posts and units dedicated to bringing hostages home. The second is a recognition that the people talking to the families weren’t actually trained, or equipped, to fulfill that role; the administration will appoint dedicated liaisons who are. And the third is a public clarification of an informal policy; the government won’t pay ransoms to terrorists, but neither will it prosecute families that do.

The new policies were announced last Wednesday, the same day that The New Yorker published Lawrence Wright’s searing account of the ordeal endured by the families of Kayla Mueller, Steven Sotloff, Peter Kassig, Theo Padnos, and James Foley. Four of the five were held hostage by ISIS in Syria. “The families,” Wright wrote, “had largely lost faith in their government.”

David Bradley, the owner of Atlantic Media, which publishes The Atlantic, is at the center of Wright’s account. Bradley had previously helped secure Foley’s release from detention by the Qaddafi regime in Libya, and volunteered to coordinate the families’ efforts to free the five captives.

“We made changes,” said Rhodes. “Frankly, a lot of that benefited from David Bradley and the group of people he had working on these cases. David helped the families present to us their concerns in a way that was very useful.” Listening to their stories shifted the administration’s approach. “Everything we did grew out of those engagements with the families,” Rhodes added. “Hopefully we can get better.”

This article was originally published at http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2015/06/obama-hostage-policy/397283/


Obama Announces Change In U.S. Policy On American Hostages

President Obama announced Wednesday that families of hostages will no longer be subject to criminal prosecution if they decide to pay ransom to hostage takers.

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US airstrike targets al-Qaida militant in Libya

WASHINGTON (AP) — The U.S military launched airstrikes Saturday targeting and likely killing an al-Qaida leader in eastern Libya who has been charged with leading the attack on a gas plant in Algeria in 2013 that killed at least 35 hostages, including three Americans….


The Saudi Connection: Wahhabism and Global Jihad

Ties between the House of Saud and Wahhabism have been around longer than the US itself, and Riyadh has a history of promoting extremism even as Saudi leaders denounce it.

Senior Al-Qaeda leader who fought in Afghanistan killed in Yemen

AlqaedaAl-Qaeda’s most lethal branch AQAP in Yemen announced on Tuesday that Ibrahim Sulayman Muhammad al-Rubaish was killed in an airstrike over the weekend. AQAP issuing a statement says that they are mourning the killing of Al-Rubaish.

According to the statement other militant were also killed in the air strike in Al-Mukalla but their identities are not published.

According to an American reliable media outlet, NBC News, Al-Rubaish had also fought in Afghanistan’s eastern Nangarhar province before he was arrested and sent to Guantanamo.

“Al-Rubeish fought in Afghanistan at Tora Bora, was captured and was sent to Guantanamo, according to Flashpoint Intelligence, a security company and NBC News partner. He was released in 2006 and joined AQAP, which U.S. officials have described as the most dangerous branch of the terror network.” NBC News states.

According to the online statement published by AQAP, Al-Rubaish has spent over two decades within the lines of militant groups.

Al-Rubaish was now a sharia official of AQAP. He was giving justifications of AQAP attacks and issuing Fatwas (religious edicts).

The report of the senior Al-Qaeda leader comes as the Arab nations fall deeper into Yemen crisis.

A coalition led by Saudi Arabia started bombing Huthi positions in Yemen on March 26. The coalition is now mulling to send ground troops to Yemen.


Somali Al Shabab kills 147 people in Kenya university siege

The siege ended nearly 15 hours after four gunmen strapped with explosives stormed the Garissa University College campus early Thursday, sparing Muslim students, shooting Christians and taking others hostage. Interior Minister Joseph Nkaissery said all four terrorists were killed. Three hundred students are unaccounted for, most of them girls. This was the worst attack on Kenyan soil since the US embassy was bombed in 1998.


Terrorism With a Human Face

It’s all in the face, apparently. Just check out that terrifying mug shot of Mohammad Atta, the so-called “ringleader” of the 19 hijackers who staged the 9/11 attacks. His face, wrote the novelist Martin Amis in a short story about Atta, was “gangrenous” and “almost comically malevolent.” Hateful, too:

The detestation, the detestation of everything, was being sculpted on it, from within. He was amazed that he was still allowed to walk the streets, let alone enter a building or board a plane. Another day, one more day, and they wouldn’t let him. Why didn’t everybody point, why didn’t they cringe, why didn’t they run?

In his investigative study Who Killed Daniel Pearl?, Bernard-Henri Levy described Pearl’s convicted murderer, the British-Pakistani Omar Sheikh, as “handsome,” his face showing no “vice or malice though somewhat veiled.” He looked “intelligent and rather frank … a strong chin under a well-trimmed beard, a good man it would seem, slightly tart smile, an intellectual demeanor, very Westernized—nothing, in any case, that signals the obtuse Islamist, the fanatic.”

So it’s not, apparently, all in the face, although the implication in Levy’s portrait, as in Amis’s fictionalized account of Atta, is that it should be, and that Pearl’s killer was somehow an aberration.

The idea that human evil is inscribed into the body and face of the criminal offender has deep roots, and is in fact the animating throb behind modern scientific criminology and its founding document, Cesare Lombroso’s The Criminal Man, published in 1876. It is also an underlying assumption in much of the news coverage of the Kuwaiti-born Londoner Mohammed Emwazi, who was exposed recently as the ISIS executioner “Jihadi John.”

Lombroso was convinced he had found the root causes of crime after studying “the skull of a brigand” and finding in it “a very long series of atavistic abnormalities.” Against the prevailing theology at the time, he concluded the “criminal man” was not innately sinful, still less possessed of the devil, but genetically abnormal, a subhuman throwback to an earlier, less advanced, stage of human evolution, proof of which could be found in his beastly appearance (“crooked noses, sloping foreheads, large ears, protruding jaws, dark eyes”).

Lombroso’s work has since been discredited, “relegated to the status of a myth,” in the words of the renowned criminologist Sir Leon Radzinowicz, and is liable to occasion more mirth than serious intellectual consideration among criminologists and their first-year undergraduate students. But its spirit is alive and well in popular discourse on terrorism and in the fervent reaction to the description of Emwazi as a “beautiful young man” by Asim Qureshi, the director of the human-rights group Cage, who knew him. It is also present in the perplexity, voiced in many news reports, over how Emwazi transformed from a smiling and reserved child to the demonic black-clad masked executioner of the ISIS snuff movies. How could an “angelic”-looking schoolboy become “Jihadi John,” the monster with the sadistic swagger and malicious eyes?

People who seriously challenge the social and moral order, the sociologist Harold Garfinkel argued, threaten the unity of that order and must therefore be excluded from it. Sociologists like to call this “othering,” a process which, as Garfinkel showed, involves “ritually separating” the transgressor from the conventional order by publicly reclassifying him as inherently bad or loathsome—and above all different. He is “made strange,” Garfinkel wrote, so as to preserve the gap between “them,” the vile ones, and “us,” the virtuous ones.

Emwazi challenges the social and moral order. To put it mildly. Far more than, say, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the reportedly Iraqi-born ISIS leader challenges the social and moral order. This is because Emwazi spent most of his life in Britain, in the secular West. Despite his Kuwaiti background and heritage, he was socialized or “acculturated” here, not over there. He went to school here, played football here, went to university here, talked London-street tough here, and wore baseball caps here. He was one of us. And then something happened, he became radicalized and embraced violent jihad, he rejected the society he had grown up in, and he went to Syria and started murdering people in the name of God.

Emwazi, in other words, is a renegade, a person who defects from one group to an opposing group. He is, to use a phrase from Lewis A. Coser’s discussion of political defection, “the enemy from within,” threatening the confidence and very identity of the “in-group:” because if Emwazi can be converted to ISIS, then why not others from among us? This, together with his horrible proficiency with a serrated six-inch blade, is why Emwazi haunts the West’s collective psyche—and why he must be demonized and, to use Garfinkel’s terminology, “made strange” in the form of the cartoonish “Jihadi John.”

In the 1940s, anthropologist Edward Evan Evans-Pritchard studied how the Nuer of modern-day South Sudan reacted to the birth of a deformed child. As Mary Douglas wrote of his findings:

[W]hen a monstrous birth occurs, the defining lines between humans and animals may be threatened. If a monstrous birth can be labelled an event of a peculiar kind, the categories can be restored. So the Nuer treat monstrous births as baby hippopotamuses, accidentally born to humans and, with this labelling, the appropriate action is clear. They gently lay them in the river where they belong.

Emwazi is our monstrous child. And the outright condemnation and opposition that has greeted the acknowledgment of his human qualities speaks to how desperately we want to separate him from ourselves. This goes a long way toward explaining why so many are resistant to Qureshi’s description of Emwazi as a “gentle, kind” and “beautiful young man.” That account humanizes him and hence draws us closer to him, to this “monster.” One need not accept Cage’s blame-shifting to recognize this essential point.

“Some newspaper stories,” the late Christopher Hitchens wrote in a 2007 Slate article, “quite simply write themselves.” He was specifically referring to the journalistic tendency in news reports on serial killers to record the disbelief of the killer’s neighbors and acquaintances, who “feel duty-bound to say that this has come as a great shock, not to say a complete surprise, and that the guy next door seemed perfectly decent—if perhaps a little inclined to ‘keep to himself.’” This reportorial protocol is also closely adhered to in news stories on terrorists, where expressions of shock—he seemed like such “a nice lad who could get on with anyone”—are invariably attributed to neighbors and acquaintances of the terrorist in question. It is fast becoming the dominant script in the story of Emwazi, as evidenced in Friday’s CNN report on the video of the teenaged Emwazi in a school playground. “But for the people who knew him it is difficult to fathom that the football-loving teenager they knew as Mohammad Emwazi has emerged as the man behind the mask,” the report concluded. This kind of incomprehension casts a sharp light on deep-seated assumptions about terrorists and other comparable folk devils in our culture: that they should be immediately recognizable as two-headed monsters who live in cesspools and feed on small children. Or something resembling that.

“Yes,” wrote Elie Wiesel, “it is possible to defile life and creation and feel no remorse. … To go on vacation, be enthralled by the beauty of a landscape, make children laugh—and still fulfil regularly, day in and day out, the duties of a killer.” How profoundly and horribly true this is.

Killers, too, can act in decent and humane ways. It is just that we rarely like to admit it—unless of course they kill in defense of the good, as we subjectively define it. Hannah Arendt famously argued in her study of Adolf Eichmann that ordinary people are capable of extraordinary evil. Arendt’s emphasis was on the “banal” face of human evil. But there is no reason why evil cannot also have a beautiful face.

This article was originally published at http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2015/03/terrorism-with-a-human-face/387163/


Hillary Clinton’s war on Libya lost terror intelligence

Hillary Rodham Clinton’s 2011 campaign to drive Moammar Gadhafi from power did significant damage to U.S. intelligence, according to a top Libyan aide and U.S. intelligence officials.

The Libyan dictator provided regular reports to the CIA that helped capture or kill key al Qaeda figures and thwart terrorist attacks against …


Al-Shabaab Threatens U.S. Attacks: Should You Be Worried?

Ashish Kumar Sen


Can the Somali terrorist group actually strike the American homeland?

Al-Shabaab, the al Qaeda-linked militant group in Somalia, has sympathizers in the United States, but likely does not have the ability to strike targets in the West, despite its recent threat to do so, according to Atlantic Council analyst J. Peter Pham.

“Shabaab has always had a transnational reach, but it has never struck transnationally beyond the region,” Pham, Director of the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center, said in an interview.

“There has also been no evidence of an active sleeper cell, but there has been more than sufficient evidence of sympathizers,” he added.

A small number of Western citizens, including Americans, joined the ranks of al-Shabaab. Shirwa Ahmed, the United States’ first suicide bomber in the modern era, came from the Somali-American community in Minnesota.

Shabaab’s leadership is betting on inciting anyone among a small minority of Shabaab sympathizers in the United States to carry out a terrorist attack, said Pham.

“It would be a feather in their cap coming at a time when militarily they are weak and really the third tier among terrorist groups in Africa behind Boko Haram and the Islamic State in Libya,” he said.

In a video posted online on February 21, al-Shabaab called for attacks on shopping malls in Canada, Britain, and the United States. The video lists the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minnesota, as a target. Minnesota is home to the United States’ largest Somali community.

Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson called on visitors to the Minnesota mall to be “particularly careful.”

Al-Shabaab is trying to “inspire a copy cat event” similar to the attack in Nairobi, and they’re “trying to wreak economic havoc” in the United States by threatening to strike malls, Atlantic Council Chairman Jon M. Huntsman, Jr. said on MSNBC.

Al-Shabaab has rarely carried out major attacks outside Somalia, but in September of 2013 it attacked the Westgate Mall in Nairobi, Kenya, killing more than 60 people and injuring hundreds.

The United States is well prepared to foil such an attack, said Huntsman.

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State sponsor of terror: The global threat of Iran

Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah (L), secretary-general of the Lebanese Hizbollah movement, kisses the arm of Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in Tehran (REUTERS).

Iran’s leaders have used terrorism since they took power in 1979. Over 35 years later, Iran continues to use terrorism and to work with an array of violent substate groups that use terrorism among other tactics. 

Iran’s strategic goals for supporting terrorists and other violent substate groups include:

  • Undermining and bleeding rivals. Iran uses insurgent and terrorist groups to weaken governments it opposes. In the 1980s, this included bitter enemies like Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and also lesser foes like the rulers of Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.
  • Power projection. Tehran’s military and economy are weak—and with oil prices plunging and sanctions in place, this weakness is becoming more pronounced. Nor is its ideological appeal strong. Nevertheless, Iran’s regime sees itself as a regional and even a world power, and working with terrorists is a way for Iran to influence events far from its borders. Iran’s support for the Lebanese Hizballah, Palestine Islamic Jihad, and Hamas make Iran a player in the Israeli-Palestinian and Israeli-Arab disputes, and Iran’s backing of Houthis in Yemen give it influence on Saudi Arabia’s southern border.
  • Playing spoiler. Iran has supported groups whose attacks disrupted Israeli-Palestinian and Israeli-Syrian peace negotiations—a victory for Iran, which sees the negotiations as a betrayal of the Muslim cause and as a means of isolating the clerical regime in Iran.
  • Intimidation. Working with violent substate groups gives Iran a subversive threat, enabling Iran to press its neighbors to distance themselves from the United States or to refrain from joining economic or military efforts to press Iran. Such efforts, however, often backfire: because these states see Iran as meddling in their domestic affairs and supporting violence there, they often become more, not less, willing to support economic or even military pressure directed at Tehran.
  • Deterrence. Iran’s ties to terrorist groups, particularly the Lebanese Hizballah with its global infrastructure, enable it to threaten its enemies with terrorist retaliation. This gives Iran a way to respond to military or other pressure should it choose to do so.
  • Revenge. Iran also uses terrorism to take revenge. It has attacked dissidents, including representatives of non-violent as well as violent groups, even when they posed little threat to the regime. Iran attacked France during the 1980s because of its support for Iraq, and it has tried to target Israel because of its belief that Israel is behind the deaths of Iran’s nuclear scientists and in retaliation for the 2008 killing of Hizballah’s operational chief, Imad Mughniyah, which is widely attributed to Israel.
  • Preserving options. As a weak state in a hostile region, Tehran seeks flexibility and prepares for contingencies. Iran’s neighbors have often proved hostile, and rapprochements short-lived. Iran seeks ties to a range of violent groups that give it leverage that could be employed should suspicion turn to open hostility.

Iran, often working with Hizballah, has repeatedly tried to use terrorism against an array of Israeli and Western targets and interests, and this pattern has continued in recent years. Recent plots reportedly range from plots against an Israeli shipping company and USAID offices in Nigeria in 2013 to reconnoitering the Israeli embassy in Baku, Azerbaijan, for a possible attack. Hizballah operatives planned an attack in 2014 against Israeli tourists in Bangkok, and in October 2014 Hizballah operatives were arrested in Peru for planning attacks against Israeli and Jewish targets there.

The last successful Iranian terrorist attack against the United States outside a theater of war was the 1996 strike on Khobar Towers, which killed 19 Americans. In 2011, the United States disrupted an Iranian plot early in the planning stages to bomb a restaurant in Washington frequented by the Saudi ambassador. Although the target was the Saudi ambassador, the Iranian effort would also probably have killed many U.S. citizens eating at the restaurant.

Iran’s nuclear program complicates the counterterrorism dilemma. It is too recent to draw firm conclusions, but Iran’s use of extra-regional terrorism directly against the United States appears to have declined since negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program began in earnest. Iran has not repeated any plot similar to the 2011 attack on the Saudi ambassador to the United States; the 2013 Nigeria arrest is worrisome, but that occurred before negotiations became serious, and publicly available information is incomplete in any event.

An Iran with a nuclear weapon would be a more dangerous force in the region, and preventing this should be a priority for any U.S. administration. A nuclear weapon probably would embolden Iran. Iran could become more like Pakistan: after Islamabad acquired nuclear weapons, it gained a shield from India’s conventional superiority and became more aggressive in backing anti-India substate groups.

Iran, however, would probably not transfer a nuclear weapon to a terrorist group unless the circumstances were extreme. Too much could go wrong if Iran passed such a sensitive capability to a group, and Tehran’s policies in the post-revolutionary period have not been that risky. Iran knows that the United States and Israel would see such a move as exceptionally provocative and would dramatically escalate efforts against Iran—and that they would likely gain the support of all major powers, as even Beijing and Moscow fear such transfers given their own considerable terrorism problems. Deniability would go out the window, as even the possibility of such a move would be alarming.

U.S. policy can and does reduce Iran’s use of terrorism, but there are limits. The United States should continue to work with its allies to fight Iranian-backed terrorism. This is particularly problematic when it comes to Hizballah, as U.S. allies often look the other way at Hizballah activities in their countries because the group also engages in “legitimate” political and social welfare activity. A strongly enforced ban on any support for Hizballah in any form would create an incentive for the Lebanese organization to reduce its use of violence. Allies should also be encouraged to reduce the size of Iranian diplomatic missions and otherwise make it harder for Iranian intelligence operatives to act freely.

Pressing Iran to reduce or stop its support for terrorism is difficult, however, in part because of the efforts over the nuclear program. The U.S. sanctions campaign—to include sanctions currently in place and those measures that have been suspended while negotiations go on—is already focused on Iran’s nuclear program. There is a limited amount that could be added, and any new sanctions would inevitably be seen (in both Iran and the United States) as linked to Iran’s nuclear program, even if done in the name of counterterrorism. U.S. allies in Europe would perceive such a move as undermining negotiation efforts on Iran’s nuclear program.

In the end, Iran’s lack of strategic options and desire to respond to what it sees as a hostile world will lead Tehran to continue to work with a range of terrorist groups and selectively use violence. Successful U.S. policy can reduce the scope and scale of Iranian violence, but it is not likely to end it altogether.

To read the testimony in its entirety, please click here.



Image Source: © Reuters Photographer / Reuter