Saturday, August 8, 2009

What can a terrorist not do?

While doing research on cybersecurity I came across an article in the Guardian that discussed a study revealing how "terrorists could soon use the internet to help set off a devastating nuclear attack". This study, commissioned by the International Commission on Nuclear Non-proliferation and Disarmament (ICNND), basically warned that without greater efforts to secure global information infrastructure, these so-called terrorists could hack into computer systems and create havoc in the form of a mushroom cloud.

That's right, according to this study there is no longer the need to acquire the nuclear materials when you can simply find the right whiz-kid to hack, hack, and hack away.

Interesting - and yet this study does what so many have done before it... it presents yet another potential, catastrophic way that 'terrorists' could circumvent the system and carry out some asymmetric, dramatic, Hollywood-style attack that would significantly disrupt our world as we know it... well, that is until Arnold Schwarzenegger comes in to save the day. Meanwhile, most groups are relying on classic bombing campaigns (IEDs, roadside bombs, suicide bombing, grenades, etc.) and the more recent swarm-based tactics that we've seen in Mumbai and elsewhere. While the Western world continues to develop more fantastical ideas on what these individuals could do, at this point I'm wondering: what can terrorists not do? A quick internet search of "what could terrorists do" rendered all types of fantastic things; for instance, they could, of course, carry out a nuclear attack (this was the most popular), use insects to carry out biological attacks, employ killer robots, launch satellite attacks, poison our food or drinking water, breed new types of pox, and the list goes on.

Not bad.

Another thing that this article, or rather study, manages to do is follow a much deeper tradition of scenario-construction and 'what ifs' in the world of counter-terrorism that will likely never be held accountable. Like the killer robots or insects, the potential that 'terrorists' could hack into government computers and hit the nuke button continue to feed into a threat-spectrum that grows by the day. However, like most scenarios, they never come true. What they manage to do is construct and distort the capabilities of what a non-state actor is able or even willing to do to communicate a political message. I'm not saying that scenario building is necessarily bad or that we should not look at how dual-use technologies can be exploited, but that we should be tempered in our analysis and look deeper into what today's violent non-state actor is doing and how they're leveraging their environment to achieve their objectives.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Sworn Statements on Murky Blackwater Deeds

According to two affidavits deposited in a federal court in Virginia on 3 August, the then-CEO of the mercenary company formerly known as Blackwater and now rebranded as "Xe", Erik Prince, "murdered or had murdered" Blackwater employees who were cooperating with a government inquiry about the company's criminal conduct in Iraq. Both sworn statements, posted as part of an article in The Nation by Jeremy Scahill, were given by former employees of Blackwater named only as "John Doe One" and "John Doe Two" for their own protection. The second affidavit also says that Prince "views himself as a Christian crusader tasked with eliminating Muslims and the Islamic faith from the globe" and intentionally deployed mercenaries to Iraq who "shared his vision of Christian supremacy, knowing and wanting these men to take every available opportunity to murder Iraqis."

Among the other charges cited in the affidavits and in the article by Scahill - who has written a book on Blackwater's activities - are the following:

  • Erik Prince smuggled illegal weapons ("sawed off semi-automatic machine guns with silencers") and ammunition ("designed to explode after penetrating within the human body") into Iraq in bags of dog food.
  • Blackwater knew some of its staff intentionally used excessive force to injure and murder innocent bystanders, and did nothing about it. Both John Does cite numerous cases where innocent passersby were killed apparently "as a sport or game".
  • Some of its mercenaries used M249 Squad Automatic Weapon ("SAW") machine guns in violation of State Department rules, which only allowed them to use pistols or M4 automatic carbines.
  • Against the advice of other company executives, Prince insisted on deploying to Iraq men who were patently unfit to serve, due to their stated intention to rack up "body counts" of "ragheads", due to alcohol and steroid abuse, or because they ignored safety regulations in operating weapons.
  • Prince also ignored the advice of mental health experts who warned him against deploying mercenaries who were psychologically unfit to serve.
  • He "knowingly hired two persons who were previously involved in the Kosovo sex trafficking ring to serve at relatively high-levels [sic] within his companies."
  • Blackwater ran a "Man Camp" where employees were supplied with prostitutes, including child prostitutes. Prince, the "Christian crusader", also visited the camp.
  • Many top Blackwater executives in the company's North Carolina headquarters took part in an "ongoing wife-swapping and sex ring", which caused so much trouble among the top management that a special investigation was undertaken.
Needless to say, Prince is a generous financial backer of fundamentalist Christian groups, having donated millions of dollars to causes such as The Family Research Council, Focus on the Family, the Council for National Policy, and Watergate conspirator Chuck Colson's Prison Fellowship Ministries. Naturally, he is also a large donor to the American Enterprise Institute and the Republican Party. The company's excellent relations to the Bush administration are further illustrated by the fact that the former director of the CIA Counterterrorist Center and the State Department's counterterrorism coordinator, Cofer "Flies on their Eyeballs" Black, has been a vice chairman of Blackwater/Xe since 2005.

The company has won government contracts worth at least hundreds of millions of dollars since 2001.