28 February 2015

Towards a silent backchannel diplomacy

February 28, 2015

PTINO MORE SKIRMISHES: “Maintaining peace along the LoC should be a primary concern for India.” Army jawans near the LoC.

As there is a downswing in bilateral relations between India and Pakistan, this is an opportunity for Foreign Secretary S. Jaishankar to reshape the dialogue process

After taking over as Foreign Secretary, S. Jaishankar’s trip to Islamabad in early March, to resume the Indo-Pak dialogue, should be the most important for him. He has a credible record as former Ambassador in establishing good relations with China and the U.S.; will he be able to add an Indo-Pak feather to his cap?

As there is a recent downswing in bilateral relations between India and Pakistan, this is an opportunity for Mr. Jaishankar to reshape the dialogue process, making it credible and productive. Critics would point out that there is pressure from the U.S. on India to restart the dialogue, but there is a similar, perhaps an intense, pressure on Pakistan, too. Besides multiple visits by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to Islamabad, there have also been blunt messages from the U.S. to Rawalpindi to restart the dialogue process.

A second opportunity for Mr. Jaishankar, which is also a challenge, is related to the recent developments on Pakistan’s western border. Under Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani, there has been a substantial upswing in Afghan-Pakistan relations, including a possible dialogue with the Taliban.

The third opportunity for Mr. Jaishankar emanates from Pakistan’s domestic compulsions: a section within Pakistan talks about terrorism as an existential threat and links the problem to the skewed policies of Islamabad and Rawalpindi in using militants and jihad as a foreign policy strategy towards India and Afghanistan.

Manipur and India’s ‘Act East’ Policy

By Edmund Downie
February 25, 2015

As India tries to build links with its neighbors, the fate of the Northeastern state of Manipur will be revealing. 

Since Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi came to power in May, he has sought to project to foreign-policy watchers a renewed commitment to India’s Look East Policy (LEP) – or, as Modi’s administration has renamed it, the “Act East Policy.” The LEP was put forward in 1991 to reorient Indian foreign policy towards East Asia and Southeast Asia. But half-hearted commitment to the policy has severely restricted India’s footprint in these regions, even as Chinese influence destabilizes Indian hegemony in South Asia. Major deals with Bangladesh and Japan, in addition to a flurry of meetings between top Indian officials and their regional counterparts, have been taken as early signs that Act East represents a genuine shift in Indian foreign policy.

With Myanmar, deliverables under Modi thus far have been fairly modest: an agreement to crack down onregional insurgencies, a route-mapping exercise for the long-awaited Imphal-Mandalay bus service, and continued progress on the India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral Highway and Kaladan Multi-Modal Transit Project. The LEP framed Myanmar as India’s overland bridge to the dynamic ASEAN belt, and Modi’s rhetoric on Myanmar has stressed his dedication to realizing this vision. But the two countries have no rail links; the only road link (Asian Highway 1, or AH-1) is insecure and poorly maintained; and there are no flights to Mandalay, northern Myanmar’s most important city. India-Myanmar bilateral trade has grown steadily over the past several decades, from Rs9.8 billion ($163 million) in 1997–98 to Rs131 billion in 2013–14. But those gains have been made entirely through sea trade. Whereas Myanmar’s overall border trade volume jumped from 8 percent in the late 1990s to almost 14 percent 10 years onwards, border trade with India actually regressedduring the same period: from $72 million (cumulative, 1995/96–1999/2000) to $38 million (cumulative, 2005–06/2009–10).

The deficits in India-Myanmar overland connectivity reflect a complex array of factors: Yangon’s limited control in northern Myanmar, Delhi’s fixation on transnational and internal security threats in the Northeast, and uneven bilateral relations over the tenure of Myanmar’s erstwhile military junta. But within India and Myanmar, Delhi and Yangon are not the only players influencing the progress of bilateral connectivity. If Modi wishes to live up to his rhetoric on boosting Indian ties with its eastern neighbors, he will need to work closely with local actors in the four states on the India-Myanmar border: Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Manipur and Mizoram. Of these, Manipur is the most important. Manipur’s border post at Moreh, on Asian Highway 1, handles 99 percent of formal overland trade between India and Myanmar, and also the bulk of the far vaster category that is India-Myanmar informal and/or illegal trade.

Leaked Russian Intel Document Reveals Al Qaeda’s North Africa Affiliate Wants to Expand Into Europe

Seumas Milne and Ewen MacAskill
February 26, 2015

Al-Qaida planning kamikaze attacks on ships in Mediterranean, cables claim

Al-Qaida has developed a seaborne unit to attack targets around the Mediterranean, according to a confidential report from Russian intelligence, one of a cache of secret documents from spy agencies around the world tracking jihadi terrorist groups.

According to the Russians, North African al-Qaida (Aqim – al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb) has established a 60-strong team of suicide bombers to plant mines under the hull of ships and to use small, fast craft for kamikaze attacks.

The claim, in a leaked document from Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB), is one of a string of reports on the rise of Islamic State (Isis) and al-Qaida.

They include a two-month briefing by Omani intelligence estimating that Isis now has up to 35,000 fighters and an income of $1.5m (£1m) a day, reports from United Arab Emirates agents about the Isis leadership structure and a dossier from Jordanian intelligence on confessions extracted from terrorist suspects.

The FSB report on Aqim – which had its origins in Algeria but now poses a threat across north and west Africa and western Europe – is dated February 2011 and claims the movement wants to increase its range to Spain, Italy, France, Britain and Germany as well as Morocco, Algeria, Libya, Mauritania, Senegal, Niger, Nigeria, Chad, Somalia and Kenya.

One of its goals is to mount attacks round the Mediterranean, the FSB says. “To meet this goal the so-called ‘Marine Unit’ (ca.60-man strong) was established: it comprises suicide operatives training in different underwater sabotage techniques (such as planting improvised limpet mines under the hull of a ship) and use of small vessels (schooners) or fast crafts as strike weapons ‘floating bombs’) against seaborne targets.”

Xi Jinping: China’s Undecided ‘Decider’

By Ryan Mitchell
February 25, 2015

In all, Xi’s ideological moves seem to share just one core feature: giving himself room to maneuver more freely. 

The Diplomat has published two excellent and thoughtful responses (here and here) to a piece I wrote last month asking whether the Legalist thought of Han Feizi – “China’s Machiavelli” – is a significant influence on Xi Jinping’s political views, and, if so, how.

Crucially, my interlocutors seem to differ on the overall thrust of Xi’s policies. As I will argue below, such disagreement is only possible because Xi’s administration really has been inconsistent. This, in turn, is because his primary objective has been, and so far remains, establishing his own autonomy as an independent decision-maker not beholden to existing interest groups. Achieving this autonomy of the Ruler, not any specific set of policies, is the Golden Rule of Legalism that Xi seems to have taken to heart.

Between Mao and Deng?

Among other insights, Franz-Stefan Gady points out that we should ask ourselves just why a figure with, at minimum, an “ambiguous reputation” (if not an “infamous” one) can be quoted as a solemn authority by the country’s leader. Has China’s history of “radical political reform” made the sometimes harsh realism of Han Feizi’s writings more publicly acceptable?

This position is bolstered by the fact that Han Feizi’s most prominent supporter in PRC history was none other than Mao Zedong, who praised the ancient philosopher as a progressive foe of Confucian traditionalism, and used him to justify the Cultural Revolution. In concrete policy terms, no other leader in PRC history has so closely paralleled Mao’s disruptive takedown of entrenched intra-Party bureaucracy as has Xi, with his ongoing anti-corruption campaign. Both find support in the Legalist view that “putting fear into the officials” is the sine qua non of good rule. That sentiment always finds fans among the masses, all the more so when its expressions are dramatic and unexpected.

Jin Kai, on the other hand, points to real similarities between a Han Feizian or Machiavellian approach to “theory” and late twentieth century developments in official Party ideology. The pragmatic sensibility underlying Deng Xiaoping’s dictum that “practice is the only standard to test truth” has, indeed, been echoed in Xi’s policies since taking on the mantle of China’s second great “Architect of Reform.” His gradual promotion of rule of law mechanisms and ideas such as how the Party must be more “open-minded” also seem to point in a Dengist direction.

Philippines Expels China Experts Amid South China Sea Concerns

February 26, 2015

Manila ends Chinese involvement in running its power grid citing security fears. 

The Philippine government said earlier this week it would end Chinese technical involvement in the country’s power grid partly due to lingering security concerns.

On the night of February 23, Philippine media outlets had first reported that Philippine Energy Secretary Carlos Jericho Petilla had said that the government would not renew the work visas of 16 Chinese experts employed by the National Grid Corporation of the Philippines (NGCP) when they expire in July 2015.

The Chinese state-owned firm State Grid Corporation of China has had a 40% stake in the NGCP, which runs the national power grid of the Philippines. But Petilla said the government now wanted only Filipinos working there.

Petilla openly acknowledged that concerns over the presence of the Chinese experts stemmed partly from the ongoing South China Sea disputes between the Philippines and China. Relations between the two countries have soured over the last few years largely due to conflicting claims there, and Manila has filed a case against Beijing with the arbitral tribunal at The Hague.

“Of course, this is an offshoot of the West Philippine Sea dispute,” Petilla said according to ABS-CBN News, using the Philippines’ preferred term for the South China Sea.

He also admitted that some officials in Philippine government agencies and bodies like the National Security Council were uncomfortable with NGCP having Chinese experts involved.

“NSA is wary that it [NGCP] is being run by Chinese nationals. So ang solusyon [the solution] is with finality, turn over everything to Filipinos,” he said in a mixture of Tagalog and English.

Questions Remain Over Chinese Involvement in Myanmar Violence

February 26, 2015

Accusations of Chinese interference in the ethnic conflict continue to plague China-Myanmar relations. 
Violent clashes between government troops and ethnic rebels have continued unabated in Myanmar’s northern Shan state since February 9. The fighting, which pits the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) of the Kokang ethnic group against the national army, has sparked accusations that China has a hand in the conflict (the Kokang are ethnically Chinese). Beijing has repeatedly denied any involvement, as have MNDAA sources and even some Myanmar government officials — but the accusations keep coming nonetheless.

The suspicion is partially based on historical factors. The MNDAA was originally affiliated with the Communist Party of Burma (CPB), a guerrilla force that enjoyed support from the Chinese government. The CPB dissolved in 1989 and several of its splinter groups (including the MNDAA) signed a cease-fire agreement with the government. That cease-fire fell apart in 2009 during a government push into MNDAA-controlled territory; many analysts believe the current violence is an attempt by the MNDAA to regain control of areas it lost in 2009. Because China once supported the CPB, some believe it is continuing to support that group’s successor, the MNDAA.

Adding to the intrigue, MNDAA commander Peng Jiasheng left the Kokang region following the fighting in 2009. His return this month is believed to have sparked the new round of fighting. No one is exactly sure where Peng was in the intervening five years – by his own account, given in various interviews, he spent time in China and in various Southeast Asian countries. On theory has it that Peng spent most of that time in China, which has led to the conspiracy theory that the Chinese government (or simply local authorities) sent him back into Myanmar to stir up trouble. This is far from certain — other reports have it that Peng instead fled in 2009 to territory controlled by the Wa, another ethnic group in northern Myanmar, and is now receiving aid from the United Wa State Army.

Xi's Blueprint for the Achieving the 'China Dream'

February 26, 2015

Xi’s “four comprehensives” are designed to lead China as it enters the next stage of development. 
China began returning to work on Wednesday, as the Chinese New Year holiday came to an end. Chinese state media marked the occasion by rolling out a publicity blitz focusing on Xi Jinping’s “strategic blueprint for China”: the “four comprehensives.” In a country where political catchphrases are collected and held up as irrefutable truths, the concept deserves a close look from anyone curious about what direction Xi Jinping will lead the Party and China.

The “four comprehensives” – comprehensively constructing a moderately prosperous society, comprehensively deepening reform, comprehensively governing the country according to the law, and comprehensively using strict governance of the Party – are not in themselves new concepts. Each has been mentioned before. China-watchers will remember that “comprehensively building a moderately prosperous society” was an emphasis of the 18th Party Congress where Xi officially assumed power; “comprehensively deepening reform” was the title of the 2013 Third Plenum decision; and “comprehensively governing the country according to law” was the subject of the 2014 Fourth Plenum decision. What is new is rolling the “four comprehensives” together into one statement – and holding that statement up as authoritative Party guidance for China’s future development.

People’s Daily trumpeted the “first authoritative definition” of the “four comprehensives” in a lengthy article on released online late Tuesday night (and unabashedly called the article a must-read for anyone interested in understanding how the Party will govern China). People’s Daily notes that the term itself was first used by Xi in a December speech in Jiangsu. The phrase has been cemented as a new political slogan after being repeated in various speeches since.

As the report notes, these four concepts are just the tip of the iceberg – each is interconnected to a series of interlocking goals. The first time Xi mentioned “comprehensively constructing a moderately prosperous society,” for example, he called it a step toward realizing the Chinese dream of the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation. “Comprehensively deepening reform” is seen as crucial to perfecting “socialism with Chinese characteristics” and Party governance; rule by law and strict Party discipline are closely linked to these goals as well.

Chinese Military Increasing Its Military Presence in South China Sea, U.S. Intelligence

February 26, 2015

US: China is expanding its South China Sea outposts

WASHINGTON (AP) — China is expanding its outposts in the South China Sea to include stationing for ships and potential airfields as part of its “aggressive” effort to exert sovereignty, the U.S. intelligence chief said Thursday.

Director of National Intelligence James Clapper was speaking at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on worldwide threats. His comments underscore U.S. concern over land reclamation activities that could fuel tensions between China and its neighbors over disputed islands and reefs.

"Although China is looking for stable ties with the United States it’s more willing to accept bilateral and regional tensions in pursuit of its interests, particularly on maritime sovereignty issues," Clapper said. He described China’s claims traced by a so-called nine-dash line — a rough boundary covering more than 80 percent of the South China Sea — as "exorbitant."

The U.S. is not a claimant of territory in the South China Sea but does claim a national interest in the peaceful resolution of the disputes in a region crucial for world trade. China says its territorial claims have a historical basis and objects to what it consider U.S. meddling.

Sen. John McCain, the committee’s Republican chairman, displayed commercial satellite imagery showing expansion of the Chinese-occupied Gaven Reef in the Spratly Islands in the past year. He said China’s expansion could allow it to employ weaponry, including anti-air and other capabilities.

Clapper said China was still in a construction phase so it was unclear what weaponry or forces it might deploy there. He said such Chinese activities in the past year-and-a-half, combined with oil drilling near disputed islands that caused conflict with Vietnam, was a “worrying trend.”

Are Americans Sliding Into Another War?

February 25, 2015 

The current U.S. administration has wrapped up U.S. involvement in a mistaken war in Iraq (albeit on a schedule set by the previous administration, and with subsequent reintroduction of some U.S. military personnel into Iraq), has wound down U.S. involvement in a war in Afghanistan that had metamorphosed from a counterterrorist operation into a nation-building attempt (albeit only after an Obama-era “surge” and now with apparent second thoughts about how much longer the 13-year-old U.S. military involvement will continue), and has resisted pressure to throw U.S. troops into the civil war in Syria (albeit while employing other forms of U.S. military involvement, including airstrikes). The general direction of the administration's policies (though not some of the exceptions and detours) has been sound in terms of both the proper criteria for expending American blood and treasure and the effectiveness, or limitations thereof, of applying U.S. military force in internal conflicts such as the ones in those lands. Some observers would say that this overall direction also has been good politics given the lack of enthusiasm of the American public, still feeling some effects of an Iraq War syndrome, for getting involved any time soon in anything that could be described as—in the legally fuzzy but politically relevant term in the administration's draft authorization for use of military force against ISIS—“enduring offensive ground combat operations.”

That last element may be changing. A just-released poll of American opinion by the Pew Research Center shows a significant shift in the last few months in favor of more extensive use of military force against ISIS. A question asked in October 2014 about possible use of ground forces against the group showed 39 percent in favor and 55 percent opposed. The same question in February 2015 showed an almost even split: 47 percent in favor and 49 percent opposed. There have been comparable shifts over the past year in responses to questions about support for the overall campaign against ISIS and about the best approach to “defeating global terrorism.” On that last question, those saying “using overwhelming military force is the best way to defeat terrorism” rose from 37 percent in March 2014 to 47 percent in February 2015. Those saying that “relying too much on military force to defeat terrorism creates hatred and more terrorism” decreased from 57 percent to 46 percent.

Several patterns in American public attitudes toward—and hence also in the political handling of—use of military force are at work in the views recorded by such polls, and have been displayed repeatedly in the past. One is that sentiments, either for or against use of military force, fade over time as whatever gave rise to the sentiment recedes farther into the past. There is regression toward the mean. This is true of militancy-stoking events, but it also is true of war-avoiding syndromes following failed wars.

Also at work is a heavy dose of emotion, usually embracing anger as well as fear, associated with the militancy-stoking events but also resting on beliefs that such events signify some broader threat. Probably the most glaring example is the American public response to the 9/11 terrorist attack, which involved an abrupt upward surge in militancy and in the willingness of the American public to use military force. The emotion concentrated on that one event was associated in the public mind with a broader perceived terrorist threat against the United States. The slide of the United States into the Vietnam War featured specific emotion-arousing incidents such as attacks (or supposed attacks) against U.S. warships in the Gulf of Tonkin, seen as manifestations of a larger Communist threat against U.S. interests.
February 25, 2015 

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


February 26, 2015

Our brand new Secretary of Defense Dr. Ashton Carter made quite a splash the other day when news of hisaversion to senior commanders’ use of PowerPoint presentations caused wild celebrations throughout the Pentagon. Legions of majors and lieutenant commanders were brought to tears of joy at the prospect of never again having to worry about timed transitions, thought bubbles, and the inevitable “What it the bumper sticker?” question. As a political conservative, it is my job to cast a wary eye at the new and trendy in order to preserve the goodness, the structure, and the order of the proven and the durable. In this spirit, I rise in favor of the well-crafted PowerPoint brief and, to borrow from William F. Buckley, to “stand athwart history yelling ‘Stop!’”

First, let us get one thing very clear. I am not a very good PowerPoint maker. For me, PowerPoint is like watercolor painting. Sure, I can do it and so can any five year old, but you will not like the final result. So if you end up in a room with a deck that I made, please understand that I don’t like my slides either.

But let us consider why PowerPoint exists in the first place. PowerPoint is a tool born of the computer age for displaying information. We used to draw stuff on acetate and project it on a white screen, and for some odd reason, we found this unsatisfying. PowerPoint allowed us to convey larger amounts of information in shorter periods of time. These impulses were good and wholesome, and their realization in a handy-computer program unlocked a lot of productivity in what were previously very unproductive people.

'Jihadi John' Had First Encounter With British Intelligence in 2009 After He Tried to Join Al-Shabaab

Steven Erlanger
February 26, 2015

‘Jihadi John,’ Executioner in ISIS Videos, Had Early Encounter With British Intelligence

LONDON — Mohammed Emwazi was 6 when his parents moved to West London from his birthplace in Kuwait, and he seems to have lived a normal life, studying hard and graduating in computer sciences from the University of Westminster in 2009.

But he came to the attention of the British intelligence services in May that same year, detained as he landed in Tanzania with two friends on what he described as a celebratory safari. British officials thought he and his friends were headed to Somalia, to fight with the terrorist group Al Shabab, and allegedly tried to recruit him as an informant before shipping him back home.

Mr. Emwazi was identified on Thursday as the masked Islamic State fighter called “Jihadi John,” and his journey from computer student to a murderous spokesman for the Islamic State is only beginning to come clear. How and when he was radicalized, and whether the British intelligence services were at fault — either dealing with him too harshly or not identifying him as a serious threat soon enough — is already the subject of hot debate.

How has ISIS, a 21st-century terrorist organization with a retrograde religious philosophy, spread from Iraq to Syria, Libya and beyond?

The dilemma for security services is the same all over the West, whether in Britain, France or now in the United States, as some young Muslims are becoming radicalized or seeking to join a jihad. Given important constitutional and legal protections, how do counterterrorism and police officials draw the line when they find enough evidence to suspect someone, but do not have enough to prosecute them, or even to keep them under legal surveillance?

“When you have a lot of evidence but not enough to prosecute what do you do?” asked Shashank Joshi, a senior research fellow at Royal United Services Institute, a British research institution. “Doing nothing is not practical or acceptable under today’s conditions.”

Profile of ISIS Executioner ‘Jihadi John’

February 26, 2015

'Jihadi John' raised in UK, studied computers, reports say

LONDON (AP) — The world knows him as “Jihadi John,” the masked, knife-wielding militant in videos showing Western hostages being beheaded by the Islamic State group. A growing body of evidence suggests he is a London-raised university graduate, described by one man who knew him as kind, gentle and humble.

The Washington Post and the BBC on Thursday identified the British-accented militant from the chilling videos as Mohammed Emwazi, a man in his mid-20s who was born in Kuwait and raised in a modest, mixed-income area of West London.

No one answered the door at the brick row house in west London where the Emwazi family is alleged to have lived. Neighbors in the surrounding area of public housing projects either declined comment or said they didn’t know the family.

One man who knew Emwazi portrayed him as compassionate, a description completely at odds with the cruelty attributed to him.

"The Mohammed that I knew was extremely kind, extremely gentle, extremely soft-spoken, was the most humble young person that I knew," said Asim Qureshi of Cage, a London-based advocacy group which works with Muslims in conflict with British intelligence services

Qureshi said he met Emwazi in 2009, but hadn’t had contact with him since January 2012.

Qureshi said he saw strong similarities between the man in a beheading video and Emwazi.

But he said “I can’t be 100 percent certain.”

"The guy’s got a hood on his head. It’s very, very difficult," Qureshi said.

ISIS Executioner ‘Jihadi John’ in Videos Identified

February 26, 2015

'Jihadi John' Killer From Islamic State Beheading Videos Named by Media

LONDON — The “Jihadi John” killer who has featured in several Islamic State beheading videos is Mohammed Emwazi, a Briton from a middle class family who grew up in London and graduated from college with a degree in computer programming, the Washington Post newspaper said.

In videos released by Islamic State (IS), the masked, black-clad militant brandishing a knife and speaking with an English accent appears to have carried out the beheadings of hostages including Americans and Britons.

The Washington Post said Emwazi was believed to have traveled to Syria around 2012 and to have later joined IS.

"His real name, according to friends and others familiar with his case, is Mohammed Emwazi, a Briton from a well-to-do family who grew up in West London and graduated from college with a degree in computer programming," the Post said.

In each beheading video, he is dressed entirely in black, a balaclava covering all but his eyes and the ridge of his nose. He wears a holster under his left arm.

Hostages gave him the name John as he and other Britons had been nicknamed the Beatles, another was dubbed George.

The paper said he had been born in Kuwait, was raised in a middle-class neighborhood in London and occasionally prayed at a mosque in Greenwich, southeast London.

Police declined to comment on the reports.

3 Brooklyn Men Charged With Trying to Aid ISIS

Marc Santora and Stephanie Clifford
February 26, 2015

3 Brooklyn Men Accused of Plot to Aid ISIS’ Fight

Two young men living in Brooklyn were arrested on Wednesday and charged with plotting to travel thousands of miles to fight under the banner of the Islamic State, the terrorist organization that has seized a wide expanse of Syria and Iraq.

A third Brooklyn man was charged with helping organize and fund their activities.

Even as the Islamic State has been waging a brutal war in the Middle East, it has been spearheading an aggressive campaign to recruit Muslims to its cause, using social media to target young people across the world.

It has drawn thousands of fighters from nearby nations, tapping into a range of resentments, such as political oppression and personal disillusionment. More recently, the group has found scores of willing recruits in Europe, many inspired by the group’s gruesome videos of atrocities.

Now, the authorities say, its reach has extended into New York, to three men drawn by its apocalyptic message. 

One of the men who allegedly sought to fight for the Islamic State, Abdurasul Hasanovich Juraboev, 24, worked in a gyro shop. The other, Akhror Saidakhmetov, 19, worked at cellphone repair kiosks owned by the third man charged, Abror Habibov, 30.

All three were immigrants from former Soviet republics, and though Mr. Juraboev and Mr. Saidakhmetov had become permanent United States residents, all of them remained citizens of their native countries, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan.

In online postings, the two younger men seem to be searching for meaning in their lives, and increasingly disillusioned by those around them — including Muslim relatives they see as living less than devout lives.

ISIS Has Lost Half Its Leaders in Iraq, Report

Dan Lamothe
February 26, 2015

Gen. John Allen: Islamic State has lost half of its leaders in Iraq

U.S. intelligence shows that half of the Islamic State’s leaders in Iraq have been killed, but there is still a long fight ahead to render the group irrelevant, the retired U.S. general in charge of the international coalition to counter the militants told Congress on Wednesday.

“We have pretty good intelligence on this matter,” Gen. John Allen said of the number of militant commanders killed. “In the process of tracking the elements within the senior echelons of [Islamic State’s] leadership, we have been tracking and systematically as we are able to find them, deal with them.”

Allen’s testimony follows a meeting in Kuwait this week in which new Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter and a group of more than 30 senior U.S. diplomats and military commanders held a wide-ranging debate about how the militants should be targeted in the future. Allen told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that the Islamic State cannot be eliminated entirely, but must be countered and targeted to the point that it does not pose a threat to the future of Iraq.

“We’re not going to eradicate or annihilate ISIL,” Allen said, using one of the acronyms for the group. “Most of these organizations that we have dealt with before, there will be some sort of residue of that organization for a long period of time to come. But we don’t want it to have operational capabilities that create the opportunity for it threaten the existence of Iraq or other states in the region.”

In his prepared testimony, Allen said the last six months “have amply demonstrated that ISIL is little more than a criminal gang and death cult, which now finds itself under increasing pressure, sending naïve and gullible recruits to die by the hundreds.” But under questioning from Sen. Ron Johnson (R.Wis.), he added that the coalition is now tracking more Islamic State militants than ever.

Oil Prices Collapsed. Russia Won't.

February 26, 2015 

Russian energy companies will be able to weather the tumultuous storm.

While global oil prices have collapsed, Russia most certainly will not. In fact, it may even emerge stronger from the current supply glut.

That was one of the major points that emerged from a panel discussion hosted by the Center for the National Interest on February 24, 2015. The discussion, entitled Russia’s Energy Sector and the Oil Price Collapse, featured three energy experts including Dr. Tatiana Mitrova, the head of the Oil and Gas Department at the Energy Research Institute at the Russian Academy of Sciences.

Mitrova did not seem particularly worried about the impact of sanctions or falling oil prices on the Russian economy, noting that major Russian energy companies such as Gazprom and Rosneft have large reserves and government support.

Exports are another factor that will mitigate the pain Gazprom and Russian oil exporters feel from the drop in prices. Indeed, Mitrova pointed out that the sharp devaluation of the ruble relative to the dollar in recent months will make exports increasingly lucrative to Russian energy exporters. That’s because revenues from energy exports are denominated in U.S. dollars while many of their costs—such as labor—will still be in rubles.

Should Republicans Stand Their Ground on DHS Funding?

February 26, 2015 

Republicans will get unfairly blamed for a Department of Homeland shutdown. Should they do it anyways?

A serious question: If Senate Democrats filibuster funding for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) because they dislike the immigration-action language, isn't it they who have technically shut down the department?

If President Obama were to veto an appropriations bill that funded DHS except for the executive amnesty program, would it not be he who was responsible for the shutdown?

The answer to both questions would seem to be yes, but we know from past experience that Republicans will be held responsible.

Bill Clinton vetoed bills passed by a Republican Congress that were aimed at keeping the government open. That Republican Congress was blamed for the government shutdown.

Republicans were similarly blamed for the shutdown that happened over Obamacare, though that was a bit more reasonable. Democrats still controlled the Senate and the GOP House was basically asking them to defund Obama's signature domestic-policy initiative, with the president's signature.

5 Things You Need to Know about Low Oil Prices

February 25, 2015 

The Council on Foreign Relations hosted a symposium yesterday on the causes and consequences of the oil price crash. Our three panels tackled the reasons for the crash and the future of oil prices; the economic fallout from the crash in the United States and around the world; and the geopolitical consequences of the oil price crash, both to date and going forward. (These links will take you to video of each session.) I trust that everyone took distinct conclusions away from the day. Here are five things I learned or hadn’t properly appreciated before:

Don’t believe what financial markets tell you about long-run oil prices.

Futures markets are good at predicting near-term spot oil prices. They’re even good at telling you what smart people think oil prices will be in a few months or a year. But when it comes to their predictions for oil prices five years from now? Forget about it. Markets for long-dated futures – say, for February 2019, where Brent crude last settled at $76 a barrel – are idiosyncratic and reflect the needs of a small number of players. Better, then, to rely on fundamental analysis. Unfortunately – as Citi’s Ed Morse, CIBC’s Catherine Spector, and the EIA’s Howard Gruenspecht all confirmed on our first panel – there’s little agreement on what those are. Still, if you’re uncertain, at least you won’t be wrong.

Consumer spending hasn’t yet responded to the oil price drop.

Restoring American Supremacy

February 26, 2015 

America may have shed the illusion that it is an omnipotent power, but that is no reason to conclude that its influence cannot be revived.

PRESIDENT BARACK Obama rounded the bend into his final lap in office with the clear objective of subordinating foreign affairs to his domestic legacy. Given what he can only view as favorable developments—a drop in oil prices, jobs growth and low inflation—Obama will be even less inclined to allow foreign concerns to impinge on his agenda over the next two years. This approach is understandable, convenient—and unfortunate.

Obama’s approach is rooted in a defensive crouch that sees Afghanistan and Iraq as the new lodestars of American foreign policy. Things certainly went badly wrong in both countries. But what went awry does not carry the implication that America should casually emasculate itself, substituting passivity for overreach. Put bluntly, the lessons that Obama drew from Afghanistan and Iraq were scarcely the product of agonized meditations; rather, they were complacent ones that ratified his conviction that America habitually does more damage when it intervenes abroad than when it remains aloof.

Obama clearly prefers to maintain his long-standing policy of sidestepping military commitments—other than to fight the Ebola virus—while seeking to negotiate agreements with Iran and between Israel and the Palestinians. He would maintain, but not intensify, sanctions imposed on Russia; cut a deal with Iran or punt the nuclear matter to the next administration; go slow on arming the Syrian opposition while avoiding any commitment of land forces to the ongoing Middle Eastern wars; complete the withdrawal of all American combat troops from Afghanistan; make much of his “pivot” to Asia; and trumpet his latest initiative, the agreement to normalize relations with Cuba. Unfortunately, the international security environment will continue to demand both his attention and his active participation, whether he likes it or not. What America therefore requires is something much more ambitious—a program of renewal that ensures military, political and diplomatic dominance.

The Intersection of Three Crises

February 25, 2015

Within the past two weeks, a temporary deal to keep Greece in the eurozone was reached in Brussels, a cease-fire roadmap was agreed to in Minsk and Iranian negotiators advanced a potential nuclear deal in Geneva. Squadrons of diplomats have forestalled one geopolitical crisis after another. Yet it would be premature, even reckless, to assume that the fault lines defining these issues are effectively stable. Understanding how these crises are inextricably linked is the first step toward assessing when and where the next flare-up is likely to occur.

Germany and the Eurozone Crisis

Germany has once again become the victim of its own power. As Europe's largest creditor, it has considerable political leverage over debtor nations such as Greece, whose entire livelihood now depends on whether German Chancellor Angela Merkel is willing to sign another bailout check. Lest we forget, Germany is exporting more than half of its GDP, and most of those exports are consumed within Europe. Thus, the institutions Germany relies on to protect its export markets are the very institutions Berlin must battle to protect Germany's national wealth.

Many have characterized the recent Brussels deal as a victory for Berlin over Athens as eurozone finance ministers, including the Portuguese, Spanish and French, stood behind Germany in refusing Greece the right to circumvent its debt obligations. But Merkel is also not about to gamble an unlimited amount of German taxpayer funds on flimsy Greek pledges to cut costs and impose structural reforms on a population that, for now, still views the ruling Syriza party as its savior from austerity. Within four months, Greece and Germany will be at loggerheads again, and Greece will likely still lack the austerity credentials that Berlin needs to convince its own Euroskeptics that it has the institutional heft and credibility to impose Germanic thriftiness on the rest of Europe. The more time Germany buys, the more inflexible the German and Greek negotiating positions become, and the more seriously traders, businessmen and politicians alike will have to take the threat of a so-called Grexit, the first in a chain of events that could shatter the eurozone.

The Role of the Crisis in Ukraine

U.S. Intelligence Chief Backs Arming Ukrainian Military Against Moscow-Supported Rebel Forces

Missy Ryan
February 26, 2015

Top U.S. intelligence official backs arming Ukraine forces against Russia

The top U.S. intelligence official said Thursday that he supports arming Ukrainian forces against Russian-backed separatists, as the Obama administration continues deliberations about whether to deepen involvement in a conflict pitting the West against Russian President Vladi­mir Putin.

James R. Clapper Jr., the director of national intelligence, said providing weapons to Ukraine would likely trigger a “negative reaction” from the Russian government, which Western officials are hoping will ensure that separatists stick to a European-brokered cease-fire that took effect this month.

“It could potentially further remove the very thin fig leaf of their position that they have not been involved in Ukraine,” Clapper told members of the Senate Armed Services Committee, adding that Russia could respond by sending more sophisticated weapons to separatist areas.

He said U.S. intelligence officials believed that Putin may also intend to expand Russian influence in eastern Ukraine by trying to secure a land bridge to the Crimean Peninsula or taking control of the strategic port in Mariupol.

Nevertheless, pressed by senators to reveal his position on proposals to provide “lethal assistance” to Ukrainian forces, Clapper said he would support it.

A Global Popularity Contest

February 24, 2015 

Is Russia making a global comeback in spite of Western sanctions and political pressure from the United States and Europe? On the surface, it certainly seems like it.

Earlier this month, Russian president Vladimir Putin paid a very public two-day visit to Egypt, cementing the burgeoning strategic partnership he has diligently cultivated with the regime of Abdel Fatah al-Sisi. The lavish reception he received—complete with street placards bearing his likeness and wall-to-wall coverage in the Egyptian press—left no questions about Cairo’s attitudes toward the Kremlin. New political forces on the Old Continent, like Greece’s recently elected left-wing Syriza government, have likewise embraced an increasingly pro-Russian outlook. And the Russian leader apparently enjoys massive popularity in China, where his biography is a bestseller and his authoritarian political style is the subject of serious study. All of which led Foreign Policy magazine to dub Putin the “new model dictator,” and the gold standard for autocrats everywhere.

Perhaps he is. But look a bit closer, and you’re liable to find that Russia’s recent geopolitical advances are very much the exception rather than the norm. A year into the Kremlin’s asymmetric campaign in Ukraine, its global image—and its alliances—is much the worse for wear.

Silicon Valley’s Web of Lies

February 26, 2015 

The Internet will not save you.

Andrew Keen, The Internet Is Not the Answer (New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2015), 288 pp., $25.00.

DURING THE past few years, if you were one of the many people trawling the dating website OkCupid in search of love, you might have received a notice letting you know it had found someone who was an “exceptionally good” match for you. You might have contacted this match and even gone on dates with this person, comfortable in the knowledge that a sophisticated algorithm had done the difficult work of sorting through millions of profiles to find someone with just the right balance of appealing quirks and concupiscent charms to match your own delightful attributes.

What you didn’t know is that OkCupid was experimenting on you. Engineers programmed the site to send its users matches that it claimed were “exceptional” but that were in fact bogus—all for the purpose of finding out if you would believe the assessment and pursue the match. Not surprisingly, most users did. We are nothing if not suggestible when it comes to love, even if Cupid’s arrow has been replaced by OkCupid’s algorithm.

'Killer Robots' Need Regulation, Not a Ban

By Lucas Bento
February 26, 2015

Autonomous weapons can be disruptive, but that doesn’t mean we should ban them altogether. 

Technology can be both disruptive and transformative. It can disrupt the status quo and it can also transform the way we see how things can be done.

States around the world have showed great interest in developing autonomous robots for military purposes. These robots, also called “killer robots” in some circles, would be able to select and engage targets without human intervention. The implication of ceding human control for machine discretion has led some organizations to call for an outright ban of the technology. In a 2012 report entitled ‘Losing Humanity,’ Human Rights Watch recommended the ratification of an international treaty prohibiting the “development, production, and use” of robotic weapons because they would be incapable of discriminating between combatants and civilians on the battleground. Other coalitions, such as the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, have formed around similar policy goals.

Although the prospect of delegating lethal powers to robots may evoke a dystopian vision of the future, the pessimism is arguably misplaced, and misunderstands the potential of artificial intelligence. Whatever the moral merits or precautionary logic of a complete ban, total prohibition of autonomous robots is undesirable for a number of reasons.

First, a ban would be unworkable in practice. It would ignore the practical complexities of international cooperation. Without the ratification of major military powers, a ban would be impossible to enforce. The temptation for states to cheat is also obvious. Given the sensitive nature of military technology, states may, despite a ban, preemptively develop autonomous weapons just to stay in the race. This of course is a classic example of the prisoner’s dilemma, and explains why a state would likely not cooperate with a ban, but instead heavily arm itself.

This dynamic is particularly true in this day and age where non-state actors, such as terrorist organizations, are increasingly powerful and active on the international stage. As technology becomes more affordable and technical skill readily accessible, it is only a matter of time before non-state actors use automated weapons. U.S. authorities have already uncovered terrorist plans of drone attacks, and the New York Police Department is also taking these threats seriously.

In their upcoming book The Future of Violence, Professor Gabriella Blum and Benjamin Wittes argue that advances in cyber technology and robotics could mean more people than ever before have access to potentially dangerous technologies. The trend towards the dissemination of open source software, which could make a killer robots’ software widely available, coupled with the increased affordability and versatility of hardware makes that scenario all the more plausible.

What’s the Status of North Korea’s ICBM?

February 26, 2015

The truth is we know very little, but North Korea’s ICBM is still not operational. 

Back in April 2012, North Korea paraded six KN-08 intercontinental ballistic missiles on top of a 16-wheeled transporter-erector-launcher (TEL). Some analysts immediately questioned whether the six Hwasong-13 (the North Korea name for the missile) were mockups (which turned out to be true). Various experts have also questioned whether the road-mobile KN-08 should in fact be classified as an ICBM at all, considering that there is no evidence that it is capable of breaching the 5,500-km threshold necessary to be labelled as such.

So what do we know about North Korea’s alleged new ICBM? The truth is very little except the following: The KN-08 is not an operational weapon, but a missile under development. Also, as the IHS Jane’s Intelligence Review underlines: “The existence of the KN-08 should not be conflated with a nuclear strike capability.”

According to satellite imagery, North Koreans tested the missile’s first stage engine in August 2014 at the Sohae launch site in North Korea’s northwestern Tongchang-ri region. This was preceded by a number of engine tests in 2013 and early 2014. Engine tests are stepping stones toward full-scale tests, but there is little hard intelligence on how well these tests went.

The next step is experimental flights tests, of which none so far seem to have occurred. An analyst written for IHS Jane’s Intelligence Review notes that, “it remains unlikely that it [North Korea] has successfully developed the three components required for a strike capability. These are a reliable long-range missile, a nuclear weapon small enough to be mounted on the missile, and a workable exoatmospheric re-entry vehicle.”