Posts Tagged 'terrorism'

Security theatre lives

Sydney tests its emergency notification system in the downtown core at the same time of day every time. So if a person wanted to cause an incident, guess what time they would choose?

It also seems to be done on Fridays, which is exactly the worst day to choose, since it’s the most common day for islamist incidents.

Security theatre = doing things that sound like they improve security without actually improving them (and sometimes making them worse).

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Come back King Canute, all is forgiven

You will remember that King Canute held a demonstration in which he showed his courtiers that he did not have the power to hold back the tide.

Senior officials in Washington desperately need courtiers who will show them, with equal force, that encryption has the same sort of property. If it’s done right, encrypted material can’t be decrypted by fiat. And any backdoor to the encryption process can’t be made available only to the good guys.

The current story about Apple and the encrypted phone used by one of the San Bernadino terrorists is not helping to make this issue any clearer to government, largely because the media coverage is so muddled that nobody could be blamed for missing the point.

The basic facts seem to be these: the phone is encrypted, the FBI have been trying to get in to it for some time, and there’s no way for anyone, Apple included, to burn through the encryption without the password. This is all as it was designed to be.

The FBI is now asking Apple to alter the access control software so that, for example, the ten-try limit on password guesses is disabled. Apple is refusing on two grounds. First, this amounts to the government compelling them to construct something, a form of conscription that is illegal (presumably the FBI could contract with Apple to build the required software but presumably Apple has no appetite for this).

Second, Apple argues that the existence proof of such a construct would make it impossible for them to resist the same request from other governments, where the intent might be less benign. This is an interesting argument. On the one hand, if they can build it now, they can build it then, and nobody’s claiming that the required construct is impossible. On the other hand, there’s no question that being able to do something in the abstract is psychologically quite different from having done it.

But it does seem as if Apple is using its refusal as a marketing tool for its high-mindedness and pro-privacy stance. Public opinion might have an effect if only the public could work out what the issues are — but the media have such a tenuous grasp that every story I saw today guaranteed greater levels of confusion.

Islamist violent extremism and anarchist violent extremism

Roughly speaking, three explanations for islamist violent extremism have been put forward:

  1. It’s motivated by a religious ideology (perhaps a perversion of true Islam, but sincerely held by its adherents);
  2. It’s motivated by political or insurgent ends, and so the violence is instrumental;
  3. It’s the result of psychological disturbance in its adherents.

In the months after the 9/11 World Trade Center attacks, Marc Sageman argued vigorously for the first explanation, pointing out that those involved in al Qaeda at the time were well-educated and at least middle class, were religious, and showed no signs of psychological disturbances. There was considerable push back to his arguments, mostly promoting Explanation 3 but, in the end, most Western governments came around to his view.

In the decade since, most Western countries have slipped into Explanation 2. I have argued that this is largely because these countries are post-Christian, and so most of those in the political establishment have post-modern ideas about religion as a facade for power. They project this world view onto the Middle Eastern world, and so cannot see that Explanation 1 is even possible — to be religious is to be naive at best and stupid at worst. This leads to perennial underestimation of islamist violent extremist goals and willingness to work towards them.

It’s widely agreed that the motivation for Daesh is a combination of Explanations 1 and 2, strategically Explanation 1, but tactically Explanation 2.

The new feature, however, is that Daesh’s high-volume propaganda is reaching many psychologically troubled individuals in Western countries who find its message to be an organising principle and a pseudo-community.

“Lone wolf” attacks can therefore be divided into two categories: those motivated by Explanation 1, and those motivated by Explanation 3, and the latter are on the rise. Marc Sageman has written about the extent to which foiled “plots” in the U.S. come very close to entrapment of vulnerable individuals who imagine that they would like to be terrorists, and take some tiny initial step, only to find an FBI agent alongside them, urging them to take it further. (M. Sageman, The Stagnation in Terrorism Research, Terrorism and Political Violence, Vol. 26, No. 4, 2014, 565-580)

Understanding these explanations is critical to efforts at de-radicalization. Despite extensive efforts, I have seen very little evidence that de-radicalization actually works. But it make a difference what you think you’re de-radicalizing from. Addressing Explanation 1 seems to be the most common strategy (“your view of Islam is wrong, see the views of respected mainstream Imams, jihad means personal struggle”).

Addressing Explanation 2 isn’t usually framed as de-radicalization but, if the violence is instrumental, then instrumental arguments would help (“it will never work, the consequences are too severe to be worth it”).

Addressing Explanation 3 is something we know how to do, but this explanation isn’t the popular one at present, and there are many pragmatic issues about getting psychological help to people who don’t acknowledge that they need it.

Reading the analysis of anarchist violence in the period from about 1880 to around 1920 has eerie similarities to the analysis of islamist violence in the past 15 years, both in the popular press, and in the more serious literature. It’s clear that there were some (but only a very few) who were in love with anarchist ideology (Explanation 1); many more who saw it as a way (the only way) to change society for the better (Explanation 2) — one of the popular explanations for the fading away of anarchist attacks is that other organisations supporting change developed; but there were also large numbers of troubled individuals who attached themselves to anarchist violence for psychological reasons. It’s largely forgotten how common anarchist attacks became during these few decades. Many were extremely successful — assassinations of a French president, an American president, an Austrian Empress, an Italian king — and, of course, the Great War was inadvertently triggered by an assassination of an Archduke.

Western societies had little more success stemming anarchist violence than we are having with islamist violence. The Great War probably had as much effect as anything, wiping out the demographic most associated with the problem. We will have to come up with a better solution.

(There’s a nice recap of anarchist violence and its connections to islamist violence here.)

If you see something, say something — and we’ll ignore it

I arrived on a late evening flight at a Canadian airport that will remain nameless, and I was the second person into an otherwise deserted Customs Hall. On a chair was a cloth shoulder bag and a 10″ by 10″ by 4″ opaque plastic container. Being a good citizen, I went over to the distant Customs officers on duty and told them about it. They did absolutely nothing.

There are lessons here about predictive modelling in adversarial settings. The Customs officers were using, in their minds, a Bayesion predictor, which is the way that we, as humans, make many of our predictions. In this Bayesian predictor, the prior that the ownerless items contained explosives was very small, so the overall probability that they should act was also very small — and so they didn’t act.

Compare this to the predictive model used by firefighters. When a fire alarm goes off, they don’t consider a prior at all. That is, they don’t consider factors such as: a lot of new students just arrived in town, we just answered a hoax call to this location an hour ago, or anything else of the same kind. They respond regardless of whether they consider it a ‘real’ fire or not.

The challenge is how to train front-line defenders against acts of terror to use the firefighter predictive model rather than the Bayesian one. Clearly, there’s still some distance to go.

Radicalization — it’s just a phase he’s going through

All of the discussion of radicalization in the past few weeks seems to assume that it’s a one-way process.

But if it’s a process with a large personality component (and evidence suggests it is); and if it’s a phenomenon associated with adolescence and young adulthood (which are times of attitudinal change anyway); and if the data fits models of infection by disease (and they do), then it seems plausible that, for many people, radicalization is a phase they go through. Such people will not be obtrusive because they never act on their (temporary) beliefs, and eventually cease to hold them. If radicalization can be a temporary phenomenon, then there’s de-radicalization, but there’s also post-radicalization; the first extrinsic, but the second intrinsic.

What’s the practical relevance? If some people “get over” their radicalization, then it argues for more gentle responses during the infected period. Actions such as interviews by security services with radicalized individuals and their relatives (a practice of MI5, and soon to be possible in Canada via bill C-51), and pulling passports may indeed have negative consequences if they make infected individuals become more entrenched (and less likely to become cured).

Of course, there are risks to a more gentle intervention strategy (and government departments are allergic to risks). But, for countries with exit controls, perhaps it’s better to rely on these than to act more explicitly; and at least the discussions about strategy should keep the possibility of cure in mind.

Multiculturalism’s role in radicalization

The children of immigrants have, historically, had two choices:

  1. Assimilate into the culture, retaining vestiges of their original culture (typically foods, celebrations, and perhaps a bias towards marrying cultural cognates);
  2. Remain part of an enclave of their original culture.

Option 1 is by far the most common. Option 2 only works when the original culture is itself highly organized, and it carries high risks for the immigrants. This option has often been followed by the Jewish diaspora (with obvious downsides, including periodic expulsions from European countries, and worse), but there are other examples. Note the wisdom of the formal Amish mechanism of rumspringa, which provides a choice point for young people to commit to the culture, or not.

In historical immigrations, these choices are clearly differentiated and there is little midde ground.

The invention of the idea of multiculturalism created the opportunity to move to a new country, assimilate (apparently), and preserve the culture of origin (apparently). This sounds like a great idea (“best of both worlds”) apart from one simple fact: it doesn’t work.

The set of those who have been radicalized in Western countries and either carried out attacks there, or made their ways to the Middle East is almost entirely made up of the children of immigrants. Many of these individuals have been studied and interviewed, and there is one clear pattern: feeling like they didn’t belong in either their original culture (their parents often being glad to have escaped it at some level and so having moved away from it), nor in the “new” culture in which they have grown up. Not feeling like they fit into the culture in which they grow up is, of course, a common teenage pattern — but most teenagers don’t have such a ready-made explanation for why they feel as they do. Multiculturalism, because it creates the apparent space to avoid commitment to one culture or the other, must bear some of the responsibility for radicalization. (This may also be part of the explanation for why engineers are so over-represented in the ranks of the radicalized — a tolerance for ambiguity may help those growing up between two cultures to navigate the difficult years of adolescence and young adulthood. Most engineers I know are more comfortable with black and white settings than with ambiguity.)

Of course, this can only be part of the explanation. One of the pitfalls for those who seek an explanation for radicalization is that, for every individual who becomes radicalized, there are 99 others who experienced apparently identical life trajectories (sometimes even siblings) without becoming radicalized, often without seeming to feel even the faintest pull towards radical ideologies.Personality must, therefore, play a huge part, and this is often underappreciated.

Religious does not equal stupid

A range of people, from David Brooks to Peter Bergen, have responded to the rhetoric associated with the Countering Violent Extremism Summit held in Washington this week. They point out that the motivation for Daish (aka ISIL [nobody knows why the U.S. White House, alone in the world, insists on this acronym] or ISIS) cannot be understood in terms of the American middle class and its aspirations: jobs, relationships, family, economic prosperity. Islam did not come boiling out of the deserts of Arabia in the 7th century because of the lack of economic opportunity in the sphere of camel raising.

But behind these misunderstanding lies a deeper one. Many of the elites in government and industry in Western countries think that people who have religious beliefs are either: stupid for believing something so self-evidently wrong; or devious and cunning in pretending to have religious beliefs as a tool for exerting power (in the best traditions of post-modernism). Now of course they don’t necessarily think this explicitly, but the language being used in much of the discussion of radicalization and its causes makes it fairly obvious that they do think this implicitly. In other words, one or other of these two views informs the way they frame the problem of islamist radicalism to themselves.

Why do sane young men (and women) give up a lifestyle in the West that, while often not perfect, is much better than third-world conditions and the prospect of death in Syria? Holding either of these misconceptions distorts the view of the problem, and of the West’s opponents, to the point of delusion. If you think your opponents must somehow be intellectually stunted to believe what they do, you are never going to understand why other people find these beliefs attractive, and so will never be able to craft a strategy to defend against islamist propaganda that has any chance of working. If you think your opponents are hypocritical and opportunistic (not believing their own message) then you will equally never be able to craft a working defence. The temptation is to think (again implicitly) that radicalization must somehow be a kind of mental illness; perhaps we’ll begin to see “solutions” with that flavour rather than the current socio-economic flavour, coming into vogue soon.

I don’t have a solution. But the evidence so far (and I’ve done some empirical work in this area) is that socio-economic explanations for radicalization do not go very far; and that de-radicalization programs (or early-stage counter-radicalization strategies) that start with this assumption are even less useful. A more nuanced, and more realistic, view of our opponents and their motivations is desperately needed.

[Added later: The weekend news programs, which were filled with post mortems on the Countering Violent Extremism meeting, were great examples of the misconceptions I suggested in this post. Farid Zakaria actually made the claim that ISIS were faking their apparent beliefs to gain power. For a IMHO more realistic view, this article from the Atlantic: What ISIS Really Wants.]