Tag Archives: terrorism

“sonic attacks” in Cuba

This is a bizarre story about “sonic attacks” on U.S. diplomats in Cuba.

The United States delivered an ominous warning to Americans on Friday to stay away from Cuba and ordered home more than half the U.S. diplomatic corps, acknowledging neither the Cubans nor America’s FBI can figure out who or what is responsible for months of mysterious health ailments…

To medical investigators’ dismay, symptoms have varied widely. In addition to hearing loss and concussions, some people have experienced nausea, headaches and ear-ringing. The Associated Press has reported some now suffer from problems with concentration and common word recall.

Some U.S. diplomats reported hearing loud noises or feeling vibrations when the incidents occurred, but others heard and felt nothing yet reported symptoms later. In some cases, the effects were narrowly confined, with victims able to walk “in” and “out” of blaring noises audible in only certain rooms or parts of rooms, the AP has reported

So the facts are that people are reporting symptoms and bizarre experiences, and nobody has figured out what or who is causing it.

terrorism and U.S. elections

This Washington Post article was written after the Paris attacks of fall 2015. It says that after a terrorist attack these things happen:

  • concerns about terrorism increase suspicion and even intolerance directed at migrants, refugees and Muslims.

  • On average, leaders who are Republican, male, and have relevant national security experience tend to be viewed as more competent.

  • terrorist threat advantages Republicans more than Democrats, in part because Republicans are traditionally perceived as better able to handle issues related to national defense.

  • Leaders who are both female and Democratic may…experience the most negative political consequences of terrorist attacks.

  • Hillary Clinton is likely to be bolstered by the foreign policy experience she gained as secretary of state and by her tendency to take stands that are more hawkish than those of Bernie Sanders.

  • Trump is a bit of a wild card, however. His bold style may be appealing in a context of threat. However, he may be hurt by his lack of any significant foreign policy experience

In other words, nobody knows. The general election is going to be interesting, and if god forbid there were to be major terrorist or geopolitical events it will be even more interesting.

Inequality and violence in Europe and the U.S.

Following the shocking events in Belgium, maybe people here in the U.S. should reflect on inequality and violence closer to home. Here is a Slate article called Why Belgium Is Such a Hotbed for Islamic Terrorism:

As my Slate colleague Josh Keating wrote last November, the apparent concentration of Islamic extremism in Belgium is largely the result of a group called Sharia4Belgium and its charismatic leader Fouad Belkacem. The group, which was founded in Antwerp and first gained attention by staging public commemorations of the 9/11 attacks, has capitalized on the high rates of poverty among Muslims in Belgium, as well as anger over widespread discrimination against Muslims and bans on Islamic veils that were passed in Antwerp in 2009 and at the national level in 2011.

Speaking to CNN for a recent article, the brother of two young men who left Belgium for Syria cited a sense of marginalization and a lack of opportunity as the main drivers of radicalization. “The Belgian state rejects children and young people,” he was quoted as saying. “They say, ‘They are all foreigners, why should we give them a job?’ They fill us with hate, and they say we aren’t of any use, so when young people see what’s going on over there [in Syria], they think ‘Well OK, let’s go there and be useful.’ ”

Which makes me wonder, if poverty and inequality are really the issues, can we see that in the statistics compared to a random country like…oh, I don’t know…the United States of America? For a ready source of statistics, it’s fun to go to the CIA World Factbook. Here are the poverty rates and Gini Index for the two countries. The Gini Index is a measure of how wealth is spread across households, ranging from 0 (a hypothetical perfectly equal distribution) to 100 (a hypothetical case where one household has all the wealth and all the others have nothing). We can also look at GDP per capita at purchasing power parity and unemployment just to round it out.

GDP Per Capita

  • Belgium: $44,100 (34th highest in the world)
  • USA: $56,300 (19th highest in the world)

Unemployment Rate

  • Belgium: 8.6%
  • USA: 5.2%

Poverty Rate

  • Belgium: 15.1%
  • USA: 15.1%

Gini Index

  • Belgium: 25.9 (8th most equal out of 144 countries tracked)
  • USA: 45 (43rd most unequal out of 144 countries tracked)

So average income is a bit higher in the U.S. Unemployment is fairly high in Belgium, but the poverty rate happens to be identical for the most recent statistics. The U.S. is much more unequal (Belgium is right up there with the most equal countries in the world, including the Scandinavian countries.) So it is a little hard to see the U.S. having the moral high ground when it comes to poverty or inequality. And yet our media is pointing to poverty and inequality as the reasons for the violence in Belgium. I suppose it is possible that the poverty and violence that does exist disproportionately involves one ethnic group. But that too is true of the United States.

Let’s look at one more set of statistics which I pointed out recently –  deaths from violent assault happen at more than double the rate in the U.S. than they do in Belgium. So the body count is actually much higher here. It is just less shocking because we have come to take the daily violence on our streets as normal, which is sad.


collateral damage

Trump and Cruz are openly talking about indiscriminate killing of civilians abroad. Which is illegal. You’re not supposed to talk about it. There are really no perfect options when it comes to terrorism. Option 1 would be to only collect information abroad, then play defense at the border and within our own borders. You could argue that is sort of what the U.S. was doing before 9/11. It’s not hard for people to point to pictures of a smoking hole in Manhattan and make a case that is not good enough. Option 2 is scorched earth attacks against entire civilian populations anywhere we think a few enemies may be hiding. This is clearly illegal, although it has happened on a large scale in most wars. That is what Trump and Cruz are advocating. In the middle is pursuing “targeted” attacks abroad, destroying a few houses or groups of people that we think may contain our targets, usually with permission of the government of the host country. This (let’s call it Option 1.5) is the path Obama has chosen. How targeted is it really? Here’s a Guardian article from 2014 arguing that the United States has killed about 27 innocent people for every enemy killed. Most disturbingly, this includes many children. I personally like the idea of doing a really good job with #1. But I think Obama has made some tough choices and I respect that. Let’s not pretend that the more violent options are ever for the benefit of the people in the countries where they are carried out, though. They are about sacrificing the lives of a certain number of (mostly non-white, non-Christian, non-English speaking) civilians abroad, whose lives our government implicitly decides are worth less than the lives of civilians at home (although let’s remember that civilians at home are subject to mass death from gun violence, suicide, motor vehicle violence and lack of health care, which we don’t factor into this equation). I’ll give Trump and Cruz some small credit for saying what they mean and meaning what they say on this one. Listen carefully to what they say, and vote accordingly.

domestic terrorism

Outgoing Philadelphia mayor Michael Nutter said

“Domestic terrorism is international terrorism,” Nutter said. “There is really no level of distinction between the violence that goes on, on the streets of America on a daily basis and the episodic acts of international terrorism that also take place — primarily in cities…”

“Citizens around the world feel unsafe because of international terrorists … those same feelings exist for many in (American) communities,” Nutter said. “These criminals are terrorizing our citizens and that same level of fear of violence, the death of citizens, the destruction of property, are the same. In many cities across the United States of America on a weekend, you very well could have six, eight, 10 people shot.”

He called for a stronger relationship between federal and local officials to address American violence with the same sense of urgency and priority given to global terrorism.

Well, let’s think about how this is and isn’t true. There seem to be two ingredients that lead to violence, whether on an American street or in the Middle East. One is young men with something to be angry about, and time on their hands to do something about it. The second is a culture of violence that makes it okay to act on those angry impulses. I think you need both of these things. So to de-escalate, you need to understand and address peoples’ real grievances, keep them busy by providing economic opportunity, and gradually work on changing cultures than glorify violence.

If you just go by body count, gun violence in American cities is much worse. As Nutter pointed out, a body count of 200-300 per year from gun crime is typical in cities like Philadelphia and Baltimore. Nationwide, the body count due to murder is 15,000 per year or so. But you can put that in the context of about 30,000 suicides and 30,000 deaths by motor vehicle. So that’s a lot of violent death. If you really wanted to prevent the most violent deaths, you would tackle some of these sources rather than international terrorism, or even the domestic crazies who occasionally gun down students, children, theater and church goers.

But there is the unexpected shock aspect to terrorism, whether international or just some nut in a theater. The gun violence and car crashes on our streets are so familiar they don’t shock us any more, even though they kill orders of magnitude more people every year even compared to 9/11. After 9/11 the United States started two wars of choice and spent over a trillion dollars. This seems to have escalated the violence rather than reducing it.

I’m not suggesting international terrorism doesn’t have to be dealt with. It has to be monitored and disrupted. There is the risk that an extremist group could get their hands on a nuclear or biological weapon, and then the body count would be shocking indeed and it could seriously disrupt nations and economies for a long time.

Russian nuclear materials

I thought we were told the Soviet nuclear materials were “secured” in the 1990s. I think what that meant is that most of them were moved from surrounding countries to Russia and placed under guard. But first of all, there may have been some unaccounted for. And second of all, it doesn’t much matter if they are under guard in Russia if there are corrupt Russian authorities stealing and trying to sell them, which apparently is what is happening:

Criminal organizations, some with ties to the Russian KGB’s successor agency, are driving a thriving black market in nuclear materials in the tiny and impoverished Eastern European country of Moldova, investigators say. The successful busts, however, were undercut by striking shortcomings: Kingpins got away, and those arrested evaded long prison sentences, sometimes quickly returning to nuclear smuggling, AP found.

Moldovan police and judicial authorities shared investigative case files with the AP in an effort to spotlight how dangerous the nuclear black market has become. They say the breakdown in cooperation between Russia and the West means that it has become much harder to know whether smugglers are finding ways to move parts of Russia’s vast store of radioactive materials — an unknown quantity of which has leached into the black market…

The most serious case began in the spring of 2011, with the investigation of a group led by a shadowy Russian named Alexandr Agheenco, “the colonel” to his cohorts, whom Moldovan authorities believe to be an officer with the Russian FSB, previously known as the KGB. A middle man working for the colonel was recorded arranging the sale of bomb-grade uranium, U-235, and blueprints for a dirty bomb to a man from Sudan, according to several officials. The blueprints were discovered in a raid of the middleman’s home, according to police and court documents.

I always find it depressing to think that after all the heroic efforts and relative success fighting nuclear proliferation and nuclear terrorism over the decades, it would only take one incident to bring it all crashing down.

There is a slightly comical side to this otherwise terrifying story. All the U.S. headlines are predictably about Islamic State. But in this story, the bad guys are the sellers – Russian and Moldovan gangsters. The buyers were not actual Islamic State, but FBI agents posing as Islamic State.