How It Works

Oct. 30 2014 4:54 PM

Russia Buzzes the Tower

According to NATO, jets from its member states scrambled earlier this week to intercept four different groups of Russian aircraft in the space of 24 hours. In the largest incident, four Tupolev Tu-95 strategic bombers and a refueling tanker were tracked by Norwegian, Portuguese, and British fighters over the Norwegian Sea and the Atlantic Ocean. In another case, two Tu-95s were tracked by Turkish aircraft over the Black Sea. Other incidents involved planes from Germany as well as non-NATO members Sweden and Finland.

These types of events aren’t that unusual—there have been about 100 intercepts this year—but the frequency of them is. None of these cases involved Russian military planes actually entering another country’s airspace, though that did reportedly happen last week when an Ilyushin-20 spy plane entered Estonian territory for about a minute according to that country’s government. That followed a still-unresolved incident in September when an Estonian intelligence agent was seized in a cross-border raid and taken to Moscow.


There was also a bizarre case earlier this month in which Sweden launched a multi-day hunt for a foreign submarine that it believed had entered its waters. The “Hunt for Reds in October” quickly descended into farce with a local fisherman being mistaken for a Russian spetsnaz commando and the supreme commander of Sweden’s armed forces describing the situation as “plainly and simply fucked up.” The hunt was eventually called off, but many felt it exposed the Swedish military as not all that prepared to counter potential threats.

Putting aside the Swedish submarine situation, which very well might have been a false alarm, Russia’s military does seem to be testing the defense of its neighbors in Europe and occasionally across the Arctic Circle in North America. This is happening at a time when the region is becoming increasingly militarized as a result of the conflict in Ukraine.

This doesn’t necessarily mean Russia is preparing for war, and open conflict between Russia and NATO countries still seems pretty unlikely. It probably has more to do with Russia seeing how much it can get away with, and making it clear that it disapproves of Europe’s pro-Ukraine stance. But as June’s shootdown of a Malaysian airliner demonstrated, tragedies can happen when there are itchy fingers on the triggers of anti-aircraft missiles.

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Oct. 30 2014 4:50 PM

Will Israel’s Closure of the Al-Aqsa Mosque Lead to a Third Intifada?

There’s some depressing déjà vu in Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ statement that Israel’s closure of the al-Aqsa mosque on Thursday constitutes an “act of war.” The phrase gets bandied about an awful lot in this conflict, including in reference to previous occasions when access to the mosque was restricted. This is in large part because the two sides frequently are in a state of war or something close to it. But the constant fever pitch rhetoric can also make it difficult to isolate the perpetual conflict’s real turning points.

The current outbreak of violence in Jerusalem is in response to the police killing of a suspect in the attempted assassination of far-right religious activist Yehuda Glick. The U.S.-born Glick is a leader of the campaign for Jews to be allowed to pray at the al-Aqsa compound—one of the city’s main religious flashpoints.


It’s not unusual for Israel to restrict access to the mosque, the third-holiest site in Islam. The New York Times reports, citing the Israeli interior ministry, that “Israel had restricted Muslim access, usually barring men under 50, on 40 occasions this year, up from eight days in 2013.” But this is believed to be the first time that the Temple Mount complex has been closed off entirely since Ariel Sharon paid it a controversial visit in 2000, the precipitating event behind the Second Intifada in which more than 1,000 Israelis and 3,000 Palestinians were killed.

Could something similar happen now? Some observers say that with historically high levels of rioting in recent days, Jerusalem already is experiencing a “silent intifada,” though the city’s police dismiss the idea, saying the situation is under control. 

Abbas’s Fatah party has called for a “day of rage” tomorrow, a common term for Palestinian demonstrations, but the president has been adamant that he is not calling for another Intifada. “If we were calling for an intifada, we would have done so during the 50 days of Operation Protective Edge,” he said this week, referring to the summer’s war in Gaza.

At that time, too, there were fears of a third intifada, and Hamas explicitly called for one. But while there were several “days of rage” on the West Bank in solidarity with Gaza, these never turned into the widespread uprising that many were expecting.  

There are a number of reasons for this. The Palestinian leadership isn’t as united and the populace is less well armed than in 2000. Other Arab governments, distracted by a myriad of other crises, aren’t as focused on the Palestinian issue as they used to be. (Though the al-Aqsa closure is likely to irritate the government of Jordan, the official custodian of Jerusalem’s Muslim holy sites, which has been coming under increasing pressure over its relations with Israel.) There has also not been much enthusiasm among Palestinian leaders for another intifada given that the violence of the previous two didn’t do much to advance the cause.

Another big difference is that Abbas is president today, not Yasser Arafat. The Palestinian foreign minister has gone on record saying, “as long as [Abbas] is in charge, there will be no third Intifada.” One possible reason for Abbas’s reluctance: a mass uprising could potentially be directed against the president’s Palestine Liberation Organization as well as Israel.

Things are likely to get uglier, with Friday in particular likely to see more violence. A lot will depend on how long Israel will keep the Temple Mount closed, and how far the Palestinian government will go in supporting mass demonstrations. Given the incentives here, there’s a good chance things might settle back down very quickly to the status quo—which is to say, a baseline level of sporadic violence and seething tension.

Oct. 29 2014 6:14 PM

The Slow-Motion Dismemberment of Ukraine Continues

Pro-Western parties swept Ukraine’s parliamentary elections on Sunday, which isn’t a great surprise given that not that many people in the more pro-Russian eastern part of the country voted. Turnout was low in areas of Eastern Ukraine that are under Kiev’s control and didn’t happen at all in the self-declared independent republics of Donetsk and Luhansk.

Those places are holding their own elections this Sunday, with Russia’s foreign minister Sergei Lavrov saying on Tuesday, “We will of course recognize the results.” The announcement was condemned by the government in Kiev, as well as the EU and UN, who accused Moscow of undermining the terms of a peace deal it supported in September.


This is a bit of a change of tack for the Russian government, which has previously stopped short of recognizing the “republics” as independent. For instance, after separatists in Luhansk and Donetsk held secession referendums in May, the foreign ministry didn’t respond to requests for Russia to absorb the regions as they had with Crimea earlier this year.

The Putin government’s on-again, off-again relationship with the separatists makes some sense if the end goal is not actually to create new states in Eastern Ukraine or to absorb new territory into Russia, but to keep the pro-Western government in Kiev permanently destabilized and unable to control large portions of its territory.

Under the Minsk Protocol, the agreement hammed out by representatives of Ukraine, Russia, the separatists, and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe last month, Kiev agreed to cede power to the regions so long as they stayed part of Ukraine. Separate unrecognized parliamentary elections certainly seem to undermine that goal, as does continued shelling.

With voters in Eastern Ukraine either cut out of the process entirely or ambivalent about it, the polls did indeed give “strong and irreversible backing to Ukraine's path to Europe," as President Petro Proshenko put it. But the country’s de facto dismemberment also seems to be accelerating.


Oct. 29 2014 3:49 PM

Why Do So Many African Presidents Die in Office?

Michael Sata, the president of Zambia, has died in a London hospital after suffering for months from an undisclosed illness. This is notable for a couple of reasons.

For one, Guy Scott, Sata’s vice president, has now become Africa’s first white president since 1994. That’s when South Africa’s last apartheid president, F.W. de Klerk, was defeated by Nelson Mandela. He won’t be around for long—elections are due to be held in three months and Scott, whose parents were not born in Zambia, is ineligible to run for the office.


For another thing, Sata, whose aggressive political style—including the sharp anti-Chinese rhetoric that got him elected in 2011—earned him the nickname Cobra, is the second Zambian president to die in office in less than a decade. Levy Mwanawasa, who passed away in 2008, also spent the last few months of his life suffering from a mysterious and undisclosed illness, absent for weeks at a time while receiving treatment abroad.

Sata mocked reports that he was suffering from a terminal illness before departing for the UN General Assembly last month, saying, “I am not dead yet.” He then missed his appearance at the assembly amid reports that he had taken ill in his New York hotel room.

The phenomenon isn’t limited to African leaders. Hugo Chávez kept the true state of his health under wraps and experienced a number of miraculous recoveries before finally succumbing to cancer last year. Mysterious, possibly health-related disappearances are also a longstanding tradition in North Korea’s Kim family, and the king of Saudi Arabia, who’s still kicking, has also downplayed rumors of his impending demise.

Presidential deaths, though, do seem to be more common in Africa. According to a 2012 BBC article, 10 African leaders died in office between 2008 and 2012 compared to only three in the rest of the world. Two of those African leaders, Guinea-Bissau’s Joao Bernardo Vieira and Libya’s Muammar al-Qaddafi, died under not so peaceful circumstances. But in 2012 alone, the presidents of Ethiopia, Ghana, Malawi, and Guinea-Bissau (a different president, Malam Bacai Sanhá) died in office of natural causes. All had suffered from mysterious ailments and had denied rumors about their ill health prior to their deaths.

There are a few possible reasons for this. African heads of state tend to be a bit older than counterparts in the rest of the world while their countries’ overall life expectancies are a bit shorter. The continent also has its share of long-term autocrats and presidents for life, though Zambia’s Sata and Ghana’s John Atta Mills were both democratically elected just a few years before their deaths.

It’s a small sample size and some of this is probably just a coincidence. But Sata’s death may focus some new attention on his ally, the world’s oldest president, Robert Mugabe of neighboring Zimbabwe. (That Sata was a staunch Mugabe supporter while also appointing a white vice president is one of the more intriguing aspects of his political career.) The 90-year-old Mugabe has long disputed rumors he’s in poor health and he’s outlasted most of his enemies, but he’s almost certain to die in office. There’s reportedly already a succession battle going on in Mugabe’s Zanu-PF party involving a number of figures, including his wife Grace and his vice-president Joice Mujuru. It’s likely to get messy as soon as Mugabe dies, whenever that is.

Oct. 29 2014 3:26 PM

Why the Obama Administration Is Calling Benjamin Netanyahu “Chickenshit” Behind Closed Doors

The big diplomatic story of the day is an anonymous Obama administration official’s claim, in an Atlantic feature by Jeffrey Goldberg, that Benjamin Netanyahu is a “chickenshit.” Why is the Israeli prime minister a chickenshit? Because “he won’t do anything to reach an accommodation with the Palestinians or with the Sunni Arab states. The only thing he’s interested in is protecting himself from political defeat. He’s not [Yitzhak] Rabin, he’s not [Ariel] Sharon, he’s certainly no [Menachem] Begin. He’s got no guts.” In the same story, another official concurs that Netanyahu is a “chickenshit” and adds that he’s a “coward” with regards to launching a possible preemptive strike to forestall Iran’s nuclear capabilities.

Let’s put aside for a moment the inherent irony of using an anonymous quote to call someone a coward while the Obama administration publicly issues paeans to the frank and productive partnership between Israel and U.S. Instead, I’ll note that this is the second notable anonymous scatological description of the Israeli government by an anonymous American to hit the Internet this week. Discussing the Obama administration’s snub of Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon—he was denied meetings with both Vice President Joe Biden and National Security Advisor Susan Rice during a recent trip to Washington—a “pro-Israel congressional aide” told Foreign Policy’s John Hudson, “There is a limit to how much you can shit all over the White House and expect to get every meeting you want.”


Yaalon had previously described Secretary of State John Kerry as “obsessive and messianic.” That was fairly mild compared to the anonymous Israeli officials who described one of Kerry’s peace proposals during last summer’s Gaza War as a “strategic terrorist attack” against Israel.

So, everyone seems to be in basic agreement on just how shitty relations have become between the U.S. and Israeli governments. Following Yaalon’s snub, Israel’s Finance Minister Yair Lapid fretted, “There is a crisis with the U.S. and we should treat it as a crisis.”

The question is, what are the actual implications of this crisis? The two sides may be trading insults because, politically, it’s about all they can do. Despite all the sniping, there hasn’t been much material change in the U.S.-Israel relationship. The Obama administration has continued the longstanding U.S. practice of running interference for Israel at the UN, vetoing repeated Palestinian statehood bids and, more recently, casting the sole vote against launching an inquiry into potential human rights violations during the Israeli incursion into Gaza. Unlike Great Britain and Spain, the United States—Israel’s primary military backer—announced no plans to review or suspend arms shipments to the country as a result of the war in Gaza. I wouldn’t expect this behavior to change significantly, whatever senior U.S. officials are saying behind closed doors and with the veil of anonymity.

It doesn’t matter that much to Netanyahu if American officials insult him in the media or won’t meet with his cabinet ministers as long as Israel still derives most of the benefits of its security partnership with the U.S. The tension with the Obama administration may even help the prime minister with his right-wing base, who were never huge fans of the president to begin with.

Naftali Bennett, the economics minister of the far-right Jewish Home party, is already playing up the victimhood, writing on Facebook, “If what was written [in The Atlantic] is true, then it appears the current administration plans to throw Israel under the bus. The prime minister is not a private person but the leader of the Jewish state and the whole Jewish world.” (The latter part of that statement was news to me, and I’m assuming many other members of “the whole Jewish world.”)

Netanyahu seems, for the most part, to have written off the White House, preferring to deal instead with Congress, where his support is stronger. Unfortunately for him, Congress is increasingly not where U.S. foreign policy is made on issues ranging from the negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program to the fight against ISIS. He may figure he can just run out the clock on the Obama administration until a Republican or a more amenable Democrat like Hillary Clinton gets into office.

This is a risky long-term strategy. U.S. support for Israel may be mostly secure in the short term, but there are signs of change. U.S. media coverage of the most recent war in Gaza was notably more critical than during similar incidents in the past. Young Americans are more critical of Israel than their parents, and tomorrow’s Republican leaders may not be quite as ironclad in their support of the Jewish state as today’s are. In the years to come, then, anonymous sniping could feel quaint—a reminder of when the two countries cared enough about their relationship not to insult each other openly.

Oct. 28 2014 2:45 PM

Do We Have to Sell Out Human Rights to Get a Nuclear Deal With Iran? 

The execution last Saturday of Reyhaneh Jabbari, a 26-year-old Iranian woman who killed a man she said was trying to rape her, appears to be more of a trend than a deviation from the norm. According to the latest findings from the UN’s special rapporteur on human rights in Iran, executions have surged in the country while conditions for women have worsened. Shaheed says 852 people were executed in Iran between July 2013 and June 2014. The New York Times’ write-up of the report notes that the “death penalty can be applied in Iran for adultery, recidivist alcohol use, drug possession and trafficking, as well as crimes in which a person ‘points a weapon at members of the public to kill, frighten and coerce them.’ ”

Iran has also seen a recent spate of attacks in which assailants fling acid in women’s faces they feel aren’t properly veiled. These attacks have prompted public outrage, and the government has vowed to crack down on them. But as the L.A. Times reports, some activists “believe that the government helped set the stage for attacks against those deemed immodest in some way by enacting a parliamentary measure providing protection to citizens who act on their own to help enforce the country’s strict social mores.” Iranian officials have also accused the international media of exaggerating the attacks and have muzzled domestic media coverage of them. Meanwhile, Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian is still in jail without any formal charges.


All of this is happening at the same time as ongoing talks over Iran’s nuclear program. While there’s reportedly still a lot of work to be done for a comprehensive agreement to be reached before the Nov. 24 deadline, the talks have thus far exceeded expectations. At the very least, a military confrontation over Iran’s nukes, which seemed like a possibility just a few years ago, now seems very unlikely. The rise of ISIS has also brought the U.S. and Iran together, albeit tentatively, in the hope of stopping a common enemy.

All of this confirms what’s been evident for some time now: President Hassan Rouhani, who took over from Mahmoud Ahmadinejad last year, has lived up to his billing as a “moderate” in terms of Iran’s diplomatic relations with Western countries, but this hasn’t translated into more moderate domestic policies.

Early in his term, Rouhani tried to link the two issues, arguing that political reforms and human rights measures would accompany better relations with the West. But so far, the opposite seems to be happening. Ahmed Shaheed, the UN’s special rapporteur, suggests that Rouhani has only “limited authority” over the country’s judiciary. The president was unsuccessful in his efforts to rescind Jabbari’s death sentence.

U.N. human rights chief Navi Pillay, among others, has said that the human rights situation in Iran should be tied in some way to the nuclear talks. For what it’s worth, though, Iranian civil society activists seem to, by and large, support the negotiations.

There aren’t any signs that the U.S. has backed off its criticism of Iran’s human rights record—the State Department was quick to condemn Jabbari’s execution, for instance—but the UN’s Shaheed expressed worry this week that Iran “would use the nuclear issue as a ‘positive front’ while allowing human rights to become a ‘backwater.’ ”

It seems possible at this point that a major part of the legacy of the Obama and Rouhani administrations could be friendlier relations between Iran and the U.S. But it’s looking a lot less likely that this will result in Iran being a significantly freer society.

Oct. 28 2014 11:24 AM

Is the Tide Turning Against Ebola in Liberia?

The politically heated debate over how to contain the Ebola virus in the United States is mostly a sideshow to the much more important question of how to contain the outbreak in West Africa. Without a cure, the only way to stop the disease is to break chains of infection. Thankfully, most countries where the disease has been introduced have had relatively few chains to break. That’s a big reason why Nigeria, despite some early missteps, was eventually able to contain it and why the United States, despite its own public health screw-ups, will most likely be able to do so as well. But as long as thousands are still sick in Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone, the number of chains will continue to grow and—in a globalized economy—more sick people will continue to travel to more countries.

This is one big reason why quarantine measures that discourage health workers from traveling to West Africa are so short-sighted. The only way to keep the U.S.—and every other country, for that matter—safe from Ebola, is to stop it at its source. And that, as Paul Farmer puts it, will require a lot more “staff, stuff, space, and systems.”


Recently, though, there have been some cautiously optimistic reports that the tide may be turning in one of Ebola’s epicenters. Local reports suggest that there have been fewer new infections and fewer deaths from Ebola in Liberia than in August and September.

Public health researcher Helen Epstein writes for the New York Review of Books:

In August, the streets of Monrovia were strewn with bodies and emergency Ebola clinics were turning away patients. Today, nearly half of the beds in those treatment units are empty. I’ve been here a week and have yet to see a single body in the street. Funeral directors say business is off by half.

Northern Lofa County, which borders Sierra Leone and was one of the hardest-hit areas, has seen three consecutive weeks of declines in the number of cases observed, according to the WHO.

As Jina Moore, reporting from Liberia for Buzzfeed, notes, the promising news is tempered somewhat by the fact that there aren’t very good numbers available on how many people had Ebola in Liberia to begin with, making it difficult to get more than an anecdotal sense of whether the disease is on the decline.

It’s also possible that some patients are being hidden from healthcare workers by their families. But Epstein points out some evidence that Liberians are better informed about the dangers of the disease than they were in the early days of the outbreak. “In Monrovia, health workers travel from house to house in the slums checking on people who had contact with those who are already sick or have died,” she writes. “In July, nearly half of those contacts went on to succumb to the disease themselves. Today, fewer than 20 percent of them do.”

All the same, we’re far from out of the woods in the fight against the disease that has already killed in the neighborhood of 5,000 people around the world. There have been no similar reports of drops in the other countries affected by Ebola. In fact, the number of cases has risen sharply in Western Sierra Leone this month. The disease also may have spread to yet another country—82 people in Mali who came in contact with a toddler who died of Ebola last week are currently being monitored for signs of the disease. The collateral damage from the outbreak—including the impact on the economies and political institutions of some of the world’s most fragile states and the setback in the fight against diseases like malaria—will continue to mount.

As Epstein writes, it “seems that this simple set of interventions, which has worked in the past to contain 25 previous known Ebola outbreaks in Africa since 1976, is belatedly working [in Liberia] too.” Let’s hope she’s right. Let’s also hope that the political conversation in developed countries around this disease shifts toward measures that could actually do something to stop it.

Oct. 27 2014 3:02 PM

China May Be Souring on the Death Penalty While the Rest of the World Embraces It

Amnesty International doesn’t even count China in its annual report on the death penalty, as the number of executions the country carries out each year—thought to be in the thousands—is officially a state secret.

But as Al Jazeera reports, there’s some evidence that the country’s gallows aren’t as busy as they used to be:

The Dui Hua Foundation has reviewed the decisions made by the Supreme People’s Court (SPC) and found the number of executions has fallen in recent years, citing the 2007 return of “the power of final review” to the court.
“Since then, the number of executions nationwide may have dropped by more than a third with declines of nearly 50 percent in some locales,” the group said, citing a report in the Southern Weekly, a mainland magazine based in the southern industrial city of Guangzhou.

This is all relative, of course. The foundation believes that 2,400 people were executed in China in 2013, more than twice the number in the rest of the world combined. But official attitudes about the practice may be slowly shifting with the ruling Communist party considering dropping nine crimes, including counterfeiting and prostitution, from the list of capital offenses.

At the very least, China appears to have shifted from the days of mobile death vans roaming the countryside. In one grisly indicator, China’s lower number of executions may be having an impact on the international market for harvested organs. It’s also interesting that this is happening at the same time as a corruption crackdown so widespread and draconian it seems to be driving many officials to suicide.

China’s potential death penalty rethink also comes at a time when the total number of executions around the world is on the rise, and a number of countries that had appeared to be moving away from the practice—including India, Japan, Nigeria, and Indonesia—seem to be going back to it.

South Korean prosecutors announced today that they would seek the death penalty for Lee Joon-seok, the ferry captain blamed for the deaths of nearly 300 people when his ship capsized in April. South Korea hasn’t executed anyone since 1997, but evidently the public outrage surrounding this case is pushing the courts toward drastic measures.

Oct. 27 2014 1:32 PM

ISIS Is a Part-Time Terrorist Group

Even if it’s not the actual reason why the U.S. and its allies have launched a campaign of airstrikes against ISIS, most Americans support the operation due to fear that the group could carry out terrorist attacks here at home. (Rightly or wrongly, those fears will only increase after last week’s events in Canada.) Public awareness of ISIS also grew here thanks to the videotaped beheadings of American journalists—indisputably acts of terrorism.

At the same time, most of what ISIS does is not traditionally considered terrorism. (Before you skip straight to the comments, this is a discussion of tactics, not morality. Let’s stipulate that ISIS is an abominable organization.) Most of the violence it commits is in the context of fights for territory with rival national militaries and militia groups, though civilians are often targeted by both sides. Its primary goal is to expand and administer its territory. Purely terrorist groups don’t run consumer protection bureaus.


This distinction is discussed in a recent article in the journal Perspectives on Terrorism. That article categorizes ISIS, along with Hezbollah and Hamas, as organizations classified as terrorist groups by the United States and its allies but that spend most of their time and resources on activities other than terrorism. The authors, Assaf Moghadam, a counterterrorism researcher at the Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) in Herzliya, Israel (whose work I’ve previously written about here), Ronit Berger, a Ph.D. candidate at Syracuse University, and Polina Blieakova, an M.A. student at IDC, go further, arguing that most groups we consider to be terrorist organizations only spend part of their time on terrorism.

Even al-Qaida, which undoubtedly made its reputation with acts of international terrorism, spends most of its time as a militia group fighting in various civil conflicts around the world. It “conducts terrorism on the side—almost certainly its least-resourced component,” as the counterterrorism researcher J.M. Berger puts it.

The authors looked at the data on terrorist attacks between 2002 and 2012 in the START database at the University of Maryland, the most comprehensive listing of terrorist activity around the world. The 119 active groups in the Maryland data set target civilians 32.33 percent of the time—the rest are a combination of military, government, and police targets.

Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb and Al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula both targeted the military more than any other target. Interestingly, the most active non-Islamist movements—including Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army and the Fatah-linked Al-Aqsa Martyr’s Brigade—target civilians more often than the Islamists.

The only group in the database that exclusively attacked civilians was Angola’s UNITA, which attacked six civilian targets during the period. For what it’s worth, UNITA was once a major recipient of U.S. military aid during the Cold War and today is a major political party.

Obviously, many attacks on government targets would still be considered acts of terrorism by most people. But this data, combined with the fact that the vast majority of acts of “terrorism” take place in the context of civil wars and insurgencies, makes it clear that the distinction between terrorists and rebels or guerilla fighters is a blurry one. Many of the enemies in the U.S.-led war on terror may be worthy targets, but they’re only part-time terrorists.

The authors argue that “by conceiving of its opponents as insurgent groups [rather than simply as terrorists], governments can also widen the scope of their policy efforts. Besides aiming at the tactical defeat of the adversary using military means, the insurgency framework highlights the necessity of simultaneously focusing on reestablishing governmental credibility and gaining popular support in problematic areas. In this regard, addressing the social grievances upon which the insurgents' political agenda is based should move to the top of the policy agenda.”

They argue that governments use the label terrorism less for descriptive specificity than for “emotional satisfaction.” They write: “Terrorism evokes repugnance and fear, thereby stoking an unequivocal rejection of terrorism’s means and agents alike. Populations have been trained to reject compromise with terrorists, and want to believe that terrorists are unique in their ‘evilness,’ therefore deserving a category of their own.”

For this reason, they argue, governments fighting these groups should continue to use the T-word in public statements to galvanize public opinion, even while understanding internally that it’s not the most accurate framing.

I’m not sure I’d go that far. The fear of terrorism may sometimes be used by governments to build support for reasonable public policy goals. But just as often, if not more often, it leads to restrictions of civil liberties and some seriously dumb ideas about, say, terrorists attacking the United States with the Ebola virus.

Oct. 24 2014 5:52 PM

Does ISIS Have a Cash Flow Problem?

David Cohen, the top counterterrorism official at the U.S. Treasury Department, argues that the U.S. military campaign against ISIS is beginning to cut into the group’s revenues.

Discussions of how the group funds itself necessarily rely on speculation and guesswork, but researchers are starting to get a better idea about the terror group’s finances. Eckart Woertz, a fellow at the Barcelona Centre for International Affairs, provides a useful summary of what’s known about the Islamic State’s financial lifelines. The groups revenues are likely somewhere between $1 million to $5 million per day. A U.S. intelligence official told the Guardian earlier this year that the groups assets swelled from around $875 million to over $2 billion after the fall of Mosul.


The biggest chunk of that comes from oil. ISIS is believed to control roughly six out of Syria’s 10 oil fields as well as several in Iraq. The group relies on smuggling networks, some of which date back to the days of the U.N. embargo against Saddam Hussein in the 1990s, to get the oil out of the country. A recent Financial Times article suggested that the black market oil is often refined at plants in Iraqi Kurdistan, meaning that ISIS is shipping its oil out through enemy territory.

Another chunk comes from looting and pillaging newly conquered areas—though the extent of this has sometimes been exaggerated—and from extracting funds from people in the territories ISIS controls in the form of taxes, extortion, and real estate. (Fleeing refugees leave behind property that can be rented out.) Then, of course, there are ransom payments from the governments willing to pay for the return of their hostages.

ISIS has also received funding from wealthy donors, many in Gulf countries, particularly early in its rise, though according to Woertz this never brought in as money as was commonly believed.

Some of these revenue streams may not be sustainable. ISIS continues to make territorial gains, but more slowly and at a much higher cost than it did a few months ago when it swept nearly unopposed across swathes of Iraq. Nowhere is this more evident than in the closely fought and bloody battle in Kobane, Syria, whose defenders have taken to referring to it as “Stalingrad.”

ISIS can still exploit those living in areas under its control, but are likely wary of the lessons of their predecessor organization, al-Qaida in Iraq, which faced a popular uprising in the middle of the last decade when locals grew fed up with its rule.

ISIS still holds thousands of hostages, but the grisly fate of James Foley, Steven Sotloff, and Alan Henning may result in fewer citizens of Western countries—whose governments will pay higher ransoms—heading to the region.

There’s also evidence that some of ISIS’s former backers in the Gulf are starting to reconsider as the group expands.

This makes ISIS’s oil all the more critical. Given that it may be up to a year before the Iraqi military is ready to launch a major counterattack against ISIS and the lack of coordination between Syria’s “moderate” rebels and their international backers, disrupting ISIS’s oil money may be the most productive thing the U.S. and its allies can do to halt the group.

Airstrikes, targeted sanctions, and crackdowns on smuggling routes are part of this effort. It’s also helpful that Washington’s Saudi allies seem willing to tolerate low oil prices. All of this could change if ISIS is able to capture more oil fields in Iraq, but many of these are in Kurdish territories in the North and Shiite areas in the South—not exactly a cakewalk.

Woertz notes that ISIS’s revenues, even if reduced from their current levels, are “a lot for a terror group, but not for someone who intends to run a state and rule over an extended territory.” As Hayes Brown points out, if you classify ISIS as the “state” it claims to be, its estimated $875 million in assets put it put it “roughly in the range of the budgets of the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Afghanistan, two countries not known for their massive expenditures.”

In other words, if ISIS plans to keep acting like a state, it may develop a pretty serious cash flow problem in the near future. If it switches tactics and acts more like a traditional terrorist network, more concerned with inflicting damage on enemies than building local institutions, it may be able to live off its nest egg for a while.