RESCUED FROM ISIS: THE GRIPING TRUE STORY OF HOW A FATHER SAVED HIS SON by Dimitri Bontnick

Image result for photos of Dimitri Bontinck

(the author)

As parents we worry about many things.  Over the last decade parents in western countries be they Muslim or Christian have a new source for concern – The Islamic State or ISIS. It seems many of their children have become vulnerable to ISIS’ slick online propaganda or the radicalization that is preached at a number of Mosques.  In Dimitri Bontnick’s new memoir the nightmare of losing a child to the “Caliphate” is real and destructive. In his book, RESCUED FROM ISIS: THE GRIPING TRUE STORY OF HOW A FATHER SAVED HIS SON he details the recruitment of his son, his physical return, and the temporary loss of his mind.  In addition, Bontnick is able to convey the stories of numerous other families who try and gain the freedom of their sons and daughters.

Image result for photos of Dimitri Bontinck

(father and son, Jejoen)

After beginning the book with his own life story and how he raised his son Jejoen or Jay,  Bontnick seems confounded by what led up to his son joining ISIS.  He was raised in a bi-racial liberal Belgium family with few restrictions.  The author points out a number of factors that he thinks contributed to Jay’s recruitment.  First, he was forced to change schools; second, the breakup with his girlfriend of three years; and third, their home was on the edge of a neighborhood that was a hotbed of jihadism.  Throughout the book Bontnick tries to wrap his head around why his son and so many others have given up their families and lives to join what they hoped to be the Caliphate.  The author takes us through his son’s recruitment as well as many others as they make the decision to travel to Turkey and cross the border into Syria.  From there we learn of their training, brain washing, and existence as part of radical Islamists.

Bontnick describes in detail how he went about trying to save his son, who ostensibly had turned his back on him.  Jay’s actions destroyed his family and resulted in his parent’s divorce.  We travel with Bontnick on numerous occasions into Syria and the minefield of Aleppo and Raqqa in search of his son, and after finally gaining Jay’s freedom, the sons of many parents pleaded to him for help.  Bontnick conveys what he was up against, first Sharia4Belgium, an organization designed to bring Belgium under Sharia law and a member of the Caliphate; then he had to deal with a series of characters in Syria, many of which were very dangerous as he was captured, beaten, and released.  During his odyssey he did come across a number of journalists, Islamists, rebel fighters, and Syrian citizens who did their best to locate Jay and allow his father to bring him home.

Image result for photos of Dimitri Bontinck

(Some of the contacts Bontnick made in Al-Hamraa, Syria that helped him locate his son)

The first question a parent asks is why did I not see this coming?  In retrospect the answer is they did, but did not want to admit that their child, as in the case of Jay was becoming a stranger.  Bontnick explores his parental errors and warns parents how not to behave if they want to protect their children.  The author points out the difficulties in navigating Syria due to the many factions, armies, and ideological groups.  Bontnick traveled to Kafr Hama, a very dangerous enclave where Belgium jihadis were located.  He did and said a number of things that he feels guilty about, but justifies his actions in trying to save his son.

As Bontnick tells his story he does briefly integrate the political and military history of the Syrian Civil War.  Once he is able to free his son he will return often to Syria to bring medical supplies and assist other distraught parents in trying to free their children.  These endeavors were rarely successful, but Bontnick should be praised for all of his efforts.  The greatest fears of the sons in returning home was being prosecuted and going to prison.  Bontnick’s attitude is based on the belief that they were brainwashed as teenagers by a predatory organization that recruited westerners in “the hope of rewriting the software in the heads of children” should be taken into account.  His argument that Belgium authorities have no programs or policies in place to deal with individuals who have given up on radicalization and want to return home is very sound.  His suggestion to use their experiences as intelligence or allow them to provide information from within the Islamic State is something authorities should consider.

Once Jay returns we learn of his trial, conviction, and suspended sentence.  But despite his freedom he informs an interviewer from New Yorker magazine that his recanting of his radicalization was a sham, breaking his father’s heart.  Later their relationship would improve and the author’s experience changed his outlook on life to that of helping others rather than chasing money and a career.  The book is a heart rendering journey of a father who is attempting to keep what remains of his family together, and a successful dismantling of a major terrorist network in Belgium.  It is also a handbook for parents who must confront the issues laid out in the narrative.  Bontnick offers a great deal of advice, some of which is naive, but overall it is a chilling tale that is part of the larger war being fought against terrorism by the west.

Image result for photos of Dimitri Bontinck

(the author)

Advertisements

THE EXILE: THE STUNNING INSIDE STORY OF OSAMA BIN LADEN AND AL QAEDA IN FLIGHT by Cathy Scott-Clark and Adrian Levy

Image result for photo of bin laden compound in abbottabad

(Bin Laden family compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan)

After perpetrating the horror of 9/11 al-Qaeda leadership and its followers scattered with the expectation that they had provoked what would be a massive military response.  The path Osama Bin Laden and his family, al-Qaeda officials, and others took to escape the lethal American bombardment has been open to conjecture by historians and journalists for sixteen years.  The publication of THE EXILE: THE STUNNING INSIDE STORY OF OSAMA BIN LADEN AND AL QAEDA IN FLIGHT by Cathy Scott- Clark and Adrian Levy goes a long way in filling the gaps in what happened to Bin Laden and his followers, concluding in 2017.  The authors employ their investigative journalistic prowess to write the most complete account of the years the United States hunted for Bin Laden, al-Qaeda leadership, and operatives until their final capture or death.  What sets their work apart is that they rely on the stories of al-Qaeda leaders, gunmen, planners, spiritual guides, fighters, and family members told to them through countless interviews.  We witness the failure of the Bush administration to take out Bin Laden as they immediately pivoted to the invasion of Iraq, the rise of the Islamic State, the truth of what occurred in Abbottabad, Pakistan on May 2, 2011, and the individual stories of countless al-Qaeda and Taliban members as they sought to survive.

The narrative begins with Osama Bin Laden listening to a radio inside a cave north of Khost to what he hoped would be news of a successful attack on the World Trade Center.  What is interesting from the outside is that the authors report that the al-Qaeda Shura was actually divided as to the pursuit of the “plane operation” strategy.  Mahfouz Ibn El Waleed who Bin Laden relied upon to create religious justifications for his actions led the faction that opposed the attack.  El Waleed was also known as the “Mauritanian” served as Bin Laden’s go between with Taliban leader Mullah Omar, and arranging for Bin Laden’s family to seek refuge in Iran.  The authors also focus in on Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, a Kuwaiti cleric who prepared Bin Laden’s video reaction to the World Trade Center success and also accompanied the Bin Laden family to Iran.  Further, al-Qaeda kept the Taliban leadership in the dark over the 9/11 plan.

Image result for photo of osama bin laden

(Osama Bin Laden)

The authors present exacting detail in all aspects of the narrative.  They even discuss Bin Laden family turmoil involving Osama’s four wives, two of which were extremely religious and committed to their husband’s policy of jihad.  The authors discuss Bin Laden’s treatment of his wives and children and he comes across as an insular figure who marries off his daughters to mujahedeen, and educates his children to carry out his jihad.  When certain sons and daughters do not measure up he has no problem dispatching them to other family members or acolytes.  The family’s plight is based on interviews and we see their terror when exposed to American drones and bombing.  The role of Iran in this process is very interesting in that Teheran is willing to provide sanctuary to many family members.  At the outset Iran, long disassociated from the United States offers intelligence and other assistance to Washington.  However, within the Iranian government there was a split between a reformist faction led by President Mohammad Khatami and Quds Force Leader Qassem Suleimani over whether to turn over Bin Laden family members to the United States.  However, President George W. Bush’s “Axis of Evil” speech put an end to any improvement in Iranian-American relations and led to Suleimani’s dominance over policy.  Sadly, the Bush administration’s obsession with Iraq led to the lost opportunity of possibly improving relations with Iran as both wanted to destroy al-Qaeda and the Taliban.

The authors review the role of the ISI, Pakistan’s version of the CIA that has been told in a number of places.  They reach the same conclusions as previous authors and officials that the Pakistani government was not to be trusted and were in bed with the Taliban, al-Qaeda, and other jihadi elements.  Under President Pervez Musharraf and those that succeeded he in office the Islamabad strategy was to milk the United States for as much military and domestic aid as possible, feigning support, which at times did include military operations against al-Qaeda and the Taliban.  The lack of Pakistani government control in the border areas of Waziristan allowed al-Qaeda, Taliban and other jihadi groups a sanctuary from American attack.  CIA frustration with ISI and Pakistani government duplicity dominate the narrative.

Image result for photo of osama bin laden

The authors detail Bin Laden’s escape from the Tora Bora caves north of Khost.  Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and his men were also present in the area and along with al-Qaeda militants the authors describe how unnerved they were by the massive US bombing and the hundreds of people that were killed.  It appeared to CIA Station Chief Robert Grenier in Islamabad that al-Qaeda and Bin Laden would withdraw into Waziristan, Pakistan’s “no man’s land” and he had no faith that the Pakistani promise to interdict them would take place.  In fact the Mumbai attack in India took place at the same time, resulting in Pakistani troops moving to its border with India, a change that seems almost too coincidental.  Grenier asked general Tommy Franks for troops to keep al-Qaeda and Bin Laden boxed in, but he refused, almost guaranteeing their escape.  Franks’ argument was that he did not want to commit troops and make the same error as the Soviet Union.  This may have played a role in his thinking, but Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld had already turned to regime change in Iraq.

The authors dig into the evolution of US interrogation techniques paying special attention to Dr. James Mitchell, a clinical psychologist who had no practical experience with this type of interrogation, i.e., waterboarding, walling, diapers, insects, etc. a policy approved by Attorney General John Ashcroft in July, 2002.  The narrative presented is based on the diary prepared by Abu Zubayda, a Saudi born Palestinian logistical expert who sent recruits and funds to jihad training camps in Afghanistan from Peshawar.  This diary provides an amazing picture of “ghost detainees” in the CIA’s covert rendition program and was the first to undergo enhanced interrogation techniques.  Other sources include Justice Department documents, CIA tapes, and US Senate Reports.

Image result for photo of osama bin laden

(Bin Laden’s fourth wife and their children)

The chronological approach chosen by the authors covers most aspects of the run up to the war in Iraq, the Sunni uprising led by Zarqawi until his death, events in Afghanistan, including the resurgence of the Taliban, the role of Iran, and US strategy to achieve its goals in the region.  Integrating the narrative with the plight of the Bin Laden family by concentrating on Osama’s journey that resulted in his five year residence in his compound in Abbottabad is extremely important in terms of the final capture.  The American raid is described in detail as is the role played by Bin Laden’s Pakistani allies.  Interestingly, according to the authors the Bin Laden family was about to move from the compound and travel to Peshawar.  At the time of his death Osama Bin Laden was buoyed by the developing Arab spring, the economic crisis in the United States, and the unrest in Pakistan.  His plan was to leave Abbottabad to “reinstate the rule of the Caliphate” in Peshawar.  However, differences with Ibrahim, aka Abu Ahmad al-Kuwaiti, assigned to be Osama’s constant companion delayed his departure, resulting in the successful American raid.

Image result for pictures of guantanamo bay prison

(US detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba)

Perhaps THE EXILES most important contribution to the growing source material on 9/11 and after is how they took the myriad of interviews of their subjects and formulated a clear and incisive narrative that explains how Osama Bin Laden and his family were able to escape to Pakistan, resulting in their claustrophobic life in Abbottabad as the US continued its search for years.  The book fills an important gap in the historiography of its subject, and though at times is very rigid in its reporting, it a major contribution for academics and general readers alike.

Image result for photo of bin laden compound in abbottabad

(The Bin Laden family compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan)

FAREWELL TO KABUL: FROM AFGHANISTAN TO A MORE DANGEROUS WORLD by Christina Lamb

Image result for photo of Christina Lamb in afghanistan

(author, Christina Lamb in Afghanistan)

Christina Lamb begins her heartfelt memoir of 27 years of reporting from Pakistan, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Washington in FAREWELL KABUL: FROM AFGHANISTAN TO A MORE DANGEROUS WORLD by describing the British withdrawal ceremony in Helmand province, Afghanistan that for her symbolized the transfer of power to the Afghan army.  It might have been a happy occasion, but for Lamb it reminded her of the numerous errors in British policy in the region, the 453 British soldiers who were killed, the hundreds who had lost limbs to roadside bombs, and those psychologically scarred for life.  Lamb also points to the tens of thousands of Afghans who had lost relatives, homes, and who had become refugees.  By October, 2014 England was ending its 4th war in Afghanistan dating back to the 19th century, but this was their longest and leadership was determined to remove all evidence that they were ever there.  What remained was a war that continues today, and it seems as if it has come full circle as there are current reports that the Russian government is supplying weapons to the Taliban, an organization who as mujahedeen had defeated the Soviet Union in the 1980s.

Lamb presents an excellent history of a period of Anglo-American foreign policy that is wrought with mistakes, ignorance, and doing too little too late.  In so doing, Lamb discusses an exceptional amount of information and analysis interspersed with her personal observations of her tenure in southwest Asia.  She follows the story from the Soviet invasion of 1979, their ultimate defeat, the failure of the United States to maintain interest in the area, the rise of the Taliban, the American invasion, the tragedy of Iraq, the resurgence of the Taliban, the Mumbai attack, the killing of Bin-Laden, and the final withdrawal of American and NATO troops by 2014.  What is amazing is that Lamb seems to be everywhere that major events are transpiring.  Further, her “army” of contacts and sources make her writing indispensable to understand the history of the region.

Image result for taliban retake parts of afghanistan photos

One of her most telling comments among many throughout her narrative is that the United States had spent more money in Afghanistan than it had on the Marshall Plan that helped rebuild Europe after World War II.  Lamb watched events in Afghanistan for over 13 years and wondered how a war could be fought when there was no real border with Pakistan, which provided the enemy with safe haven.  Further, she was incredulous when the United States fought a war on the “cheap,” committing few troops and soon becoming distracted by a new war in Iraq of its own making based on false information.  In addition, the US turned a blind eye to its “supposed” ally, Pakistan whose intelligence service, the ISI had created the Taliban and provided an escape route for Osama Bin-Laden when American Special Forces had him cornered in Tora Bora in December, 2001.  The entire operation and decision making can be summed up in one term, and I apologize if it insults some – a “cluster-fuck.”  Much of Lamb’s analysis reminds me of Francis Fitzgerald’s FIRE IN THE LAKE, as the United States seemed purposefully ignorant of the culture that they were up against and did little to rectify it until it was too late.

Throughout her memoir Lamb describes the beautiful landscapes that she experienced, be it the Hindu Kush or the flowers and beautiful kites of Kabul.  Despite all the tragedies that she witnessed she always seems to return to the joys that mother-nature afforded.  It seems to me the major tragedy was how the Bush administration brushed off all warnings concerning a possible al-Qaeda attack from CIA Director George Tenet, Richard Clarke, Clinton’s terror advisor, members of the Northern Alliance, and even from Russian President Vladimir Putin.  Bush advisors saw this as sour grapes since the Russians had been defeated in Afghanistan by Bin-Laden and Company and the result was 9/11.

Image result for pakistani president Musharraf photo

(Pakistani President Parvis Musharraf)

Lamb describes numerous characters who are germane to her story.  The first, is indicative of the myriad of types she ran across.  Wais Faizi, who managed the Mustafa Hotel and had lived in the United States, was known as “the Fonz of Kabul,” and drove around in a 1968 Chevy Camaro convertible.  More significant was her relationship with Hamid Karzai who at the outset warned that the ISI was funneling American aid money to the Taliban.  Lamb follows Karzai’s political career and his tenuous relationship with the United States and Pakistan throughout his presidency.  James Dobbins, the United States Special Negotiator for Afghanistan is introduced with his requests from Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld for 25,000 American troops to stabilize Afghanistan once the Taliban were on the run.  His response sets the theme for US policy – they were already planning for Iraq by December, 2001 and stated that “we don’t do police work.”  CIA operative Gary Bersten is another character that is symbolic of American negligence in response to 9/11.  Bersten was with a small group of special operatives working with Afghan tribal forces trying to root out al-Qaeda and Bin-Laden from Tora Bora.  He requested troops to seal the Afghani-Pakistan border to block their escape.  Rumsfeld and the Bush administration refused as General Tommy Franks was already gaming the coming war in Iraq.  A 2009 Senate report reinforced Bersten’s view that the United States had passed on killing Bin-Laden – we can only conjecture how history might have been altered had we not done so.

Image result for photo of hamid karzai

(Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai)

Of course Lamb describes the duplicity of General Parvis Musharraf, the Pakistani leader who the US tried to convince to turn against the Taliban.  But he had his own difficulties with the Islamized leadership of his military and the ISI’s relationship with the Taliban.  Musharraf did his best to squeeze the United States and in the end both sides gained what it wanted.  Lamb’s explanations are clear, succinct, and easily understood with vignettes that are priceless, i.e., according to Undersecretary of Defense Richard Armitage on the topic of whether the Pakistanis could be trusted, “with Pakistan you get part of the story, never the whole story….How do you know when the Pakistanis are lying?  Their lips are moving.”

Lamb’s discussion of the ISI-Taliban relationship goes back to 1979 and is developed through the Taliban’s victory in 1994.  In a chapter entitled “Meeting Colonel Imam” Lamb lays out the history of the Russian invasion of Afghanistan and the development and training of the Taliban under the leadership of Amir Sultan Tamar, a Brigadier General in the Pakistani army who had trained with American Special Forces in 1974.  Tamar reviewed the history of ISI control of the Afghan war against the Soviets and how they trained and armed the Islamic resistance.  The ISI pulled the wool over American eyes as they controlled weapon distribution and strategy against the Soviets until they forced them out in 1989.  The American role and naïveté is plain for all to see.  Once the Soviets left, and the US turned away from Afghanistan, the ISI and its Taliban allies would achieve power in Kabul.  Lamb’s analysis and depth of knowledge contribute to an understanding of how the US was duped by the Pakistanis in the 1980s, a process that would continue for decades.

Image result for photos of kabul afghanistan

(Kabul, Afghanistan)

In reading Lamb’s memoir one can only become frustrated and angry.  She castigated British policy makers as on a number of occasions they placed their soldiers in untenable situations without the proper equipment.  Her discussion of Sangin, the world’s largest narco state, is unnerving and resulted in numerous deaths that could have been prevented.  Her comments at times are sarcastic and acerbic as she describes what was supposed to be the “post-Taliban world.”  Her access to Karzai allows her to pinpoint the problem that is Afghanistan; corruption, tribal rivalry, the lack of border control, and his relationship with Pakistani President Musharraf.  Lamb confronts Karzai repeatedly and receives the same tired answers dealing with security and trying to balance the different tribal interests.  The greatest problems seem to center on Islamic infiltration of the Pakistani military, and the radicalization of South Waziristan on the Pakistani border.  This created sanctuary and infiltration routes for the Taliban to return to Afghanistan.  By 2007 they had returned in full creating a renewed Afghani civil war.

Lamb zeroes in on the British role in Helmand province and the problem created by the drug trade. Helmand produces 95% of the opium smuggled into Europe.  Further, since the opium poppies grown by Afghani farmers are their only source of income it becomes almost impossible to make positive inroads because there is no substitute to support their families.  Lamb’s discussion of the interrelationship between the drug trade, the warlords, government corruption, the Taliban, and plight of the farmers is excellent.

Image result for photos of helmand province

(Taliban fighter, Helmand Province)

One of the most poignant and aggravating chapters in the book deals with the murder of a young female poet, Nadia Anjuman by her husband.  Lamb uses her life story as a vehicle to describe the lives of women under the Taliban and Karzai regimes.  Using the Herat Literary Society to focus on the treatment of women, Lamb describes the lives of women from the lowliest wife, to a woman who created a factory to produce jam, to the only female prosecutor in Afghanistan, to an outspoken female member of parliament, all who lived in fear for their lives.  On paper it may have appeared that the plight of women improved once the Taliban was defeated, but today the reality is the opposite.

Lamb takes the reader through Afghan history since the 19th century by presenting an “assassination tour,” describing the deaths of most Afghani kings and presidents.  It is no wonder that Karzai is called the “mayor of Kabul.”  Violence in Afghanistan increased in 2006 as the Taliban began to adopt Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s tactics from Iraq – ieds, suicide bombers etc.  Lamb also provides repeated examples of Pakistani duplicity by allowing rocket attacks from its territory, supplying weapons and safe haven for the Taliban, and the two-faced approach of President Musharraf, despite receiving $100 million in aid per month.  The end result is 2.6 million Afghani refugees in Pakistan.  Dealing with Musharraf was surreal, almost an alternate reality as the US tried to influence his actions.  For the Pakistani president it was more important to keep his border with Afghanistan calm so he could concentrate on Kashmir and India.  The assassination of Benazir Bhutto fit the pattern of violence that was growing worse within Pakistan under Musharraf.  Her return in 2007 angered the Pakistani military who saw her as a political and economic threat, ultimately causing her death.  The military denied complicity, but all the evidence seems to lead to their leadership.

According to British General Martin Carlton-Smith, by 2008 the goal of ending the insurgency in Helmand was giving way to reducing it sufficiently in order for the Afghan army to take control in some manageable way.  London realized that the only solution was by negotiating with the Taliban.  A political settlement was the only way to bring peace as it had done in Northern Ireland.  For Lamb it was the first time higher ups had admitted the war could not be won militarily.  When these comments went public, taken in association with British withdrawal from Basra in Iraq in September, 2007, and major disagreements between the US and British commands, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates saw it as defeatism.

However, by 2008 the Taliban controlled two-thirds of Afghanistan and grew increasingly daring as they set their sights on Kabul with a series of devastating suicide bombings and assassinations.  Evidence emerged that attacks on the Indian embassy and the Kabul Serena Hotel were directed by Pakistani handlers.  A CIA investigation led to the Haqqani network in North Waziristan, a group with strong ties to the ISI.  With the attacks the US could no longer ignore what their Pakistani ally was perpetrating.  For Washington it served as a wake up for the reality that was Pakistan.

By 2009 Lamb was transferred to Washington as she was fascinated by the new Obama administration.  What followed was the disjointed policy of a president who wanted to end America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Obama was a conflicted president who had no desire to continue fighting.  He distrusted his military leadership and the feelings were reciprocated.  Lamb presents Generals Stanley McChrystal and David Petraeus and their larger than life personalities and strategies.  But the overriding concern was Obama’s view of wars that he had little interest in continuing.  In addition, Lamb is correct that the problem was not military but political, especially in Afghanistan where the government was the fifth most corrupt regime in the world and the people had no faith in “Karzai Incorporated.”  Petraeus knew early on that for counter-insurgency to work you needed local partners.  Instead he had Karzai and Musharraf’s successor, Asif Zardari, Benazir Bhutto’s widower.  Lamb concludes that Obama and Joe Biden, his Vice President were out of their league and despite agreeing to a surge of 30,000 troops he set a deadline for their return – telegraphing to the Taliban to hang on for two more years.  After accompanying Biden to Islamabad, US Senator Lindsay Graham summed it up best, “the whole fucking place is burning down here, pal!”

There is a sadness to Lamb’s account in that so many errors were made and so much duplicity existed as she encounters the myriad of factions that existed in the region.  By 2014 when her story ends things have grown increasingly worse, more so than they might have been before 9/11.  For Lamb, the region is like a magnet whose pull she could not escape.  Even when all seemed lost she is drawn to one final visit.  There have been many books written about events in Iraq, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, but Lamb‘s account must be placed very close to the top of the list, particularly because of her values and journalistic expertise.

Image result for photo of Christina Lamb in afghanistan

(author, Christina Lamb in Afghanistan)

A GREAT PLACE TO HAVE A WAR: LAOS AND THE BIRTH OF A MILITARY CIA by Joshua Kurlantzick

Image result for photos of the civil war in laos in the 1960s

(anti-communist Hmong tribe soldiers in Laos, 1961)

The majority of Americans of my generation are aware of the Vietnam War that resulted in the death of 58,315 soldiers and a 153,303 wounded, with the loss of between 1.1 to 3.2 million Vietnamese.  Further, they are aware of American bombing of Cambodia and various military incursions that helped bring about Pol Pot and the “Killing Fields,” that resulted in the genocide of over 3 million Cambodians.  However, that same generation was probably not aware of the civil war that raged in Laos and the American role in that conflict that witnessed 15-20 air sorties a day against that small Southeast Asian country between 1960 and 1968, that was raised to 300 sorties a day once Richard Nixon took office, resulting in the death of over 200,000 Laotians and 700 Americans.

Image result for photos of the civil war in laos in the 1960s

By January 1961 Laos appeared to be on the precipice of falling to communism.  Bill Lair, a ten year CIA operative flew up to the central highlands to inaugurate a bold plan labeled, Operation Momentum.  The plan called for the operation and training of Hmong tribesmen, led by Vang Pao, an anti-communist officer in the Laotian army who would lead these men against the Pathet Lao who were supported by North Vietnam.  The civil war in Laos had been raging on and off since the French were vanquished by North Vietnam in 1954, and Laos was declared a neutral country by the Geneva Convention of that year.  Even though Laos was a small country the Eisenhower administration, firm believers in the domino theory, and that a pro-western state in Laos could serve as a buffer between Vietnam and Thailand, an American ally.  Further, Laos would make it easier for the US to assist South Vietnamese forces that could help bleed Hanoi’s troops as they continued to fight the Vientiane government, and lastly it would block any communist threat to India and Southwest Asia.  Joshua Kurlantzick’s new book, A GREAT PLACE TO HAVE A WAR: AMERICA IN LAOS AND THE BIRTH OF A MILITARY CIA chronicles Operation Momentum and its impact on the region and the implications for American strategy to deal with communism for decades.  In addition, it raises the specter of a CIA run war through para military operators, something that continues today.

Operation Momentum was the first secret covert run war by the CIA in American history.   Laos provided the CIA with the opportunity to increase the agency’s powers.   According to Kurlantzick, it saw the Laotian situation as an inexpensive war in terms of money and lives to create a template for proxy wars around the world as presidents looked for ways to continue the Cold War without going to Congress for funding or involving American troops.  For the CIA, after Laos, paramilitary operations would become an essential part of the agency’s mission.

Image result for photos of the civil war in laos in the 1960s

(North Vietnamese troops fighting South Vietnamese troops on Laotian territory)

Kurlantzick presents a balanced and interesting narrative as he provides the background history that led to the Laotian civil war involving the Royal Laotian Army, smaller armies of different Laotian tribes, Vang Pao’s 30,000 strong Hmong army, North Vietnamese troops, and American bombing and supplying and training of anti-communist forces.  As the narrative is developed the reader is introduced to a number of important characters.  First of which is Bill Lair, a career CIA operative who believed the key to helping the fight for democracy in Indochina was to allow the Laotians, Cambodians, and Vietnamese to do their own fighting.  The US could assist them with equipment and training, but should not be out front and appear to replace the French as a colonial power.  Lair and his CIA cohorts were thrilled with the success of Vang Pao’s army in that they finally found an indigenous force that would take it to the communists.  Pao was a loose cannon, but Lair knew how to control him.  This relationship was successful until Washington decided to expand its operations in Laos and Vietnam under leadership of Ted Shackley who arrived as CIA Laos Station Chief in July 1966.  Lair was against an increased ground war with massive bombing as he correctly believed that it would be unsuccessful in interdicting North Vietnam’s supply efforts to South Vietnam through Laos.  The author’s presentation of Lair’s story is invaluable in understanding what transpires in Laos until he resigns from the CIA in August 1968.  Once Lair resigns no one can control Vang Pao, and his forces who pursue a reckless strategy that has grave consequences.

Related image

(North Vietnamese troops moving supplies through Laos to South Vietnam)

Other important figures that Kurlantzick introduces are Tony Poe, a career soldier who trained and recruited Hmong tribesmen going back to 1961.  After Lair resigned he developed his own 10,000 man force made up of an amalgam of tribes who he could not hold together because tribal ethnic conflict and as a result were not an effective fighting force.  Perhaps the most important character in this drama was Ambassador William Sullivan, an American Foreign Service career officer who was Ambassador to Laos between 1964 and 1969.  Sullivan was sent to Laos to organize the war against the Pathet Lao and became the first American ambassador to run a war from his office.  Sullivan reigned in the CIA and made all operatives report to him what their plan of action was.  He would approve, and even choose targets for the war, something no ambassador had ever done before.  If someone did not comply, because of his relationships in Washington, they would be transferred out.  Once Shackley came aboard, Sullivan supported an expansion of the war and a massive increase in bombing which was further expanded once Richard Nixon entered the White House, as Nixon had his own realpolitik for Indochina involving Communist China, and the Soviet Union in achieving the withdrawal of American troops from Vietnam.

Image result for photo of william lair

(William Lair, CIA operative in Laos after he retired)

Kurlantzick tells a fascinating story that at times reads like fiction.  There is some repetition of information, and a few factual errors, i.e.; the Viet Minh did not sign the 1954 Geneva Accords, and according to historian Fredrik Logevall, he misstates the number of American military advisors in Vietnam at the time of John F. Kennedy’s assassination, and he offers no evidence that Kennedy “repeatedly told aides he would not tolerate the loss of South Vietnam during his presidency. (Fredrik Logevall, “Laos: America’s Lesser Known Human Political Disaster in Southeast Asia,” Washington Post, February 2, 2017)

The most disturbing aspect of the war that Kurlantzick brings out has to do with the surreptitious American bombing of Laos.  According to the author by 1969 the United States had dropped more bombs on Laos than it had on Japan during World War II.  Further, by “1973, when the bombing campaign ended, America had launched 580,000 bombing runs in Laos.  A high percentage of these bombs were antipersonnel or fragmentation bombs—which exploded into hundreds of small, deadly metal pellets on impact—antipersonnel mines, and bombs that caused widespread fires.” (177)  Kurlantzick uses the massive bombing of the Plan of Jars during the summer of 1969 to highlight the devastation that resulted in the deaths and maiming of Laotian civilians.  The overall bombing campaign killed civilians in disproportionate numbers and what is even more damning was the American policy of dropping excess ordinance over Laos when they could not find targets in North Vietnam and did not want to return to Thai bases with undropped bombs.  In addition, Kurlantzick describes how Laos was used as a training site for bomber targeting and the indiscriminate dropping of bombs to be rid of them.  America’s disdain for the Laotians can also be seen in the Paris peace talks with North Vietnam as Henry Kissinger and company sacrificed its Laotian allies in order to achieve a semblance of peace with Hanoi.  By the time the Americans left Saigon, a similar withdrawal occurred in Vientiane, as by 1973 Washington had washed its hands of its former ally with devastating consequences for the tens of thousands of refugees and the poor people left behind.

Image result for photo of William Sullivan, US ambassador to Laos and Iran

(William Sullivan, American Ambassador to Laos, and later to Iran)

Despite the fact that it appears that Operation Momentum was a failure when the Pathet Lao was victorious, the CIA saw it as an unqualified success.  The CIA argued that the operation occupied over 70,000 North Vietnamese troops who might otherwise have fought Americans.  Further, it allowed the CIA to develop its war fighting skills to the point where paramilitary operations equaled intelligence gathering as its joint mission.  The paramilitary component could be seen during the Reagan years in arming the mujahedin against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, and arming and training of the Contras to fight against the Sandinistas in Nicaragua.  After 9/11 paramilitary operations seem to have become the center of CIA activities.  Today these operations are involved in Yemen, Somalia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Mali, Syria, and Pakistan.  Whether through drone attacks under the aegis of the war on terror or training and supplying weapons, Operation Momentum created the CIA template for its paramilitary wars in the 21st century.

Kurlantzick offers a well-researched narrative that helps fill the vacuum of historical monographs pertaining to the war in Laos.  Recently, we were reminded of the cost of that war when Barak Obama became the first American president to visit Laos and announced an increased funding to clean up unexploded ordnance that is still plaguing the Laotian countryside.  Kurlantzick has written an important book that fills in a number of gaps when one thinks back to the events in Southeast Asia between 1960 and 1975 which sadly younger generations seem to be ignorant of.

Related image

(anti-communist Hmong tribe soldiers in Laos, 1961)

THE WEAPONS WIZARDS: HOW ISRAEL BECAME A HIGH TECH MILITARY SUPERPOWER by Yaacov Katz and Amir Bohbot

Image result for photos of Iran's nuclear reactor

(Iranian nuclear reactor)

On February 6, 2017 Israelis living in the south were once again reminded of the threat of Hamas rockets being launched from the Gaza Strip, when one landed in an uninhabited area.  During the summer of 2014 in its war against the Palestinian terrorist group Israel absorbed over 4000 rockets launched against its territory.  Since that time Hamas has been trying to replenish its stockpile and prepare itself for the next round of warfare against Israel which will surely come in the not too distant future. Along with Hezbollah’s stockpile of over 100,000 rockets provided by Iran and Syrian dictator, Bashir el-Assad the appearance of a new book entitled, THE WEAPONS WIZARDS: HOW ISRAEL BECAME A HIGH-TECH MILITARY SUPERPOWER by veteran Israeli military correspondence Yaakov Katz and Amir Bohbot is especially timely.  The authors provide a unique perspective on how threats and changes in the Middle East political and military landscape have impacted military research and development to try and bring about a degree of security for the Israeli public.  Katz and Bohbot discuss a number of weapons systems in detail and reflect how the dangerous neighborhood in which Israel lives influences policies and what had to be done to insure that the continued existence of the Jewish state.

We live in a world where technology continues to evolve at an amazing rate of speed.  This has impacted how wars have been fought recently and will continue to impact the battlefield in the future.  With the advent of satellites, drones, cyber warfare and other systems, Israel finds itself at the cutting edge of all of these new technologies because if it does not, it may not survive.  The question is how a small nation of 8 million people maintains its commitment and implementation of new military technologies on par with superpowers like the United States and Russia.  Today, Israel’s exports are electronics, software, and medical devices with weapon systems being 10% of all exports.  Israel invests 4.5% of its GDP in research and development, with 30% of that figure geared toward the military.

From its inception in 1948 Israel was forced to develop critical tools – the ability to improvise and adapt to changing realities to survive.  According to the authors, Israel is a country with an absence of structure and social hierarchy which spurs innovation.  This stems from mandatory service in the Israeli Defense Force (IDF), an army dependent upon its reservist system.  The end result is that defense company employees meet soldiers during their reserve commitments where they can examine new weapons designs and other ideas. Israeli engineers have battlefield experience, and their training in the reserves assists them in understanding what the IDF requires in the next war, and how to develop it.  Further, the IDF is a melting pot that allows for social integration and the development of an élan that does not necessarily exist in other countries.

Image result for photo of Israeli satellite

(Israeli satellite)

The authors do a good job in offering insights into Israeli attitudes toward technology as they relate developments to past events.  The psychological impact of the 1973 Yom Kippur War in which Egyptian and Syrian armies launched a preemptive war against Israel was a major catalyst in the Israeli defense community’s change in its military approach, thinking, and training.  For Israel “solutions that cross bureaucratic borders and technological limits” are the keys to survival.  For Israel certain things are a given; they are always in a state of conflict, combat experience is used to satisfy immediate operational needs, and they are an innovative people who do not stand on ceremony.

The authors recount major events and crises in Israel’s history dating back to the pre-1948 landscape.  They recapitulate what has transpired, then focus on how military planners  pursued critical self-examination, lessons learned, and how the strategy moving forward prepared the military for the next crisis that would surely come.  The Israeli military doctrine was fostered by its first Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion in 1948 in that to offset the demographic disadvantage, Israel must seek a qualitative military advantage.  Israel had to make sure it always has superior quality weapons, not necessarily more of them.

Katz and Bohbot focus in on a number of important figures in the development of Israel’s military technology.  Individuals such as former Defense and Prime Minister Shimon Peres who began his career in the early 1950s procuring weapons from France is one of the individuals most responsible for Israel’s defense establishment over a career that ended with his death late last year.  Each technological success was fostered by Israelis who had the foresight to carry through with their ideas and beliefs no matter what bureaucratic obstacles lay before them.  IDF Major Shabtai Brill of the Military Intelligence Directorate was a driving force in the development of drone technology.  Lt. Colonel Effie Defrin an armored brigade commander was intricately involved in the development and upgrading of the Merkava tank program.  Colonel Haim Eshel helped foster the creation of Israel’s satellite program, and Brigadier General Danny Gold was a prime mover in bringing on line the Iron Dome Missile Defense System.  In all cases these individuals realized that Israel could not rely on other countries for their weapons systems, as procurement was influenced by geo-political strategies and events worldwide.

Image result for photos of hamas tunnels from gaza to israel bulldozers destroy

(Israeli soldier outside the entrance of a Hamas tunnel from Gaza on the Israeli side)

Israeli officials learned early on when to cooperate and develop joint programs with other nations and when to go it alone.  For example, the partnership with the United States in creating the Iron Dome Missile System dates back to the 1991 Gulf War when Iraq launched 39 Scud missiles into Israel.  Further impetus was provided as Hamas launched its first rocket attack against Israel in April, 2001, and the 2006 war with Hezbollah that witnessed over 4300 rocket attacks against the Jewish state.  This resulted in a joint effort with the United States, which provided most of the funding and some technology, as it used its financial support as a means of lessening Israeli security concerns by promoting the missile system in return for negotiations with the Palestinians.  This strategy was employed by the Obama administration early in its tenure in office, but since the Iron Dome went operational in March, 2011, with a 90% kill ratio, its peace strategy failed.

Image result for photo of israeli missile shooting down hamas rockets

(Iron Dome Missile on the way to shoot down Hamas rocket in 2014)

Recently cyber warfare has begun to dominate the news relating to Russian activity trying to influence the 2016 presidential election.  From Vladimir Putin’s perspective it has been very successful, and one wonders about the future of a full scale cyber war and what it portends.  The authors discuss one of the most successful cyber-attacks in recent years as Israel and the United States tried to derail Iran’s nuclear program.  Once the world learned of Iran’s Natanz facility that housed tens of thousands of centrifuges used to enrich uranium in August, 2002 Israel immediately began a program of killing Iranian scientists, sabotaging deliveries of important materials to Iran, and developing Stuxnet, a dangerous virus that would set back the Iranian nuclear program for about two years.  The Iranian threat fostered the reorganization of Israel’s cyber warfare capabilities creating Unit 8200, a military cyber command and resulted in the creation of over 100 high tech companies and startups as the military and the private sector allied to face the cyber threat.   The authors also explore how Israel destroyed the Syrian nuclear reactor in 2007, and the implications of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu constant threats to destroy Iran’s nuclear facilities.

Image result for photos of Iran's nuclear reactor

Katz and Bohbot provide an excellent chapter dealing with the integration of Israeli military technology and diplomacy.  Since its inception defense ties and arms sales played a significant role in bringing billions of dollars into the Israeli economy.  Not only did weapons sales bring in enormous profits for the Israeli defense industry, it also furthered diplomatic ties with certain countries.  The authors detail arms diplomacy with China, India, and Singapore reflecting on its successes and failures.

The authors repeatedly reiterate that the key to Israel’s survival is its ability to innovate and solve problems during military conflict that was unexpected.  The most recent cases deal with Gaza and Russia.  During the 2014 war with Hamas, the major new problem was tunnels that were used to attack Israeli Kibbutzim.  Israel was aware of the tunnel problem, but not the sophistication and interlocking pathways underground.  It took Israel over 50 days and the death of dozens of Israeli soldiers and hundreds of Palestinians to solve the problem and shut down over 30 tunnels.   As new technology was applied to resolve the threat it showed “that Israel’s experience during the Gaza War showed the IDF that as prepared as it might think it is for war, it can always be surprised.”  Another situation evolved with Russia in applying the leverage of drone sales to Moscow to block the sale of sophisticated missiles to Iran that could protect their nuclear facilities.  Israel thought it had the situation in hand when more sophisticated missiles turned up in Syria as Putin did his best to retain Assad in power.  Once again showing that arms diplomacy and war cannot be totally predicted.

For Israel, the neighborhood they live in is not some virtual threat, but it’s a daily reality that the authors constantly focus upon as each official, scientist, or engineer are constantly concerned about what crisis is right around the corner.  Katz and Bohbot detail how Israel has achieved their preeminent position in the techno-warfare world, but also scenarios for the future, that are out right scary.

Image result for photos of Iran's nuclear reactor

(Iranian nuclear facility)

THE NEW TSAR: THE RISE AND REIGN OF VLADIMIR PUTIN by Steven Lee Myers

If you are seeking an explanation for Russian President Vladimir Putin policies, domestically and externally, you should consult Steven Lee Myers recent book THE NEW TSAR: THE RISE AND REIGN OF VLADIMIR PUTIN.  According to Myers it was the Ukrainian Presidential election of 2004, coming on the heels of the Beslan school massacre of September 3, 2004 that pushed Putin to recalibrate his plans.  When Chechen terrorists seized close to 1000 people on the first day of the school year, resulting in the death of 334 hostages, 186 of which were children, Putin was beside himself.  With repeated Chechen terror attacks inside Russia, and a war that was not going well, Putin resorted to his predictable stonewalling excuses.  Outside Russia events did not go Putin’s way either. Already resentful of what he perceived to be western encroachment in the traditionally Russian sphere of influence in the Baltic, along with the election of Viktor Yushchenko as the Ukrainian president, a man who favored NATO membership and closer ties to the west, the Russian leader was forced to face another uncomfortable situation fostering a drastic shift in Russian policy.  Myers, a New York Times reporter spent seven years in Moscow during the period of Putin’s consolidation of power, has written a remarkably comprehensive biography of the Russian president that should be considered the standard work on this subject.

The books title, “The New Tsar” is a correct description of Putin’s reign that even included a Tsarevitch, Dimitri Medvedev, as Putin’s handpicked successor as President of Russia in 2008.  For Putin the greatest catastrophe of the 20th century was the collapse of the Soviet Union, a belief that provides tremendous insight into his policies.  Emerging from the corruption and incompetence of the presidency of Boris Yeltsin, Russia by 1998 was in deep trouble economically and politically.  Yeltsin also hand-picked his successor, a former KGB operative, who was stationed in Dresden, East Germany in 1989, Vladimir Putin.  Meyers presents an objective approach to Putin’s life before the Berlin Wall came down.  Putin would grow up listening to stories of his father, Vladimir, fighting on the western front during World War II and being wounded by the Germans.  His mother, Maria survived the siege of Leningrad and escaped into the countryside.  The harrowing experiences of his parents left an indelible impression on the young Putin.  His father suffered with a limp after the war, and his mother was overly protective of her son.  Putin had a slight build as a child and turned to the martial arts to deal with bullies.  His success at Judo provided Putin with a certain toughness and a means of asserting himself.  Putin craved orthodoxy and rules, neither of which he found in religion and politics.

(People tearing down the Berlin Wall, November, 1989)

Myers stresses Putin’s education in economics and law school, but more importantly he points to Putin’s time in the KGB when he was stationed in Dresden.  While being posted to East Germany Putin was exposed to the Stasi and their practices.  Putin was involved in intelligence operations, counter intelligence analysis, and scientific and technical espionage.  The KGB’s goal in East Germany was to gather intelligence and recruit agents who had access to the west, especially individuals who had relatives near American and NATO military bases.  Putin was heavily involved in recruiting and running agents to determine East German support for the Soviet Union.  In 1987, Putin who was very popular with his superiors was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel and the Dresden Station Chief’s senior assistant, or enforcer.  Myers traces Putin’s actions as Mikhail Gorbachev instituted Glasnost and Perestroika and his reaction to events in November, 1989 as the Berlin Wall came down.  Two years later, the Soviet Union finally gave way after a failed coup against Gorbachev, and Yeltsin emerged as the dominant political figure in Russia.  Putin’s reaction to events led him to resign from the KGB.   The future “Tsar” was now cast adrift.

In contemplating Putin’s career one must ask, how he progressed from being a former intelligence operative to President of Russia in seven years.  Myers does an excellent job framing Putin’s behavior and beliefs following the collapse of the Soviet Union.  Rising to the position of Deputy Mayor of Leningrad he attached himself to the coattails of a former law professor at his alma mater, Anatoly Sobchak.  It was during Sobchak’s administration that Putin, because of his economics background negotiated no bid contracts with newly created corporations that involved numerous kickbacks and extensive fraud.  Leningrad’s treasury was almost empty and casino gambling was seen as a source of revenue.  This would lead to organized crime and the emergence of the new corporate oligarchs controlling the local economy.  Myers points to rumors of Putin’s involvement, but can’t make a definitive case.   It was at this time that a number of these new oligarchs that emerged under Yeltsin, businessmen like Yuri Kovalchuk and Vladimir Yakunin whose metal company received licenses to export aluminum and non-ferrous metals grew very close to Putin, and years later would become titans of Russian industry.  Putin’s role in Leningrad’s economy increased under Sobchak and more and more cronies from his KGB past were given prominent positions in the city’s government.  Myers refers to these men as the “St. Petersburg boys,” who would emerge as important players when Putin assumed power.  Sobchak’s goal was to make his city the friendliest to foreign investment in the entire country.  Putin’s goal was to help create a new “window to the west,” the first major transformation of its kind since Peter the Great.  Putin would operate in the background with no fanfare and little emotion.  He knew how to slice through the bureaucracy and Russia’s opaque laws and used his Leningrad experience as a primer on how to get things done.

(Russian President Boris Yeltsin)

Putin would remain in Leningrad until 1996 when Sobchak was not reelected mayor.  Putin was without a job, but Yeltsin would be his savior.  Yeltsin’s own support in the presidential election of 1996 were the bankers, media moguls, and industrialists who had acquired controlling interests in major industries in return for keeping Yeltsin’s government afloat.  Putin was appointed to the Presidential Property Management Directorate to oversee the legal issues as he was in charge of reasserting the government’s control over certain properties and dispensing with others.  Seven months later Putin was put in charge of investigating abuses of Russian property and restoring order, and ending the corrupt schemes that were destroying the Russian economy.  Putin’s work brought him into contact with the FSB (really a new KGB with another name!) and earned a graduate degree with a thesis focusing on Russia’s natural resources.  More and more Putin believed that the state had to reassert its control over its own natural resources that were being pilfered by “oligarchs.”  This belief would form the basis of Putin’s economic policy once in power as he would use Russia’s vast energy resources as a tool against the west and former Soviet republics that did not conform to his vision of Russia’s spheres of influence.

Putin had gained a reputation as a competent, hard-working individual who did not press a particular agenda on Yeltsin.  With the corruption in the FSB, the economy imploding, Yeltsin appointed Putin as the head of the intelligence agency, Putin had come full circle.  Myers description of Yeltsin’s reign as president is one of economic disaster, corruption on a scale not imagined by many in his inner circle, and navigating from one crisis to another.  Throughout it all Putin was loyal and conducted himself in a ruthless and efficient manner that made him essential to Yeltsin’s political survival and he rewarded Putin with the leadership of the Security Council in addition to his duties as Director of the FSB.

Myers successfully integrates the second Chechen war into the narrative on top of Yeltsin’s domestic troubles.  This occurred at the same time NATO was bombing Serbia because of its actions in Kosovo, and the Russian leadership was powerless to support its Slavic brothers and  greatly feared that the west could do the same in Chechnya.  Yeltsin could not run for reelection in 2000, so he needed an heir that he trusted.  He offered Putin the office of Prime Minister and then he would resign before the election, to provide the little publicly known Putin a leg up on the presidency.  Myers does a superb job describing these machinations that resulted in Putin’s elevation.  One of his first moves upon assuming office in September, 1999, was to send Russian forces back into Chechnya, after four attacks in and around Moscow that killed over 300 people, a move he would stand by for years despite negative results.

(Russian troops bring out the dead and wounded after their assault on the Moscow theater to free hostages from Chechen terrorists, October 23, 2002)

Myers discussion of Putin’s reign is sharp and focused and explains many of the problems that the United States faces today with the Russian leader.  Putin’s approach to government is his version of the “dictatorship of law” or “managed democracy,” which may reflect some of the trappings of democracy, but are fixed or manipulated to accomplish certain ends.  Putin was aided by the strong recovery in energy markets after his election in 2000.  With increasing funds in the Kremlin coffers, Putin prosecuted his war in Chechnya in a vicious fashion.  This would produce a series of terrorist attacks that would cost Moscow dearly.  When Putin’s leadership and tactics were questioned during terrorist attacks at a movie theater on October 23, 2002 in southeast Moscow that resulted in the death of 130 hostages, and the terrorist siege of a school in Breslan in North Ossetia, the Russian President stonewalled any explanations for his military responses.  This was Putin’s pattern in a crisis, as was evidenced earlier when the nuclear submarine Kursk sank in 2000 with the loss of 118 men.  Despite these disasters and the Chechen war that was turning into a quagmire, Putin’s popularity could not be questioned, in large part because reporters, commentators, or politicians who raised issues or made negative comments about Putin, tended to disappear.  Putin had a carefully crafted image supported by his media friends who would not pursue the truth concerning the assassinations of Anna Politkoyskaya, a journalist critical of Putin, Alexsandr Litvinenko, a former FSB operative who exposed corruption and bribery in the agency, among numerous others.

Myers does a commendable job explaining the second “rape” of the Russian economy, the first under Yeltsin that produced the first wave of oligarchs, the second under Putin.  Names like Yukos, Gazprom, Rosneft, and their CEO’s are explored in detail and the reader acquires an inside look at how Putin dealt with economic threats to his regime as he sought to recover the state’s assets.  However, at the same time he allowed many of the “St. Petersburg boys” access to new wealth, creating a second wave of “new” oligarchs.  The trial of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the head of Yukos, the largest oil company in Russia is emblematic as to how Putin operated.  The end result is that Putin gained control of all aspects of the Russian economy, and of course with the attendant corruption, his own wealth accumulated tremendously, estimated at about $40 billion by Russian journalists and the CIA.  As an editorial in Kommersant opined, “the state has become, essentially a corporate enterprise that the nominal owners, Russian citizens no longer control.”

(the nature of American-Russian relations is obvious from the faces of Presidents Obama and Putin)

When Putin first rose to power many hoped a strong relationship between the United States and Russia would result. Putin was very supportive following 9/11 and approved of American military bases in former Soviet republics to conduct the war against al-Qaeda and the Taliban.  After meeting Putin for the first time, President George W. Bush had a positive reaction as he said, “I looked the man in the eye, I found him to be very straight forward and trustworthy…..I was able to get a sense of his soul; a man deeply committed to his country and the best interests of his country.”  Bush was either naïve or uninformed about Putin and the course he pursued.  Putin grew angry at the United States when the Bush administration refused to alter provisions of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (ABM), and the eventual American withdrawal from the treaty.  Further, Putin was against the American invasion of Iraq and the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, and this was capped off with the Ukrainian election of 2004 where reformers and government protestors wanted to move closer to the west and become members of NATO.  Putin’s frustration and anger at the United States further increased when President Bush decided to negotiate with Poland and the Czech Republic for bases for a Missile Defense System.  This led to the February, 2007 Putin speech at the Munich Security Conference where the Russian president excoriated the Bush administration in what Myers describes as similar to Winston Churchill’s Iron Curtain speech.  With the economic collapse of 2008 and its effect on the Russian economy, Putin would only blame the United States.  Further, the election of Barrack Obama, the Russian invasion of Georgia, trade disagreements, events in the Ukraine and Crimea, and the current Syrian crisis, it is not surprising that it seems we are now witnessing a second Cold War.

Putin could not run for reelection in 2008, but as Myers points out, like Yeltsin he also had an heir, Dimitri Medvedev, a former head of Gazprom, and an individual who appeared to be easier to deal with.  However, with Putin as Prime Minister pulling the strings, Kremlin policy remained the same, accept with a softer face.  During his presidency Medvedev was consistently forced into the background be it the 2009 economic crisis, the Russian invasion of Georgia, and other issues-Putin just could not stay in the background.  Medvedev’s speeches were vetted by Putin and it was demeaning for the Russian president as he was now overshadowed by his Prime Minister.

After reading Myers’ book, the reader should have a handle of who Putin is and what he believes in.  I agree with Gal Beckerman’s description of Putin as a man who represents his country, represents stability, and “stands against the chaos of the street; one man who still believes in the unique power of the state personifies its sovereignty and its prerogative to defend its interests; one man who embodies calm, measured authority resists the emotional swell of undisciplined, angry people, and understands that the appearance of forcefulness and obstinacy can be as powerful as an actual show of force.”  After digesting Myers’ narrative of Putin moving from crisis to crisis, some self-created and some external to Russia, it becomes clear that he simply believes that “he’s the last one standing between order and chaos,” whether he is dealing with protesters challenging his return to the presidency during and after the 2012 elections, “Chechen separatists, E.U.-loving Ukrainian politicians or the West as a whole, working through nefarious pro-gay N.G.O.’s or NATO.” (New York Times, November 2, 2015)

(Demonstration against Ukrainian government in Independence Square, Kiev, February 2, 2014)

Putin’s greatest gamble according to Myers was his illegal seizure of the Crimea in reaction to the violence in Kiev on February 2, 2014.  Protestors had taken to the streets forcing Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych to flee the capitol.  Putin was presiding over the closing ceremonies of the Sochi Winter Olympics and saw events in the Ukraine as a western plot to deny Russia the accolades that it deserved because of the success of the games.  Incensed, Putin met privately with a few trusted advisors and planned to foster the breakup of the Ukraine by seizing the Crimea.  The Russian invasion began on February 27, 2014 negating the argument he employed against President Obama about unilaterally invading countries as the US had done in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya.  Putin correctly calculated that since that the west would not react as it had in 1990 removing Saddam Hussein’s forces from Kuwait, as it had not acted against the Russian invasion of Georgia in 2008.  Putin’s fait accompli would not be reversed and his rationale of protecting “ethnic Russians” was domestically popular and would later be used to justify Russian military moves in Eastern Ukraine.  Even after the dubious referendums in Crimea, Donetsk, and Luhansk; in addition to the Russian shoot down of a Malaysian airliner, Putin was convinced the west would do nothing, and he would rally his country against the foreign conspiracy to isolate Russia politically, and hurt her economically with sanctions.  Not only did Putin not worry about western actions, it seemed he no longer cared as is evidenced by the current situation in Syria as Russian planes continue bombing to prop up the regime of Hafez el-Assad, as opposed to his public position of fighting ISIS.

Myers conclusion that Putin no longer cared to rule pragmatically as he had done during his first two terms in office, and would focus on reasserting Russia’s power with or without the recognition of the west, is correct.  Myers should be commended for his work and anyone interested in understanding, the “new tsar” should consult it.

UNITED STATES OF JIHAD: INVESTIGATING AMERICA’S HOMEGROWN TERRORISTS by Peter Bergen

 

United States of Jihad: Investigating America's Homegrown Terrorists

(Among the topics discussed by Mr. Bergen is the Boston Marathon, April, 2013)

Peter Bergen, prolific author, and CNN national security analyst has written a number of important books dealing with terrorism.  They include monographs on Osama Bin-Laden and three others which were New York Times best sellers.  His latest work UNITED STATES OF JIHAD: INVESTIGATING AMERICA’S HOMEGROWN TERRORISTS is an important addition to two other recent books, Scott Shane’s OPERATION TROY and Charlie Savage’s POWER WARS: INSIDE OBAMA’S POST 9/11 PRESIDENCY.  Bergen builds on the work of these authors in trying to explain why American citizens have engaged in treason against their country by engaging in, or planning acts of terrorism.  Bergen further explores how American institutions and the Moslem community have responded to the terror threat and how this threat on American soil has changed us.  One could argue that Bergen’s book is a who’s who of American jihadism, beginning with the Muslim cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, Omar Hamami who grew up in Alabama and fought for al-Shabaab in Somalia, David Coleman Headley who helped plan and carry out the Mumbai massacre, and numerous others.

Bergen concentrates on the 330 militants who have been arrested and charged with terrorism crimes in the United States, 80% of which are American citizens or legal permanent residents.  He argues that they appear to be as average, well educated, and emotionally stable as typical Americans.  According to Bergen their average age is 29, more than a third are married – many with children, and one out of six are women.  There is nothing particularly special about them as they are just ordinary people.  If this is so, then why have so many engaged in terrorism, and why is the “home grown” threat a major source of concern in the intelligence community?  Bergen argues forcefully that it is due to a number of criteria.  First, Moslem outrage at United States foreign policy in the Middle East is a dominant theme.  Anger about American wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, American drone strikes in Yemen causing tremendous collateral damage, the bombing of Syria, and U.S. support for Israel all contribute to this feeling.  Secondly, jihadism offers people an opportunity to be somebody, and at the same time belong to something bigger than themselves. What is interesting about this threat to the American homeland is that since 9/11, 45 Americans have been killed by Islamic terrorists, but at the same time 48 Americans have been killed by right wing extremists.

(Anwar al-Awlaki, American born Islamic cleric, October 4, 2001)

Bergen examines a wide range of terrorists who originated on American soil drawing on his vast network of sources in the intelligence world.  He argues that most are second generation immigrants who did not start out as observant Muslims.  However, once they became devout they often left their mosques because what was being preached was not radical enough.  In addition, they would congregate with like-minded individuals and bond by watching jihadi videos, and simulate combat by playing “paint-ball.”  Bonding activities are extremely important in creating a jihadist community with an ultra-fundamentalist outlook. Bergen also dispels a number of myths in dealing with his subject by arguing that most of these jihadist had no formal links to outside terror organizations, further most terrorists began their education in a secular environment, not madrassas.  In reviewing their studies it is clear that there is a strong link between their technical education and their terrorist activities, as 50% of them attended college.  Overall, social bonds between jihadists were more important than ideology.

In presenting his thesis Bergen explores the activities of numerous terrorists, many of which are known to those who follow the news.  The individual who takes up more time than any other is the American born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki who was the mentor to Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the “underwear bomber” who tried to take down a Northwest Airliner over Detroit Christmas day, 2009.  Awlaki is also linked to Nidal Hassan, the Fort Hood killer and numerous others.  Awlaki stands out as a sophisticated individual who used his American upbringing and cultural knowledge with his social media savvy to recruit jihadist in the United States and eventually was killed by an American drone in Yemen authorized by President Obama which had sparked an intense debate as to whether it was legal for the United States government to assassinate one of its citizens.  Scott Shane’s book explores this controversy in greater detail than Bergen, but the author does a good job summarizing the most salient points in the debate and points out that “t follow the trail of Awlaki’s influence is to trace the post 9-11 evolution in evolving Americans.”  Of the 330 jihadists charged or convicted in the United States, more than 80 had Awlakis writing and sermons in their possession, and another 7 more corresponded with him or traveled to Yemen to meet him.

(Tsarnaev brothers at the Boston Marathon, April, 2013)

Bergen labels these American terrorists as “lone wolves.”  One of these individuals described is Carl Bledsoe, a native of Memphis, TN who was self-radicalized and wound up killing one marine and wounding another at a marine recruiting center in Little Rock, AK on June 1, 2009.  He follows this with an in depth exploration of the motivations and actions of Major Nidal Hassan, a military psychiatrist whose conversion to fundamentalism differed from Bledsoe in that he was already a Muslim.  But their radical journey had many similarities including their gradual isolation from their families, preoccupation with piety, and what was considered to be a true Muslim.  They both embraced Salafist ideas and practices as do most jihadists, and as they looked at US foreign policy they became obsessed with the idea of Jihad to defend Islam.

26/11: How terror struck Mumbai
26/11: How terror struck Mumbai
26/11: How terror struck Mumbai
The gruesome terror attacks began on 26th November and continued till 29th November, where Indian security services killed 9 out of 10 terrorists and captured Ajmal Amir Kasab, alive to regain control of South Mumbai terror sites i.e. the Leopold Café, the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, the Taj Mahal, the Oberoi & Trident, Cama Hospital and Nariman House.(AP photo)
26/11: How terror struck Mumbai
Mumbai was witnessing one of the worst terrorist attacks in the history of India. Leopold Cafe in Colaba was attacked first when five terrorists opened fire at the cafe.(AFP photo)
26/11: How terror struck Mumbai
The attack left behind indelible scars… bullet marks on the walls and counter; the mirrors broken; doors with holes and a mini-crater on the marbled floor, caused by the grenade attack.(AFP photo)
26/11: How terror struck Mumbai
This was perhaps one of the most heartbreaking scenes for any Mumbaikar. Images tell the story of the barbaric assault by terrorists who held the Taj Mahal hotel to ransom for 58 hours.(AFP photo)
26/11: How terror struck Mumbai

 

Bergen reviews the close calls that have occurred since 9-11 discussing the case of Najibullah Zazi, who along with two others tried to replicate the London underground bombing of 2005 on the New York City subway system.  He was thwarted by the FBI after receiving a tip from the British intelligence.  Another case is that of Faisal Shazad, who drove a bomb laden van into Times Square in Manhattan on May 1, 2010.  Trained by the Pakistani Taliban, the bomb did not explode due to poor components.  The focal point was not any intelligence, but US drones over Pakistan that did not allow for sufficient training.  The key for Bergen is that these individuals fit the profile he discusses which was also accepted by American intelligence analysts.  But in fairness to law enforcement, Bergen points out the difficulties in tracking lone wolves.

(arrest of Najibullah Zazi who attempted to set of a bomb in Times Square, Manhattan on May 1, 2010)

One of the most interesting aspects of the book is how the Obama administration has approached the domestic terror threat.  Soon after the failure of the “underwear bomber” over Detroit, President Obama ordered a vast increase in the use of drones and NSA surveillance programs, the most controversial of which was the bulk collection of American telephone Meta data.  After the Edward Snowden fiasco this program was rolled back and Bergen argues it had little effect on preventing terrorism and traditional approaches to intelligence were more reliable.  Today, Republican presidential candidates describe Obama’s approach to the war on terror as rather feckless, however if one examines his role as commander and chief one sees a continued involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq, and a marked increase in the use of drones as compared to the Bush administration.  According to conservative estimates, by the end of 2015 the Obama administration had presided over the killing between 3-4,000 people in drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen. Bergen aptly summarizes his view as Obama dryly remarked, “Turns out I’m really good at killing people.”  Didn’t know that was going to be a strong suit of mine.”  If you are interested in an in depth analysis of Obama administration practices and their legalities consult Charlie Savage’s POWER WARS.

Another important aspect of Bergen’s narrative is the approach taken by American intelligence agencies.  We witness the development of the NYPD’s separate intelligence department that is almost up to par with the CIA and FBI.  We also witness the continued issue of sharing intelligence and acting in concert for the greater good of the American people.  The major change in the FBI’s approach to terrorism after 9/11 would be its transformation from a crime solving organization into entities whose primary mission was to prevent terrorist attacks.  The NYPD’s creation of a separate intelligence component allowed it to pursue a similar approach.  Over the last decade and a half over 15,000 informants have been employed, and numerous sting operations of suspected terrorists designed to root out terror plots, but this has resulted in an increasing number of complaints of entrapment.  In addition, in 2004 the National Counterterrorism Center was created to connect “the dots” between all intelligence agencies.  Bergen provides an astute analysis of American intelligence policies including their concrete successes, ”near misses,” and failures, including a useful chapter on the Tsarnaev brothers who were responsible for the Boston Marathon bombing in April, 2013.

Bergen correctly arguing that the older of the brothers, Tamerlan fit the NYPD terror profile and radicalized his younger brother, Jahar who was extremely secular and Americanized.  The bombing could have been prevented if not for another case of missed signals, and of a lack of communication between U.S. law enforcement agencies.  If FBI allegations are correct, Tamerlan was involved in a triple murder in Waltham, MA in 2011 and was a dangerous killer long before April, 2013; one must ask how did he not appear on the “no-fly list,” particularly after warnings from Russian intelligence in 2011? Tamerlan would fly to Dagestan in the Caucasus and try and join the Union of the Just, an anti-American Islamist group to fight the Russians, as well as attending Salafist mosque.  By his return to the United States in July, 2012 Tamerlan was fully radicalized.  Both Tamerlan and Jahar came to believe that 9/11 was engineered by the US government to create mass hatred of Muslims.   With these beliefs, it is not surprising they carried out their attack.

The rise of ISIS is not explored until the final chapter of the book.  Here Bergen reviews and synthesizes much of the material that has been presented by Joby Warrick, Michael McCants, Jessica Stern, J.M. Berger, Michael Weiss, and Hassan Hassan.  The use of social media and the virtual world has allowed ISIS to be the next generation of al-Qaeda and attract over 30,000 foreign fighters and claim to have established a caliphate, successes that Osama Bin-Laden could never fathom because of his world view.  Bergen dissects American fears of an ISIS attack in the United States, and despite what occurred in San Bernardino he correctly argues that “lone wolf” attacks are a threat, but they are a minimal threat because of the safeguards that have been put in place.  We must realize that we can never be 100% secure and that there always will be a low level threat in the United States for years to come.   But as Bergen shows in his closing argument, presenting the wife of a murdered victim of the Fort Hood massacre, and her support of an organization created by Nidal Hassan’s cousin to foment better understanding and relationships between Muslim and non-Muslim Americans, there are many ways to fight terrorism.  Bergen has written another excellent book that should be read by all who want to try and understand the problems that contribute to the enlistment of jihadists in America and how that has changed our country.

(Boston Marathon Bombing, April, 2013)

POWER WARS: INSIDE OBAMA’S POST -9/11 PRESIDENCY by Charlie Savage

(Obama administration National Security Meeting in the White House)

When Barrack Obama was elected president and assumed office in 2009 most people expected that there would be vast changes to America’s pursuit of the war on terror.  If one followed Obama’s rhetoric while serving in the state Senate in Illinois, the United States Senate, and during the 2008 presidential campaign one would probably have drawn the conclusion that once in office the Bush-Cheney policies following 9/11 would be in for drastic change, but according to New York Times reporter Charlie Savage’s new book POWER WARS: INSIDE OBAMA’S POST-9/11 PRESIDENCY that was not the case.  As Savage writes, “having promised change, the new president seemed to be delivering something more like a mere adjustment – a ‘right-sizing’ of America’s war on terror.”  Savage has done an incredible job using his sources inside the Bush and Obama administrations, along with his access to legal scholars throughout the United States in producing an extremely detailed account of how members of the Obama administration went about determining the legalities of its policies in dealing with the war on terror.  The result is a text that is a bit over 700 pages that is at times extremely dense and difficult to stay with.  However, if one does pursue the task of getting through the myriad of legal arguments that are presented you will become well informed about how the American legal system, and to a lesser extent international law, deals with the nuances of trying to create and justify a lawful approach in dealing with numerous aspects of defending our country against terrorism, but at the same time protecting civil liberties, and abiding by its commitment to the rule of law, the right process, and not being a carbon copy of the Bush administration. The result is a book that is as lawyerly as its subject matter, and not designed for the general reader.

(Former VP Dick Cheney, the author of many of the Bush administration’s war on terror policies)

The question must be asked, was Obama a legal hypocrite?  Before he took office Obama produced many flowery phrases in criticizing the methods employed by Bush and Cheney.  He spoke of the use of torture, the violation of the privacy of American citizens, and the illegalities of data and intelligence collection, but once in the White House he engaged in many of the same practices.  Extraordinary rendition, NSA surveillance, CIA drone strikes, and the lack of transparency were among the policy choices that Obama engaged in-this wasn’t even “Bush light,” it was more like something close to his evil twin, but with an intellectual justification for everything they did.

(Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the “underwear bomber”)

The comparison with the Bush administration is well presented as Savage reviews the evolution of Cheney’s unitary view of presidential power going back to the 1970s and Watergate which produced a resurgence of congressional power.  Savage also traces the convoluted legal arguments that Bush-Cheney concocted to implement its national security agenda.  The key person was John Yoo, an important Justice Department official after 9/11 who argued in numerous secret memorandums that the “president, as commander-in-chief, had the constitutional authority to lawfully take actions that were seemingly prohibited by federal statues and treaties.”  The Bush administration was in the business of creating executive-power precedents i.e., wiretapping without warrants, withdrawing the United States from the ABM treaty with Russia unilaterally, setting aside the Geneva Convention in dealing with POWs in Afghanistan, and not seeking congressional approval for these actions even though Congress had ratified these treaties.  The Bush administration established military commissions to prosecute terrorist suspects outside the civilian court system and created theories, set precedents based on these theories, and acted on them defying statutory constraint.  Obama’s critiques against these policies were based on violations of civil liberties and the rule of law, since there was no legal process to support what they were doing.  The Bush administration, with Vice-President Cheney leading the way sought to limit Congress and the courts, increase government secrecy, and concentrate as much unchecked power in the upper levels of the executive branch as they could.  Many Obama supporters and administration members argued that some of Bush’s policies were in fact correct, but they needed legislative approval before they could be implemented.

(Anwar al-Awlaki, an American citizen, and Jihadi propogandist killed by an American drone strike)

For Obama and his core of liberal legal appointees the failed “underwear bomber,” Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s attempt to blow up a Northwest Airlines passenger plane end route to Detroit Christmas day, 2009 dramatically altered their approach to the war on terror.  For the president he realized that a successful terror attack on American soil could destroy his entire domestic agenda, be it health care or the many programs Obama hoped to implement.  All of a sudden he had to live with the day by day security needs of the United States and keep its citizens safe.  This did not mean he would drop his lawyerly, overly cautious approach to policies, but in the end terrorism and the threat to the homeland was real, not a theoretical concern.  As Savage writes, Obama threatened to fire people if the missteps surrounding the incident were repeated.  “It’s strict liability now, he said, echoing George Bush’s “don’t ever let that happen again directive to Attorney General John Ashcroft soon after 9/11.”  As Jack Goldsmith writes in The New Rambler, Savage’s account of Obama’s continuity with Bush “breaks less new ground than does his reconstruction of the many ways in which it expanded the President’s war powers from the Bush baseline.”   For example, the drone strike program was expanded dramatically, in part because of the improved technology that did not exist under Bush, and its use in targeting four American citizens in Yemen, chief among them was the cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, who was an American citizen.  Savage does a nice job exploring al-Awlaki’s relationship to the “underwear bomber” as well as the legal debates within the administration to determine whether the US was justified in killing one of its own citizens without due process. The lawyerly approach reached the conclusion it was legal if the target was an imminent threat to the United States.  Scott Shane’s recent book, Objective Troy does an excellent job detailing this aspect of Savage’s work.

After the near miss on Christmas day Obama was faced with a great deal of Republican criticism.  Buoyed by the victory of Scott Brown in Massachusetts who won a special election for Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat employing national security as his core message, Republicans in congress called for terrorism captives to be handled exclusively by the military.  According to Savage, all of a sudden Obama was attentive and deeply involved as he realized that terrorism could shape his presidency.  What follows is a series of detailed arguments within the Obama administration dealing with all aspects of terrorism policy from 2010 through 2014.  It seems that Savage does not miss any subject as it related to the war on terror.  The closing of Guantanamo comes up repeatedly, whether dealing with freeing inmates, closing the prison, adding new detainees etc.  The legalities of surveillance policy and the use of F.I.S.A. courts encompasses a significant amount of the text.  The debate as to whether captured detainees should be tried by military commissions as opposed to civilian courts is dealt with from the legal perspective as well as that of political partisanship.  The debate as to whether al-Shabaab, the Somalian Islamic terrorist organization was an associated force of al-Qaeda to justify targeting its members with drone strikes is fascinating.  The Snowden leaks makes for interesting reading as well as the Obama administration’s responses to them.  In reality Obama was less successful in reducing presidential power than he anticipated, and he often supported his own novel expansions of presidential powers.  When he needed to expand executive powers like going after ISIS with drone strikes in Libya, he did not feel constrained.

As a result Savage decides that Obama was less a transformative president after 9/11, but more so a transitional one.  As James Mann writes in the New York Times, Obama created a “lawyerly” administration that added “an additional layer of rules standards, and procedures to the unsettling premise that the United States was still at war and would, of necessity, remain so with no end in sight.”  I agree with Mann that this is the major theme that the reader should extract from all the legal theories and lawyerly language that Savage presents, if one can get plough through the tremendous amount of material that is reviewed and analyzed.