Thursday, 18 December 2014

In Australia, terrorism and security emerge as theatre

In the aftermath of the Sydney hostage drama, it appears the attacker was not associated with transnational Islamic terror but was probably mentally ill using the ideology only as a crutch. More details could emerge showing a deeper connection, but for now, mental illness appears at fault.

Nevertheless, two aspects of the event are worth isolating. Consider for a moment that this event was a true, full-blown terrorist attack. What made the event successful from the terrorist’s viewpoint?

Terrorism is rare, far rarer than most people think. It’s rare because in the larger world, very few people want to commit the act and even fewer are ever successful. Terrorism is difficult to achieve even for an experienced specialist, doubly so if that person or group is targeting a developed society.

But no matter how rare the act, the very existence of the tactic scares ordinary people at the instinctual level in a way that common car crashes simply can’t. 

What sets terrorism apart is its message. Attacking a hard target such as a consulate or embassy sends one kind of message. But targeting a café or shopping centre sends an entirely different message. It’s all about the audience.

Terrorism is theatre. There are many more efficient ways of killing people than walking into a café with a 10-shell shotgun or blowing up a bus. But to a terrorist, the point is not the deaths of either himself or the victims, it is the semiotics of the event convincing people that nowhere is safe.

By design, terrorist attacks are intended to have a psychological impact far outweighing the physical damage the initial attack causes. Nineteenth-century anarchists promoted what they called the “propaganda of the deed”, or using violence as a symbolic action to make a larger point. Many militant groups in the twentieth-century conducted operations specifically designed as made-for-television.

And in the twenty-first century, modern terrorism leverages the proliferation of 24-hour television news and social media. Without those tools, terrorism would still exist, but its reach is now greatly magnified. In Sydney, and across the world, the hostage drama unfolded minute-by-minute spreading the feelings of terror to New Zealand living rooms.

In Mumbai in 2008, an entire city froze as gunmen wandered from soft target to soft target killing seemingly with impunity. On September 11, 2001 a small group of men hijacked a few civilian airliners and grounded an entire nation’s air traffic for days.  

Everybody now thinks twice before boarding aircraft and that response is exactly what those men wanted. Terrorism exerts a strange hold over the human imagination. The actors want us to feel vulnerable to terrorism, even when most people clearly are not and never will be.

But on the other side of the Sydney barricade, another message was being broadcast.

The security forces which rolled up to the cafe did so in overwhelming fashion. The skies above were closed to civilian air traffic for the entire day, police helicopters circled instead. Cars and buses were blocked, police vehicles patrolled instead. Foot traffic was halted, heavily armed police marched instead.

What did the security forces want the public to see? In the early hours of the drama, it wasn’t clear how many gunmen were involved or whether peripheral threats existed. But as the day wore on, more information emerged and yet still hundreds of police forces remained on site.

If terrorism is theatre, then this security is also theatre. All police actions for terrorist events are always overwhelming. Since it is impossible to defend every café or government building from terrorists, it is necessary to respond forcefully when an incident occurs. Security forces must convince their civilian population that they remain in control.

Security is both a feeling and a reality. Security theatre comes from the interplay between the public and its leaders. When people feel scared they need something done to make them feel safe again, even if the action doesn’t make them truly safe. The police in Sydney, and across the world, know how to use the 24-hour media to spread their own message.

A society’s security structure knows it cannot stop all terrorist attacks, especially if the actors do not telegraph their intentions. Sending police forces dressed in combat gear to deal with a single man holding a shotgun may be exactly what the Sydney scenario required. But the message driving this was that the public should still feel safe, even if they are not.

This whole game is a house of mirrors with both sides using the tool of mass media. Terrorism is not an existential threat to our way of life and attacks are few and extremely far between. Equally, complete security is impossible and emergency services are often response-driven, not proactive.


And yet both the terrorists and security services are convincing us that their opposite messages are true. But can they really both be true? What does this say about us if they can be?

The first story is always the wrong story

In a violent attack, like the one in Sydney this week, the first story is usually the wrong story. Once again, the rush to judgment that the perpetrator was part of a larger Islamic terror network proved not to be the case.

Unfortunately, plenty of people wanted to pin the blame on Islamism because they needed a narrative. These armchair analysts are getting on my nerves a bit. They’re always trotted out whenever something like this happens.

None of them seem to know how hindsight bias actually works. It’s easy to spot the holes once something happens and then point the blame at the authorities for incompetency. That’s not how any of this should work.

The simple matter of the Sydney case is that this was a deranged narcissist whose constructed identity was being challenged by forces larger than himself and who knew only a binary choice stood ahead of him: either capitulate to the law or (which would require him admitting that there is a world outside of himself - something narcissists cannot grasp) or continuing the narrative that the whole world existed for him alone and attempt to maintain his identity.

He chose the latter because that’s all he could choose. It was the classic narcissistic injury response - rage.

The fact that he chose Islam as his “motive” is beside the point, even for him. We’ve seen things like this before. The mentally ill use whatever current symbol of anti-establishment as a crutch to give their own narcissism greater legitimacy. Crazy people have used environmentalism to legitimate their actions in the same way that nutters once leveraged Marxism. Now they’re doing it with Islam.

The Sydney guy’s actions may have appeared to be Islamic, but almost none of the details (as far as the current information about the man shows) reinforces this assumption at all.

There’s a bigger problem behind this, and that’s our horrible understanding of mental health. We can’t have it both ways. First we say that mentally ill people are not violent, but then we proclaim that the violence was due to him being mentally ill.

The truth is, sometimes mentally ill people are capable of extreme violence and should be monitored. But at the same time, not all people with mental problems are ever going to lash out. It’s really difficult, but it’s crucial to know how to measure this.

But what can the authorities do when faced with this reality? Should they set up a surveillance bubble on every person with a rap sheet as long as this guy’s criminal history? Should they only send cops to follow an individual after they’ve committed a certain amount of sexual assaults? Where should we draw that line? Is it 13 assaults? 31? 49? 50? How many sexual assaults or nasty letters or dead wives does it take someone to lead to an armed hostage scenario?

It’s not that simple. None of this is. Mentally ill people do not always kill others, but sometimes they do. Narcissism doesn’t always lead to hostage dramas and death, but sometimes it does. There are too many mentally ill people, and the cops can never watch them all (nor should they), so some will always fall through the gaps. Sydney was tragic, but it wasn’t unusual and it certainly wasn’t terrorism.

The answer isn’t in sending more cops to follow more people or greater anti-terror laws. That won’t stop things like this. I think what we need are greater resources for the mental health sector and more understanding of mental health among the populace.

Unfortunately, narcissism is the defining feature of our modern society (and it has been since the end of the Second World War). Some people take it to drastic extremes, but it afflicts us all – as you can see in the coverage and responses to the tragedy.

Russia's collapse was only a matter of time

While the extent of damage of Russia’s financial week-from-hell is still unclear, the country has been struggling with deep structural economic problems all year. Wednesday’s currency crash is simply the next step in Russia’s regress to recession.

The Russian rouble had already lost about half its value this year due to an effective mix of Western sanctions, collapsing oil prices and diminishing market confidence in the ailing economy. But Russians are used to hardship and understand, although aren’t happy about it, that the good times often come to an end when least expected.

In a mysterious series of events, the Russian central bank tried putting a tourniquet on the sliding rouble earlier this week raising baseline interest rates from 10.5% to 17%. 

That desperate measure worked for a few hours before the currency slipped into free fall, at one point losing more 20% of its value. The currency finally stabilised and then slightly strengthened later in the day indicating potentially two monetary interventions from the Russian central bank, which if confirmed will be interesting to analyse in themselves.

The world’s eighth largest economy has had a tough year. At the beginning of the fourth quarter, Russia estimated its growth for 2014 would be close to 0.5%. This estimate took into account that foreign direct investment had dropped, according to the government, by 50% year-on-year compared with 2013 and capital flight was expected to reach $US100 billion by December.

So while this year’s expectations are now in shambles, Moscow is also reassessing its once optimistic growth forecast for 2015. In September the government predicted 2015 growth would reach 1.2%, followed by 2.3% in 2016 and 3% in 2017. That’s now entirely out of the question and unless the situation drastically improves a recession seems likely.

The context of Russia’s currency and economic woes is the story of a country playing with a losing hand trying to make the most of the time it has left. While it might have thought the worst of its troubles were over (Moscow had made some expensive domestic investments recently), that assumption has proven devastatingly wrong.

Since the final months of last year, Ukraine has been a thorn in Moscow’s side. The country at one point threatened to side entirely with Europe and the West. From Russia’s point of view, that was unacceptable and it intervened in Ukraine’s politics to wrench the country back under Moscow’s orbit. 

The ideological battle spilled into a low-level hot war between “patriotic Russian citizens” living in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine and the government in Kiev. Thousands have since been killed as Russia and Ukraine slowly traded control over the eastern regions of the country throughout the year. Russia’s ultimate goal, if it couldn’t win, was to leave Ukraine at minimum operating in neutrality between Brussels and Moscow.

However the battle for Ukraine hasn’t gone to plan for Russia at all. Kiev responded to Russian aggression with far more ferocity than Moscow expected, isolating the separatism in the east and working through its political issues with minimal interference from Moscow’s antagonists. Russian President Vladimir Putin cannot possibly think he is in control of the situation in Ukraine.

In response to Russian revanchist actions in Ukraine, Europe and the United States created a gradually tightening series of sanctions aimed at Russian energy industry and politically-affiliated oligarchs. The sanctions, according to Western leaders, were only meant to hurt the powerful in Russia, not the general populace.

Nevertheless, the sanctions meant that access to Western financial institutions was cut off for most of middle Russia and its market has suffered under the added weight. 

A fresh tranche of sanctions was announced by US President Barack Obama this week, coincidentally or not, just as the rouble’s free fall was taking place. The message to Moscow that the West has plenty more tools to inflict economic pain on Russia was read loud and clear.

The final, but by no means the last, piece of the current puzzle is dynamics of the Russian oligarchical system. Before the currency failure, Russia boasted a deep rainy-day fund of $US641 billion in reserves: $US467.2 billion in currency reserves, $US87.32 billion in the National Wealth Fund and $US87.13 in the Reserve Fund. That was supposed to act as a buffer if the oil price temporarily fell below $US100 per barrel.

But Russia is chewing through those reserves quickly. Moscow has already spent $US80 billion of this money to shore up its failing currency. That money went to traders betting against the rouble and away from the Russian government. Who are those traders getting rich off Russia’s pain? Western investors and the mega-rich handful of Russians who have sucked the life out of the country over the last two decades.

Perhaps the best way to describe Russia is not to view it as a country or a federation at all. It is a colony. Russia’s oligarchs after the fall of the Berlin Wall treated the country as if it were owned by them. All the wealth that the country produced was siphoned away and stored offshore in European bank accounts in exactly the same way as the British, French and Spanish empires once operated.

Add to this mess the crippling corruption and graft endemic in Russia, and it is no mystery why the country constantly struggles to develop even while it sits on enormous natural resources and energy reserves.

Now it is those very energy reserves which until a few months ago supplied powerful leverage over Western Europe which are now Russia’s Achilles heel. But everybody is feeling the pain. Moscow and the oligarchs each sunk hundreds of billions of dollars into the oil and gas companies Gazprom and Rozneft (and others) in a fairly solid prediction that energy prices would only rise in the future.

That prediction has come spectacularly undone in the past six months as global oil prices sliced 49% of its value. Oil prices hit a low not seen since June of 2000 this week of $US59 per barrel. Russia pegged its 2015 national budget on a $US114 price per barrel. No matter which way it’s cut, the system Russia relied on for strength has been shredded. 

What will happen next is anyone’s guess. But the last time something similarly economically drastic occurred in the Russian Federation, the government of former President Boris Yeltsin was overturned in 1998. Current President Vladimir Putin took Mr Yetsin’s place, and many Russia-watchers don’t consider that a trade-up. 

After the events of this week, the constantly scheming factions of Moscow’s political class will surely be wondering whether the current structure of leadership is beneficial for their own interests. Mr Putin and his spook allies will be locking their doors at night while they sort out their next moves.

Greater Russia is accustomed to upheaval and will probably survive this drama, but even a marginal implosion of a country this size could have ripple effects across the world. Many countries still rely on Russia for energy and other resources and the administrative system Moscow has created with its Former Soviet Union neighbours relies on a cohesive central body. 

Thus avoiding a larger crisis could be difficult if the Russian economy cannot be brought under control soon. Despite what the Europeans and the United States proclaim about corralling Russia, the standoff in Ukraine may not be worth the stress if the unintended consequences of a failed Russia endanger the wider region.

Tuesday, 16 December 2014

Power and control: we will beg to close our eyes before the end

In any discussion about humans and technology it pays to ask about power. Where is it and who holds the keys to the gates?

Power is never static and always feels just beyond our grasp. In an unexpected way the internet changed who holds true power, but this time it may not move on again. Once those in control of the system figure out how to leverage the cyber world, there may be no more power transitions.

Controlling the flow of information is the fundamental definition of what power really is and the internet destroyed those controls. It removed power from the hands of the traditional elite, pushing it down to the lowest rungs of society and out to the sides.

The government is catching the worst of this adjustment. In the internet age, political transparency is considered the pinnacle of civil righteousness for some reason. It seems to have slipped people’s minds that political transparency is both dangerous and impossible.

A more appropriate goal would be to demand a measure of translucency so the public can observe the framework of government without exposing the details. And yet even putting it in those terms reveals how much power the government has already lost and will never get back.

So if the government doesn’t possess it anymore, who holds true power in this new internet age? The answer is quite difficult to pin down and suggests a disturbing emerging future.

In simplified terms, a good way to spot power is to look for its tracks, because when it moves it leaves culture wars in its wake. For instance, if you ever notice a heightened volume of clamouring for equality in a social sector that was homogenously white, Western and male – then that’s where true power once was. Those are the tracks. You won’t find power there anymore.

This is because diversity is not something the system wants. Regardless of how progressive a society might appear on the outside, the unfortunate reality is that once females and non-white males are allowed to influence a sector, the system puts up a “fight” but has already organised a new bastion of power somewhere else away from the clamour. History shows this to be true.

Looking for the power

Consider the sectors of religion and academia. Both were treated as integral cogs of the system. But after the leadership was forced to diversify and include non-white males or females, the campaigners eventually found that being an academic or member of the clergy no longer carried the influence they were expecting. The fight was righteous but it was too late. True power had moved on to other sectors.

The government also had power until it too came under similar pressure to diversify. The fight was similarly virtuous, long and difficult. And as the latter half of the 20th century rolled in and the equality campaign bore fruit, the political system was gradually both less white and less male.

Success!

Or was it?

Remember that the most common complaint about politics today is that it has never been more indecisive, incoherent or unempowered. You've probably even made that complaint yourself. That’s not really the fault of the equality campaigners. They broke into a system that power had already vacated. They gained all the trappings of power, but not real power. Hence today’s political impotence and incoherence.

Then there’s the previously untouchable Western financial sector. After a big hit to this structure in the past decade, true power is now slowly and quietly abandoning it for greener pastures. The sector still has enough influence to pull important strings, but it is much weaker and its members know it.

In other words, you should still avoid angering Goldman Sachs, but insulting a politician, clergyman or academic carries no risk. But don’t bother sending your daughters off to business school if you want them to be powerful. By the time they reach the top levels of the financial markets they’ll be just as impotent as their political sisters. Power is moving once again, but where to? Take a wild guess.

As far as homogeneity of the system and sheer power potential goes, software engineering, robotics and data storage are the three most important new sectors creating what will probably be the final resting ground of true power.

Think about it in this way: what power will we fight over when computers and robots can outperform us in every job category? Think about how much power the people who build those tools will have. Think about how much power they already have. The internet is hurtling us towards this reality.

In almost every sector it is making real flesh and blood humans too expensive to employ. If the 2008 crisis taught us anything, it was that the only reason people could earn $50,000-$200,000 was strictly down to the existence of credit propping up an inefficient global system. How else was it possible to buy iPhones, televisions and $9 coffee if enormous systemic leveraging wasn’t allowing it? No one is worth that sort of money, I don’t care what your profession is.

Those “good old days” aren’t coming back, if they ever existed. And yet millions of people are inexorably being added to the world’s middle-class each year with the expectation of earning a magical $50,000-$200,000. Where exactly will that new money come from if it isn’t piled onto the great credit card of the nation state?

There will be no way to afford this because eight billion humans will be too expensive for the system to cope with. But no worries: the power system is extremely happy that the future is digital and robotic. As Bill Joy eloquently said, the future doesn’t need us. So if we’re searching for the true power – look at your iPhone. Too late, you’ve probably missed it again.

The last bastion of power

Everyone thought the NSA and GCSB hoovering up our digital footprints was horrible, but that was a red herring. Information control and disparity is going to get worse and we will only have ourselves to blame. In the panicked furore over mass-spying we never noticed the real story happening right before our eyes and entirely at our request: Google.

Imagine a technology’s power if it could track, store and access every person’s movements and thoughts, forever. This isn’t science fiction, we’re seeing the embryonic stage of this capability now. It is being created – with the implicit help of each of us – by Facebook and Google et al. It boggles the mind that none of Google’s information trawling and storage activities is remotely well regulated or widely controversial.

The internet is creating a world in which only a handful of humans will leverage our personal information for whatever reason they see fit, at any time. That is changing the very concept of power. What do you think Google really does with all this information? Help you search for the best priced shoes?

A new elite is emerging around a group of enormous private organisations that I call “truly global companies”. We have not seen their kind for centuries and they will be more overwhelmingly powerful than the East India Company ever dreamed of being.

There will come a point in the not-too-distant future where the true power of the internet’s information revolution is fully understood. But it might be too late. Hobbes’ social contract no longer requires a state to enforce it. The internet is emerging as the new Leviathan , one controlled by feudal private empires.

The internet holds all our information and is being treated like a new economy. Bitcoin was developed as a tremendously popular parallel alternative to fiat currency. Why? Because the government is no longer seen by the people as the true bastion of power and strength – the internet is.

Thursday, 11 December 2014

How torture saved and imperiled the US

The release of a report on the recent history of CIA torture during the so-called Global War on Terror offers a chance to reflect on the danger of expedient laws in both the US and New Zealand.

Nothing in the report discloses previously unknown torture techniques. The methods can be found on cursory Google searches and range from slapping, shaking and stress positions to water boarding and induced hypothermia.

While none of these techniques come close to anything like unbearable human pain, they nonetheless constitute a reasonable description of torture. The question is not why it was first authorised but why torture became routine.

One of the criticisms of the United States made by deceased al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden was that the American project was only thinly covering a deep moral darkness. He wanted to goad the United States into unleashing the demons within to expose once and for all that it was not the shining city on a hill.

After revelations emerged that the CIA was using torture and “black sites” to house captured terrorists, Mr bin Laden’s claim appeared to have been true all along. The US had regressed to a primitive state in order to fight on the same level as its enemy.

It was more than just a moral defeat, it was a realisation that all ethical progress was vulnerable to loss at any moment. The US was not special after all.

In all the talk about torture and ethics, it has been forgotten why the US decided to use torture in the first place.

Whatever one thinks about former US President George W. Bush, the thought processes to allow such a practice was not made lightly and under extreme duress. He too knew that the legitimacy of the US government project rested on its assumed moral superiority. To authorise torture required serious thought on which morals of the US system he wanted to uphold.

The geopolitical and domestic context of that decision was one of intense fear, confusion and visceral feelings of vengeance throughout the country.

The 9/11 attacks were unprecedented and represented a deep intelligence failure. Whether the US intelligence community was incompetent or al Qaeda had gained superb counterintelligence techniques was unknown and that scared everybody. What else didn’t they know?

Al Qaeda was known to conduct attacks with a one-two punch. People in the US government with knowledge of the group knew something had to be done quickly about finding and thwarting the next attack before it happened.

Everybody - including people in New Zealand - was frightened after 9/11. If it could happen in the US, it could very well happen here. The top priority for Western nations quickly became gathering as much intelligence as possible to stop a follow-on attack.

This is exactly the reason the NSA also began their “mass surveillance” programme as well.

Considering the clear intelligence gap, nothing could be assumed and everything required a huge degree of purging. What could be trusted now if an attack such as 9/11 could slip through? The intelligence community needed to start from scratch to plug the holes and all methods had to be on the table - including torture.

That was when torture was extracted from the deepest corners of the nation’s basement to be used in those extreme circumstances in the goal of protecting the country.

As the days, months and years rolled on after 9/11, a more complete picture of al Qaeda’s capabilities slowly grew. A second strike never came, but no one knew whether that was due to intelligence successes or al Qaeda’s failure.

Torture wasn’t used because the US knew how to react to the disaster. It was used precisely because they were so confused and unsure.

The CIA report states that the benefits of using torture to stop the al Qaeda threat were vanishingly small. The problem was that somewhere along the way torture became a normative measure, rather than a temporary and unusual step.

However, intelligence officials were unwilling to think about closing down the programme because it was unclear exactly what was working. Getting rid of torture, they reasoned, might endanger the nation.

The lesson for New Zealand is that laws passed in extreme circumstances to deal with highly unusual environments are not by themselves the danger. The threat arises from the inattention of government officials to judge whether the evolving geopolitical threat environment justifies the continued operation of those laws.

In the case of the recently-passed “Foreign Fighters” bill, the extra powers given to the SIS and law enforcement agencies are relatively appropriate given the global circumstances. What cannot be allowed to happen is the retention of those powers beyond their present utility. This is what people mean by the necessity for robust oversight of intelligence agencies.

To do their jobs intelligence agencies need powers above what normal citizens often expect. The agencies are not full of people looking to manipulate the system for more power, they are subject to putting the bar balancing security and privacy where the public demands it be set.

Nevertheless special powers are attractive and often difficult to remove, especially from intelligence services.

The world will always be a scary, unpredictable place and people will always need protecting. But the key behind the CIA torture report is for the public to be vigilant of bureaucracies that convince themselves that particularly extreme measures should be routinised.

Whether turning torture into an accepted practice was a mistake or manipulation by the upper echelons of the US government is largely beside the point. The question at heart is which of the country’s collective morals a government must decide to prefer when defend its citizens?

All morals cannot be upheld at once but there is a fine line between being the protector and turning into the offender.

Wednesday, 10 December 2014

The collapse of the modern state system

The only constant in the Middle East is change. And with the tectonics currently grinding across the region, more change is certainly coming. It has not been a good decade so far to be an Arab autocrat.

The foundational treaties on which the modern state system was created are eroding, and eroding at a very rapid rate. One of the treaties was signed at Westphalia in 1648. It determined that citizenship was decided by where a person lives and surrounded them by a supposedly inviolable border.

In Eastern Europe, that concept is now being challenged by Russian President Vladimir Putin acting on the theory that citizenship is based upon the language someone speaks in their mother’s kitchen. Nothing could be more destructive for the state system than his getting away with something like this

Another treaty eroding at a much greater rate was signed at Versailles in 1919. Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia and even the Soviet Union were all created there and each broke up in varying degrees of messiness.

The problem was that when these countries were created everybody wasn’t in the right chair when the world war music stopped.

Whole groups of people where clumped together and geography sliced in ways most inhabitants of the new nations were deeply uncomfortable with.

The artificial lines suddenly erected froze internecine conflicts, not solved them. It was only a matter of time until they burst. The Middle East is now dealing with its own conflict story as the façade crumbles.

It’s probably fairly safe to say that Iraq and Syria are not coming back and despite anything policy makers may say publically, the goal in the future will be to work towards a soft landing to contain the forces currently being unleashed like opening a bottle that was shaken for 100 years.

What the world is slowly understanding about the Middle East is how differently the people see themselves. Where the West sees chaos and instability, the locals see only history. The lines on our maps often meant more to the Western world than they did to those living inside them.

The reality of this was captured perfectly by two poignant events. One was the image of Islamic State militants dismantling a border crossing between Iraq and Syria this year. The other was the statement by a British official that armed intervention was designed to “defend Iraqi state sovereignty”. The two are connected but represent diametrically opposite worldviews.

The people on the ground never saw the border lines in the first place. The images released on the internet of militants tearing down outposts was carefully orchestrated propaganda built for Western eyes, not Iraqi or Syrian.

Most of those nations didn’t exist until the latter half of last century. Some of the Western decision makers at the time may have been arrogant, but they did it for the expediency of European diplomacy and trade goals, accomplished with complete indifference to ethnic, cultural or religious realities.

All they wanted to do was restart the global system. To achieve this the world needed to play the same game with the same rules. And to avoid future total war calamities and open the world for trade, new lines were drawn on the map. Sometimes those lines carved one village into two but they had to be placed somewhere.

The people living in those countries, while perfectly happy to play the West’s game and say all the right words suggesting everything was flowing nicely, they never believed the illusion in the same way. The new borders were kept in place first by raw European power, then by Cold War superpower tension and finally by the resultant authoritarian regimes which are now so spectacularly imploding.

The shock of watching militants drive unimpeded across Middle Eastern borders stabbed right through the façade of nations that only the West had been convinced ever truly existed.

With the collapse of Arab autocracies the last artificial imposition of external power keeping the frozen conflicts frosty in the region is now gone. Iraq and Syria are only the current implosions, not the last.

Will Iraq and Syria maintain a seat at Turtle Bay in New York City in the UN General Assembly? Maybe. But if they do, it will only be to appease the global system and will say nothing about the true constituency of the “countries”.

What is happening in the Middle East will not be isolated to that region. The theory of the state system clearly has plenty of competition and outside the Anglosphere countries it is difficult to find a nation completely comfortable with where the lines are currently drawn and who is included inside them.

In short, don’t get used to the map. The world might be getting less violent in the long run, but there are deep historical and ethnic issues remaining still to be sorted out across the planet.

Sunday, 7 December 2014

The internet is the world's biggest echo chamber

The futurists were correct about the internet. Humans now have more information than they can possibly digest. The mistake is to assume that any of this reflects progress. It only highlights the illusion of human advancement.

The biggest impact of a technology arises when it is generalised, not when it’s invented. The internet was invented as a tool to catalogue and extract data. It was supposed to be freeing. Instead the oceans of information paralyse us.

The theoretical scientific limits on information storage technology suggest it has barely even begun. And although technology marches on, the human brain struggles to make use of the riches of data. This imbalance reveals what happens when the brain reaches its limits.

For instance, the CIA conducted an experiment in the 1990s in which they requested private individuals to analyse a specific set of current intelligence requirements. The only trick was that the participants were not given access to classified documents. All their analysis had to emerge from the open source only. At that time, the internet was embryonic.

There is a tendency in the intelligence community to attribute an almost ethereal quality to a report stamped “classified” above the tearline. As if the contents and analysis were made somehow more reliable by those 10 letters. This strange bias leads to all manner of false conclusions and poor decision making. Humans default agreement to hierarchy – real or imagined – in the presence of a knowledge vacuum.

However, the most intriguing outcome of the experiment was that when the CIA received the analyses, it found some information so accurate and detailed that the agency was shocked. So shocked in fact, that it quickly moved to classify the documents immediately. One hopes the agency learned its lesson.

What was the lesson? The quantity of information was already overwhelming in the 1990s. Useful information often sits patiently on a library shelf or as published papers in some backwater university. The CIA perhaps suspected the information existed somewhere in the world, but it was biased and overwhelmed by the possible routes to find the information. That was two decades ago, imagine what its officials think now.

What’s troubling about the sheer volume of human information on the internet is that curing cancer or solving an uncrackable scientific or business problem might be as simple as finding the right PDFs of existing studies that no one remembers exists. Or getting a library card and taking a walk. They say humans die twice: once when their heart stops beating, and again when their name is spoken for the last time. Maybe it’s the same with information.

It would be a mistake to assume, however, that the quantity of information is the problem. That would be missing the point entirely. As countless failed relationships and melancholy pop songs prove, the only constant connecting all your failures is you. The same goes for technology.

Information and youth

But we can put this framework into a boardroom setting to illustrate the downsides of information overload and what it does to humans. Why, with all this unprecedented connection and knowledge, do companies consistently fail to leverage that information and spot the obvious steps?

It would be easy to say that humans are painfully stupid and be done with it. If belief in human rationality was a scientific theory it would long since have been abandoned. Many of the rudiments of our own success can be found in other animal species. Not a lot of what we do is unique and, on average, we’re not terribly smart. So the issue is not with the tools, it is with the worker.

Unfortunately, even when the problem is due to humans, the most common answer in business (and anywhere) is to hire different humans and expect new results.

A central thread at the Cybercrime and Trustworthy Computing 2014 conference last year was the necessity of encouraging the introduction of greater numbers of younger, tech-savvy people in the boardroom. According to the speakers, the older people already holding the positions of power are regularly unable to understand digital threats or virtual opportunities facing their businesses.

The connection between technology and youth transcends generations. So the prediction that greater numbers of younger managers will result in better business seems obvious. But for those who live inside a myth, it seems a self-evident fact. Human progress is a fact beyond reproach!

That all sounds good in theory. After all, the youth will eventually move into power roles due simply to the natural aging of their elders. It has always been this way. The older board members were all young once and, in fact, that should tell you everything you need to know about the scale of the problem ahead.

The youth solution fails to comprehend the human animal's capacity to be corrupted by its own evolutionary history. It is a faith as strong and equally deluded as any religion. The battle is not human versus technology, it is human versus human.

Talk to any traffic crash investigator. They’ll explain that close to 100% of vehicle crashes are the result of driver error. Anyone who thinks society can resist the widespread introduction of driverless vehicles should also visit their local insurance representative. Driverless vehicles once existed: they were called horse-drawn carriages. Some carriage drivers slept while the horse found its own way home.

There are genetic worms inside human brains that confound technology. It can be frustrating to have a computer specialist sit in front of a group of managers slowly explaining the cyber threat. The interaction can trigger unconscious primal feelings of an unexpectedly inverted superiority role that neither can fully control.

The manager stares wide-eyed as the information passes overhead and the specialist leaves the room exasperated muttering something about imbeciles and budget restrictions. The temptation is to assume, as the conference speakers did, that the answer is to reverse the roles. If a new generation managed the company, then all gaps could be closed immediately. The desire – absent any rationality – is for technology and faith in human progress to be proven correct.

The internet and symbols of progress

When it comes to the power of the internet, replacing older managers with younger technologists is analogous to painting a house to fix the plumbing. It might look good for a while but flushing the toilet is still going to flood the conservatory. The problem is always human no matter what age they are.

For this reason, whatever the internet will become in the hands of humans will have nothing to do with the advancement of technology. The truth is, no one knows what kind of power the internet will eventually have in our world. And yet the religion of human progress wants us to direct technology’s evolution. After all, we invented the system. We should have control.

That is an easily swallowed delusion. And the delusion is becoming more dangerous every 24 months. Whenever a technology is sufficiently complex, humans by default tend to believe the next generation of people has the answer. They often don’t and why should they?

How can they fix a problem they will never fully understand? With each passing day, the internet grows in size and slips further from our control and comprehension. To stay sane we have to believe it is domesticable. Yet all the complications to come will arise because of the impossibility of advancing the human animal towards anything like a reasonable and logical creature.

The illusion of progress has peaked with the internet. Countless ideologies have already attempted to fix the human animal (at least thrice in the last 100 years) and not only does the social experiment inevitably end in spilled blood, the result is always the same: people don’t change. Progress doesn’t exist. Why would the internet be any different?

Science advances, that is undeniable. But not humans. The internet is the best tool we’ve ever devised for communications and yet it only satiates our animal desires, ripping off our societal mask so we can claw at fellow humans online. The internet fixes nothing and maximises everything.

If you find this hard to agree with, take a look at what’s happening in the Middle East. Al Qaeda and the Islamic State are not as backward or different from other humans as we like to think. Observe how efficiently the men of the Islamic State are able to mesh their Bronze Age beliefs with 21st century technology to do their evil work. None of those men consider the tools of the internet and mobile phones anathema to their goals.

Some say the answer to defeating the cancers of rotten ideologies is to encourage the spread of the internet. It will raise the chances that “brainwashed” people will be exposed to challenging ideas. The internet, they say, is a place where religions come to die in the free marketplace of ideas.

But this is folly. The internet acts more like an echo chamber than a debating room. Humans are singly adept at finding kindred spirits online so they can avoid change. Science progresses, humans don’t. Why would the internet alter this reality?

The idea that the internet will be a force for human advance has not yet fallen into disrepute. The day will come. No matter how closely people follow traditions, they will always rely on a belief in progression of the future to attain mental composure. History may be replete with farce, tragedy and pain but the modernists have a faith that the future will always be better than the past. To disagree is to despair.

Liberal ideals are temporal and fragile at best. The “social justice” our ancestors fought so bravely for – equality, democracy, freedom – could all be lost tomorrow because of the oceans of information on the internet. Social progress exists only in our heads, jostling for control over inner demons. Why would the internet alter this reality?

Saturday, 6 December 2014

Book Review: Cyber War is already upon us

Historians might find it difficult to differentiate between the 1990s and 2000s. They will however have one technology which made the 21st century truly different: the internet.

That’s a technology the authors of the poignant book Cyber War: The next threat to national security and what to do about it fully understand. There’s a war going on behind the curtain in cyberspace that almost no one gets to see. Increasingly this war is targeting real people with real lives, and it’s only going to get worse.

Raise your hand if you’ve heard about cyber attacks? Stupid question? Maybe, but while most people vaguely know about cyber attacks how many know how to spot one or even how they work? No one’s hands are still up. Really?!

That’s probably not entirely unexpected. The concept of computer coding is pure magic to most people over a certain age (and most people in general, if we’re being honest). If they didn’t grow up using it, coding isn’t something executives or professionals will probably ever do for fun.

Yet coding and the internet is all around us. We’re not living in The Matrix but the internet is part of our banking applications (who goes to the local bank teller anymore?), cars, communication devices and all the way down to what food we should eat next.

The internet is now the very foundation of businesses. Some companies don’t exist in the physical world at all, aside from computers in an office, everything they do happens online and nowhere else. Without the internet, a lot of people would struggle to make a living at all.

But the fierce fighting on the internet is affecting not just businesses - which lost billions of dollars this year from cyber attacks - but it is hurting everybody.

As the authors point out, real people are trying not to be killed by what’s happening on the internet. Cyber attacks can’t quite reach out into the physical world because there’s still a wall between the cyber domain and human domains. People are trying to find ways of tearing that wall down however.

Sometimes internet attacks can already affect the real world. The authors use the example of Estonia in 2007 when a group of “patriotic Russian hackers” – everyone knows it was the Kremlin - effectively shut the Estonian government down by overwhelming its computers with what is known as a distributed denial of service (DDOS) attack.  

These attacks employ the services of potentially hundreds of thousands of compromised computers to request data from certain sites until the servers collapse under the weight of requests. It can cost thousands of dollars to repair such damage and get the websites running again.

In Estonia, the attacks coming from Russia spread to affect almost all of the Estonian cyber world – not just the government computers which were the primary target.

That might not sound like a national security threat but in Estonia in 2007, the Baltic country was the most wired and internet-savvy population on the planet.

Almost every facet of the country’s economy, government and infrastructure relied on the internet. Shutting it down effectively brought the country to its knees. There is no better premonition of what the future holds as the world becomes just as wired and interconnected as Estonia was in 2007.

That was the first volley in the war raging behind the cyber curtain. No bullets have been fired (yet) although it’s very clear to observers that every nation-state from the US through to Iran, North Korea, France and even New Zealand must be trading digital blows in quiet.

In late November this year, for instance, cyber analysts in Russia discovered a new form of a highly-sophisticated computer worm probably created by a nation state. Called “Regin”, only a smattering of details are known about it, but it certainly wasn’t formed by a criminal enterprise or a sour hacker in some basement.

The discovery of Regin was important news because the last one of these worms analysts found in the wild revolutionised the consequences of what’s going on.

The Cyber War book is aptly named when it comes to this so-called infamous “Stuxnet” worm. This worm is so complex and built perfectly for a particular target that, when it infected the computers it was looking for, it hid itself in innocuous coding avoiding detection for months while it planned its strike.

And that’s where the story gets interesting. Once analysts dissected the Stuxnet worm they found it was fabricated to infect a particular type of computer program created by the German infrastructure manufacturer Siemens. On which computers was this program operating? It was running a centrifuge in an Iranian power plant suspected to be enriching uranium to weapon’s grade levels.  

The worm snuck in - via a method still unknown - instructing the computers to spin the centrifuges at self-destructive speeds while displaying to the watching technicians that everything was normal. The resultant 2010 destruction of the centrifuges crippled the Iranian enrichment programme from which they are still recovering.

Now, there are a number of nation states which would dearly love for an event like this to happen to Iran’s nuclear programme. In fact, there really aren’t a lot of nations willing to publically condemn such an action.

Some have pointed to the US and Israel as likely suspects, but that is speculation. There is no evidence implicating either states.

In the short term, destroying the centrifuge was an unarguable good for international security. However, that’s only a limited perspective. There is a far scarier way of looking at this event as a seminal moment in history. All this takes to understand is to describe the Stuxnet attack in a slightly differently way.

For instance, in 2010, someone - very clearly a nation state - created a malicious worm to infect a computer system belonging to and operated by another nation state.

The worm then broke into what could only being described at the time as that nation’s critical civilian infrastructure and proceeded to destroy it.

If this doesn’t blur the lines between the digital and physical worlds, it’s unclear what will qualify.

There’s a good analogy for this. Someone has crossed the proverbial Rubicon and there is now a legion on the other side of the river. Not wanting to mix the historical analogies too much, but hearing about this event feels a bit like 1939. No wonder the cyber conflict is heating up.

The authors use many other examples of events in the new digital world. It’s becoming extremely clear that the existing social and political systems are not capable of dealing with the internet and all its promises and perils.

At the same time that governments are trying to protect digital society, it is using the internet to fight its wars. Who will guard the guards themselves?

The book isn’t overtly bleak - the internet probably won’t kill us all. And yet the people charged with protecting the populace are struggling to pass effective laws to keep up with the changes and may be running out of time. 

Friday, 5 December 2014

Fear and loathing on the Internet

Humans are not ready for the internet. We never were, and we probably never will be. And sooner or later, everyone reading this will end up on Wikipedia. The internet is changing everything and if you’re not afraid, you should be.

What will it mean to be human if we are unable to forget? How will Hobbes’ social contract operate if all our information is privately owned? What does the internet do to the concept of power?

This short exploratory series will think about what the internet means for power, industry, social conventions and what it means to be human. Suffice to say, we’ve never been here before and all the old answers aren’t fitting the new questions.

Last week, New Zealand and Australia’s top technology minds gathered at the Cybercrime and Trustworthy Computing Conference 2014. After listening to them talk about what’s happening on the internet, I felt a little uncomfortable but couldn’t pin down exactly why.

The feeling has been eating away for a while. But during the conference something clicked about what the “internet” actually means for humans and society.

Technology is great. The internet is great. And yet if we think technology can solve our problems then we don’t understand technology - and we certainly don’t understand our problems. Especially when the problems are us.

The strangest thing about the internet is that everyone embraced it without too much contemplation. That’s not unexpected, humans do that with most new technology. Perhaps the internet was once small enough not to worry about the incredible power and looming danger lying ahead.

Sitting now at the end of 2014, it feels for all practical purposes that we’ve always had the internet. But to future humans the development of the tool will appear as a blink from its conception to worldwide ubiquity. Facebook is only a decade old, think about that.  

How this technology grows now is anyone’s guess but it usually takes roughly a generation before the widespread use of a new technology can be realised. It’s safe to say it’s only just beginning.

Adults are giving it a good twist now, but the internet’s next step will be decided by the people we pat on the head and send to bed before 8pm. So the question is: are we being careful with what we pass down to our descendants? In my estimation, not in the slightest. This machine is too big and too fast to contemplate.

What the internet is

Geopolitics, fascinatingly enough, helps us understand how different the internet is to anything else we’ve ever invented.

One of the key drivers of geopolitics is the immutability of geography. It recognises that humans have less control over fate than we think. Some countries have bountiful resources which everyone wants, while others have bountiful resources that nobody wants. Life is accident.
 
From a government’s perspective, geopolitical constraints dictate the possible spectrum of decisions it can make. The natural constraints create a left and right hand boundaries. Sometimes they are bypassed or ignored by ideological individuals, but the mountains and oceans will always be there regardless of a government’s ambitions. The internet, however, has none of these constraints.

The original internet tool was built by a US government research agency only a few decades ago. In the subsequent years the new technology was eventually “released into the wild”, so to speak. It was meant as a communications medium but it spawned something entirely new and never before seen.

One’s personal metaphysics don’t really matter for the next analogy to be useful. For illustrative purposes, “God” invented the land, sea, air and space domains and did a fairly good job. But in the latter third of the twentieth century humans invented the fifth domain of the internet. And in all seriousness, we did a terrible job.

The internet has its uniquely flat geography without natural obstacles simplifying communication (and attack), but is a nightmare for privacy (and defence). It lets us talk quickly, but limits quiet human contemplation. It is the closest humans have come to creating life, but we created viruses first. It made a virtual space for our fantasies and dreams, but living the fantasies hasn’t been the utopia we each expected.

One of the academics at the conference thought he’d wrapped the internet up neatly by describing it as an extension of the physical world. But his description shoehorns the internet into a box it never came from. Perhaps it reflects the way we all want to see the internet, the way we wish it were, but it is unclear it actually is this way.

As the conference ticked along his statement gnawed. It really looks like humans were never ready for the power of the internet. And yet, here it is. The internet domain exists and there’s no switching it off. We have to deal with it now but it’s already beyond our control.

A technology no one anticipated

There isn’t a good comparison in human history to describe how disruptive the internet has been for humans. Some would say it is similar to Europeans discovering the Americas. Everything Europeans knew about the world changed at that point. But the cyber world is bigger than that.

Transportation is a close comparison. It changed the world in similar ways to how information and the internet is changing the world. So how does the speed of travel compare to what we’re seeing?

Only 200 years ago humans had never travelled usefully over long distance faster than a horse could ride at a gallop. Because of this, almost every city on the planet was built for either the foot or hoof. No one expected it to ever be different. Travel was unpleasant, slow and certainly not a pastime.

Then humans discovered hydrocarbons which made the upper limit on travel speed variable. Today, the upper limit seems to have effectively plateaued. The fastest human-carrying aircraft can’t push past Mach 6.72 (a face-melting 7,274 kilometres per hour).

That’s not a “normal” logistics speed but on the commercial end, since 1900, air travel increased the average Westerner’s total annual distance travelled by a whopping 50-fold. Today we’re travelling more and faster, but we’re also using more fuel overall.

The internet, while much younger than the boom in travel speed, appears to have a much more pronounced growth curve and is probably closer to its beginning than its finality.

Others say the invention of the internet compares to the discovery of a new language. They would be correct, but it doesn’t grasp the scale.

Inventing the internet is closer to the foundations of language among the first proto-humans hundreds of thousands of years ago. Everything you see in society is a result of that single invention. It is not an exaggeration to say the internet is a more radical invention.

Out of our control

And yet none of the speakers seemed to know exactly what the internet really is or where it’s going. That’s not a slight on them, it’s simply too big to understand.

What stirred a creeping fear at what we might have unleashed was that representatives from New Zealand’s Department of Internal Affairs and law enforcement were discussing the internet like it was the Amazonian rainforest.

Each had some concept of what they were dealing with - they vaguely sketched the boundaries - but not one of them knew how to properly navigate or catalogue the internet.

These were some of the smartest technology experts in the country, and for all their tools and power they are unable to regulate even small sections of the cyber domain. This is a technology that was created within living memory yet is now entirely out of anyone’s control.

The internet has radically changed everything humans do. We’re already living in a world that no one anticipated. While all of humanity is not yet fully “plugged in”, the preliminary results have been astounding.


While I’m sure good and smart people are thinking about this, the reality is that something like this has never happened before. Now that it has, it’s time to start thinking about the consequences.

Friday, 28 November 2014

Oil prices plunge as OPEC holds supply steady

Oil prices crashed below the $US70 mark this morning as OPEC chose to keep its production levels steady despite decreasing demand.

The decision to leave the output ceiling at 30 million barrels per day came before markets closed in the United States for Thanksgiving weekend.

At its semi-annual meeting on November 27, OPEC's secretary general Abdallah Salem el-Badri said that although there was a price decline, the organisation would not “rush to do something”.

"We don't want to panic. I mean it," said Mr el-Badri. "We want to see the market, how the market behaves, because the decline of the price does not reflect a fundamental change."

Saudi Arabia has indicated that the decision is in line with its policies.

The West Texas Intermediate (WTI) benchmark measured the dip as roughly 7% to just below $US69. Brent Crude also fell by 7% but sits slightly higher at $US73.

Stocks in major oil producers also took a beating. Royal Dutch Shell fell 4.3% while Total SA slipped 4.1%.

The Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries resisted calls from member Venezuela to drop production and lift crude oil prices. Venezuela’s currency reserves are already low which is placing pressure on the Latin American economy and government.

The Automobile Association (AA) expects petrol prices in New Zealand to fall again shortly as the effect of the downwards slide reaches this part of the world.

Another few cents could be shaved at the tank if commodity prices continue track the global dip in crude oil costs. Petrol prices have already dropped 14 cents in six weeks.

Oil is now at the lowest cost since May 2010. In July this year, oil prices hovered around $US100 before beginning to fall away consistently to today’s price.

The OPEC decision reflects a widely held sentiment among members that stability in the oil market may be further away than first assumed.

An oil price below $US90 will be a high concern for certain OPEC members such as Nigeria, Russia and Venezuela. Each have balanced a national 2015 budget on an assumed oil spot price ranging from $US90 to $US120.

The Gulf States - including Qatar, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the UAE - have a combined rainy-day fund of an estimated $US2.5 trillion in savings which means they do not rely on high crude oil prices.

However, Saudi Arabia’s minimal concern reflects the country’s deeper buffer range, although a consistently low oil price will begin to pinch its economy if it doesn’t stabilise higher next year.

Analysts point to the United States shale and tight oil revolution as a major factor in the reasons behind the low prices.

Other causes include a lower demand from Asia and Europe and a larger global shift towards non-fossil fuel energy sources. The return to the market of significant crude production from Libya and Iraq is also a factor.

Lower prices will favour Gulf States over the long run, as a minimal return on investment may discourage US shale and tight oil producers out of the market.

OPEC also predicts a growth in non-OPEC supply next year which will further pressure the crude oil price.


OPEC accounts for a third of the world’s oil sales.

Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Nuclear extension reflects unstable Mid East

In November 2013, the United States and Iran made a landmark decision towards a rapprochement over the thorny issue of Iranian nuclear power. At the time - and throughout 2014 - this outlined the gradual aligning of interests between the US and Iran as the region boiled.

Monday’s calm rescheduling of talks by another seven months may appear that all the tough work is undone, but the extension fits with the realignment. The new deadline is March of 2015, when the two sides will decide what needs to be done. In the meantime, Iran will be able to access $US700 million per month in sanctions relief.

What happened this week will frighten those who see almost all the offramps fading behind in the mirror on the highway towards a Persian bomb. In their eyes, the long game is being won by a sneaky Iranian regime and the United States has been outplayed. 

In Washington’s view, Iran is not an imminent nuclear threat with the US effectively ceding the existence of an Iranian nuclear capability for civilian use. The current talks are simply the working out of the details.

If Iran is a nuclear threat then plenty of future problems will appear - that much has always been true. Yet possessing highly enriched uranium and actually being able to deliver a viable nuclear weapon to a target are two very different things.

After all, two superpowers spent billions last century developing rocket and telemetry technology. The process exhausted one superpower and weakened the other. This process is terribly difficult and both Tehran and Washington know it. One capability does not magically spawn the other and now Washington thinks it can solve both problems through a balance-of-power agreement with Iran.

What hasn’t been fully appreciated is that over the last year US and Iranian high-level talks has become a relatively routine fixture on the world stage. That’s new and important given their deadly history. To his credit, US President Barack Obama has made all the right signals that he intends to push this evolution as far as possible with his Iranian counterpart equally engaged.

The Iranians may view possessing a nuclear capability in a different light, but this by no means suggests their reasons for pursuing a nuclear programme are exclusively combative. Tehran’s actions over the years show the Islamic Republic is quite happy to portray the goals of this pursuit in whatever way it feels benefits its relative geopolitical position.

Which is why this week’s almost nonchalant rescheduling must be viewed in the context of the broader Middle Eastern dynamics. The single overarching thread controlling the politics of the region is the story of what is emerging from the chaos of the so-called Arab Spring.

Almost no one predicted the huge uprising and even fewer people forecast what was to come next. Autocracies and dictators fell as the vacuum ripped the lid off the top of the bottle. It is now obvious that something had been shaking that bottle for hundreds of years. 

Al Qaeda dreamed of upending the hated Arab regimes but thankfully never came close. The Islamic State on the other hand, holds more physical space than al Qaeda ever did and various world powers are noticing an opportunity for Machiavellian advantage.

The rise of the Islamic State is only a symptom in the Middle East but it’s causing a wide strategic rethink. Aligning to deal with the cancer of Sunni Islamic radicalism fits the strategy of both the US and Iran but it also pushes the nuclear talks to the backroom where diplomats prefer to work.

The group’s apparent power has given the US and Iran a convenient reason to pretend to marginalise the nuclear issue and inflate the Sunni terror problem instead in a way that was impossible earlier in the year.

Iran and the US are deeply accustomed to arbitrarily altering their geopolitical rhetoric to reflect the current environment. But as the threat from particular militant groups seem to show, the region is highly unstable and needs a rebalance.


Whether that balance is achievable is uncertain, but Iran must be part of that equation if it is to work. So if the US wants Iran to be an adult power it is going to have to start treating it like one. The question is: what does Saudi Arabia think of the growing friendship?

Thursday, 20 November 2014

Simple 'grassroots' terror attacks could threaten New Zealand, experts

A spate of simple but deadly attacks in Israel this week highlight a new pattern of terrorism that governments are largely powerless to counter, analysts say.

Following the recent release of information by Prime Minster John Key that New Zealand security services have identified multiple New Zealand citizens sympathetic to extremist ideologies in the country, experts warn that New Zealand could face similar “grassroots” attacks in the future.

Four people were killed and dozens wounded when two Palestinians armed with axes and a gun attacked a Jerusalem synagogue before being shot dead by police on Tuesday. One policeman later died of the wounds he received in the attack.

The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine claimed responsibility for the terror attack while Hamas publically gave its own support saying it was in response to an alleged murder of a Palestinian bus driver earlier in the week. Palestinian police disagreed, ruling the bus driver’s death a suicide.

Israel ambassador to New Zealand Yosef Livne says the attacks are a product of an environment that supports and glorifies terrorism “through an unending campaign of vicious incitement and outright lies”.

“Since late October, there have been seven such attacks costing the lives of 10 people and a score have been injured. All of the attacks took place in civilian sites such as train stations, academic centres and now a House of Worship.

“These were not valiant acts of resistance; they were horrendous cases of terrorism - no ifs or buts,” Mr Livne says.

The trend of low level but deadly terrorism is forcing Israeli officials - and governments of developed countries - to question whether such attacks could be the new normal for modern societies with the New Zealand government rethinking its approaches to countering the threat.

The problem for security services is that these simple attacks – where the killers use readily available weapons – will be far more difficult to protect against than “traditional” terror acts. Grassroots-style violence is less deadly, but it is now a more common threat emerging from inside developed nations.

Massey University’s Centre for Defence and Security Studies academic Dr Rhys Ball, who served in New Zealand’s SIS and GCSB in counter-terrorism roles for more than 10 years, says New Zealand isn’t immune.

“There are individuals [in New Zealand] that happily acknowledge support of the Islamic State (IS).

“The Herald, for example, published an article at the beginning of the month titled “Hawkes Bay Muslim Backs ISIS”. The individual had been interviewed ten years earlier following claims that the he had been visiting prisons in an effort to convert inmates to Islam.

“Now, whether the prisons remain a potential source of radicalised individuals, I would not know, but the possibility cannot be discounted,” he says.

The threat and danger of radicalised individuals living in New Zealand conducting simple attacks are likely low, but the probability is certainly not zero. Some of these people have been influenced by what they have heard or seen via social media and other methods of communication.

The Washington Institute’s terrorism expert Aaron Zelin says a Christchurch man revealed that there could be about a dozen jihadist supporters in the Christchurch area.

“In an interview this guy said: ‘I can’t stay in a country that’s going to be fighting my religion. If my country is going to make me an enemy to my religion then I have no choice but to go and join IS where I’ll be welcomed as a citizen and not be persecuted for my religion or beliefs.’

“This is very similar to other quotes from radicalised New Zealanders. There’s a persecution narrative in saying that the government’s fighting the religion even though Islamic State doesn’t represent all Muslims.  

“So you can see how these ideas are starting to seep into some people’s minds, they’ll be trying to openly proselytise these ideas within their communities,” Mr Zelin says.

Mr Ball points out another example of an individual who had had his passport cancelled on the grounds that he was a danger to the security of New Zealand.

“At the time, [the man] couldn’t understand why he was stopped at the airport by ‘SIS agents’ when all he wanted to do was ‘travel to the Middle East…to get an education.’ My question to you, and to the television reporter whom it appears didn’t have an opportunity to ask similar, was why did [he] need to travel to Yemen to get an education? 

“Why didn’t he come to a university here in New Zealand? The quality of the education is second to none, he would have access to religious studies scholars, he would have access to Middle Eastern studies scholars, and he would have access to international security studies scholars. 

“There is, of course, no reason why any New Zealand citizen cannot travel overseas to pursue educational opportunities. We all have the right to do this. But equally, police, customs – and more significantly, the SIS, do not remove somebody’s passport without good reason. 

“We have to accept that people may not be completely honest in sharing their version of events. Making sure that all relevant legislation is ‘fit for purpose’ will be part of the on-going refinements that we have seen recently and will see going forward,” Mr Ball says.

Even while both Messrs Zelin and Ball suspect the threat to New Zealand from homegrown grassroots radicals is likely low, attacks mimicking the style occurring in Israel are now the most likely version of terrorism in the modern world.

And not only will New Zealand’s security services struggle to deal with potential grassroots threats, there are a number of legal gaps and regulatory inconsistencies which need mending as well.

“Revoking passports is something other Western countries are doing, but there are potential dangers in doing that too. We saw last month in Canada where they had revoked the passports of two or three individuals which led to different attacks in Canada,” says Mr Zelin.

“There are also some potential loopholes between Australia and New Zealand. Because of rules of flying between Australia and New Zealand, a lot of [radicalised] Australians will fly to New Zealand. The New Zealand government doesn’t know about them so they fly on to Turkey to set into Syria,” he says.

Mr Ball agrees that parts of New Zealand’s legislation requires rethinking, but cautions against trading too much freedom for security in response to a real but low level terror threat.

“Is the ’48-hour warrantless surveillance’ warranted? I tend to agree with Dr David Kilcullen when he recently said that we need to tread carefully when considering making such powers available. 

“I am comfortable with such changes and powers so long as there is sufficient and robust safeguards to ensure that these powers are not abused or exploited. And for that to happen, we need to be confident there is adequate oversight in place to monitor such activity – and we need to be confident that abuses will be called out, if they do take place,” says Mr Ball. 

To this end, the Inspector General of Intelligence and Security and the newly appointed Minister in Charge of the Service and GCSB, have some very important responsibilities. Mr Ball says there can be “no suggestion or hint of politicisation of intelligence”, or exploitation of the intelligence debate for political gain. 

Mr Zelin says one of the weaker spots for Western governments has been in providing exit ramps for people who no longer wish to be involved in militancy.

“That’s proven difficult because a fighter could lie to law enforcement and potentially to attempt a terrorist attack in New Zealand. We actually saw hints of this in the Saudi rehabilitation programme a few years ago, so it’s important to continue intelligence operations.

“But it’s very important to supply avenues for these people, especially if they become disillusioned and want to return to their regular lives.” Mr Zelin says.