****Beside the Syrian Sea

Beirut, street, watcher

photo: Jonhy Blaze, creative commons license

By James Wolff – When reading this British spy thriller, you may feel that, like the protagonist, you’ve gone for a stroll in a dangerous section of town and found yourself in over your head.

Jonas’s father, part of a church delegation visiting Syria, has been kidnapped by Islamic fundamentalists, who demand a $100 million ransom for the 75-year-old cleric. Father and son have been a bit at odds, but despite that—or because of it—Jonas has vowed to rescue him.

Jonas did work for the MI6, yes, but in a desk job. His tradecraft is thin and contacts are few. Thus does Wolff put Jonas and his exploits in the realm of the doable. He makes decisions and takes actions an ordinary person, as opposed to an espionage superhero, might—a believable, somewhat erratic, and doubt-ridden character, easy to identify with and root for.

The story starts in a seedy Beirut bar, where Jonas seeks the help of the middle-aged former priest Tobias, who has previously negotiated the release of terrorist-held hostages. Jonas doesn’t tell him everything, wondering “how it had come to pass unnoticed that deceit had been worn into him like grooves in a record until all he could play were false notes.” Tobias is reluctant to get involved, but he has an interest in a woman named Maryam also stuck in Syria. Jonas says, if he helps, “we’ll get her out.” We?

Because this shaky rescue mission has no official standing, he’s unlikely to deliver on this promise, or on any of the commitments he ultimately makes with Hezbollah representatives, the espionage establishment, and anyone else he thinks can help him. You feel you’re mounting a wobbly tower made of playing cards, a fragile edifice that may collapse at any moment.

MI6 sends the tennis-playing Desmond Naseby to befriend and spy on Jonas and persuade him to give up his efforts. Naseby is quickly followed by CIA case office Harvey Deng. Deng is all business, aggressive and profane, but Jonas and Naseby banter amusingly. Says Naseby, “You can’t stand to be cooped up. Smell of the sea, bustle of the bazaars.” “Thwack of the tennis racket,” responds Jonas.

Edward Snowden taints the narrative like a malevolent spirit when it dawns on MI6 higher-ups that Jonas may have availed himself of some of the secret reports he’s been reading at his desk all those years. When it appears he is trying to trade a USB drive for his father, they give his case the operational name LEAKY PIPE and, well, panic sets in.

What keeps the pages turning in this highly entertaining tale, is that, like Jonas’s MI6 and CIA opponents, you can never be quite sure how much he really knows, what his strategy really is, or even if he has one. As a result, the outcome of his dangerous mission might succeed or, as seems much more likely, go disastrously wrong.

****The Terrorist’s Dilemma

laptops, soldiers

(photo: wikimedia)

By Jacob N. Shapiro – an academic’s look at the organizational constraints on traditional terrorist organizations—from those in pre-Revolution Russia to the Irish Republican Army to Al Qa’ida to Fatah and Hamas—and how groups manage these difficulties. Princeton professor Shapiro gave a fascinating talk about his research last December and resolved to read his book.

In part, his message is that terrorist organizations face many of the familiar challenges as do other organized human endeavors. They have resource management issues, they have personnel issues, they have issues related to achieving their goal. But operating as covert and violent organizations imposes a number of additional, unique security constraints.

A key factor is the extent to which “management”—the terrorist leaders at the top—and “line” personnel—the people carrying out day-to-day operations are in sync. Often, they are not. A terrorist organization’s leaders typically have a political agenda, which requires compromise, negotiation, a focus on long-term goals and, therefore—in an effort not to alienate national leaders or the populace of the host country—the need to keep a lid on violence, at least to some degree. This is because, as Shapiro says, “the groups that eventually win political power, or even major concessions, do so not on the strength of their violence, but on the back of large-scale political mobilization and participation in normal politics.”

By contrast, people drawn to the front lines of the same terrorist movement, to whom operational decisions may be delegated, are likely to be more extreme and to seek confrontation and heightened violence, “action in its own right,” Shapiro says. Disagreement in the ranks is common, as personal histories and captured documents amply demonstrate. Even Osama bin Laden counseled restraint among the rank-and-file.

However, controlling the troops requires a fair amount of communication, and every communication between underground organization leaders and the field entails a security risk. Thus, control is always imperfect. Similarly, it is the leaders of terrorist organizations who generally are the fundraisers and the people responsible for husbanding the organization’s resources. Closely managing who spends funds for what purposes again leads to security exposure. These two tradeoffs—operational security vs. tactical control and operational security vs. financial efficiency—play out in one underground terrorist organization after another, across time and geography.

Much has been learned about these organizations (via captured documents—and in one case reported here, which would be unbelievable if it were written into a political thriller, Wall Street Journal reporter Alan Cullison purchased a used laptop in Kabul as a quickie replacement and discovered his new machine had been that of Al Qa’ida #2 Ayman al-Zawahiri, turned in for resale without wiping the hard drive.)

Shapiro contends that understanding why terrorist organizations make the choices they do is an essential first step in designing counter-terror policies. For any number of reasons, ISIS may be different than these past organizations and not understanding those differences also will lead to tragedy.