23 October 2014

Behind ISIS - the "Islamic State"

My coverage of the rise of ISIS began with my Guardian op-ed, which was closely followed by a similar piece which, however, takes a slightly different tack, published via my Al-Arabiya English column.

Sadly, the general media's approach to ISIS/ISIL/IS/Islamic State/ whateverthef*ckuwannacallem has been largely lacking much critical or investigative values. If we've not had to endure the usual jingoistic cheerleading, we've instead been subjected to shallow and frivolous criticisms that often miss the point entirely.

At risk of flogging a dead horse, I decided to tackle this by undertaking two projects - firstly, a long form analytical piece that would examine the evidence in the public record around ISIS and its emergence in the context of geopolitical realities; secondly, an investigative piece to contextualise the apparent "intelligence failure" to anticipate the rise of ISIS, in the context of the way ISIS has been exploited to kill surveillance reform and justify the expansion of the military-industrial complex. 

This led to two, in-depth long-form articles. The first, 'How the west created the Islamic State.... with a little help from our friends', first published on Medium, then by Counterpunch, Truthout, and many other outlets, expands on my long-articulated (and well-documented) thesis that the phenomenon of Islamist terrorism is a co-creation of both the Western and Muslim worlds. That is somewhat of a simplification, admittedly - but I endeavour to avoid simplistifications by digging deep into the public record to piece together where ISIS actually came from: the nexus of US-UK led covert operations mobilising Islamist extremists affiliated with al-Qaeda through the financial, logistical, and military support of regional states like Saudi Arabia, Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Turkey, Jordan and Israel. As Vice President Joe Biden himself confirmed (without, however, admitting western complicity - note, btw, the obligatory mentions in the coverage of this that Biden never said these state intended to arm terrorists....

No they did not burst out of the blue into Iraq from nowhere. No they did not spontaneously generate the ability to self-finance themselves in a way that would make most entrepreneurs salivate. No they do not even today operate as a purely non-state entity with no outside support. All these myths, routinely adopted by mainstream media pundits and even the talking head experts who court them, serve to obfuscate the reality of the unfolding crisis across Iraq-Syria and the wider Middle East. 

The next piece was first published in the stellar British magazine, Ceasefire, under the title 'Story of a War Foretold: Why We're Fighting ISIS', then printed by Counterpunch who ran it as 'How the Pentagon Exploits ISIS to Kill Surveillance Reform and Re-Occupy Iraq'. This investigative piece looked at how the Pentagon was using the spectre of ISIS to justify  the surveillance machine, the re-invasion of Iraq-Syria, the massive consolidation and expansion of intrusive new powers globally to crackdown on 'terror suspects' - including the administrator of the Pentagon's Minerva initiative. She tried to justify Minerva's co-optation of academia to develop models that might predict "insurgencies" by the intelligence community's alleged inability to predict the rise of ISIS.

This investigation showed that the intelligence community had ample warning of the rise of ISIS, knew it was coming, but did nothing - further, that the current military strategy in Iraq-Syria is bound to fail according to a range of military and intelligence experts, some active; and finally, that this failure in turn is very likely to elicit a prolongation of military operations in the region for the foreseeable future, with a great probability of ground troops. I used a range of source material - public record, press reports, official Congressional testimony, interviews with former and active British, American and Iraqi officials in military and government. 

If you want to understand what's going on in the region right now, I consider these two articles to be definitive and comprehensive primers that'll get you up to speed in an hour or so.

Are you an activist? Your tweets could kill you. I'm not joking

So I've not had a chance to update this blog as I've been up to my neck in it, but I've realised doing so has meant some of my readers haven't been able to keep up with my work. To make up for it, while I've got a few moments between sessions at the IARU Sustainability Science Congress in Copenhagen (where I gave a talk this morning), here are some updates.

First order of business is the continuation of my investigation, that began in The Guardian, into the Pentagon's co-optation of social science and academia to create new tools to track activists and political dissent. 

I followed that up with an extensive four-part investigation published by Occupy.com, which dug deeper in the activities of the Pentagon's Minerva Research Initiative, to unearth its role in funding new, cutting-edge, data-mining tools and algorithms that could be used by the intelligence community - most specifically the NSA and CIA - to analyse and track activism, political dissent and ultimately predict social unrest, via social media. 

The overarching aim is to enhance the intelligence community's capacity to automatically assess threats using these algorithms, based on integrated analysis of a person's or organisation's social media usage combined with what can be gleaned from their private communications, to create an overall picture of behavioural patterns and political propensities. 

The most worrying thing of all about all this is that according to former senior NSA executive Thomas Drake, the celebrated whistleblower who inspired Edward Snowden, these algorithms and data-mining tools are precisely the sort of algorithms used to generate targets for the CIA's drone-strike kill lists. The upshot is that if you tweet something that can be categorised as "extreme" via the dubious and imprecise threat-classifications schemes being developed for Pentagon use, you could end up on a terror watch list somewhere - or worse.

And just because you're American, don't think you'll be ok because drone strikes currently take place abroad in certain Muslim-majority countries. The other line of inquiry I explore in this in-depth series is the ongoing efforts to militarise the US homeland with drones. By September 2015, Obama has demanded that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) finalise its drone regulations, so that drones can fly in US skies. Police units are already using drones borrowed from border control in places like Seattle to conduct surveillance and assist with active on-street operations. But that's not all. Apart from the police actively lobbying to arm drones with so-called "non-lethal" weapons - riot control stuff, tear gas, rubber bullets, etc. - a little-known Pentagon executive directive last year now formally gives domestic agencies the authority to use armed drones on US soil in the case of major "civil disturbances" or "emergencies" - whether natural disasters, economic or food shocks, or a terrorist attack. 

My investigation ties up the Minerva initiative in the context of the wider national security apparatus and the drive to accelerate state-military control in the face of the increasing danger of civil unrest at home and abroad, due to the escalating probability of climate, energy, economic and food crises. 

The issues uncovered in my investigation demonstrate that we are well on the path to the consolidation of the surveillance-state, with the US leading the new model of state consolidation - our every move under the watch of militarised drones; our behaviours public and private the subject of routine but extensive data-mining and behavioural analytics to predict our predisposition and gauge our threat-level to US "national security"; and the danger of political dissent being characterised as a "threat" as the state loses its legitimacy as climate, energy, economic and food crises deepen. 

Think Skynet (Terminator), meets Hydra (Captain America: Winter Soldier), meets Pre-Crime (Minority Report).

So sure, your Facebook posts, tweets, Flickr photos, etc. etc. might not be an issue right now. But they're already being mined, wholesale, to gauge your organisational affiliations and "threat-potential." In a few years time, they might just get you on that drone-strike kill list. 

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