Countering Insurgency In The Digital Age

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November 13th 2015, Paris, France: 130 civilians were killed in a series of organized attacks carried out by the Islamic State. Shortly after, The “Hacktivist–Cyber-Insurgency” group Anonymous announced that it had “declared war” on ISIS, and planned to combat the terrorist group in an arena that has become omnipresent in the digital society of today – the Internet and social media. On the surface, the announcement of a group such as Anonymous to counteract an organization such as ISIS would not be taken seriously, especially considering that the most powerful nations of the world (The U.S, France, Germany, Great Britain, Russia, etc.,) have not to date been able to bring the extremist group to heel. Yet, ISIS has from the start shown themselves to be an entirely new generation of terrorist group. Indeed, president Obama has characterized ISIS as being “A group of killers with good social media skills.” The United States has recognized the importance of countering ISIS in the arena of Social media, forming a unique cell within the state department solely for that mission. However, Obama has noted that on this account, the American efforts have fallen short. Keeping in mind that sometimes history has shown that it can take an insurgency to defeat an insurgency (for instance the example of the Sunni Awakening in western Iraq to defeat Al-Qaeda,) perhaps one should give the Anonymous threat more credence.

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Mao Zedong famously said, “The guerrilla must move amongst the people as a fish swims in the sea.” While Mao was referring to the guerrilla efforts in relationship to a physical presence among civilians, in this modern age the same principal can be applied to spreading and gaining support for an ideology using digital media. ISIS has proven to be able to effectively exploit social media outlets to spread its ideology and further its recruiting efforts among civilians. Government efforts to thwart this, known as counter-messaging have proven ineffective, primarily because they are reactive in nature as opposed to being pro-active, always trying to catch up, and back peddle what ISIS has already done. It is difficult to counter a message when that message is already in place. Whether Anonymous can prove to be more effective than governments at countering ISIS seems to rest on three issues. First in denying ISIS access to certain sites, and second to undermining community confidence in the credibility of the ISIS cause, and third in super imposing a competing ideology over that lauded by ISIS.

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On the first there is no doubt that Anonymous has the skill set necessary to disrupt the physical access to social media sites by ISIS and its affiliates, Anonymous has proven its ability to hack into heavily secured government and commercial sites, and is very effective at breaking the very kinds of encryption that ISIS utilizes on the internet for secure communication. Anonymous specializes in DDoS, or distributed denial of service attacks, in other words flooding a site with information requests so that it crashes.

On the second- Anonymous has shown themselves to be capable of accessing, through malicious hacking and viruses, private and protected information that could prove potentially damaging (for instance, the hack into Ashley Madison.) While governments possess similar technical capabilities, these are often constrained by legal restrictions that anonymous does not adhere to.

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On the third- Anonymous’ main ideology is that which supports anarchy-based freedom, which is not inherently compatible with the kind of moderate Muslim ideology most people believe is necessary to counter the fundamentalism of ISIS. In order for Anonymous to succeed on this front, they would need to make common cause with a group, moderate Muslims, (to quote president Obama in his speech on defeating ISIS.) On the surface, such an alliance is unlikely. However, if Anonymous proves itself to be capable in disrupting and undermining ISIS in the digital arena, their credibility with moderate Muslims might increase to the point that they could make common cause in countering the extremist ideology of ISIS, especially given the fact that Anonymous is well positioned to demonstrate through the vehicle of social media the horrific realities of ISIS and its ideology, negating recruitment techniques through that media.anonymous-declares-war-on-isis1

Will Anonymous succeed? Only time will tell. However, harkening back to Mao’s words, Anonymous has arguably more in common with the ‘ocean’ of the Internet than the governments of the United States and other world powers who are trying to counter ISIS.

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The Impact of Economic Sanctions on Iran

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Economic sanctions have long been a means utilized by countries and International governmental organizations to exert influence over other states or economic powers, better their own self-interest and security, as well as to attempt to deter human rights violations or actions seen as negative towards the international community. Economic sanctions can range in severity from the embargo of goods produced by private institutions, to the freezing of assets and the near total embargo of a good, travel, or even trade from a state as a whole.

The United States issues more sanctions than any other state or organization in the world. The United Nations and the European Union also issue sanctions on a large scale. Much of the time, sanctions are viewed as a powerful tool of influence for foreign policy makers. But in viewing sanctions as simply a means to an end, the true nature of sanctions and the impact they have on the economy and population of the targeted state can go under the radar.

Perhaps one of the most heavily sanctioned nations in the world is Iran. Next to Cuba, the United States sanctions brought against Iran are the longest lasting economic sanctions “program” in the history of the U.S. Economic sanctions were first levied against Iran in the midst of the Iran hostage crisis, and were initiated by President Jimmy Carter. Since then, the sanctions have been consistently renewed and the penalties increased, though the reasoning behind them has evolved. Much of the sanctions brought against Iran are due to agreements in the Iran-Iraq Non-proliferation Act of 1992, which specifies that sanctions be brought against any person or entity that helps Tehran in the acquisition of weapons or their development. A goal of the sanctions was to bring the Iranian government to the negotiating table regarding their weapons program, with the hopes of coming to an agreement that would allow inspections into the nuclear program, to see that the production of WMD’s is not occurring.

Some of the most severe economic sanctions brought against Iran include the 1995 U.S. trade embargo, which prohibits the majority of U.S. firms from trading or investing in Iran. Following September 11th, 2001, Iranian assets in the U.S. were frozen, and travel bans were put into place. Furthermore, Iran or any institution having dealings with Iran is prohibited from using the U.S. dollar, which spells disaster for international banks, because of the dollars strength. Probably the most punishing sanction brought against Iran has been the embargo on Iranian oil exports. Before the sanctions, oil made up half of the Iranian governments revenue, and since the embargo Iranian exports of oil have more than halved.

While the goals of the sanctions levied against Iran are for the most part based on the intention of eliminating or preventing the development of a nuclear weapons program, and for facilitating nuclear arms proliferation in the country, the economic impact of sanctions on Iran and its people have been devastating.

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The additional sanctions brought against Iran have resulted in a loss of $17.1 billion in revenue. Iranian foreign investment fell to almost nothing in 2012, from its previous 4 billion. While these figures largely represent blows to the Iranian oil market, the effects of the sanctions trickle down to the population as a whole. Strict sanctions can effectively impoverish a civilian population, and make it difficult to acquire, or deprive them of adequate food, technology, and health care. Not only are the Iranian people negatively impacted, but also it has been estimated that if the oil embargo on Iran were to be lifted, world oil prices would drop by 14 percent.

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With all of this in mind, the question that may be asked is are sanctions a truly effective means by which states and international governmental organizations can persuade an “errant” state or institution into cooperation? Or are sanctions more a means of posturing;  a display of power, and a method of isolating and shaming nations in the international community than an effective tool for incentivizing cooperation? If so, are the negative impacts that sanctions have for the targeted states economy, the world economy, and the civilian population worth those costs? And, do you think the recent Nuclear deal with Iran will culminate to any economic sanctions being lifted?

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A Brave New World; Insights into the Long Peace

When the average American wakes up and tunes into the morning news, more often than not they are greeted by stories of terrible violence, crime, and tragedies of war, both in the states and all over the world. If mass media were the only lens through which we could view our existence on this Earth, than surely we would come to the conclusion that human existence on this planet was, as Thomas Hobbes famously stated, “Solitary, Poor, Nasty, Brutish, and Short.” And yet, as we go about our daily lives, how many of us are actually involved in, or have even bore witness to, acts of horrific violence?

While it might be easy to assume that with advances in military technology and transportation, and the increased ease with which weaponry can be acquired would logically come an increase in violence globally, Steven Pinker argues in his book, “The Better Angels of Our Nature,” that in reality we are currently experiencing by and far the most peaceful era that man has ever known. He calls this time period the “Long Peace,” and sets its dawn upon the ending of World War II.

Pinker argues that, while violence and war have not been entirely eliminated, not even close, the rates of violent deaths and the frequency of conflicts and wars have gone down sharply from the levels we perpetuated in the past. Statistically, it can be seen that this downward trend is continuing to this day. However, when we watch the news or listen to the radio, we are overwhelmed by stories of murder, rape, mass shootings, kidnappings, armed conflict, and war, as well as news anchors opining the perceived hostile natures of countries with which we may in the future “need” engage in war with. While the numbers clearly show that we are currently living in the most peaceful time man has ever known, we are more than ever inundated by news of violence.

Could there possibly be a correlation between increased media coverage of violence of war, and its decline? Or could their decline be attributed to more peaceful schools of thought being passed down to younger generations, as well as the ongoing endeavors of organizations devoted to upholding peace and providing relief, such as the United Nations or the Red Cross? It is questions like these that highlight the relevance of Pinkers argument to discussions regarding conflict and security. If we were to delve more deeply into the trends discussed by Pinker, and uncover the root causes of the Long Peace, we could perhaps gain a better understanding of what drives humans to inflict harm upon one another, and in effect a better understanding of how to perpetuate an even more peaceful existence for humankind than we are currently experiencing, and continue onward as peace loving citizens of a brave new world.

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