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When the Line Between War and Peace Becomes Blurred, How Do We Keep Ourselves Safe?
When the Line Between War and Peace Becomes Blurred, How Do We Keep Ourselves Safe?
Today’s Uzbekistan and Manhattan’s Deadly Truck Attack
Today’s Uzbekistan and Manhattan’s Deadly Truck Attack
Op-Ed / Global

When the Line Between War and Peace Becomes Blurred, How Do We Keep Ourselves Safe?

Originally published in World Economic Forum

Is a more connected world a safer and more resilient one, or is it more brittle and fragile? It all depends on how we organize our defense. But the failure to stem the rise of terrorism over the past 15 years suggests we’ve not got it right. How can we restructure our defense systems to take into account the immense changes taking place, and the blurring distinction between war and peace?

An Out-of-Date Model

Today’s defense model is one of state-centric centralized defense. Each state is expected to protect its citizens against external threats by deterring state-to-state aggression and by intervening in those states whose failure provides a safe haven to non-state enemies.

States are also expected to protect people against internal threats; they do so through increased police and military presence in our cities, and through ever-expanding digital mass surveillance to detect anomalous behaviours and identify potential threats.

A Thin Line Between War and Peace

This model is not working. Whether it is little green men in Crimea or cyber-attacks, the line between war and peace has been blurred, and in a world no more structured by an ideological divide, exploiting the vulnerabilities of the enemy is a more effective way to wage war than confronting it head on.

As for failing states, 15 years of costly interventions should have taught us the limits of military intervention: foreigners may help but they can’t substitute for locally driven state building.

We need an alternative model of decentralized defense that will reflect the profound transformation brought upon us by the digital age...

Lastly, finding the needle of terrorism in the haystack of law-abiding citizens is proving to be a frustrating pursuit, which at worst could turn democratic countries into police states, and at best, generates many false flags and will never guarantee complete success, even if the record of security agencies is better than often alleged.

We need an alternative model of decentralized defense that will reflect the profound transformation brought upon us by the digital age and the increased connectivity.

A New Approach to Defense

What we have at present is the worst of both worlds: traditional centralized systems are inefficient at identifying and correcting local vulnerabilities, but connectivity increases vulnerabilities because it accelerates and multiplies the psychological, political and in some cases physical impact of an attack on any part of a system. This is very different from the terrorist attacks of the seventies, which were not a threat to our societies.

What, then, should our new approach towards defense look like? That’s not an easy question to answer, but whatever model we end up with needs to take into account five important points:

The enemy within

Internal fragilities are a greater risk than external threats. By any objective measure, terrorism and external aggression are low risks to our personal safety, but they exacerbate our pre-existing sense of vulnerability. The biggest risks are the political upheavals that such a sense of vulnerability can trigger and that malevolent actors can exploit.

We can’t let fear win

Communities brought together only by fear are vulnerable because fear destroys trust, which is the foundation of any long-term human community. A much greater effort is needed to foster a positive sense of common purpose. Civic organizations and public debate have a critical role to play in strengthening the fabric of society from the bottom up.

Cities will supplant states

Physical proximity is becoming more relevant as a counterweight to the anonymity of globalization: in an urbanized world, cities are likely to become increasingly important as political units and standard bearers of identity. Over time, they may become more relevant to our security than states, provided that mechanisms are put in place to ensure effective sharing of data.

The only way to restore some symmetry and stability is to organize defense at the lowest possible level...

The changing nature of warfare

Top-down provision of security, based on the Weberian model of the state enjoying a monopoly on the legal use of force, is ill-suited to the growing diffusion of power, including lethal power, which multiplies the capacities of individuals to wreak havoc in a society. Attack is becoming much cheaper than defense, especially, but not only, in the cyber world. We should not be surprised if this makes asymmetric warfare the most rational way of conducting war, which would generate increased instability.

The power of devolution

The only way to restore some symmetry and stability is to organize defense at the lowest possible level, empowering individuals to protect themselves against cyber-attacks through point-to-point encryption, and empowering cities to strengthen local connections among its citizens, making it more difficult for outsiders to launch attacks. Devolving power to individuals and to lower levels of government will also deprive enemies of targets whose value resides in their symbolic value as centres of great power, reducing the advantage of asymmetric attack. Nuclear warfare, but also cyber warfare, will be less likely if there is no target of strategic importance.

A Brave New World

The implications of this transformation will inevitably be gradual but they will be far-reaching.

Nuclear weapons for instance, are the ultimate expression of the traditional centralized state system: they need its resources to be developed, they require extreme concentration of decision for the threat of use to be credible, and they require similarly structured enemies for the threat to have a target. Their elimination – essential for the long-term survival of humanity – is unlikely to come from a decision to abolish them, but it may eventually happen through an evolution of political structures that will make them irrelevant, for lack of resources, centralized decision makers, and targets.

At the strategic level, the evolution of the world towards ever-bigger building blocks – the US, China, Europe, Russia – ­will be reversed. The ongoing backlash against a European super-state is partly an expression of nostalgic nationalism, partly an acknowledgement that big structures can be dangerous because the stakes are just too high when a change occurs at the top. But now the era of the big state is coming to an end.

At the same time, the world has benefited enormously from the economies of scale of globalization and from the dynamism brought about by diversity. Individuals, cities must be connected, but the connections are unlikely to replicate the pyramidal model of traditional federalism. The European Union will need to adapt to that new situation if it wants to stay ahead of its time.

More likely, in a flatter world, interoperability and communications between smaller entities will be achieved through a multiplicity of issue-specific arrangements that will balance democratic and technical legitimacy: think of the evolving governance of the internet.

The ongoing backlash against a European super-state is partly an expression of nostalgic nationalism, partly an acknowledgement that big structures can be dangerous...

At the operational level, just as “know your customers” has become an obligation for any law-abiding bank, know-thy-neighbour is likely to become a feature of tomorrow’s societies. If applied to big entities such as mega-states, or even mega-cities, it could destroy anonymity, which has been an essential dimension of freedom, and could make our societies oppressively Orwellian.

However, if there is a multiplicity of political entities, allowing us to choose our neighbours, and if we can protect privacy through robust encryption, that risk will be largely eliminated. Freedom will be ensured less through separation of powers and more through a juxtaposition of multiple powers.

Why Decentralization Makes Sense

The present experience with increased flows of refugees pouring into Europe provides the best example of the value of decentralization. When human beings are just part of a statistic, they can easily be perceived as a threat. When they acquire a human face, natural human empathy reasserts itself, as has been the case in many German small towns welcoming refugees.

Decentralized defense will operationalize that intuition: the abstraction of the nation feeds dangerous nationalism; the empowerment of individuals connected by proximity strengthens the fabric of a resilient and open society.

A New Jersey police officer stands guard in front of the Omar Mosque in Paterson, U.S., on 1 November 2017. Eduardo Munoz Alvarez/AFP

Today’s Uzbekistan and Manhattan’s Deadly Truck Attack

An immigrant from Central Asia has admitted to carrying out the 31 October truck attack in New York on behalf of the Islamic State. Sayfullo Saipov left his native Uzbekistan seven years ago and U.S. and Uzbek authorities say he was radicalised in the U.S.

What do we know about the Uzbek links of the New York attacker?

Sayfullo Saipov left Uzbekistan in 2010, aged 21 or 22, and entered the U.S. legally on a Diversity Visa Lottery Program. We cannot say with certainty yet when he was radicalised, but both U.S. and Uzbek authorities say it was in the U.S. Others, including Saipov’s Uzbek wife and another Uzbek man, are being questioned by the FBI. It is not clear whether Saipov had any direct contact with the Islamic State (ISIS) or other Central Asians linked to the group, but ISIS, after some delay, claimed responsibility for the attack on 3 November. There is no evidence of any connection to the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, a jihadist group that has operated for much of the last fifteen years in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

What do we know about Saipov’s relationship with the broader Uzbek migrant community in the U.S.?

Mirrakhmat Muminov, an ethnic Uzbek religious activist, blogger and human rights activist based in Ohio, told Crisis Group on 1 November that he met Saipov, who is from the Uzbek capital Tashkent, in 2011. Saipov married a fellow Uzbek and had children, but Muminov described him as “a very aggressive, depressive and unstable guy … he couldn’t find a job for a long time, he couldn’t go back to Uzbekistan to see his parents”. Like the U.S. and Uzbek authorities, Muminov argues that whatever motivated him to perpetrate the attacks in New York happened while he was in the U.S. He said that communities of Uzbeks (in 2015 the official number of Uzbek migrants in the U.S. was 55,000, though the real number is widely thought to be much higher) and those of other Central Asians now fear they will become targets of extra scrutiny.

What is the background to ISIS recruitment among Central Asians?

In 2015, Crisis Group estimated that there are between 2,000 and 4,000 Central Asians fighting in Syria and Iraq. ISIS – unlike, for example, al-Qaeda – has been able to create compelling recruitment material and propaganda for the post-Soviet space in not only Russian but local languages. It has attracted a broad range of people from Central Asia from teenage girls following their boyfriends who were recruited in Russia to one high-ranking U.S. trained Tajik security official.

ISIS has had some success in attracting Uzbek citizens and ethnic Uzbeks from neighbouring Kyrgyzstan. Uzbek citizens form the largest contingent of Central Asians in Iraq and Syria (though Uzbekistan also has the largest population in the region). Saipov joins two other Uzbek citizens who are known to be responsible for ISIS-linked terror attacks. Abdulgadir Masharipov carried out the New Year’s Eve attack on the Reina nightclub in Istanbul and Rakhat Akilov was responsible for the truck attack in Stockholm in April 2017. Turkish authorities also say citizens of Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan were among those responsible for the attack on Istanbul airport in June 2016, and an ethnic Uzbek originally from Kyrgyzstan carried out an attack on the St. Petersburg metro in April 2017. An Uzbek in the U.S. was found guilty of supporting ISIS in October 2017. In the case of Akilov, the Uzbek government says they warned European security services about him.

Radicalisation, however, does not always happen in the country of origin. Saipov, like the Boston Marathon bombers in 2013 (who were ethnic Chechens originally from Kyrgyzstan), appears to have been radicalised in the U.S. This suggests that any well-tailored policy response should focus on a variety of factors that led to this outcome, among them in all likelihood the wide availability of ISIS-inspired materials on the internet. Addressing the accessibility of such materials in a manner that respects the right to free expression has been and will remain a significant challenge for Western governments.

What is likely to happen next in the Saipov case, and what could be done to prevent a recurrence?

The Uzbek authorities say they will cooperate with the U.S. and that they are investigating Saipov’s history. This likely will involve rounding up family and acquaintances still in Uzbekistan for questioning. Although the new Uzbek president, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, appears committed to reform, Uzbek security services are notorious for their use of torture.

With respect to criminal process inside the U.S., in deciding to try Saipov through civilian rather than military courts, the U.S. government chose a more effective and more legitimate forum.

Those in the U.S. who support restricting immigration in general already are seizing on the fact that Saipov came into the country on a so-called “diversity visa” in order to reinforce their campaign to limit both legal and illegal immigration. That he appears to have been radicalised in the U.S. is unlikely to be persuasive in pushing back against this trend. Yet to restrict immigration in arbitrary fashion would be to misdiagnose the problem, turning foreigners into scapegoats. In particular, Crisis Group in the past has called into question the U.S. administration’s policy of preventing citizens from certain countries travelling to the U.S.

Are there any implications in terms of U.S. policy toward Uzbekistan?

U.S. interests in Uzbekistan currently chiefly are linked to Afghanistan, with which Uzbekistan shares a heavily guarded 137km long border. The country has also been the recipient of U.S. military and technical aid.

It is not clear that the attack in and of itself will lead to refocused U.S. attention on Uzbekistan or Central Asia more broadly, since for now nothing links the attacks to that region beyond Saipov’s nationality. That said, and independently of the attack, there is good reason for the U.S. to pay more attention to the need for political reform and socio-economic development as much as counter-terrorism. An opportunity exists. Uzbekistan has been opening up under President Mirziyoyev, who took office in September 2017 after the death of President Islam Karimov, whose rule was characterised by violent political and religious repression. The country appears to be seeking to embark on important reforms, although that inevitably will take time and require international support.

Some early signs are encouraging. This year the government removed some 16,000 people from a long-standing list of 17,000 alleged extremists, a categorisation that previously had served as a convenient way to target Karimov’s political opponents. Mirziyoyev also has pledged support for Uzbek migrants, typically to Russia, in contrast to his predecessor’s description of them as “lazy”.

Finally, Mirziyoyev has broken with Uzbekistan’s formerly isolationist foreign policy and is seeking to mend relations with Central Asian neighbours, including Turkey as well as troubled states such as Tajikistan. This potentially could present an opportunity to resolve deep-seated disagreements among regional states, including competition over water resources and border demarcation.