Pakistan: A Crossroads for US Defense Strategy

President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, along with members of the national security team, receive an update on the mission against Osama bin Laden in the Situation Room of the White House Photo: PETER SOUZA

May 1, 2011: United States Navy SEAL Team 6 boarded two helicopters and crossed the Afghan border. They flew low, evading radar coverage on their way into Abbottabad, Pakistan (a military town home to the Pakistani military academy) and the location where U.S. intelligence believed they would find America’s most wanted criminal, the man responsible for the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001.

The excitement of the day eight years ago masked the fact that modern US-Pakistani relations were laid bare. A clearer picture emerged as the public discovered that the mission to capture or kill Osama Bin Laden was conducted without the knowledge or involvement of the Pakistani government and that this lack of transparency was not an anomaly in the era of the War on Terror.

During the Obama presidency, U.S. policy was designed to elicit Pakistani support in order to facilitate a renewed focus on winning the war in Afghanistan, as many Taliban elders sought refuge in the tribal regions of Pakistani northern Waziristan.

This entailed limited appeasement of the Pakistanis, in order to try to develop the partnership through billions of dollars in aid and support. Former Obama administration national-security council advisor Joshua White, now at The Brookings Institution, explained that at that time “the duplicity of Pakistan’s intelligence services was baked into the stock price of U.S.-Pakistan relations.”

Despite this understanding, as time went on inaction and opposition to US policy in Afghanistan would strain the relationship. It seemed the Obama Pakistan policy was doomed by a fundamental reality of US relations in the region: Security issues have always been the most pressing impetus for diplomatic relations, and they will always find a way to dominate the agenda.

The problem then and remains today that tensions will inevitably arise from a mismatch in security interests between the two countries. Several more diplomatic incidents involving CIA assassins and an unintentional attack on Pakistani forces by a NATO warplane would later underscore the reality of relations with Islamabad for Obama, who would later acknowledge that he questioned why the alliance existed at all.

The Trump administration benefits strongly from the hindsight of the Obama years. For them, the problem of demanding greater Pakistani action is much more one of stop-losses. Despite bilateral failings and differing priorities, the Pakistanis outstrip most other allied nations in counterterror action against organizations like Al Qaeda, the Pakistani Taliban, the Haqqani Network and other mutual nuisances, but less so when it comes to unilateral US concerns like the Afghan Taliban.

A senior US intelligence official interviewed by The New Yorker last year described the “maddening truth” that despite the willingness to give funding and sanctuary to Taliban leaders, “Nobody had taken more bad guys off the battlefield than the Pakistanis.” Islamabad’s willingness to prioritize their own interests has long been tolerated, but that may be coming to an end as the new administration’s foreign policy is seen as less flexible.

President Trump appears to be comfortable taking a hardline position with Pakistan, raising the bar for access to US aid in the hopes of greater support, while seemingly willing to accept diminished returns if they are not willing to step up counterterror efforts. Last year he spoke out on Twitter condemning Islamabad’s lack of commitment as he announced a wave of significant cuts to economic and military aid in an attempt to underscore the seriousness of his administration’s new policy.

For the administration, a diminished – but not severed – the alliance has some advantages.

The US occupies a precarious position, balancing concern for regional partners like India and the desire to continue efforts to develop an exit strategy for Afghanistan, which are heavily predicated on Pakistani support to the Taliban.

Reducing military aid while enjoying the benefits of the somewhat diminished counterterror efforts Pakistan carries out on its own would allow the U.S. to reassure commitments to India but would cost the U.S. significantly in negotiations with the Taliban in Afghanistan. For now, Trump has not yet made clear which is the ultimate priority in the region.

Continued indecisiveness will threaten new bilateral economic agreements with India.

Given the mandate Indian PM Narendra Modi holds from his recent victory, he is likely to extend his hardline anti-Pakistan rhetoric, particularly after the widely condemned Pakistani sponsored JeM attacks on a bus of Indian troops in April.

As India rachets up tensions, Pakistan stands squarely in the crosshairs of this emerging and potentially invaluable alliance for Washington. India’s position as a regional power makes it a priority, as their capability to check back against the rise of China can resolve a signature Trump policy goal. Sacrifices are going to have to be made. The result of such decisions may be grave for Pakistan.

As future US-Pakistani relations evolve, there must be a greater focus on bilateral accountability, commitment, and anti-corruption efforts.

Without them, future efforts to combat terrorism in the region will likely remain productive when there is an ongoing mutual interest, but continue to be hampered by distrust and lack of commitment when U.S. attention turns to groups with which Pakistan finds strategic convenience in turning a blind eye, particularly with the Taliban.

Likewise, if the rift between the nations were to exacerbate, the Pakistanis may find limited access to important trade and economic aid which has been essential to the local economy and may struggle with counterterror coup-proofing to resist regional insurgents bent on vying for control of the country.

A significant part of the decision to retain the support of Pakistan needs to be made with respect to the continuing goals and strategy in Afghanistan. Pakistan has never made secret its efforts to back regional extremists in the northern tribal areas of that country and has long given refuge to Taliban elders within its borders.

Obama set the course for a slow withdrawal from Afghanistan, along with the legitimization of Taliban rule in exchange for the closure of terror camps – the pre-9/11 US strategy.

If Trump wants to take the position that there cannot be legitimate Taliban rule in Afghanistan under his watch, then he will have to put increasing pressure on Islamabad to force greater counter-terror participation.

If the administration is content with the settlement being developed by the US special envoy for Afghanistan – a plan albeit widely unpopular with Congress – then it may be wise to dissolve much of the alliance in favor of broader support of India.

This reflects a much bigger crossroads in the future of US threat analysis: does the administration believe it necessary to remain engaged in widespread counterinsurgency, or is it time to cut losses in favor of a solution to emerging great power woes?

A Profile of John Walker Lindh — The American Taliban

John Walker Lindh in January 2002. Image Courtesy of the Associated Press.

On February 9, 1981, the man who would become known as “The American Taliban” was born in Washington, D.C. John Phillip Walker Lindh is a former foreign fighter for the Taliban, often known for his involvement in the Battle of Qula–i-Jangi; a Taliban uprising which resulted in the death of CIA Officer Johnny “Mike” Span. After serving 17 years of his 20-year sentence, Lindh was released from prison under supervisory conditions on May 23, 2019.

Lindh was raised Catholic in Marino County, California, just outside of San Francisco. He is described as a bookish teenager who began studying Islam and the Middle East through his high schools’ alternative and self-directed study programs. Lindh’s initial interest in Islam has been linked to watching the Spike Lee film, “Malcolm X”, when he was 12.

However, his earnest interest in the faith and such related topics of study could have been marred by the extracurricular research Lindh engaged in as an active user of Internet Relay Chat rooms (IRC). Using the alternate identity “Mujahid”, Lindh communicated with others online largely about hip-hop music and racial topics. However, it is known that there are IRCs dedicated to the Taliban and Jihad, which indicates such online activity could have exposed Lindh to radical ideas.

Lindh officially converted to Islam at the age of 16, around the same time he dropped out of high school and was reported as participating in the IRCs. He also began attending mosques in Mill Valley and San Francisco. He reportedly became involved with Tablighi Jamaat, a Sunni missionary group, at this time. This group had not previously been associated with al-Qaeda or the Taliban, but has recently been investigated for links to radicalized militants. While the group was not tied to radicalization at the time of Lindh’s capture, the fact that it has been investigated in more recent years suggests Lindh may have been influenced by this group’s radical ideas.

Throughout his adolescence, Lindh’s parents experienced conflict within their marriage eventually leading to their divorce in 1999. His family instability could be noted as another influence in Lindh’s turn to Islam. His participation in the online chat rooms containing extremist messaging could also have infiltrated his ideology and affected his scholarly interest in the Middle East.

At the age of 17, Lindh decided to leave the U.S. for Yemen, with hopes to study Arabic so that he could read the Qur’an in its original language. He then traveled to Pakistan in 2000, where it is said he encountered extremist groups and training that ultimately influenced his decision to move to Afghanistan and join the Taliban.

However, Lindh claims his original motivation for joining the Taliban came from a desire to fight the mistreatment of civilians by the Northern Alliance. He reported hearing about this mistreatment through various stories; While it is not clear which outlets or messages Lindh received such information, this case illuminates the importance of eliminating misinformation and propaganda from public discourse. This can be achieved through means such as media literacy programs or more robust online security and privacy measures. Since 75% of domestic jihadists knew or were in contact with another jihadist prior to becoming radicalized, it is likely that Lindh was influenced by the information shared with other users of his IRCs or people he met while traveling and studying in Yemen and Pakistan. Whether it be through online forums or verbal conversations with other extremists, misinformation is a dangerous contributor to radicalization and should continue to be a priority in counter-terrorism work.

Since Lindh’s capture, contradictory reports have emerged as to his motivations for joining the Taliban as well as his understanding of the consequences of his involvement. During his trial, Lindh condemned terrorism and indicated he never held the desire to fight against Americans. Other reports, such as one from the National Counterterrorism Center, claim that Lindh would continue to advocate for jihad and violent extremism. The confusion and lack of clarity around the context and details of such reports must be resolved quickly in order to gain a comprehensive understanding of the belief system Lindh currently holds after having spent 17 years in prison. This case exposes a large question the U.S. will face in the coming years, as more extremists and convicted terrorists are released back into society without certainty of the continued existence of dangerous ideology that could pose security risks in the future.

While there are no formal procedures for re-entry of convicted terrorists and sympathizers within the U.S. Justice system at this point, there are some recommendations and best practices set in place to deal with this increasingly prevalent situation. First, counseling focused on mental health and identification of the initial causes of radicalization can be recommended; This will not only aid the individual, such as Lindh, but also provide scholars and practitioners with a broader understanding of the life circumstances that can lead individuals vulnerable  to extremist messaging.

In addition, existing re-entry programs for former prisoners involved with gangs could be modified in order to apply to violent extremists, with similar encouragement of study, job training, and programming elements. These programs could provide alternative life paths, sense of belonging, and new sources of information to help eliminate dependence and association with extremist narratives. Monitoring of compliance with such programs is necessary not only during their sentence but also upon release, ideally from mentors who have experienced a similar situation but have emerged de-radicalized.

The way in which the media and public reacted to Lindh’s initial case as well as his release should be used as an example when addressing the situation of Americans linked to terrorism reentering society. In both instances, headlines and sound bites were quick to villainize him and draw attention to his case. The recent terrorist attack in New Zealand comes to mind as an alternative example, when the Prime Minister, in an effort to reduce copycats and the fetishization of terrorism, refused to address the terrorist responsible and would not play the video of the attack. The narratives perpetuated by the media and popular discussion seem relevant to Lindh’s, and others who had become radicalized, return to society.

Since radicalization can stem from feelings of being an outsider or from being bullied, the mass public villainization of Lindh and other Americans linked to terrorist organizations seems to be counterproductive in achieving the type of reintegration that would be necessary to avoid a former prisoner’s retreat into extremist ideology. Not only will the systems and programs in place matter in how we handle re-entry, but the influence of the media and public discourse will matter as well, if not more.

Overall, the case of John Walker Lindh reminds America and the world not only of the spread of extremism but also the complex ways in which the world deals with extremism and terror. Through comprehensive research on an extremist’s path to radicalization, formalized mentorship and re-entry procedures, and an evaluation of the media’s influence on the re-entry process, the U.S. will have a chance to effectively manage the reintegration of former extremists back into society.

Nikki Hinshaw is a Counter-terrorism Research Fellow at Rise to Peace, a non-profit organization, and a current undergraduate student at Arizona State University. She has multiple years of experience in managing communications and marketing for organizations in all sectors, as well as in conducting research on topics relating to a variety of global social issues and public diplomacy policy and practice.

Egypt’s Only Democratically Elected Leader Dies in Court


CAIRO, EGYPT – (ARCHIVE) : A file photo dated August 08, 2015 shows Ousted Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi greeting as he stands inside the defendants’ cage in a courtroom at the police academy during his trial over espionage with Qatar, in Cairo, Egypt. Egypt’s first democratically-elected president, Mohamed Morsi, 67, died Monday during a court trial on espionage charges.
( Ahmed Omar – Anadolu Agency )

Muhammad Morsi, Egypt’s former President and aged 67, has died of a reported heart attack in a public court appearance in Egypt after speaking for five minutes, according to State TV in Egypt. His death was Kafkaesque. Morsi, a loyal member of the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, replaced Hosni Mubarak in the first democratic election in Egypt’s history in 2012 after the Arab Revolution in 2011. However, his stint in office was short-lived. Despite winning the Presidency, he was undermined by the security services, the military, and the Mubarak-era courts.

The military removed Morsi from power in 2013 and he has since been imprisoned. The Defense Minister Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who is now President of Egypt, played a critical role in Morsi’s downfall. Since then, Morsi has been made to make appearances to answer for crimes such as torture and espionage in Egypt’s notoriously flawed court system. The outlawed group Morsi was part of, The Muslim Brotherhood has claimed that the death of one of their most loyal members was “full-fledged murder” on behalf of the Egyptian State.

Previously, the Muslim Brotherhood was banned but tolerated by Mubarak’s government. In 2014, Sisi said the group “will not exist” when he wins the country’s Presidential elections. Today, the group is much less organized and structured; with most members in Doha or Istanbul. Hamas, the group that de facto controls the Gaza strip and that has close ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, has expressed sympathy for the death of Morsi. His “unforgettable and brave positions” were commended for the ease of trade and travel between Egypt and Gaza during his Presidency. The President of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has also expressed condolences.

Egypt’s chief prosecutor Nabil Sadek is examining the cause of Morsi’s death as the Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International are concerned of Morsi’s treatment in custody. Calls for an impartial, thorough and transparent investigation have been raised, however, with the State’s institutions acting under the influence of current President Sisi, this looks unlikely to happen. The death of Egypt’s only democratically elected President will go down as a footnote in history.

The current report so far reads that no mistreatment has occurred and therefore, the state is not to blame. However, it is well known that Morsi was held at the infamous Tora prison under grim conditions. It is also reported that Morsi suspected that the guards were trying to poison his food. Moreover, he was being held in solitary confinement for prolonged periods of time and denied sufficient medical care. This is in stark contrast to the treatment of another ex-President Hosni Mubarak. He was not held in Tora prison, but in a military hospital and is reported to now be enjoying retirement.

The Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, known as the Mandela Rules, were adopted in December 2015 by the United Nations and set out general practices on ethical and moral confinement of prisoners under international law. It seems Egypt has violated many principles, both legal and moral, in the treatment of Muhammad Morsi. But the final medical report of the chief prosecutors given the findings of the forensic examiners can provide correct details of his death.

For now, this case serves to highlight a myriad of developing themes in international affairs; A country sliding back into dictatorship; The weakness of international law and the lack of political will to enforce them; And religious, regional rivalries dividing countries and people in a never-ending game of geopolitics and divide-and-rule.

Although Morsi was a poor President who mishandled the economy, this was no justification for the army’s actions in launching a coup, suspending the constitution, and killing and detaining Morsi supporters in the aftermath of Sisi’s coming to power in 2014. Being aware of this harsh reality is the first step to realizing how difficult, but worthwhile, it is to work to attain peace in an often unjust and complex world.

Special Report: Countering neo-Nazi Ideology in the United States: Waging a War of Information

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In the report Countering neo-Nazi Ideology in the United States: Waging a War of Information, Director of the Domestic Counter-Terrorism Program John Patrick Wilson and Counter-Terrorism Research Fellow Caitlyn Ryan offer in-depth analysis of the neo-Nazi movement. This broad endeavor covers many important topics required to understand neo-Nazism in the US and methods to offset it going forward. Please click the above link to view the publication in its entirety.

‘Martyrdom, bro.’: A Case Study on How Mark Steven Domingo Went from the US Army to Would-Be Terrorist

On April 26, 2019, Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) officials arrested former United States Army Private Mark Steven Domingo. He stood accused of plotting to detonate an explosive device with the intent of causing a mass casualty event. Domingo, who resides in the small neighborhood of Reseda in California’s San Fernando Valley, planned on targeting a reported white nationalist rally in Bluff Park, located in Long Beach on April 28, 2019. But how did the 26-year old veteran end up at this point?

Information about Domingo and his background is preliminary. However, numerous sources, some reportedly close to the accused came forward and made some key statements that may shed some light on the psyche of the would-be terrorist.

Domingo served in the US Army from November of 2011 to February of 2013. Included in this time was a relatively brief stint in Afghanistan from September of 2012 to either January or February of 2013. Domingo’s time in Afghanistan, and the US Army, was cut short due to a behavioral infraction. Officials did not reveal the nature of the incident, but did indicate that it was a serious offense. Unnamed sources state that it was violent in nature and Domingo found himself back in the United States shortly after. He was issued a general discharge within weeks; one-step lower than an honorable discharge.

After his discharge, it is believed Domingo enrolled in some college-level courses at a local college. It is believed that he did not graduate. There is a large gap in the information about Domingo from this point until late in the fall of 2018. From here, his younger brother James and a self-described ex-girlfriend of Domingo provided some insight to reporters. According to his sibling, Domingo converted to Islam in the fall of 2018 or in early 2019 and started to attend prayers at a local mosque which practiced Sufism—a form of Islamic mysticism. Until the time of his arrest, James believed his brother’s sudden focus on religion was a positive development that offered some guidance in his life. James did not elaborate on his choice of words, but one would be led to assume that this referred to some type of turmoil in Domingo’s personal life.

Domingo’s family situation, as described as James, further represents a source of stress. James stated that his brother lived with him, their aunt, and grandmother. The siblings parents do not appear to be in the picture as James stated that he was not sure if they knew of the arrest and charges.

The reported ex-girlfriend of Domingo stated that his conversion to Islam corresponded with her having a miscarriage, indicating that the child was conceived with Domingo. This unnamed female further stated that Domingo worked as a sales representative at a security company where he was unhappy. Additional family members stated in a letter addressed to the media that there was members of the family who were ill and needed their attention, requesting privacy in the wake of these allegations.

Law enforcement officials first became aware of Domingo and his extremist views via online chatrooms. While it was not made immediately clear what exactly Domingo expressed in this chatrooms, officials state that they began surveillance on him almost immediately. Undercover law enforcement officials began conversing with Domingo through various means and captured numerous incriminating statements. Domingo stated that he wanted to engage in “violent jihad against the United States”, listing numerous targets from Jewish religious establishments to police officers. Domingo additionally referenced the New Zealand Mosque shootings as a motivator to launch an attack. Interestingly, Domingo stated that he would pledge allegiance to the Islamic State, but only if the group established a presence in the United States.

Unbeknownst to Domingo, he began to plot his attack with undercover FBI agents. Eventually, one of these agents offered Domingo an inert explosive device which he accepted. Domingo potentially and briefly reconsidered launching an attack. In a series of messages with undercover agents, Domingo considered postponing the attack until he had finished the Quran, also stating that he desired to experience Ramadan. Domingo stated that he would sleep on it, but gave the go ahead for attack preparation to continue the next day. When asked what he wanted to accomplish with his attack, Domingo stated “Martyrdom, bro”. Currently, the facts available are insufficient to produce a full analysis of the radicalization process of Domingo. What is known about Domingo that may have indicated a vulnerability towards radicalization though?

It appears that Domingo had an unstable family situation, at least for some years. It is unclear whether his parents are the ones described as ill by family members, but they have not been living with Domingo for some time. After exhibiting what was described as a serious violent incident, Domingo was discharged from the military. In recent years, Domingo was dissatisfied with his employment, perhaps thinking he deserved a better job and feeling underappreciated. If the unnamed female who identified herself as Domingo’s ex-girlfriend is genuine, Domingo suffered two recent stressors – the miscarriage of a child and, by the designation of ex-girlfriend, a break up.

These accumulated incidents by no means justify Domingo’s actions or beliefs. They do, however, show a potential chipping away at the psyche of an individual who already exhibited violent tendencies. Time will tell further details as his the case moves through legal proceedings. Domingo is facing a maximum of 15-years in prison, thus, unfortunately, this may not be the last we hear of Mark Steven Domingo.