26 March 2014

The "Nasa collapse study" controversy: some thoughts

After my article on a new study of civilisational collapse part-funded by NASA went viral and global last week, the web has been afire with all sorts of controversy and debate, some useful, some not so.

Lessons learned?

Clearly, the mere mentioning of a "Nasa-funded study" of "civilisational collapse" in my headline was enough to spark massive interest, but also didn't help with the ensuing headlines off the back of my original piece, to the effect that the study - an independent research project - was assumed by many to be a NASA directed project.

As I pointed out here, the creation of the HANDY model designed to explore various scenarios of civilisational collapse, integral to the new study, was indeed pursued with NASA funding. This certainly added credibility to it in my eyes.

However, as a fellow environment journalist Stephen Leahy pointed out to me the other day on Twitter, although he agreed with the substance of my articles on this, he felt it was inaccurate to refer to the study simply as "NASA-sponsored" - he would've specified, "partly sponsored by NASA."

So while it seemed reasonable to me at the time to abbreviate this into "NASA-funded study", I recognise how not being specific on the nature of this funding allowed other outlets to conflate the story into reports about Nasa. I didn't exactly help by excitedly tweeting out all the headlines that ensued, many of which simply stated "Nasa says", or "Nasa study finds" blah blah - and a couple of times I got carried away and put out a few tweets to the same effect myself. I went back and deleted those one or two tweets I could find where I referred offhand to "Nasa study" in my own words. As of today, the original Guardian article has been amended to more clearly state the independent nature of the study and its relationship to Nasa.

Lessons I've learned. Be specific, be clear. Don't RT uncritically - just because RT's don't automatically equal endorsement, it can sure look like that to others. And don't get yourself carried away in the tidal wave of media self-replication.

Was the HANDY model newsworthy?

Of course the other issue is the credibility of the study, and of the HANDY model. I stand by the scholarly importance of the study (see my expert source cited below, a Stanford University sociologist) and in particular I stand by its news value, which some have questioned on the basis that the study is some form of 'junk science'.

In fact, a few people have been very, very unscrupulous in the way they've decided to attack me, as well as attack this article. There are lessons to be learned on a number of sides.

Keith Kloor's insertion into this, backed up by his erstwhile blogger Robert Wilson (an obscure research student of Mathematical Ecology who models Plankton), has been an enlightening experience. I've been attacked, smeared, defamed and muddied before online - so it's nothing new to me and not really a big deal. But when that sort of behaviour ends up being effectively endorsed or carried out by a journalist who writes for a reputable science publication, and someone doing scientific research at a university, it deserves highlighting and exposure.

Kloor and Wilson

Both Wilson and Kloor, together, seem to have an ideological aversion to reporting of, or discussion around, peak oil, which recognises that the plateauing of conventional oil production is in part responsible for escalating oil prices which will be increasingly debilitating for economic growth - certainly as long as we remain largely dependent on fossil fuels. Here, we find Wilson and Kloor responding in the following manner to my story based on the work of a former BP geologist, Richard Miller, who had just given an academic presentation at UCL on oil and gas supply forecasting, and had also co-edited a recently released special edition of the peer-reviewed Proceedings of the Royal Society B on oil and energy issues:

Rather than engaging with the actual arguments - arguments here which are not mine, but those of Dr. Richard Miller and contributors to one of the most prestigious journals in the world - Kloor and Wilson instead engage in some generic banter to misrepresent me as a 'doomer'. As if the mere mention of a break on economic growth due to looming energy challenges constitutes a forecast of doom (it doesn't - it's known as "risk analysis")
I cite this merely to indicate the kind of childish ad hominem attacks Kloor and Wilson routinely indulge in, often together.

Kloor then ran this piece highlighting my article on a Nature Communications study documenting declining rate of growth in crop yields in key food basket regions around the world. Once again rather than engaging with the issues raised in the paper, Kloor wrote:

Equating the thesis of my book and film with that of the Collapse movie illustrates disinterest in simple fact-checking. Even the link to my film that Kloor supplies explains further:

"The film reveals how a failure to understand the systemic context of these crises, linked to neoliberal ideology, has generated a tendency to deal not with their root structural causes, but only with their symptoms. This has led to the proliferation of war, terror, and state-terror, including encroachment on civil liberties, while accelerating global crises rather than solving them... 
The real solution, Nafeez argues, is to recognise the inevitability of civilizational change, and to work toward a fundamental systemic transformation based on more participatory forms of living, politically, economically and culturally."

Only someone functionally illiterate, plain dumb, or deliberately obtuse would interpret this as meaning that I predict unequivocal doom. And as these reviews indicate, my book, A User's Guide to the Crisis of Civilization: And How to Save It, is ultimately optimistic in tone.

This essentially seems to sum up how Kloor often deals with issues or subjects - or people - that he disagrees with: character assassination, scorn, mockery etc., etc., but sadly, at least in my case, not much meaning argument, or counter-evidence.

Kloor and Wilson, however, hit a record when they apparently began collaborating on a response to my part-Nasa-funded civilisational collapse story.

Faux Modellers

In his critique of this story, Kloor sets the tone by painting me as a 'doomer', and a liar: 

"Since joining the Guardian’s blogging network in 2013, Ahmed has carved out what I would call the doomsday beat...  A good example, of course, is the collapse paper he disingenuously hyped as being 'NASA-sponsored.' (You’ll soon understand why that was deceptive.)" 

Of course, Kloor isn't actually in a position to know my motives, but goes ahead and asserts a deliberate deception on my part in "hyping" a Nasa link. Kloor then cites as his basis for further scepticism of the study itself, and of my alleged "conspiratorial leanings", the following:

"There were a couple of skeptical outliers, some folks who know about mathematical models and were incredulous after reading both the study and the Guardian story. One is Robert Wilson, a UK Mathematical Ecology PhD Student who wrote up his impressions at his personal blog. Another is the U.S. science journalist David Appell, who offered his thoughts on the study’s model and (like Wilson) also took note of Ahmed’s conspiracy theorist leanings."

The first notable problem here is that, although Kloor cites Wilson and Appell as if they are independent experts whose perspectives on the credibility of the study's model is relevant, this is untrue. Although both Wilson and Appell have academic experience of mathematical modelling, neither have any clue about modelling in the context of social phenomena - see Wilson's and Appell's resumes. As said before, Wilson models Plankton, and Appell worked as a physicist decades ago.

While obviously there are overlaps, social modelling is a different ballgame, and unless you've actually modelled sociological variables, you won't necessarily get it. Attempting to model social and physical systems together is a specialised discipline that requires inputs of expertise from both social and natural sciences. Someone who doesn't understand this should simply be ignored. Kloor doesn't - he apparently seeks them out purely because they back up his desire to lambast the HANDY model, regardless of whether they actually have the relevant academic knowhow to comment.

9/11.... wtf?

Wilson's first blogpost on the subject referenced by Kloor is a highly defamatory screed replete with misrepresentations and outright falsehoods.

Like Kloor, he opens with character assassination:

"I cannot claim to know how much the Guardian pay their in house apocalypse merchant Nafeez Ahmed, but I hope it is not much. Not really a regular journalist, Mr. Ahmed runs the Earth Insight blog 'hosted' (does 'hosted' mean the Guardian get the stuff for nothing?) by the Guardian. If your idea of journalism is someone waking up each morning and then doing a Google Scholar search and credulously reporting every piece of half-baked research that backs up that journalist’s prejudices then Mr. Ahmed is your guy."

No substance here except it's clear that Wilson, like Kloor, doesn't agree with my take on things. He continues by claiming that I'm a 9/11 conspiracy theorist:

"Mr. Ahmed spent a large part of the 2000s going around concocting conspiracy theories about September 11th [update: the link to Mr. Ahmed's crackpot conspiracy theories has been removed from his website in the day since I posted this (you don't need to be a conspiracy theorist to draw a conclusion). Fortunately you can still read it using the archive.is website here.], telling us that the US government was partly behind the whole thing. Back then he was doing the rounds of 9/11 truth conferences, today, sadly, the Guardian has been foolish enough to give him a platform."

The post Wilson links to is working now for anyone to peruse at their heart's desire. After I realised that Wilson was using it to discredit my work, I archived it temporarily as a sort of sociological experiment to test how Wilson and Kloor would react, and whether either of them would demonstrate any academic/journalistic integrity. As suspected, Wilson went bonkers with rather embarrassing results, and Kloor eagerly followed him down the rabbit hole. In almost every blogpost Wilson writes about me (many cited and tweeted by Kloor), he references the "conspiracy" of the missing "9/11 conspiracy" article in an exercise of triumphant disclosure. It would be funny, if it weren't so feeble.

I was hoping that before promoting Wilson's allegations, Kloor would at least follow his own advice re: 'fact checking' and 'journalism 101' - y'know, maybe drop me an email or a call to find out the state of play. He didn't do that. Instead, he preferred to drop conspiratorial insinuations about my deceptive nature (and clearly ignored the tweet on 17th March where I'd actually publicly acknowledged deleting the post precisely to annoy them):

So, let's just get this non-issue out the way.

As long-time readers of my work here will know, the idea that I'm a 9/11 conspiracy theorist is patently absurd - whether you agree or disagree with my arguments. As an international security scholar, my first book, The War on Freedom, raised fundamental questions about the role of US-UK foreign, defence, intelligence and other policies in facilitating the activities of Islamist terrorist groups in the decades leading up to the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and on the day itself in relation to the emergency response of the national security system. The book was mandatory reading for the 9/11 Commissioners, and was also used by the 9/11 Family Steering Committee to inform their lines of inquiry in demanding an independent investigation. My testimony in US Congress about my work related to my third book, The War on Truth, was filmed by C-Span and can be viewed here.

Wilson writes:

"anyone familiar with Mr. Ahmed’s approach will note that he likes to put high emphasis on credentials, in this case Nasa, as Christopher Hitchens delightfully mocked here.)"

Unfortunately, neither Wilson, nor Kloor who cites/tweets him so copiously, saw fit to do sufficient fact-checking to identify my rebuttal of Hitchens in the Independent on Sunday, which pretty much demolishes Hitchens while setting out my actual perspective on 9/11 quite clearly.

Along these lines, in a separate blog post where Wilson declares - "Fact checking however should never get in the way of a good story" - he claims:

"However trumping up credentials is something he is rather fond of. Just read the About section of his personal website. There he gives a rather lengthy resume. This includes a boast about how his work was discussed in Vanity Fair by Christopher Hitchens. Hitchens however was not exactly praising Mr. Ahmed, instead he was calling him a 'contemptible' man who concocts half-baked conspiracy theories.
Similarly he talks about how his conspiracy theorist utterings about terrorist bombings were 'used' by various investigations. By 'used' he means that he sent them a copy of his work, which anyone is free to do. Whether they used them for anything other than recycled paper is unclear."

Of course, readers of my blog will note that Hitchens' description of me is described right here on these pages on the right-hand side, six quotes down. Yes right over there. Can you see it? This website wears that quote rather proudly :) So much for fact-checking Mr Wilson (and Kloor).

The inadequacy or non-existence of Wilson's research skills are on display again when he suggests that the "use" of my work by various official investigations is a fraud. In yet another post, he describes for me this reason as an "intellectual charlatan" - that is even after someone called Gareth post in the comments the link (already on my bio) to the National Archives in DC which lists the 9/11 Commission 'Special Collection' - yes, a copy of my book is archived in DC as part of an official collection of 99 books that were "made available to members of the Commission to use during its activities." If Wilson is unclear how these 99 books were selected for 9/11 Commission investigators (no, they didn't read everything they were sent in the post by random members of the public from around the world), he should do a bit of journalism and fact-check it himself. Perhaps call up the National Archives in DC?


The main problem seems that Wilson's capacity for sociological or political analysis is rather thin. He appears incapable of recognising the distinction between asking questions on the basis of factual anomalies, and positing a theory. I've never posited a "theory" about 9/11, least of all a "conspiracy theory" - the most I've argued is that the US and the West's unsavoury geopolitical relationship with Islamists over the last three or more decades has functioned to impede intelligence agencies, and undermine national security, in quite fundamental ways that dramatically increase the risk of terrorism at home and abroad. I see no particular ideological reason why such questions shouldn't be asked, if available evidence calls for it - without, however, getting involved in spurious speculation (and indeed such questions were asked by the 9/11 Family Steering Committee in quite reasonable fashion).

Indeed, my views about the sorry state of the so-called 9/11 "truth" movement are well-known. I'm on record in a number of places pointing out that simple physical anomalies cannot be used to justify conclusions of a government conspiracy (for instance, see my observations in Channel 4's eye-opening documentary "Conspiracy - Who Really Runs the World" on the WTC collapses, about 25 min in). So I kind of end up pissing off basically everyone, 'troofers', 'anti-troofers', and a lot in between.

But this is the problem with people like Wilson and Kloor - their idea of "journalism 101" doesn't seem to involve engaging directly and fully with people's actual writing/arguments, or even speaking to them properly. If they disagree with it at face value, it must be wrong, and it must be ridiculed. Fact-checking goes out the window.

Lies and Ignorance

After smearing me - a smear which Kloor repeats with reference to my alleged "conspiracy leanings" - (which he also sources to David Appell, who however merely references Wilson's blog) Wilson proceeds to 'dissect' my article:

"There appears to be no evidence that the paper in question has been peer-reviewed. Mr. Ahmed claims it has been accepted for publication by Ecological Economics.  Yet, the paper is not on the Ecological Economics website, although it is in submission. This kind of thing should be unacceptable from a reputable newspaper like the Guardian."

Sadly, Wilson didn't bother actually speaking to the authors of the study, as I had, who had confirmed the paper's acceptance for publication and peer-review.

"... I do not model human civilization as my day job. Instead I model plankton. If you want to do a half adequate job of modelling plankton populations you will probably need more than eight equations. And I think humans are more complex than plankton, but some times I have doubts. 

A model with this few equations will always provide egregious predictions about 'industrial collapse'. Anyone who spends more than two minutes looking on Gapminder will recognise that inter-country differences are so vast that using eight equations to accurately model humanity is like replicating the Sistine Chapel using a crayon."

Here, Wilson's ignorance of the nature and purposes of social modelling is embarrassing - equally so for Kloor's uncritical dependence on Wilson as one of his sources of expert authority.

According to Dr. Deborah S. Rogers of Stanford University's Institute for Research in the Social Sciences, who is a leading expert in modelling inequality and social stratification:

"Models do not prove hypotheses, nor do they replicate reality. Rather, models are useful because they give us some insight into possible mechanisms and possible consequences. These new insights, then, feed into the iterative process of hypothesis-testing that underlies good science. 
There is no problem with models that are 'simplistic' – they are supposed to be. A model is an abstraction from – a simplification of – reality. The objective is to see if you can understand the essential mechanism(s) that drive the system, and what some possible consequences of this mechanism might be. If the model results give you valuable insights into certain real-world trends, then maybe you have managed to capture the essence of the mechanism. If not, then you probably haven't, and you will need to either revise your model or add components to it. 
There is no particular value to making a model complex...you add just enough complexity until you are convinced that you have captured the essence of the mechanisms you are trying to understand. Meanwhile, it is fully acknowledged that there are many other things also going on in reality, that are not captured by the model...
Likewise, a demography/resources model that predicts collapse given certain relationships between the population and their resource base does not need to include the complexities of political, economic and social adjustments made in response to the situation. It merely shows us the possible outcomes, and leaves it to the archaeologists, anthropologists, social scientists, political scientists, economists, and policy-makers to debate the actual and hypothetical responses to these possibilities, and how they altered (or will alter) the outcomes...
The HANDY model finds that unequal populations collapse, although they apparently attribute this to the lack of labor as the working class dies off. Again, without commenting on the adequacy of the specifics of the HANDY formulation, I find the simplicity of the model useful and the results plausible. 
If we want to criticize the HANDY model, and by the same token our Spread of Inequality model, let’s focus on the specific mechanisms that are postulated – not on the simplicity of the model, and not on the lack of exact parallels with past events."

This illustrates just how ridiculous and unscientific are the responses of not just Wilson, but also Kloor's apparently partisan effort to discredit the HANDY model. 

But Wilson doesn't stop there. He proceeds to misrepresent the paper as follows:

"Most problematic is that they only model renewable resources. Modern civilization is fundamentally dependent on the provision of non-renewable resources on a huge scale."

This characterisation of the paper is simply untrue. Either Wilson hasn't read the paper properly, or wilfully misinterprets it to make his point. The paper says (p. 7):

"In reality, natural resources exist in three forms: nonrenewable stocks (fossil fuels, mineral deposits, etc), regenerating stocks (forests, soils, animal herds, wild fish stocks, game animals, aquifers, etc), and renewable ows (wind, solar radiation, precipitation, rivers, etc). Future generations of the model will disaggregate these forms. We have adopted a single formulation intended to represent an amalgamation of the three forms, allowing for a clear understanding of the role that natural resources play in collapse or sustainability of human societies."

He then ignores the study's reservations about technology in the context of carrying capacity:

"It also assumes that there is a fixed carrying capacity for populations. Carrying capacity itself is a deeply problematic concept. Think about Britain prior to the Industrial Revolution. If Britain had attempted to power the Industrial Revolution with wood it would have rapidly run out of trees. As Tony Wrigley argued in his fine book on the subject the transition to coal allowed Britain to escape the limits of a purely organic society. This makes it clear that this model, in its current form, offers limited insights into whether civilization will persist over the twenty first century."

But the study itself takes note of the pace of technological progress against the pace of resource consumption, with respect to a concept of carrying capacity rooted precisely in our contemporary understanding of the earth's available renewable, nonrenewable and renewable stocks. The transition from wood to coal happening in the past, is no guarantee that a similar transition will necessarily occur in the future. It might do, but that all depends on the natural resources actually available, a factor the model at least attempts to account for - a matter Wilson simply overlooks.

Kloor attempts to dignify Wilson's feeble posts with the following recommendation (among many others):

Following this post, Wilson managed to generate upward of five further blog posts on the grand old topic of little ol' me (within a space of about 24 hours I imagine... scary). His last post is a slightly deranged discovery of how I have been surreptitiously deleting tweets "to cover" my "tracks." He didn't bother asking me about it - if he had, he would've learned that deleting one's tweets can actually be a way of acknowledging and correcting inaccuracies once recognised (which once again, I've acknowledged openly on Twitter).

I can't claim to fully understand their motives - one can only guess. But it appears that Wilson and Kloor are focused not on doing good journalism/scholarship to explore a controversial issue, but on muddying journalism/scholarship to score points on ideological and personal grounds. As my writing ranges over major global challenges, crises and risks which they find unpalatable for whatever reason, their approach appears to be one of simply defaming and slandering - to the point of conspiratorially turning every triviality into hard evidence of disingenuous deception. That much, it seems, has now been proven.

Yet both pontificate like authorities on the standards of journalism and academic research. Unfortunately, they seem to have little regard for either in practice.

24 December 2013

The Triple Crunch - Facing Our Climate, Food, and Energy Challenges

The idea of a 'triple crisis' or 'perfect storm' of environmental, energy and economic problems which could pose a serious risk to the stability of our civilization as we know it is nothing new. Last year, the IMF chief warned that without a more "sustainable" approach to growth, the world risked a convergence of environmental damage, declining incomes and social unrest. 

That sort of warning is in fact derived from some of the best interdisciplinary science. In 2009, the UK government's then chief scientific adviser Professor John Beddington declared based on cutting-edge research by the Government Office for Science by 2030 (that's 16 years away), the world would face a "perfect storm" of food shortages, water scarcity, and insufficient energy in the context of a business-as-usual scenario.

Followers of my work know that since my work on the Crisis of Civilization, I've been tracking these issues very closely. Over the last week or so, I've put out three major stories in the Guardian on climate change, the global food crisis, and our looming energy challenges. Each of these stories in themselves points to significant challenges in the year's ahead under a business-as-usual scenario. But together, they underscore the little-acknowledged systemic synergies between climate, food, energy - and of course economic - crises, and their mutual propensity to generate social and political instability. And of course, they raise fundamental questions about the sustainability of our current trajectory, and the urgent need to begin implementing meaningful alternatives towards new forms of post-carbon prosperity. 

The first story covers a major new set of studies published in a special feature of the authoritative journal, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, which together show that a range of climate change impacts - droughts, famine, epidemics - are likely to overlap in ways that may have been previously underestimated; at worst (though least probable), they could potentially escalate to a planetary scale.

The second story covers another peer-reviewed study published by the multidisciplinary journal, Nature Communications, which raises hard questions about the capacity of industrial agriculture in its current form to continue to raise yields. In recent years, the study shows, the rate of growth of yields for major food crops has plummeted dramatically and in some cases it seems likely that maximum yield plateaus have already been reached. 

The third story is a major exclusive. I interviewed a former British Petroleum (BP) geologist, Dr. Richard Miller, who was responsible for producing internal oil supply forecasts for the corporation. Miller believes that for all intents and purposes, peak oil has already arrived and is likely to exacerbate the probability of ongoing recession and resource wars. He most recently articulated this perspective at a lecture at University College London as part of a postgraduate course on Natural Hazards for Insurers, as well as in a co-edited special edition of the Royal Society journal - Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A - focused on the future of oil. This development represents one of the most compelling and authoritative verdicts so far on the reality of a peak of conventional oil production and a future of high oil prices with debilitating economic and geopolitical consequences, unless appropriate mitigating measures are pursued.

This sort of reporting and analysis I'm doing at the Guardian is certainly upsetting certain apple carts. One self-styled "journalist" who really appears to be more of a closet climate-denying troll who voluntarily shills for the GM industry by misrepresenting science, pinpointed the above piece on food as a core example of unscientific "Doomer" narratives in a screed at his blog here:

"Once someone starts down this civilization-is-collapsing road, like Guardian blogger Nafeez Ahmed, it’s hard to stop.  If you want a tour guide to the apocalypse, Ahmed is your guy." 

He quickly followed up by surfacing on Twitter and repeatedly characterising me as a "Doomer" - albeit, without any actual substantiation or argument as to why anything I've written is actually wrong. 

Under Kloor's highly flexible definition of "Doomers", it would seem the US National Academy of Sciences, Nature, and the Royal Society, are in fact arch-peddlers of "eco-doomery" - an accusation he touts in the name of defending science.

It would actually be funny if it wasn't so pathetic. 

The reality is that these three pieces I've put out this December underscore the fact that cutting edge science demonstrates the unsustainability of our current business-as-usual trajectory, and highlights that without a transition to more viable alternatives, we are in for a rough ride involving more of what we've already seen in the last few years - escalating social unrest, state-failure, economic crisis, extreme weather, geopolitical tension and conflict. We can expect food and energy prices to continue to rise and contribute to social volatility as well as intensifying inequality - and as Beddington and others have warned, we can expect that at some point, a worst case scenario would involve us facing a systemic convergence of crises that undermines the capacity of our social institutions to deliver critical functions.

There's no need for things to get to that point - and there's lots of great things happening which are already playing a mitigating role: the rise of renewable energy systems, new and exciting food production practices, innovative economic models, and so on. But much more needs to happen... And we're certainly not going to solve our global challenges by laughing scornfully at the science that is warning us to change course, now.

EXCLUSIVE: Former govt adviser believes warnings of extremist attacks were ignored (Independent on Sunday)

Following from my exclusive investigative report for Le Monde diplomatique, one of my sources was willing to speak on the record. I and journalist Chris Stevenson put together the following investigative exclusive for the Independent on Sunday:

A former government adviser has hit out at the security agencies and the way they assessed potential extremist threats on British soil in the months and years before the killing of Lee Rigby.

Days after the conviction of Michael Adebolajo and Michael Adebowale for the murder of the Fusilier Lee Rigby, Jahan Mahmood, a former adviser to the Office for Security and Counter-Terrorism (OSCT) in the Home Office, has decided to speak out over warnings of potential extremist attacks on British soldiers in the UK that he believes went unheeded.

Mr Mahmood, a historian and former lecturer at the University of Birmingham, specialising in the martial traditions of Afghan and Pakistani diaspora communities, had contact with the OSCT between 2009 and 2010 on a volunteer basis. He remembered one particular meeting on 27 January 2010 at a mosque in Birmingham, which involved five young Muslim men as well as the director of the OSCT, Charles Farr, and what Mr Mahmood called "another OSCT civil servant".

See more here.

13 December 2013

EXCLUSIVE: UK Govt warned of Woolwich-style attack 3 years ago - Whitehall insiders reveal Quilliam Foundation's secret relationship with official "fundamentally flawed" counter terrorism strategy

I've been working on the below investigative story for more than a few years, gathering bits and pieces of evidence as I go along. A couple of months ago, a lot of things came together. It went up last week. It's an important and highly revealing piece - please do share widely.

Published by Le Monde diplomatique (9.12.13)

Government advisers, counter-extremism officials, and (current and former) civil servants confirm that the UK government’s counter-terrorism strategy is failing to tackle the danger of violent extremism; rather, it is exacerbating the threat of domestic terrorism. These officials attribute the failure to a “fundamentally flawed” approach to counter-terrorism strategy inspired by a UK anti-extremism think tank, the Quilliam Foundation.

An adviser to Charles Farr, director of the Office for Security and Counter-Terrorism (OSCT) in the Home Office, said that Farr was warned three years ago of the possibility of an attack in the UK, similar to the killing of soldier Lee Rigby in Woolwich, southeast London, that later took place on 22 May 2013.

The OSCT adviser, an independent counter-radicalisation expert who has worked with many government agencies, wrote on 31st May 2013 to General Sir David Richards — then chief of the defence staff and the most senior military adviser to the defence secretary and prime minister. In his letter he describes a meeting in Birmingham on 27th January 2010 he organised between Farr, other OSCT officials and five young Muslims who were “amongst those most at risk of radicalisation.” The letter describes how Farr asked the young men about their “feelings and aspirations”: “One of the young men responded by saying he was angered by the death of women and children in Afghanistan and if given half a chance he would go abroad to fight British soldiers in Afghanistan. Another member of the group intervened and said, why do you want to go abroad when you can kill them here.”

9 December 2013

Greetings earthlings

So I haven't updated this blog in a long while - apologies for that. Much of the reason is to do with having two little girls and a 7 month old baby to deal with! 

Have been working on lots of interesting stuff and have a few announcements to make in due course, but for now am dropping bye to say hi and promise I'm going to be back updating this blog more regularly. 

While I've been neglecting this website, I've been beavering away primarily at the Guardian on a range of important environment stories. From the Arctic methane time-bomb debate, to accumulating evidence that climate change is happening faster and more intensely than conventional models project; from the problems with Tory and Labour energy proposals, to the World Health Organisation's cover-up of Iraq's environmental health nightmare due to depleted uranium; from Russell Brand's notorious BBC Newsnight interview on the death of mainstream politics, to the imminence of peak oil; from corporate espionage against activists, charities and NGOs, to today's big story on the US Navy's prediction that the Arctic summer sea ice could collapse by 2016. 

If any of these sound up your street, you can check out these stories via my Guardian blog, Earth Insight.

23 September 2013

Special Report: "Fixing" intelligence on Syria? Deciphering the propaganda war to "hemorrhage" both sides

Published in Ceasefire Magazine

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, left, and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, shake hands after making a deal over Syrian chemical weapons

If there is anything to learn from the Syrian conflict, it is that, in the fog of war, truth really is the first casualty. Narratives and counter-narratives of the conflict have plagued media accounts and the blogosphere ever since peaceful protests erupted on the streets of Syria over two years ago, and increasingly so in the wake of the Ghouta chemical weapons attack of the 21st August.
While the West’s case against Assad in this respect appears politicised and less than conclusive, the same, if not worse, can be said about the case against the rebels. Almost every single piece of evidence that has been put forward to support that case has been disputed at the very least, or proved entirely false. And the politicisation of Russian and Iranian intelligence, the role of Assad in spearheading propaganda, has been overlooked. 
From the White House dossier to the United Nations report, from Syrian nuns to revelations from former and active intelligence officials, the propaganda war between pro and anti-interventionists to control the paradigm through which we understand the conflict – manifesting itself in Bashar al-Assad’s latest call for a ceasefire –  may be feeding into little-known strategic imperatives that see the Syrian people as mere pawns in a wider gambit. 

30 August 2013

Special Report: Syria intervention plans fueled by oil interests, not chemical weapon concerns

On 21 August, hundreds - perhaps over a thousand - people were killed in a chemical weapon attack in Ghouta, Damascus, prompting the U.S., UK, Israel and France to raise the spectre of military strikes against Bashir al Assad's forces which, they say, carried out the attack.

To be sure, the latest episode is merely one more horrific event in a conflict that has increasingly taken on genocidal characteristics. The case for action at first glance is indisputable. The UN now confirms a death toll over 100,000 people, the vast majority of whom have been killed by Assad's troops. An estimated 4.5 million people have been displaced from their homes. International observers have overwhelmingly confirmed Assad's complicity in the preponderance of war crimes and crimes against humanity against the Syrian people. The illegitimacy of his regime, and the legitimacy of the uprising against it, is clear.

But the interests of the west are a different matter.

Chemical confusion

While the U.S. and Israel have taken a lead in claiming firm evidence that the latest attack was indeed a deployment of chemical weapons by Assad's regime, justifying a military intervention of some sort, questions remain.

The main evidence cited by the U.S. linking the attacks to Syria are intercepted phone calls among other intelligence, the bulk of which was provided by Israel. "Last Wednesday, in the hours after a horrific chemical attack east of Damascus," reported Foreign Policy, "an official at the Syrian Ministry of Defense exchanged panicked phone calls with a leader of a chemical weapons unit, demanding answers for a nerve agent strike that killed more than 1,000 people."

This account is hardly decisive proof of Assad's culpability in the attack - what one can reasonably determine here is that Syrian defense officials do not seem to have issued specific orders for such a strike, and were attempting to investigate whether their own chemical weapons unit was indeed responsible.

On the attack itself, experts are unanimous that the shocking footage of civilians, including children, suffering the effects of some sort of chemical attack, is real - but remain divided on whether it involved military-grade chemical weapons associated with Assad's arsenal, or were a more amateur concoction potentially linked to the rebels.

Many independent chemical weapons experts point out the insufficiency of evidence to draw any firm conclusions. Steven Johnson, chemical explosives experts at Cranfield Forensic Institute, pointed to inconsistencies in the video footage and the symptoms displayed by victims, raising questions about the nature of the agents used. Although trauma to the nervous system was clear: "At this stage everyone wants a ‘yes-no’ answer to chemical attack. But it is too early to draw a conclusion just from these videos."

Dan Kaszeta, a former officer of the U.S. Army’s Chemical Corps, said: "None of the people treating the casualties or photographing them are wearing any sort of chemical-warfare protective gear, and despite that, none of them seem to be harmed... there are none of the other signs you would expect to see in the aftermath of a chemical attack, such as intermediate levels of casualties, severe visual problems, vomiting and loss of bowel control."

Gwyn Winfield of chemical weapons journal CBRNe World said it was difficult to pin down a specific chemical from the symptoms seen in footage, but suggested it could be either a chemical weapon or a riot control agent: "The lack of conventional munition marks does suggest that it was a non-conventional munition, or an RCA (riot control agent) in a confined space, but who fired it and what it was has yet to be proved."

Other experts cited by Agence France Presse (AFP) concur with these assessments - either disagreeing that the footage proved military-grade chemical weapons, or noting the inadequacy of evidence implicating a specific perpetrator.

What little evidence is available in the public record on past deployment of chemical agents has implicated both Assad and the rebels - not the Free Syrian Army (FSA) as a whole, but rather militant jihadist factions linked to al-Qaeda and funded by the likes of Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

In March this year, a major attack on the predominantly Shi'a town of Khan al-Assal killing 26 people including civilians and Syrian soldiers was apparently committed by rebels "with al-Qaeda sympathies." U.S. weapons experts suspected that the victims were exposed to a "caustic" agent such as chlorine, not a military-grade chemical weapon but "an improvised chemical device." As the Telegraph reports: "There has been extensive experimentation by insurgents in Iraq in the use of chlorine."

Indeed, in May 2007, al-Qaeda in Iraq had attempted a series of suicide attacks using bombs built from chlorine gas containers. Last year, Syrian jihadist groups led by the al-Qaeda affiliated al-Nusrah Front, linked to Iraqi al-Qaeda forces, captured several Syrian military bases stocking Scud and anti-aircraft missiles, as well as a chlorine factory near Aleppo.

Yet eyewitness reports from victims and doctors have also alleged many other instances of chemical weapons attacks attributed by locals to Syrian government forces.

Just three months before the most recent attack, however, former war crimes prosecutor Carla del Ponte, an independent UN war crimes investigator on Syria, told Channel 4 that evidence derived from interviews with victims, doctors and field hospitals confirmed that rebels had used the nerve agent sarin:

"I have seen that there are concrete suspicions if not irrefutable proof that there has been use of sarin gas... This use was made by the opponent rebels and not from the governmental authorities."

According to Channel 4, "she had not found evidence of sarin's use by President Bashar al-Assad's regime."

Meanwhile, the latest UN report released in June 2013 confirms several allegations of chemical weapons attacks but concludes it: 

"... has not been possible, on the evidence available, to determine the precise chemical agents used, their delivery systems or the perpetrator."

Further complicating the matter, Dave Gavlak, a veteran Middle East correspondent for Associated Press, cites interviews with "doctors, Ghouta residents, rebel fighters and their families" who believe that "certain rebels received chemical weapons via the Saudi intelligence chief, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, and were responsible for carrying out the gas attack." The arms were reportedly given by al-Nusrah fighters to ordinary rebels without informing them of their nature. "More than a dozen rebels interviewed reported that their salaries came from the Saudi government." Gavlak's report comes with the caveat that some of its information "cannot be independently verified." 

Could it be disinformation planted by Assad agents in Damascus, as happened with the Houla massacre?

We will have to wait for the findings of UN weapons inspectors to see whether any further clarity can be added with regards to the latest attack. In the words of Foreign Policy magazine:

"Given that U.N. inspectors with a mandate to investigate chemical weapons use were on the ground when the attack happened, the decision to deploy what appears to have been a nerve agent in a suburb east of Damascus has puzzled many observers. Why would Syria do such a thing when it is fully aware that the mass use of chemical weapons is the one thing that might require the United States to take military action against it? That's a question U.S. intelligence analysts are puzzling over as well. 'We don't know exactly why it happened,' the intelligence official said. 'We just know it was pretty fucking stupid.'"

Imperial pretensions from Syria to Iran

U.S. agitation against Syria began long before today's atrocities at least seven years ago in the context of wider operations targeting Iranian influence across the Middle East.

In 2006, a little-known State Department committee - the Iran-Syria Policy and Operations Group - was meeting weekly to "coordinate actions such as curtailing Iran's access to credit and banking institutions, organizing the sale of military equipment to Iran's neighbors and supporting forces that oppose the two regimes." U.S. officials said "the dissolution of the group was simply a bureaucratic reorganization" because of a "widespread public perception that it was designed to enact regime change."

Despite the dissolution of the group, covert action continued. In May 2007, a presidential finding revealed that Bush had authorized "nonlethal" CIA operations against Iran. Anti-Syria operations were also in full swing around this time as part of this covert programme, according to Seymour Hersh, reporting for the New Yorker. A range of U.S. government and intelligence sources told him that the Bush administration had "cooperated with Saudi Arabia’s government, which is Sunni, in clandestine operations" intended to weaken the Shi'ite Hezbollah in Lebanon. "The U.S. has also taken part in clandestine operations aimed at Iran and its ally Syria," wrote Hersh, "a byproduct" of which is "the bolstering of Sunni extremist groups" hostile to the United States and "sympathetic to al-Qaeda." He noted that "the Saudi government, with Washington’s approval, would provide funds and logistical aid to weaken the government of President Bashir Assad, of Syria," with a view to pressure him to be "more conciliatory and open to negotiations" with Israel. One faction receiving covert U.S. "political and financial support" through the Saudis was the exiled Syrian Muslim Brotherhood.

A year later, Alexander Cockburn revealed that a new finding authorized covert action undermining Iran "across a huge geographical are - from Lebanon to Afghanistan", and would include support for a wide range of terrorist and military groups such as Mujahedin-e-Khalq and Jundullah in Balochistan, including al-Qaeda linked groups:

"Other elements that will benefit from U.S. largesse and advice include Iranian Kurdish nationalists, as well the Ahwazi arabs of south west Iran.  Further afield, operations against Iran’s Hezbollah allies in Lebanon will be stepped up, along with efforts to destabilize the Syrian regime."

It is perhaps not entirely surprising in this context that according to former French foreign minister Roland Dumas, Britain had planned covert action in Syria as early as 2009: "I was in England two years before the violence in Syria on other business", he told French television:

"I met with top British officials, who confessed to me that they were preparing something in Syria. This was in Britain not in America. Britain was preparing gunmen to invade Syria. They even asked me, although I was no longer minister for foreign affairs, if I would like to participate."

Leaked emails from the private intelligence firm Stratfor included notes from a meeting with Pentagon officials confirming U.S.-UK covert operations in Syria since 2011:

"After a couple hours of talking, they said without saying that SOF [Special Operations Forces] teams (presumably from U.S., UK, France, Jordan, Turkey) are already on the ground focused on recce [reconnaissance] missions and training opposition forces...  I kept pressing on the question of what these SOF  teams would be working toward, and whether this would lead to an eventual air campaign to give a Syrian rebel group cover. They pretty quickly distanced themselves from that idea, saying that the idea 'hypothetically' is to commit guerrilla attacks, assassination campaigns, try to break the back of the Alawite forces, elicit collapse from within... They don’t believe air intervention would happen unless there was enough media attention on a massacre, like the Gaddafi move against Benghazi. They think the U.S. would have a high tolerance for killings as long as it doesn't reach that very public stage."

"Collapsing" Assad's regime is thus a final goal, though military intervention would only be politically feasible - read domestically palatable for western populations - in the context of "a massacre" so grievous it would lead to a public outcry.

In another email to Stratfor executive Fred Burton from James F. Smith, former director of Blackwater and current CEO of another private security firm SCG International, Smith confirmed that he was part of "a fact finding mission for Congress" being deployed to "engage Syrian opposition in Turkey (non-MB and non-Qatari)." The "true mission" for the "fact finding" team was how:

"... they can help in regime change."

The email added that Smith intended to offer "his services to help protect the opposition members, like he had underway in Libya." He also said that Booz Allen Hamilton - the same defence contractor that employed Edward Snowden to run NSA surveillance programmes - "is also working [with] the Agency on a similar request."

Grand strategy: shoring up Gulf oil autocracies, "salafi jihadism" and sectarian violence

So what is this unfolding strategy to undermine Syria, Iran and so on, all about? According to retired NATO Secretary General Wesley Clark, a memo from the Office of the U.S. Secretary of Defense just a few weeks after 9/11 revealed plans to "attack and destroy the governments in 7 countries in five years." A Pentagon officer familiar with the memo told him, "we’re going to start with Iraq, and then we’re going to move to Syria, Lebanon, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and Iran." In a subsequent interview, Clark argues that this strategy is fundamentally about control of the region's vast oil and gas resources.

As Glen Greenwald pointed out:

"... in the aftermath of military-caused regime change in Iraq and Libya... with concerted regime change efforts now underway aimed at Syria and Iran, with active and escalating proxy fighting in Somalia, with a modest military deployment to South Sudan, and the active use of drones in six - count ‘em: six - different Muslim countries, it is worth asking whether the neocon dream as laid out by Clark is dead or is being actively pursued and fulfilled, albeit with means more subtle and multilateral than full-on military invasions."

Indeed, much of the strategy currently at play in the region was candidly described in a 2008 U.S. Army-funded RAND report, Unfolding the Future of the Long War. The report noted that "the economies of the industrialized states will continue to rely heavily on oil, thus making it a strategically important resource." As most oil will be produced in the Middle East, the U.S. has "motive for maintaining stability in and good relations with Middle Eastern states." The report further acknowledges:

"The geographic area of proven oil reserves coincides with the power base of much of the Salafi-jihadist network. This creates a linkage between oil supplies and the long war that is not easily broken or simply characterized... For the foreseeable future, world oil production growth and total output will be dominated by Persian Gulf resources... The region will therefore remain a strategic priority, and this priority will interact strongly with that of prosecuting the long war."

In this context, the report identitied many potential trajectories for regional policy focused on protecting access to Gulf oil supplies, among which the following are most salient:

"Divide and Rule focuses on exploiting fault lines between the various Salafi-jihadist groups to turn them against each other and dissipate their energy on internal conflicts. This strategy relies heavily on covert action, information operations (IO), unconventional warfare, and support to indigenous security forces... the United States and its local allies could use the nationalist jihadists to launch proxy IO campaigns to discredit the transnational jihadists in the eyes of the local populace...  U.S. leaders could also choose to capitalize on the 'Sustained Shia-Sunni Conflict' trajectory by taking the side of the conservative Sunni regimes against Shiite empowerment movements in the Muslim world.... possibly supporting authoritative Sunni governments against a continuingly hostile Iran."

Exploring different scenarios for this trajectory, the report speculated that the U.S. may concentrate "on shoring up the traditional Sunni regimes in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Pakistan as a way of containing Iranian power and influence in the Middle East and Persian Gulf." Noting that this could actually empower al-Qaeda jihadists, the report concluded that doing so might work in western interests by focusing jihadi activity on internal sectarian rivalry rather than targeting the U.S., thus bogging down both Iranian-sponsored groups like Hezbollah and al-Qaeda affiliated networks in mutual conflict:

"One of the oddities of this long war trajectory is that it may actually reduce the al-Qaeda threat to U.S. interests in the short term. The upsurge in Shia identity and confidence seen here would certainly cause serious concern in the Salafi-jihadist community in the Muslim world, including the senior leadership of al-Qaeda. As a result, it is very likely that al-Qaeda might focus its efforts on targeting Iranian interests throughout the Middle East and Persian Gulf while simultaneously cutting back on anti-American and anti-Western operations."

The RAND document contextualised this strategy with surprisingly prescient recognition of the increasing vulnerability of the U.S.'s key allies and enemies - Saudi Arabia, the Gulf states, Egypt, Syria, Iran - to the converging crises of rapidly rising populations, a 'youth bulge', internal economic inequalities, political frustrations, sectarian tensions, and water shortages, all of which could destabilize these countries from within or exacerbate inter-state conflicts.

The report noted especially that Syria is among several "downstream countries that are becoming increasingly water scarce as their populations grow", increasing a risk of conflict. Drought in Syria due to climate change, impacting food prices, did indeed play a major role in sparking the 2011 uprisings. Though the RAND document fell far short of recognizing the prospect of an  'Arab Spring', it illustrates that three years before the 2011 uprisings, U.S. defense officials were alive to the region's growing instabilities, and concerned by the potential consequences for stability of Gulf oil.

Pipeline politics

These strategic concerns, motivated by fear of expanding Iranian influence, impacted Syria primarily in relation to pipeline geopolitics. In 2009 - the same year former French foreign minister Dumas alleges the British began planning operations in Syria - Assad refused to sign a proposed agreement with Qatar that would run a pipeline from the latter's North field, contiguous with Iran's South Pars field, through Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Syria and on to Turkey, with a view to supply European markets - albeit crucially bypassing Russia. Assad's rationale was "to protect the interests of [his] Russian ally, which is Europe's top supplier of natural gas."

Instead, the following year, Assad pursued negotiations for an alternative $10 billion pipeline plan with Iran, across Iraq to Syria, that would also potentially allow Iran to supply gas to Europe from its South Pars field shared with Qatar. the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) for the project was signed by in July 2012 - just as Syria's civil war was spreading to Damascus and Aleppo - and earlier this year Iraq signed a framework agreement for construction of the gas pipelines. The pipeline would potentially allow Iran to supply gas to European markets.

The Iran-Iraq-Syria pipeline plan was a "direct slap in the face" to Qatar's plans. No wonder Saudi Prince Bandar bin Sultan, in a failed attempt to bribe Russia to switch sides, told President Vladmir Putin that "whatever regime comes after" Assad, it will be "completely" in Saudi Arabia's hands and will "not sign any agreement allowing any Gulf country to transport its gas across Syria to Europe and compete with Russian gas exports", according to diplomatic sources. When Putin refused, the Prince vowed military action. 

Israel also has a direct interest in countering the Iran-brokered pipeline. In 2003, just a month after the commencement of the Iraq War, U.S. and Israeli government sources told The Guardian of plans to "build a pipeline to siphon oil from newly conquered Iraq to Israel" bypassing Syria. The basis for the plan, known as the Haifa project, goes back to a 1975 MoU signed by then Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, "whereby the U.S. would guarantee Israel's oil reserves and energy supply in times of crisis." As late as 2007, U.S. and Israeli government officials were in discussion on costs and contingencies for the Iraq-Israel pipeline project.

All the parties intervening in Syria's escalating conflict - the U.S., Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, Israel on one side providing limited support to opposition forces, with Russia, China and Iran on the other shoring up Assad's regime - are doing so for their own narrow, competing geopolitical interests.

Supporting al-Qaeda

Certainly, external support for the rebels funneled largely through Saudi Arabia and Qatar has empowered extremists. The New York Times found that most of the arms supplied with U.S. approval "are going to hard-line Islamic jihadists, and not the more secular opposition groups" - a process which continues. The support for militants is steadily transforming the Syrian landscape. "Across Syria, rebel-held areas are dotted with Islamic courts staffed by lawyers and clerics, and by fighting brigades led by extremists", reported NYT in April:

"Even the Supreme Military Council, the umbrella rebel organization whose formation the West had hoped would sideline radical groups, is stocked with commanders who want to infuse Islamic law into a future Syrian government. Nowhere in rebel-controlled Syria is there a secular fighting force to speak of."

And there are even questions about the U.S.' purported disavowal of the al-Qaeda affiliated al-Nusra. NYT reports that "Nusra’s hand is felt most strongly in Aleppo", where it has established in coordination with other rebel groups "a Shariah Commission" running "a police force and an Islamic court that hands down sentences that have included lashings." Nusra fighters also "control the power plant and distribute flour to keep the city’s bakeries running." Additionally, they "have seized government oil fields" in provinces of Deir al-Zour and Hasaka, and now make a "profit from the crude they produce."

The problem is that al-Nusra's bakery and oil operations are being supported by the U.S. and the European Union (EU) respectively. In one disturbing account, the Washington Post reports on a stealth mission in Aleppo "to deliver food and other aid to needy Syrians - all of it paid for by the U.S. government", including the supply of flour. "The bakery is fully supplied with flour paid for by the United States", the report continues, noting that local consumers, however, "credited Jabhat al-Nusra - a rebel group the United States has designated a terrorist organization because of its ties to al-Qaeda - with providing flour to the region, though he admitted he wasn’t sure where it comes from." Similarly, the EU's easing of an oil embargo to allow oil imports from rebel-controlled oil fields directly benefits al-Nusra fighters who control those former government fields.

No wonder Saudi Prince Bandar bin Sultan, in a failed attempt to bribe Russia to switch sides, told President Vladmir Putin that "whatever regime comes after" Assad, it will be "completely" in Saudi Arabia's hands and will "not sign any agreement allowing any Gulf country to transport its gas across Syria to Europe and compete with Russian gas exports", according to diplomatic sources. When Putin refused, the Prince vowed military action.
It would seem that contradictory Saudi and Qatari oil interests are pulling the strings of U.S. policy in Syria, if not the wider region. It is this - the problem of establishing a pliable opposition which the U.S. and its oil allies feel confident will play ball, pipeline-style, in a post-Assad Syria - that will determine the nature of any prospective intervention. As Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey, said:

"Syria today is not about choosing between two sides but rather about choosing one among many sides. It is my belief that the side we choose must be ready to promote their interests and ours when the balance shifts in their favor."

What is beyond doubt is that Assad is a war criminal whose government deserves to be overthrown. The question is by whom, and for what interests?

Dr. Nafeez Ahmed is a bestselling author, investigative journalist and international security scholar. He is executive director of the Institute for Policy Research & Development, and author of A User's Guide to the Crisis of Civilization: And How to Save it among other books. He writes for The Guardian on the geopolitics of environmental, energy and economic crises via his Earth insight blog.