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The Backroom: An Inside Account of UN Sec-General’s Statement on US War in Syria


President Barack Obama and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. Image credit: White House/Pete Souza

Several posts at Just Security have focused on international legal questions raised by US military operations in Syria. A key issue is the legality of the position that the United States can use force in another country that is “unwilling or unable” to quell a terrorist threat against the United States or its allies. On the day that U.S. airstrikes in Syria began, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon issued an important statement that Sarah Knuckey and I described at the time as “telegraph[ing] a surprising level of permissiveness if not support for current US airstrikes.”

In a nearly 6400-word article in The New Republic discussing the travails of the UN across a range of issues, Jonathan Katz provides extraordinary details about the division of opinion within the Secretary-General’s staff in drafting his statement. Below is an excerpt from Katz’s article.

Two items to keep in mind when reading the excerpt:

1. The significance of the Secretary-General’s statement

Katz quotes from the statement issued by the Secretary-General but not the line that is most relevant for the central international legal question. That is, the quotation omits these words by the Secretary-General:  Continue Reading »

Jihad, Counter-Terrorism and Mothers

Women have had a limited presence in counter-terrorism discourses. When women come into view during conversations about terrorism they typically do so as the wives, daughters, sisters, and sometimes mothers of terrorist actors, or as the archetypal victims of senseless terrorist acts whose effects on the most vulnerable (women themselves) underscore the unacceptability of terrorism. The marginalization of women as combatants and their active engagement in non-state groups has been made more visible by high-profile and spectacular terrorist acts, including suicide bombings related to wars in Chechnya and elsewhere. Despite these appearances, women remain marginal to the conversations in which definitions of security are agreed upon and generally peripheral to the institutional settings in which security frameworks are implemented as policy and law. However, recent efforts to focus on radicalization and address the emergence of extremism in western democracies including the White House Summit on Countering Violent Extremism, are brining a particular sub-set of women into public and policy space. These are the mothers of radicalized young Muslim men.

The Wall Street Journal recently brought attention to the UK campaign aimed mostly at Muslim mothers in a story focused on the experience of one British mother:

Majida Sarwar searched the bedroom of her 21-year-old son five days after he left on what he said was a university-sponsored trip. Mrs. Sarwar found a frightening six-page latter, addressed, “DEAR MUM PLEASE READ,” that sent her to the police …

Mrs. Sarwar and her husband worked with the UK authorities to help retrieve their son and his boyhood friend from an al Qauda-linked rebel group fighting to topple Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

The article shows the increased attention UK authorities are paying to the role of women as ‘early warning systems’ for radicalization and as a means to keep young men out of Islamic State and similar organisations. At the macro level, the U.K’s Prevent Strategy articulates the core idea that “[w]omen can be a particularly effective voice as they are at the heart not only of their communities but also of their families…”  Continue Reading »

News Roundup and Notes: March 4, 2015

Before the start of business, Just Security provides a curated summary of up-to-the-minute developments at home and abroad. Here’s today’s news.


Iraqi forces entered the city of Tikrit yesterday, in an attempt to force out Islamic State militants, and retook control of two oilfields in the area. [Bloomberg’s Khalid Al-Ansary]  The operation to retake Tikrit has exposed tensions between the U.S. and Iraq, with Iraqi officials declaring that they would fight the Islamic State at their own pace with or without U.S. assistance. [New York Times’ Anne Bernard]

A U.S. official’s recent media briefing about plans for an Iraqi-led Mosul offensive was “neither accurate information nor, had it been accurate, would have been information that should be blurted out to the press,” Defense Secretary Ashton Carter told the Senate Armed Services Committee yesterday. [AP’s Robert Burns]

ISIS has lost more than 20 villages in Syria, as Syrian troops and Kurdish forces fought separate, uncoordinated battles against the group near the Iraqi and Turkish borders. [The Daily Star]

Syrian forces are being backed by Iran and Hezbollah in their efforts to regain control of territory from rebels in the country’s south near the Golan Heights, reports Al Jazeera.

Leaders of the Syrian Nusra Front are considering ending ties with al-Qaeda and forming a new entity with the support of some Gulf states. [Reuters’ Mariam Karouny] Continue Reading »

Gender, Violent Extremism, and Countering Violent Extremism

The role of gender in violent extremism and countering violent extremism (CVE) has long been overlooked, despite being symptomatic of many of the human rights dilemmas CVE efforts face and pose. As a result, CVE practice as well its critics, largely discount three inter-related phenomena: gender dynamics in violent extremism, women’s roles in CVE initiatives, and how both violent extremism and CVE differently impact women and girls versus men and boys.

Most recently, the spectre of young Western women flocking to join ISIS has caused an upswing in attention to the first of these areas. Precise figures are increasingly difficult to come by, but estimates put females at up to 18 per cent of Westerners joining the group, with high numbers from countries like France and the United Kingdom. This trend caught policymakers and the media largely unaware and continues to confound, for reasons I have explored elsewhere. Initial responses have trafficked in stereotypes about women and Islam, assuming young women must be tricked or brainwashed, or only join ISIS to become “jihadi brides,” and that they wouldn’t join if they knew the full extent of ISIS’ horrors toward women.

As a more complicated account of women and ISIS develops, several shortcomings in addressing the problem persist. A tendency toward ahistoricism to women’s participation in violent extremism, despite the availability of historic and contemporary examples, is an initial hurdle to shaping an effective response. Indeed, women’s involvement in ISIS is both a new and old story; at the recent White House CVE Summit, I moderated a panel on “Women and Violent Extremism: Participation and Prevention” that canvased a history of violent extremism and terrorism replete with examples of women and girls joining (and playing critical roles in) neo-Nazi and other violent extremist groups. Lessons learned from those contexts highlight three major factors that are being neglected in the current approach to dealing with women and ISIS:  Continue Reading »

News Roundup and Notes: March 3, 2015

Before the start of business, Just Security provides a curated summary of up-to-the-minute developments at home and abroad. Here’s today’s news.


Iran played a critical role in the Iraqi military’s offensive to retake Tikrit from ISIS that began yesterday, contributing drones, heavy weaponry and ground forces to the operation while U.S. forces remained on the sidelines. [Wall Street Journal’s Tamer el-Ghobashy and Julian E. Barnes]  The nature and timing of Iraq’s biggest offensive to date caught the U.S. “by surprise” according to a government official speaking to The Daily Beast, reports Nancy A. Youssef.

Iraqi military forces and Shi’ite militiamen sought to seal off ISIS fighters in Tikrit and the surrounding areas today, the second day of the offensive to push back the Islamic State in Salahuddin province. [Reuters’ Ahmed Rasheed and Dominic Evans]

Christian militants in north-eastern Syria are at the “vanguard” of a battle to protect some of the last Christian pockets of the large part of central Arabia conquered by the Islamic State, reports Martin Chulov and Kareem Shaheen. [The Guardian]

U.S.-led airstrikes continue. The U.S. military carried out two strikes on Islamic State targets in Syria on Feb. 28; separately the U.S. and partner nations conducted seven airstrikes in Iraq. [Central Command] On Mar. 1 the U.S. and coalition military forces carried out four strikes on targets in Syria, and separately conducted a further five on targets in Iraq. [Central Command] Continue Reading »

National Security-Related Congressional Hearings, March 2–6

Below is a calendar of Congressional hearings on national security matters for this week.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

9:00am – House Appropriations – Subcommittee on Defense – Budget Hearing: United States Africa Command – closed meeting (here)

10:00am – House Armed Services – The President’s Proposed Authorization for the Use of Military Force against ISIL and US Policy, Strategy, and Posture in the Greater Middle East (here)

2:00pm – House Energy and Commerce – Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations – Understanding the Cyber Threat and Implications for the 21st Century Economy (here)

2:30pm – Senate Armed Services – Review of the Defense Authorization Request for Fiscal Year 2016 and the Future Years Defense Program (here)

3:30pm – House Armed Services – Subcommittee on Readiness – Alignment of Infrastructure Investment and Risk and Defense Strategic Requirements (here)

4:00pm – Senate Foreign Relations – Update on the Campaign Against ISIS – closed meeting (here)

Wednesday, March 4, 2015 Continue Reading »

“New Torture Files”: Declassified Memos Detail Roles of Bush White House and DOJ Officials Who Conspired to Approve Torture


An alleged CIA prison near Kabul, Afghanistan. Image credit: Trevor Paglen via Wikimedia Commons.

Last week, I wrote, both here and in the New York Times, that after reading all 828 pages of the released SSCI report on the CIA’s Detention and Interrogation program and responses to it from the CIA and Republican committee members, I had concluded that the report’s focus on whether the techniques used by the CIA were “effective” was misguided, and essentially gave a pass to too many culpable actors beyond the CIA, especially in the White House, the Cabinet, and the Justice Department.

This week, in the name of correcting the record, and thanks, ironically, to the CIA’s own effort to defend itself, I want to place blame where it rightly belongs – with the CIA, to be sure, but also with specific high-level officials and lawyers outside the agency who were directly involved in reviewing the CIA’s tactics, and either said yes or failed to say no.  It’s now been brought to my attention that lost in all the focus on the irresolvable “efficacy” debate were a series of recently declassified documents that fill out the picture of joint responsibility that is the real story of our descent into torture.  These documents, not addressed in any other reporting on the subject of which I am aware, name names, describe specific meetings, and demonstrate that many well-respected lawyers and statesmen said yes when they should have said no.  They provide an important – if likely uncomfortable for some – addition to the narrative, and show just how widespread the blame for the torture program really goes.

The SSCI deserves credit for prompting disclosure of the new documents, which were declassified by the CIA in response to the report’s allegations.  Had it not been for the SSCI investigation, it is likely that these documents would remain classified to this day. But as is all too often the case, when the CIA saw that it might be in its own interest to disclose what it previously said could not be revealed without endangering national security, it declassified.  Feeling the heat of the SSCI inquiry, the CIA chose to declassify a series of memoranda and communications that reflect and record multiple high-level meetings at the White House and the DOJ involving the torture program. The CIA’s interest in declassification is clear.  It wants to show that it repeatedly sought – and received – legal assurances from higher-ups that its actions were legal and authorized. But as is so often the case when co-conspirators try to deflect blame by pointing the finger at others, the CIA’s newly declassified documents don’t so much exculpate it as inculpate others.  Continue Reading »

The Intellectual—But Not Political—AUMF Consensus

[Cross-posted at Lawfare]

A real consensus is developing on the contours of an appropriate AUMF—at least among academics and other commentators. It wasn’t always this way. For months, we, among many others, argued (quite vociferously at times) on what an AUMF to fight al Qaeda and other associated armed groups ought to look like. But the rise of ISIL has greatly diminished the controversy. As Steve Vladeck has already noted, this consensus, however, has not translated to the political branches. A deeply flawed administration draft authorization to use military force has done little but engender often legitimate criticism on all sides of the aisle.

Things need not be this way. In fact, we recently agreed (on a Rational Security podcast) that we could draft a consensus AUMF in less than an hour. And we have no doubt that would be true.

Take Ben’s bold assertion in his testimony before the House Armed Services Committee last week: “many—though not all—of the legitimate criticisms that people of diverse politics are making against the administration’s draft do not apply, or apply with significantly lesser force, to a draft AUMF that Jack Goldsmith, Matthew Waxman, my co-panelist Robert Chesney, and I put forth last year. Given the widespread criticisms of the administration’s draft, I want to suggest that our draft may provide an alternative way forward for this body as it contemplates authorizing military force against ISIL.”

Speaking this week on the Rational Security podcast, Jen had a simple response: “Amen!”

And she is not alone. Steve, also once one of Ben’s prime sparring opponents, wrote on Friday: “I agree completely with Ben that the “Draft AUMF To Get the Discussion Going” that Ben, Bobby, Jack, and Matt proposed back in November is, in almost every important way, a dramatic improvement over the Administration’s proposed bill.”  He goes on to point out that, other than the absence of a strategic objective, which Ben and his coauthors weren’t in any position to meaningfully address, their draft AUMF does not provoke any of the other six questions that he, Jack, and Ryan Goodman encouraged Congress to ask about the Administration’s bill. As he writes:
Continue Reading »

Sunset and Supersede: Striking the Right Balance in the AUMF against ISIL

This post is the latest installment of our “Monday Reflections” feature, in which a different Just Security editor examines the big stories from the previous week or looks ahead to key developments on the horizon. It is based on remarks delivered by Professor Koh at the  Future of War Conference in Washington, D.C. on February 24, 2015, co-sponsored by the New America Foundation and Arizona State University.

Whatever our differences regarding the future of war, we should all be able to agree on what war must be and what it must not be. Going forward, war must be lawful, but, it must not be perpetual. At some point, it must end.

That brings me to the current debate over the ISIL-AUMF (Authorization of Military Force against the Islamic State), where the Administration is trying to strike a balance between these two goals: (1) Sufficient legal authority: having enough legal authority to effectively fight a potentially long-term battle against the Islamic State, while still taking steps toward (2) Ending the Forever War: not perpetuating America’s Longest War by endlessly expanding the 2001 AUMF, which the President has repeatedly vowed to refine and ultimately repeal. As the President explained in his 2013 speech at the National Defense University, of course, “ [o]ur systematic effort to dismantle terrorist organizations must continue.  But this war, like all wars, must end. …” And so the challenge he posed there was just right: “to engage Congress about the existing Authorization to Use Military Force, or AUMF, to determine how we can continue to fight terrorism without keeping America on a perpetual wartime footing.”

Right now, we are in a rare moment in this town where Congress is seriously considering that question. That is no small feat because it takes so many politicians to tango and because there are very few historical moments (apart from immediately after disasters like Pearl Harbor or 9/11) when a critical mass of elected officials seems ready to put itself on the line by voting to authorize war.

But in this town, at this moment, Congress seems overly fixated on the first goal—sufficient legal authority—while giving short shrift to the second —ending forever war. But on reflection, the second goal is far more important. Why? Because our armed conflict with Al Qaeda, the Taliban and associated forces, which began just after 9/11, is nearly 14 years old: by a wide margin the longest war in American history, 8 years longer than the Revolutionary War, and 10 years longer than either the Civil War or World War II. As the President noted at NDU: “the choices we make about war can impact — in sometimes unintended ways — the openness and freedom on which our way of life depends,” particularly when that war seems to stretch on endlessly.

So our challenge is clear: the President and Congress must enact sufficient authority to win a war that must end. Getting the balance wrong would be disastrous. This legislative moment could become the 21st century’s Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. For if Congress were to overbroadly authorize a fight against ISIL that mutates endlessly to include new enemies, or that does not continue the process of reexamining the continuing need for the 2001 AUMF, we will have tipped the balance toward perpetual war.   Continue Reading »

News Roundup and Notes: March 2, 2015

Before the start of business, Just Security provides a curated summary of up-to-the-minute developments at home and abroad. Here’s today’s news.


Iraq has launched an offensive against the Islamic State aimed at recapturing Saddam Hussein’s hometown of Tikrit in Salahuddin province, north of Baghdad. Iraqi troops and Shi’ite militiamen are reported to be advancing into the city, backed by airstrikes, though this has not been confirmed. [BBC]

One of Washington’s most trusted moderate Syrian rebel groups is disbanding. Harakat al-Hazm announced its dissolution on Sunday saying they are joining a larger Islamist insurgent alliance which is distrusted by the U.S, reports Jamie Dettmer. [The Daily Beast]

Syrian opposition forces have rejected a temporary ceasefire proposal in the northern city of Aleppo, suggested by UN envoy Staffan de Mistura. Following talks in Turkey, Aleppo’s Revolutionary Council said it would not accept the ceasefire unless a comprehensive solution to the country’s conflict was proposed, excluding President Bashar al-Assad and his government. [Al Jazeera]

A series of attacks on Shi’ite militia checkpoints and public places in and north of Baghdad left 37 people dead on Saturday; the Islamic State is thought likely to have been behind the attacks. [AP]

The Islamic State has released 19 Assyrian Christians captured by the group last week; the U.S. and coalition forces stepped up strikes in the region where scores of Assyrian Christians were captured, and local Sunni Arab leaders have been mediating the release of the rest. [New York Times’ Hwaida Saad and Anne Bernard]

The revelation of apparently sensitive information by U.S. Central Command concerning the U.S.-led coalition’s plans to retake Mosul created a “perfect storm” with widespread criticism and confusion, report Akbar Shahid Ahmed and Ali Watkins. [Huffington Post] Continue Reading »