News | May 15, 2018

The Darkest Sides of Politics, II: State Terrorism, "Weapons of Mass Destruction," Religious Extremism, and Organized Crime (Book Review)

By Mr. Brendan Melley PRISM Volume 7, no.3

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The Darkest Sides of Politics, II: State Terrorism, “Weapons of Mass Destruction,” Religious Extremism, and Organized Crime

By Jeffrey M. Bale
Routledge, 2016
492 pp., $33.77
ISBN-13: 978-1-13878-563-2

Reviewed By Brendan G. Melley

Mr. Brendan G. Melley is a Senior Research Fellow with the Center for the Study of Weapons of Mass Destruction at National Defense University. His previous government experience includes work for the National Security Council, President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board, and the Defense Intelligence Agency.

In this companion to his first volume on Postwar Facism, Covert Operations, and Terrorism, Jeffrey Bale explores the influence of some of the world’s most pressing security concerns through a review of global case studies on weapons of mass destruction (WMD), violent extremism, and organized crime. Bale is thorough in his selection and treatment of the cases, using primary sources whenever available and delivering an “intentionally robust” text to provide an alternative to what he describes in the volume’s preface as often unqualified opinions taking the guise of academic works. Based on decades of research in violent extremism, Bale reviews select works and either updates their findings, or acknowledges their currency. State Terrorism, "Weapons of Mass Destruction," Religious Extremism, and Organized Crime is dense with explanations and structured expositions, but the volume offers a good model for how to convey conclusions that are framed by evidence.

In chapter 2, “South Africa’s Project Coast: ‘Death Squads,’ Covert State-sponsored Poisonings, and the Dangers of CBW Proliferation,” Bale traces the origins of the country’s chemical and biological warfare (CBW) programs to the 1960–70s, as a purported response to Communist influences in the region. In this article that was originally published in 2006 and not altered, Bale explores Project Coast—a CBW program that the South African government formally initiated in 1981. Bale demonstrates that if South Africa had created the program officially in response to the fear that the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) and Cuban forces were equipped for chemical agent use against South African Defense Forces (SADF), it might have been expected to focus on defensive training and protective gear. This was not the case, however, which leads him to suggest that the regime did not take seriously the external CBW threat.

Bale states that Project Coast’s offensive focus was likely influenced by neighboring Rhodesia’s use of clandestine and covert operations to disrupt and kill internal enemies. Bale traces possible connections and, although he finds that South Africa did not appear to make frequent use of the wide variety of chemical and biological agents it was researching and novel weapons it was developing to support tactical military operations broadly, these efforts did find a ready home in the country’s decades-old assassination program against internal enemies. He finds that “there can be little doubt that several of these toxic materials, items, or devices were subsequently used to murder or poison opponents of the apartheid regime.”

In the volume’s preface, Bale notes that fortunately, the worst fears regarding CBW proliferation from Project Coast have not materialized. He acknowledges this risk in his conclusion to Chapter 2 noting that, although Project Coast was gradually phased out in the early 1990s (and later scrutinized by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission), it is unknown if all of the documents and toxic materials were destroyed, or if key figures in the program had developed dangerous associations with despotic regimes or extremists.

Bale’s extensive research raises a consideration that he does not specifically address—how some of Project Coast’s personnel believed that lethal chemical weapons could be used against internal enemies of the state because that was not explicitly forbidden by the 1925 Geneva Protocol. A good topic for future study might be the parallels to more recent situations where states may have also held that justification, such as Syria’s use of chemical weapons against its own population, and even North Korea dictator Kim Jong Un’s use of nerve agent to assassinate his half-brother in Malaysia last year.

In Chapter 4, “Apocalyptic Millenarian Groups: Assessing the Threat of Biological Terrorism,” Bale defines and explains the features of the numerous types of apocalyptic groups and cults, and highlights motivations behind their pursuit of biological weapons. Based on his related, unpublished research from the 2000s for an unnamed U.S. Government organization, Bale rationalizes various historic factors to identify specific features of indicators (ideological, organizational, rhetorical, financial, demographic, and behavioral) to help characterize the threat. He notes apocalyptic groups that simultaneously exhibit several of the above indicators’ features should be of concern to law enforcement and intelligence communities, and that these would apply not just to biological terrorism, but also to mass-casualty producing conventional weapons or other types of WMD, if available.

In Chapter 5 Bale expresses his personal convictions on the unrelenting dangers of jihadist Islam and the inability of many Western analysts to understand the ideologies and objectives of global jihadist networks. Bale chooses to focus on al-Qaeda “central,” as opposed to the spin-off groups and “amateur jihadists” that may take their guidance and motivation, if not training, from al-Qaeda. However, “Jihadist Ideology and Strategy and the Possible Employment of WMD,” was originally published in 2009 as part of an edited volume by Gary Ackerman and Jeremy Tamsett on “Jihadists and Weapons of Mass Destruction” and misses the rise (and recent decline) of Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. Nonetheless, Bale’s observations on the ideological factors, historic rationality, and long-term objectives of jihadism are still relevant and worth considering.

Bale decries “mirror imaging” Western concepts of rationality and security policies to help understand the jihadist threat; he states that “authentically Islamic conceptions” do not recognize sovereign states and have as their foundation the goal of the subordination of the whole world to Islam. Bale uses primary sources to characterize these “uncompromising” views of jihadist figures, which he acknowledges have been tempered by practical considerations, international norms, and power structures. Yet, he asserts, it is “naïve” to not appreciate the long term objective to Islamize the world, found in numerous statements and writings, and that their “rationality” cannot be captured by Western standards.

Bale explains that terrorists do pursue violence to achieve calculated objectives. On the subject of jihadist pursuit of chemical, biological, radiological, or nuclear (CBRN) weapons, he writes that by focusing on their stated intentions, it is still not clear how they might eventually decide to employ such weapons (e.g., for deterrence, tactical use, or against strategic targets). Bale also argues against the false assumption that CBRN weapons use is only intended to cause mass casualties and massive physical damage. For him, the real reason is the psychological influence on both enemies and supporters. Bale is adamant that Western analysts must conclude, from publically available research, that states cannot ever hope to compromise or reach an accommodation with groups such as al-Qaeda central whose aim is the destruction
of America.

In this companion volume, Bale delivers on his promise to “promote more conceptual clarity” to confront popular misconceptions of terrorism and extremist violence that are oft held by experts. Bale uses empirical evidence to undermine these misconceptions and, although he may not win friends, critiques would have to confront his research head-on to try to convert him to their side. PRISM