TIME foreign affairs

Sydney Hostage Attack Is Not a Wake-Up Call

APTOPIX Australia Police Operation
A hostage runs to tactical response police officers for safety after she escaped from a cafe under siege at Martin Place in Sydney, Australia, on Dec. 15, 2014. Rob Griffith—AP

Peter Romaniuk is Associate Professor of Political Science at John Jay College and Senior Fellow at the Global Center on Cooperative Security.

Australia has been deeply invested in counterterrorism for years, and lone-actor terrorism is exactly the type of attack analysts had predicted

For Australians, the images of the police raid on a café in downtown Sydney, where hostages were being held by a lone gunman, were other-worldly. Like Americans, Australians are proud of our cosmopolitanism; but unlike the U.S., we take for granted low levels of gun violence. Shock, confusion, and anger are inevitable reactions. How should we make sense of such an event and what does this mean for the future?

In October this year, after a gunman attacked the parliament complex in Ottawa, many described the incident as a “wake-up call” for Canada. The same cannot be said here, for two reasons. First, this is the kind of attack that analysts had predicted. For several years now, lone-actor terrorism, wherein individuals embrace violence after consuming extremist content on the Internet, has been identified as a principal threat in Western democracies. Most recently, the voluntary passage of Western citizens to join the so-called Islamic State in Syria – the “foreign terrorist fighter” (FTF) phenomenon – has heightened the sense of danger from self-radicalization, not least because ISIS has implored would-be volunteers to also take action at home.

Second, Australia is deeply invested in counterterrorism and has been for years, especially since 88 Australians were killed by a terrorist bomb in Bali, Indonesia, in 2002. Domestically, recent high-profile arrests and further rounds of legislating attest to the prominence of counterterrorism in Australian public life. The fact that perhaps 70 Australian citizens have volunteered as FTFs is widely known and debated. State police forces have generally done well to enhance counterterrorism capacity while nurturing community relations. Governments at the state and federal level have advanced preventive measures to reduce the appeal of extremism. Australia has acted bilaterally and regionally to support counterterrorism initiatives among our neighbors. Internationally, Australia has used its term on the United Nations Security Council to advance multilateral counterterrorism, including recent action on FTFs.

At first glance, then, the siege may be interpreted to be the realization of Australians’ worst fears. But it would be wrong to conclude that everything has changed for Australia’s national security. For one thing, the gunman in question, Man Haron Monis, a self-styled cleric from Iran granted asylum in Australia, seems to be an atypical lone-terrorist actor, insofar as such a profile exists. Rather than blending into the background and self-radicalizing outside of public or familial view, Monis was well-known to the criminal justice system, was on bail for numerous violent offenses, and had been charged with others. Although Monis hung a flag with the Islamic Shahada in the café window – giving rise to mistaken concerns about a foreign connection – his attack seems to have been in the service of perceived grievances that are political but idiosyncratic and not in the service of global extremism such as that of ISIS. The bail system, more than levels of domestic radicalization, are rightly the immediate concern for journalists and others asking questions about the offender.

Moreover, the response to the siege gives some cause for reassurance. Details of events in the café are only now emerging but the tactical proficiency of law enforcement has already been widely noted. Perhaps more importantly, the tone of the response from government and civil society – and also on social media – has been measured, displaying a concern to maintain social cohesion. Self-conscious counterterrorism – that is, responses that reflect awareness that extremists profit from overreaction– is vital to preventing radicalization today and tomorrow.

Australians woke up on Tuesday morning to the sadness of lost innocents. But the threat environment facing the country remains unchanged. The parameters of Australian counterterrorism are generally sound. In the days and weeks ahead, it will serve us well to acknowledge that the response to violent incidents is a critical part of the effort to counter violent extremism.

Peter Romaniuk is Associate Professor of Political Science at John Jay College and Senior Fellow at the Global Center on Cooperative Security.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Pakistan

Here’s What It Looked Like At the Scene of the Peshawar School Attack

Parents frantically search for their children while others queue to give blood

An attack on a school in Peshawar, Pakistan, early Tuesday morning has left more than 120 people dead, most of them children. The attack, which the Taliban claimed responsibility for, saw a number of militants wearing military uniforms open fire and detonate explosives at the Army Public School.

Farooq Shah, a local doctor whose 16-year-old son Mubeen was killed in the attack, spoke to TIME on Tuesday and said:

No religion sanctions the killing of children. Who are these people killing our children in the name of religion? Going to school, going to the market – these are mundane things. Now every parent in Pakistan will be scared to send out their children for such mundane activities too. But we should not give in to this fear and fight it because that’s the only option we are left with.

Resisting fear could prove difficult, as reports on social media and from local journalists have painted a horrific picture of the attack:


A student of Army Public School, 16-year-old Shahrukh Khan, spoke to the AFP from Peshawar’s Lady Reading Hospital, where he was being treated for his injuries. He said that he and his classmates were in the school auditorium when four gunmen wearing military uniforms entered:

Someone screamed at us to get down and hide below the desks,” he said, adding that the gunmen shouted “Allahu akbar” (God is greatest) before opening fire. Then one of them shouted: ‘There are so many children beneath the benches, go and get them’,” Khan told AFP. “I saw a pair of big black boots coming towards me, this guy was probably hunting for students hiding beneath the benches.

Khan said he felt searing pain as he was shot in both his legs just below the knee.

He decided to play dead, adding: “I folded my tie and pushed it into my mouth so that I wouldn’t scream.

“The man with big boots kept on looking for students and pumping bullets into their bodies. I lay as still as I could and closed my eyes, waiting to get shot again. My body was shivering. I saw death so close and I will never forget the black boots approaching me — I felt as though it was death that was approaching me.”

Khan said he waited until the men left, before trying to find help. “When I crawled to the next room, it was horrible. I saw the dead body of our office assistant on fire,” he told the AFP. “She was sitting on the chair with blood dripping from her body as she burned.”

The BBC reported early on Tuesday that the school was attacked because it is an army-run institution, which has been confirmed by the Pakistani arm of the Taliban:

The Pakistani army has been sending updates, via their chief spokesman, about their efforts to rescue children and stop the attackers:


As the rescue operation has been underway, many parents have been frantically searching for their children outside the school, which was sealed off with an unknown number of hostages still inside. Pakistan’s Express Tribune has this video interview with a mother and a grandmother, who’ve arrived at the school to find their sons and grandchildren

Meanwhile, nearby hospitals, which have received a number of the victims, have reportedly begun posting lists of the deceased. One doctor at the Lady Reading Hospital in Peshawar told the BBC that some of the wounded and deceased who were brought in had been shot in the head and chest, while others were killed in a suicide bomb attack on the school playground.

Others have tweeted images of long lines of people at the Combined Military Hospital and at local blood banks queuing to give blood:


Footage from the Express Tribune reveals the chaos in the hospitals treating the injured:


Another video, uploaded to YouTube, shows more scenes of grief and turmoil at the Lady Reading Hospital as the injured are treated and the deceased are carried out in coffins:

The BBC’s Pakistan correspondent Shaimaa Khalil reports that traffic jams have blocked many of Peshawar’s streets:


In response to the attack, Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has declared three days of national mourning.

-with reporting by Nilanjana Bhowmick.

TIME Australia

Stop Linking the Sydney Siege to Islam

Visitors look at a makeshift memorial near the scene of the fatal siege in the heart of Sydney's financial district on Dec. 16, 2014. Sydneysiders including tearful office workers and Muslim women in hijabs laid flowers at the scene in an outpouring of grief and shock Peter Parks—AFP/Getty Images

The perpetrator was not a jihadist but a criminal described by his own lawyer as "damaged goods"

If the location of the Sydney siege — images of which flashed around the world for 16 hours before two hostages and a gunman were killed — appeared familiar, it’s because Martin Place is a popular international film set. Superman Returns and the Matrix trilogy were filmed in the pedestrianized, central Sydney precinct, lined with colonial-era buildings that are the headquarters of Australia’s largest financial institutions, law firms and broadcasters as well as high-end retailers like Brooks Brothers and the Lindt Chocolat Café, where the tragedy took place.

What is absolutely alien, on the other hand, is that nature of a man like the 50-year-old Iranian-born perpetrator, Man Haron Monis. There is no point in trying to place him, as some have attempted, in an overarching discourse of Islamist terrorism and history, because he was plainly not a terrorist but a mentally disturbed individual and serial sex offender. Neither is it helpful to describe this tragedy — as media mogul Rupert Murdoch did — as a “wake-up call” for the nation, because, from the Port Arthur massacre to the Bali bombings, Australia has had plenty of those already.

To be sure, Monis lost a final appeal in the High Court to overturn a conviction he had received for sending hate mail to the widows of Australian troops killed in Afghanistan. So much, so jihadist. But he was also a pervert (facing 40 charges of sexual assault) and accused of being an accessory to the murder of his ex-wife. That makes him more criminal than terrorist. As everyone now knows, he couldn’t even get his props right: the black flag he forced his hostages to hold in the window of the café was not the emblem of the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) but a plain and simple shahada — a common Muslim inscription that says “There is no god but Allah and Muhammad is the messenger of Allah.” Unable to furnish his own, Monis had to demand an ISIS flag from the authorities in exchange for a hostage. He never got it.

It’s true that Australia has been expecting a terrorist attack. Security assets have been high alert since September when ISIS called for members to seek retribution against Australia and other members of the coalition it is fighting in the Middle East. Clive Williams, professor at Macquarie University’s Department of Policing, Intelligence and Counter Terrorism, also concedes that Monis’ deranged last stand “had some of the characteristics of a terror attack — it was religiously motivated, designed to terrorize and directed towards noncombatants.” But, he stresses, “the thing that was lacking was strategy. It was an irrational act of violence and it is not clear what he hoped to achieve.”

He adds: “It seems more of a reaction to the problems he was experiencing in the criminal justice system. The one thing that will probably come out of this that we need to look at how we manage people with mental-health issues.”

Williams sentiments were echoed by Keysar Trad, the founder of the Islamic Friendship Association of Australia and voice for Sydney’s Lebanese Muslim community: “I am hoping that all Australians will see this for what it is: the actions of a madman.”

Australia’s long-suffering asylum seekers, thousands of whom remain cruelly holed up in indefinite detention in offshore detention centers in third-world backwaters, may be fearing some backlash. Monis arrived in Australian in 1996 as a political exile. Abdul Numan Haider, a teenage terrorist suspect who was shot dead in Melbourne in September after attacking two police officers with a knife, arrived in Australia as a refugee with his parents a decade ago.

The Refugee Council of Australia (RCOA), however, has refused to entertain suggestions that the Australian government will clamp down even harder on refugees. “I don’t think there is any point speculating,” an RCOA spokesperson tells TIME. “It’s not something we are talking about.”

Greg Barton of the Global Terrorism Research Centre also talks the idea down. “I don’t think it makes sense to relate this event to Australia’s migration policy, except to say that people coming from troubled backgrounds are vulnerable to further trouble themselves. We need to reach out to them more and engage with them rather than simply seizing their passports,” he says of the dozens of Australian Muslims who’ve had their travel documents seized over fears they intend to join the 150-odd Australian jihadists fighting in Syria and Iraq.

Monis may have sympathized with those fighters and he may have been inspired by them to a degree. But trying to make sense of a lunatic killer described by his own lawyer as “damaged goods” is an exercise in futility. He could just as easily have cloaked himself in the guise of any number of radical causes to help generate media coverage.

In that sense, Monis has not changed Australia forever but the opposite: he has brought out what was always there. Take a look at the #IllRideWithYou social-media hashtag, used to express solidarity with Australians Muslims fearing the scapegoating and bigotry that invariably follows events like this. In that gesture of support is the spontaneous generosity and the tolerance and the ready compassion that is forever Australian.

TIME Australia

A Stunned Australia Asks How the Sydney Siege Could Have Happened

How was a man accused of being an accessory to the murder of his ex-wife, and facing 40 charges of sexual assault, able to obtain a gun and be at liberty?

Australian officials offered words of comfort and sympathy to a shocked nation after a 16-hour siege at a café in central Sydney ended with the death of two hostages on Tuesday.

Three people died, including the armed perpetrator, when police commandos stormed the Lindt café in Martin Place in the early hours of Tuesday morning. Six people, including hostages and police officers, were injured during the raid; however, all are in stable condition according to authorities.

“Those poor people who went into get a cup of coffee or buy some chocolates for a friend for Christmas got caught up in this terrible situation,” Sydney Lord Mayor Clover Moore told CNN’s Anderson Cooper on Tuesday. “It’s a truly shocking thing to happen in our city because our city is a very harmonious, socially diverse, welcoming and inclusive city.”

Prime Minister Tony Abbott extended condolence to the victims’ families during a national address on Tuesday morning and also commended the public for being “resilient” and “ready to respond” during the crisis.

Earlier in the day, Abbott ordered flags across the country to be flown at half-mast.

Australian officials are meanwhile faced with daunting questions about how the gunman, Man Haron Monis, was able to obtain a firearm and remain at liberty after having several run-ins with the law. The self-declared sheik had reportedly been charged with committing an estimated 40 sexual assaults while being a so-called “spiritual healer.” Monis was also on bail and facing charges of being an accessory to the murder of his ex-wife.

“There will need to be tough questions about whether our systems for identifying potential perpetrators of terrorist crimes like this are good enough,” Rory Medcalf, security-program director at Australian think tank the Lowy Institute, tells TIME. “Questions will be asked why this particular individual was able to commit this act while on bail for serious crimes.”

The Australian Broadcasting Corp. (ABC) reports that a recently passed bail law in New South Wales, which could have prevented an individual with a record on par with the gunman from remaining on the streets, is set to go in effect early next year.

The fact that it was not in force to prevent this tragedy is “frustrating for me as attorney general, frustrating for the premier, frustrating for the entire government, frustrating for the entire NSW community,” said Brad Hazzard, the New South Wales attorney general, according to ABC.

Analysts warned that the acts of a crazed lone gunman should not be used as political fodder to tighten the current government’s stringent policy toward asylum seekers trying to enter the country. (Monis was granted political asylum by Australia in 1996 after fleeing Iran.)

“Australia was founded by foreigners,” said Clarke Jones, a terrorism expert at the Australian National University’s College of Asia and the Pacific. “I hope we continue to take other nationalities into Australia. It makes it a much more interesting and healthy, wealthy place.”

TIME Australia

Sydney Sheik Haron Was Charged in Ex-Wife’s Torching Murder

November 10, 2009: Sydney, NSW. Iranian born Muslim cleric, Sheik Haron, who is named in court papers as Man Haron Monis, chained to a railing outside the Downing Centre Court in Sydney in an anti-war protest. He had appeared in court to face charges of sending offensive letters to families of Australian soldiers who died in Afghanistan. Keywords: court case / criminal charges / islam / muslim faith / offensive material / demonstration / australian flags / signs (Photo by Cameron Richardson / Newspix)Contact Email: www.newspix.com.auContact Web URL: newspix@newsltd.com.auContact Email: www.newspix.com.au
Iranian-born Sheik Haron, who is named in court papers as Man Haron Monis, chained to a railing outside the Downing Centre Court in Sydney in an antiwar protest on Nov. 10, 2009 Newspix/News Ltd

"They should have put him away and thrown away the key"

More than a year before the Sydney hostage siege, Man Haron Monis was arrested for accessory to the murder of his ex-wife — who was repeatedly stabbed and set on fire — and then released on bail.

“They should have put him away and thrown away the key,” said Ayyut Khalik, godfather to the slain woman, Noleen Hayson Pal.

Khalik said Pal, 31, was like one of his own children. He traveled from California to Australia for her 16th birthday, for her wedding to Monis in 2005 and for her funeral …

Read the rest of the story from our partners at NBC News

TIME Australia

Hostages Killed in Sydney Siege Identified

A mother-of-three barrister and a café manager

Two hostages who died as a result of the siege in Sydney have been identified as a barrister and the manager of the café where the crisis unfolded.

Katrina Dawson, a 38-year-old mother of three, was taken from the scene on a stretcher and pronounced dead at a local hospital, according to the Sydney Morning Herald. Tori Johnson, manager of the Lindt café in Martin Place, was named as the second fatality after the 16-hour standoff ended in a police shootout and the death of a lone gunman.

Dawson is said to have hailed from a prominent Australian family and was well-known among the city’s legal community. “Katrina was one of our best and brightest barristers who will be greatly missed by her colleagues and friends at the NSW Bar,” said Jane Needham, president of the New South Wales Bar Association.

Authorities identified the gunman as Man Haron Monis, a self-declared religious leader who was being investigated for murder and sexual assault.

Read more at the Sydney Morning Herald.

TIME Crime

LIVE: Australian Authorities Hold Press Conference After Sydney Siege

Watch the press conference live here at 1:30 p.m. ET

Australian authorities are holding a news conference following a tense, day-long hostage situation in a Sydney cafe that ended early Tuesday morning after heavily-armed police in Australia stormed the premises. No deaths have been confirmed.


TIME Australia

3 Dead After Police Storm Sydney Café to End Hostage Crisis

Hours-long standoff ends in chaotic scene

Heavily armed police in Australia stormed a Sydney café where a gunman had held more than a dozen people hostage early Tuesday, ending a tense standoff that lasted more than 16 hours and saw at least three people die, including the gunman.

Police could be seen entering the café at about 2:30 a.m. local time on Tuesday, after a gunman held at 17 people in the central business district of Australia’s largest city. Gunshots could be heard ringing out on video feeds from the scene, and local media reports indicated injuries were sustained by both hostages and police.

The gunman died in the police raid, authorities said, and he was identified as Man Haron Monis, an Iranian-born man and a self-described cleric who has been on authorities’ radar in the past. A chaotic scene unfolded as police raided the café, with hostages running outside and an officer carrying out at least one ailing hostage.

New South Wales Premier Mike Baird said the gunman had carried out “horrendous vicious attacks.”

“We are a peaceful society which is the envy of the world,” he said in a televised news conference. “Today we must come together like never before.”

Two hostages died, five escaped and six were uninjured, police said. At least one police officer suffered a minor gunshot wound to the face, but was alive. Police wouldn’t say whether the hostages were killed by the gunman or in crossfire during the raid, the Associated Press reports.

“They believed if they didn’t enter there would have been many more lives lost,” New South Wales Police commissioner Andrew Scipione said of the officers’ decision to raid the café. “Events that were unfolding inside of the premises led them to the belief that now was the time to deploy.”

It started Monday morning, when hostages were seen displaying a black-and-white flag in the window of the Lindt café in Martin Place — a major commercial precinct usually crowded with office workers and tourists and, at this time of year, Christmas shoppers.

The flag bore, in Arabic text, what was thought to be the shahada, or Muslim testimony of faith. The flag, which is commonly flown by Islamist terrorist groups, sparked fears that a terrorist attack was unfolding. But Sydney police had not said if it is a terrorist attack, and an official later described it as an “isolated incident.” Authorities confirmed earlier they had made contact with the perpetrator and were in negotiations. Several hostages had left the scene late Monday before the chaos that unfolded early Tuesday.

U.S. President Barack Obama was briefed overnight on the crisis.

“This is a very disturbing incident,” Prime Minister Tony Abbott said in a televised address earlier Monday. “It is profoundly shocking that innocent people should be held hostage by an armed person claiming political motivation.

“We are a free, open and generous people, and today we have responded to this in character,” he added. “Yes, it has been a difficult day. Yes, it has been a day which has tested us, but so far, like Australians in all sorts of situations, we have risen to the challenge.”

Australia’s paramount figure on Islamic law, the Grand Mufti Ibrahim Abu Mohamed, issued a statement “unequivocally” condemning the action. He said the Muslim community was “devastated” by the incident and said such actions are “denounced in part and in whole in Islam.”

Buildings in the area, including the famed Sydney Opera House and the U.S. consulate, had been evacuated, with office workers taken to nearby Hyde Park. Martin Place train station, one of Sydney’s busiest, was closed, as were major nearby roads.

“Sometimes here in Australia you think something like this would never happen so it’s pretty shocking to see,” Kristina Ryan, who works nearby at Circular Quay, said Monday. “It’s been really frustrating with the lack of information and how much longer can they expect us to just sit here without understanding why this is happening? I think that’s really adding to the fear people are feeling in the city.”

Ryan said that fear was amplified as she and her co-workers watched as authorities evacuated the Opera House.

“There are lots of government buildings around. It’s a very busy place, especially on a Monday morning,” Clarke Jones, a terrorism expert at the Australian National University’s College of Asia and the Pacific, tells TIME.

The unfolding hostage crisis comes more than two months after Australian authorities foiled a terrorist plot by local supporters of the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), who were reportedly planning to behead members of the public in Martin Place.

Days later, on Sept. 21, forces affiliated with ISIS released a 42-minute audio recording calling on followers to attack non-Muslims in Australia. The call to arms appears to have been made in retaliation for Canberra’s deployment of military personnel and fighter jets to the Middle East to fight in the international coalition against ISIS and al-Qaeda-affiliated groups in Syria and Iraq.

According to Jones, officials believe that up to 60 Australian nationals and residents are currently fighting in jihadist ranks in the Middle East. Dozens are believed to have already returned to Australia.

“They haven’t been prosecuted, but we don’t know at this stage if they’ve come back with an added intent to continue the fight here in Australia,” says Jones. “It’s hard to know.”

As darkness fell on Monday evening, a crowd of around 200 people remained milling around the scene. “Everyone was quite calm,” says Victor Domni, who works at Macquarie Bank directly across from the Lindt café and was among the first to be evacuated this morning. “I wasn’t in a position to do anymore work so I was ready to go home. I’m quite hesitant to go into work tomorrow because it’s quite scary.”

“We’ve seen this on the news happening in other places and it’s finally hit home so it’s a bit shocking,” he adds.

Abbott urged his fellow Australians to remain coolheaded.

“The whole point of politically motivated violence is to scare people out of being themselves. Australia is a peaceful, open and generous society,” he said on Monday morning. “Nothing should ever change that.”

— With reporting by Courtney Subramanian / Sydney

Read next: Australians Use #IllRideWithYou Hashtag in Solidarity With Muslims During Sydney Siege

TIME National Security

Attack on Sony Marks a Dangerous Escalation in Cyber Warfare

The electronic attack on Sony Pictures marks a sharp escalation in cyber warfare, a senior lawmaker said Friday. Frederick J. Brown—AFP/Getty Images

House intel chief warns that U.S. continues to ignore all-but-certain impending disaster

The recent cyber-attack on Sony Pictures Entertainment marks a sharp escalation in computer warfare and highlights the growing U.S. vulnerability to a cataclysmic attack, the outgoing chairman of the House Intelligence Committee warned Friday.

Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., says a nation-state is responsible for the attack. The culpable country, he suggested, is most likely North Korea, stung by the company’s new production of The Interview, a movie comedy built around a U.S. plot to assassinate North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un.

“That was the first [time]—if you take at face value public reports—a nation state decided a retribution act could result in destroying data, bringing down a company,” Rogers said. While he declined to finger North Korea as the culprit, he made it clear he believes it is responsible.

Pyongyang has said it had nothing to do with the attack, which destroyed Sony computer files and took the company’s computers offline. The hackers also stole terabytes of embarrassing internal information, some of which has been leaked, including senior executives making racist jokes about President Obama. But North Korea praised the attack as a “righteous deed.”

“I would argue, as a former FBI guy,” Rogers said, “that when a nation state says ‘This group…did this on behalf of the North Korean people because of the Great Leader, and we appreciate it,’ as we would say in the FBI, that is a clue.”

Rogers said the U.S. must beef up its cyber defenses, and warned that the public continuing sense that it has more to fear from the federal National Security Agency than hackers is misplaced. A recent bill that would have given the NSA a bigger role in protecting U.S. computer systems failed to make it through the Senate after passing in the House.

Rogers said there has been a series of smaller attacks that should have awakened the U.S. to the problem:

I thought maybe Target would kind of do it, like `Hey, now we’re finally seeing how sophisticated these folks are. That was an international criminal enterprise using nation-state capability.’ I thought ‘Hey, that’ll be good—now we’ll get their attention.’ People went ‘Nah, whatever—it didn’t cost me any money.’ Then they went to SuperValu, it went to others, now it went to your medical records, it went into your financial records.

Even the attack on Sony didn’t have the impact Rogers believes it should have:

The result of Sony on the public psyche is, ‘Holy mackerel, I want to be a movie producer—those guys make a lot of money.’

Rogers, who is leaving Congress after 14 years to become a talk-radio host, said such nonchalance is dangerous. “Somebody, at some point, is going to decide to flick the switch,” he said. “And when they do, we will have a significant economic catastrophic event.”

TIME intelligence

Torture Debate Once Again Hinges on a ‘Ticking Time Bomb’

The lobby of the CIA Headquarters Building in McLean, Virginia
The lobby of the CIA Headquarters Building in McLean, Va. Larry Downing—Reuters

The metaphor comes back

In the debate over the government’s use of so-called enhanced interrogation techniques to question terror suspects the classic scenario put forth to defend torture is the “ticking time bomb.” Throughout the 2000s, torture proponents raised the specter of an imminent attack on innocent Americans to argue that coercive tactics might not just be permissible but morally necessary.

In the wake of the release of a Senate report critical of the Central Intelligence Agency’s use of torture the metaphor has returned with a vengeance.

In summarizing the findings Tuesday on the floor of the Senate, Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California said that Senate investigators never found a single instance of it happening.

“At no time did the C.I.A.’s coercive interrogation techniques lead to the collection of intelligence on an imminent threat that many believe was the justification for the use of these techniques. The Committee never found an example of this hypothetical ticking time bomb scenario,” she said.

But in an op-ed published in the Wall Street Journal online shortly after Feinstein began speaking, six former directors and deputy directors of the CIA argued that was too narrow of a reading of what a “ticking time bomb” means.

In the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, former directors George Tenet, Porter Goss and Michael Hayden wrote that the CIA “had evidence that al Qaeda was planning a second wave of attacks,” that Osama bin Laden had met with Pakistani nuclear scientists and reports (which turned out not to be accurate) that nuclear weapons were being smuggled into New York and evidence that al Qaeda was trying to manufacture anthrax.

“It felt like the classic ‘ticking time bomb’ scenario—every single day,” they wrote.

On page 181, the Senate report notes that the “ticking time bomb” was also used as a justification by former Assistant Attorney General Jay Bybee in a response to a Department of Justice report. Bybee stated that “the ‘ticking time bomb’ that could justify the necessity defense was, in fact, a ‘real world’ scenario,” arguing that convicted terrorist Jose Padilla was believed to have planted a dirty bomb when he was captured, an account Senate investigators say was “inaccurate.”

According to The New Yorker, the “ticking time bomb” conceit first appeared in a 1960 novel about the counterinsurgency tactics France employed in defending its occupation of Algeria—a fictionalized account that does not appear to have been based in actual events. The scenario enjoyed its greatest notoriety as the central plot device for every season of the fictional show 24. But Senate investigators say that’s where it remains — in the realm of fiction.

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