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February 21 2015

March 2, 2015


21 February 2015

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DOT and FAA Propose New Rules for Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems

by Press • 15 February 2015

http://www.suasnews.com/2015/02/34327/dot-and-faa-propose-new-rules-for-small-unmanned-aircraft-systems/?utm_source=sUAS+News+Daily&utm_campaign=d5094cdd31-RSS_EMAIL_CAMPAIGN&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_b3c0776dde-d5094cdd31-303662705

 

WASHINGTON – The Department of Transportation’s Federal Aviation Administration today proposed a framework of regulations that would allow routine use of certain small unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) in today’s aviation system, while maintaining flexibility to accommodate future technological innovations.

The FAA proposal offers safety rules for small UAS (under 55 pounds) conducting non-recreational operations. The rule would limit flights to daylight and visual-line-of-sight operations. It also addresses height restrictions, operator certification, optional use of a visual observer, aircraft registration and marking, and operational limits.

The proposed rule also includes extensive discussion of the possibility of an additional, more flexible framework for “micro” UAS under 4.4 pounds. The FAA is asking the public to comment on this possible classification to determine whether it should include this option as part of a final rule. The FAA is also asking for comment about how the agency can further leverage the UAS test site program and an upcoming UAS Center of Excellence to further spur innovation at “innovation zones.”

The public will be able to comment on the proposed regulation for 60 days from the date of publication in the Federal Register, which can be found atwww.regulations.gov.  Separate from this proposal, the FAA intends to hold public meetings to discuss innovation and opportunities at the test sites and Center of Excellence.  These meetings will be announced in a future Federal Register notice.

“Technology is advancing at an unprecedented pace and this milestone allows federal regulations and the use of our national airspace to evolve to safely accommodate innovation,” said Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx.

The proposed rule would require an operator to maintain visual line of sight of a small UAS. The rule would allow, but not require, an operator to work with a visual observer who would maintain constant visual contact with the aircraft. The operator would still need to be able to see the UAS with unaided vision (except for glasses). The FAA is asking for comments on whether the rules should permit operations beyond line of sight, and if so, what the appropriate limits should be.

“We have tried to be flexible in writing these rules,” said FAA Administrator Michael Huerta. “We want to maintain today’s outstanding level of aviation safety without placing an undue regulatory burden on an emerging industry.”

Under the proposed rule, the person actually flying a small UAS would be an “operator.” An operator would have to be at least 17 years old, pass an aeronautical knowledge test and obtain an FAA UAS operator certificate. To maintain certification, the operator would have to pass the FAA knowledge tests every 24 months. A small UAS operator would not need any further private pilot certifications (i.e., a private pilot license or medical rating).

The new rule also proposes operating limitations designed to minimize risks to other aircraft and people and property on the ground:

  • A small UAS operator must always see and avoid manned aircraft. If there is a risk of collision, the UAS operator must be the first to maneuver away.
  • The operator must discontinue the flight when continuing would pose a hazard to other aircraft, people or property.
  • A small UAS operator must assess weather conditions, airspace restrictions and the location of people to lessen risks if he or she loses control of the UAS.
  • A small UAS may not fly over people, except those directly involved with the flight.
  • Flights should be limited to 500 feet altitude and no faster than 100 mph.
  • Operators must stay out of airport flight paths and restricted airspace areas, and obey any FAA Temporary Flight Restrictions (TFRs).

The proposed rule maintains the existing prohibition against operating in a careless or reckless manner. It also would bar an operator from allowing any object to be dropped from the UAS.

Operators would be responsible for ensuring an aircraft is safe before flying, but the FAA is not proposing that small UAS comply with current agency airworthiness standards or aircraft certification. For example, an operator would have to perform a preflight inspection that includes checking the communications link between the control station and the UAS. Small UAS with FAA-certificated components also could be subject to agency airworthiness directives.

The new rules would not apply to model aircraft.  However, model aircraft operators must continue to satisfy all of the criteria specified in Sec. 336 of Public Law 112-95, including the stipulation that they be operated only for hobby or recreational purposes. Generally speaking, the new rules would not apply to government aircraft operations, because we expect that these government operations will typically continue to actively operate under the Certificate of Waiver or Authorization (COA) process unless the operator opts to comply with and fly under the new small UAS regulations.

In addition to this proposal, earlier today, the White House issued a Presidential Memorandum concerning transparency, accountability, and privacy, civil rights, and civil liberties protections for the Federal Government’s use of UAS in the national airspace system which directs the initiation of a multi-stakeholder engagement process to develop a framework for privacy, accountability, and transparency issues concerning commercial and private UAS use.

The current unmanned aircraft rules remain in place until the FAA implements a final new rule. The FAA encourages new operators to visit:
http://www.knowbeforeyoufly.org

You can view the FAA’s Small UAS Notice of Proposed Rulemaking later today at:
http://www.faa.gov/regulations_policies/rulemaking/recently_published/

An overview of the Small UAS rule can be viewed at:
http://www.faa.gov/regulations_policies/rulemaking/media/021515_sUAS_Summary.pdf

You can view the fact sheet at:
http://www.faa.gov/news/fact_sheets/news_story.cfm?newsId=18297

For more information on the FAA and UAS, visit: http://www.faa.gov/uas/

 

 

 

 

 

Proposed Drone Laws Rule Out Most Actual Commercial Uses for Drones

by Press • 17 February 2015

http://www.suasnews.com/2015/02/34351/proposed-drone-laws-rule-out-most-actual-commercial-uses-for-drones/?utm_source=sUAS+News+Daily&utm_campaign=2818d27a21-RSS_EMAIL_CAMPAIGN&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_b3c0776dde-2818d27a21-303662705

 

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has been stuck with two cold truths. The first is that they have to make common-sense regulations that both protect Americans and allow both businesses and ordinary people to fly little quadcopter drones. The second is that they have absolutely no idea how.

The FAA gave us their outline yesterday for what they think drone regulation might look like. Possible prerequisites for being a drone pilot include a biennial aeronautical knowledge test, and being 17 or older. Some other proposals are:

•Drones have to be within line of sight at all times

•Drones can’t fly over people

•They can’t fly faster than 100 mph, or higher than 500 feet—which is still pretty fast and high

Each of these rules, on the own, doesn’t seem too prohibitive. But taken together, they start to rule out most of the commercial applications that futurists say could revolutionize industries like agriculture and urban development.

For example, if a drone has to be within line of sight, this rules out Amazon’s plans for a network of drones that fly for miles to deliver packages, or an agriculture drone that monitor acres of farmland. And if a drone can’t fly higher than 500 feet, that does away with real estate drones that help contractors survey the hard-to-access exteriors of skyscrapers.

“The FAA needs to begin and expeditiously complete the formal process to address the needs of our business, and ultimately our customers,” Amazon VP Paul Misener told the Guardian.

Mr. Misener brought out the tired big-business threat that they’ll simply take their business to other, more amenable countries if the FAA can’t simply get it together and make regulation that lets Amazon build the network they want. It’s a reminder that the struggle for sensible drone laws is a classic, sad dichotomy of a slow-moving regulatory body that can’t get anything done in time and a megalithic corporation that wants to make stacks of cash innovate without any interference from the government.

The FAA, which is already behind schedule in its rule-making, will spend the next two years making revisions, hearing comments and deliberating while tens of thousands of enthusiasts and companies continue using drones without clear guidelines.

Read more at http://observer.com/2015/02/proposed-drone-laws-rule-out-most-actual-commercial-uses-for-drones/#ixzz3S16M268C

 

Reactions to FAA Proposals

February 18, 2015

http://www.uasvision.com/2015/02/18/reactions-to-faa-proposals/?utm_source=Newsletter&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=360cd54f9a-RSS_EMAIL_CAMPAIGN&utm_term=0_799756aeb7-360cd54f9a-297557637

 

Long-awaited federal rules proposed for commercial drones should pave the way for thousands of U.S. businesses to fly the devices in industries like filmmaking, farming and construction, but drone proponents worried that limits in the regulations would stifle other possible uses like package delivery.

Drone makers and users generally cheered the rules proposed by the Obama administration on Sunday, which would replace the Federal Aviation Administration’s current near-ban on commercial use of the devices. The industry had worried federal regulators would treat drones like manned aircraft, mandating expensive and time-consuming airframe certifications and full pilots licenses for drone operators.

Instead, the FAA set simple criteria for certifying operators and said they could maintain safety of the devices themselves.

But the proposed rules—which will undergo 60 days of public comment before the FAA finalizes them, likely late next year—also contain limits on drone operations. Those include bans on flights over people or beyond the sight of operators, and a requirement for prior approval from air-traffic control for flying in many urban areas. Proponents said such restrictions would preclude many commercial uses for the devices and set U.S. drone users behind their peers abroad.

The proposed rules “are more progressive than we expected,” said Michael Drobac, executive director of the Small UAV Coalition, a trade group that represents drone makers, including Amazon.com Inc. and Google Inc. “But once you spend some time looking at them, some of the things proposed would be devastating to the future of the industry.”

FAA officials said they sought to balance the need for flexibility for the emerging drone industry with the agency’s top priority, public safety. The rules would “provide probably the most flexible regime for unmanned aircraft 55 pounds or less that exists anywhere in the world,” FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said.

The rules would require operators to obtain an FAA certificate by passing a written exam in person every two years. The standards would limit flights to daytime, below 500 feet, less than 100 miles an hour, and within sight of the operator. The rules don’t affect recreational use of drones, which is already permitted as long as users obey safe-operating requirements.

The FAA requested comment on specific areas throughout its 195-page proposal, which was nearly four years behind schedule. Final regulations often differ from proposals. The FAA also said it was still mulling separate, less-demanding rules for unmanned aircraft weighing less than five pounds.

Until the rules are final, the FAA’s effective ban on commercial drones will remain in place. The FAA has approved just 26 companies to use drones under strict rules.

Separately on Sunday, the Obama administration set rules on how federal agencies can use drones in the U.S. The administration said the rules are designed to protect citizens’ privacy and civil liberties, including a mandate for federal agencies to release annual summaries of their drone operations.

For private and commercial drones, the White House ordered the Department of Commerce to convene a stakeholder group within 90 days to develop guidelines for “privacy, accountability and transparency issues” for such devices.

The FAA said it proposes banning flights over people and beyond eyeshot because of risks unique to unmanned aircraft: operators can suddenly lose control of the devices and no pilot is on board to see and avoid obstacles. Drone makers are working on technology to improve the wireless link between drones and operators and to enable the devices to sense and avoid obstacles automatically.

 

The proposed restrictions could limit many commercial drone applications, including filmmaking, delivering packages, news reporting, monitoring crops at large farms, and inspecting power lines and pipelines.

Amazon.com Inc. said the proposed rules wouldn’t allow Prime Air, its planned delivery-by-drone program, to operate in the U.S. “The FAA needs to begin and expeditiously complete the formal process to address the needs of our business, and ultimately our customers,” the company said.

The FAA said its proposed rules don’t cover delivery drones, and that any unmanned aircraft carrying an “external load” might require FAA certification. Companies would be allowed to test a drone carrying a package under the proposed rules, “but they could not carry it for payment; they could not carry it for someone else,” said Mark Bury, the FAA’s assistant chief counsel.

Limitations on the battery life of drones and their ability to carry payloads far distances mean systematic drone deliveries aren’t possible today, but companies are running delivery trials and say the technology will be ready in the next several years.

Ted Ellett, a former FAA chief counsel who represents companies that want to use drones, said the proposal “seems to be close to a home run” for many of his clients and their peers.

Drones for farming would likely thrive under the proposal, he said, but the FAA’s proposed limits still would allow the agency to block drone flights if they pass “over a single farmer on his tractor in the middle of a 100-acre field in Iowa.”

Mr. Ellett and other industry officials also worry that requiring operators to get approval from air-traffic control to fly drones near airports—and thus in many urban and suburban areas—would pose a big hurdle to certain operations.

Private manned aircraft frequently operate without flight plans around such areas, and they don’t need approval prior to takeoff.

The FAA said it aims to separate drone traffic from manned aircraft. The agency says it has received dozens of reports of drones flying too close to manned aircraft and airports in recent years.

Sen. Charles Schumer (D., N.Y.) said in an interview that the proposed rules are a positive step, but that limits on flights over people or beyond the view of the operator would stifle the industry.

The FAA “started out on the strict side, but they’ll have to loosen up,” he said. “Legislation is a possibility, but let’s see how the regulations evolve.”

Chris Anderson, chief executive of U.S. drone maker 3D Robotics Inc., played down the impact of the proposed limits that his peers criticized, saying that the rules would enable the vast majority of commercial drone flights that are technically possible today.

Not requiring full pilots licenses, aircraft certifications “and other things that would have been barriers to innovation is what encourages me the most,” he said. “The little, tiny things like no nighttime flying and not flying over people all strike me as things that can be discussed.”

 

He added that regulations would finally lend legitimacy to the drone industry and lead to rapid expansion. “All I wanted was a sandbox where we could innovate,” he said. “Now we’ve got that sandbox and I think you’ll see an explosion of creativity and energy and investment in this space going forward.”

 

Promoting Economic Competitiveness While Safeguarding Privacy, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties in Domestic Use of Unmanned Aircraft Systems

by Press • 15 February 2015

http://www.suasnews.com/2015/02/34332/promoting-economic-competitiveness-while-safeguarding-privacy-civil-rights-and-civil-liberties-in-domestic-use-of-unmanned-aircraft-systems/?utm_source=sUAS+News+Daily&utm_campaign=d5094cdd31-RSS_EMAIL_CAMPAIGN&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_b3c0776dde-d5094cdd31-303662705

 

MEMORANDUM FOR THE HEADS OF EXECUTIVE DEPARTMENTS AND AGENCIES

SUBJECT: Promoting Economic Competitiveness While Safeguarding Privacy, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties in Domestic Use of Unmanned Aircraft Systems

 

Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) technology continues to improve rapidly, and increasingly UAS are able to perform a variety of missions with greater operational flexibility and at a lower cost than comparable manned aircraft. A wide spectrum of domestic users — including industry, private citizens, and Federal, State, local, tribal, and territorial governments — are using or expect to use these systems, which may play a transformative role in fields as diverse as urban infrastructure management, farming, public safety, coastal security, military training, search and rescue, and disaster response.

The Congress recognized the potential wide-ranging benefits of UAS operations within the United States in the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 (Public Law 112-95), which requires a plan to safely integrate civil UAS into the National Airspace System (NAS) by September 30, 2015. As compared to manned aircraft, UAS may provide lower-cost operation and augment existing capabilities while reducing risks to human life. Estimates suggest the positive economic impact to U.S. industry of the integration of UAS into the NAS could be substantial and likely will grow for the foreseeable future.

As UAS are integrated into the NAS, the Federal Government will take steps to ensure that the integration takes into account not only our economic competitiveness and public safety, but also the privacy, civil rights, and civil liberties concerns these systems may raise.

By the authority vested in me as President by the Constitution and the laws of the United States of America, and in order to establish transparent principles that govern the Federal Government’s use of UAS in the NAS, and to promote the responsible use of this technology in the private and commercial sectors, it is hereby ordered as follows:

Section 1. UAS Policies and Procedures for Federal Government Use. The Federal Government currently operates UAS in the United States for several purposes, including to manage Federal lands, monitor wildfires, conduct scientific research, monitor our borders, support law enforcement, and effectively train our military. As with information collected by the Federal Government using any technology, where UAS is the platform for collection, information must be collected, used, retained, and disseminated consistent with the Constitution, Federal law, and other applicable regulations and policies. Agencies must, for example, comply with the Privacy Act of 1974 (5 U.S.C. 552a) (the “Privacy Act”), which, among other things, restricts the collection and dissemination of individuals’ information that is maintained in systems of records, including personally identifiable information (PII), and permits individuals to seek access to and amendment of records.

(a) Privacy Protections. Particularly in light of the diverse potential uses of UAS in the NAS, expected advancements in UAS technologies, and the anticipated increase in UAS use in the future, the Federal Government shall take steps to ensure that privacy protections and policies relative to UAS continue to keep pace with these developments. Accordingly, agencies shall, prior to deployment of new UAS technology and at least every 3 years, examine their existing UAS policies and procedures relating to the collection, use, retention, and dissemination of information obtained by UAS, to ensure that privacy, civil rights, and civil liberties are protected. Agencies shall update their policies and procedures, or issue new policies and procedures, as necessary. In addition to requiring compliance with the Privacy Act in applicable circumstances, agencies that collect information through UAS in the NAS shall ensure that their policies and procedures with respect to such information incorporate the following requirements:

(i) Collection and Use. Agencies shall only collect information using UAS, or use UAS-collected information, to the extent that such collection or use is consistent with and relevant to an authorized purpose.

(ii) Retention. Information collected using UAS that may contain PII shall not be retained for more than 180 days unless retention of the information is determined to be necessary to an authorized mission of the retaining agency, is maintained in a system of records covered by the Privacy Act, or is required to be retained for a longer period by any other applicable law or regulation.

(iii) Dissemination. UAS-collected information that is not maintained in a system of records covered by the Privacy Act shall not be disseminated outside of the agency unless dissemination is required by law, or fulfills an authorized purpose and complies with agency requirements.

(b) Civil Rights and Civil Liberties Protections. To protect civil rights and civil liberties, agencies shall:

(i) ensure that policies are in place to prohibit the collection, use, retention, or dissemination of data in any manner that would violate the First Amendment or in any manner that would discriminate against persons based upon their ethnicity, race, gender, national origin, religion, sexual orientation, or gender identity, in violation of law;

(ii) ensure that UAS activities are performed in a manner consistent with the Constitution and applicable laws, Executive Orders, and other Presidential directives; and

(iii) ensure that adequate procedures are in place to receive, investigate, and address, as appropriate, privacy, civil rights, and civil liberties complaints.

(c) Accountability. To provide for effective oversight, agencies shall:

(i) ensure that oversight procedures for agencies’ UAS use, including audits or assessments, comply with existing agency policies and regulations;

(ii) verify the existence of rules of conduct and training for Federal Government personnel and contractors who work on UAS programs, and procedures for reporting suspected cases of misuse or abuse of UAS technologies;

(iii) establish policies and procedures, or confirm that policies and procedures are in place, that provide meaningful oversight of individuals who have access to sensitive information (including any PII) collected using UAS;

(iv) ensure that any data-sharing agreements or policies, data use policies, and record management policies applicable to UAS conform to applicable laws, regulations, and policies;

(v) establish policies and procedures, or confirm that policies and procedures are in place, to authorize the use of UAS in response to a request for UAS assistance in support of Federal, State, local, tribal, or territorial government operations; and

(vi) require that State, local, tribal, and territorial government recipients of Federal grant funding for the purchase or use of UAS for their own operations have in place policies and procedures to safeguard individuals’ privacy, civil rights, and civil liberties prior to expending such funds.

(d) Transparency. To promote transparency about their UAS activities within the NAS, agencies that use UAS shall, while not revealing information that could reasonably be expected to compromise law enforcement or national security:

(i) provide notice to the public regarding where the agency’s UAS are authorized to operate in the NAS;

(ii) keep the public informed about the agency’s UAS program as well as changes that would significantly affect privacy, civil rights, or civil liberties; and

(iii) make available to the public, on an annual basis, a general summary of the agency’s UAS operations during the previous fiscal year, to include a brief description of types or categories of missions flown, and the number of times the agency provided assistance to other agencies, or to State, local, tribal, or territorial governments.

(e) Reports. Within 180 days of the date of this memorandum, agencies shall provide the President with a status report on the implementation of this section. Within 1 year of the date of this memorandum, agencies shall publish information on how to access their publicly available policies and procedures implementing this section.

Sec. 2. Multi-stakeholder Engagement Process. In addition to the Federal uses of UAS described in section 1 of this memorandum, the combination of greater operational flexibility, lower capital requirements, and lower operating costs could allow UAS to be a transformative technology in the commercial and private sectors for fields as diverse as urban infrastructure management, farming, and disaster response. Although these opportunities will enhance American economic competitiveness, our Nation must be mindful of the potential implications for privacy, civil rights, and civil liberties. The Federal Government is committed to promoting the responsible use of this technology in a way that does not diminish rights and freedoms.

(a) There is hereby established a multi-stakeholder engagement process to develop and communicate best practices for privacy, accountability, and transparency issues regarding commercial and private UAS use in the NAS. The process will include stakeholders from the private sector.

(b) Within 90 days of the date of this memorandum, the Department of Commerce, through the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, and in consultation with other interested agencies, will initiate this multi-stakeholder engagement process to develop a framework regarding privacy, accountability, and transparency for commercial and private UAS use. For this process, commercial and private use includes the use of UAS for commercial purposes as civil aircraft, even if the use would qualify a UAS as a public aircraft under 49 U.S.C. 40102(a)(41) and 40125. The process shall not focus on law enforcement or other noncommercial governmental use.

Sec. 3. Definitions. As used in this memorandum:

(a) “Agencies” means executive departments and agencies of the Federal Government that conduct UAS operations in the NAS.

(b) “Federal Government use” means operations in which agencies operate UAS in the NAS. Federal Government use includes agency UAS operations on behalf of another agency or on behalf of a State, local, tribal, or territorial government, or when a nongovernmental entity operates UAS on behalf of an agency.

(c) “National Airspace System” means the common network of U.S. airspace; air navigation facilities, equipment, and services; airports or landing areas; aeronautical charts, information, and services; related rules, regulations, and procedures; technical information; and manpower and material. Included in this definition are system components shared jointly by the Departments of Defense, Transportation, and Homeland Security.

(d) “Unmanned Aircraft System” means an unmanned aircraft (an aircraft that is operated without direct human intervention from within or on the aircraft) and associated elements (including communication links and components that control the unmanned aircraft) that are required for the pilot or system operator in command to operate safely and efficiently in the NAS.

(e) “Personally identifiable information” refers to information that can be used to distinguish or trace an individual’s identity, either alone or when combined with other personal or identifying information that is linked or linkable to a specific individual, as set forth in Office of Management and Budget Memorandum M-07-16 (May 22, 2007) and Office of Management and Budget Memorandum M-10-23 (June 25, 2010).

Sec. 4. General Provisions.

(a) This memorandum complements and is not intended to supersede existing laws and policies for UAS operations in the NAS, including the National Strategy for Aviation Security and its supporting plans, the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012, the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA’s) Integration of Civil UAS in the NAS Roadmap, and the FAA’s UAS Comprehensive Plan.

(b) This memorandum shall be implemented consistent with applicable law, and subject to the availability of appropriations.

(c) Nothing in this memorandum shall be construed to impair or otherwise affect:

(i) the authority granted by law to an executive department, agency, or the head thereof; or

(ii) the functions of the Director of the Office of Management and Budget relating to budgetary, administrative, or legislative proposals.

(d) Independent agencies are strongly encouraged to comply with this memorandum.

(e) This memorandum is not intended to, and does not, create any right or benefit, substantive or procedural, enforceable at law or in equity by any party against the United States, its departments, agencies, or entities, its officers, employees, or agents, or any other person.

(f) The Secretary of Commerce is hereby authorized and directed to publish this memorandum in the Federal Register.

BARACK OBAMA

 

 

Drone rules may be a boon to local industry

Updated: 6:41 p.m. Monday, Feb. 16, 2015 | Posted: 6:39 p.m. Monday, Feb. 16, 2015

By Barrie Barber and Matt Sanctis

http://www.daytondailynews.com/news/business/economy/drone-rules-may-be-a-boon-to-local-industry/nkCWs/

DDN Staff Writer

The small drone industry could get a boost with the Federal Aviation Administration’s long-awaited proposed rules on how, where and under what conditions they can fly commercially, local business and education leaders said Monday.

Drone manufacturers and potential business users have lobbied and waited years to find out what rules the FAA would put in place to allow everything from inspecting pipelines to scouting real estate locations.

“What the FAA has handed down in terms of rules is very practical and very achievable,” said Frank Beafore, executive director of unmanned aircraft-maker SelectTech Geospatial in Springfield.

The proposed rules released Sunday would require operators to be certified, and fly drones within line of sight and during the day. The drones would be restricted to below 500 feet in altitude and speeds of less than 100 miles per hour. The regulations might not take effect for another two years or more as the federal agency listens to what the public has to say.

State leaders have identified the emerging industry as among the most important to create jobs in future years. It could employ 2,700 workers in Ohio by 2025, according to a trade association report.

The Dayton Development Coalition has been among the economic development organizations touting unmanned aerial vehicles as a new and promising industry for jobs in Southwest Ohio.

“The bottom line is it’s encouraging that (FAA officials) have come out with some rules and the rules appear to be reasonable so far, but again I would like to receive some input from some of the companies actually flying these,” said Maurice McDonald, coalition executive vice president of aerospace and defense.

Drones have raised concerns about safety and privacy.

President Barack Obama issued a memorandum Sunday to federal agencies to guard against abuse of data collected by drones, including a 180-day limit on keeping personally identifiable information with some exceptions, the Associated Press reported.

Drone users and advocates must build confidence with the public that the machines can be flown safely, McDonald said.

The possible regulations are a good first step to realizing the benefits of drone technology, said Brian Wynne, president and CEO of the Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, in a statement.

“This proposed rule is a critical milestone in the UAS integration process, and one that is long overdue,” he said. “UAS technology has largely remained grounded while many prospective users wait for the regulatory framework to catch up.”

 

‘Going to be big’

The region is in a good position to attract investment and develop new companies because of the area’s background in aviation and manufacturing, Beafore said. Along with agriculture, his company is working with a customer who might use drones to inspect power lines.

“It’s going to be big everywhere and it’s going to be exceptionally good for the greater Dayton region because we have a lot of the technical pieces of the puzzle already in place,” he said.

Clark County is expected to play a significant role in Ohio’s drone industry. Clark State Community College has a precision agriculture program and the Ohio/Indiana UAS Test Center in Springfield supports universities and government agencies research, and economic development and commercialization of the technology.

In Dayton the FAA gave mapping and surveying firm Woolpert Inc. approval in December to be one of the first companies in the nation to fly drones commercially.

Businesses that operate drones will largely regulate themselves, Beafore said, because the companies would be liable for any accidents or destruction of property. Recreational hobbyists must follow other existing rules, and the FAA might in the future issue rules on so-called micro-drones, or those weighing less than five pounds.

One of the places with a big stake in the new rules is Sinclair Community College, which has worked to be a national leader in training an unmanned aerial systems workforce.

Andrew Shepherd, Sinclair director of the UAS program, called the FAA rules “a good balance between safety and being open to the market” to get the industry off the ground.

Deborah Norris, Sinclair vice president of workforce development and corporate services, said while the FAA move was important to integrate drones into the national airspace, the college will continue to seek approval to fly more drones to train students and partner in research with corporate clients.

A less stringent certification process — rather than a pilot’s license — will open the field to more people to fly drones commercially, Shepherd said.

 

A ‘sigh of relief’

The rules as proposed are a big win for both Clark State and the Miami Valley, said Aimee Belanger-Haas, interim dean of business and applied technology at Clark State. The community college uses drones in a new precision agriculture program.

Students learn to analyze data the unmanned aircraft collect over farm fields, ranging from the amount of moisture in the soil to pests that might be damaging crops.

The rules are flexible enough that they would allow almost any farmer or consultant to fly the drones as long as they have the proper certification.

Although the public has a say in the rule-making, Beafore said they make sense for likely uses locally, including precision agriculture. For example, the rules set a maximum altitude of 500 feet, and require an observer to keep the aircraft in sight at all times.

“When you’re up at a higher altitude, you need a more powerful camera,” he said. “If you can skim the top of corn at say, 15 feet, I’m getting a much better sensor image.”

The Richmond, Ind., Police Department will launch a small drone in the months ahead if the FAA grants approval, Police Chief Kris J. Wolski said.

“We started realizing it would not only benefit us from traffic accidents but maybe outdoor crime scenes where the incident is spread out over a larger area,” he said.

The department, which spent $1,800 on the quad-copter, would follow federal laws on privacy and warrantless searches, he said.

The proposed rules were “a sigh of relief” to Dayton photographer Andrew J. Snow, 64, because it won’t require a pilot’s license. Snow has a drone photography exhibit at Sinclair Community College.

“I look forward to expanding my business with the use of these devices because it’s a huge opportunity,” he said. “It provides us with new perspectives that you can’t get any other way.”

 

 

DARPA’s New Search Engine Puts Google in the Dust

http://www.defenseone.com/technology/2015/02/darpas-new-search-engine-puts-google-dust/105342/

February 13, 2015

By Hallie Golden

Nextgov

 

After only one year in use, DARPA’s Memex search engine has already played a key role in nearly 20 different investigations.

 

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s foray into fighting hackers and other malcontents on the Web can be summed up in a single probing question.

“How can I make the unseen seen?” Dan Kaufman, the director of DARPA’s information innovation office director, said last week in a feature on “60 Minutes.”

The answer, Kaufman said, is Memex. Developed by DARPA, this search engine on steroids dives deep into the realm of the “Dark Web” and spits out a data-driven map detailing all of the patterns it’s unearthed.

After only one year in use, Memex has already played an important role in about 20 different investigations, according to officials.

Inspiration for the technology’s — and its name — came in part from a 1945 Atlantic article written by Vannevar Bush, director of the Office of Scientific Research and Development, which was stood up in 1941 to coordinate military science research during World War II.

Bush described a memex as “a device in which an individual stores all his books, records and communications, and which is mechanized so that it may be consulted with exceeding speed and flexibility.” In other words, a lot like the Internet we know today.

But of course, the real importance of Memex is not how it came to be, but the innovative advances it has accomplished with big data. And one of the ways it is accomplishing this goal is through the use of social science.

Jacob Shapiro and his team at Giant Oak, a data firm that advertises itself as “seeing the people behind the data,” are responsible for the social science aspect of Memex.

The team has held the role since late August. Its main job, according to Shapiro, is to apply social science to the reams of data collected by Memex to make sure it isn’t misinterpreting any of the data — a common pitfall.

Without a correct understanding of where the data came from, the time and energy spent on accumulating information will likely prove unhelpful, Shapiro explained.

“One thing that happens a lot with big data is [that] it’s very easy to lose track of what the social process is that generated the data in the first place,” Shapiro told Nextgov. “The data doesn’t always mean what you think [it means], because there can be complicated, unobserved processes which are generating certain patterns.”

The 2012 flu season calculation — or lack thereof — produced by Google, is an example of that type of misstep, according to Shapiro. Its algorithm overestimated flu prevalence by over 100 percent.

The mistake likely happened because the search team changed its flu algorithm without communicating the change with the flu trends team, Shapiro explained. While the team members were getting data, it proved unhelpful because they had the incorrect understanding of where the numbers came from.

Although DARPA envisions Memex as a program to generate search results for a variety of missions, it currently focuses on using its tools to fight human trafficking and its hotbed of Web ads and exchanges.

Shapiro said there is little knowledge about how human trafficking markets work, their size and even their geography. “Part of our charter is to build some more of that basic knowledge,” he said.

Even these initial steps have proven surprisingly difficult.

“We’ve spent relatively more time than we thought we would trying to find the intersection between, ‘We know the bad things happened,’ and ‘We actually have data on what the entities involved in those bad things were doing,'” Shapiro said.

 

 

The Marines Are Building Robotic War Balls

http://www.defenseone.com/technology/2015/02/marines-are-building-robotic-war-balls/105258/?oref=d-skybox

February 12, 20150

By Patrick Tucker

 

The future of amphibious assault looks kind of like an explosive inner tube. It’s really a drone.

Establishing a beachhead on enemy-held turf is historically one of the most dangerous jobs in warfare, just ask Achilles. But the robotic age may make it slightly less so.

A research team from Stamford, Conn. has developed an amphibious drone that they are currently testing with the Marines. The GuardBot is a robot ball that swims over water at about 4 miles per hour and then rolls along the beach, at as much as a 30-degree incline and 20 miles per hour.

It uses a nine-axis stabilization, “pendulum motion” propulsion system, which moves the bot forward by shifting the center of gravity back and forth and a variety of steering algorithms.

It took creator Peter Muhlrad some seven years to develop, but now that it’s complete Muhlrad says it can be rapidly produced in various sizes. Company documents suggest it can be scaled down to units as small as 10 cm and as large as nine feet. The company is planning to develop a prototype that’s 6 feet in diameter.

Muhlrad’s company, GuardBot Inc. has a cooperative research development agreement, or CRADA, with the Navy. A CRADA is a legal framework that allows private companies or researchers to use government facilities, research and resources to build things that are mutually beneficial to both parties. The information that the researcher discovers is protected for up to five years. Under many CRADAs the researcher does not receive money from the government but has the right to commercialize what he or she produces. The government retains a use license.

The company is currently working with the Marine Corps Warfighting Lab to test the GuardBot in an operational environment, though it’s unclear what that may be. Here’s the team presenting it at Marine Corps Base Quantico, in Virginia, in 2012. Watch it navigate the volleyball pit.

In January 2014, they tested it at the Naval Amphibious Base in Little Creek, Va., where the GuardBot successfully deployed from and returned to a naval craft.

Today, the machine is remotely operated over a 2-8 GHz datalink.

But Muhlrad and his team are working on new software that incorporates geographic information system data, or GIS, to allow for far greater autonomy. Just pick a spot on the map and the ball will get there.

“Depending on if we get funding, we could develop that in 8 to 10 months,” Muhlrad told Defense One.

Muhlrad designed the system primarily for surveillance and object inspection. It’s capable of 360 degree turns so its somewhat more maneuverable than other ground robots. In tests with Smith Detection’s raman laser spectroscope in the payload (the two small transparent half-spheres on the side of the bot) it was able to detect explosive chemicals from about 2 inches away.

No, unlike a one-armed PackBot, it clearly won’t be disabling explosives. And it won’t replace special operations teams, but it could accompany them on dangerous missions. When Defense One asked if the GuardBot could carry explosives rather than detection or camera equipment, Muhlrad answered simply: “Yes.”

 

The Pentagon is building an app store for cyberoperations

http://passcode.csmonitor.com/planx

An exclusive inside look at DARPA’s futuristic Plan X.

Sara Sorcher

February 16, 2015

 

It looks like outer space.

The hundreds of thousands of computers look like stars. Across the vast military network, the sparkling connections between them form constellations.

This is the Pentagon’s vision of the Internet.

The US military’s cyber warriors, unlike soldiers patrolling a battlefield overseas, will not hear the sound of an attack coming. They will not see their opponents in the flesh. They will not die because they were in their line of fire.

Like information security professionals at private companies, they spend long hours hunkered over computers, analyzing lines of code, trying to detect breaches – a laborious process that requires advanced engineering skills. Though their networks are scanned up to millions of times every day, there is no alarm system that triggers when an enemy hacker crosses a virtual tripwire to breach their network. There’s no virtual explosion if they destroy the data inside.

The Pentagon’s research arm wants to change this.

With a project called Plan X, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is building what could one day become a virtual reality that gives cyber warriors “instantaneous knowledge of the fact [their] network is being attacked,” says its program manager Frank Pound.

Slated to cost around $125 million over four years, Plan X marks the first major attempt to create an actual online battle space and would fundamentally shift the way the military operates on the virtual battlefield.

Simply moving a hand across a flat, touchscreen monitor could allow a user to analyze the health of the entire network or find rogue computers that are not supposed to be connected. Attacks would be translated into rich display graphics and 3-D visualizations so it’s impossible to miss them as they happen. Military specialists could defend against them by literally dragging blocks of code from a virtual shelf or marketplace similar to Apple’s App Store onto their network. They may one day even use 3-D visors like the Oculus Rift, a video-gaming headset, to launch these operations in a fully immersive virtual reality.

Here’s why this is a big deal: Protecting its networks from computer attacks is as important to the military as defending the country’s air, land, sea, and space. The director of national intelligence has listed a potential compromise of online systems and theft of information as the No. 1 threat to US national security – more than terrorist groups or weapons of mass destruction. US military superiority, as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Martin Dempsey said recently, does not carry over into cyberspace. It may have superior weapons and technology, but the asymmetrical nature of cyberconflict means increasingly sophisticated attackers will always have the upper hand against the defenders.

A program such as Plan X would also speed up the military’s cyberoperations. With it, researchers expect it to take up to 72 hours to write, test, and deploy a mission – a process that, at this time, sometimes takes months.

The program is still in the early stages, but DARPA is the influential agency that fueled the creation of the Internet in the first place. It also invented the technology behind GPS, videoconferencing, and other key tools you likely use every day. It’s possible that one day Plan X could ultimately end up in your hands to help track the health of all the devices in your home network.

Passcode, The Christian Science Monitor’s new section on security and privacy in the Digital Age, has the exclusive first peek at the Plan X concept.

Editor’s note: DARPA’s Frank Pound will also give a live demonstration of Plan X at a Passcode event on the future of cybersecurity innovation in Washington, D.C., on Feb. 26. Join us.

 

 

DARPA makes progress on air-launched satellites

http://www.c4isrnet.com/story/military-tech/satellites/2015/02/16/darpa-air-launch-satellites/23512193/

Michael Peck, Contributing Writer

February 16, 2015

 

DARPA says it’s making progress on its project for aircraft-launched satellites.

The ambitious Airborne Launch Assist Space Access (ALASA) program aims to launch 100-pound satellites into low Earth orbit (LEO) on 24 hours notice, and for less than $1 million per launch.

“ALASA seeks to overcome the limitations of current launch systems by streamlining design and manufacturing and leveraging the flexibility and re-usability of an air-launched system,” said ALASA program manager Mitchell Burnside Clapp in a DARPA news release. “We envision an alternative to ride-sharing for satellites that enables satellite owners to launch payloads from any location into orbits of their choosing, on schedules of their choosing, on a launch vehicle designed specifically for small payloads.”

Phase 1 of the project produced three viable designs, DARPA said. In March 2014, Boeing won the prime contract for Phase 2, which will focus on quick mission-planning software and advanced propulsion. “Perhaps the most daring technology ALASA seeks to implement is a new high-energy monopropellant, which aims to combine fuel and oxidizer into a single liquid,” said DARPA. “If successful, the monopropellant would enable simpler designs and reduced manufacturing and operation costs compared to traditional designs that use two liquids, such as liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen.

The first demonstration flight is slated for late 2015, followed by the first orbital test launch in the first half of 2016. Depending on test results, there could be 11 more demonstration launches through summer 2016.

 

 

Fears of secret Soviet weapon helped fuel Air Force’s Project Blue Book

By Matthias Gafni

Contra Costa Times (TNS)

Published: February 17, 2015

A recently declassified CIA report on the development of the U-2 and SR-71 spy planes said the high-flying jets were mistaken for UFOs more than half the time in the late 1950s and 1960s during Project Blue Book, a Wright-Patterson Air Force Base operation that investigated reports of UFOs. But not everyone is convinced.

(Tribune Content Agency) — It was 1964. Late at night. The Northern California man had lost his hunting buddies in the woods near Lake Tahoe and climbed a tree to sleep.

Awakened by a glowing object landing on a nearby ridge, the man was soon fighting for his life against two neckless creatures and a robot before the beings emitted a noxious gas and knocked him out.

A tall tale? Drunken binge? Drug-induced hallucination (it was the ’60s, after all)? No matter. That Placer County, Calif., UFO sighting and thousands more were studiously collected and meticulously researched as part of the Air Force’s strange, long-shuttered Project BLUE BOOK, a government program on the hunt for little green men — or perhaps Soviet spies; no one is saying for sure.

For 22 years, the military seemed to spare little expense in chronicling humans’ reported otherworldly encounters with glowing orbs, spinning spheres, flying ice cream cones and more.

All of it had been hidden away in archive files until a UFO enthusiast posted 130,000 documents worth of BLUE BOOK material in a free online database for the first time last month.

The project launched in 1947, two years after the end of World War II and just as the Cold War was gearing up. It concluded in 1969 without offering definitive proof of either aliens visiting Mother Earth or advanced spycraft launched by our enemies. But the goldmine of reports — witness names redacted — provides a snapshot of a nervous, suspicious era that drove our government to consider even the most fanciful reports.

“UFO investigations were taken very seriously,” said Alejandro Rojas, editor of Open Minds magazine, who points to a 1947 report of an unidentified flying object near Mount Rainier in Washington by private pilot Kenneth Arnold as the mother of modern UFO sightings.

“He was a credible person, and it hit the press and became a really, really big story,” Rojas said.

Add a dash of post-war paranoia, and the Air Force dove in head first, he said.

“The public’s imagination went wild with (UFOs),” agreed Jeff Underwood, historian of the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force. “It was a serious attempt to find if there was any validity to a UFO crisis or just mass hysteria.

“For the Air Force, it was driven more over concerns the Soviets created a super secret weapon than if there were little green men,” he said.

In the end, many of the more than 12,000 sightings diligently investigated by the Air Force were chalked up to weather phenomena, meteors, satellites, a bright planet, balloons, birds or overactive imaginations.

The latter category would seem to fit the story told in 1964 by the lost hunter near Lake Tahoe, who swore he spent the night in a tree, firing arrows at three white “robot”-looking creatures, setting scraps of his clothing afire and hurling the pieces at the glowing aliens below.

Although the BLUE BOOK documents suggest the military’s time commitment was considerable, it wasn’t enough to please everyone. In 1966, then-Michigan congressman and future president Gerald Ford complained that the Air Force was dismissing scores of UFO sightings from his constituents as “swamp gas” and called for a Congressional inquiry into the phenomena.

He wasn’t the only famous politician to get an earful from his constituents about UFOs. In a letter to President John F. Kennedy, 63-year-old Alice Reynolds of San Mateo, Calif., said she was out feeding bread to the birds when she saw two stationary white balls, one with a tail, in the early morning sky Nov. 13, 1961.

She complained that she tried to contact the Civil Defense Control Center in Belmont, but it wasn’t open, so she called the police: “They were more curious as to why I (was) up at that time than what I called about,” she wrote to the president.

The UFO witnesses ranged from grandmothers to amateur astronomers and even military pilots, who should have known a weather balloon when they saw one.

Several reports included sketches, charts and purported photographs of the objects.

Bay Area newspapers had a field day with one mysterious craft spotted by dozens of people as it drifted over the region on Feb. 7, 1950, including two nurses who swore they were “non-drinkers.”

“Flying ‘Ice Cream Cone’ Reported Over Alameda,” a San Francisco Chronicle headline screamed. The article featured a cartoon drawing of the flying confection with a Navy officer looking through binoculars yelling “Vanilla!” while a young boy said: “I say it’s chocolate!”

A San Jose man eventually wrote to the Air Force explaining that his own close look at the object revealed a single-engine airplane with a reddish vapor trail behind it. Mystery solved, concluded investigators.

Popular culture drove the reports, Underwood said, and it ultimately slowed them down in the late 1960s.

“As soon as Star Trek started, I lost interest in UFOs,” he laughed.

He wasn’t alone. On Dec. 17, 1969, the Air Force terminated the project, citing conclusions from a University of Colorado report titled, “Scientific Study of Unidentified Flying Objects.” Researchers determined there was no threat to national security, additional scientific knowledge or extraterrestrial vehicles uncovered by Project BLUE BOOK. However, 701 sightings remain “unidentified.”

 

What happens if DHS shuts down?

By Alexandra Jaffe, CNN

February 16, 2015

 

Washington (CNN)—Congress has just 12 days until Department of Homeland Security funding runs out, and House Speaker John Boehner this weekend said he was “certainly” willing to let that happen.

DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson has said a shutdown would cause a “terrible disruption” for everyday Americans, and the White House is slated this week to ramp up pressure on Congress to deliver a compromise to fund the agency.

Republicans, however, say the impact of a shutdown would be minimal, because most of DHS’ operations are considered essential, and so would continue despite a funding lapse.

So what would actually happen if Congress doesn’t pass a funding bill in time?

Some DHS employees would be furloughed — but most won’t.

Two kinds of government staffers are required to work during a shutdown: Employees whose salaries are paid for by funds outside the appropriations process, and those “whose work is necessary for the preservation of the safety of human life or the protection of property,” according to the Congressional Research Service. Unsurprisingly, that latter part covers quite a lot of DHS’ workforce.

During the 2013 government shutdown, around 200,000 DHS employees were required to report to work, many of them without pay.

 

 

 

 

Those that are required to work include 50,000 TSA screeners, 40,000 active duty Coast Guard members, 13,000 immigration law enforcement officers, 40,000 border patrol and customs officers, and 4,000 Secret Service agents.

But there would be some — around 30,000 or so — furloughs, mainly hitting the department’s management and administrative functions. It’s possible, though, that staffers furloughed could be called back to work in case of an emergency — and immediately re-furloughed after they handled the issue.

That doesn’t sound like it would be pleasant for DHS employees.

It’s not — and the potential hit to DHS morale is a serious problem with the possible shutdown. A third-party review of federal employees found DHS ranked dead last in employee satisfaction and commitment over the past two years, and morale actually declined in 2014. It’s a challenge for the Department, which struggles to retain and recruit employees, and a shutdown wouldn’t help.

But it does sound necessary for, well, homeland security…

Exactly. Many of DHS’ most fundamental operations won’t be impacted.

A number of DHS programs are funded by fees, rather than congressional appropriations, and would continue to operate even if funding lapses.

Those include the bureau’s cybersecurity operations and the Federal Protective Service, the law enforcement agency that oversees federal buildings. Border security efforts, the TSA and intelligence gathering efforts, among others, are all key DHS activities that would remain.

FEMA’s disaster relief operations and the national flood insurance program would continue to operate.

And most U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services operations, including the visa program, immigrant naturalization and asylum claims, would continue — except for the E-Verify system employers use to verify workers’ visas, which would pause in case of a shutdown.

Wait — so Obama’s executive action on immigration, which started this mess, would still be implemented?

Yep. It turns out defunding the agency that’s implementing Obama’s executive action delaying deportations for millions of immigrants won’t prevent the executive action from taking effect.

Republicans haven’t given up, though. They’re looking to add a policy rider to the bill extending funding for DHS that would block the executive order from taking effect — which remains a sticking point for Senate Democrats, who say they’ll only vote for a clean funding bill.

And even if House and Senate Republicans were able to pass a DHS funding bill that blocked Obama’s immigration move, he would likely veto it.

That’s caused the current showdown. And Boehner’s comments this weekend indicate there’s no clear compromise yet.

Then what DHS operations would take a hit?

State law enforcement could feel the pain of a shutdown the most.

Johnson has previously warned that, if DHS funding lapses, “we cannot engage in new starts, new spending, new initiatives, new grants to state and local law enforcement to fund homeland security missions.”

Many local law enforcement operations, including training, hiring of new staff and purchasing new equipment, are funded through DHS grants, and those would be discontinued during a shutdown.

And it could impact the nation’s ability to respond to future threats. Rep. Bennie Thompson, a Maryland Democrat and ranking member of the Homeland Security Committee, said during a hearing this week that a DHS shutdown would halt “research and development work on countermeasures to devastating biological threats.”

Civil rights and civil liberties complaint lines and investigations would shut down as well.

 

Send In The Weathermen


By Tony Dokoupil

http://www.nbcnews.com/pages/weathermen

February 18, 2015

 

On a moonless night in October 2001, an American helicopter lifted off from an airbase in Uzbekistan, banking south on a covert mission into Afghanistan. Inside was one of America’s most elite and unknown special operators, hand-selected for a job so important that the wider war on terror hinged on its success.

In New York and Washington, D.C., the funerals continued. Families gave up hope of a miracle rescue in the rubble of the World Trade Center and Pentagon. But if this soldier succeeded he would never shoot his gun and no one outside the military would know his work.

He was a weatherman.

More precisely, he was a special operations weather technician, known as a SOWT (pronounced sow-tee). As the Department of Defense’s only commando forecasters, SOWTs gather mission-impossible environmental data from some of the most hostile places on Earth.

They embed with Navy SEALs, Delta Force and Army Rangers. Ahead of major operations they also head in first for a go/no-go forecast. America’s parachutes don’t pop until a SOWT gives the all-clear.

That was Brady Armistead’s job as his helicopter rumbled toward a strip of desert 80 miles south of Kandahar, the capital of the Taliban government. He had a satellite forecast calling for clear skies. But satellite forecasts depend on ground data, too, and there was nothing from Afghanistan.

Five years earlier, when the Taliban seized power, it granted sanctuary to Al Qaeda and ruled by a strict interpretation of the Koran. No television or movies, mandatory burkas for women and long beards for men — plus no weather reports.

The Taliban considered forecasting to be sorcery. They fired the country’s 600 or so professional meteorologists, shelled the Afghan Meteorological Authority, and burned the country’s vast climatological archives.

That created a blind spot in global weather data, which is typically pooled and shared between the world’s governments. The Pentagon felt it had a fix in SOWTs like Armistead, jump-ready scientists with the God-given guts to do the weather behind enemy lines.

The dropzone approached and Armistead watched through night-vision goggles as a sandstorm melted the ground and blurred the horizon. The pilot pulled the aircraft into a hover, letting Armistead fast-rope 60 feet down into the void below. The weatherman was accompanied by a small team of Air Force combat controllers, commandos trained at seizing airfields and managing traffic in the sky.

By dawn they had traversed several kilometers of desert, scaled a mountain and dug into a ledge, where Armistead started to work. In the days that followed, he used laser rangefinders for cloud height, night-launched weather balloons for upper atmospheric data, and a pocket meteorological wand for everything else.

The result was a daily “nowcast,” which he compared against the computer predictions. He adjusted the forecasts, tweaking the estimate to match the reality and running the calculations again. He wanted to be as close as possible to clear skies, moderate temperatures, calm winds, good visibility and air dense enough to support flight, which was no guarantee in a high-altitude, hot environment.

 

“I’ve done plenty of missions where it’s like, ‘No kidding, don’t step off the porch, bad guys, because you’re going to step on me.’

—Brady Armistead

 

By day three Armistead felt ready. A thousand miles away, General Dell Dailey, the head of Joint Special Operations Command, felt ready, too. On a tarmac in Uzbekistan, 199 Army Rangers double-knotted their boots and pilots fired the engines on four MC-130 Talons. As night fell on October 19, Dailey asked for final word from the front.

“Conditions favorable,” Armistead wrote in a secure text message.

“Roger,” replied Dailey, adding his initials. “Force will launch.”

So began the ground war in Afghanistan. The Army Rangers seized an airfield and created Camp Rhino, the first American base in the country. Their mission also marked the start of a dangerous new era for meteorologists like Armistead, guardians of unmanned aircraft and commandos in low-flying helicopters. Both assets are extremely weather-sensitive. A satellite can fly overhead, but combat meteorologists liken the quality of such data to shaking a box to guess what’s inside.

“We get the ground truth,” said Armistead, speaking publicly for the first time about his work. “I’ve done plenty of missions where it’s like, ‘No kidding, don’t step off the porch, bad guys, because you’re going to step on me.'”

The Grey Berets, as they’re called — in recognition of their storm-colored headgear — have been around in some capacity since World War II. Over the years, however, their mission has been stymied by a tangled chain of command, inconsistent training and a requirement that all SOWTs begin as desk meteorologists.

That’s all changed.

In 2008, in response to demand for SOWTs and a rash of weather-related accidents, the Air Force quietly created career field 1WXOS, the first official class of commando weathermen. The field has allowed Air Force Special Operations Command to expand recruiting, signing kids as young as 17 and then sending them through a new two-year training pipeline, the longest in the Department of Defense.

SOWTs were on the ground ahead of the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, according to military sources, and their work has helped nail pirates, free hostages and respond to humanitarian disasters. Overall, their ranks have tripled in recent years, with more growth expected. No position in the Air Force is a higher priority for recruiters.

But the work of SOWTs is still invisible to the general public; it’s often overshadowed by members of the military’s rougher quarters, who rarely seem to tire of mocking their colleagues with the weather balloons. That’s why so many SOWTs — among more than two dozen operators and forecasters, from teenage recruits to proudly broken-down old guys — opened up to NBC News.

“In special operations most of the failures have weather as a causal effect,” said Rip Coleman, a former director of environmental services for Joint Special Operations Command. “The weather is going to make or break a mission before it even takes off,” added Dusty Lee, a recruiting, accessions and selection superintendent for Air Force Special Tactics, the branch equivalent of the Navy SEALs and Army Special Forces. “There are never enough of us.”

This is the story of the combat weatherman’s long road from desk jockey to war hero. But it is also a view of conflict from the inside in an age of environmental change. A time when some of the most important commandos in the military don’t kick down doors and when the greatest threat to human security may not even be human.

 

“We’re Human Sensors”

Morning comes early for clandestine weathermen.

Long before the sun bobs up over the Gulf of Mexico, SOWT pickup trucks and muscle cars are lined at the main gate of Hurlburt Field, the home of Air Force Special Operations Command on the Florida Panhandle.

Their first official workouts start at 7 a.m. But even at this hour, SOWTs are taught to be reading the skies. Forgot to roll up your windows on a rainy day? You owe the team a thousand push-ups. Blow an outlook for chilly weather? You aren’t allowed to go home for your coat.

SOWTs don’t just do the weather. They leverage it. They use the morning dew to erase a platoon’s tracks or the wind to muffle a helicopter or the shadow of a mountain to shelter the wounded. They also watch for obstacles and opportunities, cataloging where the soil is soft, the rivers are swift, the snow is loose, the fog is dense or the apples are juicy. They make America a home-turf warrior no matter the country.

“We live out our forecasts,” said Jonathan Sawtelle, an angular young officer who, after serving as the SOWT’s director of operations last year, is set to start a more senior forecasting job at Joint Special Operations Command. “We’re sensors, human sensors, and that’s the magic of the SOWTs.”

But let’s be honest.

There’s a joke here, something comical about sending a meteorologist to war. It has to do with our image of the ordinary forecaster: that second-rate scientist who spends his life indoors, predicting the outdoors, and getting it wrong.

“Meteorologists everywhere are weenies in the extreme,” the author and aviator William Langewiesche wrote in 2008. “They are twerps. Dweebs. Instrument tappers. Professional virgins.”

Before the new career code, many SOWTs fit this description. They were drawn from the Air Force’s conventional weather centers, which tended to make them meteorologists first, warriors second. The new SOWTs — and the best of the old ones — are a different breed. They are warriors first, meteorologists second.

“They’re stronger, faster and brighter than we ever were,” said Tony Carson, a SOWT officer who came in under the old system. “The challenge now is pulling these guys back, not pushing them forward.”

There are about 120 SOWTs spread across three newly created Special Tactics teams, with two more planned by 2020. These teams comprise combat controllers, weathermen and medics, among other Special Tactics airmen. If the Air Force is right, these men — there are no women allowed — represent a widening component of U.S. special operations.

They are essential in combat, dealing death from above, but they can also save lives, coordinating rescues and re-supply drops — all while keeping an eye on the unfriendly skies. Climate change is expanding the need for such work, according to the Pentagon, which anticipates a greater number of humanitarian relief and disaster response missions.

“Can you attribute any given weather event to climate change? No,” said Sawtelle. “But is Special Tactics there and ready to take action? Absolutely. We’re a fast-reacting force, standing ready to respond to climate disasters.”

SOWTs are a tiny slice of the special operations machine but a unique one, a rare blend of brawn and brains. Their careers start with a standard military intelligence test. To qualify for the pipeline, SOWTs need a minimum score that’s 20 points higher than what is required by anyone else in Air Force Special Tactics — higher, in fact, than almost every job in the military other than code breaker.

They need that extra intellectual firepower to survive forecasting school at Keesler Air Force Base in Mississippi: 30 weeks of advanced meteorology, interspersed with workouts and trips to the mess hall.

The SOWTs have to unlearn as much as they learn. The “thin air” around us is in fact thick, for example, dense enough to support flight. An object that’s “light as air” is actually, as a matter of science, exerting a ton of atmospheric pressure per square foot.

They learn that trying to predict the weather is as hard as following a wave across the open seas or predicting the first bubble in a slowly boiling pot of water. But good forecasts shape history. One Air Force academic traces the relationship between weather and war to the first caveman who scored his club handles for skull-bashing in the rain.

America itself was founded on the exploitation of fog, snow and favorable tides. The Continental Army used a shroud of low clouds to hide from the British bayonets on Long Island. General George Washington then crossed the Delaware in a blizzard, surprising the enemy and turning the war.

The lore is endless, which is why the military has always been one of meteorology’s biggest patrons. Between 1870 and 1955 it launched the forerunner of the National Weather Service, opened the first graduate school of meteorology, and funded the first computer-generated forecasts. These days, the military is working to loop the world’s data together, flow it through an ensemble of models, and forecast the Earth as a single entity. Here’s the outlook, it’ll say: from three days to three decades.

But even then there are likely to be SOWTs. During training, they get a glimpse of their essential value. They’re shown a nighttime picture of the Earth. The cities glow but the land is largely dark and desolate, “data sparse.” What’s the weather like there? No one can be sure.

This may come as a surprise to Americans, the world’s most wired people for weather. We have about 10,000 professionally run surface weather reporting stations, the same amount as the rest of the world combined. We also have about 150 radar centers; some regions of Africa have none. Asked to name what parts of the globe lacked for surface weather data, one researcher said, “The whole southern hemisphere, really.”

The key to a perfect forecast is a perfect picture of the atmosphere, from the edge of space down to the tip of a farmer’s wet finger. It’s an image scientists can’t get from a climate-controlled room. They know the physics that govern the sky. Their supercomputers can stay ahead of the clouds. They just can’t get the numbers right in the first place.

Insufficient or faulty ground data is a major reason why forecasts curdle within a week, and go totally rancid after 10 days. Even a same-day satellite forecast is a spaghetti plot of best guesses and city-sized generalities. That won’t do in war, where the weather is never neutral.

As SOWTs master the language of the sky, they also learn to survive under it. The physical side of the SOWT pipeline may be an even greater test than the intellectual side. It starts with a 500-meter surface swim, two 25-meter underwater swims, a 1.5-mile run and timed bursts of pull-ups, sit-ups and push-ups.

Pass that and you qualify for a “selection course,” a two-week cycle of spittle and sweat at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas. Here SOWTs get their ribs kicked by drill instructors while the anguish of muscle failure eats at their minds. They jump off cliffs, run through rivers, drag truck tires and perform everyday calisthenics made more torturous by a spray of water to the face, anything to trigger a fear of drowning.

“We’re here to push them, to show them that their bodies and minds are capable of handling much more than they think,” said one instructor featured in a SOWT recruiting video released online. “We’re looking for that alpha male drive,” said another instructor.

If the SOWTs survive this hell, there are others waiting, including five kinds of survival school and a disaster-movie sequence of severe weather observations, tactical training and demolition. Throughout this regime prospective SOWTs are constantly being evaluated. Most candidates never get accepted into the pipeline. Of those who do, fewer than one in five get their grey beret, according to Lee, the senior recruiter.

Recent recruits include wrestlers, water polo players, surfers, runners and a lineman pulled off an NFL practice squad. The common denominator is a knack for tamping down the body’s instinct to scream. “I’m leaving with a grey beret or a body bag,” said one new recruit, entering the pipeline this fall. He’s 17.

“These guys are certified mental and physical studs,” said Sawtelle.

They’re stronger, faster and brighter. The challenge now is pulling these guys back, not pushing them forward.

They’re also deadly operators. Before they deploy, all SOWTs get a coat of battle paint at Hurlburt Field, home of the Air Force’s advanced combat training school. It’s a sprawling gym, pool and classroom complex, and on a recent visit the facility felt like a stroll through the pages of a spy novel.

Cell phones get locked up in little boxes. The cinder blocks above the urinals are covered with one-pagers on countries in West Africa and Southeast Asia. Everywhere the walls are talking, reminding young airmen about the need for strict operational security.

“Loose pieces of talk are put together by our enemies for victory,” warns one poster.

“This is a 100 percent shred zone,” notes another.

In a warehouse across the street, the SOWTs keep their personal “cages”: wire mesh closets packed like Hollywood costume trailers and piled high with beef jerky and books.

“A lot of guys read a lot of books,” said Sawtelle, walking down the aisles. He pointed out a particular favorite in one locker: “The Art of War,” an ancient Chinese military treatise attributed to Sun Tzu.

“Know the weather,” Sun Tzu advised around 320 B.C. “Your victory will then be total.”

Air Force special operators support Army, Navy and Marine special operations detachments, which means SOWTs have the guns, radios and battle dress to join any team at any time.

Sawtelle stopped at a red door with a security keypad and another little locker for phones.

“We’re behind every SOF (special operations forces) mission,” he said, before saying goodbye. “Weather is always the first slide.”

But not everyone in the military seems to care. The most celebrated soldiers are the ones who most directly take enemy lives and most often lose their own in the process. In Air Force Special Tactics those soldiers are the combat controllers, the ones who call in bombs in a firefight.

Inside the main doors of the Special Tactics Training Complex there is a wall of framed photos, almost all of them fallen combat controllers. In the auditorium two combat controllers recently addressed visitors (and potential recruits) from the Ultimate Fighting circuit. “I know how it sounds,” one of the men said, as he neared the end of a bloody anecdote about his time in Afghanistan, “but just before a firefight, I start to smile.”

This kind of machismo may be necessary, given the work of special operations, but it also means that soldiers sometimes don’t respect the weather. A couple of months after the auditorium speeches a team of Special Tactics airmen huddled in tents on Alaska’s Manatuska Glacier. They were on a training mission, an effort to find a body in one of the area’s seemingly bottomless crevasses.

They were supposed to have SOWTs with them, testing the ice and snowpack, gauging the depth and swiftness of a nearby river. If the team found a body — an actual dummy hidden in the terrain — the SOWTs would forecast for an incoming helicopter. But the SOWTs were called away, sent on a real-world mission at the last moment, according to the Air Force.

The combat controllers and medics didn’t mind. Some used a smartphone app, which failed to predict an afternoon of high winds and rain that might have flipped tents if they had not been angled correctly by a local guide. Others planned to ford the river — until another guide warned them of a dangerous drop in the middle.

Even when the SOWTs are around, the rougher soldiers don’t necessarily see their value. Some prank the SOWTs, stuffing their bags or lockers with balloons. Others ignore the SOWTs entirely — too tough to worry about the weather, too young or inexperienced to realize they should.

One day last spring, dozens of combat controllers filed into a room ahead of a parachute exercise. They were joined by a smaller number of combat medics and an even smaller number of SOWTs. The room darkened as soundproof hatches closed over the windows and a projector turned on.

The young combat controller in charge of the briefing said, “Here’s the weather report.”

He added, “If anyone cares.”

 

The First SOWT

To understand the new special operations weathermen, it helps to look back to their origins.

The number of military weather observers surged during World War I, when the appearance of long-range artillery and chemical warfare meant that a busted forecast took on dire consequences. A bad wind sock could turn a chemical weapon into a chemical threat. A broken air pressure gauge could make it impossible to determine the distance of incoming fire and get return fire on target.

But World War II was the weatherman’s golden hour. It was the first war with the widespread use of air power, and the United States prepared by training more than 30,000 conventional weather personnel to help guide America’s new flyboys. On D-Day an Allied forecaster first delayed the invasion of France, then sent Commander Eisenhower’s “great crusade” through a clear patch the Germans didn’t see and never expected.

That invasion included the earliest known airborne weathermen, forerunners to today’s SOWTs. One of them stepped out into the clouds over Normandy, popping silk with the 82nd Airborne Division. Another followed in a glider. Both were stitched by gunfire before taking an observation.

The modern SOWT mission was reborn in 1963.

The Johnson administration began to prepare for a secret war in Laos, where the North Vietnamese were cutting tracks through the jungle, creating a supply route known as the Ho Chi Minh Trail. The Pentagon wanted to stop them with bombs, but the flight conditions were dicey. When tropical air hits a mountain range it cools rapidly, forming thunderstorms that could knock back a jet in already difficult skies.

Back at Hurlburt Field, two brigadier generals had an idea for managing this problem. They created an experimental five-man team, a squad of weathermen who could operate like Army Special Forces. They called it the Commando Combat Weather Team and tapped an Air Force captain named Keith Grimes to run it, according to a copy of Grimes’ 1974 “oral autobiography,” prepared by the Air Force (and still partially redacted by the CIA).

Grimes held three degrees, spoke four languages and went on to become one of the most important commandos in Air Force history. He became the first true SOWT, and implemented the broader vision of warriors first, weathermen second.

Grimes came from the regular Air Weather Service, a group of people who, as he described it, “don’t talk to strong men without sort of quivering.” By contrast he was “a wonderful maverick,” in the words of a two-star general whose note introduces the Grimes story, “a credit to mankind — as well as the military.”

In June 1965 Grimes deployed to an air base in Udorn, Thailand, dressed in civilian clothes and posing as a scientist. The war had started but it wasn’t going well. For the past year American-backed bomber pilots had been following a finger of the Annamite Mountains and, just as the Pentagon had feared, they were getting “socked in” by storms. As many as half their missions were aborted because of weather.

So, to get these sorties on target, Grimes hiked into the Annamites himself, accompanied by a band of Laotian guerillas. From a mountaintop, he could see for 50 miles around, and he would monitor the sky. When he saw a storm collapse, he would call in a strike by code word, coaching the pilots through this hole in the clouds or that sun-drenched valley.

He watched the bombs fall.

“We’d be waiting, hiding in the grass, or the jungle, or up on top of some rocks, or in some cave,” he later recalled, “and before the North Vietnamese could regain their composure and get organized in any fashion we’d overrun the position. Then we’d do it somewhere else two or three days later.”

It worked.

The weather-related abort rate tumbled and the enemy death toll soared. Grimes himself got credit for facilitating 1,200 confirmed kills. He also studded the mountains with three dozen permanent weather stations, and trained a team of indigenous local observers, a “net” he could “crank up” to keep future bombs on target.

What Grimes did in Laos flashed the benefits of a hyper-local, eyes-on combat weather forecast. But like SOWTs today, Grimes still struggled for proper recognition. When he tried to get new rounds for his M-16, for example, the equipment manager at Udorn denied him.

“You’re a weatherman,” he said.

Grimes left his M-16 on the counter and walked out to find an AK-47.

“All we needed to do to get ammunition for the AK-47 was to kill some North Vietnamese,” he said. “That was a devil of a lot easier.”

In 1970 Grimes again demonstrated the value of SOWTs. He was asked to help execute Operation Kingpin, a lionhearted mission to rescue American POWs from Son Tay, a prison camp near Hanoi. The plan called for six helicopters and two dozen Green Berets and involved an issue of front-page national concern.

To prepare, Grimes called the Air Force’s climatology department and, based on the historical averages, selected October or November as the ideal time for the raid. He wanted the conditions just so: less than five knots of surface wind, an east moon, no more than 45 degrees above the horizon, scattered cirrus clouds, nothing to silhouette the helos.

After a summer of mock-ups, the team flew to Vietnam to wait on the right conditions. But a typhoon formed off the coast and by all appearances it was going to make landfall on November 21, the very day Grimes was targeting for the launch.

From a classified bunker on Monkey Mountain, an American base about 800 miles south of the target, he searched for another option. He reviewed satellite photos and surface observations from his commandos in Laos and China. He saw a cold trough coming down out of the north, a low-pressure system that might be strong enough to delay the typhoon and create a “tongue” of clear weather over Son Tay.

“What’s your conclusion?” the general said.

“If we don’t do it tonight, we’ll never do it,” Grimes said.

They did it.

Six helicopters flew the nape of the Earth, and the night was perfect. The force got in and got out in 26 minutes flat.

The mission still failed.

The POWs had all been moved, the camp deserted. But that was a failure of intelligence, not weather, and Grimes won the Legion of Merit for his work.

 

“What is the price to be paid by military commanders for not knowing the weather? Mission failure? Damage to national prestige? The blood of American servicemen?

—Joseph T. Benson

 

Today Grimes is a relative unknown even within the Air Force, where his accomplishments have been left out of books and buried in the Vietnam archive at Texas Tech University. The reasons help explain why the specialty of combat weather itself has struggled over the years, and may continue to struggle.

Through the 1970s and beyond, the SOWT career field still had a major problem: There was no career field, nothing distinct from the traditional Air Force meteorologists. The Commando Combat Weather Team was a revolving door of volunteers, many with no training beyond jump school. One Grey Beret would be a top-tier special operator. The next wouldn’t even know how to load his gun.

It was almost impossible to get the military’s elite commandos to allow a desk-bred man with a thermometer to take the place of a battle-hardened colleague with a gun. By the time Grimes died in a plane crash in 1977, the field seemed to die with him, setting the stage for the lowest moment in the history of special operations.

Operation Eagle Claw began in November 1979 when Iranian militants seized the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and held 52 Americans captive. Five months later President Jimmy Carter launched a rescue mission, this one involving eight helicopters.

They were to take off from an aircraft carrier in the Red Sea and rendezvous at a secret location in the Iranian desert. Combat controller John T. Carney, who had gone in first to scout the landing site, returned with his teammates to marshal the aircraft, including three large fuel transports. The weather, forecast by desk meteorologists from thousands of miles away in Nebraska, was supposed to be favorable.

The rotor blades of a burned-out U.S. helicopter create a stark silhouette against the desert skies of eastern Iran, where the American commando mission to rescue the hostages proved impossible after equipment failure, seen April 27, 1980. In background is a U.S. helicopter that was also left behind when the mission was aborted.

The rotor blades of a burned-out U.S. helicopter create a stark silhouette against the desert skies of eastern Iran, where the American commando mission to rescue the hostages proved impossible after equipment failure, seen April 27, 1980. In background is a U.S. helicopter that was also left behind when the mission was aborted.

The actual weather was not. The helicopters flew through shrouds of chalk-white dust, invisible to the satellites above, billowing for hundreds of miles near the surface. One of the aircraft crashed. Another turned back in desperation. A third malfunctioned. Carter decided to abort, but one of the remaining choppers flew into a transport plane, erupting in an explosion that left eight servicemen dead.

Carter’s presidency never recovered, and for a while it seemed the Air Force’s forecasters wouldn’t either. Many assumed that they had delivered a busted outlook. The truth was even worse, according to several after-action reports. The desk meteorologists had done the best they could do. The problem was the SOWTs.

They were never on the scene.

No one had called them.

In February 2007, Joseph T. Benson, the SOWTs’ director of operations at Hurlburt Field, attacked this lapse in a blistering essay for Air & Space Power, the Air Force’s professional journal.

“What is the price to be paid by military commanders for not knowing the weather? Is it paid in lost equipment? Mission failure? Damage to national prestige? The blood of American servicemen?” he wrote. “On April 24, 1980, at a remote location in central Iran code-named Desert One, the United States paid on all counts.”

 

Grey Berets Rise Again

Before special operations weathermen emerged as modern war heroes, they spent decades on the fringes of military life. By the early 1980s, the commando weather team that had been formed for secret work in Vietnam and Laos had, in the words of one former officer, been “allowed to atrophy to the point of being almost nonfunctional.” That’s when people started dying.

In 1982, five Army paratroopers were dragged to their deaths in unforeseen high winds near Fort Irwin, California. A year later, four Navy SEALs dropped into unexpectedly rough surf and died during the invasion of Grenada. In these cases and others, the SOWTs were uncalled or unheeded.

The first Gulf War made matters worse. One SOWT built the largest clandestine weather net since Keith Grimes hiked into Laos. But there was another SOWT on the ground, a drinker. To consummate the invasion he held “a sexual orgy in the middle of the desert,” Wayne Golding, the SOWTs’ commanding officer, later told an Air Force historian.

Golding wasn’t smiling. A major reason why U.S. special operators — from the SEALs to the Rangers to the Green Berets — were turning down SOWTs at the time was the fear that the weather guy would somehow compromise a mission. They didn’t trust the SOWTs’ training, nor their professionalism, and this libidinous forecaster had just given them proof that those suspicions were justified.

It got even worse. In the early 1990s, General Merrill McPeak, the new Air Force chief of staff, decided to deflate the Air Weather Service, a byzantine, bloated organization that grew out of World War II. He closed wings, shuttered squadrons and reassigned hundreds of forecasters.

A “Right Stuff”-style fighter jock from the Vietnam era, McPeak thought the Air Weather Service was, as he suggested in an email to NBC, as outdated as the Polish cavalry. He nearly succeeded in making its forecasters just as ceremonial.

“It killed our career field,” said Rip Coleman, who at the time was the director of meteorology for Air Force Special Operations.

Coleman and others succeeded in getting a new unit created: the 10th Combat Weather Squadron at Hurlburt Field. Brady Armistead was already there, a proud young forecaster who, like Grimes before him, was a human test case.

He was among the first weathermen assigned to an experimental Special Tactics Team. Such teams are now the official future of Air Force Special Operations. In the beginning, however, Armistead’s arrival was met with bewilderment.

The guard stopped him at the front gates. There must be some mistake, the guard told him: “We don’t have a combat weather team at Hurlburt Field.”

Armistead demanded that the guard station call the base commander: “We don’t have a weatherman,” the base commander confirmed.

It took three more calls to get Armistead a bunk for the night. It was right about then — as he lay awake and little worms of anger spread in his chest — that Armistead decided to change the way special operations thinks about weathermen.

“You can beat me down. You can talk crap. But at the end of the day, I’m going to show you my value,” he remembers thinking.

By the time he dropped into Afghanistan, poised to start the war on terror, Armistead had won his own battle, according to several former colleagues. He had earned a spot on the 24th Special Tactics Squadron, the Air Force’s version of SEAL Team 6 and Delta Force. (The Pentagon doesn’t officially acknowledge any of these teams and neither does Armistead, but other senior military personnel confirmed STS 24’s existence to NBC News.)

“Those guys were s**t-hot,” remembers a member of Delta Force, who deployed with SOWTs and combat controllers during the fierce early months of the war in Afghanistan. “They could swing like Tarzan, think like Einstein and climb like Spider-Man.”

The military started to trust SOWTs again, using them two years later when the United States invaded Iraq, according to records compiled by the Air Weather Association, a society of military forecasters.

At least three SOWTs infiltrated early. One landed in the northeast, near Iran, where he watched the winds for signs of chemical warfare. Another entered in the south, surviving incoming missiles and a sandstorm strong enough to bury his sleeping bag.

A third worked the center of the country, and forecast clear skies for a thousand paratroopers making the first major insertion of the war. A half hour before the paratroopers reached their jump point, the SOWT thought he had blown his call. The clouds above him were low and thick — then he saw his first star.

In a role that remains classified, SOWTs also deployed in support of Operation Neptune’s Spear, the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, according to people familiar with that and similar SOWT missions.

“I guarantee you there were guys out there,” said one senior official, who requested anonymity because he isn’t authorized to discuss the bin Laden mission. Special Operations Command declined to comment directly, as did Sawtelle, the officer then in charge of the SOWTs at Hurlburt Field.

But the need for data was obvious. Pakistan’s ground weather stations are spotty and far-flung, producing forecasts too vague for military use. To compensate, at least one environmental observer was on the flight path into Pakistan, while a second dug into the mountains surrounding Abbottabad, providing environmental “overwatch” on the compound, according to military sources.

It’s unclear how they landed in those positions. SOWTs are trained to jump from tens of thousands of feet, glide through the night and hit an X anywhere on the map. But they’re equally adept at flying commercial with an Osprey backpack, North Face boots and a cover story.

 

“Those guys were s**t-hot. They could swing like Tarzan, think like Einstein and climb like Spider-Man.

—Delta Force member

 

For all the SOWT successes, it was yet another failure that perhaps did the most to secure their future.

The date was July 7, 2007, a bloody day for American soldiers in Mali, but of course the men zipped into their tents in the Kidal region didn’t know that yet. They were waiting out a storm, worrying, if at all, about a strike by Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.

The average summer storm in Mali drops less than a quarter inch of rain. This was not the average summer storm. It was most likely a mesoscale convective complex, a violent kind of disturbance that climatologists expect to multiply as the planet warms.

It had grown overnight, the power undetected by satellites, hundreds of miles from the nearest radar station. Warm air soared upward, pulling in moisture from the Atlantic coast, and by noon what had begun as a few gray clouds on the horizon had blossomed into an ambush, according to Bruce Perkins, an Air Force meteorologist who helped investigate the incident for U.S. Special Operations Command.

 

The storm collapsed directly over the unsuspecting soldiers of the 10th Special Forces Group. Rain cut grooves in the earth and lightning lit the sky with sudden, eerie flashes. When the wind gusted, it sheared away a layer of mud.

One gust loosened the tent pegs.

The next gust blew the tents over.

Two soldiers toppled out uninjured. Two others rolled, and the tent turned into a grinder of heavy people and heavier gear. They suffered brain damage and were flown to Walter Reed Army Medical Center for long-term care. The fifth soldier — a decorated veteran and new father from Monterey, California — died at the scene.

A SOWT, Perkins made clear to his seniors, could have made all the difference. A SOWT, he said, “would have been able to forecast some pretty heavy stuff coming, and tell the guys to find a harder place to site their tents.”

The right people in the Pentagon agreed. Less than a year later, on May 5, 2008, the Air Force decided to create its new career field for special operations weather.

No more need to teach desk meteorologists how to fight. SOWTs now recruit at football games and college wrestling tournaments, sometimes drawing people in with a chin-up bar and a challenge. SOWTs have resources now, too, and they get to train alongside the best commandos in the military.

“Sixty seconds to touchdown!” the crew chief yelled during one such training mission.

The interior of a grounded CH-47 helicopter came alive with the wet rumble of motorcycle engines. The commandos balanced on dirt bikes, eight per team: 24 soldiers to protect the lives of several thousand refugees. They adjusted their M4 carbines and flipped on night-vision goggles.

Then the ramp fell and they sped into a war zone.

They were actually on a parcel of forest near Pensacola, Florida, conducting a simulated response to environmental trauma. The people of one country had pushed into the people of another, and Special Tactics had been deployed to secure the perimeter of the refugee camp, help the injured and keep the peace.

That, and don’t get themselves killed. One of the instructors was tossing mortars. They were blanks, but the sounds and shakes were real. One rookie was blown off his bike and into the mud. Another sped up, riding the tailpipe of the bike in front of him.

Afterward the team debriefed in a small clearing near a lake. It was full dark, so everyone kept their night-vision goggles on.

“Why don’t you want to bunch on those turns?” asked the mortar-tossing instructor.

He put a pinch of tobacco in his lip and didn’t wait long for an answer.

“Ambush, IED,” he said. “You’re all smoked in a second flat.”

Observing this session was lead instructor Sergeant Travis Sanford, a 27-year-old SOWT in the new mold. He looks like G.I. Joe: a V-bodied six-footer, snapped together with symmetry and blessed with a kung-fu grip. In 2010 he grabbed a wounded Marine by his ankle and pulled him to safety in Afghanistan, earning a Bronze Star for valor.

Today he’s a model the Air Force would like to replicate by the dozen. But he also gets it. There’s still a joke here, still something slightly off about forecasting the weather while someone is trying to kill you. That will probably always be true.

The new SOWTs don’t take the slights too personally anymore, Sanford said. When a smirking officer asks for a weather balloon, as one always does, one of Sanford’s colleagues likes to pull out a kid’s party balloon and shape it into a giraffe.

Sanford understands the military in terms of a giant high school social scene. The special operators are like starting quarterbacks and homecoming kids, but not the SOWTs.

“We’re kind of like the valedictorians,” he said. “We’ve got the 4.0 grade point average, but we can play a little, too.”

 

What ISIS Really Wants

The Islamic State believes it is a key agent of the coming apocalypse. Here’s what that means for its strategy.

By Graeme Wood, The Atlantic

http://www.nationaljournal.com/defense/what-isis-really-wants-20150217

February 17, 2015

 

What is the Islamic State?

Where did it come from, and what are its intentions? The simplicity of these questions can be deceiving, and few Western leaders seem to know the answers. In December, The New York Times published confidential comments by Maj. Gen. Michael K. Nagata, the Special Operations commander for the United States in the Middle East, admitting that he had hardly begun figuring out the Islamic State’s appeal. “We have not defeated the idea,” he said. “We do not even understand the idea.” In the past year, President Obama has referred to the Islamic State, variously, as “not Islamic” and as al-Qaida’s “jayvee team,” statements that reflected confusion about the group, and that may have contributed to significant strategic errors.

 

 

 

 

The group seized Mosul, Iraq, last June, and already rules an area larger than the United Kingdom. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has been its leader since May 2010, but until last summer, his most recent known appearance on film was a grainy mug shot from a stay in U.S. captivity at Camp Bucca during the occupation of Iraq. Then, on July 5 of last year, he stepped into the pulpit of the Great Mosque of al-Nuri in Mosul, to deliver a Ramadan sermon as the first caliph in generations—upgrading his resolution from grainy to high-definition, and his position from hunted guerrilla to commander of all Muslims. The inflow of jihadists that followed, from around the world, was unprecedented in its pace and volume, and is continuing.

Our ignorance of the Islamic State is in some ways understandable: It is a hermit kingdom; few have gone there and returned. Baghdadi has spoken on camera only once. But his address, and the Islamic State’s countless other propaganda videos and encyclicals, are online, and the caliphate’s supporters have toiled mightily to make their project knowable. We can gather that their state rejects peace as a matter of principle; that it hungers for genocide; that its religious views make it constitutionally incapable of certain types of change, even if that change might ensure its survival; and that it considers itself a harbinger of—and headline player in—the imminent end of the world.

The Islamic State, also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, follows a distinctive variety of Islam whose beliefs about the path to the Day of Judgment matter to its strategy and can help the West know its enemy and predict its behavior. Its rise to power is less like the triumph of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt (a group whose leaders the Islamic State considers apostates) than like the realization of a dystopian alternate reality in which David Koresh or Jim Jones survived to wield absolute power over not just a few hundred people, but some 8 million.

We have misunderstood the nature of the Islamic State in at least two ways. First, we tend to see jihadism as monolithic, and to apply the logic of alQaida to an organization that has decisively eclipsed it. The Islamic State supporters I spoke with still refer to Osama bin Laden as “Sheikh Osama,” a title of honor. But jihadism has evolved since al-Qaida’s heyday, from about 1998 to 2003, and many jihadists disdain the group’s priorities and current leadership.

Bin Laden viewed his terrorism as a prologue to a caliphate he did not expect to see in his lifetime. His organization was flexible, operating as a geographically diffuse network of autonomous cells. The Islamic State, by contrast, requires territory to remain legitimate, and a top-down structure to rule it. (Its bureaucracy is divided into civil and military arms, and its territory into provinces.)

We are misled in a second way, by a well-intentioned but dishonest campaign to deny the Islamic State’s medieval religious nature. Peter Bergen, who produced the first interview with bin Laden in 1997, titled his first book Holy War, Inc. in part to acknowledge bin Laden as a creature of the modern secular world. Bin Laden corporatized terrorism and franchised it out. He requested specific political concessions, such as the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Saudi Arabia. His foot soldiers navigated the modern world confidently. On Mohammad Atta’s last full day of life, he shopped at Walmart and ate dinner at Pizza Hut.

There is a temptation to rehearse this observation—that jihadists are modern secular people, with modern political concerns, wearing medieval religious disguise—and make it fit the Islamic State. In fact, much of what the group does looks nonsensical except in light of a sincere, carefully considered commitment to returning civilization to a seventh-century legal environment, and ultimately to bringing about the apocalypse.

 

 

 

 

The most-articulate spokesmen for that position are the Islamic State’s officials and supporters themselves. They refer derisively to “moderns.” In conversation, they insist that they will not—cannot—waver from governing precepts that were embedded in Islam by the Prophet Muhammad and his earliest followers. They often speak in codes and allusions that sound odd or old-fashioned to non-Muslims, but refer to specific traditions and texts of early Islam.

To take one example: In September, Sheikh Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, the Islamic State’s chief spokesman, called on Muslims in Western countries such as France and Canada to find an infidel and “smash his head with a rock,” poison him, run him over with a car, or “destroy his crops.” To Western ears, the biblical-sounding punishments—the stoning and crop destruction—juxtaposed strangely with his more modern-sounding call to vehicular homicide. (As if to show that he could terrorize by imagery alone, Adnani also referred to Secretary of State John Kerry as an “uncircumcised geezer.”)

But Adnani was not merely talking trash. His speech was laced with theological and legal discussion, and his exhortation to attack crops directly echoed orders from Muhammad to leave well water and crops alone—unless the armies of Islam were in a defensive position, in which case Muslims in the lands of kuffar, or infidels, should be unmerciful, and poison away.

The reality is that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic. Yes, it has attracted psychopaths and adventure seekers, drawn largely from the disaffected populations of the Middle East and Europe. But the religion preached by its most ardent followers derives from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam.

Virtually every major decision and law promulgated by the Islamic State adheres to what it calls, in its press and pronouncements, and on its billboards, license plates, stationery, and coins, “the Prophetic methodology,” which means following the prophecy and example of Muhammad, in punctilious detail. Muslims can reject the Islamic State; nearly all do. But pretending that it isn’t actually a religious, millenarian group, with theology that must be understood to be combated, has already led the United States to underestimate it and back foolish schemes to counter it. We’ll need to get acquainted with the Islamic State’s intellectual genealogy if we are to react in a way that will not strengthen it but instead help it self-immolate in its own excessive zeal.

In November, the Islamic State released an infomercial-like video tracing its origins to bin Laden. It acknowledged Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the brutal head of alQaida in Iraq from roughly 2003 until his killing in 2006, as a more immediate progenitor, followed sequentially by two other guerrilla leaders before Baghdadi, the caliph. Notably unmentioned: bin Laden’s successor, Ayman al-Zawahiri, the owlish Egyptian eye surgeon who currently heads alQaida. Zawahiri has not pledged allegiance to Baghdadi, and he is increasingly hated by his fellow jihadists. His isolation is not helped by his lack of charisma; in videos, he comes across as squinty and annoyed. But the split between al-Qaida and the Islamic State has been long in the making, and it begins to explain, at least in part, the outsized bloodlust of the latter.

Zawahiri’s companion in isolation is a Jordanian cleric named Abu Muhammad al Maqdisi, 55, who has a fair claim to being al-Qaida’s intellectual architect and the most important jihadist unknown to the average American newspaper reader. On most matters of doctrine, Maqdisi and the Islamic State agree. Both are closely identified with the jihadist wing of a branch of Sunnism called Salafism, after the Arabic al salaf al salih, the “pious forefathers.” These forefathers are the Prophet himself and his earliest adherents, whom Salafis honor and emulate as the models for all behavior, including warfare, couture, family life, even dentistry.

Maqdisi taught Zarqawi, who went to war in Iraq with the older man’s advice in mind. In time, though, Zarqawi surpassed his mentor in fanaticism, and eventually earned his rebuke. At issue was Zarqawi’s penchant for bloody spectacle—and, as a matter of doctrine, his hatred of other Muslims, to the point of excommunicating and killing them. In Islam, the practice of takfir, or excommunication, is theologically perilous. “If a man says to his brother, ‘You are an infidel,’ ” the Prophet said, “then one of them is right.” If the accuser is wrong, he himself has committed apostasy by making a false accusation. The punishment for apostasy is death. And yet Zarqawi heedlessly expanded the range of behavior that could make Muslims infidels.

Maqdisi wrote to his former pupil that he needed to exercise caution and “not issue sweeping proclamations of takfir” or “proclaim people to be apostates because of their sins.” The distinction between apostate and sinner may appear subtle, but it is a key point of contention between al-Qaida and the Islamic State.

Denying the holiness of the Koran or the prophecies of Muhammad is straightforward apostasy. But Zarqawi and the state he spawned take the position that many other acts can remove a Muslim from Islam. These include, in certain cases, selling alcohol or drugs, wearing Western clothes or shaving one’s beard, voting in an election—even for a Muslim candidate—and being lax about calling other people apostates. Being a Shiite, as most Iraqi Arabs are, meets the standard as well, because the Islamic State regards Shiism as innovation, and to innovate on the Koran is to deny its initial perfection. (The Islamic State claims that common Shiite practices, such as worship at the graves of imams and public self-flagellation, have no basis in the Koran or in the example of the Prophet.) That means that roughly 200 million Shia are marked for death. So, too, are the heads of state of every Muslim country, who have elevated man-made law above sharia by running for office or enforcing laws not made by God.

Following takfiri doctrine, the Islamic State is committed to purifying the world by killing vast numbers of people. The lack of objective reporting from its territory makes the true extent of the slaughter unknowable, but social-media posts from the region suggest that individual executions happen more or less continually, and mass executions every few weeks. Muslim “apostates” are the most common victims. Exempted from automatic execution, it appears, are Christians who do not resist their new government. Baghdadi permits them to live, as long as they pay a special tax, known as the jizya, and acknowledge their subjugation. The Koranic authority for this practice is not in dispute.

Centuries have passed since the wars of religion ceased in Europe, and since men stopped dying in large numbers because of arcane theological disputes. Hence, perhaps, the incredulity and denial with which Westerners have greeted news of the theology and practices of the Islamic State. Many refuse to believe that this group is as devout as it claims to be, or as backward-looking or apocalyptic as its actions and statements suggest.

Their skepticism is comprehensible. In the past, Westerners who accused Muslims of blindly following ancient scriptures came to deserved grief from academics—notably the late Edward Said—who pointed out that calling Muslims “ancient” was usually just another way to denigrate them. Look instead, these scholars urged, to the conditions in which these ideologies arose—the bad governance, the shifting social mores, the humiliation of living in lands valued only for their oil.

Without acknowledgment of these factors, no explanation of the rise of the Islamic State could be complete. But focusing on them to the exclusion of ideology reflects another kind of Western bias: that if religious ideology doesn’t matter much in Washington or Berlin, surely it must be equally irrelevant in Raqqa or Mosul. When a masked executioner says “Allahu akbar” while beheading an apostate, sometimes he’s doing so for religious reasons.

Many mainstream Muslim organizations have gone so far as to say the Islamic State is, in fact, un-Islamic. It is, of course, reassuring to know that the vast majority of Muslims have zero interest in replacing Hollywood movies with public executions as evening entertainment. But Muslims who call the Islamic State un-Islamic are typically, as the Princeton scholar Bernard Haykel, the leading expert on the group’s theology, told me, “embarrassed and politically correct, with a cotton-candy view of their own religion” that neglects “what their religion has historically and legally required.” Many denials of the Islamic State’s religious nature, he said, are rooted in an “interfaith-Christian-nonsense tradition.”

Every academic I asked about the Islamic State’s ideology sent me to Haykel. Of partial Lebanese descent, Haykel grew up in Lebanon and the United States, and when he talks through his Mephistophelian goatee, there is a hint of an unplaceable foreign accent.

According to Haykel, the ranks of the Islamic State are deeply infused with religious vigor. Koranic quotations are ubiquitous. “Even the foot soldiers spout this stuff constantly,” Haykel said. “They mug for their cameras and repeat their basic doctrines in formulaic fashion, and they do it all the time.” He regards the claim that the Islamic State has distorted the texts of Islam as preposterous, sustainable only through willful ignorance. “People want to absolve Islam,” he said. “It’s this ‘Islam is a religion of peace’ mantra. As if there is such a thing as ‘Islam’! It’s what Muslims do, and how they interpret their texts.” Those texts are shared by all Sunni Muslims, not just the Islamic State. “And these guys have just as much legitimacy as anyone else.”

All Muslims acknowledge that Muhammad’s earliest conquests were not tidy affairs, and that the laws of war passed down in the Koran and in the narrations of the Prophet’s rule were calibrated to fit a turbulent and violent time. In Haykel’s estimation, the fighters of the Islamic State are authentic throwbacks to early Islam and are faithfully reproducing its norms of war. This behavior includes a number of practices that modern Muslims tend to prefer not to acknowledge as integral to their sacred texts. “Slavery, crucifixion, and beheadings are not something that freakish [jihadists] are cherry-picking from the medieval tradition,” Haykel said. Islamic State fighters “are smack in the middle of the medieval tradition and are bringing it wholesale into the present day.”

The Koran specifies crucifixion as one of the only punishments permitted for enemies of Islam. The tax on Christians finds clear endorsement in the Surah Al-Tawba, the Koran’s ninth chapter, which instructs Muslims to fight Christians and Jews “until they pay the jizya with willing submission, and feel themselves subdued.” The Prophet, whom all Muslims consider exemplary, imposed these rules and owned slaves.

Leaders of the Islamic State have taken emulation of Muhammad as strict duty, and have revived traditions that have been dormant for hundreds of years. “What’s striking about them is not just the literalism, but also the seriousness with which they read these texts,” Haykel said. “There is an assiduous, obsessive seriousness that Muslims don’t normally have.”

Before the rise of the Islamic State, no group in the past few centuries had attempted more-radical fidelity to the Prophetic model than the Wahhabis of 18thcentury Arabia. They conquered most of what is now Saudi Arabia, and their strict practices survive in a diluted version of Sharia there. Haykel sees an important distinction between the groups, though: “The Wahhabis were not wanton in their violence.” They were surrounded by Muslims, and they conquered lands that were already Islamic; this stayed their hand. “ISIS, by contrast, is really reliving the early period.” Early Muslims were surrounded by non-Muslims, and the Islamic State, because of its takfiri tendencies, considers itself to be in the same situation.

If al-Qaida wanted to revive slavery, it never said so. And why would it? Silence on slavery probably reflected strategic thinking, with public sympathies in mind: When the Islamic State began enslaving people, even some of its supporters balked. Nonetheless, the caliphate has continued to embrace slavery and crucifixion without apology. “We will conquer your Rome, break your crosses, and enslave your women,” Adnani, the spokesman, promised in one of his periodic valentines to the West. “If we do not reach that time, then our children and grandchildren will reach it, and they will sell your sons as slaves at the slave market.”

In October, Dabiq, the magazine of the Islamic State, published “The Revival of Slavery Before the Hour,” an article that took up the question of whether Yazidis (the members of an ancient Kurdish sect that borrows elements of Islam, and had come under attack from Islamic State forces in northern Iraq) are lapsed Muslims, and therefore marked for death, or merely pagans and therefore fair game for enslavement. A study group of Islamic State scholars had convened, on government orders, to resolve this issue. If they are pagans, the article’s anonymous author wrote, “Yazidi women and children [are to be] divided according to the Shariah amongst the fighters of the Islamic State who participated in the Sinjar operations [in northern Iraq] … Enslaving the families of the kuffar [infidels] and taking their women as concubines is a firmly established aspect of the Shariah that if one were to deny or mock, he would be denying or mocking the verses of the Koran and the narrations of the Prophet … and thereby apostatizing from Islam.”

Tens of thousands of foreign Muslims are thought to have immigrated to the Islamic State. Recruits hail from France, the United Kingdom, Belgium, Germany, Holland, Australia, Indonesia, the United States, and many other places. Many have come to fight, and many intend to die.

Peter R. Neumann, a professor at King’s College London, told me that online voices have been essential to spreading propaganda and ensuring that newcomers know what to believe. Online recruitment has also widened the demographics of the jihadist community, by allowing conservative Muslim women—physically isolated in their homes—to reach out to recruiters, radicalize, and arrange passage to Syria. Through its appeals to both genders, the Islamic State hopes to build a complete society.

In November, I traveled to Australia to meet Musa Cerantonio, a 30-year-old man whom Neumann and other researchers had identified as one of the two most important “new spiritual authorities” guiding foreigners to join the Islamic State. For three years he was a televangelist on Iqraa TV in Cairo, but he left after the station objected to his frequent calls to establish a caliphate. Now he preaches on Facebook and Twitter.

Cerantonio—a big, friendly man with a bookish demeanor—told me he blanches at beheading videos. He hates seeing the violence, even though supporters of the Islamic State are required to endorse it. (He speaks out, controversially among jihadists, against suicide bombing, on the grounds that God forbids suicide; he differs from the Islamic State on a few other points as well.) He has the kind of unkempt facial hair one sees on certain overgrown fans of The Lord of the Rings, and his obsession with Islamic apocalypticism felt familiar. He seemed to be living out a drama that looks, from an outsider’s perspective, like a medieval fantasy novel, only with real blood.

Last June, Cerantonio and his wife tried to emigrate—he wouldn’t say to where (“It’s illegal to go to Syria,” he said cagily)—but they were caught en route, in the Philippines, and he was deported back to Australia for overstaying his visa. Australia has criminalized attempts to join or travel to the Islamic State, and has confiscated Cerantonio’s passport. He is stuck in Melbourne, where he is well known to the local constabulary. If Cerantonio were caught facilitating the movement of individuals to the Islamic State, he would be imprisoned. So far, though, he is free—a technically unaffiliated ideologue who nonetheless speaks with what other jihadists have taken to be a reliable voice on matters of the Islamic State’s doctrine.

We met for lunch in Footscray, a dense, multicultural Melbourne suburb that’s home to Lonely Planet, the travel-guide publisher. Cerantonio grew up there in a half-Irish, half-Calabrian family. On a typical street one can find African restaurants, Vietnamese shops, and young Arabs walking around in the Salafi uniform of scraggly beard, long shirt, and trousers ending halfway down the calves.

Cerantonio explained the joy he felt when Baghdadi was declared the caliph on June 29—and the sudden, magnetic attraction that Mesopotamia began to exert on him and his friends. “I was in a hotel [in the Philippines], and I saw the declaration on television,” he told me. “And I was just amazed, and I’m like, Why am I stuck here in this bloody room?”

The last caliphate was the Ottoman Empire, which reached its peak in the 16th century and then experienced a long decline, until the founder of the Republic of Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, euthanized it in 1924. But Cerantonio, like many supporters of the Islamic State, doesn’t acknowledge that caliphate as legitimate, because it didn’t fully enforce Islamic law, which requires stonings and slavery and amputations, and because its caliphs were not descended from the tribe of the Prophet, the Quraysh.

Baghdadi spoke at length of the importance of the caliphate in his Mosul sermon. He said that to revive the institution of the caliphate—which had not functioned except in name for about 1,000 years—was a communal obligation. He and his loyalists had “hastened to declare the caliphate and place an imam” at its head, he said. “This is a duty upon the Muslims—a duty that has been lost for centuries. … The Muslims sin by losing it, and they must always seek to establish it.” Like bin Laden before him, Baghdadi spoke floridly, with frequent scriptural allusion and command of classical rhetoric. Unlike bin Laden, and unlike those false caliphs of the Ottoman Empire, he is Qurayshi.

The caliphate, Cerantonio told me, is not just a political entity but also a vehicle for salvation. Islamic State propaganda regularly reports the pledges of baya’a (allegiance) rolling in from jihadist groups across the Muslim world. Cerantonio quoted a Prophetic saying, that to die without pledging allegiance is to die jahil (ignorant) and therefore die a “death of disbelief.” Consider how Muslims (or, for that matter, Christians) imagine God deals with the souls of people who die without learning about the one true religion. They are neither obviously saved nor definitively condemned. Similarly, Cerantonio said, the Muslim who acknowledges one omnipotent god and prays, but who dies without pledging himself to a valid caliph and incurring the obligations of that oath, has failed to live a fully Islamic life. I pointed out that this means the vast majority of Muslims in history, and all who passed away between 1924 and 2014, died a death of disbelief. Cerantonio nodded gravely. “I would go so far as to say that Islam has been reestablished” by the caliphate.

I asked him about his own baya’a, and he quickly corrected me: “I didn’t say that I’d pledged allegiance.” Under Australian law, he reminded me, giving baya’a to the Islamic State was illegal. “But I agree that [Baghdadi] fulfills the requirements,” he continued. “I’m just going to wink at you, and you take that to mean whatever you want.”

To be the caliph, one must meet conditions outlined in Sunni law—being a Muslim adult man of Quraysh descent; exhibiting moral probity and physical and mental integrity; and having ‘amr, or authority. This last criterion, Cerantonio said, is the hardest to fulfill, and requires that the caliph have territory in which he can enforce Islamic law. Baghdadi’s Islamic State achieved that long before June 29, Cerantonio said, and as soon as it did, a Western convert within the group’s ranks—Cerantonio described him as “something of a leader”—began murmuring about the religious obligation to declare a caliphate. He and others spoke quietly to those in power and told them that further delay would be sinful.

Cerantonio said a faction arose that was prepared to make war on Baghdadi’s group if it delayed any further. They prepared a letter to various powerful members of ISIS, airing their displeasure at the failure to appoint a caliph, but were pacified by Adnani, the spokesman, who let them in on a secret—that a caliphate had already been declared, long before the public announcement. They had their legitimate caliph, and at that point there was only one option. “If he’s legitimate,” Cerantonio said, “you must give him the baya’a.”

After Baghdadi’s July sermon, a stream of jihadists began flowing daily into Syria with renewed motivation. Jürgen Todenhöfer, a German author and former politician who visited the Islamic State in December, reported the arrival of 100 fighters at one Turkish-border recruitment station in just two days. His report, among others, suggests a still-steady inflow of foreigners, ready to give up everything at home for a shot at paradise in the worst place on Earth.

In London, a week before my meal with Cerantonio, I met with three ex-members of a banned Islamist group called Al Muhajiroun (The Emigrants): Anjem Choudary, Abu Baraa, and Abdul Muhid. They all expressed desire to emigrate to the Islamic State, as many of their colleagues already had, but the authorities had confiscated their passports. Like Cerantonio, they regarded the caliphate as the only righteous government on Earth, though none would confess to having pledged allegiance. Their principal goal in meeting me was to explain what the Islamic State stands for, and how its policies reflect God’s law.

Choudary, 48, is the group’s former leader. He frequently appears on cable news, as one of the few people producers can book who will defend the Islamic State vociferously, until his mike is cut. He has a reputation in the United Kingdom as a loathsome blowhard, but he and his disciples sincerely believe in the Islamic State and, on matters of doctrine, speak in its voice. Choudary and the others feature prominently in the Twitter feeds of Islamic State residents, and Abu Baraa maintains a YouTube channel to answer questions about Sharia.

Since September, authorities have been investigating the three men on suspicion of supporting terrorism. Because of this investigation, they had to meet me separately: communication among them would have violated the terms of their bail. But speaking with them felt like speaking with the same person wearing different masks. Choudary met me in a candy shop in the East London suburb of Ilford. He was dressed smartly, in a crisp blue tunic reaching nearly to his ankles, and sipped a Red Bull while we talked.

Before the caliphate, “maybe 85 percent of the Sharia was absent from our lives,” Choudary told me. “These laws are in abeyance until we have khilafa”—a caliphate—”and now we have one.” Without a caliphate, for example, individual vigilantes are not obliged to amputate the hands of thieves they catch in the act. But create a caliphate, and this law, along with a huge body of other jurisprudence, suddenly awakens. In theory, all Muslims are obliged to immigrate to the territory where the caliph is applying these laws. One of Choudary’s prize students, a convert from Hinduism named Abu Rumaysah, evaded police to bring his family of five from London to Syria in November. On the day I met Choudary, Abu Rumaysah tweeted out a picture of himself with a Kalashnikov in one arm and his newborn son in the other. Hashtag: #GenerationKhilafah.

The caliph is required to implement Sharia. Any deviation will compel those who have pledged allegiance to inform the caliph in private of his error and, in extreme cases, to excommunicate and replace him if he persists. (“I have been plagued with this great matter, plagued with this responsibility, and it is a heavy responsibility,” Baghdadi said in his sermon.) In return, the caliph commands obedience—and those who persist in supporting non-Muslim governments, after being duly warned and educated about their sin, are considered apostates.

Choudary said Sharia has been misunderstood because of its incomplete application by regimes such as Saudi Arabia, which does behead murderers and cut off thieves’ hands. “The problem,” he explained, “is that when places like Saudi Arabia just implement the penal code, and don’t provide the social and economic justice of the Sharia—the whole package—they simply engender hatred toward the Sharia.” That whole package, he said, would include free housing, food, and clothing for all, though of course anyone who wished to enrich himself with work could do so.

Abdul Muhid, 32, continued along these lines. He was dressed in mujahedeen chic when I met him at a local restaurant: scruffy beard, Afghan cap, and a wallet outside of his clothes, attached with what looked like a shoulder holster. When we sat down, he was eager to discuss welfare. The Islamic State may have medieval-style punishments for moral crimes (lashes for boozing or fornication, stoning for adultery), but its social-welfare program is, at least in some aspects, progressive to a degree that would please an MSNBC pundit. Health care, he said, is free. (“Isn’t it free in Britain, too?,” I asked. “Not really,” he said. “Some procedures aren’t covered, such as vision.”) This provision of social welfare was not, he said, a policy choice of the Islamic State, but a policy obligation inherent in God’s law.

All Muslims acknowledge that God is the only one who knows the future. But they also agree that he has offered us a peek at it, in the Koran and in narrations of the Prophet. The Islamic State differs from nearly every other current jihadist movement in believing that it is written into God’s script as a central character. It is in this casting that the Islamic State is most boldly distinctive from its predecessors, and clearest in the religious nature of its mission.

 

In broad strokes, al-Qaida acts like an underground political movement, with worldly goals in sight at all times—the expulsion of non-Muslims from the Arabian Peninsula, the abolishment of the state of Israel, the end of support for dictatorships in Muslim lands. The Islamic State has its share of worldly concerns (including, in the places it controls, collecting garbage and keeping the water running), but the End of Days is a leitmotif of its propaganda. Bin Laden rarely mentioned the apocalypse, and when he did, he seemed to presume that he would be long dead when the glorious moment of divine comeuppance finally arrived. “Bin Laden and Zawahiri are from elite Sunni families who look down on this kind of speculation and think it’s something the masses engage in,” says Will McCants of the Brookings Institution, who is writing a book about the Islamic State’s apocalyptic thought.

During the last years of the U.S. occupation of Iraq, the Islamic State’s immediate founding fathers, by contrast, saw signs of the end times everywhere. They were anticipating, within a year, the arrival of the Mahdi—a messianic figure destined to lead the Muslims to victory before the end of the world. McCants says a prominent Islamist in Iraq approached bin Laden in 2008 to warn him that the group was being led by millenarians who were “talking all the time about the Mahdi and making strategic decisions” based on when they thought the Mahdi was going to arrive. “Al-Qaida had to write to [these leaders] to say ‘Cut it out.’ ”

For certain true believers—the kind who long for epic good-versus-evil battles—visions of apocalyptic bloodbaths fulfill a deep psychological need. Of the Islamic State supporters I met, Musa Cerantonio, the Australian, expressed the deepest interest in the apocalypse and how the remaining days of the Islamic State—and the world—might look. Parts of that prediction are original to him, and do not yet have the status of doctrine. But other parts are based on mainstream Sunni sources and appear all over the Islamic State’s propaganda. These include the belief that there will be only 12 legitimate caliphs, and Baghdadi is the eighth; that the armies of Rome will mass to meet the armies of Islam in northern Syria; and that Islam’s final showdown with an anti-Messiah will occur in Jerusalem after a period of renewed Islamic conquest.

The Islamic State has attached great importance to the Syrian city of Dabiq, near Aleppo. It named its propaganda magazine after the town, and celebrated madly when (at great cost) it conquered Dabiq’s strategically unimportant plains. It is here, the Prophet reportedly said, that the armies of Rome will set up their camp. The armies of Islam will meet them, and Dabiq will be Rome’s Waterloo or its Antietam.

“Dabiq is basically all farmland,” one Islamic State supporter recently tweeted. “You could imagine large battles taking place there.” The Islamic State’s propagandists drool with anticipation of this event, and constantly imply that it will come soon. The state’s magazine quotes Zarqawi as saying, “The spark has been lit here in Iraq, and its heat will continue to intensify … until it burns the crusader armies in Dabiq.” A recent propaganda video shows clips from Hollywood war movies set in medieval times—perhaps because many of the prophecies specify that the armies will be on horseback or carrying ancient weapons.

Now that it has taken Dabiq, the Islamic State awaits the arrival of an enemy army there, whose defeat will initiate the countdown to the apocalypse. Western media frequently miss references to Dabiq in the Islamic State’s videos, and focus instead on lurid scenes of beheading. “Here we are, burying the first American crusader in Dabiq, eagerly waiting for the remainder of your armies to arrive,” said a masked executioner in a November video, showing the severed head of Peter (Abdul Rahman) Kassig, the aid worker who’d been held captive for more than a year. During fighting in Iraq in December, after mujahedeen (perhaps inaccurately) reported having seen American soldiers in battle, Islamic State Twitter accounts erupted in spasms of pleasure, like overenthusiastic hosts or hostesses upon the arrival of the first guests at a party.

The Prophetic narration that foretells the Dabiq battle refers to the enemy as Rome. Who “Rome” is, now that the pope has no army, remains a matter of debate. But Cerantonio makes a case that Rome meant the Eastern Roman empire, which had its capital in what is now Istanbul. We should think of Rome as the Republic of Turkey—the same republic that ended the last self-identified caliphate, 90 years ago. Other Islamic State sources suggest that Rome might mean any infidel army, and the Americans will do nicely.

After its battle in Dabiq, Cerantonio said, the caliphate will expand and sack Istanbul. Some believe it will then cover the entire Earth, but Cerantonio suggested its tide may never reach beyond the Bosporus. An anti-Messiah, known in Muslim apocalyptic literature as Dajjal, will come from the Khorasan region of eastern Iran and kill a vast number of the caliphate’s fighters, until just 5,000 remain, cornered in Jerusalem. Just as Dajjal prepares to finish them off, Jesus—the second-most-revered prophet in Islam—will return to Earth, spear Dajjal, and lead the Muslims to victory.

“Only God knows” whether the Islamic State’s armies are the ones foretold, Cerantonio said. But he is hopeful. “The Prophet said that one sign of the imminent arrival of the End of Days is that people will for a long while stop talking about the End of Days,” he said. “If you go to the mosques now, you’ll find the preachers are silent about this subject.” On this theory, even setbacks dealt to the Islamic State mean nothing, since God has preordained the near-destruction of his people anyway. The Islamic State has its best and worst days ahead of it.

The ideological purity of the Islamic State has one compensating virtue: it allows us to predict some of the group’s actions. Osama bin Laden was seldom predictable. He ended his first television interview cryptically. CNN’s Peter Arnett asked him, “What are your future plans?” Bin Laden replied, “You’ll see them and hear about them in the media, God willing.” By contrast, the Islamic State boasts openly about its plans—not all of them, but enough so that by listening carefully, we can deduce how it intends to govern and expand.

In London, Choudary and his students provided detailed descriptions of how the Islamic State must conduct its foreign policy, now that it is a caliphate. It has already taken up what Islamic law refers to as “offensive jihad,” the forcible expansion into countries that are ruled by non-Muslims. “Hitherto, we were just defending ourselves,” Choudary said; without a caliphate, offensive jihad is an inapplicable concept. But the waging of war to expand the caliphate is an essential duty of the caliph.

Choudary took pains to present the laws of war under which the Islamic State operates as policies of mercy rather than of brutality. He told me the state has an obligation to terrorize its enemies—a holy order to scare the shit out of them with beheadings and crucifixions and enslavement of women and children, because doing so hastens victory and avoids prolonged conflict.

Choudary’s colleague Abu Baraa explained that Islamic law permits only temporary peace treaties, lasting no longer than a decade. Similarly, accepting any border is anathema, as stated by the Prophet and echoed in the Islamic State’s propaganda videos. If the caliph consents to a longer-term peace or permanent border, he will be in error. Temporary peace treaties are renewable, but may not be applied to all enemies at once: The caliph must wage jihad at least once a year. He may not rest, or he will fall into a state of sin.

One comparison to the Islamic State is the Khmer Rouge, which killed about a third of the population of Cambodia. But the Khmer Rouge occupied Cambodia’s seat at the United Nations. “This is not permitted,” Abu Baraa said. “To send an ambassador to the U.N. is to recognize an authority other than God’s.” This form of diplomacy is shirk, or polytheism, he argued, and would be immediate cause to hereticize and replace Baghdadi. Even to hasten the arrival of a caliphate by democratic means—for example by voting for political candidates who favor a caliphate—is shirk.

It’s hard to overstate how hamstrung the Islamic State will be by its radicalism. The modern international system, born of the 1648 Peace of Westphalia, relies on each state’s willingness to recognize borders, however grudgingly. For the Islamic State, that recognition is ideological suicide. Other Islamist groups, such as the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas, have succumbed to the blandishments of democracy and the potential for an invitation to the community of nations, complete with a U.N. seat. Negotiation and accommodation have worked, at times, for the Taliban as well. (Under Taliban rule, Afghanistan exchanged ambassadors with Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and the United Arab Emirates, an act that invalidated the Taliban’s authority in the Islamic State’s eyes.) To the Islamic State these are not options, but acts of apostasy.

The United States and its allies have reacted to the Islamic State belatedly and in an apparent daze. The group’s ambitions and rough strategic blueprints were evident in its pronouncements and in social-media chatter as far back as 2011, when it was just one of many terrorist groups in Syria and Iraq and hadn’t yet committed mass atrocities. Adnani, the spokesman, told followers then that the group’s ambition was to “restore the Islamic caliphate,” and he evoked the apocalypse, saying, “There are but a few days left.” Baghdadi had already styled himself “commander of the faithful,” a title ordinarily reserved for caliphs, in 2011. In April 2013, Adnani declared the movement “ready to redraw the world upon the Prophetic methodology of the caliphate.” In August 2013, he said, “Our goal is to establish an Islamic state that doesn’t recognize borders, on the Prophetic methodology.” By then, the group had taken Raqqa, a Syrian provincial capital of perhaps 500,000 people, and was drawing in substantial numbers of foreign fighters who’d heard its message.

If we had identified the Islamic State’s intentions early, and realized that the vacuum in Syria and Iraq would give it ample space to carry them out, we might, at a minimum, have pushed Iraq to harden its border with Syria and preemptively make deals with its Sunnis. That would at least have avoided the electrifying propaganda effect created by the declaration of a caliphate just after the conquest of Iraq’s third-largest city. Yet, just over a year ago, Obama told The New Yorker that he considered ISIS to be al-Qaida’s weaker partner. “If a jayvee team puts on Lakers uniforms, that doesn’t make them Kobe Bryant,” the president said.

Our failure to appreciate the split between the Islamic State and al-Qaida, and the essential differences between the two, has led to dangerous decisions. Last fall, to take one example, the U.S. government consented to a desperate plan to save Peter Kassig’s life. The plan facilitated—indeed, required—the interaction of some of the founding figures of the Islamic State and al-Qaida, and could hardly have looked more hastily improvised.

It entailed the enlistment of Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, the Zarqawi mentor and al-Qaida grandee, to approach Turki al-Binali, the Islamic State’s chief ideologue and a former student of Maqdisi’s, even though the two men had fallen out due to Maqdisi’s criticism of the Islamic State. Maqdisi had already called for the state to extend mercy to Alan Henning, the British cabbie who had entered Syria to deliver aid to children. In December, The Guardian reported that the U.S. government, through an intermediary, had asked Maqdisi to intercede with the Islamic State on Kassig’s behalf.

Maqdisi was living freely in Jordan but had been banned from communicating with terrorists abroad, and he was being monitored closely. After Jordan granted the United States permission to reintroduce Maqdisi to Binali, Maqdisi bought a phone with American money and was allowed to correspond merrily with his former student for a few days, before the Jordanian government stopped the chats and used them as a pretext to jail Maqdisi. Kassig’s severed head appeared in the Dabiq video a few days later.

Maqdisi gets mocked roundly on Twitter by the Islamic State’s fans, and alQaida is held in great contempt for refusing to acknowledge the caliphate. Cole Bunzel, a scholar who studies Islamic State ideology, read Maqdisi’s opinion on Henning’s status and thought it would hasten his and other captives’ death. “If I were held captive by the Islamic State, and Maqdisi said I shouldn’t be killed,” he told me, “I’d kiss my ass goodbye.”

Kassig’s death was a tragedy, but the plan’s success would have been a bigger one. A reconciliation between Maqdisi and Binali would have begun to heal the main rift between the world’s two largest jihadist organizations. It’s possible that the government wanted only to draw out Binali for intelligence purposes or assassination. (Multiple attempts to elicit comment from the FBI were unsuccessful.) Regardless, the decision to play matchmaker for America’s two main terrorist antagonists reveals astonishingly poor judgment.

Chastened by our earlier indifference, we are now meeting the Islamic State via Kurdish and Iraqi proxy on the battlefield, and with regular air assaults. Those strategies haven’t dislodged the Islamic State from any of its major territorial possessions, although they’ve kept it from directly assaulting Baghdad and Erbil and slaughtering Shia and Kurds there.

Some observers have called for escalation, including several predictable voices from the interventionist right (Max Boot, Frederick Kagan), who have urged the deployment of tens of thousands of American soldiers. These calls should not be dismissed too quickly: an avowedly genocidal organization is on its potential victims’ front lawn, and it is committing daily atrocities in the territory it already controls.

One way to un-cast the Islamic State’s spell over its adherents would be to overpower it militarily and occupy the parts of Syria and Iraq now under caliphate rule. AlQaida is ineradicable because it can survive, cockroach-like, by going underground. The Islamic State cannot. If it loses its grip on its territory in Syria and Iraq, it will cease to be a caliphate. Caliphates cannot exist as underground movements, because territorial authority is a requirement: Take away its command of territory, and all those oaths of allegiance are no longer binding. Former pledges could, of course, continue to attack the West and behead their enemies, as freelancers. But the propaganda value of the caliphate would disappear, and with it the supposed religious duty to immigrate and serve it. If the United States were to invade, the Islamic State’s obsession with battle at Dabiq suggests that it might send vast resources there, as if in a conventional battle. If the state musters at Dabiq in full force, only to be routed, it might never recover.

Abu Baraa, who maintains a YouTube channel about Islamic law, says the caliph, Baghdadi, cannot negotiate or recognize borders, and must continually make war, or he will remove himself from Islam.

And yet the risks of escalation are enormous. The biggest proponent of an American invasion is the Islamic State itself. The provocative videos, in which a black-hooded executioner addresses President Obama by name, are clearly made to draw America into the fight. An invasion would be a huge propaganda victory for jihadists worldwide: Irrespective of whether they have given baya’a to the caliph, they all believe that the United States wants to embark on a modern-day Crusade and kill Muslims. Yet another invasion and occupation would confirm that suspicion, and bolster recruitment. Add the incompetence of our previous efforts as occupiers, and we have reason for reluctance. The rise of ISIS, after all, happened only because our previous occupation created space for Zarqawi and his followers. Who knows the consequences of another botched job?

Given everything we know about the Islamic State, continuing to slowly bleed it, through air strikes and proxy warfare, appears the best of bad military options. Neither the Kurds nor the Shia will ever subdue and control the whole Sunni heartland of Syria and Iraq—they are hated there, and have no appetite for such an adventure anyway. But they can keep the Islamic State from fulfilling its duty to expand. And with every month that it fails to expand, it resembles less the conquering state of the Prophet Muhammad than yet another Middle Eastern government failing to bring prosperity to its people.

The humanitarian cost of the Islamic State’s existence is high. But its threat to the United States is smaller than its all too frequent conflation with al-Qaida would suggest. Al-Qaida’s core is rare among jihadist groups for its focus on the “far enemy” (the West); most jihadist groups’ main concerns lie closer to home. That’s especially true of the Islamic State, precisely because of its ideology. It sees enemies everywhere around it, and while its leadership wishes ill on the United States, the application of Sharia in the caliphate and the expansion to contiguous lands are paramount. Baghdadi has said as much directly: In November he told his Saudi agents to “deal with the rafida [Shia] first … then al-Sulul [Sunni supporters of the Saudi monarchy] … before the crusaders and their bases.”

 

The foreign fighters (and their wives and children) have been traveling to the caliphate on one-way tickets: They want to live under true Sharia, and many want martyrdom. Doctrine, recall, requires believers to reside in the caliphate if it is at all possible for them to do so. One of the Islamic State’s less bloody videos shows a group of jihadists burning their French, British, and Australian passports. This would be an eccentric act for someone intending to return to blow himself up in line at the Louvre or to hold another chocolate shop hostage in Sydney.

A few “lone wolf” supporters of the Islamic State have attacked Western targets, and more attacks will come. But most of the attackers have been frustrated amateurs, unable to immigrate to the caliphate because of confiscated passports or other problems. Even if the Islamic State cheers these attacks—and it does in its propaganda—it hasn’t yet planned and financed one. (The Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris in January was principally an alQaida operation.) During his visit to Mosul in December, Jürgen Todenhöfer interviewed a portly German jihadist and asked whether any of his comrades had returned to Europe to carry out attacks. The jihadist seemed to regard returnees not as soldiers but as dropouts. “The fact is that the returnees from the Islamic State should repent from their return,” he said. “I hope they review their religion.”

Properly contained, the Islamic State is likely to be its own undoing. No country is its ally, and its ideology ensures that this will remain the case. The land it controls, while expansive, is mostly uninhabited and poor. As it stagnates or slowly shrinks, its claim that it is the engine of God’s will and the agent of apocalypse will weaken, and fewer believers will arrive. And as more reports of misery within it leak out, radical Islamist movements elsewhere will be discredited: No one has tried harder to implement strict Sharia by violence. This is what it looks like.

Even so, the death of the Islamic State is unlikely to be quick, and things could still go badly wrong: If the Islamic State obtained the allegiance of alQaida—increasing, in one swoop, the unity of its base—it could wax into a worse foe than we’ve yet seen. The rift between the Islamic State and al-Qaida has, if anything, grown in the past few months; the December issue of Dabiq featured a long account of an alQaida defector who described his old group as corrupt and ineffectual, and Zawahiri as a distant and unfit leader. But we should watch carefully for a rapprochement.

Without a catastrophe such as this, however, or perhaps the threat of the Islamic State’s storming Erbil, a vast ground invasion would certainly make the situation worse.

It would be facile, even exculpatory, to call the problem of the Islamic State “a problem with Islam.” The religion allows many interpretations, and Islamic State supporters are morally on the hook for the one they choose. And yet simply denouncing the Islamic State as un-Islamic can be counterproductive, especially if those who hear the message have read the holy texts and seen the endorsement of many of the caliphate’s practices written plainly within them.

Muslims can say that slavery is not legitimate now, and that crucifixion is wrong at this historical juncture. Many say precisely this. But they cannot condemn slavery or crucifixion outright without contradicting the Koran and the example of the Prophet. “The only principled ground that the Islamic State’s opponents could take is to say that certain core texts and traditional teachings of Islam are no longer valid,” Bernard Haykel says. That really would be an act of apostasy.

The Islamic State’s ideology exerts powerful sway over a certain subset of the population. Life’s hypocrisies and inconsistencies vanish in its face. Musa Cerantonio and the Salafis I met in London are unstumpable: No question I posed left them stuttering. They lectured me garrulously and, if one accepts their premises, convincingly. To call them un-Islamic appears, to me, to invite them into an argument that they would win. If they had been froth-spewing maniacs, I might be able to predict that their movement would burn out as the psychopaths detonated themselves or became drone-splats, one by one. But these men spoke with an academic precision that put me in mind of a good graduate seminar. I even enjoyed their company, and that frightened me as much as anything else.

Non-Muslims cannot tell Muslims how to practice their religion properly. But Muslims have long since begun this debate within their own ranks. “You have to have standards,” Anjem Choudary told me. “Somebody could claim to be a Muslim, but if he believes in homosexuality or drinking alcohol, then he is not a Muslim. There is no such thing as a nonpracticing vegetarian.”

There is, however, another strand of Islam that offers a hard-line alternative to the Islamic State—just as uncompromising, but with opposite conclusions. This strand has proved appealing to many Muslims cursed or blessed with a psychological longing to see every jot and tittle of the holy texts implemented as they were in the earliest days of Islam. Islamic State supporters know how to react to Muslims who ignore parts of the Koran: with takfir and ridicule. But they also know that some other Muslims read the Koran as assiduously as they do, and pose a real ideological threat.

Baghdadi is Salafi. The term Salafi has been villainized, in part because authentic villains have ridden into battle waving the Salafi banner. But most Salafis are not jihadists, and most adhere to sects that reject the Islamic State. They are, as Haykel notes, committed to expanding Dar al-Islam, the land of Islam, even, perhaps, with the implementation of monstrous practices such as slavery and amputation—but at some future point. Their first priority is personal purification and religious observance, and they believe anything that thwarts those goals—such as causing war or unrest that would disrupt lives and prayer and scholarship—is forbidden.

 

They live among us. Last fall, I visited the Philadelphia mosque of Breton Pocius, 28, a Salafi imam who goes by the name Abdullah. His mosque is on the border between the crime-ridden Northern Liberties neighborhood and a gentrifying area that one might call Dar al-Hipster; his beard allows him to pass in the latter zone almost unnoticed.

 

Pocius converted 15 years ago after a Polish Catholic upbringing in Chicago. Like Cerantonio, he talks like an old soul, exhibiting deep familiarity with ancient texts, and a commitment to them motivated by curiosity and scholarship, and by a conviction that they are the only way to escape hellfire. When I met him at a local coffee shop, he carried a work of Koranic scholarship in Arabic and a book for teaching himself Japanese. He was preparing a sermon on the obligations of fatherhood for the 150 or so worshipers in his Friday congregation.

Pocius said his main goal is to encourage a halal life for worshipers in his mosque. But the rise of the Islamic State has forced him to consider political questions that are usually very far from the minds of Salafis. “Most of what they’ll say about how to pray and how to dress is exactly what I’ll say in my masjid [mosque]. But when they get to questions about social upheaval, they sound like Che Guevara.”

When Baghdadi showed up, Pocius adopted the slogan “Not my khalifa.” “The times of the Prophet were a time of great bloodshed,” he told me, “and he knew that the worst possible condition for all people was chaos, especially within the umma [Muslim community].” Accordingly, Pocius said, the correct attitude for Salafis is not to sow discord by factionalizing and declaring fellow Muslims apostates.

Instead, Pocius—like a majority of Salafis—believes that Muslims should remove themselves from politics. These quietist Salafis, as they are known, agree with the Islamic State that God’s law is the only law, and they eschew practices like voting and the creation of political parties. But they interpret the Koran’s hatred of discord and chaos as requiring them to fall into line with just about any leader, including some manifestly sinful ones. “The Prophet said: As long as the ruler does not enter into clear kufr [disbelief], give him general obedience,” Pocius told me, and the classic “books of creed” all warn against causing social upheaval. Quietist Salafis are strictly forbidden from dividing Muslims from one another—for example, by mass excommunication. Living without baya’a, Pocius said, does indeed make one ignorant, or benighted. But baya’a need not mean direct allegiance to a caliph, and certainly not to Abu Bakr alBaghdadi. It can mean, more broadly, allegiance to a religious social contract and commitment to a society of Muslims, whether ruled by a caliph or not.

 

Quietist Salafis believe that Muslims should direct their energies toward perfecting their personal life, including prayer, ritual, and hygiene. Much in the same way ultra-Orthodox Jews debate whether it’s kosher to tear off squares of toilet paper on the Sabbath (does that count as “rending cloth”?), they spend an inordinate amount of time ensuring that their trousers are not too long, that their beards are trimmed in some areas and shaggy in others. Through this fastidious observance, they believe, God will favor them with strength and numbers, and perhaps a caliphate will arise. At that moment, Muslims will take vengeance and, yes, achieve glorious victory at Dabiq. But Pocius cites a slew of modern Salafi theologians who argue that a caliphate cannot come into being in a righteous way except through the unmistakable will of God.

The Islamic State, of course, would agree, and say that God has anointed Baghdadi. Pocius’s retort amounts to a call to humility. He cites Abdullah Ibn Abbas, one of the Prophet’s companions, who sat down with dissenters and asked them how they had the gall, as a minority, to tell the majority that it was wrong. Dissent itself, to the point of bloodshed or splitting the umma, was forbidden. Even the manner of the establishment of Baghdadi’s caliphate runs contrary to expectation, he said. “The khilafa is something that Allah is going to establish,” he told me, “and it will involve a consensus of scholars from Mecca and Medina. That is not what happened. ISIS came out of nowhere.”

The Islamic State loathes this talk, and its fanboys tweet derisively about quietist Salafis. They mock them as “Salafis of menstruation,” for their obscure judgments about when women are and aren’t clean, and other low-priority aspects of life. “What we need now is fatwa about how it’s haram [forbidden] to ride a bike on Jupiter,” one tweeted drily. “That’s what scholars should focus on. More pressing than state of Ummah.” Anjem Choudary, for his part, says that no sin merits more vigorous opposition than the usurpation of God’s law, and that extremism in defense of monotheism is no vice.

Pocius doesn’t court any kind of official support from the United States, as a counterweight to jihadism. Indeed, official support would tend to discredit him, and in any case he is bitter toward America for treating him, in his words, as “less than a citizen.” (He alleges that the government paid spies to infiltrate his mosque and harassed his mother at work with questions about his being a potential terrorist.)

Still, his quietist Salafism offers an Islamic antidote to Baghdadi-style jihadism. The people who arrive at the faith spoiling for a fight cannot all be stopped from jihadism, but those whose main motivation is to find an ultraconservative, uncompromising version of Islam have an alternative here. It is not moderate Islam; most Muslims would consider it extreme. It is, however, a form of Islam that the literal-minded would not instantly find hypocritical, or blasphemously purged of its inconveniences. Hypocrisy is not a sin that ideologically minded young men tolerate well.

Western officials would probably do best to refrain from weighing in on matters of Islamic theological debate altogether. Obama himself drifted into takfiri waters when he claimed that the Islamic State was “not Islamic”—the irony being that he, as the non-Muslim son of a Muslim, may himself be classified as an apostate, and yet is now practicing takfir against Muslims. Non-Muslims’ practicing takfir elicits chuckles from jihadists (“Like a pig covered in feces giving hygiene advice to others,” one tweeted).

I suspect that most Muslims appreciated Obama’s sentiment: The president was standing with them against both Baghdadi and non-Muslim chauvinists trying to implicate them in crimes. But most Muslims aren’t susceptible to joining jihad. The ones who are susceptible will only have had their suspicions confirmed: The United States lies about religion to serve its purposes.

Within the narrow bounds of its theology, the Islamic State hums with energy, even creativity. Outside those bounds, it could hardly be more arid and silent: a vision of life as obedience, order, and destiny. Musa Cerantonio and Anjem Choudary could mentally shift from contemplating mass death and eternal torture to discussing the virtues of Vietnamese coffee or treacly pastry, with apparent delight in each, yet to me it seemed that to embrace their views would be to see all the flavors of this world grow insipid compared with the vivid grotesqueries of the hereafter.

I could enjoy their company, as a guilty intellectual exercise, up to a point. In reviewing Mein Kampf in March 1940, George Orwell confessed that he had “never been able to dislike Hitler”; something about the man projected an underdog quality, even when his goals were cowardly or loathsome. “If he were killing a mouse he would know how to make it seem like a dragon.” The Islamic State’s partisans have much the same allure. They believe that they are personally involved in struggles beyond their own lives, and that merely to be swept up in the drama, on the side of righteousness, is a privilege and a pleasure—especially when it is also a burden.

Fascism, Orwell continued, is “psychologically far sounder than any hedonistic conception of life … Whereas Socialism, and even capitalism in a more grudging way, have said to people, ‘I offer you a good time,’ Hitler has said to them, ‘I offer you struggle, danger, and death,’ and as a result a whole nation flings itself at his feet … We ought not to underrate its emotional appeal.”

Nor, in the case of the Islamic State, its religious or intellectual appeal. That the Islamic State holds the imminent fulfillment of prophecy as a matter of dogma at least tells us the mettle of our opponent. It is ready to cheer its own near-obliteration, and to remain confident, even when surrounded, that it will receive divine succor if it stays true to the Prophetic model. Ideological tools may convince some potential converts that the group’s message is false, and military tools can limit its horrors. But for an organization as impervious to persuasion as the Islamic State, few measures short of these will matter.

 

Rasmussen Reports

What They Told Us: Reviewing Last Week’s Key Polls

 

 

Bottom of Form

Saturday, February 21, 2015

The United States prides itself on being a nation of laws, not a nation of men. But a surprising number of voters are ready to override those laws in order to have their way.

President Obama’s immigration plan and his national health care law both face legal challenges this year that could bring them to a halt. But one-in-four voters think the president should be able to ignore the courts if he wants to, and Democrats believe that even more strongly.  

Opponents of the president’s actions say he does not have the constitutional authority to alter a law passed by Congress without congressional approval. Forty-four percent (44%) of voters think Obama has been less faithful to the U.S. Constitution than most other presidents. 

But 31% believe when it comes to issues that he considers important to the nation, Obama should take action alone if Congress does not approve the initiatives he has proposed.  So much for our constitutionally mandated checks and balances between the three branches of government.

Twenty-four percent (24%) believe states should have the right to ignore federal court rulings if their elected officials disagree with them.

Fifty-six percent (56%) of Americans think the Constitution should be left alone.  Thirty-three percent (33%) believe only minor changes are needed in the nation’s foundational document. The rest are ready to rewrite it or scrap it completely.

While the Founding Fathers conceived this nation as one based on laws, they also insisted right from the start in the Declaration of Independence that governments derive their authority from the consent of the governed. But just 25% of voters believe the federal government today has that consent.

No wonder then that voter distrust in the federal government continues to climb. Only 20% now consider the government a protector of individual liberty, while 60% see it as a threat to liberty instead.

Voters still view the president’s order exempting up to five million illegal immigrants from deportation as illegal and tend to think Congress should try to stop it. But they’re evenly divided over whether a partial shutdown of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is the way to do it. The House of Representatives has approved funding for the DHS that does not include money for the president’s amnesty plan, but Obama has vowed to veto any budget that doesn’t include that money.

As for Obamacare, voters still balk at its requirement that all Americans must buy or otherwise obtain health insurance.

While the president’s daily job approval ratings remain better than they were before Election Day, voters remain closely divided over his handling of national security and economic matters.

Ratings for Congress are still nothing to write home about, but they are more positive than they’ve been in nearly five years. Still, most voters think Congress is a bunch of sellouts. Voters continue to find the large number of millionaires serving in Congress troubling and to question how they got that way.

Republicans hold the edge over Democrats for the second week in a row on the Generic Congressional Ballot, but it remains very close as it has been for well over a year.

The president hosted a summit at the White House this week to discuss ways to counter terrorism worldwide. But in a recent interview, he said the media overhypes the threat of terrorism and downplays the greater long-term threat of climate change and epidemic diseases. Voters by far, however, see terrorism as the bigger long-term threat to the United States.

We were curious this week, too, whether Americans think global warming is to blame for the cold weather and heavy snows hitting much of the country.

Daily consumer and investor confidence are down slightly but still remain at higher levels than they have been in several years. But voters still feel the current economy isn’t working for the middle class

While confidence in home ownership as a family investment has hit a year-high, Americans continue to have mixed feelings about whether now’s a good time to sell a home. Most homeowners are making their mortgage payments on time, but Americans don’t want the government assisting those who can’t.

Beginning-of-the-year confidence in the banking industry has faded, and concerns about rising grocery prices have returned to levels seen for the last three years.

In other surveys last week:

— Thirty-two percent (32%) of Likely U.S. Voters think the country is heading in the right direction.

— It’s no secret that faith in God is important to many Americans in one form or another. But just how important is religion in their everyday lives, and how do they practice their faiths? 

— This past Monday, we celebrated Presidents Day to honor George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. Americans think some other presidents deserve a federal holiday, too.

— But the thought of adding any of the recent presidents to Mount Rushmore leaves most Americans cold.

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