So You Want To Arm A Proxy Group?

Say you're a government that employs a variety group of rebels, insurgents, terrorists, or freedom fighters to advance your national goals. Like any crafty strategist, you want to inflict maximal damage on your enemies while minimizing the potential blowback to yourself – while ideally avoiding excess costs and casualties among the people on your payroll.


What a time to be alive, because new technologies are vastly expanding the ability of so-called "non-state actors" (nerd term, but that's who we are) to bloody the noses of their enemies, in particular leveling the playing field between militants and nation states. What the Kalashnikov rifle did for militants of the 20th century (hat tip to Moises Naim on this), new technologies are doing for non-state actors of the 21st.

Consider, first of all, drones, which were in the news again after Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen claimed (now disputedly) to have used them to hit Saudi Arabia's oil facilities over the weekend. Drones are many desirable things at once: They are cheap – experts estimate some early models used in Yemen's civil war cost as little as $10,000 a pop to put together from basic parts. They're lethal. And, thanks to big improvements in range in 2018, the Houthis' drones are now capable of striking targets nearly a thousand miles away.

Drones aren't your thing? Let us show you into the cyberattacks aisle, because those also fit the mold: bad actors in cyberspace today have access to more powerful malware and a wider array of targets than ever before. The biggest cyberattacks have typically been state-sponsored – think Russia's NotPetya or the WannaCry ransomware attack launched by North Korea, which caused billions of dollars of damage around the world in 2017. But non-state actors are increasingly stepping up their game: criminal gangs have already paralyzed the computer systems of entire cities, like Atlanta and Baltimore, to try to extract ransom. Russia routinely uses proxies in its disinformation campaigns and other cyber campaigns. Meanwhile, critical infrastructure may only grow more vulnerable as 5G networks wire together everything from water plants to refrigerators to self-driving cars to pacemakers.

Into more of a SciFi look, you say? If you can hire a good rogue scientist, consider that some influential voices in the US intelligence community are already warning that new precision gene-editing techniques could become widespread enough to be weaponized, creating new pathogens or pests that wreak havoc on populations and ecosystems. Examples: modifying anthrax's genetic code to make it much more potent, or perhaps even altering a virus to make it disproportionally target carriers of a certain gene.

All of these technologies are complicating the ability of nation states to defend themselves. And unlike the Kalashnikov or other low-tech methods typically favored by non-state actors, they don't usually require putting people directly in harm's way. We've only just begun to understand how that's going to change the global balance of power between individuals, groups, and nation states.

So, what was it that you wanted to buy again?

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How did an entire country's media spread false news for a night?

Fascinating case study in France over the weekend. For less than a day, we thought that the most wanted men in the country had been caught in Scotland. Turned out to be a case of mistaken identity. The so-called news was actually reported quite carefully at first, on Friday night with careful words. But the language quickly moved from conditional to categorical and therefore, to misinformation through human error. What you have here is the tension between being first and being right, which has always been present in journalism but is more and more as you have these 24 hour news channels, social media, and the incredible economic pressure on news sites that are advertising based and therefore click based.

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Donald Trump announced a fresh "phase 1" trade deal with China last week, part of his ongoing bid to reduce the United States' huge trade deficit with China. The US has been buying more from China than China buys from the US for decades, but since coming into office Trump has made reducing that deficit central to his "America First" agenda. It's not easy to do. Consider that in 2018, after two full years of the Trump administration, the trade deficit with China actually swelled to its highest level since the Clinton years. That's because many perfectly healthy economic factors contribute to a trade deficit: stronger economic growth under Trump has meant more demand for foreign goods, so as long as the economy keeps humming along, it will be hard for Trump to reduce the deficit. Likewise, the strong US dollar makes foreign goods cheaper for US consumers to import, while China's own economic slowdown in 2018 decreased Chinese demand for American goods. For a historical perspective on all of this, here's a look at how the US-China trade balance has developed under each US president going back to 1993.

On Friday, we detailed the main arguments for and against President Trump's decision to withdraw US troops from a pocket of northern Syria where their presence had protected Washington's Kurdish allies against an attack from Turkey. We then asked Signal readers to let us know what they thought.

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Dangerous Chaos in Syria – Turkey's military move into northern Syria had two stated goals: to push Kurdish fighters inside Syria further from Turkey's border and to create a "safe zone" inside Syria in which Turkey could place up to two million Syrian refugees currently living in camps inside Turkey. But the Kurds have now allied with Syria's army, which is backed by Russia, and these forces are now moving north into that same territory toward Turkish troops and Arab militias backed by Ankara. Meanwhile, large numbers of ISIS fighters and their families have escaped prisons where Kurds had held them captive. Turkey's President Erdogan vows to press ahead with his operation until "ultimate victory is achieved." Pandora's Box is now wide open.

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