Charlottesville and Americans’ Increasingly Polarized Response to Terrorism, Political Violence

On the night of August 11th, white nationalists held a torch-lit pride parade through the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. They were met with counter-protests, and the demonstrations descended into a melee.

The next morning, these same organizers held a “Unite the Right” rally in Emancipation Park, centered on a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee that had been scheduled for removal. Once again, battle lines were drawn, and a fight ensued. This time, the white nationalists were driven back by the counter-demonstrators and then dispersed by police.

While most of the others in the nationalist camp were retreating, one young man aligned with the movement rammed his car into the crowd of counter-demonstrators who were celebrating their victory—killing one and injuring dozens of others. Two state police officers assigned to help contain the unrest also perished en route when their helicopter crashed.

The method of violence deployed against the counter-protestors in Charlottesville seemed to draw inspiration from a string of ISIS-aligned attacks involving motor vehicles. In fact, ISIS claimed responsibility for an incident that occurred days later, when terrorists piloted a van into a pedestrian zone in Barcelona, Spain—killing 13 people and wounding more than 100. It is a common tactic of ISIS to try and “one-up” atrocities committed by others while frenzy about the initial attack is at its height, in order to divert the massive public attention and outrage towards their own cause instead.

In this instance, ISIS was unsuccessful because President Trump’s subsequent remarks–which seemed to praise many of the ethnic nationalist demonstrators as “very fine people,” and to place ethnic nationalists and those protesting against them on equivocal moral standing—generated immense blowback from across the political spectrum and seemed to suck the oxygen away from all other stories.

However, for social scientists symmetrical incidents such as those in Charlottesville and Barcelona can often serve as the basis for “natural experiments”—for instance, to explore whether public reaction to terrorist acts seems to vary in systematic ways when one key variable is changed, such as the ideology or cause of the perpetrator.

My extensive research on this question shows that progressives and conservatives tend to respond to terror attacks in sharply divergent ways—with the biggest contrast occurring when the attacker is either a Muslim or an ethnic nationalist. Continue reading “Charlottesville and Americans’ Increasingly Polarized Response to Terrorism, Political Violence”

Trump’s Opponents Need to Stop Playing into His Hands

What gives terrorists power are the reactions they are able to elicit from their intended targets: hysteria leads to poorly-calibrated reactions that can be exploited to the insurgents’ advantage.

For instance, it is beyond the capacity of Islamic terror groups like ISIS to, themselves, meaningfully challenge the prevailing global order. However, they have been able to very effectively goad Western nations into undermining their own values, norms, institutions and interests—to curb their own freedoms, rights and civil liberties–and in the name of fighting terrorism, no less!

What does any of this have to do with Trump? A lot, it turns out.

Continue reading “Trump’s Opponents Need to Stop Playing into His Hands”

In the Trump Administration, Principled Civil Servants Like James Comey Are Critical

Let’s be clear about one thing straightaway: James Comey did not sabotage Hillary Clinton. If that had been his intention, it was well within his power to outright destroy her candidacy. In the wake of Attorney General Loretta Lynch’s improper meeting with former President Bill Clinton, the Department of Justice was scandalized. Under pressure, Lynch pledged to follow through on the FBI’s recommendation, whatever it was. The decision about whether or not the FBI would recommend charges was ultimately Comey’s to make, and his alone (indeed, Lynch was so vulnerable after her impropriety that she couldn’t even bring herself to order the FBI Director not to inform lawmakers about the discovery of new emails; she was in no position to deny his recommendations on prosecution). If Comey were out to sabotage Clinton, he would have recommended charges; the DOJ would have had little choice but to proceed with prosecution. Regardless of how the case ultimately fared in court, it would have certainly persisted throughout the entire election cycle—utterly decimating Clinton’s prospects.

Instead, Comey declined to recommend charges– despite the FBI having uncovered serious violations of protocol which would have likely landed a lower-profile civil servant behind bars. This decision outraged Congressional Republicans, and even many within the FBI, who accused Comey of playing politics on Clinton’s behalf.

This was not the only time the accusation was made: as the media began combing Wikileaks-released emails that strongly suggested inappropriate relations between the Clinton Foundation, Hillary Clinton’s State Department, and wealthy foreign donors (the latest of many apparent Clinton Foundation violations, see here, here, here, here, here, or here), Comey refused to so much as comment as to whether or not the FBI was considering an investigation into the Foundation—prompting a Breitbart conspiracy theory that he was on the Clinton payroll as well.

To assuage concerns about a possible FBI bias towards Clinton, he assured lawmakers that if new information arose which seemed pertinent to the investigation, he would notify them promptly. And multiple times after closing the investigation new evidence was found—and each time, Comey notified the relevant lawmakers. And after considering the new evidence, reiterated his recommendation against prosecution—despite enormous pressure to reverse course.

Continue reading “In the Trump Administration, Principled Civil Servants Like James Comey Are Critical”

Racially Profiling “Jihadists” Sounds Like Common Sense. Here’s Why It Doesn’t Work

Over the weekend there was a series of bombings, and attempted bombings, in New Jersey and Manhattan (where I live). Authorities have identified and arrested one Ahmed Khan in connection with the attacks, which injured dozens of people in the New York area.

Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump was quick to seize on this incident as further proof of the need to “profile” people for terrorism. Verbatim:

“We’re allowing these people to come into our country and destroy our country, and make it unsafe for people. We don’t want to do any profiling. If somebody looks like he’s got a massive bomb on his back, we won’t go up to that person … because if he looks like he comes from that part of the world, we’re not allowed to profile. Give me a break.
Fox & Friends, 19 September 2016

Following media outcry at his remarks, Trump would (dubiously) deny that he was calling for racial profiling. However, the candidate has previously, and very explicitly, suggested the need this very tactic—for instance, in the wake of the massacre at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando:

“But look, we have — whether it’s racial profiling or politically correct, we’d better get smart. We are letting tens of thousands of people into our country. We don’t know what the hell we’re doing.”
Hannity, 17 August 2016

The intuitive appeal of this strategy is obvious: it seems like a “certain kind of person” tends to commit these acts—let’s pay closer scrutiny to “those people” and we can probably nip a lot of attacks in the bud. In fact, the solution sounds so straightforward that many perhaps wonder why on Earth this practice is not already central to our law enforcement and counter-terrorism portfolio. I will briefly answer that question below:

 

Continue reading “Racially Profiling “Jihadists” Sounds Like Common Sense. Here’s Why It Doesn’t Work”

One Thing Trump Gets Right About Muslims, Terrorism (Kind of)

Let’s start with all the usual caveats: while there may be, abstractly, a lot to like about Trump, in reality, he is proving to be a demagogue. Moreover, both he and his advisory team are painfully ignorant about Islam—and as a result, most of his policy proposals and rhetoric about Islamic terrorism have been ill-informed and counter-productive.

But for all that, Trump has repeatedly emphasized a point which many of his rivals and critics are perhaps a little too eager to gloss over—namely that in many instances, a would-be terrorist’s family, friends or religious advisors know that their loved one is heading down a dark path, but fail to report it.

Trump’s insinuation, of course, is that the reason friends and family fail to report it is because they are, themselves, sympathetic to ISIS or al-Qaeda and want to see terror plots succeed. And certainly, there are instances of this: the San Bernardino attacks were carried out by a husband and wife, the Paris attacks by two brothers and a couple they were friends with, the Boston Marathon bombings by the Tsarnaev Brothers. Often people travel to ISIS territory with their lovers, siblings or best friends, and typically people are brought into ISIS’ orbit by someone they know who has previously committed to the group.

Nonetheless, according to the New America Foundation’s records, 84% of disrupted jihadist plots were foiled as a result of someone “seeing something and saying something” (28% of the time information was volunteered by concerned family, friends, other community members; 47% of the time intelligence was provided by a paid informant; in 9% of cases authorities were given a tip by a stranger who observed suspicious activity). For comparison, only 42% of non-jihadist terror plots are disrupted by this kind of reporting—meaning the social networks of Islamic extremists are relatively more cooperative with authorities than those of non-Muslim extremists (about twice as cooperative, in fact).

However, these statistics just reflect the 330 Muslims (and 182 non-Muslims) who have been indicted over the last 15 years for supporting terrorism. There are thousands of other ISIS sympathizers within the United States—and law enforcement agencies are hungry for more fine-grained information to determine which of these are most likely to act on their convictions (or are actively plotting attacks). In order to close this intelligence gap, it is critical to understand why family, friends and associates who may be deeply concerned about a loved one’s trajectory are often also reluctant or unwilling to cooperate with authorities.

 

Continue reading “One Thing Trump Gets Right About Muslims, Terrorism (Kind of)”

No, Ammon Bundy is NOT a terrorist.

On Saturday January 2nd, citizens of Burns, Oregon held a rally protesting the sentencing of Oregon ranchers Dwight and Steven Hammond. The local demonstration was co-opted by a militia, led by Nevada-native Ammon Bundy, now calling itself “Citizens for Constitutional Freedom.” Following its participation in the planned protest, the militia seized and continues to illegally occupy the nearby Malheur National Wildlife Refuge—vowing to remain there unless and until the Hammonds are granted clemency.

Many have been eager to brand Bundy and his militia as terrorists, referring to them as “Ya’ll-Qaeda,” “Yee-haw-dists” or “Vanilla ISIS.” And to be sure, there are similarities with Islamic militant groups. For instance, as with al-Qaeda, militants who drew inspiration from the Bundys have carried out atrocities that the family itself had to disavow.

Like Al-Qaeda, Bundy and his associates hold views which most would consider extreme. In fact, they share ISIS’ admiration for slavery—with Cliven Bundy (Ammon’s father, and the head of the Bundy clan) having suggested that blacks may be better off today if they were still in chains; others affiliated with (and many more who support) the movement harbor neo-confederate beliefs; still others from the militia are known members of designated hate groups and extremist organizations.

Moreover, while Bundy’s “resistance movement” is essentially driven by socio-political issues, chiefly land rights and perceived overreach by the federal government—their campaign is also religiously framed and motivated. This same dynamic holds true for ISIS, al-Qaeda and related groups.

However, holding controversial views should not render someone a terrorist. Nor does religious inspiration–after all, activists of many causes, including civil rights, women’s rights, and environmental protection have been driven by their faith and framed their movements in religious terms.

Ultimately, any similarities between the Citizens for Constitutional Freedom and Islamic terrorists are vastly outweighed by the differences between them. 

Continue reading “No, Ammon Bundy is NOT a terrorist.”

Iraqi, Syrian Refugees May be ISIS’ ‘Achilles Heel’

In the aftermath of the series of attacks in Paris, attributed to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), French President François Hollande has declared a three-month state of emergency. This measure enables the military and law enforcement to monitor, arrest, detain and interrogate persons, with little or no due process. These powers will be exercised primarily against France’s besieged Arab, Muslim, immigrant and refugee populations.

Meanwhile, France has closed its borders and is calling for an indefinite suspension of the EU’s open-border (“Schengen”) system. Other EU states are calling for reducing the Schengen zone to exclude those countries most effected by the refugee crisis. Throughout the EU there is growing resistance to admitting or resettling refugees from the greater Middle East.

Across the Atlantic, the U.S. House of Representatives has overwhelmingly voted to halt the already stringent and meager U.S. program to resettle refugees from Iraq and Syria. Thirty-one governors have warned that would-be migrants from the Middle East are not welcome in their states, and a majority of the American public has turned against accepting more refugees. One of the frontrunner candidates for president of the United States, Donald Trump, has even called for a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.” All of these maneuvers are playing into the hands of ISIS.

ISIS has strongly condemned refugees’ seeking asylum in Western nations, repeatedly warned would-be expatriates that Muslims will never be truly accepted in the United States and the EU (hence the importance of an “Islamic State”).  In order to render this a self-fulfilling prophecy, ISIS ensured that one of the attackers carried a fraudulent Syrian passport, which was left to be discovered at the scene of the crime before its owner detonated his suicide vest.

ISIS is counting on Western nations to turn would-be refugees back towards their “caliphate,” because this massive outpouring of asylum seekers poses a severe threat to the legitimacy and long-term viability of ISIS. Accordingly, if Western nations were truly committed to undermining ISIS, they should embrace and integrate refugees from ISIS-occupied lands.

 

Continue reading “Iraqi, Syrian Refugees May be ISIS’ ‘Achilles Heel’”

On the Limitations of Air-Power for Counter-Insurgency/ Counter-Terror Operations

Due to the intentionally vague language of the post-9/11 Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF), both the George W. Bush and Obama Administrations have been empowered to interpret their counter-terrorism mandate broadly, to include targets from the Taliban, ISIS, Boko Haram and other derivatives and affiliates of al-Qaeda—anywhere around the world and indefinitely.

A key component of these efforts has been the U.S. drone program, intended to eliminate high-value targets from these organizations and disrupt imminent terrorist plots against the United States.

However, through open-source data mining, analysts have long known that those killed in the strikes were generally not high-value targets, but low-level militants—with “militant” (or “Enemy Killed in Action” [EKIA]) denoting virtually any fighting-aged male struck down in a campaign. In fact, most of the time the U.S. was not even sure who they were killing, what (if any) group the “militants” belonged to, what (if any) crime they committed which warranted execution or what (if any) threat they posed to the U.S., its personnel or its regional interests.

A cache of military documents leaked to The Intercept confirms this picture by means of the Pentagon’s own statistics and internal reports. However, perhaps the most significant and least explored aspect of the leak is how the documents confirm that the program is not only fundamentally ill-suited to achieve its raison d’etre, it is actually counterproductive in many respects.

 

Continue reading “On the Limitations of Air-Power for Counter-Insurgency/ Counter-Terror Operations”

America’s Biggest Terror Threat is from the Far-Right, Not the Middle East

According to a New America Foundation report, right-wing extremists have killed nearly twice as many Americans through domestic terrorism as Islamic jihadists have since 9/11.  However, this same database shows that jihadists constitute a much higher percentage of those indicted on terror charges or killed when confronted by authorities: despite causing only 35 percent of the total terrorism casualties, they make up 60 percent of the total indictments. The reason for the discrepancy is that far-right extremists tend not to be monitored or investigated as heavily.

Shortly after President Obama’s election– particularly following a groundbreaking 2009 Department of Homeland Security (DHS) report on the threat of right-wing extremism–Republican lawmakers, along with conservative media and lobbying groups, argued that the White House was politicizing the term “extremism” in order to deploy law-enforcement against otherwise lawful dissidents (such as those affiliated with the Tea Party).

In order to help diffuse this narrative, national security agencies were heavily restricted as to how they can monitor and prosecute right-wing groups. The DHS was stripped down to the point where they have, literally, one single analyst to monitor all non-Muslim domestic terror activity–and the organization no longer collects statistics on right-wing extremists at all.

There was absolutely no discussion of the threat posed by these ideologues in the recent White House Summit on Countering Violent Extremism. In fact, law enforcement and national security agencies are generally hesitant to even refer to acts committed by right-wing ideologues as terrorism. Joseph Andrew Stack’s 2010 suicide bombing of Austin’s Echelon Complex is a paradigmatic example:

His own manifesto clearly defines the U.S. Federal Government as motivating his attack—particularly grievances with the Internal Revenue Service (whose offices he struck). The document goes on to detail his intention to create a mass-casualty event as a catalyst for political change—more-or-less verbatim reflecting the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s own definition for terrorism. And yet, the FBI declared that the event was not being investigated as such—and there was no broader plan underway to help prevent subsequent attacks down the line.

Given this non-response from national security agencies, two weeks later the IRS began investigating Tea Party-affiliated groups itself. When this became public, it was immediately held up as further evidence of the Obama Administration using law enforcement to target political opponents. As a result of the political fallout from the scandal, rather than investigating right-wing terrorism, the FBI has instead opened a criminal probe against the IRS!

 

Continue reading “America’s Biggest Terror Threat is from the Far-Right, Not the Middle East”

Do Black Lives Matter? The World’s Shameful Response to Charleston

In the wake of the massacre at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME), analysts have been busying themselves with apparently self-evident questions as to whether the atrocity was racially motivated, or constituted an act of domestic terrorism. Americans have been focused on questions about gun control and the ubiquity of the Confederate Flag—with an emerging consensus that there will be little-to-no evolution on the former issue at this time, and token movement on the latter (while the flag will likely be removed from the S. Carolina capitol, most other Confederate icons will remain in place, both in S. Carolina and across the South).

But there has been one glaring absence in our public conversation about the tragedy—namely any meaningful acknowledgement of just how pervasive and dangerous the white supremacist views which motivated the Charlotte massacre are—and not just in America, but throughout most Western societies.

This omission is shameful, not only because the victims of this massacre had dedicated their lives to exposing these ideologies and dismantling the systems, institutions and practices built around them (indeed, this is why they were targeted for assassination)—but also because this silence enables further crimes, creating a culture of complicacy and complacency about the threat these groups pose to the security of Western nations, and also to the values which are supposed to define them.

 

Continue reading “Do Black Lives Matter? The World’s Shameful Response to Charleston”

Understanding ISIL’s Appeal

Thirty, forty years ago, we were still debating about what the future will be: communist, fascist, capitalist, whatever. Today, nobody even debates these issues. We all silently accept global capitalism is here to stay.
On the other hand, we are obsessed with cosmic catastrophes: the whole life on earth disintegrating, because of some virus, because of an asteroid hitting the earth, and so on. So the paradox is, that it’s much easier to imagine the end of all life on earth than a much more modest radical change in capitalism.Slavoj Zizek

It is oft-remarked that proponents of the prevailing international order, despite rhetoric about freedom and democracy, eagerly support dictators, warlords and other autocrats in order to preserve the status quo. However, this tendency is no less pronounced in opponents of the system. For example: during the Cold War, Lenin and Mao inspired large swaths of Westerners, particularly young people, into leftist movements—many of which carried out campaigns of domestic terrorism in order to provoke revolution.

The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) similarly aspires towards a new form of social arrangement. In this post-Occupy movement period, where no one else seems to have the willingness or ability to meaningfully “fight the system,” ISIL appears to many as virtually the only actor interested in, and capable of, radical societal reforms. Understanding this source of ISIL’s appeal will be critical to countering its narratives, undermining its recruitment, and ultimately defeating the group. 

Beyond brainwashing

ISIL’s recruits are generally not stupid, ignorant or naïve , nor are they religious zealots,  nor are they somehow unable to resist social media messaging. It is comforting to write-off ISIL supporters as deranged or “brainwashed” because it helps distract from the role the anti-ISIL coalition’s members played in creating and perpetuating the conditions under which the “Islamic State” could emerge and flourish—but the extensive post 9/11 body of research on terrorism clearly shows that regardless of how a campaign may be framed, the primary reason people support terrorism is to achieve political aspirations.

For example, it is widely assumed that most suicide bombers were uneducated, mentally ill or otherwise cognitively deficient. Or that martyrs were simply nihilistic (often from having few socio-economic prospects), or were narcissists eager for notoriety. It turns out that those cases are the exception rather than the rule:  Suicide bombers tend to be wealthier and better educated than most in their societies. In fact, it is their deeper understanding of societal problems that often impels their activism. And rather than being sociopathic, would-be martyrs tend to be prosocial, idealistic and altruistic, driven by compassion and a sense of moral outrage.

Millennials tend to be especially globally conscious and passionate about making a difference. However, they are also intensely skeptical about societal institutions, or that “the system” can work to evoke sufficient change on pressing issues. This is the main source of ISIL’s allure among youth.

Sympathizers are well-aware of the atrocities committed by the organization—crimes which are disseminated widely by ISIL itself, in part to lure unpopular foreign actors into their theater of war. By taking the bait, the Western-led coalition has allowed ISIL to position itself as a resistance organization against a U.S.-dominated unipolar world order, a bulwark against meddling in Middle East and Muslim affairs by former colonial and imperial powers and the repression of western-backed autocrats. ISIL’s recruitment has surged as a result.

Continue reading “Understanding ISIL’s Appeal”

If Underpants Gnomes Took Over the Pentagon, Very Little Would Change

In the Comedy Central television series South Park, the boys discover a cartel of gnomes who steal people’s underwear. Over the course of the episode it’s revealed that these seizures are part of their business plan which goes:

 

Step 1: Collect Underpants Step 2: ? Step 3: Profit

 

The punchline, of course, is that the underpants gnomes have set up this elaborate enterprise for stealing and stockpiling people’s unmentionables, but none of them have any idea how to leverage these resources in order to reach their aspiration (profits).

It is immediately obvious that step 2 may be the most important part of the entire plan: it tells you if there is a viable path from step 1 to step 3. If there isn’t, step 3 is irrelevant and step 1 is (at best) a waste of time and resources.

But Step 2 happens to be the least exciting part of the process, and the most difficult, complex, contentious—which explains why so many attempt to circumvent it. Instead they just keep repeating step one, at an ever-increasing scale, hoping that step 3 will somehow magically materialize in the process.

So it goes.

While this particular episode was meant to lampoon many aspects of the business world, it unfortunately seems just as reflective of U.S. national security policy. Consider:

 

Step 1: Sanctions Step 2: ? Step 3: regime change or substantial revision of regime policies

Step 1: Overthrow “rogue” government Step 2: ? Step 3: a democratic, secular and/or liberal state emerges in its stead (see: Iraq, Libya, and coming soon, Syria).

Step 1: Arm sub-state or non-state proxies Step 2: ? Step 3: American strategic interests successfully realized in the region

Step 1: Support dictators Step 2: ? Step 3: long-term stability in the Middle East; containment of radical ideologies antithetical to the prevailing order (see: Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and coming soon, Libya).

Step 1: Bomb “militants” with drones or airstrikes Step 2: ? Step 3: Transnational/ supranational jihadist groups are defeated

Continue reading “If Underpants Gnomes Took Over the Pentagon, Very Little Would Change”

The Islamic State’s Supposed Theology is a Dangerous Distraction

It is problematic to assert that the Islamic State (ISIS or IS) is not “Islamic” in large part because the  assertion presupposes there is a “true” and a “false” Islam—one by which Barack Obama or liberal Muslim intellectuals can judge whether others are “authentic” believers or not. This is the same takfir (excommunication) doctrine that animates IS and its precursors, a dogma that most of IS’ critics are eager to condemn when turned on religious minorities (especially Christians) in the Middle East.

Instead, one could argue that IS’s doctrines are far outside the mainstream beliefs and practices of contemporary and historical Muslim communities. By virtue of its fundamentalism, which relies heavily on fringe interpretations, cherry-picking Quranic verses, and revisionist history, IS rejects and does violence to the rich, diverse, and pluralistic Islamic legal tradition. IS tries to be as provocative as possible, especially in relation to other jihadist groups–often deliberately and cynically evoking Islamophobic and Orientalist tropes to goad its Western enemies. Many of its aspirations and tactics, moreover, have modern, secular roots. Alternatively, one could look at who tends to join the group:

Of their Western recruits, many are recent converts who adopted Islam as a sign of their pre-existing support for IS (rather than being driven to IS by their religious beliefs). Others have spent their lives as “cultural Muslims,” with more-or-less secular lifestyles, suddenly becoming “devout” after some kind of socio-legal tension that alienated them from their communities. Regardless of their religious or ethnic background, they are overwhelmingly young people. In short, IS tends to appeal to those who lack a strong theological foundation in Islam. Continue reading “The Islamic State’s Supposed Theology is a Dangerous Distraction”

On the Strategic Logic of ISIL’s Atrocities

Following ISIL’s immolation Moaz al-Kasasbeh, many attributed the viciousness of his execution to the fact that he was a Jordanian pilot. The narrative is that the coalition airstrikes have been devastating for ISIL, and this extreme act was a desperate bid to dissuade allied forces from further strikes. By this logic, their tactic backfired: not only did the execution lead to more airstrikes, but caused widespread revulsion among Muslims.

There are many problems with this narrative, comforting as it may be—not the least of which its assumption that ISIL somehow couldn’t foresee that Jordan’s likely response would be to escalate. Or that ISIL was somehow surprised that most of their co-religionists were outraged that the group burned to death a fellow Muslim. Of course, these were rather obvious consequences, and it strains credulity that ISIL was taken off guard by them. Indeed, this deepened engagement by hostile powers and heightened polarization of the Muslim community actually serve ISIL’s strategic interests.

They burned alive Lt. al-Kassasbeh in the hopes of provoking a heavy-handed Jordanian response. ISIL’s roots in Jordan run deep: the country is among the top producers of foreign fighters to Iraq and Syria; ISIL’s movement was started by Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi, himself a Jordanian released from prison in 1999 when Abdullah II took the throne. Accordingly, ISIL knows their adversary well–they know that Jordan’s involvement in the anti-ISIS campaign is unpopular (despite the monarch’s best attempts to quell signs of dissent), especially given the country’s endemic social and economic problems; they know that the Jordanian monarch is already struggling to maintain his credibility.

And so, to the extent that ISIL is seen as directly challenging King Abdullah al-Thani, of being able to withstand his “earth-shaking” retaliation—it bolsters their own legitimacy even as it makes Abdullah seem weak or inept by comparison. Especially if they can successfully coax Jordan into deploying ground troops: the heavier Jordan’s investment, and the bolder Abdullah’s rhetoric gets, the more pronounced this effect will be.

Outside the region, ISIL is aware that their provocative actions alienate Muslims in Western societies, often provoking Islamophobia, hate crimes and institutionalized discrimination. They proudly tout progress in achieving a “clash of civilizations” because, to the extent that the Muslim diaspora feels marginalized or persecuted, the greater the appeal of an “Islamic state.”

Continue reading “On the Strategic Logic of ISIL’s Atrocities”

Al-Badghadi: Jihadist Provocateur

ISIS distinguishes itself from other jihadist organizations, particularly its progenitor al-Qaeda, by positioning itself as the group that will do what other groups are unwilling or unable to do. There is a clear dialectic wherein other terror organizations will commit an a heinous act that receives widespread media coverage; ISIS will then try to divert the international spotlight to themselves by surpassing their rivals in terms of depravity or scale—especially if it is an act which al-Qaeda condemns as being unfit for mujahedeen. Examples:

Continue reading “Al-Badghadi: Jihadist Provocateur”

Gen. Petraeus Must Face Justice

The U.S. Justice Department and Federal Bureau of Investigation have recommended felony charges against David Petraeus for giving classified information to his biographer and mistress, Paula Broadwell. While not a crime in itself (because Petraeus was retired from the military at the time the scandal broke), the affair put Petraeus, then director of the Central Intelligence Agency, at significant risk of blackmail. He resigned from the CIA in 2012 shortly after the relationship became public.

The scandal came to light after Broadwell abused her proximity to Petraeus, threatening to use her CIA connections to make a perceived sexual rival, Jill Kelley, “go away” (mafia style); this spurred an FBI investigation. Federal investigators then stumbled upon classified documents in Broadwell’s possession, allegedly provided by her Petraeus, with whom they discovered she was having an affair. According to the New York Times, Broadwell may have even gained access to her lover’s government email account during this period. Given his position at the head of U.S. intelligence operations, the magnitude of such a breach, if confirmed, would be immense.

Yet U.S. lawmakers tasked with overseeing intelligence failed to even question Petraeus about his misconduct. Shortly after the scandal broke, Petraeus was summoned to testify before the House and Senate Intelligence Committees, but lawmakers limited their questioning to the 2012 attacks on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya. And over the course of this inquiry, they did not even ask how Broadwell gained access to highly-sensitive details about the Benghazi attacks (to include confirming the location of CIA blacksites), which she mentioned in a speech at the University of Denver just before the affair came to light.

Instead, the vice-chairwoman of the Senate’s Intelligence Committee, Diane Feinstein, D-Calif., urged the White House last week not to press any charges, claiming the general “made a mistake [and] has suffered enough” because of it.

But it is not clear how, or even if, he has suffered. Continue reading “Gen. Petraeus Must Face Justice”

Deconstructing the “Islamic State”

Sarah Olsson interviews Musa al-Gharbi about ISIS, Islam, and the media

 

Why has ISIL become so famous?

Basically, there are a few reasons ISIL generates so much interest.

One reason is because they are successful. While they have importantly different methods and goals than the group they spun from (al-Qaeda), and the areas they’ve seized have been largely sparsely populated or otherwise “soft” targets they have nonetheless managed to occupy a significant portion of Iraq and Syria, and have proven difficult to dislodge. And they’re great about broadcasting these successes to the world, via their online platforms and the mainstream media.

Second, they go out of their way to become the exact specter that Westerners are paranoid about, deliberately evoking Islamophobic and Orientalist tropes through elaborate and grotesque spectacles in order to manipulate Western publics and policymakers. They’ve been very successful on this front as well, unfortunately.

As a result of ISIL playing into this sensationalism, Western media is virtually obsessed with the group–magnifying their significance while putting forward ISIL’s own narratives fairly uncritically. And again, ISIL is great about piggybacking on this mainstream media coverage through their own rather impressive social media and public relations operations. And so there is this real and problematic synergy with sensational media and the attention-hungry extremists feeding off of one another.

This is a problem with terrorism and extremism in general, vis a vis the media. But it is especially pronounced in this case, because we are not talking about a single individual or act, but a sustained campaign by both ISIL and the media to keep this story at the forefront—with the network pursuing higher ratings and ISIL seeking to advance its cause internationally.

To be clear, the problem isn’t that the media covers ISIL, it’s the way the media covers ISIL (and also, perhaps, the frequency). Far too late, President Obama has cautioned the media against exaggerating the ISIL threat—but its good advice to heed.

Continue reading “Deconstructing the “Islamic State””

Why the SSCI Report on CIA Torture Doesn’t Matter

In 1984, the United Nations adopted the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. The treaty forbade signatories from carrying out torture or related practices, or from deporting to detainees to other places where they knew these acts would be carried out. It would be ten years before the U.S. Congress ratified this agreement, which would then take on the force of law.

In light of the U.S. signing onto the convention against torture (and also, the Geneva Conventions and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights), the activities revealed in the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI) report on the CIA’s “enhanced interrogation” program constitute clear violations of international law, perhaps even crimes against humanity. But it unlikely that anyone will face justice:

Violations would typically be investigated and prosecuted in the International Criminal Court (ICC), which the United States struggled to prevent from coming into existence. While President Clinton eventually signed onto the Rome Statute which established the court towards the end of his term, his successor would withdraw the U.S. commitment before the agreement was ratified by Congress—precisely out of concerns about American policies in the wake of 9/11. And as Undersecretary of State (and future U.S. Ambassador to the U.N) John Bolton underscored at the time, because America is not a member of the ICC, it is not accountable to the court unless referred by a resolution from the U.N. Security Council, which the U.S. would simply veto.

Because the perpetrators will not be held to account in international forums, the United Nations and human rights groups have called on the White House to prosecute those involved in American courts, compliant with U.S. treaty obligations to prevent and prosecute war crimes and crimes against humanity. After all, in the Tokyo War Crimes Trials, the United States helped condemn to death Japanese soldiers and leaders who committed or approved of these very same acts against American forces during WWII.

However, contrary to these international obligations (or even the U.S. Bill of Rights which repeatedly prohibits torture), Bush Administration officials approved the CIA’s enhanced interrogation program. As a result of this clearance by White House and the Department of Justice, prosecution in U.S. courts would be difficult. Moreover, President Barack Obama has already de facto pardoned those who took part in the program, even those who stepped outside the permissive framework laid out by the Bush administration. In fact, the only agent who has been jailed with regards to the “enhanced interrogation” program to date is the CIA whistleblower who leaked these abuses to the press.

Reforms to rein in U.S. intelligence agencies seem highly unlikely as a result of the partisan way in which the report was received on Capitol Hill—with some Republican lawmakers going so far as to defend the torture program and even its continued use. And across polls, a plurality of the American public seems to agree with these torture apologists.

This leads one to question whether the SSCI report even matters. Continue reading “Why the SSCI Report on CIA Torture Doesn’t Matter”

ISIS Flag, Iraq Protests

Yes, ISIS is “Islamic” (But with regards to policy, it really, really doesn’t matter)

It is perhaps disingenuous to claim that ISIS is not “Islamic,” as many Muslim apologists have attempted, in part because there is no “true” and “false” Islam objectively accessible to human beings. Would-be Caliph Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi’s interpretation may be far outside the mainstream contemporary or traditional approaches to Islam, but doesn’t make it “un-Islamic.” In fact, making these pejorative declarations about others’ faith (takfir) is a highly-controversial practice definitive of ISIS, which it uses to justify the persecution of religious minorities. Mainstream Muslims would be emulating their error to declare ISIS as non-Muslims in virtue of their fringe views.

Nonetheless, it is misleading to focus on ISIS’ supposed religion, in part because it implies that the group is organized around some well-worked out theological system, and that most of ISIS’ members subscribe to this system, having joined the organization for primarily religious purposes. There is absolutely no evidence to substantiate any of these premises. Continue reading “Yes, ISIS is “Islamic” (But with regards to policy, it really, really doesn’t matter)”

Mexico’s Cartels Are More Depraved, Dangerous than ISIL

The horrific rampage of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) has captured the world’s attention. Many Western commentators have insisted that ISIL’s crimes are unique, no longer practiced anywhere else in the civilized world. Worse still, they argue that the group’s barbaric practices are intrinsically Islamic, a product of the aggressive and archaic worldview which dominates the Muslim world.

The ignorance of these commentators is stunning. In fact, there are organizations whose depravity, scale, and threat to the United States far surpass that of ISIL. But these groups do not engender the kind of collective indignation and hysteria that ISIL provokes, begging the question: Are Americans truly concerned ISIL’s specific atrocities or the threat they supposedly pose? Or are they particularly disturbed because it is Muslims who are carrying out these actions, or posing this threat?

For example, even as U.S. media establishments and policymakers radically inflate the threat posed by ISIL to the Middle East and United States, most Americans appear to be unaware of the institutional magnitude of Mexican drug cartels, let alone the scale of their atrocities or the threat they pose to the U.S.:

Continue reading “Mexico’s Cartels Are More Depraved, Dangerous than ISIL”

Reclaiming Jihad

In the wake of the excesses by ISIS, and the public outcry against them which often takes on an Islamophobic hue, many Muslims have tried to defend their religion by minimizing al-jihad (the struggle) as something peripheral to the faith, or else as antiquated: necessary in the time of Mohammed, but rarely of relevance in contemporary societies. Still others attempt to portray jihad as almost entirely metaphorical, as being primarily an internal and personal struggle—this interpretation based on a questionable hadith in which the Prophet makes reference to a “greater” struggle, which is inside oneself v. the “lesser” struggle, which is in the world.

Ultimately, all of these methods are counterproductive to promoting understanding, be it within the Muslim community, or between the community and the broader population. To many who are wary of Islam, these maneuvers seem disingenuous because, as they are eager to point out, the Qur’an clearly tells a different story. Rather than trying to avoid this basic reality, Muslims should embrace it. Jihad is not a dirty word, it is the base upon which Islam’s other “pillars” rest.

 

Continue reading “Reclaiming Jihad”

Forget the Islamic State, Focus on the United States

America’s War on Sexual Violence, Mass Atrocities & Religious Persecution Should Begin at Home

Without question, the so-called “Islamic State” is an abomination that should be wiped from the face of the earth. However, it is unclear whether America is the right agent to see this through. Part of the trouble relates to the Obama Administration’s strategy, which seems likely to empower ISIS even as it undermines the security and interests of America and its allies—but there is an ethical dimension as well:

While ISIS poses a serious (although likely overstated) threat to the governments of Iraq and Syria, over the last two Administrations, the U.S. has itself forcibly overthrown the governments of Iraq and Libya—both in defiance of international law. And along with ISIS, the U.S. has spent the last three years seeking to undermine the Syrian government. Additionally, they have sheltered Israel from meaningful accountability to the international community, allowing the crisis in Palestine to fester. As a result of these policies, it would not be a stretch to say that the United States is actually a greater threat to peace and stability in the region than ISIS—not least because U.S. actions in Iraq, Libya and Syria have largely paved the way for ISIS’s emergence as a major regional actor.

But perhaps more disturbingly, many of the same behaviors condemned by the Obama Administration and used to justify its most recent campaign into Iraq and Syria are commonly perpetrated by U.S. troops and are ubiquitous in the broader American society. Until these problems are better addressed, the United States’ efforts to undermine ISIS will be akin to using a dirty rag to clean an infected wound.

Continue reading “Forget the Islamic State, Focus on the United States”

Obama is Falling into Al-Baghdadi’s Trap

Just prior to the U.S.-led anti-Daish (ISIS) campaign into Syria, the group released a highly-polished 55-minute documentary, “Flames of War,” in which they challenged the United States to heavily mobilize in Iraq and Syria. They have made similar taunts when they executed Western hostages, seized American weapons, or co-opted the rebels trained to fight against them.

Why are these extremists so eager to lure America into the theater?

Because while al-Daish has unrivaled wealth from multiple channels, a vast array of arms, and commands tens-of-thousands of soldiers– the one thing they seem to lack is popular legitimacy among the local populations. This is a big problem for a group that aspires to statehood. However, the recently-expanded intervention will likely help al-Daish mitigate this challenge by galvanizing the public against a greater enemy (the U.S.-led coalition)—with ISIL portraying themselves as the only force capable of repelling these malignant invaders. Meanwhile, the U.S. will be drawn ever deeper into a war of attrition in which its non-state interlocutors have little exposure and everything to gain.  Continue reading “Obama is Falling into Al-Baghdadi’s Trap”

On the Philosophical Underpinnings of Al-Qaeda & the Islamic State

The public discourse about transnational jihadist organizations indiscriminately lumps together al-Qaeda, its forerunners (such as the Taliban), affiliates (such as Jahbat al-Nusra), its derivatives (such as Ansar al-Sharia or the Islamic State), and even groups which have no strong connection to al-Qaeda or such as Hamas, Hezbollah, or local tribal militants. It is not just laymen who succumb to this error, but media organizations, policymakers, analysts, and often even intelligence and law enforcement officials.

However, understanding the raison d’etre of these transnational jihadist organizations is critical for escaping the pointless cycle of escalation and retaliation which have defined the last decade of “War on Terror.” And in the shorter term, assisting with the evaluation of, and response to, the threats (and opportunities) these groups may pose to the United States and its interests.

Al-Qaeda is a prime example. Osama Bin Laden got his start in the U.S.-sponsored and Pakistani ISI trained mujahedeen resistance movement against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. Under the leadership of Bin Laden, the movement drew resistance fighters from across the Muslim world—and after the Russians were driven out, a plurality of the exogenous fighters continued to follow Bin Laden in his new organization, which was to continue to the work of expelling foreign powers and autocrats from the Greater Middle East in order to promote the sovereignty of Muslims. At that time, they considered the United States to be an ally.

The group came at odds with America during operation Desert Shield (and later, Storm) when, against Bin Laden’s protests, the government of Saudi Arabia decided to host U.S. forces in the Hijaz to defend and project power against Saddam Hussein (who, for the reference, Bin Laden also wanted to overthrow). This was the moment where America shifted from being an ally of the cause to another foreign occupier which must be resisted.

It’s been nearly 30 years since al-Qaeda first declared jihad against America. A whole generation has grown up in the aftermath of 9/11—and yet it is astonishing how little people understand about al-Qaeda, its ideology, methodologies, and organization. They are even less informed about the nascent Islamic State—to our collective detriment.

Continue reading “On the Philosophical Underpinnings of Al-Qaeda & the Islamic State”

“Enhanced Interrogation,” Tortured Logic

Underlying any interrogation technique are a number of assumptions about how people think and behave. Contemporary cognitive science and psychology suggest rather robustly that the axioms which have historically lent credence to some of today’s most-popular interrogation techniques are more-or-less false.

For instance, investigators have long believed (and many continue to believe) that fidgeting, avoiding eye contact, or indirectness in speech are signs of deception. It turns out, however, these may indicate little more than that the person being interrogated relies upon a different communication style than his interrogator. Many, perhaps most, feel generally uncomfortable maintaining eye contact, there is wide cultural variance on directness of communication, and reactions like fidgeting, increased heartbeat, and sweating are natural human responses to stressful situations (such as being interrogated by the authorities, regardless of one’s guilt or innocence)—and many people have a rather low threshold before these somatic reactions are triggered.

It is a very particular sort of person who is a direct communicator, enjoys eye contact, remains calm under pressure, etc. Incidentally, these are also the type of people who often become law-enforcement officers, or better-yet, interrogators. However, because these exemplars mistakenly feel as though their reactions and communication style are “normal” (a conviction reinforced by myriad daily interactions with their similarly-constituted colleagues), when confronted by indirect communicators, or those who do not handle stress as well, these variations are frequently interpreted as evidence of deceit—when in fact, a criminal of a similar constitution to the investigators would have no problem lying straight to an officer’s face, confabulating a coherent alibi, and giving off all of the “right” physical signs.

The supposed connection between somatic reactions and honesty have proven so unreliable that lie-detector tests are generally not admissible as evidence in contemporary courts. Nonetheless, many related dogmas persist (unfortunately, police officers tend not to keep current with the latest studies in cognitive science and clinical psychology). Unsurprisingly, the net-effect of relying on these tactics is a lot of bad intelligence—to include frequent false confessions. Continue reading ““Enhanced Interrogation,” Tortured Logic”

A Metacriticism of the U.S. Drone Program

“Before we can talk about what is ‘effective’ we have to talk about what the goal is of using military force at all. Is it to make Americans safer? Is it to keep Afghanis, Pakistanis or Yemenis safe? What’s the goal?  The question of being ‘effective’ – if you’re asking do drones work to kill people? Absolutely. Does that help anyone? That is a different question; we need to start with that.”
Phyllis Bennis, Director of the Institute of Policy Studies

 

“I’m really good at killing people.”
Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, Barack Hussein Obama, reflecting upon the U.S. drone program

 

Among critics of U.S. foreign policy, there is a particular fascination with Unmanned Ariel Vehicles (UAVs), also known as drones. While primarily used in Pakistan and Yemen, the United States has also deployed armed drones in the theaters of Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, and Somalia—using them for surveillance  across much of the world, including within its own borders; America has been relying upon  unmanned systems since the Vietnam War, although their use and capabilities have increased exponentially under the Obama Administration.

Due to the secrecy of the programs, there has been little reliable data on the UAV campaigns until recently; this has not prevented many from airing bold and largely unsubstantiated claims regarding the program and its effectiveness. However, to their credit, largely as a result of these activists’ persistence some reliable data is beginning to emerge. Unfortunately, most criticism of the UAV campaigns remains ill-conceived and misplaced:

Continue reading “A Metacriticism of the U.S. Drone Program”

Will a too-late “victory” for America hasten the untimely demise of Libya? The rendition of Abu Anas

On October 5th 2013, in a joint operation between the CIA and U.S. Special Forces, the United States captured and extracted Nazih Abdul-Gamed al-Ruqai, known popularly as Abu Anas al-Libi (not to be confused with the late Abu Yaya al-Libi of AQSL).

Abu Anas was a high-priority target, implicated in the 1998 U.S. Embassy Bombings, and working as one of al-Qaeda’s most significant computer and intelligence specialists, with close ties to al-Qaeda Senior Leadership (AQSL).

The international community has long been aware that Abu Anas was residing in Tripoli. In December of 2010, two months before the uprising in Benghazi, the Gaddhafi regime informed the U.N. that Abu Anas had returned to Libya and asked the international community for assistance in capturing him. Moammar Gaddhafi had long acted as a bulwark against al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), and had been one of their primary targets.

Shortly after Abu Anas’ arrival, the uprising began in Benghazi, an area known to be an al-Qaeda stronghold: according to the CTC, Libya provided the most fighters per capita to the insurgency in Iraq, by a longshot—most of these from Eastern Libya a la Benghazi. This area had also long been a trouble-zone for the regime.  And yet, rather than purging Abu Anas and breaking up his al-Qaeda cells in Libya first, the United States prioritized the destruction of the Gaddhafi regime—a government that had been cooperating with America and the international community on containing terrorism and WMDs since normalizing relations under the Bush Administration.

Then, despite having already overstepped UNSCR 1973, the United States and its allies refused to dedicate sufficient resources and manpower to establish order in the aftermath and render the transitional government viable–lest the Obama Administration more obviously break its pledge that the mission would be quick and painless with  “no boots on the ground.”  After all,  the President faced re-election the following year.

NATO promptly declared the Libya campaign to be the most effective and efficient intervention in the organization’s history, an evaluation the Obama Administration was quick to parrot, but one which was no less premature and ill-fated than President’s Bush’s now-infamous “Mission Accomplished” speech.

As a result of the U.S. led (from behind) “strategy” in Libya, Abu Anas  was given the autonomy and resources to promote and enforce al-Qaeda’s ideology across Libya and the broader Maghreb, acting as the primary liaison between AQSL and AQIM affiliated groups in Libya, and primary network-builder among these militias. These efforts have been extraordinarily successful. Continue reading “Will a too-late “victory” for America hasten the untimely demise of Libya? The rendition of Abu Anas”

The Arab Spring and the New Mujahadeen

Following the military coup which removed Hosni Mubarak, it was widely reported that al-Qaeda was rendered obsolete by the Arab Spring. Fareed Zakaria, for instance, pronounced:

“The Arab Revolts of 2011 represent a total repudiation of al Qaeda’s founding ideology. For 20 years, al Qaeda has said that the regimes of the Arab World are nasty dictatorships and that the only way to overthrow them is to support al Qaeda and its terrorism. And then, in a few weeks, the people of the Arab World have overturned two despotic governments by means of non-violent demonstrations and they have begun a process of reform and revolution that will alter the basic bargain between the ruler and ruled in the Middle East…”

This sentiment was only amplified in light of the U.S. assassinations of al-Qaeda’s senior leadership: Osama bin Laden, Anwar al-Awlaki, Abu Yaya al-Libi and Said al-Shehri (among others)—personality strikes which continue to this very day despite the growing evidence of blowback.

Indeed, al-Qaeda had lost a good deal of their leadership, their popular support, and their morale. Their attacks had been  mostly confined to the Mideast (as attempts at strikes in the West had been consistently intercepted), and their victims were primarily other Muslims. Before he was killed, Osama bin Laden lamented the fact that al-Qaeda had become consumed with purging apostates and ethno-religious minorities at the expense of their primary mandates:  to overthrow tyrannical and secular regimes (replacing them with Sunni theocracies), to drive out foreign forces from the MENA region, and to redress wrong committed against the Muslim community worldwide.

In short, al-Qaeda had serious problems—but not insurmountable ones. In light of how the “Arab Spring” revolutions have progressed, largely as a result of meddling by the US and the Gulf, the organization and its affiliates seem to be on the verge of a renaissance rather than extinction.
Continue reading “The Arab Spring and the New Mujahadeen”