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”

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”

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”

Rethinking ISIL’s Immolation of Moaz al-Kasasbeh

One of the most popular narratives about ISIL’s recent immolation of Jordanian Moaz al-Kasasbeh is that the group resorted to such brutal measures against the pilot because they are desperate—pushed to the brink by coalition airstrikes. However, there are four major problems with this interpretation: Continue reading “Rethinking ISIL’s Immolation of Moaz al-Kasasbeh”

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””

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”

Comparing the Scale of Mexican Drug Cartels to ISIL

While ISIL is trying to achieve a state, the cartels already have one. They have infiltrated every level of the Mexican government: from law enforcement and the military, to the judiciary, political parties, and even private-sector enterprises such as the banks and media organizations. They act with virtual impunity, checked only by competition from other cartels.

ISIL shocked the world by netting an estimated $2 billion during their capture of Mosul in August. Additionally, the group generates more than $1 million per day from enterprises such as extortion, kidnapping, smuggling, and oil sales. This pales in comparison with the cartel economy. For example, the Sinaloa cartel alone generates more than $3 billion every yearmore than $8 million per day. Conservative estimates hold that, collectively, the Mexican cartels earn at least $6.6 billion annually, which translates into more than $18 million daily.

While ISIL has up to 31,000 fighters at its disposal, the cartels have more than 100,000 foot soldiers—more than three times the number of ISIL fighters, and roughly equivalent to the size of the actual Mexican army (many of whom also work for the cartels, with Los Zetas founded and led primarily by military and police defectors).

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”

Critical Context on the U.S. Airstrikes in Syria

The Obama Administration has just announced that they and their coalition allies have begun a fierce campaign of airstrikes in Syria, bombing primarily “hard-targets” in the IS stronghold of Raqqa (about 20 of them). Here’s what is known—and perhaps more importantly—what is not known so far:


“Sunni Arab” Partners

The U.S. was the only non-Arab actor to participate in the Syria raids. Collaborating with the U.S. were five other Arab states: Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the UAE, Bahrain, and Jordan.

While many pundits have and will continue to describe them as “moderate Arab allies”—what “moderate” usually means is something akin to “compliant with the U.S. agenda in the region.” What may be more significant to note about these powers is that they are all monarchies—in fact, the actors who took part in the strike are most of the region’s surviving dynasties (excluding only Oman, Kuwait, and Morocco).

The Gulf monarchs are far from beloved in Iraq, even among the Sunni population. Readers may remember that the “Sunni” Hussein regime wanted to go to war with the KSA, provoking the U.S.-led Operation Desert Shield; even in the face of the ISIS threat, Iraq has categorically refused to allow ground troops from these countries to operate on Iraqi soil. There is a long enmity between the peoples of Iraq and the Gulf monarchs—and an even deeper enmity between these powers and the Syrians. So the idea that the populations of IS-occupied Iraq and Syria will find these forces and their actions legitimate simply in virtue of the fact that they are “Sunni” is a gross oversimplification that reinforces problematic sectarian narratives even as it obscures important geopolitical truths. Among them:

If anything, the alliance that carried out the strike actually reinforces the narrative of the IS: it will be framed as the United States and its oppressive monarchic proxies collaborating to stifle the Arab Uprisings in order to preserve the doomed status quo. Continue reading “Critical Context on the U.S. Airstrikes in Syria”

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”

Understanding Sectarianism in Iraq and Beyond

On Aug. 14, embattled Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki stepped down and accepted the candidacy of his successor, Haider al-Abadi, who was nominated last week by the Iraqi president in an effort to end months of political stalemate in Baghdad. Maliki’s ouster has been a key demand of the Sunni opposition and United States. His resignation was welcomed, remarkably, by both Saudi Arabia and Iran. In fact, the end of Maliki’s reign was heightened by a coup from within his Shia alliance that had been brewing for some time. However, his removal alone — more symbolic than substantial — will not resolve the deeper political crisis that threatens Iraq’s unity and long-term viability.

This threat is often framed in terms of sectarian tensions among Iraq’s Shias, Sunnis and Kurds. But sectarianism in Iraq is also easy to misunderstand or overstate. The current turmoil results not from the centuries-old feud between Sunnis and Shias but from a revolt against very specific governmental policies — most of which have their origins in the U.S. invasion and occupation.

Continue reading “Understanding Sectarianism in Iraq and Beyond”

Arming the Syrian Rebels is Counterproductive: Here’s Why…

A critique circulating by many foreign policy hawks is that the Obama Administration was far too concerned about delineating the “moderates” from the “extremists” of Syria’s rebellion, and only providing support to the former. They speculate that if the United States had provided more aid early on, extremists like the Islamic State would have never risen to prominence.

Despite its ubiquity, this narrative rests uneasily atop a gross neglect and misreading of recent history. Hillary Clinton, in particular, should take note:

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Al-Malaki Has Been Deposed, To What Avail?

Contrary to the popular narrative, Iraqi PM Nouri al-Malaki was not a sectarian leader. His fault was that he was an overly-ambitious autocrat who had the further misfortune of presiding over a fundamentally sectarian political system–and during the particularly polarized period in the Mideast which followed the Arab Uprisings.

And while deposing al-Malaki had been a key demand of the Sunni opposition (as well as the United States), it is critical to recognize that the prime minister met his end at the hands of the Shii alliance, who wanted him gone for their own reasons. It was not a response to the Sunni uprising, but an intra-Shii coup which had been in the works for some time:

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