Google Uses One Weird Trick to Dissuade Would-Be Islamic State Recruits

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Google has developed a program it hopes will use a combination of search advertising algorithms and targeted YouTube videos to dissuade would-be recruits from traveling to Syria to join Islamic State (IS, also called ISIS or ISIL).

The project was created by Google’s in-house tech incubator, Jigsaw (formerly Google Ideas). Called “Redirect Method”, when search terms that Google predicts someone who might be curious about joining IS are used, text links to anti-IS YouTube videos will display. The keywords include “Fatwa for jihad in Syria” and places used for entry into IS-controlled Syria. When used, links with subtle messages like “Want to join ISIS?” will display. (Though maybe it should consider “one weird trick”.)

This information operation uses the same basic dilution method as the organically crowd-sourced ISIS-chan meme. By adding more anti-IS content to search results, the likelihood of legitimate IS propaganda displaying is reduced. The Google campaign goes a step further by curating a playlist of authentic anti-IS videos already uploaded to YouTube such as “Raqqa under ISIS food lines”. This is in contrast to government information operations like the State Department’s  failed “Think Again, Turn Away” campaign that created their own (bad) content, or France’s “How to Spot a Jihadist” infographic.

Unlike ISIS-chan, this information operation could have the potential to legitimately deter recruitment. Google claims that their anti-IS ad clickthrough rates are around nine per cent, much  higher than the two to three per cent in a typical Google AdWords campaign. Additionally, people seem to be actually watching the videos, with their best performing videos getting an average of eight minutes. That is a longer time than I spend on most videos I actually want to watch.

As we have seen, most IS recruits are ignorant of Islam. It makes sense that these would-be recruits are legitimately interested in what life in IS-controlled territory is like.

While this program is encouraging, it does make me question Google’s ultimate aim here. Are they altruistically investing time and money into counterterrorism, or will this information be used to change people’s minds about other things? It is a new development in the ongoing search neutrality debate. It would be difficult to oppose Google manipulating their results to combat terrorism, but it will be interesting to see how Google uses its new Inception-esque technology to change users minds in the future.

Turkish Offensive Against Islamic State into Syria Signals Limit to Kurdish Expansion

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Turkish Special Forces (ANKA photo)

Turkey launched its largest offensive to date into Islamic State (IS, also called ISIS or ISIL if you like to bother everybody) held territory in Syria on Wednesday in a combined air, armor, and special operations campaign to take the border city of Jarabulus.

The timing of the United States-backed operation coincides with Vice President Joe Biden’s trip to Turkey which is occurring at a particularly fractious time in Turkish-American relations.

In July, an attempted military coup against Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government has been blamed by many Turks on the Americans. Allegations that the US allowed a Turkish Air Force refueler to take off from the US controlled Incirlik Air Base that refueled Turkish F-16s involved in bombing government buildings, and a bizarre conspiracy theory involving American one dollar bills being found on a number of Turkish officials linked to the Gulenist movement credited with the coup are in part responsible for the souring of relations between the two NATO allies.

The Syrian offensive is nominally in response to a suicide bomb attack on a Kurdish wedding in Turkey on Saturday, killing 54. But it may also be a message to the United States that it is still willing to cooperate on regional security issues. The US recently warned Turkey that its purge of Gulenists from the military would hamper the campaign against IS. Wednesday’s offensive suggests that Turkey is showing the US that it has not.

More importantly, the Turkish offensive signals that Turkey is serious about not allowing Kurdish forces to maintain contiguous territory along the Turkish border.

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A representation of Kurdish held-territory in Syria (Thomas van Linge graphic)

By intervening in Jarabulus on behalf of non-Kurdish Syrian rebels, they are preventing the Kurds from crossing the Euphrates River at the Turkish border and putting a stop to the western expansion of Rojava (Kurdish Syria) toward Kurdish-held Afrin District, northwest of Aleppo.

The US backed the Turkish offensive with air support and has agreed to not support any Kurdish operation on the city.

The Turkish foreign minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, warned the Kurds directly that if they did not remove their troops east of the Euphrates River and away from the Turkish border, “We will do what is necessary.” Turkish armed forces have had no qualms with bombing Kurdish forces in the past.

It appears that if the US is supporting Turkey over its Kurdish allies on the limits of the borders of Rojava, it is unlikely the Afrin Canton of Rojava will be linked with Rojava proper to the east. But this may turn out to be an important step for the Kurdish hope of self-determination and statehood: after all, two major powers just de facto recognized a border.

Foreverwar Roundup 8/3/16

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Once a Qaddafi stronghold, Sirte, Libya is now an IS stronghold and a target in a new U.S. air war (Christian Jacob Hansen/Danish Demining Group photo)

With the U.S. presidential election in less than 100 days, it is easy for news about the escalating war against al-Qaida, Islamic State (IS, also known as ISIS or ISIL), and other bad guys to get buried under headlines about what supposedly shocking thing Trump said about Muslims, babies, or Purple Heart medals. In case you missed it:

Non-special operations troops outside the wire in Iraq

In Iraq, non-special operations troops, i.e. what might be considered legitimate “boots on the ground”are conducting operations outside the confines of their bases in preparation  for the invasion of Mosul. (“The boots on the ground have to be Iraqi” said President Obama once in 2014.) U.S. Army Combat Engineers are assisting an Iraqi engineer battalion build a pontoon bridge over the Tigris River.

American forces were completely withdrawn from Iraq in December, 2011, but today there are over 3,600 in country.

Jabhat al-Nusra rebrands

Jabhat al-Nusra (also know known as Nusra Front), al-Qaida’s branch in Syria, announced that it was changing its name to Jabhat Fath al-Sham (Front for the Conquest of the Levant). The name change in itself is interesting because Jabhat al-Nusra’s full name was Jabhat al-Nusra li-Ahli al-Sham or “the front of support for the people of the Levant”—a decidedly soft and cuddly name for what was effectively al-Qaida in Syria.

The new name has more direct ambitions: the conquest of Sham. Sham is often translated as the Western concept of the Levant or a “greater Syria”. Already in actual conflict with IS, this now puts their name in conflict with IS too. IS was once the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham. The once-Nusra now wants to conquer that territory claimed by IS.

What interested most in the Western media about this rebranding, though, was the announcement that Jabhat Fath al-Sham would have “no affiliation to any external entity” which was interpreted as an official separation from al-Qaida proper. Many experts have argued that this is not the case, but the benefits of not being affiliated with al-Qaida are many—mostly foreign aid.

War against IS kicks off in earnest in Libya

Two days ago, a U.S. air campaign in support of the U.N.-backed government in Libya began against IS. I wrote about the first airstrike against IS in Libya a few months ago, but this most recent strike signifies a prolonged campaign specifically in support of the Government National Accord, one of three government-like entities currently operating in Libya.

This new campaign against IS is authorized under the 2001 AUMF. Yes, a war in Libya is legal under a law passed to fight al-Qaida in Afghanistan a decade and a half ago. A new, revised authorization from Congress to fight what is effectively a new war is not likely.

Afghan forces use child soldiers but the US is okay with that

This one is not exactly news, but Foreign Policy published a piece today about the Afghan National Police’s use of what are effectively child soldiers. This makes for cute propaganda pieces about 10 year old “heroes” fighting the Taliban, but it is also in violation of the spirit of a law preventing the U.S. from arming or assisting countries that use child soldiers.

The Obama Administration argues that a child police officer is not a child soldier, but in Afghanistan the National Police do not do traditional police work like investigating crimes, they fight the Taliban. But using technicalities to not enforce laws protecting children is not new for the U.S. After all, the U.S. is one of only three countries (joining Somalia and South Sudan) that will not ratify the U.N. child rights treaty.

America’s Longest War Will Continue into Next Presidency

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President Obama delivers speech on Afghanistan on July 6th, 2016

Today, President Barack Obama announced that 8,400 troops will remain in Afghanistan at least until the end of his term. This is an increase from the 5,500 he announced would stay last October, and of course continues to be a reversal of his plan to have all troops withdrawn by the end of his presidency—and his campaign promise to end the war in Afghanistan by 2014.

In his speech today, Obama admitted that despite nearly 15 years of war in Afghanistan, “the Taliban are still a threat.” He argues that it will “continue to take time for [Afghanistan] to build up military capacity that we sometimes take for granted. And given the enormous challenges they face, the Afghan people will need the support of the world led by the United States.”

During his speech, the White House tweeted in a coordinated communications effort about US progress in Afghanistan. One tweet highlighted the fact that Obama brought 90% of troops in Afghanistan home since taking office.

But the chart in the tweet’s data betrays its title. According to the chart, Obama took office in 2009 with roughly 38,000 troops in Afghanistan. He will be leaving office in 2017 with 8,400 troops in Afghanistan. That leaves 22% of the troops in Afghanistan that were there when he took office. So since taking office, Obama brought home about 78% of “our troops” from Afghanistan.

If we use the surge numbers instead, the tweet makes more sense. Since the surge, troop levels have reduced by 92%, but Obama himself raised the troops from 38,000 to 100,000. He did not inherit that from Bush. And unfortunately, as Obama admitted himself, the Taliban is still a threat. So what was that surge for?

Obama reminds us of what we have accomplished in nearly a decade and a half in Afghanistan: improvements in public health, democratic elections, and a government that is a strong partner with the US in combatting terrorism. But the list seems short when taking into consideration that since taking office, 1,301 American troops and 1,540 contractors have died in Afghanistan. And according to the United Nations, over 20,000 Afghan civilians have been killed since Obama took office and total casualties have climbed every year of his presidency.

“The Taliban are still a threat.”

– President Barack Obama, July 6th, 2016

As many predicted, the war in Afghanistan will not see any change in the status quo until the next administration. “Today’s decision best positions my successor to make future decisions about our presence in Afghanistan,” said Obama in today’s speech.

Presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump has said that it was a “terrible mistake to get involved there in the first place,” but that he would “probably” have to leave troops in Afghanistan because “that thing will collapse in about two seconds after they leave.”

Meanwhile, presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton supported Obama’s withdrawal reversal last year and said, “We have invested a lot of blood and a lot of treasure in trying to help that country and we can’t afford for it to become an outpost of the Taliban and [Islamic State] one more time, threatening us, threatening the larger world.” It does not look like the war in Afghanistan is ending anytime soon.

As I said in my reflections on leaving Afghanistan, Bagram 2035, indeed.

 

It’s Time to Start Understanding Violence As an Overwhelmingly Masculine Problem

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(Wikimedia Commons photo)

I ran across an interesting essay on “the weaponized loser” where Stephen T. Asma, a professor of philosophy at Columbia College Chicago, makes the argument that mass killings such as the ones perpetrated by Omar Mateen in Orlando, Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris at Columbine, and perhaps even the tens of thousand Islamic State (IS) fighters in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere share something in common: they are by socially alienated men who “can’t get laid”.

This argument is not new. It has been floating around the internet for a while. I still do not think the argument is a very strong one. After all, there are plenty of non-sex starved, violent men. The argument seems a little silly when Asma practically concludes that sexbots could be a solution to radicalism. But there is something to the idea that violence is an overwhelmingly male problem and might need to be addressed thusly. Asma writes:

Young men who cannot find a place in the socialisation process will often take up a disdainful hostility towards domestication itself. The terminal rebel takes shape. A mild version of this was articulated two decades ago in Chuck Palahniuk’s now classic novel Fight Club (1996) and its later movie adaptation. But far more chilling than alienated urbanites secretly fighting in basements is the rise of ISIS, Boko Haram and other violently antisocial brotherhoods.

Part of male socialization is gainful employment and there is a correlation between societies with high unemployment rates and political violence. In Iraq the unemployment rate has been over 15% for the last ten years, rocketing as high as 28% after the US invasion in 2003. In Syria, the unemployment rate has been similar since the rebellion against Assad began, but one wonders how accurate those numbers are in the first place since the governments of Iraq and Syria have controlled a fraction of their respective countries for years now.

“When comparing domestic violence and political violence, the sexual-frustration-as-a-catalyst-for-radicalism hypothesis is even weaker.”

Due to the absence of a government in Libya for some time (and even when Qaddafi was in power said government was hardly transparent) unemployment numbers are difficult to estimate, but over 20% is a safe bet. In Somalia, a country that has seen nearly constant violence for the last 25 years, the unemployment rate has been hovering around the half century mark.

It is important not to confuse correlation and causation when researching radicalism, though. After all, armed rebellions contribute to unemployment as much as they might be affected by it. One of the common myths about terrorism is that it is caused by poverty. This myth has prevailed because commonly it is politicians that spread the myth. But when looking at the empirical research, it is very difficult to link the two. In his course on terrorism and counterterrorism on Coursera, Dr. Edwin Bakker argues:

Most terrorists are not very poor, or much poorer than others. In fact, some terrorists are extremely rich. Think of Osama Bin Laden. Perhaps the most well-known terrorist of our age, who came from a wealthy Saudi family. And another example is the so-called Christmas Day bomber, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who in 2009 tried to blow up a plane heading for Detroit. But he studied in London, and was of a well-to-do family from Nigeria. And there are many other examples of terrorists from upper or upper-middle class. Take, for instance, Anders Breivik, who killed almost 80 people in Norway. Or to take an example from the 1960s and ’70s: from left-wing terrorism, Ulrike Meinhof, one of the key persons of the Rote Armee Fraktion. She also came from a well-to-do family, was highly educated, and had lots of opportunities in life. Studying the characteristics of Jihad terrorists in Europe, I found out that they were mainly children of migrants or migrants themselves. And they were of lower parts of society. But they were not poorer than other migrants or children of migrants.

The research backs this up. James Piazza of Rutledge University studied terrorism as it relates to poverty, inequality, and poor economic opportunity and could not find a link.

But terrorism, insurgency, and political violence all have at least one thing in common: they are all forms of violence and violence is overwhelmingly perpetrated by men. The US Department of Justice (DoJ) found in 2007 that 75.6% of all violent crimes were committed by men. Even more alarmingly, as Asma points out in his article, a 2011 DoJ report found that nearly 90% of homicides were perpetrated by men.

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American terrorist Jared Loughner, who shot US Representative Gabrielle Giffords and 13 other people in 2011, did not come from a particularly poor background (Wikimedia Commons photo)

When comparing domestic violence and political violence, the sexual-frustration-as-a-catalyst-for-radicalism hypothesis is even weaker. After all, men who abuse their women partners could hardly be considered failures with women if they are able to enter into relationships and even marry them.

So what is going on here? Dr. Thomas Harbin, a criminal psychologist, argues that male violence stems from male anger, which is partly a socialized trait. Men learn how to deal with anger from their fathers, their peers, and their friends as adolescents. He writes, “most people convicted of domestic violence, child abuse, or other violent crimes were abused themselves.” Since men have been angry and violent for generations, they will continue to be unless this generation is socialized differently.

One of my favorite quotes about war comes from Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. His character, The Judge, says about war: “It endures because young men love it and old men love it in them.” Men create and perpetuate violence. When looking at violence from a gendered perspective, articles with headlines like “Male violence is the worst problem in the world” no longer seem outlandish. It is both catastrophic and until recently, undiscussable. Let’s start discussing it.

 

Reflections on Leaving Afghanistan

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The sun setting behind the Hindu Kush at Bagram Airfield

My time in Afghanistan is coming to an end and I thought it would be appropriate to reflect on some of the things I have observed here. I arrived at Bagram Airfield (known as BAF to the military personnel and contractors that call it home) in November of last year and it was my first trip to the country in which the US had been engaged in war for 14 years.

Upon arriving, the large military base seemed empty. It was, in fact, emptying. President Barack Obama had ordered a reduction in Afghanistan from 10,800 troops to 5,500 and then to none by 2017. Bagram is a fortress of an airfield with most of the modern comforts of home: at least two movie theaters, two exchanges (small Wal-Mart like stores), wifi available for free or for cost seemingly everywhere, and numerous bazaars filled with Afghan vendors selling Chinese made knockoffs of American products. But the exchanges were mostly empty, with limits to the number of sodas you could buy — a sign of the base’s imminent closure.

Yet Obama reversed his decision to reduce troop numbers in October last year. As the planning slowly filtered down from the top to the military units on the ground, activity sprung to life. The exchanges began to refill with goods: souvenir t-shirts, electronics, chips and dip, and cases of energy drinks. Construction projects began: large blast walls designed to protect from rocket attacks were moved from one side of the base to another, or sometimes as near as 10 feet away. Tents that served as gyms or multi-use recreation areas were moved 50 meters. Fences were moved 20 meters. Military commanders began to use terms like “Bagram 2025” and even “Bagram 2035” signaling an intention to stay longer, much longer, than the end of Obama’s presidential term.

But there is more to war than just well-stocked exchanges and moving blast walls, though sometimes it is hard to realize it from the confines of a fortress. Indeed, drones and fighter jets left regularly to deliver bombs on Islamic State targets, who were becoming increasingly numerous in Afghanistan. Over the first few months of this year, those targets became less numerous. At the start of the fighting season, American rockets were launched at a Taliban training camp and Taliban rockets were launched at John Kerry.

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Soviet ruins on Bagram Airfield

An infantry battalion from the Fourth Infantry Division rotated into Bagram, but its junior enlisted members were listless. There was no mission for them besides acting as a Quick Reaction Force with little to react to. They walked to and fro the dining facility wearing grimaces on their faces and mandatory gloves on their hands — even in over 90 degree weather. Such is war.

Sometimes it was almost difficult to find a soldier. In Afghanistan, contractors outnumber military personnel three-to-one, and this was evident on Bagram. Everywhere one looked, there were civilians, mostly wearing a de facto uniform of hiking boots, earth tone tactical wear made by 5.11, and occasionally a t-shirt bought on base that indicated they were members of the “Taliban Hunting Club” despite the fact they would never leave the confines of the base.

The civilians were not just American, but from all over the world — and their nationalities seemed to define their profession. Afghans worked as merchants and in construction. Indians and other Southern Asians were generally cooks, truck drivers, or bathroom cleaners. Africans were tower security guards. Americans did everything from security, to loading planes, to flying them. On Friday nights one could find the contractors and civilians mingling at Salsa Night in one of the aforementioned tents that had been moved 50 meters.

The US has been at war in Afghanistan for going on fifteen years, but these days it is not so clear what war that is. The two ongoing missions, Operation Resolute Support and Operation Freedom’s Sentinel, are to train the Afghan forces and kill terrorists, respectively. The war against the Taliban had been halted, but with the killing of Taliban leader Mullah Mansoor in Pakistan under the authority of “self defense” perhaps that will change. President Obama has indicated that in his last months as President, he is open to new ideas about his Afghanistan withdrawal. It was recently announced US troops will now be accompanying Afghan troops on the battlefield again.

Bagram 2035, indeed.

What We Can Learn from T.E. Lawrence About Today’s Middle East Policy

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I recently stumbled across an article in Foreign Policy written by James Stravadis titled How Would Lawrence of Arabia Defeat the Islamic StateAs a researcher who writes about Islamic State (IS) and a personal fan of Lawrence (my dog is named T.E.), this type of article was right up my alley.

If you could use a refresher, T.E. Lawrence, better known as “Lawrence of Arabia” after the 1962 Oscar-winning film of the same title, was a British Army officer who successfully trained and equipped an Arab revolt against the Ottoman Empire in World War 1. With an army of irregulars, he employed guerrilla warfare against the Ottomans, blowing up trains, attacking and melting away — he led the same type of insurgency the United States has been fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan for over a decade.

What was so special about Lawrence was his deep understanding of both Arab and Ottoman societies. He was a British intelligence officer working as cartographer and archaeologist in the Middle East when World War 1 broke out. He was sent to liaise with Arabs from the Hashemite tribe in present day Saudi Arabia who the British thought might be sympathetic to their anti-Ottoman war effort.

Lawrence’s appointment was supposed to be temporary until a replacement could be sent, but he ended up nearly single-handedly (from a Western perspective — there were thousands of Arabs involved) leading a revolt in the desert. In the vernacular of today, we would say he was a special operator training and advising local national fighters. (One might imagine that today an Obama Administration official would make the distinction that he was involved in “non-combat operations” despite the numerous raids he went on.)

That Lawrence was so successful in working with Arab groups to successfully implement Western policy in the Middle East is what draws our attention to him today. Many of the candidates in this year’s American presidential election called for the creation of a Sunni Arab coalition to fight IS. Stravadis’s article recommends we rely on our Sunni allies as well — namely Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, Jordan, and Egypt. But the war against IS today reflects a different reality.

The aforementioned countries minus Oman are currently caught up in a war in Yemen, while Egypt is dealing with its own insurgency in the Sinai. Meanwhile, in the military intervention against IS, Jordan has participated in only token air strikes against Syria –mostly after one of their pilots was executed in a brutal and widely plublicized video. Saudi Arabia and the UAE have participated in Syria, but only nominally. President Barack Obama has been forthright in his opinion that our Sunni allies need to do more, but we should also remember that those five countries’ defense budgets combined is about $110 billion, or only about 15% of what the US spends.

“While Kurds and Shiites are the most organized fighters now and that makes them a convenient ally, one must take into consideration what the ultimate goals are for these groups.”

Instead, what the US has done (after twin failed Department of Defense and Central Intelligence Agency train and equip programs in Syria) is make the Kurds of northern Syria and northern Iraq along with the Shiites of southern Iraq our de facto fighting force against IS. Our new baby in Syria, a coalition of militias in Syria called the “Syrian Democratic Forces” are mostly Kurds.  The US has also established an airfield in Kurdish-held Syria.

In Iraq, US special operations forces have also set up an airfield and outposts in Kurdish controlled areas. US troops are now operating out of an airbase near Erbil and a US Marine was killed by indirect fire from IS at an outpost in the area. Additionally, a Delta Force soldier was killed during a raid with Kurdish forces, as was more recently a Navy SEAL while training Kurds. Successful territory gaining operations against IS thus far in Tikrit were mostly comprised of Shiite militias and the Shiite Badr Corps were on the ground in the liberation of Ramadi.

So what is the lesson we can learn from Lawrence of Arabia? During the successful Arab revolt against the Ottoman Empire, the Hashemites of Saudi Arabia were promised kingdoms in a Middle East. Faisal bin Hussein was made King of the Arab Kingdom of Syria. After being ousted by the French who had received Syria in the infamous Sykes-Picot agreement, he became the first King of Iraq with the help of the British.

Faisal’s brother, Abdullah I, became the first King of Jordan after being convinced by the British not to attack the French in retaliation for removing his brother. Finally, Faisal and Abdullah’s father, Hussein bin Ali, declared himself King of the Hejaz (an area in present day Saudi Arabia), but was never recognized by the global community and the British-backed al-Saud tribe forced him to flee in 1924.

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Arab revolt fighters, 1918 (Library of Congress photo)

Today, the only remaining Hashemite ruler in the Middle East is King Abdullah II of Jordan.  The Hashemites were overthrown in Iraq in 1958 during a bloody coup resulting in the death of many members of the Hashemite family. The Sauds conquered the Arabian peninsula and created modern Saudi Arabia.

Lawrence, perhaps disgusted with how the Hashemites he fought with were essentially betrayed by the British and French governments, enlisted in the Royal Air Force in 1920 under an assumed identity, distancing himself from his past identity as Colonel T.E Lawrence, leader of the Arab Revolt.

The lesson here is that the US needs to be careful about who it supports in its fight against IS. While Kurds and Shiites are the most organized fighters now and that makes them a convenient ally, one must take into consideration what the ultimate goals are for these groups. The YPG, a Kurdish militia the US is supporting in Syria, has made it known that it intends independence. Shiites in Iraq have habitually disempowered Iraqi Sunnis and will likely continue to do so.

Whether or not the US plans acquiesce its current allies plans for self-determination, it must be prepared for the next conflict after IS is defeated. It is unlikely that in a post-IS world, empowered and well-armed Kurds will willingly return to the old status quo. Similarly, it is not a stretch to imagine Sunnis in formerly IS-held areas to rebel against their Shiite conquerors. Much of our modern turmoil in the Middle East is thought to be related the failed promises and poor planning of the post-conflict after the Arab revolt —and it has lasted nearly a century. Are we prepared for another hundred years of conflict in the Middle East?

 

The United States and the ‘Fight for the Future of Islam’

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Sultan Ahmed Mosque in Istanbul (Ben Lieu Song photo)

Yesterday, Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut sent out a mass email asking for feedback on a speech on United States relationships in the Middle East that he gave to the Council on Foreign Relations last January. Murphy is a Democrat who serves on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and has styled himself as the leader of a movement for a progressive foreign policy.

Murphy’s foreign policy goals are a marked difference from the early 2000s Neoconservative foreign policy of preemptive war and this decade’s Neoliberal foreign policy of endless covert war. Murphy calls for increasing foreign aid spending versus defense spending, the end the president’s authority to wage limitless war, and reigning in mass surveillance and drone strikes.

“Is it the role of the US to provide theological guidance?”

In his speech about US policy in the Middle East, Murphy makes it clear that he understands how our ally, Saudi Arabia, makes the world less secure by investing enormous amounts of money in spreading Wahhabism, a Saudi form of Sunni Islam that is considered intolerant by the West. At the end of his speech, he argues that it is time to stop being myopic when it comes to our relationships in the Middle East:

“If we are serious about constructing a winning strategy to defeat ISIS and Al Qaeda, then our horizons have to extend beyond the day to day, here and now, fight in Iraq and Syria.

We need admit that there is a fight on for the future of Islam, and we can’t sit on the sidelines. Both parties in Washington need to acknowledge this reality, and the U.S. needs to lead by example by ending our effective acquiescence to the Saudi export of intolerant Islam.

And we need to be careful not to blindly back our friend’s plays in conflicts that simply create more instability, more political and security vacuums, into which ISIS and other extremist groups can fill, like what is going in Yemen today.”

I commend the Senator on his unusually canny understanding of the Middle East and Central Asia. It is refreshing to see frankness instead of mealy-mouthed support of least bad options in our relationships there. After all, often it is our allies who cause many of the problems we attempt to solve, from Pakistan protecting the Taliban (and the US-designated terrorist Haqqani network, and perhaps Osama Bin Laden), to Israel and its illegal settlements in occupied Palestine, to the Gulf States arming jihadist groups in Syria.

However, sandwiched between two great points in the quote above, the Senator makes a very troubling remark: “We need admit that there is a fight on for the future of Islam, and we can’t sit on the sidelines.”

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Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut (US Senate photo)

Murphy should reflect about what that statement means. Is it the role of the US to provide theological guidance? Does it have the right to get off the “sidelines” (and is a sports reference appropriate)? The separation of government and religion is a cornerstone of American democracy. While the US does have some history hypocritically prohibiting the free exercise of religion abroad, Murphy must understand that making a statement about the US’s role in the “fight for the future of Islam” is exactly the type of shortsightedness that he is rejecting.

It should be plainly obvious that most of the world’s 1.2 billion Muslims would not support the government of the nominally secular, culturally Christian United States making any decisions on the future of their religion. If he thinks the anti-Americanism in madrasas is bad now, just wait until they find out that the US is getting off the sidelines in fight for the future of Islam.

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Men praying in Afghanistan (Wikimedia Commons photo)

I think Murphy is an ambitious, smart guy who truly wants the best for the US and I admire the type of world he is attempting to create. Perhaps the sentence in question was simply a phrasing error — I would like to think that he does not believe the US government should have a prominent role in shaping a religion. Nonetheless, Murphy must be aware of how that type of messaging will backfire among the people he is attempting to fight for.

Murphy’s team asked for feedback on his speech. I urge them to consider this point when talking about Middle East policy in the future.

Five Years After Killing Bin Laden: The Failure of Decapitation Strategy

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Artwork by Surian Soosay

Exactly five years ago last Monday, United States Navy SEALs killed Osama Bin Laden during a raid on the compound where he lived with his family in Abbottabad, Pakistan.

I remember where I was when I heard Bin Laden was dead: in the open bay, cinderblock barracks at Camp Shelby, Mississippi, during mobilization training for a deployment with the Oklahoma Army National Guard. The mood then among fellow soldiers was mostly surprise and perhaps a little incredulity — after all, there was no evidence of a body. Junior enlisted soldiers are, by nature, suspicious creatures.

It took almost ten years after the Bin Laden-directed attacks on September 11th, 2001 in the United States, but on the evening of May 2, 2011, President Barack Obama told the world during a televised address from the White House, “After a firefight, [a small team of Americans] killed Osama Bin Laden and took custody of his body.”

“Looking at al-Qaida’s position in the world today versus in 2011, it is hard to make a good argument that killing Bin Laden worked.”

According to President Obama himself during that very address, the killing or capture of Bin Laden was, until then, the top priority of the war against al-Qaida. But for all the resources that went into Bin Laden’s killing, did, as President Obama put it, “the most significant achievement to date in our nation’s effort to defeat al-Qaida” actually disrupt, dismantle or defeat it?

Looking at al-Qaida’s position in the world today versus in 2011, it is hard to make a good argument that killing Bin Laden worked. In 2011, al-Qaida’s core in Pakistan was suffering from seemingly endless drone strikes, disrupted communications, constant threat of infiltration, and the inability to meet in large groups. Killing Bin Laden did not much change the operational ability of al-Qaida’s core.

However, pre-Bin Laden raid, al-Qaida’s affiliated groups in Africa and the Middle East, al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), and al-Qaida in Iraq (AQI) were much less active.

Since the horrific car bombing in Algiers in 2007 that killed and wounded 180 people, AQIM attacks had essentially dropped off, with no AQIM-attributed casualties in 2008 or 2010 and only 12 in 2009. But after Bin Laden’s death, attacks saw an uptick, with casualties increasing every year, culminating in two large attacks this year using gunmen in Burkina Fasso and Ivory Coast, resulting in 100 casualties — relatively high for attacks not using explosives and a marked expansion from their Algeria-centric operations prior to Bin Laden’s death.

AQAP has seen tremendous growth in the past five years. In 2009, AQAP was estimated to have only 200-300 members, but grew to nearly 1000 in 2014. Because of the Saudi-backed war in Yemen against Iranian Houthi rebels, AQAP has been able to consolidate its power, enjoying the control of a mini-state along the Yemeni coast, much like the quasi-state under the control of Islamic State (IS, also called ISIS or ISIL) in Iraq and Syria.

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Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) fighters in the Algerian desert. The stones spell “La ilaha ila Allah (There is no god but God)” (Voice of America photo)

Another al-Qaida affiliate, Jabhat al-Nusra (also known as Nusra Front or Nusra), did not exist before Bin Laden’s death. But after the start of the Syrian Civil War, Nusra began operating as the official arm of al-Qaida in Syria with the blessing of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, then-leader of the Iraqi affiliate, AQI. Since its formation, Nusra has become one of the strongest and most organized rebel groups in Syria, second only to IS.

IS itself was once the al-Qaida affiliate in Iraq and then known as AQI. During the time of the Bin Laden raid, AQI was nearly defeated. But the death of Bin Laden, the civil war in Syria, and the withdrawal of American troops combined with an extremely weak government in Iraq created ideal conditions for AQI/IS to seize control of large swaths of territory in both Iraq and Syria. While not affiliated with al-Qaida anymore (Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has eclipsed al-Qaida’s current leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and perhaps even Bin Laden), IS is certainly more powerful than al-Qaida ever was — before or after Bin Laden.

“The US and its partners must, at a minimum, work harder to quantify the results of their counterterrorism strategies and end the practices that are counterproductive.”

So, if al-Qaida and global jihadism have only become stronger since the death of Bin Laden, it is fair to say that killing Bin Laden was a poor top priority for the United States in its war against al-Qaida. This does not come as a surprise to all. In 2008, Aaron Manness published a study which found that decapitation strategy is not only limited in efficacy, but may actually be counterproductive when used on religiously motivated terrorist groups, who have been found to become more violent when their leaders are killed.

One could theorize that Bin Laden would have been more useful captured alive, but the point is now moot. His death, once the top priority of the US, has done nothing to defeat al-Qaida. Indeed, al-Qaida’s greatest foe today may not even be the US, but rather IS, who is competing with (and for the moment, winning against) al-Qaida to be the world’s premiere Salafi jihadist group.

Should the US defeat either IS or al-Qaida by killing its members, the other will directly benefit. If decapitation strategy does not work, the US and its partners must, at a minimum, work harder to quantify the results of their counterterrorism strategies and end the practices that are counterproductive. The killing of Bin Laden was only one of hundreds of “high value targets” that have been killed in countries the US is not technically at war with — to unimpressive results. Next, the US and its partners must identify a strategy that does not benefit al-Qaida while IS is degraded or vice versa. If they do not, this 15 year old war is not likely to end any time soon.

Widespread Protests in Brazil as Olympics Loom

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Protests in Brazil in March, 2015 (Agência Brasil photo)

By B.Q. Barrett
Insurgentsia guest contributor

With the Olympic Games only a few months away, the host country, Brazil, is still holding massive protests. Just two years ago Brazil hosted the World Cup and millions protested government overspending on both the World Cup and Olympic games. Now in 2016, the country has seen even larger amounts of people protesting to impeach President Dilma Rousseff.

In 2014, millions of Brazilians protested in over 80 cities which lead to 837 Brazilians reporting injuries from police. Police, armed with tear gas and rubber bullets, maintained order in streets across the country. These protests contributed to looting, vandalism and damage to buildings and public works.

The most notable day of protests came on June 13, 2014, which has been named a quinta sangrenta. During a quinta sangrenta, or bloody Thursday, thousands of protestors were peacefully marching in São Paulo when police fired upon them unannounced with non-lethal weapons, injuring many.

“While most of these protests have been peaceful, it will likely take one incident for them to return to the chaos seen in 2014.”

March of this year brought even more reasoning for Brazilians to once again take to the streets and voice their concern. A Brazilian judge released wiretaps in mid-March of President Rousseff, which detailed her reasoning for appointing former President Lula to her cabinet: avoiding prosecution. These wiretaps only confirmed the public’s opinion about corruption in the government.

São Paulo was estimated to have over 500,000 protesters, the largest number in the city’s history. Overall the entire country saw more than 3 million people protest to impeach the current president.  While most of these protests have been peaceful, it will likely take one incident for them to return to the chaos seen in 2014.

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Protests in March, 2016 (Agência Brasil photo)

Unfortunately, widespread protests could cause Brazil’s Olympic athletes to feel less support from their people — much like what occurred to the Brazilian national soccer team in 2014. Fans then, discouraged by their government, took to the streets during Brazil’s soccer matches and engaged with police. Some wore foreign country’s jerseys to show their disappointment in the government of their nation.

The impeachment process of President Dilma could last until November, which means this unrest will almost certainly continue during the entire Olympic Games.

B.Q. Barrett is a former Marine rifleman.