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.

 

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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.

After 15 Years, Weighing the Options in Afghanistan

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(DoD/Wikimedia Commons Photo)

Yesterday, Anders Corr wrote an opinion piece for Forbes comparing three realistic policy options in Afghanistan: maintain the 13,000 coalition troops indefinitely, increase troops slightly and intensify the air campaign, or withdraw all troops completely.

The current policy of maintaining a limited troop presence does have its benefits of training the Afghan police and military, providing the Afghan National Army with air support, and having some quick reaction force elements in place in case the Taliban’s fabled overwhelming spring offensive finally takes place. Yet it also puts troops at risk, certainly is not free, and does not seem to be making Afghanistan any safer.

As Afghans slowly lose village after village to the Taliban and the security situation in Kabul deteriorates, a natural solution is to do more: increase troops and bomb more things. This seems to be the reaction the current administration is reluctantly leaning into with the recent deployment of an infantry battalion to Helmand  — the first major deployment of combat troops back to Afghanistan since the end of the NATO mission in 2014 — and an increase in operations against Islamic State in the east.

But, as I have written about before, airstrikes without significant and reliable ground forces can do more harm than good. And as Corr’s piece rightly points out:

“If we didn’t win with 140,000 NATO troops, we are unlikely to win with an increase of ten or twenty thousand.”

Thus, if the current troop levels are not working, and increasing troop levels will not work, is it time for the United States to cut its losses and leave? If our war against the Taliban is failing after 15 years and at least $685 billion spent, it is time to stop fighting the Taliban. Corr quotes me in his piece:

“Richard White, a security specialist in Afghanistan, messaged me on the subject. ‘The Taliban insurgency will … only be defeated if it is legitimized into the political system as perhaps Hizbullah and Hamas were.’ White continued, ‘Maybe that can happen without a U.S. military presence, maybe not. I am positive that we cannot continue to invest in Afghanistan with little to no return indefinitely, though.’”

Interestingly, a 2008 Rand study found after an examination of 648 terrorist groups that  the most common way terrorist groups end is by transition to the political process. The US government seems to at least partly understand this and is once again attempting direct peace talks with the Taliban. Terrorism and insurgency are not identical, however, and the study noted that terrorist groups most likely to enter the political sphere were those with narrow objectives.

Perhaps a complete withdrawal makes the most logical sense at this point, but without the American public demanding it, I doubt the US government will willingly leave on its own — after all, it is not their money they are spending. More Americans than ever now consider the Afghanistan war a mistake, but still only a little less than half. And as a prominent Middle East scholar once told me after I submitted a piece on Afghanistan to his blog in the hopes of being reposted:

“I can’t explain it, but the public just usually does not respond to Afghanistan stories.”

As long as Americans continue to not care and the Afghan government continues to request assistance, it is unlikely the US is going anywhere.

The War Against Islamic State Has Jumped 1,500 Miles to Libya

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Demonstrations in Libya, 2011 (Wikimedia Commons)

It appears a pending decision was made to expand the war against Islamic State (IS) to Libya, as the United States announced this morning that it conducted an air strike on a training camp near Sabratha, targeting Noureddine Chouchane, a.k.a. “Sabir,” and killing at least 40. The US has linked the militant to the Bardo Museum attack in Tunisia last year, though it is not confirmed whether he was killed.

Since the air strike hit a farmhouse and killed dozens, it is not surprising that the US cannot confirm their target’s death (that is a lot of remains to sort through). But the US’s confusion over who it has killed is a problem. Similarly, The Washington Post recently reported that American officials are now unsure whether or not an airstrike targeting al-Qaida militant Mukhtar Belmokhtar last year was successful. New York Times war correspondent C.J. Chivers, famously targeted accidentally in an airstrike in Libya himself, said it best:

“An aircraft, a pilot, put a guided munition very near to me on a piece of ground where I was standing that was unquestionably out of the Qaddafi forces’ hands, and then proceeded to brief the strike publicly as if it was a valid strike. They said things that were not true. They may have believed them. Either way, it’s a problem, right? It shows that they don’t know what they’re bombing in many instances, and they convince themselves that they do, which is an incredibly dangerous use of lethal power. And it just was extremely useful to see that and consider other things they may be saying to you on one story or another. Because there’s no question to me about what happened.”

The sad truth of the matter is that as the air war against IS expands, the US government does not always know who or what they are bombing. This makes it hard to justify these airstrikes, regardless of how good or bad the targets are. Unfortunately, without good human intelligence, it is difficult to understand the situation on the ground when your closest observer is a drone orbiting at 15,000 feet.

But the IS problem in Libya is not going away. IS controls at least a good 120 miles of territory and growing, 5,000-6,500 fighters, and has been launching a multi-front campaign on oil production centers that is unlikely to be defeated by local actors. None, including the Libyan government, are organized or strong enough.

“The Somalia, Yemen, and Syria models show that an air campaign alone is not only ineffective, it is a sloppy, dangerous half-measure.”

Insurgencies and terrorist groups are most likely to be defeated via direct military action only if they are deftly struck relatively early in their genesis. As we have seen in Iraq and Syria, allowing IS to take significant amounts of territory and establish infrastructure has made them resilient to the 18 month old US-led bombing campaign against them.

With only one airstrike accomplished so far, it is too early to see how the US plans to fight in Libya. However, the Somalia, Yemen, and Syria models show that an air campaign alone is not only ineffective, it is a sloppy, dangerous half-measure. I have not yet seen any studies showing that adding new countries to the extremely costly US bombing list has made Americans safer, yet this continues to be the counterterrorism status quo.