al-Qaeda

Source: Gage Skidmore; URL: https://www.flickr.com/photos/gageskidmore/24480213852

On several occasions throughout her campaign, Presidential nominee Hillary Clinton has mentioned that part of her plan to defeat terrorist organization “The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria” (ISIS) consists of killing or capturing its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. She believes that this decapitation strategy will allow the United States to “focus [its] attention [on fighting ISIS],” citing the demise of Al-Qa’ida in Pakistan and Afghanistan on the assassination of founder Osama Bin Laden in 2011. By assuming that the ISIS will react in a similar way to Al-Qa’ida after the removal of a leader, I believe that Secretary Clinton is oversimplifying the comprehensive strategy that we need to employ to destroy ISIS.

What is decapitation?

Terrorism expert Audrey Cronin defines decapitation as “the removal by arrest or assassination of the top leaders or operational leaders of a group.” In the study she conducted for her book “How Terrorism Enders: Understanding the Decline and Demise of Terrorist Campaigns,” Cronin cites several case studies where leaders of terrorist organizations were killed: the assassinations of the Philippines’ Abu Sayyaf leader Abdurajak Abubakar Janjalani in the 1990s, of leaders of Chechen groups by Russians in the early 2000s, of Anwar Sadat in 1981, and of terrorist leaders from countries like Egypt, Lebanon, and Palestine by Israel. She concluded that there seem to be no cases where decapitation resulted in the halting of a group’s campaign. Instead, the organization may have evolved to have more of a political agenda, for example with Abu Sayyaf; still, groups often remain and may become more prolific and rampant after a ‘decapitation’ attempt.

There are, according to Cronin, many factors that affect the success of a decapitation strategy; for example, the structure of the organization, “the degree to which it fosters a cult of personality, the availability of a viable successor, the nature of its ideology, the political context, and whether the leader was killed or imprisoned.” With this in mind, we can begin to examine more closely Secretary Clinton’s assumption that getting rid of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi will help defeat ISIS.

Al-Qa’ida

Founded in the late 1980s, Al-Qa’ida’s core leadership, according to the Wilson Center, does not claim to have direct control over the group’s structure. It instead focuses on messaging, strategy, and daily operations. However, the group’s affiliates do have to consult with the leadership before carrying out an attack. The core leadership is made up of a shura council in addition to committees for finance and information sharing.

Since the death of Bin Laden, former head of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, Ayman al-Zawahiri, has led Al-Qa’ida. The activities of the group have been severely limited from 2011 (and even before that). According to some U.S. officials, the reason why al-Zawahiri has not been as influential as Bin Laden is that he lacks the charisma and combat experience. He has instead, on several occasions, been known as the brains behind Al-Qa’ida.

Source: Hamid Mir; URL: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Hamid_Mir_interviewing_Osama_bin_Laden_and_Ayman_al-Zawahiri_2001.jpg

ISIS

Earlier this year, ISIS released a propaganda video that conveniently detailed the organization’s structure, as experts had previously not known much about it. At the top of the hierarchy is the self-proclaimed caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Directly below him are the Shura Council – all of whom were appointed by Baghdadi and have the power to depose him – and the Delegated Committee, which is tasked with overseeing the Wilayats (provinces), the group’s Offices and various Committees (such as those which are appointed to oversee people’s rights and to enforce punishments). The video states that ISIS is made up of over 30 provinces, in Syria, Egypt, Iraq, and Yemen.

Previous speculations about the structure of ISIS are very similar. They indicate that Baghdadi is at the top, along with his Shura Council. In these versions, Baghdadi also has two deputies – one for Iraq and one for Syria. Both receive reports from 12 governors, all of whom oversee the eight councils that focus in areas from Media, Finance, Intelligence, and Leadership. However, as a result of US operations in the Middle East, both deputies – Abu Muslim al-Turkemani and Abu Ali al-Anbari, were killed in the last two years. Turki al-Binali and Moussa al-Shawakh are the top candidates.

Al-Binali is the second most influential person in ISIS, he led the organization’s Research and Fatwa Department and served as the negotiator for the freeing of American hostage Peter Kassig. Also known as Abu Luqman, al-Shawakh was appointed as the first governor of Raqqa and was the former emir of the al-Nusra front. al-Shawakh is famous for his brutality, his sadistic torture methods, and for ordering the kidnapping of several members of the Free Syrian Army after he accused its members of working with the West.

Comparison

Although there are many similarities between ISIS and Al-Qa’ida, I believe that using a decapitation strategy on the former will not be as successful for several reasons. First, with regard to successor, is it possible that ISIS will inherit a leader who, like al-Zawahiri, is less charismatic and experienced? It is very much so; however, we also have to consider the possibility of whoever becomes the next “caliph” might think they have something to prove and will thus employ more heinous tactics.

It is important to remember that much of ISIS’ success has also come from its online recruitment and propaganda. Al-Qa’ida was not this successful in inciting so many attacks and only in spreading and inspiring people to follow the sermons of cleric Anwar al-Awlaki. Even if Baghdadi were killed, there seems to be no evidence that the recent strategies of ISIS to elicit more domestic attacks will fall by the wayside. If one of the two above candidates did succeed Baghdadi, I contend that the group will pursue more aggressive recruitment tactics to seek revenge.

Another pertinent question to ask at this point is: Who has been running ISIS since last year? There have been numerous reports that Baghdadi was incapacitated due to a spinal injury and poisoned. If Baghdadi has not been running ISIS since the emergence of these reports, it is possible that the recent trends in ISIS’ activity – increased online recruitment and limited success in the Middle East – would be the direction of the group after the removal of Baghdadi. This would only further undermine Secretary Clinton’s argument that getting rid of Baghdadi would help the United States focus its attention, as it would be incredibly difficult to focus on the group’s fighters when they could appear anywhere. It would, however, help the United States to start to tackle funding channels and strongholds in Iraq and Syria.

My final question in making the comparison between ISIS and Al-Qa’ida would be: Is it possible that the demise of the core leadership of Al-Qai’da was caused not by the assassination of Osama Bin Laden, but rather the evolving nature of the threat – creation of factions as well as the rise of online recruitment ­– and the birth of ISIS? It can be argued that the core leadership of Al-Qa’ida had, for years before the fall of Bin Laden, not been successful. In fact, most of the coverage of Al-Qa’ida focused on its affiliates, namely the activities of Boko Haram and Al-Shabbab.

I believe that Secretary Clinton’s assumption that going after the leadership of ISIS will devastate the group’s activity is flawed. Though it is possible that it might cause the intended outcome, given the comparison she draws with Al-Qa’ida, it is equally as possible that ISIS will continue to operate and cause chaos wherever their affiliates and fighters are located. If Secretary Clinton does want to go forward with this plan, she must also consider the potential consequences if the targeted killing of Baghdadi were to fail because, as Cronin writes: “the killing of the leader can backfire, resulting in increased publicity for the group’s cause and the creation of a marry who attracts many new members to the organization.”

While I do believe that Secretary Clinton’s strategy is more sound, comprehensive, and feasible compared to Mr. Trump’s, she needs to focus on creating no-fly zones, safe zones, working with allies in the region, cutting off funding channels for the group, and focusing on tackling online radicalization.

By Benjamin Jury

Syrian refugee Mahmoud shown in the underground shelter where he and his family live in El Akbiya, Lebanon, 2013. He shares a tiny room measuring 2.5m x 3.5 metres with his parents and eight siblings. Source: UNHCR/S. Baldwin

When it comes to reporting on the Middle East, the Islamic State has quite literally become the new black. While hundreds of articles flood our Twitter feeds and morning e-mail brief dissecting every inch of the rebel group’s anatomy, readers simply cannot get enough about ISIS, leading to some rather bizarre headlines. The fifth year of the Syrian Civil War rages on, the Houthis continue their occupation of Yemen, and hundreds of migrant workers have died building the World Cup stadium in Qatar amount to footnotes in most major news networks’ Middle East coverage in the United States. Instead, we run endless counterfactual scenarios, playing “Choose Your Own Nuke Deal Adventure” and wondering what Israel could accomplish with Isaac Herzog at the helm.

Indeed, the situation in Syria appears more and more grim every day, with millions still in refugee camps with no hope to return to their homes in the foreseeable future. Just yesterday, Syria’s state news agency boasted that an American drone had been shot down near Latakia. President Bashar al-Assad continues his barrel bombing campaign on rebel-held Syrian cities and children like Mamoud suffer everyday from the lack of stability. In the United States, we maintained near radio silence until someone dropped the “drone” buzzword.

In Yemen, the situation has gone from chaotic to catastrophic. The Pentagon announced yesterday that they believe $500 million worth of weapons and equipment given to government forces have been compromised by either the Houthi occupation forces in the north or al-Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula in the south. The evacuation of US embassies in Yemen, too, is deeply troubling considering the growing conception of the crisis there as an escalation of the Saudi-Iran proxy war.

Qatar has its own set of domestic problems slowing spilling onto global news radars. The conditions for migrant workers, many of them South Asian, building the stadiums for the 2022 World Cup are appalling. According to Qatar’s commissioned DLA Piper investigation, hundreds have died since the beginning of construction while working long hours at temperatures up to 50°C (122°F). Labor law reform, while promised, has been dismally slow.

There are no feature articles on these issues. Instead, we read page after page of “What ISIS Really Wants”, hoping to ‘get inside their heads’ and understand their agenda.

Without unbiased, well-rounded coverage of the Middle East, the United States faces a perpetuation of the same dangerous stereotypes of Islam, the people of the Middle East, and the instability of the Middle East that encourages the occupation of war-torn countries and continued unrest.

No news agency, writer, or blog will ever be able to package and deliver the current events of every region of the Middle East. Those who disseminate ‘hard news’ and op-eds do, however, need to search beyond the hot topics and deliver content that needs to be heard, our own blog included. Let’s work together to make uncovering the truth the new, new black. Until then, I think I’ll just keep tweeting about Macklemore joining ISIS.

By Benjamin Jury

Women and children protest for peace during the 2011 Yemen Revolution. Source: Al Jazeera English

A few months ago, I wrote an article detailing the dire situation in Yemen following both the Houthi (Believing Youth) uprising in the north and the Southern Movement in the country’s south. Since then, the situation has gone from bad to worse.

Just yesterday, members of the Houthi opposition “beat and detained” demonstrators in Sana’a, the capital.Yemen clearly remains a nation under siege.

Women and children protest for peace during the 2011 Yemen Revolution. Source: Al Jazeera English
Women and children protest for peace during the 2011 Yemen Revolution. Source: Al Jazeera English

Houthi forces, led by Abdul Malik al-Houthi (the brother of the group’s namesake), have successfully taken over much of the state apparatus in Yemen in the past few months. Advancing south at a rapid pace, Houthi rhetoric was heralded by Yemeni citizens (mostly Zaydi Shi’a) with support against the indifference and impotence of President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi’s government.

At the same time, the secessionist movement in the country’s south has gained steam, increasing its own gains with the help of Al-Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula (AQAP). The government, disinterested in the plight of southerners being exploited for their oil resources, lacked credibility in the eyes of many southerners. This disrespect and indifference towards the southern population prompted an on-going movement against the establishment.

Early this year, the Houthi insurgency forced Prime Minister Mohammed Basindawa to resign from office after the group took Sana’a by force. Just last week, the Houthis took control of the presidential palace. With Yemeni government officials resigning en masse and the Hadi’s influence dwindling, the Houthis have effectively taken over Northern Yemen. The separatists, on the other hand, have raised the flag of South Yemen (from the pre-republic period of Yemeni history) and taken control of the port city of Aden in the south.

With the situation growing more and unstable by the minute, compromise or intervention in the region is essential to preventing outright chaos like that found in Libya today. Yet with Saudi threatening to cut off financial support until the political situation stabilizes and the US closing its embassy amidst continued drone strikes against AQAP, however, it appears both East and West have written Yemen off as a lost cause, even though both spheres rely heavily on a stable Yemen.

To stabilize their government, Yemen must look within. The Houthis desperately need to consolidate power in the north in order to defeat AQAP’s encroaching threat on the capital. It is imperative the Houthis bring members of the pro-government General People’s Congress that still occupy widespread support in the east and region between Aden and Sana’a to the table. Important too are members of the Muslim Brotherhood affiliated al-Islah party that make up a large percentage of the legislature’s minority.

Without meaningful, strategic negotiations between the country’s prominent political parties and the Houthis, there is no hope a peaceful transition. Leaving the power vacuum open in Yemen much longer will certainly spell trouble for Sana’a, Aden, and everyone in between.

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On several occasions throughout her campaign, Presidential nominee Hillary Clinton has mentioned that part of her plan to defeat terrorist organization “The Islamic State...