By Patrick Lim

Part of the “Welcome to ISIL-Land” video released by the "Think Again Turn Away" campaign. Source: Youtube, Department of State.

While the international community continues with Operation Inherent Resolve to destroy ISIS, it is also waging a psychological war against the terrorist group’s ideology. What we must also not forget is the millions of refugees in the region whose lives have been destroyed by the violence that does not seem to have a foreseeable end. Thousands of images have been published and retweeted. However, in recent months, the use of extreme imagery has become more prevalent in anti-ISIS propaganda and NGO campaigns—oftentimes, unfortunately, with the same undesired outcomes.

Anti-ISIS Propaganda:

In mid March, a US F-15 jet dropped 60,000 propaganda leaflets over Raqqa, the center of ISIS’ operations. The leaflets contained a cartoon that depicts the terrorist group’s “employment office,” with recruiters as yellow-eyed “men” and fighters being fed into a meat grinder labeled with the derogatory term used in the Middle East for ISIS: “Dae’sh.” The message is simple: for anybody who is thinking of joining, think twice. This cartoon employs extreme graphics to deliver its message, juxtaposing blood-bespattered walls and dehumanized recruiters against the normalcy of potential fighters. As Nicholas Heras, an expert at the Center for a New American Security, explained to USA Today, the cartoon is “trying to set the stage for an internal uprising against ISIS.”

The use of shocking imagery is not new to the US in its campaign to stop radicalization and potential sympathizers. Recognizing that a lot of recruitment occurs online, the State Department launched the “Think Again Turn Away” campaign in December 2013 to combat domestic radicalization on social media. The Twitter account has nearly 22,000 followers and uses two approaches: tweeting counter messaging material and addressing—often in sarcastic exchanges—prominent jihadist accounts, such as those of al-Qa’ida and ISIS. As a result, images of dead children and adults, as well as executions, are sometimes retweeted, so as to “create a compelling narrative that strikes an emotional chord with potential militants weighing whether to join a violent extremist group.” In an attempt to counter violent extremism and to counter propaganda videos from ISIS, the campaign also released a video last year titled “Welcome to ISIL-Land,” in which it tells recruits that they can learn how to blow up mosques and kill Muslims. Graphic images of the terrorist group murdering people and beheading bodies were featured in the video.

A Call for Help:

What we must not forget is the humanitarian crisis that has arisen as a result of ISIS and the Syrian Civil War. Some human rights and anti-government activists in Syria have started to produce videos to draw international attention to the violence of the Assad regime, the death of 200,000 Syrians and the ongoing plight of over 12 million refugees. These people wonder why incidences such as the burning of a Jordanian pilot and the death of American journalists have been quickly answered with increased airstrikes, whereas their daily struggles have not received similar reactions.

Most recently, the advocates herded children, dressed in orange jump suits, into a cage among damaged buildings, while the recorder waves a burning torch in an attempt to evoke the pictures of Moaz Al-Kasasbeh’s death at the hands of the brutal terrorist group. In the video, Baraa Abdulrahman, the recorder and an antigovernment activist living in a Damascus suburb, asks why the world has not responded to the killing of children that happens everyday.

Humanitarian organizations have also shared powerful images to call for a response from the international community. At the beginning of April, two powerful images have taken the Internet by storm, both of young Syrian refugee girls who mistook cameras for guns and held their hands up as a sign of surrender.

What are the effects?

With regard to the propaganda against ISIS, some have criticized the ineffectiveness of the imagery. According to Evan F. Kohlmann, chief information officer of Flashpoint Global Partners, an enterprise that tracks and analyzes militant groups and individuals online, “most of the Westerners trying to join ISIS are actually enthused by videos of executions and suicide bombings, not deterred by them.” This claim is supported by the fact the number of ISIS foreign fighters has risen to more than 25,000 from over 100 nations, a 71% increase from mid-2014 to March 2015. We must also remember that some of the propaganda is not solely aimed at foreign fighters, but also at potential sympathizers in the region. Nevertheless, ISIS does not seem to be slowing down. It has just claimed territory miles from Damascus and, although it is too early to determine the effects of the latest American anti-ISIS pamphlets, if previous efforts are of any indication, we need to rethink our strategy in the fight to degrade and to destroy the group.

The efforts of humanitarian organizations and human rights advocates seem to be similarly ineffective: at a donors’ conference in Kuwait last month, a total of $3.8 billion was committed—almost $5 billion short of the target. Although this may also be a result of donor fatigue, it also seems as if the campaigns by NGOs and activists are doing little to entice the international community to pledge more and hit back at claims that it is failing generations of Syrians.

We may think that extreme, violent, shocking imagery is the only way to appeal to someone’s emotions and get them to react. However, the results have been clear: they do not work. In order to defeat ISIS, we, the international community, must work closely with local communities and religious leaders in person and online, both in the region and internationally, to delegitimize the ISIS ideology through ensuring a deeper, fuller understanding of the Qu’ran. With regard to the humanitarian crisis, we must not always show the problem but to show the solution: alleviate the crisis by opening our borders and public services to those affected by the ongoing violence in the region, especially in places that raise few concerns for our resources. Finally, we must not only prioritize and respond to violent attacks by ISIS but also seek to alleviate the situation for those affected, for I believe that we have a duty to protect.

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By Salma Khamis

Photo link: Source:

If asked about the outcome of the Egyptian revolution, most Western academics and local democracy activists alike would probably locate their response somewhere within a narrative of failure and disillusionment. That isn’t to say their responses wouldn’t be entirely true. Rather, a brief survey of the political, economic, and social indicators underpinning the analysis of any country’s post-revolutionary progress would indicate a clear degradation in today’s Egypt. However, succumbing solely to this one-dimensional narrative, at the expense of a plethora of nuances, is all too easy. Alternatively, considering one of the often-ignored byproducts of the Egyptian revolution can contribute towards the formation of a different, and starkly more optimistic, legacy of this popular uprising.
“You will not kill our revolution” by Hosni, 2011. Source: Al-Akhbar Weekly.

Walking through downtown Cairo five years ago would have provided for a very different journey than pursuing the same path today. Four years after Tahrir Square erupted in protest the walls of Cairo’s epicenter are lined not only with the blood of countless slain martyrs, but also with the spray paint commemorating their legacies. Large-scale murals, iconic stencils, and freehand graffiti slogans overlap one another on any wall large enough to house them. Especially today, in an Egypt characterized primarily by the increasingly militarized and authoritative regime of army strongman Abdelfattah el-Sisi, the advent of this extremely accessible and explicitly defiant art form represents the slow reclamation of the urban public space by artists and spectators alike. A public space that was once available to all during the eighteen days of uprising in January has since been seized (arguably more strongly than ever) by local authorities, both literally and figuratively. The emergence of this locally produced (and often improvised) powerful graffiti, as well as its persistence despite the increasingly oppressive political and social climate, is a testament to one of the Egyptian revolution’s few, and thus infinitely valuable, successes.

The Power of the Stencil:

From January 2011 to this day, every new wave of protests in Egypt has brought with it a series of different, albeit sometimes overlapping, rhetorical themes – depending on that which is being protested. As such, the street art accompanying each respective movement has also been characterized by a different set of themes and grievances, the evolutionary trends of which are interesting to track. Despite local authorities’ attempts at, literally, whitewashing martyrs’ legacies that had been documented by street artists on walls all over the capital, this only provided new planes upon which to display more relevant material.
A stencil of Khaled Said’s face, 2011. The accompanying text reads: “The Interior Ministry are all thugs.” Source: Suzee In The City

Triggered by the brutal murder of Khaled Said in 2010, the initial uprising of 2011 saw the emergence of classic revolutionary rhetoric, highlighting the uprising’s main goals in a simple visual, and thus accessible, form. A stencil of Said’s headshot was plastered all over Egypt, the remnants of which today stand as a painful reminder of the initially pacifistic calls of an uprising that, four years on, has become increasingly violent.

After President Hosni Mubarak stepped down in February, the interim military government too faced powerful opposition on behalf of the liberal and progressive factions that had led the calls for change characterizing the January 2011 uprising. When a video of a female protestor being unclothed and beaten up by security forces emerged in December 2011, the infamous image of her blue bra virtually characterized anti-SCAF (Supreme Council of Armed Forces) dissent. As rhetorical coming-of-age, if you will, the graffiti that had previously been dominated by vague demands of equality and democracy now began to reflect newly articulated and more defined demands: gender justice and anti-police brutality.

The stencil of the infamous blue bra. The text above sarcastically reads, "No to unclothing the population." The footprint below contains text which reads, "Long live the revolution." 2011. Source:
The stencil of the infamous blue bra. The text above sarcastically reads, “No to unclothing the population.” The footprint below contains text which reads, “Long live the revolution.” 2011. Source:

The image of the Ancient Egyptian Queen Nefertiti wearing a gas mask (shown at the top of this article) is equally profound. While the blue bra piece highlights the importance of female participation in the unfolding anti-SCAF protests, the second piece criticizes the army’s disproportionate use of force against protestors. One cannot deny the lasting impact of both pieces. Most prominently, the previously inaccessible messages triumphed by progressive artists, who previously could not effectively relay their ideas to the greater public, were finally freed from the ivory tower that they were previously confined.

Transcending Allegiances:

What is particularly interesting to note about the development of graffiti in Egypt is how it transcends the ideological differences that make up the myriad political factions on Egypt’s spectrum. Despite the fact that urban street art was perceived to be a luxury reserved for privileged westernized progressives, the walls of this misconception quickly crumbled in 2011 as protest, in all its forms, became mainstream. From the conventionally Eurocentric perceptions of democracy and equality portrayed in the art that defied Mubarak’s rule in 2011, to Islamist opposition to the 2013 military coup – people’s virtually uniform access to the public space meant that anyone with anything to say could take to an empty wall and say it, colorfully and beautifully. Thus, irrespective of who’s in power, revolutionary Egyptian graffiti is able to both represent a rejection of the status quo and provide dissenters with the medium upon which to express their discontent with whatever rhetoric they see fit.

The text reads, "Say no to drugs: hashish, prescription drugs, and Egyptian television," criticizing the biased nature of Egyptian state TV. Hosni, 2011. Source: Jadaliyya.
The text reads, “Say no to drugs: hashish, prescription drugs, and Egyptian television,” criticizing the biased nature of Egyptian state TV. Hosni, 2011. Source: Jadaliyya.

Furthermore, one needs only to consider the frequency with which Egyptian authorities are quick to pin public discontent on “foreign conspiracies” to note the suspicion traditionally attributed to the transportation of foreign phenomena into Egypt. Distinctly, however, the Egyptian graffiti scene has dodged this counterproductive cultural barrier and reaped the fruits of this western tradition of visual protest, while simultaneously maintaining a distinct national identity. Not only is the majority of the work decorating Egyptian walls today in Arabic, but the combination of Arabic calligraphy with the techniques of traditional urban western graffiti has also allowed artists and activists alike the opportunity to express their protest with a degree of authenticity previously alien to Egyptian political and cultural discourse.

Post-Coup Transformation:

Amidst rumors of strengthened anti-graffiti laws and the magnitude of unjustified arrests of both political activists and graffiti artists, followers of Egypt’s graffiti scene fear its disintegration. As the government relentlessly tries to promote its own legitimacy both in the domestic and international spheres, there seems to be no room for the counterculture in Sisi’s Egypt. The voices of those who favor the return of Muslim Brotherhood President Mohamed Morsi in particular have been eradicated from both the mainstream media and socially acceptable public discourse. Why should their corresponding graffiti scene be any different?

Anti-military graffiti reads, "No military coup," "CC [referencing President Sisi] is a traitor," and "The military are murderers." 2013. Source: Mada Masr /Jano Charbel
Anti-military graffiti reads, “No military coup,” “CC [referencing President Sisi] is a traitor,” and “The military are murderers.” 2013. Source: Mada Masr/Jano Charbel
However, the desperation of the pro-Brotherhood cause, coupled with the current regime’s propagation of ultra-nationalist, militarized rhetoric hasn’t meant the complete disappearance of political graffiti, only its transformation. As noted by Jano Charbel, those producing pro-Morsi graffiti today “appear to be more interested in publicly posting their messages than in the aesthetic value of their graffiti. In Cairo, they have produced no murals and very few stencils, forms which become prevalent over the past three years.” This could explain their increased use of the English language: to maximize the accessibility of their message and testify to their increasing despair. Having been the prime target of government and public persecution since the coup of July 2013, pro-Morsi activists have been using what’s left of their dwindling resources to voice their opposition through whatever simplistic (and arguably thus less effective) forms they can manage – albeit to an audience that is, at best, largely ignoring them. Today, everything from public trashcans, to the walls encompassing the world-renowned al-Azhar University, is covered in these freehand expressions of discontent. It is clear that Muslim Brotherhood sympathizers are trying to make the most of the limited access they have to the public space after over eighteen months of intense persecution.

To clarify, this article has been but a brief introduction the fascinating pursuit of analyzing the different rhetorical trends governing the Egyptian graffiti scene since January 2011. It would not have been possible to capture the entirety of this dynamic and inspiring movement with the accuracy and justice it so rightly deserves in such a short piece. I hope, however, to have brought to light an optimistic result of the 2011 uprising on Egyptian society: the flourishing of a vibrant and expressive urban graffiti scene that has garnered mainstream popularity. I believe that analyzing the prominent themes and stylistic techniques employed by the local pioneers in this burgeoning field can help arm future activists with the knowledge of what does and doesn’t work in garnering a response from mainstream Egyptian society. As has already been proven time and time again since the initial uprisings of 2011, it is only by demystifying commonly perceived “corrupt” ideals and practices that fly in the face of the status quo, and presenting them to the greater public in an accessible and interactive form, that domestic political discourse can truly be productively transformed.


Author’s Note:

This particular topic has garnered much international attention and I urge anyone wanting to find out more to explore Don Karl and Basma Hamdy’s newly released book on the topic titled, “Walls of Freedom.” In the words of the writers themselves, not only does the book document the explosion of revolutionary street art in Egypt, but also seeks to track “the transformation of citizens into artists and artists into activists [and] shed light on the larger framework of the revolution.”

By James Abate

Alia and Basma, both aged 12, tackle a maths question at a temporary school in northern Lebanon, set up by UNICEF and Lebanese NGO Beyond Association with the help of UK aid. Source: Russell Watkins/Department for International Development.

A formalized educational system within a nation is necessary not only to cultivate productive citizens but also to provide a structured system for children to realize how the world around them functions. The molding of children into educated adults by way of schooling is severely hindered, however, for refugees displaced by war or genocide.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) described the Syrian Civil War as “the biggest humanitarian emergency of our era.” Almost half of the causalities of the conflict are children, and millions of refugees continue to flee into neighboring Lebanon and Jordan. UNHCR reports that Lebanon, a country with a population of only around 4 million, houses 1.2 documented refugees within its borders. That number swells to an estimated 2 million when taking unregistered refugees into consideration. Within Jordan, 700,000 refugees have been granted asylum, with that number projected to increase to around 1 million by the end of 2015.

Education in the region provides refugees an indisputable opportunity for advancement far beyond mere survival. However, for the 400,000 Syrian children and young adults who are registered in Lebanon’s education system, proper education is a luxury; many of young refugees believe their dreams of attending school are a lost cause. The UN reports that, as of March, “in Lebanon, there are more school-age refugees than the entire intake of the country’s public schools” and of those refugees only 30% of them are receiving a proper education. While the Lebanese Ministry of Education has traditionally covered all costs for the various stages or cycles of education, the country is facing a massive crisis trying to accommodate this dramatic increase in enrollment.

Apart from the sheer magnitude of students now being placed into the Lebanese educational system, various linguistic, cultural, and curricular barriers continued to prevent Syrian children from receiving this necessary experience. In Syria, the curriculum for students is taught completely in Arabic, while in Lebanon many subjects are taught in French or English. Consequentially, Syrian children placed into this system face a massive language barrier. At the same time, teachers in the Lebanese schools are forced to delay curriculum to work on the basics of English or French with these students. Many Lebanese families have begun to pull their children out of the public school system in favor of private schools, despite the debilitating economic circumstances. Beyond just “soft” barriers, Syrian children have been known facing violence such as bullying and harassment within their schools. According to one Syrian mother, “her child, Mazin, was ‘humiliated and beaten’ at a Lebanese public school.”

Whether or not we blame the failing Lebanese educational system or the various NGOs and non-profits such as UNICEF and UNHCR who provide funding for refugee education, we must recognize the gravity of this lack of education for Syrian children in order to move forward. Not only does the lack of a formalized educational experience eliminates any semblance of normality or structure in a refugee’s life, but the lack of knowledge and liberal learning for Syrian youth also represents something even more detrimental to Syria’s future. In addition to being plunged into one of the worst civil wars of the past 25 years, Syria has now lost a generation. This generation will not be able to continue on to shape the post-war region and will not be able to restructure their homeland. It is indeed quite frightening to wonder about the future of this nation knowing that those who should have been the ones to lead lack the education to do so.

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By ZongXian Eugene Ang

A 'haft seen' table displayed in Georgetown University's ICC Galleria, March 19, 2015. Source: Author’s own photo.

Today is Nowruz, at least according to the United Nations. In a 2010 resolution, the UN General Assembly designated the International Day of Nowruz to fall on March 21 every year. More precisely, however, Nowruz marks the day of the vernal equinox in the Northern Hemisphere, which can occur anytime between March 19-22, depending on the year as well as one’s location. Such technicalities aside, Nowruz is essentially a celebration to usher in the season of spring—a welcome respite from the preceding months of winter. Not surprisingly then, the term “Nowruz” means “New Day” in Farsi.

Nowruz is celebrated by many communities inhabiting the lands spanning from Turkey to India—all of which had some degree of Persian influence historically. In Iran, most consider Nowruz to be the most important national holiday in the country. After all, Nowruz indicates the arrival of the New Year in the Persian calendar. Festivities stretch for 13 days and I have been told that Iranian students get two weeks off from school. During this time, family and friends gather together, sharing food and exchanging conversation. This is apparently also the best time to visit Tehran, when its notable congestion and pollution is greatly ameliorated as the city’s residents seize this once-in-a-year opportunity to escape the city.

Central to the Iranian celebrations of Nowruz is the setting of the haft seen table. In line with the literal meaning of its name—“haft” refers to the number seven, while “seen” refers to the letter “S” in Farsi—thehaft seen table contains seven items, all with Farsi names starting with “S.” In addition, each of them have their own symbolism, as outlined by a teaching resource on Nowruz published by Harvard University’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies:

  1. Sumac (crushed spice of berries): For the sunrise and the spice of life
  2. Senjed (sweet dry fruit of the lotus tree): For love and affection
  3. Serkeh (vinegar): For patience and age
  4. Seeb (apples): For health and beauty
  5. Sir (garlic): For good health
  6. Samanu (wheat pudding): For fertility and the sweetness of life
  7. Sabzeh (sprouted wheat grass): For rebirth and renewal of nature

Apart from these seven standard items, there are also many other items that Iranians include in their haft seen table, such as painted eggs representing fertility and a mirror to signify reflection on the past year. While the origins of the haft seen table are still not well-documented today, the tradition of placing various symbolic items on a sofra (a piece of cloth spread on the floor or table) during Nowruz has its roots in Zoroastrianism—a Persian monotheistic religion that predated the Abrahamic faiths. The other principal customs associated with Nowruz, i.e. Chaharshanbe Suri (fire-jumping festival) and Sizdah Bedar (the tradition of spending the day outdoors on the thirteenth day of Nowruz), probably had historical links to Zoroastrianism too.

While considering this association between Nowruz and Zoroastrianism, I was reminded of a German-Iranian man I met in Tehran last year. Pointing to the Faravahar (the iconic Zoroastrian symbol of a winged guardian) on the façade of the National Bank of Iran building as we walked in downtown Tehran, he told me that the “real Iran” lay in its Zoroastrian past, rather than the Islam imposed by the theocratic regime.

Despite my reservations about his casual dismissal of Islam, I believed that he was on to something. Although I only spent a week in Iran, I got the sense that the Iranians are extremely proud of their Persian heritage, to the extent that many regard their Persian identity more highly than their religious identity, if any. As Hooman Majd wrote in his book, The Ayatollah Begs to Differ: The Paradox of Modern Iran, “Iranians, whether pious Muslims or not, take great pride in their Aryan ancestry and revile the ancient Arabs who invaded their land, bringing them Islam, an Islam that they then molded to their Zoroastrian character.”

Indeed, the most disgruntled of Iranians today against their current regime are probably the most nostalgic towards pre-Islamic Persia—the Persia that has been immortalized in the epic poem, Shahnameh, by the storied Persian poet, Ferdowsi. This was Persia’s age of heroes, when legendary emperors the likes of Cyrus the Great, Xerxes, and Darius presided over Persian civilization. It was also in this period—the Achaemenid Empire—that Zoroastrianism became the state religion and subsequently became deeply entrenched in Persian culture.

In fact, according to S. Frederick Starr, in his book Lost Enlightenment: Central Asia’s Golden Age from the Arab Conquest to Tamerlane, Zoroastrianism was treated with “unalloyed respect” in the Shahnameh, even though Ferdowsi himself was Muslim. Hence, even though Shia Islam became the dominant religion in Persia after the Arab invasion, Zoroastrian traditions continued to live on, embedded and evolving within broader Persian cultural ideals. The Nowruz customs, with their Zoroastrian legacies, are a case in point.

Today, Zoroastrianism is actually an officially-recognized and constitutionally-protected minority religion in Iran, alongside Christianity and Judaism. Furthermore, although there are estimated to be only around 25,000 Zoroastrians living in Iran at present—out of a population of more than 75 million—they are still viewed positively by other Iranians. More than just having a reputation for honesty, Zoroastrians are also associated with “Iran’s long forgotten glory,” as an answer posted on Quora has put it.

Nevertheless, life is still far from a bed of roses as a Zoroastrian in Iran. Although the Constitution of Iran states that non-Muslims are to be treated with fairness and justice, Iranian Zoroastrians still face discrimination in their daily lives. They are not allowed to take on high-level posts in the government or armed forces, as well as to talk about their faith on radio or television.  Many have also been pressured to convert to Islam—at least indirectly—by inheritance laws favoring Muslims over Zoroastrians.

The extent of Zoroastrian influence in the customs and rituals of modern-day Iranians has undoubtedly been in tension with the theocratic regime too, which envisions an Iran defined primarily by its Shia identity. As such, the Nowruz celebrations have not always sat well  with the religious establishment, especially with regard to the custom of jumping over fire on Chaharshanbe Suri. Many conservative Iranian clerics, including Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, have issued fatwas against the celebration of Chaharshanbe Suri, citing it as contrary to Islam and harmful to the public.

Ironically, the more the regime tried to downplay Iran’s pre-Islamic identity, the more ordinary Iranians have turned to it as “a sign of protest and dissent.” In the process, pre-Islamic customs, such as the Nowruz celebrations, have acquired a strengthened role in the Iranian national identity. That said, the Zoroastrian elements of these customs are often glossed over under a Persian idiom. The importance of Nowruz in Iran today is not because of its Zoroastrian origins, which few Iranians know much about, but because it is regarded as quintessentially Persian.

Underlying the celebrations of Nowruz in Iran is a much broader discourse about what it means to be Iranian, or Persian—for those who still prefer to use Iran’s former name. The historical age of pre-Islamic Iran, of which Zoroastrianism was a central aspect, became an alternative source of identity for Iranians dissatisfied with their government’s relatively rigid vision for the country. Difficult economic and social conditions in Iran today have also spurred many to turn to an imagined construction of the past.

Yet, as we celebrate Nowruz today, a tradition with deep historical roots, we should be cautious about reifying and purifying history. Being Persian should involve more than just Islam or a harking back to the supposedly glorious days of the various Persian empires. A Persian identity should not be singular; rather, it is a pluralistic set of identities—forged together by the myriad interactions of various peoples who had once lived on these lands across time and space.

Perhaps, the Iranian journalist Kourosh Zibari articulated the meaning of Nowruz best, especially in today’s modern context:

“The holiday is a remnant of the very first years when the human civilization took shape—it removes the religious, cultural, lingual and national boundaries and connects the hearts of millions of people who want to take part in a unique and unparalleled ceremony marking not only the beginning of the New Year, but the end of a harsh winter and the arrival of the delightful spring. It’s not simply a source of honor for Iranians who observe and celebrate it, but an opportunity for the congregation and solidarity of all the peace-loving nations around the world.”

To all my friends, in Iran or otherwise, nowruz mobarak! Have a happy Nowruz!


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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...