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.


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


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.


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 Joshua Shinbrot

Kurdish Peshmerga troops take part in intensive security deployment against the Islamic State in January 2015. Source: Flickr/Times Asi (https://flic.kr/p/qTtEd7)

Yazidi men and women are being massacred. Their girls are being sold as sex slaves. Their boys are being forcibly converted and indoctrinated to form a modern Janissary Corps of suicide bombers and executioners. ISIL (ISIS/Daesh/IS) has been attempting to exterminate the Yazidis for over a year, yet with few exceptions the world has remained silent. All major world leaders know, few care, and none will act. History offers a plethora of examples of the dire consequences of the silence and indifference exhibited by the President of the United States and the leaders of powerful European Countries. This type of apathy allowed for the genocidal murder of approximately 10,000,000 people in the twentieth century: 100,000 in Bosnia, 800,000 in Rwanda, 2,000,000 Armenians, over 1,000,000 Roma, and well over 6,000,000 Jews. ISIL’s ideology seeks to implement a radical seventh century interpretation of Islam by using 21st century weaponry to murder or subjugate all who refuse to embrace their ways. The group most threatened by ISIL is the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims, who overwhelmingly reject ISIL’s fanatical interpretation of the Islamic faith.

Today, ISIL is stronger than al-Qaeda was on September 11, 2001. It controls more territory, it is better funded, and it is more successful at recruiting westerners. ISIL’s genocide of the Yazidis is just the beginning. If we are to protect ourselves, our allies, the Yazidis, and Muslims threatened by ISIL, the United States needs to destroy the Islamic State and it must do this now. It’s time to level the territory controlled by ISIL and destroy the major transportation routes the group uses to supply and maintain itself.

President Obama has accurately referred to ISIL as a cancer. However, Obama has failed to properly treat the disease. This aggressive radical cancer requires an equally aggressive treatment. Chemotherapy kills cancer cells, but it kills a lot of normal, healthy cells too. There is no way to destroy ISIL without killing large numbers of innocent people. The Obama administration’s attempts to destroy Daesh have killed many innocent people, but it has failed to make substantial progress in the struggle against ISIL. Drone strikes may kill higher-ups in IS, but it seems that every time this occurs there are plenty of people waiting to take the place of the dead. A 2014 report by The Guardian regarding Obama’s “targeted killing” program indicates that “attempts to kill 41 men resulted in the deaths of 1,147 people.” That means 28 civilians were killed per targeted individual without any substantial strategic gain from their deaths. Those are 28 families who lost an innocent mother, father, brother or sister. Locals lose loved ones, but the terrorists are not defeated.

It is time to take noncombatant immunity seriously. The United States and its coalition partners have a responsibility to ensure that the innocent lives lost during hostilities actually serve to defeat ISIL. If the strategy advocated in this article were implemented, substantial numbers of civilians would be killed. Yet, ISIL would be defeated, the world would know that America will do what it takes to defeat extremism, and international norms against genocide would be strengthened.

Just War Theory demands more than ensuring the proportionality of noncombatant deaths during hostilities. The object of a war with ISIL needs to be the creation of a just and lasting peace. It will not be possible to achieve such a peace without a long-term American presence in Iraq. ISIL is creating a backwards society with apocalyptic aims. The United States and its allies have defeated warped ideologies before. It was accomplished in the post-war occupation and reconstruction of Germany and Japan after World War II.

Unlike in Iraq, the United States never turned its back on Japan and Germany. Even today, there is a massive American military presence in Germany (36,691 troops) and Japan (52,060 troops). If the United States and our coalition partners aggressively work towards post-conflict reconstruction in Iraq, in a few decades, the American military presence in Iraq may look much more like the American military presence in Germany or Japan. There is no simple, fast, or cheap way to resolve the “ISIS Crisis.” Failure to change the strategy for defeating ISIL will only raise the cost of victory over extremism in treasure and, more importantly, in blood.

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By ZongXian Eugene Ang

Contingent of soldiers from the People's Liberation Army of China. Source: Kremlin.ru/Wikimedia.

Last Wednesday, China issued its first policy paper on the Arab world. The document outlines China’s blueprint for strengthening cooperation between China and the Arab states. The release of this policy paper comes just a week before Chinese President Xi Jinping’s first official visit to the Middle East. Xi is scheduled to visit Egypt from January 20 to 22, as well Iran and Saudi Arabia subsequently. The last time a Chinese president visited the Middle East was in 2006, when then President Hu Jintao visited Saudi Arabia.

The combination of these two “firsts” for China with regard to the Middle East is a definite sign of increasing Chinese engagement with the region. The central driving force of this trend lies in China’s burgeoning energy needs: its demand for oil has consistently surpassed domestic oil production since 1993 and has been steadily growing ever since. Given its ample oil reserves and relative proximity to China, the Middle East has become the largest source of crude oil imports for the country. In 2014, the region as a whole supplied China with 3.2 million barrels of oil per day, accounting for 52% of its total oil imports.

Not surprisingly, Chinese interest in the Middle East’s energy resources forms the bedrock of Chinese-Middle Eastern relations. In fact, China’s Arab Policy Paper cites a “1+2+3” cooperation framework, with energy cooperation as the core—the “1” in the framework. It is only with a secured energy supply that China can then facilitate the “2” and “3” of the framework: “infrastructure construction and trade and investment facilitation as the two wings,” and the “three high and new tech fields of nuclear energy, space satellite and new energy as the three breakthroughs.”

The “1+2+3” cooperation framework ties in with China’s “Silk Road Economic Belt” and “Twenty-First Century Maritime Silk Road” (“Belt and Road”) projects, which were also mentioned in the policy paper. This “Belt and Road” initiative effectively envisions a modern-day reincarnation of China’s past overland and maritime trade routes, with “a series of transcontinental railroads, pipelines, ports, airports, and other infrastructure projects” slated to connect China with Central Asia, the Middle East, Africa and Europe. To bring this idea into fruition, China has provided massive financing to countries along the “Belt and Road” for various infrastructure projects.

If successful, the economic benefits to China and the regions that the “Belt and Road” passes will be immense. Chinese firms will have easier access to key markets and commodities, while the Chinese-financed infrastructure can provide a huge stimulant for the economies of the developing countries in those regions.

Indeed, the engagement of China with the Middle East has largely been in the realm of economics. China has always focused on improving trade and investment ties with the Middle East, while refraining from being a major stakeholder in the region’s political entanglements. In this regard, China’s new Arab Policy Paper represents more of a continuity of, rather than a departure from, prevailing trends in Chinese-Middle Eastern relations. The fact that the section on “Investment and Trade Cooperation” in the policy paper is around twice as long as the other sections is especially telling.

Nevertheless, economic processes do not occur in a vacuum. China definitely needs to consider other policy aspects in its relation with the Middle East, i.e. politics, security, social development, and culture—all of which are also mentioned in the Arab Policy Paper. Of these, the most crucial now are probably politics and security, since they can have direct impacts on Chinese economic involvement in the Middle East.

The escalation of tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran recently, in light of Iranians protesters ransacking the Saudi embassy in Tehran on 2 January after Saudi Arabia executed a prominent Shia cleric, Nimr al-Nimr, should be a worrying development for China. After all, both Saudi Arabia and Iran are major suppliers of crude oil to China and their regional conflict will definitely threaten its energy security.

At the same time, the Saudi-Iranian conflict has complicated international efforts to address the ongoing civil wars in Syria, Iraq and Yemen. These sectarian disputes in the Middle East can have spillover effects for China’s own conflict with Uighur separatists, who are fighting for the independence of the predominantly Uighur region of Xinjiang from China. Given that the Uighurs are Sunni Muslims, they may be susceptible to extremist Sunni ideology emanating from the conflicts in the Middle East.

In fact, just last month, the Islamic State released a four-minute song in Mandarin that called upon Muslims in China to take up arms and join its fight against non-Muslims. Moreover, in 2014, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, leader of the Islamic State, named China as one of the countries in which “Muslims’ rights are forcibly seized” and called upon his fighters to attack those countries.

Hence, whether it likes it or not, China is now drawn into the quagmire of conflicts in the Middle East. It has to chart its growing economic ambitions in the region alongside real political and security threats. Just last year, the Islamic State executed Fan Jinghui, who is the first known Chinese national to be killed by the group. In response, the Chinese government committed itself to “enhance anti-terrorism cooperation with the international community.”

That said, whether China will move from the sidelines to become an active participant in the fight against the Islamic State is still an open question. Many experts doubt that China will depart from its “decades-old policy of nonintervention” by providing direct Chinese military support to combat the Islamic State. Yet, if its strategy in combating terrorism in the African continent is any example, China will probably choose to pursue its own anti-terrorism strategy: a reliance on “financial aid and capacity building support for regional militaries” over direct military intervention. In other words, China prefers to help the affected states to fight their own battles against terrorist groups through the provision of economic resources and technical expertise, rather than increasing its military presence in the region.

On the whole, as China becomes more cognizant of the political and security threats facing its economic interests in the Middle East, it will have to recalibrate the nature of its engagement in the region. As the Saudi-Iranian geopolitical rivalry and the threat of the Islamic State intensify, China cannot afford to maintain the status quo. After all, its economic interests are at stake. Nevertheless, it is still unlikely to pursue an activist foreign policy vis-à-vis the Middle East for now. Rather than depart from its noninterventionist policy, it probably will choose to capitalize on what it does best: marshaling its enormous economic resources to effect gradual change. Perhaps, China’s answer to the varied problems of the Middle East is not a turn to political-military activism, but an increased economic assertiveness.

The trade-centric nature of China’s new Arab Policy Paper, as seen earlier, may be one indication of this continuity. If there is to be any change in the status quo of Chinese-Middle Eastern relations in light of President Xi’s upcoming visit to the Middle East, my take will be the following: while it is no longer tenable for China to remain “business as usual” with regard to the Middle East, the only change we might see in the near future may simply be “more business.”

A law in Jordan designed to counter the threat of ISIS has led to a crackdown on free speech and civil liberties.
By Alyssa Sims

Amman, Jordan. (Photo: JPRichard/Shutterstock).

The following piece, originally published on July 30, 2015, has been offered up by the author for syndication on our blog. To read the piece as published on New America’s Weekly Wonk, click here.

In 2014, the government of Jordan sued Naseem Tarawnah and his former organization 7iber.com for reporting the news. A controversial law, amended in 2012, required news websites to obtain a license to continue reporting. Tarawnah and his colleagues did not apply for one, and their website was repeatedly blocked by the government.

Today, journalists like Tarawnah are being indicted under another law—Jordan’s anti-terror law, originally passed in 2006 and amended in May of last year. The law is part of a push by the Jordanian government to increase security in response to the rise of ISIS. While the targets of the newly revised law are sympathizers of ISIS living in Jordan, among its side-effects has been the restraint of free speech inside the country. For critics, the reason for the crackdown on free speech is simple: The law is ambiguously written and its vague definition of terrorism leaves journalists—or even everyday citizens using technology—vulnerable to arrest and prosecution before a military, not civilian, court.

“Vague language allows the state (through the courts) to manipulate situations under the guise that everything is open to interpretation,” said Tarawnah, who now operates the website Black-Iris.com, in an email interview. He cited the example of Hisham Moussa, a 21-year-old Jordanian who was arrested under the law after allegedly forwarding a message on WhatsApp, an instant messaging phone application.

Under the law’s authority, activists and opposition leaders have been indicted on different charges that stem from expressing unpopular or contentious ideas.

Tarawnah and other opponents of the law argue that because it defines what is and isn’t terrorism in vague terms, people can be arrested for emails they send or things they post on social media. Under the law’s authority, activists and opposition leaders have been indicted on different charges that stem from expressing unpopular or contentious ideas. Early this year, deputy head of the Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan Zaky Bin Irshaid was sentenced to 18 months in prison for a Facebook post criticizing the United Arab Emirates.

Jordan’s prosecution of Irshaid and others under state security court, a special authority overseeing internal and external threats, is especially unsettling because Western allies and media so often praise Jordan for its comparatively progressive character alongside more repressive regimes in the region. It’s clear that some Jordanian journalists and experts take a different view. They say that the threat of ISIS is being used as an excuse to justify how the anti-terror law has expanded the power of Jordan’s security apparatus.

“Where, say a protest in Saudi Arabia might end very quickly with people being beaten, killed, locked up and tortured immediately (along with Syria or Egypt), Jordan plays it smart. It manages the situation using soft containment, while taking down names,” Tarawnah said in an email. “When the news cycle moves on (and any international spotlight fades), the names are called in. Sometimes they’ll wait months for an activist to slip up and then take them down. Kind of like getting Al Capone on tax evasion.”

Following Tarawnah’s logic, the threat of ISIS is a new means to the security state’s end of policing, and in some cases, curtailing free speech. He also isn’t alone in his critique of the regime’s actions, regardless of its motives. Think tanks and NGOs like Human Rights Watch have acknowledged the military prosecutions of political activists and dissenters under Jordan’s anti-terror law as a threat to freedom of expression. HRW highlighted major problems with amendments to the law, which include its vague wording, in a report released last year.

Jordan’s increased security measures are evident not only in its new uses of anti-terror legislation; they are especially visible along the new border infrastructure. In years past, the borders between Jordan and its neighbors, Syria and Iraq, were porous at best. People could walk back and forth across them without carrying their passports or spending hours at a checkpoint.

But early last month, Jordan completed final construction on a new surveillance system to monitor and control its border with Syria. Built by Raytheon and partially funded by the United States Defense Threat Reduction Agency, this new system—reportedly worth $79 million—boasts cutting-edge radar and surveillance towers in addition to key command, control, and communications capabilities.

Jordan’s border system will also receive additional support from Raytheon in the coming months: software, infrared cameras, power systems, and training for Jordanian operators of the high-tech equipment. Essentially, this system will enable border forces to detect potential infiltrators from miles away. It has been hailed as a big step forward in keeping Syria’s jihadis out of Jordan.

While successful in this respect, however, it has—like the anti-terror law—had unfortunate and unintended consequences. Several major border entry points have been closed and the flow of goods has been disrupted as a result of the new system, which has in turn had damaging economic effects on Jordan’s border communities.

Jordan’s own response to its security challenges also runs the risk of becoming a long-term setback for political freedom and economic stability in the country.

Unfortunately, Jordan’s increased border-security efforts to thwart ISIS have also left many asylum-seekers from Syria stranded in the desert with limited access to food, water, and medical assistance. “Jordan has gone to great lengths to meet the needs of the Syrian refugees,” said Nadim Houry, deputy Middle East and North Africa director of Human Rights Watch in an article posted on their website last month. “But that is no excuse to abandon newer arrivals in remote border areas for weeks without effective protection and regular aid access.”

Many in the international community understand that ensuring the stability of Jordan is paramount in containing ISIS within the terror network’s self-drawn borders. At the same time, Jordan’s own response to its security challenges also runs the risk of becoming a long-term setback for political freedom and economic stability in the country.

Jordan is not likely to change its policies without objection from the international community, but this seems equally unlikely, demonstrated by the U.S.’s large investment in Jordan’s border project. Maintaining the stability and security of Jordan in light of the advances of ISIS just outside the country’s borders is undeniably of paramount importance; however, security and human rights need not be mutually exclusive.

By Annabelle Timsit

Militants in Gaza. Source: proisrael/Flickr

The sound of sirens and the rush to bomb shelters will once again disrupt the peace of Israelis and Palestinians alike this summer in the Negev and in Gaza. This time, however, the blame is less easily placed. Though Israeli citizens have been told to direct their judgment towards Hamas, the past year has seen a diversification of actors and agendas within the Palestinian territories, which makes understanding the renewed Israeli-Palestinian violence even more complicated. The root of the problem? The rise in power of Daesh-affiliated Salafis in Gaza.

When I was in Israel two weeks ago, I struck up a conversation with a former IDF soldier, who told me in hushed tones that the situation in Gaza was one that Israel had never faced before, and was ill-equipped to face now. The situation he is referring to is not only happening in the Palestinian territories. In the Arab world there has been a steady increase in the number of violent extremist groups claiming an affiliation with Daesh and perpetrating attacks in its name. In Gaza, it is clear that these groups believe they are acting in accordance with Daesh’s mission. The most prominent one in the Palestinian territories, the Mujahedeen Shura Council in the Environs of Jerusalem, issued a statement as early as February 2014, asserting that it was “committed to helping ISIS and bolstering its ranks.” The relationship between these groups and Hamas, however, seems to be full of surprises.

Contrary to Prime Minister Netanyahu’s claim, Hamas is not ISIS and ISIS is not Hamas. As evidenced by the recent round of Hamas-led strikes against Salafis operating in Gaza, the two groups are far from bosom bows. Though Hamas began by giving its tacit approval to the spread of Salafi propaganda in the Gaza Strip, relations have been getting worse since the infamous Ibn Taymiyyah mosque siege of 2009, during which an armed Islamist organization declared the establishment of an Islamic emirate in the Palestinian territories. Twenty-four people were killed and, since then, many Salafis have been locked up in Palestinian cells. The spread of Daesh in Gaza, however, is a whole other ball game, one that Hamas militants are not willing to risk playing around with. Whereas Hamas’s interests lie in the immediate vicinity of the Strip (reclaiming Palestine and eradicating the Jewish state from the maps), Daesh’s worldview is regional. It seeks to unite the borders of most of the territories we know today as Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Israel, Cyprus, Jordan, and parts of Turkey. Clearly, the two groups are in very different leagues.

There is no reason to believe that Daesh has established an official branch in the Gaza Strip, and certainly no reason to believe that they will in the near future. However, with tensions at a breaking point, much of the infrastructure destroyed since last summer, and unemployment high amongst Palestinian youth, there is cause for concern that recruitment amongst these Salafi factions – which have financial and political connections in the Sinai Peninsula, adjacent to Gaza – will be met with an unreasonably high rate of success, further complicating the chance for stability in the region and delaying the rebuilding of the Strip.

Out of the ashes, a phoenix rises – and in the fight against this more violent and intransigent force, the Israeli government and Hamas seem to have struck an uneasy truce. According to Haaretz sources, the two have reached a point where Israeli attacks against Hamas forces are forms of “symbolic retaliation” and where the government actually seeks to strengthen Hamas control in the Strip (as long as it maintains the ceasefire) while trying to operate new channels of mediation with Hamas negotiators. There is no reason to believe that this will mean a long-term truce between the two parties, but opening channels of communication (even to fight a common enemy) can only lead to better chances of mediation in any future peace deal.

The old adage says, “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” When one looks at the current situation in the Gaza Strip, however, the opposite seems to hold true; to defeat an enemy far more dangerous than Hamas, the Israeli government seems to be ready to form an “odd partnership” with its long term foe. It remains to be seen whether this tenuous partnership will be enough to fight the all-powerful tidal wave that is the Islamic State.

By Veronica Baker

Protestors wave the Moroccan flag during the 20 February protests in 2011. Source: Hasna Lahmini

The Arab uprisings of 2011 yielded diverse results: Libya, Syria, and Yemen are in states of violent disarray; the Gulf monarchies crushed dissent and carried on as usual; Egypt saw its revolution crumble with the ascent of Al-Sisi; and Tunisia has risen as a cautious, yet promising, example of democratization done right.

The results of the protests in Morocco and Jordan, on the other hand, are less clear. Their governments reacted quickly, acknowledging the legitimacy of their citizens’ complaints of economic trouble and rights violations. In the past four years, Morocco and Jordan have passed reforms: some real, some symbolic.

Abdullah II of Jordan pledged to promote the role of citizens in political life and the decision-making process. Initiatives included the creation of new elections laws, a constitutional court, and a national integrity commission. However, little change has actually materialized. The monarchy has so far succeeded in preserving power by using instability on the country’s borders to justify maintaining the status quo.

Mohamed VI quickly gave Moroccans the opportunity to elect a new parliament and promised modifications to the constitution, effectively pre-empting the revolution. Constitutional reforms gave parliament the ability to pass laws on most issues, took steps towards protecting the independence of the judiciary, and increased the role of a number of independent commissions. However, these reforms are hollow: while they appear to shift power away from the king, there are plenty of ways still available for him to circumvent the parliament and judiciary to pursue any policy he wants.

On Friday, July 1, Moroccans  voted on a constitutional referendum to approve changes put forth by the King in a speech a week earlier. The banner on the right reminds people to register. The banner on the left yes, "Yes to the Constitution". Source: Christopher Rose
On July 1, 2011, Moroccans voted on a constitutional referendum to approve changes put forth by the King in a speech a week earlier. The banner on the right reminds people to register. The banner on the left reads, “Yes to the Constitution”. Source: Christopher Rose

Models of reform?

Some academics and journalists have expressed support for Morocco and Jordan’s respective strategies of “reform.” Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi made news in 2014 when he declared Morocco and Jordan “successful Arab Spring models.” Foreign Policy, Christian Science Monitor, The Tower, Brookings, and others have echoed the idea that the Moroccan and/or Jordanian responses to the 2011 uprisings could serve as examples for the rest of the Middle East to follow.

Such positions are rooted in idealistic notions of what Morocco’s and Jordan’s kings have done, and not in the reality these countries now face. The reforms in Morocco and Jordan have been overwhelmingly symbolic and have not truly bestowed upon the people the rights they fought for in 2011.

Morocco and Jordan are the unfinished stories of the Arab Spring. The economic and human rights situations in both countries remain troubled. The instability surrounding Jordan will only serve as a successful excuse for police state-type activity for so long; such an approach is simply unsustainable. Morocco, while in a less precarious state, still has plenty of problems left to face, especially concerning everyday violence, the contested state of the Western Sahara, and terrorist organizations within and directly outside its borders.

Legitimizing the so-called reforms made in Jordan and Morocco will only result in further instability in the future. The shifting of political powers, edits to the constitution, and changes to the penal code mean nothing if new laws are not enforced and human rights do not become a priority. To maintain peace in Jordan and Morocco, more legitimate reforms must be made.

Neither government has transferred significant power away from the royal establishment and into the hands of democratic institutions. Economic and social conditions in Morocco and Jordan will not improve without an independent and accountable judiciary; a truly free press and internet; a strong network of NGOs that protects the rights of women, minorities, and other at-risk groups; a massive overhaul of both countries’ inhumane prison and detention center conditions; and the legitimate implementation of laws that enshrine the rights of individuals to express themselves without fear of abduction or arbitrary arrest.

Graffiti in the streets of Casablanca photographed in 2010. Source: Jeremy Salmon
Graffiti in the streets of Casablanca photographed in 2010. Source: Jeremy Salmon

Opportunities for change

At their core, reform movements in the Middle East are calls for human rights. In the West, democracy is often seen as the vehicle for attaining those, but it is not the only option.

Supporters of Moroccan and Jordanian-style reforms have a valid point. If the pathway to rights is more likely forged through a stable political system, then perhaps a revolution is not necessary.

However, both countries have a long way to go. Both are signatories to such conventions as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). Despite this, the Jordanian and Moroccan governments are both frequently caught in the headlines for violating human rights, such as by restricting freedom of association, deporting refugees, trying civilians in military courts, and failing to respect freedom of expression.

Citizens in Morocco and Jordan do not have the political leverage to effectively demand their rights be taken seriously. The kings have little reason to shift the status quo themselves. Thus, influence must come from the outside. Morocco and Jordan are two of the greatest allies of the United States in the region. This provides a unique opening for dialogue and positive pressure for human rights.

Just as the United States needs Jordan and Morocco, they also need the U.S. Through the fiscal year 2015, total U.S. aid to Jordan and Morocco has amounted to approximately $15.83 billion and $2.7 billion respectively. The U.S. should exercise influence on the governments to which it supplies aid to support the well-being of that country’s people.

It is in the interest of the United States to support the will of the Jordanian and Moroccan people pressing for peaceful change. In the face of extremism (ISIS in the Levant, as well as AQAM and other militant groups in West Africa), it is necessary that the citizens of Morocco and Jordan continue to feel connected to and empowered by their state. Marginalization of citizens, particularly youth, will only serve to further destabilize the region.

As the U.S. successfully supported Tunisia in its transition, it must now turn to Morocco and Jordan and stand as a supporter of human rights. In doing so, we have the ability to shift the dying legacy of the Arab Spring.

In its current trajectory, the legacy of the “Arab Spring” will be of Tunisia’s singular success story all but overshadowed by the death and destruction in Syria, Libya, and Yemen. It is essential that we, as a prominent economic and political actor in the region, do what we can to turn that around. By holding the Jordanian and Moroccan governments accountable and pressuring them to enact real, not symbolic, reforms, the United States has a chance to serve as a positive and enabling force in the Middle East.

By James P. Abate

Yazidis gather to light candles at the holy shrine of Lalish. (AP Photo/Seivan M. Salim)

Last Wednesday (April 15) marked the beginning of the Yazidi New Year. Thirty-six miles northeast of Mosul, Iraq is the small village of Lalish, the most sacred place on Earth to the Yazidi religion. Followers of the faith believe the village, surrounded on all sides by mountains lined with oak trees, to be the center of the universe: the only place on Earth to be saved during the biblical floods. Twelve cone-shaped domes are scattered across the valley as shrines to the Yazidi saints. Each year on this day thousands of Yazidis, a Kurdish ethno-religious group located in northern Iraq, Syria, and Turkey, gather on what they call Red Wednesday for a time of feasting, repentance, and performing ancient rituals set amid the temple grounds. Worshipers take off their shoes to walk the hallowed grounds and perform fire-based prayer rites. In accordance with tradition, worshipers leave colored eggs outside of their homes on the New Year hoping they will help God identify them.

This New Year, however, is eerily different. When fighters for the Islamic State invaded northern Iraq last summer, they destroyed the villages of the Yazidi people along with the homes of Christians and other Kurdish groups. In a storm of murder, torture, and sexual violence, Islamic State fighters executed and buried in mass graves young Yazidi men. They simultaneously displayed their unimaginable violent ways by capturing young girls and women who were to be used as both sex slaves and pieces of property by the militants. Hala Rasho Hamo, a worshiper at the Lalish temple this New Year said, “We did not paint eggs or hang red tulips on our doors this year: our heart is in pain. We came here to pray to God and the [Yazidi saint] Sheikh Adi to end our misery and bring back our women and children.”

Human Rights Watch (HRW) released a report earlier this week revealing some of the most heinous war crimes committed by Islamic State forces against the Yazidi women captured. The detailed report reveals that one girl as young as 12 was abducted from her village and handed over to seven Islamic State fighters who would trade and rape her. The victim recounts her story: “Sometimes I was sold. Sometimes I was given as a gift. The last man was the most abusive; he used to tie my arms and legs.” Many of the women have suffered unimaginable trauma and abuse. Many have attempted suicide only to be further physically assaulted when the fighters caught them attempting to hang themselves or cut their wrists. Various reports claim that an estimated 5,000 Yazidis have been killed, abducted, or remain missing.

The United Nations is currently investigating reports from Yazidi men and women who have escaped in an effort to judge whether or not the Islamic State is committing genocide. Iraq currently is not a member of the International Criminal Court in The Hague and therefore any crimes cannot be investigated and tried under international law until the nation joins.

It is almost too overwhelming to comprehend the magnitude of horror that this population has endured. It is even more difficult to comprehend how the United Nations or other international peace keeping institutions have not intervened for these people. It is understandable that these organizations are often just as terrified about the threat that the Islamic State poses in the region. However, I cannot comprehend how the world is able to stand by and watch as this militant organization commits genocide in a similar fashion to that of every other mass killing movement in history. Reminiscent of the Bosnian and Rwandan genocide, the mass killing and capture of the Yazidi people has for almost a year gone unnoticed by most of the world’s population. As a more integrated world, we must not stand by and watch as a minority population is massacred for their beliefs and identity. They too should enjoy the ability to worship in peace on this New Year’s celebration without the grief of reflecting for the thousands that have been massacred or abducted from their friends and families.

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.

By Kate Moran

A woman in Madrid, Spain protests the Syrian Civil War and Western military intervention in the country. Source: Adolfo Lujan/DISO Press.

Any pundit worth their salt is familiar with the 1916 Sykes-Picot agreement. Signed between the British and French governments in the aftermath of World War I and the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, this secret treaty aimed to demarcate their respective spheres of neo-colonial influence in the Middle East. It was this agreement that led to the establishment of the British Mandate in Palestine and, in the views of many, was a critical component of Israel’s ultimate declaration of state in 1948.

Historians, politicians, and laypeople alike all invoke the language of Sykes-Picot to either voice their justification for, or opposition to, the legality of Britain’s decision to allow for the existence of a Jewish homeland in historical Palestine. Yet, few consider the implications of this agreement for the rest of the region. Indeed, Sykes-Picot remains relevant today and, in light of the ongoing Syrian Civil War, can provide an historical context for understanding how broader political and economic trends in the post-War period have shaped current social realities.

At the 1919 Paris Peace Conference, Britain and France rejected Arab leaders’ bid for Syrian independence. Not soon after, the Sykes-Picot Agreement officially partitioned the Middle East into roughly what we know it as today. Territories ceded to French control included Syria, which would remain under European mandate until 1944.

Though the vestiges of colonialism are by no means the only forces at play in the Syrian Civil War, the legacy of meddlesome European—and later, American—intervention cannot be ignored. Sectarian violence is a feature of the conflict often talked about, but rarely with acknowledgement of the ways in which Syria’s colonial past influences this dynamic.

Part of the reason the Middle East seems so endlessly mired in conflict is because its history is likewise enmeshed in it. The geographical boundaries of the region are almost entirely arbitrary; the interested parties of the Sykes-Picot agreement carved up the Middle East with little to no regard for indigenous social structures like ethnic and tribal affiliations. How can a country and its people—much less an entire region—be expected to identify with, and adhere to, boundaries that they themselves did not determine? Perhaps if the Arab world had been given even minimal say in what their newly-formed, independent republics and states would look like, we would see far less sectarian division today.

The rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria has once again pushed Syria’s colonial past to the fore. Now more than ever, sectarian violence increasingly characterizes a country with one of the region’s richest and most extensive histories of religious and cultural heterogeneity. The Islamic State’s Sunni fighters, in capturing cities, occupying territories, and cleansing these areas of “unorthodox” (read: non-Islamic State sanctioned) elements; seem to be attempting to rewrite the history (and map) of the modern Arab world. Their defiant and brutal acts of violence are undertaken with complete disregard for the arbitrary boundaries first established in the 20th century.

Yet, the Islamic State is equally colonialist in its division of, and dominion over, the Middle East. It too is an imported government structure, and therefore is just as unsustainable as the French and British mandates were in the post-war years of the 20th century. It too displays blatant disregard for historically and culturally significant social constructs. It too is seeking to “whitewash” the Arab world, only under the guise of religion, rather than capitalism or imperial ambition.

Make no mistake: the Islamic State’s legacy is one that will leave its mark, just not the one that it intends. Its brutal campaign to “retake” the Arab world in the name of a perverted interpretation of Islam will fail. In 20, 30, or perhaps 50 years, the Middle East of today will no longer exist. The region’s colonial legacies—those of Europe, the United States, and even the Arab world itself—will eventually run their course. And when all is said and done, the best form of governance for the Arab world—one cultivated in consideration for, not in exception of, social divisions—will emerge. This form will be the most lasting legacy of the Middle East. Although, at first glance, maintaining these divisions may appear counterproductive to achieving regional stability, in fact, they are the only way that such stability can be achieved.

Rather than conceptualizing ethnic and cultural diversity in the Middle East as a prerequisite for government dysfunction, it would behoove the West, and those who care at all about the Middle East beyond its geopolitical strategic value, to understand this diversity as an impetus for inspiring effective governance. Most importantly, these divisions will inspire social unity when extricated from a colonial framework of suppression and homogenization.

The Syrian conflict is a complicated muddle of individual, national, and international interests. The Islamic State will not be defeated overnight, and solely blaming the European occupation and colonization of the Arab world for its current woes is both shortsighted and unproductive. Rather, understanding this history might help those in positions of influence to make better-informed decisions about how and when to intervene in the region, and how the current sociopolitical realities have been shaped. In this way, we might begin to understand how we might best help—even if it means staying out of it.

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By Veronica Baker

Tunisia, a country undergoing democratic transition, needs strong leadership in the wake of the Bardo attack. Source: Amine Ghrabi
On March 18, Tunisia suffered a large and tragic attack. Gunmen stormed the Bardo Museum, a site of national heritage adjacent to the Tunisian parliament building, and took the lives of 21 victims. Over 40 more were wounded.The international media promptly jumped to connecting the attack to the world’s enemy du jour: ISIS. Initially, ISIS did not claim responsibility for the attack, releasing only a statement of support. The following day, the group pivoted and claimed responsibility. Their delayed reaction suggests that ISIS was not actually behind the attack.Terrorist claims of responsibility are notoriously unreliable. Association with a successful attack can increase prestige, attract recruits, and further goals of perceived worldwide infiltration. Such motivations are so strong that large terrorist organizations sometimes take credit for attacks carried out by domestic groups, or at least claim affiliation as part of a decentralized network.ISIS does not have an established presence in Tunisia, and the attackers did not come from abroad. It is far more likely that a small cell of extremists within Tunisia organized the attack, and ISIS later decided to indict itself. The objective of terrorism, and what differentiates it from other forms of political violence, is the creation of fear for the purpose of gaining power. ISIS would have little reason to issue a statement of support, and later switch its position to a claim of responsibility, unless it was not the culprit.Not surprisingly, the mass media is asking the wrong questions. The Bardo attack is not significant for its supposed relationship to ISIS. The importance of the attack lies in its root causes and its ability to shift domestic political priorities, particularly at the senior level.Considering the Roots of Extremism in TunisiaTunisia’s political transition has succeeded in being inclusive and balanced for most Tunisians, but one group that has not been properly re-integrated is the Islamists. The mass pardoning of jailed and exiled Islamists upon former dictator Ben Ali’s departure opened the floodgates of extremism without proper consideration of future consequences. Islamist party Ennahda’s victory in the elections for the first transitional government suddenly put a number of these ex-convicts, many of who had received no higher education, in positions of power.

Predictably, Ennahda did not have the proper public policy experience to successfully lead the Tunisian transition. It stepped down two years after the election and handed power to a nonpartisan government. This failure to lead has contributed to the frustration of many Islamists who already had a history of disenfranchisement and exclusion.

Moreover, in the eyes of religious conservatives, Ennahda did not manage to sufficiently push for Islamist ideals in the transitional process. Much of the proposed Islamist legislation was dropped, and Ennahda has largely tried to distance itself from extremists. This has further contributed to the isolation and desperation of extremists, making violence all the more attractive as a vehicle for recognition and power.

Lastly, the conditions of economic inequality so often connected to terrorism are also present in Tunisia. Despite nationwide increases in education, unemployment remains disproportionately high in southern and western regions, sometimes outpacing unemployment in developed regions by more than 2:1. Tunisia’s impoverished regions, which have been asymmetrically affected by decades of corrupt economic policy, serve as breeding grounds for extremism. Youth unmotivated by the religious elements of extremism are instead being swept up by promises of wealth and glory.

Feeling betrayed by Ennahda’s failure to remain in power, lacking political agency, and suffering economically, Tunisia’s Islamists are desperate. In order to slow the spread of extremism, Tunisia must focus on promoting a national discourse of inclusion and political voice through democratic institutions for all communities while allocating funds to development and employment projects in the rural governorates.

 "I want the Tunisian people to understand that we are in a war against terrorism and that these savage minorities do not frighten us," said Essebsi following the attack. Source: Guillaume Paumier.
“I want the Tunisian people to understand that we are in a war against terrorism and that these savage minorities do not frighten us,” said Essebsi following the attack. Source: Guillaume Paumier.
The Long-Term Significance of the Bardo Attacks
Moving forward, it will be important to recognize this event as a highly significant one in the course of Tunisian history. Tunisia suffered, proportionally, similar losses to those of the United States on 9/11. This event has the power to dramatically shift Tunisian domestic and foreign policy, bringing issues of security and terrorism to the fore at an unprecedented level.The attacks may also give new President Beji Caid Essebsi a much-needed rallying cry. Some Tunisians have complained that since his election, Essebsi has hidden away in the Presidential palace and failed to act as a visible and inspiring leader. The Bardo attack has reignited national patriotism and unity in a way that Essebsi may capitalize upon in the coming months.At the same time, Essebsi runs the risk of pursuing the type of reactionary and narrow-minded politics that often flourish after a terrorist attack. His vow to wage a “merciless war against terrorism” recalls the Bush-era tunnel vision that led to un-winnable wars against an invisible enemy.Tunisia is in need of strong leadership and anti-terrorism policy. President Essebsi’s rhetoric may simply be designed to serve these needs and strengthen national unity. On the other hand, it may lead the country down a dangerous road of justifying state violence in the name of security. The way in which the threat of terrorism is handled will be a turning point as Tunisia continues to define itself, and its politics, in the course of its transition.


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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...