September 3, 2013
U.S. President Barack Obama’s surprising announcement Saturday that he would go to Congress for use-of-force authorization against Syria will require the president to extrapolate what a strike will accomplish and what contingency plans his administration has should the conflict spread.
A swift resolution is unlikely. Meaningful changes in Syria will be difficult, if not impossible, to achieve under any circumstances.
The real threat is the conflict spilling over. If the U.S. attacks Syria, expect Hezbollah to hit Israel from southern Lebanon and the Israelis to retaliate over a period of weeks.
Iran will rattle its sword, but any rhetoric about attacking Israel will be a bluff. If Tehran were to strike Israel, its nuclear facilities would immediately be a target; therefore, Iran will be happy to use Hezbollah as a proxy.
The threat of spreading conflict will drive up oil prices. Key oil-producing countries like Iran, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia could be drawn into the strife and cardinal transit points for oil transport like the Persian Gulf and Egypt may be jeopardized.
I think it is safe to expect oil prices to hit $120 to $125 a barrel, up from about $107 now. The impact on American drivers will be about a 15 cent a gallon increase.
Even if Assad is ultimately removed from power, broader unrest in the Middle East will continue for decades and any rebel faction that takes over Syria will be anti-American while al Qaeda (an important contingent of the opposition) will be well positioned to gain power and influence.
In reality, war between the U.S. and Syria has already commenced.
The pro Assad Syrian Electronic Army hacked the U.S. Marine Corps website over the weekend. The electronic attack was aimed at discouraging U.S. entry into the Syrian civil war on the side of the rebels. The hackers left a message stating that Mr. Obama is “a traitor who wants to put your lives in danger to rescue al Qaeda insurgents,” according to the New York Post.
The hackers then urged the Marines to rebel against their commander-in-chief and to join the civil war on the side of the Assad regime.
Many people are asking themselves, if the U.S. attacked Syria, how would we define winning and losing the conflict? While Mr. Obama has yet to define to the world what he would consider to be a win, members of his administration have voiced how the U.S. could lose.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has been resolute that the consequences of inaction in Syria would be dire. Mr. Kerry has said that if the U.S. doesn’t act, it would send a signal to Iran and North Korea that it is okay to advance their nuclear programs and to move ahead in proliferation of their weapons. Kerry said that it is important to show that if a red line is crossed, the U.S. is prepared to back it up.
No matter the outcome, the U.S.’ standing in the Muslim world will continue to erode.
July 24, 2013
Earlier today, I asked if the internet was America’s new front for the War on Terror.
The United States Air Force is predicting 200 million cyber attacks per year by 2015. Cyber defense is taking priority in the Air Force as it tries to fend off attacks while becoming more reliant on automation.
A recent Air Force report entitled “Global Horizons” says new cases of malware have increased more than tenfold, from 9 million in 2007 to more than 100 million in 2012. More than 200,000 new malicious programs are registered daily. The report reflects the Air Force’s Cyber Vision 2025 which recommends the Air Force invest heavily in a cyber warrior workforce.
Computing now pervades everything the U.S. military does.
The American government is taking threats of cyber terrorism seriously, because a possible cyberwar could see anonymous foreign computer hackers penetrating government networks to create political and economic instability, friction between the U.S. and its allies, and destroy infrastructure such as the U.S. oil and gas industry.
Government officials are worried that a coordinated cyberattack on critical infrastructure could shut down key government services and create chaos across the public and private sectors.
What do you think? Is the threat of cyber terrorism as dangerous as some make it out to be?
July 24, 2013
Al Qaeda’s dissemination of jihad ideology has become more sophisticated over the last decade. Al Qaeda invested large amounts of capital into creating books, magazines, and music videos that are designed to appeal to Muslims under 30 years of age. Language and graphics are designed with a specific local audience in mind so that al Qaeda can properly target young Muslims in a desired region. Al Qaeda is paying close attention to what material their targeted demographics respond to and connect with.
Al Qaeda’s reach in Cyberspace is multifaceted. The network has a variety of different messages available on the internet that are designed to resonate with different groups. Al Qaeda’s franchises and affiliates, like the one in Iraq that I posted about yesterday, tend to focus on local issues that affect a particular local population. However, the traditional centralized body of al Qaeda tends to disseminate messages that are more global in scope.
Jihadi Cool is a term that was originally coined by Marc Sageman, a psychiatrist and former CIA operations officer, to encapsulate the phenomenon of al Qaeda’s influence within Cyberspace. Jihadi Cool describes rogue vigilantism by politically disenfranchised Muslim youths. Jihadi Cool appeals to those radicalized youths who are often described as “wannabe thugs.”
Has the new front for the War on Terror become the internet? Twitter, Facebook, Youtube, and all electronic social networking media have become problematic, because al Qaeda operatives can operate behind electronic aliases and disseminate Jihadi propaganda. This propaganda then plays on Muslim youth’s politics of despair, in that these youths have a worldview where they perceive the Muslim world’s (Dar al-Islam) hegemonic power as being stripped away. Then there are the wars in Syria and Afghanistan, the political strife in Egypt, and the constant battle between Iran and Saudi Arabia over who will be the voice of the Middle East. Western popular culture and secular political forces are no longer the only targets of al Qaeda. The Sunni organization is increasingly getting into sectarian conflicts with Shi’ites.
Al Qaeda essentially uses electronic social networking media to encourage random disgruntled youths into acts of violence against the West, Shi’a institutions, and the governments of Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Iran. By hiding their propaganda in forms of popular media, such as rap videos available in various languages, al Qaeda can provide a cultural counterweight to Shi’a popular influences which both excites and provokes impressionable youth into becoming soldiers for al Qaeda’s distinctive version of discord which often includes suicide bombers and large body counts.
July 23, 2013
Two audacious and carefully coordinated jailbreaks that occurred in Baghdad over the weekend and which killed at least twenty security guards have now been claimed by the al Qaeda affiliate al Qaeda in Iraq. The al Qaeda franchise has been emboldened in recent months and these latest efforts have freed hundreds of Islamic militants including many senior al Qaeda officers.
The main target of the jailbreaks was the infamous Abu Ghraib prison which became famous in 2004 when American military prison guards were exposed for abusing its prisoners.
Until the attack, Abu Ghraib was one of Iraq’s most secure locations, and this is yet another example of security all over the country disintegrating.
More than 2,500 people have been killed in Iraq in the past three months alone while over 90,000 people have been killed next door in Syria since the beginning of its civil war.
There is a real danger that many of these freed militant fighters will cross the border into Syria to join the ongoing sectarian war. Al Qaeda’s Sunni fighters have been heavily involved with trying to bring down the Shi’ite Syrian regime of Bashar al Assad.
The Syrian civil war has become ground zero for the Middle East’s sectarian conflict, and the violence is drawing in fighters (both Sunnis and Shi’ites from other countries) into Syria to join the battle. The resulting sectarian violence is then leaking over the Syrian border back into Iraq as well as into Jordan, Lebanon, Israel, Turkey, and Iran. This means Iraq could revert to being devoured by sectarian conflict as it was a decade ago, but the even bigger fear is that other countries could follow.
July 23, 2013
Is the rise of Islamic extremism the great issue of our age?
The effects of Islamic terrorism are not just felt in the Middle East but around the world. A Pew Research survey about religious extremism published in late April found high levels of concern among Americans, Russians, and Central Asian Countries. And other national public opinion surveys find most Americans remain concerned in general about terrorism. In Europe, the newspaper Austria Today reported an upswing of concern regarding “Salafist extremist teenagers” among the Austrian population, and Germany has recently banned three ultra-conservative Islamic sects including Salafism.
Al Qaeda has become more decentralized with most terrorist activity being currently conducted by local franchises. The U.S. State Department’s latest annual country report on terrorism has acknowledged that local al Qaeda affiliates “seem more inclined to focus on smaller scale attacks closer to their home base.” However, al Qaeda is not the only problem.
Iran is sending its own terrorist operatives in Hezbollah to demoralize and intimidate Western countries.
The U.S. State Department now concedes that Hezbollah, with Iran as its state sponsor, is considered the most technically capable terrorist group in the world.
In March a criminal court in Cyprus found a Hezbollah member guilty of helping to plan attacks on Israelis on the Mediterranean island, and Hezbollah has been implicated in a terrorist attack in Bulgaria’s Black Sea resort of Burgas last year that killed five Israeli tourists and a Bulgarian.
The Iranian-backed organization plays a pivotal role in Lebanese politics, dominating the government since 2011. It has since sent its members to bolster Syria’s President Bashar Assad’s forces in their assault on rebel-held areas.
As Hezbollah’s hand in the Syrian conflict has become public, Lebanon has seen a spike in Sunni-Shi’ite tensions that has sparked gun battles in several cities around the country. Many Lebanese Sunnis support the overwhelmingly Sunni uprising against Assad in Syria, while Shi’ites generally back Hezbollah and the regime in Damascus.
Many more international extremists are connected to Pakistan, a state rocked on a daily basis by attacks from the Taliban and other jihadist extremists on schools, government officials, and others. Yet the United States government has given Pakistan $23 billion in aid since 2002, because the American government relies on Pakistan for its prosecution of the war in Afghanistan.
July 22, 2013
The U.S. funded $34 million to build a new headquarters at Camp Leatherneck in Helmand Province, Afghanistan. However, the new Marine Corps building may never be used, because, even under the best of circumstances, only 450 people would be available to use the building today while it was built to accommodate a staff of between 1,200 to 1,500 people. The headquarters includes a war room, briefing theater, and offices for senior military officials, including a three-star general.
The building was completed in November, but has remained empty. As the footprint of Camp Leatherneck decreases, the new building could soon be outside the security parimeter, thereby making it unsafe for the U.S. military to occupy. This leaves the American military with two options, demolish the building or hand it over to the Afghans.
The colossal, two-story, 64,000-square-foot headquarters has expensive heating and air conditioning systems that the Afghans may be unable to afford if turned over. The building also runs a different electrical system, requiring 120 volts rather than the 220 volt-system common in Afghanistan.
John Sopko, the US special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction, asked Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel in a July 10 letter to address why the Pentagon constructed the building when officials knew it would not be used for the intended purposes. He also asked for defense officials to pinpoint who made the decision to continue the project, and what the justification was at the time.
July 22, 2013
The U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan has been slowed due to a customs dispute between the two countries.
Drawdown costs have been “dramatically raised” since the Afghan government has insisted that the United States owes it millions of dollars in customs fines as the American military extracts its equipment, according to Agence France-Presse.
American trucks carrying military hardware have been blocked at Afghan border crossings due to the dispute; therefore, the U.S. military has resorted to flying out the majority of its equipment by air at exorbitant cost. Defense officials have estimated that the cost is five to seven times more by aircraft than over land.
The Afghan government is insisting that the U.S. military pay $1,000 for each shipping container leaving the country that lacks what Afghan authorities call a valid customs form. Afghanistan claims that the United States currently owes $70 million in fines.
As the drawdown continues, U.S. forces in Afghanistan are projected to drop between 10,000 and 20,000 troops next year consisting of counter-terrorism forces, special forces, and military training personnel. They will be deployed to a small number of bases around the country.
April 29, 2013
It is no secret that the government of Afghanistan is controlled by organized crime cartels. Warlords and politicians control the civil government through their ties to the drug trade and armed militia groups. Afghanistan remains a security state whose rulers are focused on retaining their power and privilege at any cost through strong military and security forces.
This is because Afghanistan, like much of the Muslim world, is dealing with a legacy that created a powerful culture of authoritarianism still entrenched in the modern Afghan government. Afghanistan’s authoritarian past is perpetuated today by rulers who inherited or seized power. Political authoritarianism, whether secular or religious, has been the norm in both the central government as well as in the outlying provinces.
Now the New York Times has reported on so-called “ghost money” which was meant to buy influence for the United State’s Central Intelligence Agency (C.I.A.) but instead fueled corruption and empowered the drug trade and warlords, undermining the Obama Administration’s exit strategy from Afghanistan.
This article is a worthwhile read as it shows how problematic the United States built government is in Afghanistan. To build the current government, the U.S. had to bribe and coerce many of the warlords the C.I.A. had previously paid during and after the 2001 invasion.
You can read the article here:
Tensions will continue to grow in Afghanistan’s government after the withdrawal of coalition forces from the country, and this could become a threat to Afghanistan’s neighbors in the region if that country starts to deteriorate.
April 26, 2013
United State’s President Barack Obama’s administration has assessed that Syria has likely used chemical weapons twice in its civil war. This has intensified calls where I work on Capitol Hill for a more aggressive U.S. intervention in Syria. However, American lawmakers are far from agreeing on what a greater American role would look like.
The U.S. intelligence community has determined that Syria has crossed the red line set out by Mr. Obama, who has said the use or transfer of chemical weapons would constitute a “game changer” to his policy of providing only humanitarian and nonlethal assistance to the Syrian opposition.
U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced the news yesterday during a trip through the Middle East. “It violates every convention of warfare,” Hagel told reporters in Abu Dhabi.
Several U.S. Senators have since renewed their calls for stronger U.S. intervention in Syria without United Nations involvement.
New Jersey Democrat Robert Menendez, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, says that he supports working with regional partners, establishing a no-fly zone with international support, and potentially arming vetted rebels in some sort of controlled process.
“It is clear that we must act to assure the fall of Assad, the defeat of extremist groups, and the rise of democracy,” Menendez said in a written statement.
However, calls for intervention in the Syrian civil war are being met in the U.S. and elsewhere with trepidation.
The Syrian military’s defense mechanisms are sophisticated and located within major population centers. Removing those devices could cause mass civilian casualties. This will make instituting and maintaining a no-fly zone very difficult. Furthermore, potential ethnic divisions within the country are severe.
There is also a lot of concern within the Western intelligence communities about who some of these various groups are aligned with. Some groups have ties with al-Qaeda and other groups have ties to other jihadi organizations. Another particular concern is the role that Hezbollah may be playing in the war.
Hezbollah is a Shi’a militant group. It has a paramilitary wing that is one of the stronger militant movements within the Middle East. Hezbollah has been a recipient of financial assistance from Syria for years, and what actions it is taking during the civil war remains unclear. Hezbollah would be one actor that could stand in opposition to al-Qaeda (a Sunni organization).
Indeed, there are reports coming out of Syria that sectarian conflict, between Shi’a and Sunni groups as well as between tribes within those denominations, is erupting in the wake of conflict between rebel forces and the military.
The Syrian civil war is a very complicated contest. The breakdown along ethnic lines will be every bit as problematic as it was in Iraq – only Syria has chemical weapons.
There are many ways to analyze the ongoing conflict in Syria. It can be seen as a revolution against an authoritarian regime, or as a proxy war between Sunnis and Shi’a, or as means for al-Qaeda and similar organizations to find new relevance. All of these approaches are helpful in understanding the nuances of varying actors and their motivations in the war.
Further debate on a U.S. response to Syria is expected later today after lawmakers receive a classified briefing on the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons.
The White House said that the administration will wait to announce its next moves until a United Nations investigation into the two suspected cases of chemical weapons produces “credible corroboration” of the U.S. intelligence community’s assessment.
Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee, the ranking republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said, “If it is verified, then obviously it is a crossing of the red line and would greatly change our posture there.”
April 24, 2013
Amid the unrelenting political turmoil of the Middle East, in which loyalties and alliances can shift with the winds (commonly referred to as the Arab Street), Islam is often the only common denominator. For the average citizen, life can be very very difficult; and, as a result, Islam is very attractive, because it offers some sort of hope for eternal peace. Islam also offers a unifying power for leaders, and it can be used as a justification for political or military campaigns.
Islam’s following has grown from a handful of converts to one of the fastest growing religions in the world. Many politicians and strongmen in the Middle East have found that the best and most expedient way into the hearts and minds of their people is through their souls. Emphasizing religious ties can win leaders support and help them cement their power. In this way, religion can be utilized as a means of influencing the behavior of people.
Through religion, military campaigns can be transformed from territorial plunders to a holy war fought in the name of “faith.” The idea that God will be on the side of good can also be used as a supremely powerful stabilizing force during battle.
However, just as Islam can unite populations, it can also divide them. The cultural divide that already existed in the Middle East turned religious and political when Islam split into two halves.
The conflict between Sunni and Shi’a is the most consequential in the Middle East, because it is so profound.
Shi’a Islam, whose followers constitute a mere 15 percent of the world’s 1.4 billion Muslims, was relegated to second-class status in the Arab world long ago. But in 1979, when Ayatollah Khomeini seized power in Iran, he sought to export the ideology of his country’s Islamic revolution to Muslims everywhere, even to Sunni Muslims. This unlikely goal sought to counter centuries of blood-spattered encounters, prompted by deeply felt doctrinal differences. More importantly, this goal was designed to increase Iran’s influence outside of its borders.
Westerners are insensitive to the doctrinal differences between Sunni and Shi’a, viewing them as minor details rather than matters of cosmological importance.
The Sunni-Shi’a split dates back to the seventh-century dispute over who was meant to be the Prophet Muhammad’s rightful successor. Today’s Shi’a are descended from those who believed that Muhammad had chosen his cousin and son-in-law, Ali, as his heir. This was a minority view in the days following the prophet’s death, and one of his lieutenants, Abu-Bakr, was made caliph and successor to Muhammad instead. The schism became permanent after the Battle of Karbala in 680, when Ali’s son Hussein was killed by the caliph’s soldiers.
Institutionalizing this divide left the Shi’a at a grave disadvantage, because the Shi’a did not have the same resources as the Sunnis.
Religion can provide individuals and organizations with agency. It is regularly argued that God’s justice is something that comes down to earth, if one knows how to read it. Those who purport to have this knowledge often gain incredible influence as they can become a center of authority.
With Islam being the dominant cultural force in the Middle East, it is a tool that is often used by revolutionaries who seek to challenge the status quo.
Osama Bin Laden, the architect behind the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, was probably born in 1957, and he was number 17 of 57 children to a father who made a fortune in the Saudi Arabia construction industry. A young bin Laden got his penchant for radical Islamist ideology at his university, King Abdul-Aziz University, in Jeddah.
Bin Laden was influenced by the Sunni reformist movements of Deobandi and Salafi. The followers he gathered were bolstered by a genuine belief that he was reformulating the global order. In 1989, these followers became known as al Qaeda (translated as “The Base”) a multinational and stateless army who believe that the killing of civilians is religiously sanctioned, because of their goal to remake the world in their image.
Bin Laden’s religious rhetoric was designed to persuade Muslim contemporaries that he was a figure who ought to be thought of in biblical terms. He championed a complete break from all foreign influences inside Muslim countries as well as the creation of a new world-wide Islamic caliphate. To achieve these goals, bin Laden funneled money, arms and fighters from around the Arab world into regions where conflict and an increasing lawlessness enabled his growing organization to expand its control over territory.
With each terrorist act, bin Laden became more influential. This is a man who already had money, but craved the ability to coerce whole populations into subjugation.
With bin Laden now dead, the al Qaeda network has thus far failed in its attempts to overthrow the governments of Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt, Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Yemen, and Syria. Perhaps most importantly, it has seen the majority of its monetary assets frozen. Al Qaeda routinely makes public appeals for money. This tells analysts that al Qaeda’s ability to dominate the direction of insurgencies within Asia and the Middle East is waning. But does this mean the network is currently weak? In a word, no. The al Qaeda network is perhaps more dangerous than it has ever been.
Because the appeal of its religiosity remains strong, new fighters are still joining al Qaeda’s ranks. But more significantly, al Qaeda’s financial and logistical problems have forced the network to strengthen its alliances with other groups such as the various Taliban franchises in Afghanistan, the Pakistani Taliban, Balochi and Punjabi extremists, Saudi dissidents, Iraqi and Syrian insurgents, and unaffiliated groups who profit from drug smuggling. This dependence on alliances has caused the network to become as close operationally with outside groups as it has ever been. With these new ties, al Qaeda has also been able to bond ideologically and religiously with other groups like never before. This adds a whole new dimension to the insurgencies in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Syria.
Al Qaeda has used the unifying force of religion to its advantage.
Groups unaffiliated with bin Laden, but touting the al Qaeda name, spring up daily. Like the name Taliban before it, al Qaeda is in danger of becoming a generic term for insurgents groups, and this could make al Qaeda more dangerous than it is now. As it currently stands, al Qaeda is focused on keeping the United States bogged down in conflicts with Muslim fighters. However, if al Qaeda as we know it today looses control of its ideological brand, any new al Qaeda that emerges could use its religious totems to become a more dangerous force. This is because, as Economic theory of Competition explains, competitors encourage efficiency. Competition for the socio-religious clout that comes from being associated with al Qaeda could encourage more ruthless, shocking, and devastating destruction. On the other hand, al Qaeda’s strengthening alliances with other groups could cause the network to loose its strict focus on U.S. interests. If this were to happen, al Qaeda’s still considerable resources could be unleashed on populations in new and unexpected ways – all in the name of religion.
The terror attacks of Sept. 11 caused millions of internet users to search online for their concerns and issues involving religion. According to the Pew Internet and American Life Project (www.pewinternet.org), 23% of users used internet sources to get information about Islam. No doubt, these people wanted to educate themselves on what they were hearing in the media. And since that tragic time in American history, people have continued to use the web as an enormous sacrosanct library. Not only searching for Islam, but a myriad of religions. In doing so, they travel from site to site like virtual pilgrims, they read articles which claim intellectual authority, and they interact with strangers as they swap guidance. In this way, the internet has become a medium for religious communication. However, there is a danger of obtaining inaccurate information on the web. In a world where anyone can post, credentials have become increasingly important.
It is necessary to understand that all religions change over time. They are never static. Religions evolve through reform, revival, and novel developments. Religious understandings change and new beliefs emerge. They both influence and are influenced by the teachings of other cultures. In the end, religion is a cultural product. How it is understood and how it evolves is dependent upon cultural attitudes and cultural arguments. Is Islam a violent religion? Emphatically, no. But, individuals, groups, and networks are attempting to use Islam to justify attacks and murders against those that disagree with them. These men and women have aligned themselves with a violent interpretation of Islam in order to draw media attention, encourage recruitment, and coerce populations.
Amid the political turmoil of the Middle East, Islam is often the only common denominator able to unite populations.