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 15, 2013
Last week, al Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi announced the official merger of his affiliate and the Syrian based Jabhat al Nusra into a single organization.
This is a very important move for al Qaeda which has been degraded over the last few years after suffering defeat after defeat.
Al Qaeda would love nothing more than to find refuge in Syria as it once did in Afghanistan. The continuing internecine strife between various Syrian rebel factions along with an increasing lawlessness (following the degradation of the Syrian state) has enabled the growing and well-disciplined Jabhat al Nusra to expand their control over territory in Syria.
United States General James Clapper, the director of U.S. National Intelligence, stated in testimony on Capitol Hill last week that if and when Assad falls there will be as much as a year-and-a-half of continued civil unrest in Syria. This is because it will take that long for a new government to be consolidated due to infighting between former allies and various mujahideen groups within the opposition.
There are possibly hundreds of opposition groups inside Syria. Several of these groups consider themselves to be the leader of the opposition. These groups are not part of a larger monolithic whole; rather, they are divergent ethnic groups that are often antagonistic and even violent towards one another.
A Jabhat al Nusra-controlled Syria—with previously established connections between al Qaeda and other Jihadi affiliated groups, administered with a shared militancy, and isolated from Western political influence and military power—would provide a perfect location for al Qaeda to relocate its headquarters. Furthermore, Syria would be better positioned to rebuff Western intervention than Afghanistan was with its enormous stockpile of chemical weapons.
In July of last year, al Baghdadi released an audiotape where he warned the Syrian rebels “not to accept any rule or constitution but God’s rule and Shariah (Islamic law). Otherwise, you will lose your blessed revolution.”
The formal pact between al Qaeda’s Iraqi faction and Jabhat al Nusra could be the nail in the coffin for possible U.S. intervention in Syria. The announcement gives U.S. politicians (including President Barack Obama) the political cover needed to deny military action in Syria and to continue a strategy of diplomacy to oust the Syrian regime. However, a lack of U.S. support may drive the Syrian opposition to strengthen ties with al Qaeda.
As long as the rebels lack sufficient weapons, they will be forced to turn to those groups that are willing to provide them with arms. And right now those groups are the Jihadi affiliated groups such as al Qaeda. Arming the Syrian opposition could provide them with the opportunity to be independent of al Qaeda; however, there is the real danger that arming the opposition will funnel weapons into terrorist hands.
The ongoing threat of terrorism by al Qaeda presents a different pattern from what has been seen in the past. Leadership of the network has evolved from a centralized body to a loose aggregation of groups. Plots are now emanating from African countries such as Yemen whereas before they exclusively emerged out of Pakistan, Afghanistan, or Iraq. One reason for this new development is that al Qaeda relies heavily on geographical safe havens. These are areas of the world where al Qaeda has the ability to set up training camps and meeting places without fear of interference or interruption. A safe haven like the one they are attempting to create within Syria.
Al Baghdadi became the leader of al Qaeda in Iraq after Abu Omar al Baghdadi, who was not related, and Abu Ayyub al Masri were killed on April 18, 2010 by a joint team of U.S. and Iraqi troops.
March 28, 2013
Iranian elections are scheduled to take place this spring, and elections inside Iran have the ability to trigger political instability and upheaval. These elections could change the political calculus and the national conversation around Iran’s nuclear issue. Possibly sensing this, Ayatollah Khomeini, the Iranian supreme leader, announced in a speech last week that he may be interested in reopening political channels with Israel and the United States to negotiate Iran’s nuclear program.
The upcoming Iranian elections (and any instability that results) could complicate the strategic political decision the Iranian regime makes whether to actually build a weapon.
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said in their latest report that the Iranian effort to develop a capacity to produce nuclear weapons persists. The enrichment process continues in an effort to reach bomb grade levels at 20 percent, the number of centrifuges at the Fordow facility, which is the Iranian facility that intelligence agencies are worried about.
Last September Israeli President Benjamin Netanyahu gave a speech at the United Nations where he held up an image of a cartoon time bomb and said that Israel could no longer tolerate Iran’s uranium enrichment after this summer, because that would be the time when Iran would reach a point of no return. Mr. Netanyahu warned that Israel would have to forcefully intercede before this happens. Israel sees a strike on Iran as a war of necessity, because Israel believes a nuclear Iran is a threat to its security.
Consequently, Iran is facing both national elections and an Israeli deadline for war.
Were Israel to bomb Iran, there is the very real possibility that it might set off a regional war. I say this because both Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Palestinian territories would come to Iran’s defense.
The Lebanese Hezbollah has operated as an instrument for the radicalized Shi’ite community. Iran is seen as the de facto leader of the alliance between Shi’ite Muslim states, because the biggest effect the Iranian Revolution of 1979 had on the Middle East was to encourage the most uncompromising elements within the Shi’ite community to fight a regional counteroffensive against what was then a Sunni status quo.
Syria has long been an important mechanism for arming pro-Palestinian militant groups to fight Israel inside Gaza. With the civil war in Syria refusing to abate, Hamas currently lacks the ability to re-arm itself like it once did in the past; therefore, Hamas now depends more heavily on Iranian power.
Furthermore, the United States is in the process of drawing down its troops in Afghanistan. The Iranians will do everything possible to turn up the heat on American forces in Afghanistan if Israel attacks Iran.
Iranian supplies to the Taliban and to other groups within Afghanistan cannot be trivialized. Insurgents have long moved freely across the border Iran shares with Afghanistan, and Iran has been a safe haven for members of the Taliban, al-Qaeda, and others hiding from Western intelligence.
Sunni governments in the Middle East are also afraid of Iran acquiring a nuclear weapon. The Shi’ite faith has always appealed to the poor and oppressed waiting for salvation. Iran’s propaganda promotes an “Islam of the people,” and incites the poor to rise up against the impiety of Sunni-lead governments. An empowered and emboldened Iran would complicate the fragility of the region.
The Middle East has been dominated by Sunni power centered in Saudi Arabia since the creation of the Islamic conference in 1969. However, Iran has considered itself the true standard-bearer of Islam since its revolution, despite its Shi’ite minority status. Iran considers the Saudis to be “usurpers who sold oil to the West in exchange for military protection–a retrograde, conservative monarchy with a facade of ostentatious piety” (Kepel 2000).
Shi’ites currently make up about 15% of the Muslim population worldwide. The Shi’a were an early Islamic political faction (Party of Ali) that supported the power of Ali, son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad and the fourth caliph (ruler) of the Muslim community. Ali was murdered in 661CE, and his chief rival, Muawiya, became the new caliph. It was Ali’s death that led to the great schism between Sunni and Shi’ite.
Back to Iran, the south eastern region of country is volatile due to narcotics trafficking. The area is known as a gateway for smuggling drugs from Afghanistan and Pakistan into Western Europe. Therefore, elements of the Taliban and al-Qaeda have connections with Sunni insurgents working there.
Jundullah (Army of God) is a Sunni resistance group openly opposed to the Shi’a led government of Iran. Jundullah first made a name for itself in 2003, and it is believed that Jundullah was founded by a Taliban leader out of Pakistan named Nek Mohammed Wazir. Jundullah has a sectarian/ethnic agenda: the group wishes to free the millions of Sunni Balochs which it alleges are being suppressed by Tehran.
The Taliban and al-Qaeda’s regional influence has spread, and Jundullah has used suicide bombers, a hallmark of the al-Qaeda playbook, in it’s attacks against Iran. This indicates that Jundullah militants are likely receiving training from al-Qaeda (possibly within Pakistan’s borders), and one can only speculate how al-Qaeda would seek to take advantage of Iran turning into a war zone.
We’ve already seen al-Qaeda fighters pouring into Syria from Iraq to promote a jihadist vision that is fanatically anti-Shi’a. Al-Qaeda’s main grievance with the Syrian regime is that it is run by Alawites, people who belong to a branch of Shi’a Islam. Syria’s population is over 70% Sunni, yet the country is run by minority Shi’ites who make up only around 12% of the population. Al-Qaeda wants to change that, and it would love nothing better than to also install a Sunni government inside Iran.
As I said in my previous post, much of the Middle East remains politically unstable, because most modern Muslim states are only several decades old and were carved out by now-departed European powers. Cobbled-together states (a Sunni ruler over a majority Shi’a population or vice versa) highlight the artificiality and fragility of the Middle East and Muslim politics.
Iran is populated primarily by Shi’ites, and it remains a security (mukhabarat) state whose rulers focus on retaining their power and privilege by focusing on military and security forces at the cost of societal modernization. Islamic revivalism has stunted Iran’s march toward “Western” modernization, and is a prime example of what I was speaking of in my previous post when I said “a trend toward Westernization in Muslim societies has created a growing social split.”
Iran’s official language of Persian (Farsi) helps to keep Iran culturally isolated from much of the Middle East where Arabic is the dominant language. While Persian and Arabic share an alphabet, they are completely different languages with completely different pronunciations. This causes difficulties with Iran sharing in cultural products such as news, entertainment, and religious services with the majority of the Middle Eastern region. This fact is especially important to remember when we consider Iran’s communications (or lack thereof) with other countries in the Middle East. A lack of clear communication could complicate and escalate any conflict brewing in the region.
Iran, under the shah, wanted 22 nuclear reactors for energy, and at the time the United States supported this position. Iran only ever built one, but it has plans, it says, for others, but it’s taken a very long time to get to the point where it can build them. The question is, is Iran’s current regime also moving toward a weapon. Iran is supposed to declare everything that it’s doing on the nuclear front with the IAEA, but it has not cooperated with the international community in terms of giving it access to its scientists or in providing information on what it has been doing. Iran has blocked the IAEA at every turn, and it is currently in violation of the international agreements it has signed.
February 7, 2013
I first wrote about the Deobandi movement on this blog three and a half years ago. Since that time, Western interest in the Deobandi movement has increased both in the media and among the security community. I thought it might be helpful if I offered an updated version of that original post.
The Deobandi movement has evolved out of a Sunni reformist tradition. It began in the Indian subcontinent, but it’s political expression and ideology were co-opted by Pakistan’s Jamiyyat-i-Ulama-i-Islam (JUI). The JUI are a religious party with a strict, militant, anti-West, and anti-American culture. The JUI also denounce anyone who is non-Muslim. The JUI trained many members of the Taliban in their madrasas (seminaries). These schools were first set up for Afghan refugees in the Pashtun heavy areas of Pakistan during the Afghan-Soviet war.
The Deobandi movement is named for the originating Madrasa established in the town of Deoband in northern India in 1867. This school soon became the model for madrasas established all over Southern Asia. Thousands of Deobandi madrasas now exist in India and Pakistan. And out of all the sectarian orientations in South Asia, those associated with Deobandi have been the most intellectually dynamic and politically the most significant.
The majority of significant commentaries produced by Deobandi intellectuals have focused on hadith. A hadith is an oral story related to the prophet Muhammad and his customs. Hadith are understood as being important devices in deciding proper Muslim living. And it is important to stress that hadith are attributed to Muhammad as opposed to the Qur’an. Therefore, it is understood by Muslims that hadith are the words of Muhammad and not the word of God. The Sunni cannon of hadith is called the ‘Six major Hadith collections.’
Deobandi-scholarship on hadith has encouraged reconsideration of earlier religious positions. Among the goals of the Deobandi brand is the defense and preservation of Sunni norms and law. Defensive arguments within Deobandi, sometimes referred to as jihad, are often accompanied by an unusual degree of openness to departures from past hadith analysis. These departures include a call for a more rigid conservatism while promoting a militant vision and culture unheard-of in classical Islam.
Saudi funding to Islamic groups worldwide was drastically accelerated in the early 1980s as a means to create a Sunni wall against Iran’s export of its Shi’a revolution. Iran’s funding of Shi’ite groups as well as its call for a global revolution threatened Saudi Arabia’s Islamic leadership role and the Arab world’s Sunni hegemony. The Deobandi movement’s emphasis on the defense and preservation of Sunni norms and law made the funding of Deobandi schools especially appealing to the Saudi regime.
Deobandi schools created close ties to Wahhabi militants in Saudi Arabia, and the creation of new schools boomed throughout the 1980s and 1990s from Saudi funding. In this way, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Saudi Arabia are closely tied together, to the dismay of their current respective governments. The criminal networks of militants operating in these countries all have ties to the Deobandi worldview. If world governments are going to overcome terrorism perpetrated in Islam’s name, they will have to better educate themselves in the Deobandi brand of radicalism.
Pakistan has a population exceeding 180 million people, and nearly two-thirds of this population is illiterate. The average Pakistani makes about $450 a year. Deobandi madrasas provide students with shelter, food, and a much needed education. It is sometimes estimated that between 80,000 and 100,000 Pakistanis trained in Deobandi madrasas just between 1994 and 1999.
Deobandi madrasas in Pakistan and Afghanistan are typically run by religious teachers who have little knowledge of or appreciation for traditional Islam. The chief task of these teachers is to promote a jihadist vision that is global in scope, intolerant of competing with other Sunni doctrines, and fanatically anti-Shi’a. A main goal of Deobandi schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan is having their pupils spread this form of Islam world-wide.
The post-Deobandi boom has affected both faith and politics in the Muslim World. Deobandi’s global vision is to establish a Deobandi caliphate, and Deobandi missionaries have brought greater piety, religious divisions, opposition movements, and conflicts. Deobandi schools were first opened in the United Kingdom, Canada, and the United States in the 1980s.
The British newspaper The Times has claimed that nearly 600 of the 1,400 mosques in Britain are run by Deobandi affiliated scholars, while 17 of the 26 Islamic seminaries follow Deobandi teaching. Significantly, the seminaries produce 80% of Britain’s domestically trained Muslim clerics.
In the States, Darul Uloom Al-Madania was opened in Buffalo New York in 1986, and Darul Uloom New York was opened in New York City in 1997. In Canada, the Al-Rashid Islamic Institute was opened in Ontario in 1980, and the Darul Uloom Canada was opened in Ontario in 1993.
January 14, 2013
U.S. President Barack Obama and Afghan President Hamid Karzai held a joint press conference last week in Washington D.C. to announce that U.S. troops would move into a support role in Afghanistan starting this Spring. This puts the Afghanistan military in the lead a few months ahead of schedule.
The United States has been debating for some time on how best to end its involvement in Afghanistan’s conflict, and accelerating the transition in Afghanistan from NATO and U.S. control to Afghan control will affect the timetable for U.S. troop withdrawals.
Any residual American forces left in Afghanistan after the United States formally ends its combat mission there in 2014 will probably number between three and nine thousand. I’ve heard that any troop levels below ten thousand would only be expected to conduct a discreet counterterrorism mission inside that country using drones strikes. The U.S. Defense Department has said that it would take a force of thirty thousand U.S. troops or more to continue any boots on the ground operations. To compare numbers, the U.S. currently has sixty-eight thousand troops inside Afghanistan.
Afghanistan’s central government will suffer after U.S. troop withdrawals. Tribal rivalries, Taliban insurgency, as well as less foreign aid and support will constrain the central government’s ability to govern its outside provinces.
According to a recent Pentagon report, only one of the Afghan military’s thirty-one battalions is considered to be trained to the point that it is ready for unilateral combat. The other thirty battalions lack the ability to battle insurgents without substantial NATO support. With the exception of this one battalion, the Afghan military has failed time and again to sustain itself in battle.
If outside provinces do fall into Taliban or other insurgent’s hands, that may make it easier for the remaining U.S. forces to target said insurgency’s command structure. Controlling a province requires a governmental structure and oversight that could draw insurgent commanders out in the open and expose their movements.
Whatever the size, some contingent of American troops will remain in Afghanistan.
Other funding aside, Mr. Karzai needs the United States to continue providing the $2.5 billion a year that the Afghan government uses to keep its soldiers paid, clothed, and armed. When American soldiers finally do leave completely, the U.S. government will have no reason to continue providing that country with foreign aid; therefore, Karzai laid the groundwork for ongoing negotiations on his trip to the U.S. last week. He hopes to keep U.S. troops in Afghanistan so that he can keep U.S. funds in Afghanistan.
January 8, 2013
Afghan President Hamid Karzai is spending the week in Washington D.C. He is meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama as well as other senior administration officials, and the talks are expected to help set the framework for U.S. involvement in Afghanistan after the bulk of American and NATO forces leave at the end of 2014. However, even when the American military pulls the majority of its troops out of Afghanistan, there will still be a huge American presence in the country.
According to the October 2012 quarterly contractor census report issued by the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), which includes Afghanistan as well as 19 other countries stretching from Egypt to Kazakhstan, there are approximately 137,000 contractors working for the Pentagon in the Middle East region. There were 113,376 in Afghanistan and 7,336 in Iraq. Of that total, 40,110 were U.S. citizens, 50,560 were local hires, and 46,231 were from neither the U.S. not the country in which they were working.
Candidly, there are currently more contractors than U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
The Middle East is overrun with U.S. government contractors, and not all of them work for the American Defense Department. For example, contractors working for the U.S. State Department are prolific. The CENTCOM report says that “of FY 2012, the USG contractor population in Iraq was approximately 13.5K. Roughly half of these contractors are employed under Department of State contracts.”
While people now understand that contractors perform a lot of missions once done by troops – cleaning toilets, performing security — they may not realize how the size of contractors working in the Middle East has grown, or just how dependent on them the United States government has become.
In Afghanistan, the U.S. government is signing five-year contracts, well beyond the 2014 deadline for all U.S. combat forces to get out of that country. While Karzai is in the U.S. this week to negotiate a timetable for American troop withdrawal, one must assume that his talks won’t have much of an impact on the contractor population within his country. The subject of contractors remains conspicuously absent from Mr. Karzai’s global pulpit, and contractors have remained a strong presence in Iraq since all U.S. troops were withdrawn from that country in December 2011.
With contractors remaining in Afghanistan for the foreseeable future, what prospects will their presence have for Afghan peace? Many of the conflicts in Afghanistan are based on local grievances. Karzai has stated that he hopes that militants who were galvanized by local disagreements can be reformed while any factions that fight for a global jihadi movement can be omitted and frozen out of Afghanistan’s political structure.
American officials hope to use any reconciliation talks in Afghanistan as a way to neutralize Taliban regional control. For example, any talks with the Taliban or a Taliban aligned group would be designed to dismantle some parts of the Taliban while excluding the more hostile factions. American strategists are hoping that if the Afghan Taliban and other militant groups become politically impotent, it will lead to a change in their behavior.
September 13, 2012
An assault on the U.S. Consulate in Libya resulted in the first killing of a U.S. ambassador in more than 30 years. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans were killed in Benghazi on September 11, 2012.
There are differing reports on the timeline of what happened and why. What is known is that armed militia joined a protest outside the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi. Various militia brought automatic weapons, RPGs, and handmade bombs.
Libyan security forces originally blocked the road towards the Consulate in order to protect the Ambassador and his staff, but then security forces withdrew as the attacks intensified.
There has been a security vacuum in Libya since the Arab Spring ended The 42-year rule of Libyan leader Colonel Muammar Gaddafi. Militias now roam around the country unchecked and unfettered. Hundreds of people may make up a single militia while another militia may have its membership number as few as ten.
The attack in Libya came hours after an Egyptian mob stormed the U.S. Embassy in Cairo and tore down the U.S. flag.