The Islamic State (IS) was never a part of the legitimate resistance against Syrian President Bashar al Assad. There are possibly hundreds of opposition groups inside Syria. Several of these groups consider themselves to be the leader of the rebellion. These groups are not part of a larger monolithic whole; rather, they are divergent ethnic and religious groups that are often antagonistic and even violent towards one another.

The Islamic State has used the chaos created by the Syrian rebellion to try and fulfill an obscure Islamic prophecy. Back during the zenith of Osama bin Laden’s war with the West, some Islamists started focusing on any Islamic teachings, no matter how obscure, that promoted a jihadist visionAtomic Explosion that would be global in scope. Their goal was to legitimize their politicized version of Islam and to cement the legitimacy of jihad in the minds of Muslim moderates. This search led to scholarship regarding something called Yawm ad-Din, the Day of Judgement.

Eschatology is a part of theology concerned with the final events in history. Such a concept is often referred to as “end times” and it is definitely not limited to Islam. Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Baha’i, and new religious movements such as New Age religions also have eschatological theology and followers who believe in imminent apocalypticism

The Day of Judgement was first introduced to jihadi groups by the world’s foremost jihadist scholar, a Palestinian man named Abu Muhammad al Maqdisi. Maqdisi’s prominence and knowledge has attracted jihadi acolytes over the years including Abu Mus’ab al Zarqawi. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) called upon Maqdisi to find out if their jihad in Yemen would lead to an Islamic Caliphate. Maqdisi affirmed an exceptional destiny for the jihadists in Yemen, but added a caveat that the group in Yemen would have to go on to Syria to fulfill their destiny. Maqdisi explained that AQAP would help bring about Allah’s judgment by helping to usher in the end of the world. Maqdisi explained that jihadists in the AQAP would help mobilize popular support against the West and its apostate allies by launching attacks all over the globe. But first, the fighters in Yemen had to get to Syria.

Yemeni fighters poured into Syria, but the original al Qaeda and its affiliate the Islamic State of Iraq would play a part in popularizing Syria’s role in bringing about the Day of Judgement.

Abu Bakr al Baghdadi assumed control of the Islamic State of Iraq in 2010. Baghdadi’s closest aide, Hajji Bakr, who has been described as the “prince of the shadows,” helped his leader consolidate power. He proclaimed Baghdadi as a legitimate caliph that was helping to usher in the apocalypse. Baghdadi’s followers believe there will only be four more caliphs after Baghdadi before the end of the world.

During this period, Bakr saw jihad in pragmatic terms. He wanted to attack government troops and police as a blueprint to open up power vacuums to deplete security and resistance to an Islamic State takeover. He also wanted to introduce a powerful religious motivation for uniting jihadists behind a single program—his program. The Day of Judgement prophecy became an influential tool for motivating jihadists to take over Iraq and Syria under Baghdadi’s control. IS fighters

When Syrians began peaceably protesting against their government in 2011, Assad’s administration released an unknown number of jihadists from prison with a calculation that these men would foster violence among the protesters and give the regime an excuse to violently suppress them. Taking advantage of the volatility, al Qaeda’s Ayman al Zawahiri encouraged Baghdadi to send members of his Islamic State of Iraq into Syria. He did, and this group morphed and eventually came to calling itself Jabhat al Nusra or Nusra Front.

Nusra expanded in Northern Syria, and it eventually splintered with the Islamic State of Iraq.

In 2013, Baghdadi announced that he was in control of Nusra and that he was merging it with the Islamic State of Iraq into one group, “Islamic State of Iraq and Syria” (ISIL or ISIS). Some leaders within Nusra rejected this merger and reaffirmed an allegiance to al Qaeda. Others, particularly foreign fighters from Yemen, joined with Baghdadi.

The end times prophecy worked as a solidifying agent and as propaganda to bring jihadists groups under Baghdadi’s control.

The Qur’an does not go into much specificity about the Day of Judgement. Instead, Islamists have had to depend on hadith for descriptions and guidance. Various hadith explain that chaos and corruption will rule in Muslim lands, and Jesus (whom Muslims see as a Muslim and a Prophet) will return near the day of judgement to restore justice and to defeat the Antichrist called the Mahdi. After he defeats the Mahdi, Muslims believe that Jesus will assume leadership of the world and will live for another 40 years before dying of natural causes. The rule of Jesus will be the precursor to Muhammad returning for the final day of judgement.

The prophecy that the Islamic State has used is a version of this narration. It describes that the armies of “Rome” will gather on what are currently grasslands in Northern Syria. These armies will face off against the armies of Islam (Islamic State) and then be vanquished. IS will then be free to takeover Istanbul before a final showdown in Jerusalem. It is there in Jerusalem that Jesus will return to slaughter the Antichrist and his followers the Christians and Jews.

Most Islamic sects consider hadith to be essential supplements to, and clarifications of, the Qur’an. Sunni and Shi’a hadith collections differ drastically. Sunni hadith texts number around 10 thousand. Shi’ites refute six major Sunni collections, but Shi’a sects cannot agree with one another on which of their texts are actually authentic. Consequently, hadith texts within Shi’a traditions are more contested, and therefore an exact number for Shi’a hadith is difficult to claim.

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France is at War

November 16, 2015

The extremist group Islamic State (IS) has taken credit for a series of terror attacks in Paris on Friday that killed 129 people and injured hundreds more. The attacks are the deadliest on French soil since World War II, and French President François Hollande has called them “an act of war.”

In Syria, U.S. fighter jets joined this morning with the French in bombing IS targets. In Paris, authorities continue to investigate the attacks, saying they have identified the mastermind as a Belgian man living in Syria. In the United States, opponents of the Obama administration say a stronger response to IS terrorism is required.

Much is happening in France as a response to the attacks. This morning, French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said that the country has subsequently conducted 168 raids, detaining 23 suspects and putting more than 100 under house arrest.

Salim Benghalem, a French national, is believed to have orchestrated the attacks, while Abdelhamid Abaaoud is believed to have ordered them. The two men are thought to currently be in Syria.

In the last few months IS has begun training their fighters on a battlefield, in real-life situations, which can make them more successful terrorists.

France and the United States are founding members of NATO.

A NATO response to the attacks will undoubtedly start with an enhanced level of intelligence-sharing and special operations from the NATO nations going in and supporting the current campaign. Secondly, NATO will probably take over the Syrian bombing campaign.

In the Charlie Hebdo attacks last January, the guns were traced back to Belgium, where there has been a series of arrests in recent days. Two of the gunmen, who died in Friday’s attacks, appear to have been Belgian.

Tens of thousands of foreign Muslims are thought to have immigrated to the Islamic State. Recruits hail from Australia, Belgium, France, Germany, Holland, Indonesia, the United Kingdom, the United States, and many more. They immigrate with the intention to fight, and many expect to die.

The Islamic State rejects peace as a matter of conviction, and its members espouse enthusiasm for mass genocide. The religious views of IS followers specify that they consider the Islamic State to be a harbinger of the imminent end of the world; furthermore, they believe that IS will play a primary and specific role in bringing it about.

I cannot stress this enough, the kind of radical fundamentalism that IS promotes matters for its terrorist strategy. IS believes in a distinct variety of Islam that puts prominence on an end times scenario. The Islamic State’s strategy is to hit Western society with frequent and devastating attacks to provoke Western governments into a declaration of open war. The Islamic State actually wants to be attacked in a very specific Syrian location of its choice.

IS has attached pronounced significance to a Syrian city near Aleppo named Dabiq. IS members passionately rejoiced when they conquered Dabiq’s strategically inconsequential grasslands, and the organization named its propaganda magazine after the town. Dabiq is basically all farmland, but IS believes that Prophet Muhammad proclaimed that the armies of Rome would set up their camp there. The armies of Islam will then meet them in Dabiq, and the battle will lead to Rome’s demise as the world comes to an end.

Everything the Islamic State does is in anticipation of this event. IS awaits the arrival of an enemy army there, whose defeat will start the countdown to armageddon. The Islamic State holds the imminent fulfillment of prophecy as an article of faith, and that means it is ready to cheer its own near-obliteration while remaining confident that it will receive divine rescue if it stays true to its religious model.

The prophetic tale that predicts the encounter at Dabiq refers to the enemy as Rome. The identity of who this Rome is remains widely debated among IS membership, because the Pope no longer controls a vast military. Some members argue that Rome is the Republic of Turkey. Other IS members suggest that Rome is an infidel army, and, if that is the case, many in IS are sure that must mean the Americans… or perhaps the French.

IS has captured large portions of land in Iraq and Syria since the summer of 2014.

The Islamic State has introduced forced conscription in the territories it has conquered. They’ve been going to the heads of families as well as tribes and saying, you have to give us one son from every family. And those young men are then taken to training camps.

The Islamic State’s principal forebear, al Qaeda, constructed its identity around extraordinary terrorist attacks because it aimed to “provoke and bait” the United States into “bleeding wars” throughout the Islamic world. Its ultimate goal was to use terrorism as a mechanism of change— to undermine the status quo and weaken Middle Eastern countries—so that radicals could turn those countries into an Islamic militant paradise. The Islamic State, in contrast, isn’t interested in creating a paradise on earth. IS wants to destroy the world in order to achieve a paradise in heaven.

Al Qaeda’s brand of Islamist ideology encouraged reconsideration of earlier Islamic religious positions. For example, a chief goal of bin Laden was to defend and preserve Sunni norms and laws against Western secular encroachment. Defensive arguments within bin Laden’s Salafi movement, often referred to as jihad, were accompanied by an unusual degree of openness to departures from past Islamic analysis and understanding. These departures included a call for a more rigid conservatism while promoting a militant vision and culture unheard-of in classical Islam.

The Islamic State takes these ideological departures further. IS has styled itself a state so that it can take up what Islamic law refers to as “offensive jihad,” the forcible expansion into countries that are ruled by non-Muslims. Without a caliphate, jihadists could only interpret their actions as defending themselves, because offensive jihad is still seen as an inapplicable concept. But the waging of war to expand the caliphate is an essential duty of the caliph. As an essential duty, IS hopes that its caliphate could potentially draw in millions of Muslims more for IS’s end of the world scenario.

The Splintering of Iraq

June 18, 2014

Shi’ite militias have mobilized in Iraq to battle the Sunni insurgent group the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Shi’ite gunmen have marched through Baghdad and taken control of a town northeast of the capital to stage a battleground to stop the advance of the fundamentalist group.

ISIS has taken a full province, Nineveh province, including Mosul (the second-largest city in Iraq) and parts of three others.

The Iraqi army is falling apart, but it’s being bolstered by Shi’a militias responding to a call to arms by the most influential Iraqi Shi’a cleric in the world (Grand Ayatollah Ali al Sistani) who said that people should take up arms to defend against this group. He said, “He who sacrifices for the cause of defending his country and his family and his honor will be a martyr.”

ISIS in Iraq

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki said the government would arm and equip citizens who volunteer to fight. Al Maliki has declared a state of emergency and claims he’s been given all powers to fight this threat. According to his critics, however, al Maliki is the reason that ISIS has been so successful in winning Sunni allies in Iraq, because al Maliki has ruled in a very sectarian and corrupt way. He’s a politically embattled figure.

Al Maliki has pushed out a lot of influential Sunni leaders, and that’s why ISIS is getting the support that it has right now, because a lot of the Sunni community in Iraq feels marginalized and afraid of the al Maliki government.

As I said in a post yesterday, ISIS has taken advantage of a wave of Sunni anger in Iraq, and ISIS has gained allies among Sunni tribal leaders, ex-military officers under Saddam Hussein, and other Islamist groups in Iraq. The authority ISIS wields in Iraq is not yet part of a larger monolithic whole; rather, ISIS relies on divergent Sunni tribes, organizations, and groups that can be antagonistic and even violent towards one another.

Most of the ISIS fighters in Iraq have poured over the border from Syria, and many come from al Qaeda and affiliated groups such as Jabhat al Nusra. These groups promote a jihadist vision that is fanatically anti-Shi’a. One of al Qaeda’s main reasons for getting involved in the war in Syria has been its grievance that the Syrian regime is run by Alawites, people who belong to a branch of Shi’a Islam. 

ISIS must retain popular Sunni support in Iraq to ensure that other Sunni groups are willing to work with them if ISIS hopes to maintain its hold on Iraqi territory. However, it is unclear if that support will last.

Some Sunni clerics in Mosul and Tikrit, which are under the control of ISIS, have been executed by ISIS insurgents for not showing allegiance to the organization. ISIS militants are said to have executed around 12 leading clerics in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul. According to Al Alam News, an imam in Mosul’s Central Mosque was executed for refusing to join ISIS insurgents in their cause. Executions have also been reported in Tikrit.

Meanwhile, refugees are flowing into the Kurdish north from Mosul and surrounding areas. The Kurds are taking disputed territory abandoned by the Iraqi Army, including a border point with Syria.

Kurdistan is a semiautonomous region.  It has its own system of laws and governance, and it has long wanted its own independent country. The Kurds are also fighting ISIS, but they are taking advantage of the collapse of the Iraqi military at the same time. The Kurds are taking the territories they feel should be part of their future state, including Kirkuk and this border point.

Last week, ISIS used the social media device Twitter to announce that it had executed 1,700 Shi’a soldiers, and it has tweeted graphic pictures of the executed to support its claims.

I apologize for taking such a long break from posting on this blog. Between my work on the Hill, trying to write a book, and keeping some semblance of a social life, things kind of got away from me. I’ll try to do better.

Much has been made of the United State’s military downsizing due to budget constraints, and the ripple effects of less U.S. spending are being felt in far off places. An example is Israel’s specialized Army corps.

Israel 22

Corps-specific agendas for Israel’s Defense Forces have been scuttled in recent months in favor of more traditional support roles. This reassessment in priorities has kept Israel’s Artillery and Armored Corps (to name only two) from mission creep.

Israel is determined to protect RDT&E (research, development, test, and evaluation) spending with a push for bigger risk-taking.

In order to protect technology, Israel will invest in a few big bets. Look for Israel to modernize some existing weapons and equipment. However, the real goal will be to move beyond marginal improvements – to replace existing programs with new technologies and strategies. Due to the continued deterioration in Syria, Iran’s quest for the bomb, and Hamas trying to grow its influence, Israel has to take this moment as an opportunity to skip a whole generation of technology.

Israel’s government has come to the conclusion that their current structure of military spending is not sustainable.

These budget constraints come three years into an age of austerity in Western military spending. Some analysts expect these spending cuts to result in a new wave of mergers and acquisitions in the defense industry like the one that followed the end of the Cold War.

Western defense industries emerging from the Cold War experienced a reset in customer’s expectations. In the United States, the industry quickly consolidated into a half dozen premier contractors. While in Europe, consolidation was slower, but it produced a dozen or so premier transnational firms. These consolidations were a direct result of defense ministries being concerned about the costs of overcapacity in the wake of shrinking budgets.

Today, the focus is on the shrinking technological advances of the West.

Western governments are now investing in advanced computing, robotics, biotechnology, and nanotechnology. This change in focus will allow Western defense companies to maintain financial strength which will result in more strategic choices. We are already seeing evidence for some of these choices through advancements in cloud computing, big data analytics, and robotics.

Israel has a small population and an exceptional level of threats. Over the years, its ratio of RDT&E spending and procurement has risen and fallen, reflecting the relative priorities of immediate needs and investment for the future.

Israel’s future military spending will continue to be dictated by its threats. Hamas, the militant Muslim authority in Gaza that rejects Israel’s right to exist, has been maneuvering for control over the largely secular Fatah organization administering the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank. Hamas is currently restrained in Gaza, but it is trying to translate its vision into a plan to dominate Palestinian society in the West Bank.

According to the latest U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) estimates, there are nearly 2.7 million Palestinians living in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. The Israeli government can no longer count on the convenience of ambiguity to stave off critics and competing constituencies. Israel will have to chose a path for preserving its character as a Jewish and democratic state while opening the door for a two-state plan.

If Palestinian hopes and expectations continue to go unrealized, the frustration will only strengthen Hamas’ hand.

In Syria, rebels fighting the Assad regime keep attempting to change the military balance of power. The Syrian government has been bolstered by its foreign supporters, and to combat this, the al-Nusra Front, an al-Qaeda affiliate, is using porous borders to smuggle arms, supplies, and fighters into and out of the country. This continued spilling over of conflict into Syria’s neighbors in real-time has been a destabilizing force in Israel and a distraction.

Despite Western claims of progress in slowing Iran’s nuclear ambition, there are few signs the Iranian government is conditioning its citizens for any major limitations on nuclear work. Thousands of scientists and engineers are employed at a growing number of nuclear facilities in cities including Isfahan, Natanz, and Qom. Iranian President Hasan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif have advanced their careers by championing Iran’s nuclear rights as diplomats on the international stage. More importantly, Iran’s nuclear-fuel infrastructure has grown too vast in recent years, and the international community’s willingness to maintain expensive sanctions on Iran appears limited. Iran’s nuclear quest has Israel planning for military contingencies that carry big risk-taking, and they will no doubt require the new technologies and strategies that Israel is developing.

The Syria Problem

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.

Syria6000

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.

Jihadi Cool

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 has expanded into cyberspace

Al Qaeda has expanded into cyberspace

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. 

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. 

Prison guards in Baghdad's Abu Ghraib

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. 

Decentralized Terrorism

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.

Salafi Woman

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 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.

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.

Hagel Middle East Syria

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.”

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.

Subject-of-Islam

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.

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