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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When the Iraqi city of Ramadi fell last month to the terrorist group calling itself the Islamic State, it was a big defeat. Ramadi is a provincial capital just 60 miles west of Baghdad, and its capture is not just seen as a strategic loss, but also a symbolic one.

Iraqi forces, on numerous occasions, have fled from the Islamic State. Iraq’s military abruptly absconded from Mosul last year. In Tikrit, Iraq’s security forces were failing to turn the tide of battle, so Shi’ite militias had to be brought in to liberate the city. And in Ramadi, Iraqi troops turned tail and ran.ISIS in Ramadi

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al Abadi sought to deflect blame over the weekend with a televised appearance. He said troops had never been authorized to withdraw from Ramadi, and insisted his orders, “were the opposite.” Mr. al Abadi asserted that if troops had followed orders and stayed, Ramadi would still be under government control.

Iraq’s Prime Minister came to power vowing to mend sectarian fractures that were exasperated under his predecessor, Nouri al Maliki. Sectarianism has been cited as one of the main contributing factors for why the Islamic State has so easily conquered large cities in Sunni areas of the country. To put it simply, Iraq’s Shi’ite government has been unable to galvanize alienated Sunni soldiers to fight on its behalf.

The changes that have occurred in Iraq’s political process since Saddam Hussein’s fall from power have upset the established and seemingly stable relationships that existed before the Iraq War. Shi’ite forces taking over the central government hint at far-reaching shifts in regional distributions of power, an unleashing of renewed religio-political forces, and a realignment of tribal relations.

The city of Ramadi is the provincial capital of Anbar Province which is, geographically, the largest governorate in Iraq. Encompassing much of Iraq’s western territory, Anbar Province shares a border with Syria, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia. Anbar’s provincial council has requested assistance from Shi’a militias to free Ramadi from Islamic State control. Since Anbar Province has a mostly Sunni population, there are risks to Shi’ite militias engaging the Islamic State there.

Many fear that Shi’ite militias would further fuel the sectarian conflict that underlies everything that’s going on in Iraq. There are concerns that there will be reprisals from Shi’ite militias against Sunnis in the area; however, the fact that Anbar’s Sunni leadership has called for Shi’a assistance is a sign of how desperate the situation has become. Anbar’s provincial council has lost faith in Iraq’s military.

Sectarianism isn’t the only thing that hinders Iraq’s armed forces. US troops training and advising the Iraqi military on combating the Islamic State have found that Iraq’s military leadership is plagued by tribalism and cronyism. The US Army’s No. 2 general, Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Daniel Allyn, has found that tribal factions have degraded the training and readiness of Iraq’s security forces. This is a huge problem, because Sunnis who do not feel a particular loyalty or allegiance to the Islamic State have lost confidence that the government is going to protect them. This makes it that much harder for these Sunnis to trust the government’s promises, and to agree to work with government forces to organize themselves.

Capitalizing on Iraq’s sectarianism, the Islamic State has developed a narrative that it defends Sunnis against Baghdad.

Some in Iraq have sought to combat the Islamic State by using the theme of reconciliation as a competing narrative. This involves careful cooperation between Shi’ite militias and Baghdad-allied Sunni tribes, and there is evidence it is working.

Representatives from a Shi’ite militia in Najaf, Iraq recently held a meeting on reconciliation with Sunni tribal leaders in the area. After the meeting, all of the Sunni tribes agreed to hand over the Islamic State collaborators from within their ranks.

Iraqi forces will need a wide array of tools to defeat the Islamic State. Along with Ramadi, the Iraqi government has lost control of about 90% of Anbar Province and most of the “Sunni Triangle.” The security forces that have proven effective, the Shi’ite militias and Kurdish Peshmerga, will likely be a source of future conflict if the fight with the Islamic State is ever brought to a successful close.

Since the Islamic State has taken over Ramadi, it has established two Islamic courts and a police force to keep order and maximize its control over the population. It has seized pension payments from former Iraqi civil servants and retired military. Most concerning, however, are the stories of Islamic State soldiers going door to door with a list of names, and that they are killing people who they believe to be supporters of the Iraqi government. The Islamic State is trying to observe Ramadi’s population twenty-four hours a day to see who might be secretly sending information to Baghdad and to the Americans.

Why Iraq is Failing

June 17, 2014

On Sunday, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) claimed to have captured and slaughtered hundreds of Iraqi Shi’ite Muslim soldiers.

Mosul and Tikrit were taken in a matter of days by Islamic insurgents, and those insurgents are now moving toward Baghdad.

Baghdad 22

ISIS looks more like a well-organized army than your typical ragtag insurgent group. ISIS seized at least $500 million in Mosul alone by raiding banks. They’ve also done very well from the oil fields of eastern Syria. The conservative intelligence estimate is that this organization now has cash and resources of around about $1.2 billion.

ISIS is robust, it is organized, and it is very, very disciplined.

ISIS is attempting to press home its agenda, which is to enforce an Islamic caliphate and to oust the Shi’a power base in Iraq. It’s attempting to do this with a two-pronged approach—ruthless military force on one hand and quiet coercion on the other—as it attempts to establish itself among the Sunni communities.

Shi’ite Iran is a key ally of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and his Shi’a dominated government. Iran is deeply worried that ISIS could destabilize and weaken Shi’ite political influence.

That ISIS could so swiftly move on Mosul and Tikrit reveals the depths of Iraq’s sectarian divide. Mosul is a predominantly Sunni city long alienated by the mostly Shi’ite government in Baghdad. ISIS rode that wave of Sunni anger, finding allies among Sunni tribal leaders, ex-military officers under Saddam Hussein, and other Islamist groups in Iraq. The national army didn’t put up a fight.

The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria spells out its motivations in its name and now controls a state-sized territory that spans from northern Syria to western Iraq. Two conflicts have been merged—the Syrian Civil War and a larger one looming in Iraq—erasing an international border.

Conflict in Iraq is currently being fought between non-state actors: between a Sunni insurgent group who cares very little about Western drawn and artificial nation-state borders, and Shi’a irregulars who were extremely active in the Iraqi sectarian war in 2006 and are now quickly reorganizing.

That Iraq has remained intact as a nation this long is nothing less than a miracle.

Before World War I, the Ottoman Empire controlled the Arab world via a decentralized system of provinces (vilayets) along tribal, religious, and sectarian lines. These vilayets were subdivided into sub-provinces (sanjak) under a mütesarrif, then further divided into jurisdictions (kaza) under a kaimakam, and finally into communes. Constant regional conflicts made the Arab world a continuously volatile and unpredictable place, and the iron fist of Ottoman rule kept only an appearance of order. Any attempt of a more centralized system of government would have made the Ottoman Empire unmanageable.

After World War I, the Ottoman Empire crumbled. The majority of its non-Anatolian territory was divided up among the Allied powers as protectorates. The Western idea of nation building sought to give a modern agglutination to the Arab world by constructing new kingdoms of their own design. The aim was simple: create new royal families who would yield to Western strategic interests.

Under the Ottoman Empire, Iraq was divided into three vilayets: Baghdad, Mosul, and Basra. After World War I, Britain imposed a Hāshimite monarchy over Iraq. Territorial boundaries were drawn without taking into account the tribal, religious, and sectarian politics that plagued the region. The establishment of Sunni domination in Iraq brutally suppressed the majority Shi’a population.

Kingdom of Iraq Arms

Iraq has been a turbulent place ever since. In 1936, the first military coup took place in the Kingdom of Iraq. Multiple coups followed, and Iraq has been characterized by political instability ever since.

The Ba’ath Party took power in 1963 after its leadership assassinated their political rivals. The Ba’ath government stagnated Kurdish insurrection, suppressed Shi’a communities, and disputed territory with Iran and Kuwait. Saddam Hussein, the final and most notorious leader of the Ba’ath Party, maintained power and suppressed Shi’ite and Kurdish rebellions with massive and indiscriminate violence.

The Ba’ath Party was infamous for having a class orientation that marginalized millions in the poorest sections of Iraqi society. Southern Iraq and some areas of Baghdad, populated mostly by Shi’a migrants from southern rural areas, have historically been home to the poorest people.

Iraq’s modern history has seen the most serious sectarian and ethnic tensions following the 2003 US-led occupation. There is plenty of collected anecdotal evidence that suggests that the elites of the Ba’ath Party were targeted by the poor and oppressed before the Ba’athist regime fell to US-led coalition forces. The US-led occupation then exacerbated conditions on the ground by promoting Iraqi organizations that were founded on ethnicity, religion, or sect rather than politics. These policies emphasized differences and divided coexisting communities.

Because the modern nation-state of Iraq is made up of territorial boundaries originally designed and imposed by the British, warring groups over tribal, religious, and sectarian lines have been condensed together. So far, authoritarian regimes have been the only systems of government that have had success at keeping the integrity of these boundaries intact.

Under the Ottoman Empire, territorial borders were changed constantly reflecting the emergence of new conflicts, the changing nature of older conflicts, and the rise of powerful threats. Subdivisional borders were porous and tribes traveled through them constantly giving extreme variability to population figures.

The idea of dividing Iraq into smaller states was floated by the US-led coalition that invaded and occupied the country. If the current success of ISIS in capturing a state-sized territory from northern Syria to western Iraq has shown us anything, it is that the Western idea of nation building is failing in that part of the Middle East. The Ottoman Empire has been gone for less than 100 years, and that is a very short time to expect an entire region of varying peoples and communities to completely change their worldview, overcome their differences, and get along.

Instead, maybe the Western cognitive orientation of the Middle East, based on Western interests and state security, is what needs to be changed. At the very least, it needs to be reexamined. If conflict in Iraq breaks that nation-state back into smaller pieces, is that really such a bad thing? Is it really that important to keep artificial boundaries that were created by Western powers with little to no regard to what the citizens of that country wanted?

Whatever the outcome, the people of Iraq should decide their own fate.

The ISIS offensive has thus far been successful in Iraq, but it will most likely be stalled north of the Shi’a-dominated capital of Baghdad. This will potentially split Iraq along an ethno-religious-sectarian divide. This could lead to a prolonged and bloody standoff that could see the current borders of Iraq crumble.

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 U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan has been slowed due to a customs dispute between the two countries.

Afghanistan Drawdown

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.

Jabhat al Nusra in Syria

April 22, 2013

As I explained last week, al Qaeda in Iraq has announced an official merger with the Syrian based jihadist group Jabhat al Nusra.

This marriage has already begun to affect that state of opposition within Syria and the involvement of outside powers.

Jabhat al Nusra is increasingly following a foreign agenda within Syria. In the areas of Syria where Jabhat al Nusra has gained control, the group has instituted Sharia courts, created a morality police, banned alcohol, imprisoned women in their homes, forced women to wear the full veil, and flown the black flag of al Qaeda. Understandably, tensions between the jihadist group and other rebel groups have flared – especially around access to resources and for control of governance in rebel-held areas. These issues of power are paramount, because they highlight Syrians grappling with both imported ideologies and with understandings of Islam that are new to them.  

Syria-Jabhat-al-Nusra

Some members of Jabhat al Nusra are showing signs that they are worried about a Syrian backlash. Abu Mohammad al Golani, a Jabhat al Nusra leader, denied knowledge of al Qaeda in Iraq announcing the merger. Instead, he stressed that Jabhat al Nusra is a local group that will continue to operate under the banner of Jabhat al Nusra. In a video statement, al Golani pledged allegiance to al Qaeda head Ayman al Zawahiri, publicly recognizing the group’s loyalty to al Qaeda, but rejected the idea that Jabhat al Nusra was merely an arm of al Qaeda in Iraq.

Issues of governance have eroded Jabhat al Nusra’s standing in opposition circles. Following its formation, the group was originally praised for its operational effectiveness and distribution of humanitarian aid. Popular support for Jabhat al Nusra was so high that, following the United States designation of the group as a Foreign Terrorist Organization, protests broke out across Syria on their behalf. People shouted the slogan, “We are all Jabhat al Nusra.”

Rebel commanders recognize the importance of distributing humanitarian aid as a mechanism for influence and power in the areas that they control. Jabhat al Nusra has gotten a widespread reputation for providing better services to citizens and for more properly distributing aid. This has given the group an established degree of authority in its operational areas. Yet other rebel groups have become reluctant to cede authority to Jabhat al Nusra and these groups now use humanitarian aid as a means of countering their influence.

Clashes for power and authority between Jabhat al Nusra and other rebel groups are becoming more widespread, and Jabhat al Nusra recently fought the Farouq Brigade for control of portions of Syria’s Raqqa province.

Jabhat al Nusra, being seen as an al Qaeda affiliate instead of an indigenous Syrian opposition group, will continue to erode  the organization’s authority and influence in that country. Jabhat al Nusra must retain popular support and ensure that other rebel factions are willing to work with them in order to maintain its preeminent position within the opposition.

Despite al Golani’s attempts to reaffirm Jabhat al Nusra’s Syrian identity, the merger announcement will likely continue to enhance existing fractures between the organization and other opposition groups. This does not bode well for Jabhat al Nusra’s continued popularity.

Other non-jihadist opposition groups may be able to assert a counter-authority if they are able to demonstrate the same level of operational effectiveness as Jabhat al Nusra. This is one of the reasons behind the United States’ announcement two days ago that the U.S. will double its aid to Syria. The Obama Administration hopes that, by giving other rebel groups aid, it will further weaken Jabhat al Nusra’s standing in the country as well as disrupt al Qaeda’s attempt at creating a refuge in Syria.

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. 

Mr. Netanyahu at the U.N. last September

Mr. Netanyahu at the U.N. last September

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. 

The Crusades and European colonialism have had a widespread and lasting impact on the Muslim imagination.

For many in the West, the Crusades for the liberation of Jerusalem were a laudable moment of religious enthusiasm over the defense of Christianity. Images of the Crusades have long been used by Western media and marketing to project symbols of bravery, honor, and power. But for Muslims, the Crusades were a symbol of Western aggression where Christians sought to conquer or eradicate the Muslim world.

The Crusades have had a lasting impact.

The Crusades have had a lasting impact.

In that vein, many Muslims see colonialism and postcolonialism as another crusade. The legacy of European colonialism (foreign dominance of and Muslim subordination to European powers) is that it reversed a pattern of Muslim rule and expansion. This legacy has been long lasting, and its trend continues to threaten Muslim identity and autonomy. Why have Muslims fallen behind the West? Have Muslims failed Islam or has Islam failed Muslims? How should Muslims react? These questions remain a significant point of contention for many in the Muslim world.

The creation of the state of Israel in 1948 further complicated these questions. Muslim leaders considered Israel to be the ultimate symbol of European imperialism. Populated by Europeans brought in with European and American encouragement (at a time when Muslim countries were struggling to gain complete independence from European dominance), Israel’s borders were drawn arbitrarily and frequently cut off Arab villagers from their lands. In general, Israel found itself in an almost totally hostile environment. However, from the Israeli perspective, these Muslim attitudes were unwarranted. Israel’s view was that Muslim governments should recognize Israel and absorb the Palestinians into their own countries.

Many in the Muslim world have feared that the United States ‘war on terror’ would reproduce the dangers they faced from European colonialism in that Americans would attempt to infiltrate, dominate, and ultimately redraw the map of the Middle East once again. U.S. President George W. Bush’s use of the word crusade in a speech about the war on terrorism highlighted and propagated those fears.

Muslim responses to colonialism still form the foundations for actions that occur in the Middle East today: noncooperation, resistance, conflict, and withdrawal. Therefore, the West’s threat to Muslim identity and autonomy continues to encourage clashes and incidents within the Muslim world.

A trend toward Westernization in Muslim societies has created a growing social split. Modern secular schools matriculating alongside traditional religious madrasas produce two classes of Muslims living side by side but acquiring different worldviews and different prospects for their future. These two classes of people battle over models of political, social, and legal change. The liberal secular elites advocate emulating the West; however, resisters to Westernization often seek to follow the example of the Prophet: resistance in territory no longer under Muslim control, and fighting to defend the faith and lands of Islam (jihad). Some have tried to bridge the growing gap with a response called Islamic modernism. This answer has reawakened a sense of past power and glory while offering an Islamic alternative to completely assimilating or completely rejecting the West, but it has been both a success and failure at bringing Muslim societies together. 

Much of the Middle East remains underdeveloped and politically unstable, because most modern Muslim states are only several decades old and were carved out by now-departed European powers. For example, the creation of Pakistan and India resulted in communal warfare that left millions dead. The boundaries around Lebanon (drawn by the French) led to the Lebanese Civil War that pitted Christian and Muslim militias against each other. The country Jordan was a completely new British creation. And when the British created Iraq, the cobbled-together state (led by a Sunni ruler over a majority Shi’a population) highlighted the artificiality and fragility of the Muslim world.

Many violent radicals justify the horrors they commit by reciting a series of Muslim grievances against the West.

Historic memories of the Crusades and European colonialism get superimposed on current events. These societal memories feed resentment, anger, and deepen anti-Americanism in the broader Muslim world. Animosity towards the West is reflected in the common use of words like Zionist and infidels.

The globalization of jihad is a direct consequence of these memories. Groups that have declared war against America, like al-Qaeda, bring together many elements from Muslim history: condemnation of Western values, fears of foreign domination, militant jihad, a desire for Muslim expansion, and condemnation of any Muslim leader who forms an alliance with the West. Such groups harness these historic memories along with religion and modern technology to strike anywhere, anyplace, and at anytime. 

What do you think? Do you agree or disagree with what I have written? Requests for future posts? I would love to hear from some of you.

Six months ago yesterday, 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.

Six months ago today, the U.S. government started oversight analysis on the attack. Officials from the White House, Congress, the Defense Department, the Intelligence Community, and the State Department began trying to piece together the events of the attack. Since that time, countless people have spent hundreds of hours going through thousands of documents. 

Reuters Image

The events of that night are no longer in dispute.

There were a series of security mechanisms at the U.S. Consulate. The first barrier consisted of local police officers sitting in a vehicle outside the Consulate. The two officers had only one gun between them, which is not uncommon in Libya, and the police fled when the initial attack began.

The local Libyan guard force within the Consulate as well as the U.S. Marines stationed there fought courageously to repel the attack to the best of their abilities.

Marines stationed in Portugal were then dispatched to help fight off the attack; however, the air assets that they needed to travel to Benghazi were located in Germany. This delayed the Marine’s arrival.

All of the Americans with the exception of the Ambassador eventually evacuated to the Consulate annex. It is believed that at this point the Ambassador was already dead, and after the evacuation, the looting of the Consulate began. Three more Americans then lost their lives at the annex.

After the attack was over, the Federal Bureau of Investigation was then tasked with evidence collection and intelligence gathering. Because the FBI did not have a presence in Libya prior to the attack, there was a serious time lag between the attack and the FBI arriving to investigate the scene. During this period, looters and reporters accessed the Consulate and tainted evidence. 

This attack was not a strategic intelligence failure. The U.S. government has assessed that the attack on the Consulate was an opportunistic but coordinated attack that was planned only a few hours in advance. The Consulate was a soft target, it was the anniversary of 9/11, and there may have been hope among the militants that regional fury over an internet video purporting to attack Islam could give incentive for other groups to join in once the initial militants instigated the attack.

If there was a failure, one could argue that it existed at the Executive level where there was a lack of a comprehensive national security policy for American interests within Libya. I say this because, after the fall of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, the Obama administration did nothing to either dismantle the Libyan militias that had popped up in Gaddafi’s absence, or to build a reliable security force that American interests could depend on. I’m not talking about anything as drastic as nation building here. I’m simply pointing out that the Obama administration took a hands off approach to security in Libya.

Those of us who work for principals in government are debating various issues going forward: How can we improve information sharing? How do we improve our national security policy? How can we improve our military posture in responding to such attacks? How can we improve our intelligence investigations?

First, I think it is fair to say that the United States has limits to its military power, because with a smaller budget, military assets that are already stretched thin will be expected to do even more with less. Second, the Obama administration has shifted the Department of Defense’s focus to Asia at the expense of security concerns in the Middle East and Africa. This reallocation of concern could allow militant organizations within those regions to rebuild their terrorist networks. Third, in order to address the gaps in the military’s threat response, the United State’s military is going to have to take a second look at their European presence. Marines stationed in Portugal should be tethered to air assets if they are expected to be first responders to terrorist activity.

The Obama administration’s insistence on using the FBI as the main mechanism for evidence collection and intelligence gathering instead of military assets had its own complications. Because the FBI had no prior presence in Libya, FBI agents had to go through official channels to make arrangements to enter that country. The FBI first had to get permission from the Libyan government, then they had to get visas, and then they had to acquire adequate security to guard them as they did their jobs. All of this took precious time.

Many Members of Congress and some in the press have taken issue with the talking points that were used by U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice. All I will say on this issue is that the talking points were not written for her specifically, but she used them anyway and they turned out to be inaccurate. If this teaches us anything, junior intelligence analysts should not be making talking points for senior level administration officials.

In any event, the U.S. State Department is going to have to have a fundamental rethink on what it means to have a diplomatic presence in another country. There needs to be a balance between keeping State Department employees protected and their desire to take risks and properly explore a country.

The political spectrum of the Middle East and Africa are changing rapidly, and trying to understand these changes is one of the greatest challenges in contemporary foreign policy and security analysis.

Chris Stevens was a career diplomat who spoke Arabic and French and was the first U.S. envoy to the Libyan resistance, which overthrew Colonel Gaddafi in 2011. He was the ambassador to Libya for less than a year. He was 52 years-old.

Finally, I apologize for my absence over the past month, but between my work on Capitol Hill and my ongoing attempt at writing a book, I’ve had little time to update this blog properly. I promise to be more prolific in the future. 

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.

Madrassa

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.

All Female Madrasa in Pakistan

All Female Madrasa in Pakistan

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.

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