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 United Arab Emirates Federal National Council approved last week a revised draft of its 10-year-old counterterrorism law to respond to evolving threats.

UAE

If the new law is approved by the UAE Cabinet of Ministers and signed by President Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed al Nahyan, a person need only threaten, incite or plan any terrorist act to be prosecuted as a terrorist. Furthermore, crimes committed “with terrorist intent” would carry much greater penalties than those without.

The law would also authorize the UAE Cabinet to set up lists of designated terrorist organizations and persons. The Cabinet can also establish prison centers to give convicted terrorists intensive religious and welfare counseling to dissuade them from extremist views.

Virtually all native Emeratis are adherents of Islam. Approximately 78% are Sunni and 22% are Shi’ite. The ruling families are Sunni and support the Mālikī school of jurisprudence. The Mālikī school differs from the other Sunni schools of law most notably in the sources it uses for derivation of rulings. All schools use the Qur’an as primary source, followed by the prophetic tradition of the prophet Muhammad, transmitted as hadiths. In the Mālikī school, said tradition includes not only what was recorded in hadiths, but also the legal rulings of the so-called four rightly guided caliphs.

It is important to note that if the list of terrorist groups to be drawn up under this law is seen by the UAE’s neighbors or other countries as politically motivated, that could undermine the law’s perceived legitimacy.

The 2004 law primarily addressed terror financing. All UAE banks were placed under the authority of the Central Bank through its Banking Supervision and Examination Department, which monitors banks and other financial institutions. The law allows the Central Bank to freeze funds anywhere in the UAE, and to monitor accounts that may be used to facilitate terrorism.

In recent months, media reports have depicted a number of Emirati citizens who were killed in the fighting in Syria with Islamic factions.

In May, nine people were tried on charges of supporting the Jabhat al Nusra Front in Syria. The state news agency WAM reported that UAE state security prosecutors have accused seven of the defendants of joining the terrorist al Qaeda organisation and forming a cell in the UAE to promote its ideas,. It said the men had tried to recruit members to join al Nusra that is fighting the Syrian government and had raised money that they sent to the organization.

The two other defendants were accused of running a website promoting al Qaeda’s ideology and aimed at “recruiting fighters to execute terror acts outside the country” according to WAM.

No terrorist attacks have occurred in the UAE to date.

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.

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.

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.

It’s been more than two years since anti-government protests began in Egypt. Since then, the government’s been replaced, citizens gained their right to vote, and a new president has been sworn in; however, protests in Egypt have started again, and some of them have turned violent.

Egyptians are frustrated because revolutionaries haven’t been able to translate the protests that brought down the former government into greater political action and reform. Egyptian courts are seen as politicized, police have not been reformed, and citizens do not have due process protections. Protesters are furious over the abusive treatment Egyptians receive at the hands of security forces.

Egypt’s interior minister did offer a rare apology over the weekend after officers under his command were seen on television beating a naked man two blocks from the president’s palace.  The spectacle of Hamada Saber’s beating revived bitterness at Egypt’s police force, whose record of brutality helped set off the original revolt against Hosni Mubarak, the former president, and served as a reminder that nearly two years later, the new president, Mohamed Morsi, had taken few steps to reform the police.

A protester uses a loudhailer as she chants anti-Mursi slogans during a protest in front of the presidential palace in Cairo

The latest violence has deepened a sense of crisis in Egypt. The country’s quarreling political forces, supporters and opponents of President Morsi, have blamed each other.

The current ruling party in Egypt is the Muslim Brotherhood, and they have struggled with their leadership role. The Brotherhood was an oppressed group before the anti-government protests began, and they have had difficulty with the challenges of their new position.

The seven million bureaucrats that work in Egypt’s government have kept their jobs under Morsi; therefore the endemic corruption and bribe taking that has plagued Egypt has not been addressed. Furthermore, the Brotherhood have been so focused on seeing their Islamist constitution become law that they have ignored almost all other grievances. The Brotherhood  rammed their constitution through to approval in December.

Since becoming the president of Egypt as the candidate of the Muslim Brotherhood, Mr. Morsi has focused on turning Egypt into an Islamist state. Possibly because he doesn’t want to give any momentum to the secularist opposition, Mr. Morsi has not done any reforms that could alienate government workers or weaken his power base. Therefore, the little political capital that Morsi had not invested in shaping Egypt’s constitution has been focused on foreign policy. Here, Morsi is taking a page out of the North Korea playbook where he is attempting to shift attention away from internal politics. By shifting national focus to outside the country, Morsi is in less danger of offending government interest groups. Of course, so far he is failing to change the national subject.

Morsi has sought to reassert Egypt’s historical leadership role in regional affairs. In doing so, Morsi has tried to place Egypt at the center of negotiations to end the Syrian civil war. He has also warmed relations with Iran. Morsi rightly believes that if he can paint himself as a peacemaker, it will quell some of his political opposition. In that vein, Morsi has called for a national dialogue within Egypt as a response to the country’s ongoing violence.

Egypt’s Coptic Christian pope sharply criticized Morsi and the Brotherhood in an interview with The Associated Press earlier today, saying that the new constitution is discriminatory, because under it Egypt’s Christians are being treated as a minority.

The comments by Pope Tawadros II reflected the political stance, historically unusual for a Coptic Pope, that he has taken since being enthroned in November as the spiritual leader of the Copts, the main community of Egypt’s Christians. Christians are increasingly worried over the power of Islamists in the country.

Tawadros dismissed Morsi’s call for national dialogue as a way to dispel criticism that his government concentrates power in the Brotherhood without reforming corruption. Most secularist opposition parties have refused to join the dialogue, as has the Coptic Church, calling it mere window dressing.

“We will actively take part in any national dialogue that would benefit the nation,” Tawadros told The AP. “But when a dialogue ends before it starts and none of its results are implemented then we do not take part.”

Apocalyptic Jihad

December 21, 2012

As many of you know, many assertions have been made about the year 2012 in the Gregorian calendar. One of the most well-known beliefs  is that today, December 21, 2012, is supposed to be the end of the world. This idea was originally popularized by New Age devotees in the 1960s who re-imagined what they thought was ancient Mayan spirituality. Of course this is not what the ancient Mayan actually believed. This apocalyptic furor draws more from American concepts of dispensational postmillennialism and their fantasies about ancient Greek mystery cults than it does authentic Mayan prophecy and religion. But, there is a long tradition in most of the world’s religions in having a belief in an imminent end to the world. Islam is no exception, and many modern terrorist organizations and Arab insurgent groups use these tropes of Muslim religiousity to further their own ends.

Atomic Explosion

The Muslim tradition of apocalypticism comes out of an age spanning from the seventh century through the ninth century where a strong belief among the Muslims of that era in an imminent end of the world helped fuel their military conquests and empire expansion. The appearance of comets in the sky during this time followed by plagues and war fueled their speculations. Much of the Qur’an is written in an apocalyptic tenor where celestial phenomena (such as comets) and war are given as possible signs for the world’s end (Qur’an 30:1-6; 53:1, 54:1). Other verses speak to the nearness of the last hour (Qur’an 42:17; 54:1).

Hadith literature is also full of apocalyptic predictions where Muslims fighting “holy war” is understood as having an especially strong connection to the imminent end of the world (Riyadh, 2002).

The scholar Patricia Crone has stated that Hadith literature has portrayed the Prophet Muhammad as a doomsday prophet sent just before the end of the world to warn those who would listen and to punish those who would not. In doing so, Crone says that Muhammad performs the first recorded jihad, a process that is supposed to dilute the hold that materialism has over converted believers

Such jihad-centric Hadiths taught that a soldier’s life was impermanent, and the real world implications of those teachings were that many Muslim soldiers during those centuries broke with and dissolved their family ties and renounced their worldly possessions. The power that came from setting the early teachings on jihad within an apocalyptic atmosphere makes clear why a connection to the end of the world was maintained in later jihadi literature: without an imminent end to the world, it would have been much more of a problematic burden for Muslim soldiers to summon the necessary stamina to achieve their conquests up through the ninth century.

Jihad has continued to play a major role in Islamic apocalyptic literature.

Apocaylptic traditions in Islam focus on Muslim wars with the Byzantines who were the only serious opponents to the early Muslim community. The early Muslims dreamed of conquering the Byzantine capital of Constantinople; thereby, completing their conquest of the entire Mediterranean basin, the territory once controlled by the Roman Empire. When these early Muslims failed to achieve their goal, conquering the basin would became another sign for the world ending in future Islamic apocalyptic writings.

The Islamic messianic figure, known as the Mahdi, is understood to complete the conquests left undone by the early Muslims. He will conquer Constantinople, Europe, India, Asia, and the rest of the undiscovered world. It is understood that the Mahdi will not forcibly convert the populations of these regions, but he will expand the Muslim empire and will rule these populations according to just (sharia) law. Muslims will be required to dedicate their lives to fighting jihad with the Mahdi, recreating the warrior caste from early Islam.

The Mahdi is prophesied to rule for either seven, nine, or nineteen years. Sunnis Muslims view the Mahdi as the successor to Muhammad; however, belief in the Mahdi is more prevalent in Shi’a Islam where he is understood to appear at the end of time.

Tales of Muslim conquests, set in both the past and the future, have created a whole additional genre of Islamic literature available in Hadith collections, and much of it is devoted to jihad and the end of the world. These writings are intended to flesh out material from the Qur’an, but they are used today along with newer interpretations of jihad to inspire (and in some cases indoctrinate) individuals to the causes of militant groups and terrorist organizations.

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