Decentralized Terrorism

July 23, 2013

Is the rise of Islamic extremism the great issue of our age?

The effects of Islamic terrorism are not just felt in the Middle East but around the world. A Pew Research survey about religious extremism published in late April found high levels of concern among Americans, Russians, and Central Asian Countries. And other national public opinion surveys find most Americans remain concerned in general about terrorism. In Europe, the newspaper Austria Today reported an upswing of concern regarding “Salafist extremist teenagers” among the Austrian population, and Germany has recently banned three ultra-conservative Islamic sects including Salafism.

Salafi Woman

Al Qaeda has become more decentralized with most terrorist activity being currently conducted by local franchises. The U.S. State Department’s latest annual country report on terrorism has acknowledged that local al Qaeda affiliates “seem more inclined to focus on smaller scale attacks closer to their home base.” However, al Qaeda is not the only problem.

Iran is sending its own terrorist operatives in Hezbollah to demoralize and intimidate Western countries.

The U.S. State Department now concedes that Hezbollah, with Iran as its state sponsor, is considered the most technically capable terrorist group in the world.

In March a criminal court in Cyprus found a Hezbollah member guilty of helping to plan attacks on Israelis on the Mediterranean island, and  Hezbollah has been implicated in terrorist attack in Bulgaria’s Black Sea resort of Burgas last year that killed five Israeli tourists and a Bulgarian. 

The Iranian-backed organization plays a pivotal role in Lebanese politics, dominating the government since 2011. It has since sent its members to bolster Syria’s President Bashar Assad’s forces in their assault on rebel-held areas.

As Hezbollah’s hand in the Syrian conflict has become public, Lebanon has seen a spike in Sunni-Shi’ite tensions that has sparked gun battles in several cities around the country. Many Lebanese Sunnis support the overwhelmingly Sunni uprising against Assad in Syria, while Shi’ites generally back Hezbollah and the regime in Damascus.

Many more international extremists are connected to Pakistan, a state rocked on a daily basis by attacks from the Taliban and other jihadist extremists on schools, government officials, and others. Yet the United States government has given Pakistan $23 billion in aid since 2002, because the American government relies on Pakistan for its prosecution of the war in Afghanistan.

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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.

Why is religion an important component of international security analysis?

In order to answer this question, we need to inspect  what exactly we mean by “security analysis.” The topic of security has been one of the primary interests in the study of international relations for the past 60 years. The political connotations for security were colossal during this time as is evidenced by how the Cold War was shaped by the subject of security: Two superpowers and their allies contested spaces, communities, and ideologies, and these contested issues had ramifications for war and peace, a balance of power, an arms race, and arms control.

As the Cold War evolved, security on an international level became a dominant focus. The most accepted concept of international security during this time was called realist hegemony where security experts thought that the international level would be the most stable when a single nation, or hegemon, was in power. However, once the Cold War ended and the United States was left as the solitary superpower, it became evident that our concepts of international security were inadequate.

Events like September 11th showcased that a broader approach to security analysis was needed, because the traditional concepts ignored non-state actors and the issues that were important to them.  Understanding security no longer means understanding a state’s military strength against the military power of other states. While the state remains important in the contemporary world, a state is ultimately limited by its boundaries or the boundaries of its allies. Non-state actors, on the other hand, have no such limitations. The nature of the “enemy” has changed; consequently, the nature of international conflict is understood differently.

Policewomen in Pakistan

International security is now understood as a complex arrangement of political, economic, and social factors under which military power can accomplish only limited security objectives.

Religion is an important component of the social factors that affect international security. Religion can both prevent and provoke various forms of conflict, and religious factors are related to ethnic group identity, territory, politics, language, and economics. Religious factors are therefore an essential element for effective conflict management as well as an important component in security analysis.

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Since my recent post about Egypt’s internal turmoil, I’ve had some readers email me asking that I expound on who and what the Muslim Brotherhood are.

The Muslim Brotherhood is a socio-religio-political movement that was founded in Egypt in 1936, and, to me, the Brotherhood’s philosophical framework is best understood through the writings of one of their most prolific members, Sayyid Qutb.

Sayyid Qutb’s interpretation of Islam grew out of the many confrontations that occurred between the Muslim Brotherhood and the Egyptian state in the 1950s and 1960s. Increasingly radicalized by Egypt’s suppression of the movement, Qutb espoused a rejectionist ideology that was meant to be a kind of call to arms for the Egyptian people.

Qutb in an Egyptian jail

Qutb in an Egyptian jail

Qutb, who had a modern education, saw the Western world as morally decadent, racist, and devoid of familial responsibility. Worse, the West’s influence was growing in Egypt and the rest of the Arab world. Throughout the writings of his forty published books, Qutb divided the world into two antipodal camps, the Muslim world (dar al-Islam) and the world of evil epitomized by the West (dar al-Harb).

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The 42-year rule of Libyan leader Colonel Muammar Gaddafi continues to be in jeopardy as a coalition of France, U.K., and U.S. allies persist to thwart his army’s attempts to quell opposition rebel uprisings. Due to Libya’s tribal makeup, Gaddafi’s influence fluctuates and is partially regionally dependent.

After several military coup attempts against Gaddafi during his reign, Gaddafi has marginalized the Libyan military. It became routine for Gaddafi to execute all of his officers after an attempt to overthrow him, and replace them with people who had some kind of allegiance to him, most notably through tribal connections. Read the rest of this entry »

World leaders meeting in London Thursday agreed to a timetable for an exit strategy in Afghanistan. The exit could start as early as the end of this year.

Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai has stated that it could take up to 10 years before his forces can properly secure the country. He has proposed a policy of outreach to the Taliban for the interim; however, it is unknown if engagement with the Taliban is even possible. Just planning Taliban overtures is a problematic gamble, because it raises questions of which factions to pursue, where to stop in the Taliban chain of command, and how to bargain with political dissidents who crave exerting state authority and control.

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Jihadi Cool

January 12, 2010

Al Qaeda’s dissemination of jihadi ideology has become more sophisticated over the last few years. Al Qaeda is investing large amounts of capital into creating books, magazines, and music videos that are designed to appeal to Muslims under 30 years of age. Language and graphics are designed with specific local audiences in mind so that al Qaeda can properly target young Muslims in a desired area. Al Qaeda is paying close attention to what material their desired demographics respond to and connect with.

Al Qaeda is expanding into cyberspace

Al Qaeda’s reach in Cyberspace is multifaceted, because the network has a variety of different messages available on the internet that are designed to resonate with different groups. The regional arms and affiliates of al Qaeda, like the one in Yemen that I posted about yesterday, tend to focus on local issues that affect a particular local population. However, the traditional centralized body of al Qaeda, under the leadership of Osama bin Laden, tends to disseminate messages that are more global in scope.

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