Foreign ministers of the Arab League last week announced their agreement to form a Joint Arab Strike Force for rapid intervention in troubled hot spots.

This announcement constituted a formidable alliance to fend off Iranian influence in the region, and firmly established the kingdom of Saudi Arabia as the leader of the Arab world. The regional coalition has been in the works for months, and is made up of Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, Jordan, Morocco, Egypt, Pakistan, and Sudan.

Under the auspices of this coalition, Saudi Arabia has launched operation Decisive Storm wherein precision airstrikes have been unleashed on its southern neighbor, Yemen.

Saudi Arabia is bombing Houthi rebels who have been taking over Yemen. This is the latest installment in a long simmering proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran for regional power.

The Houthis, who are financed by Iran, are strongly anti-American as well as opponents of Sunni regimes like Saudi Arabia. The Houthis are dominated by a Shi’a Muslim sect, the Zaydis.

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Yemen, at the southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula, has long been a tinderbox. The American-backed government in Yemen abruptly collapsed in January. The resignation of the president, prime minister, and cabinet took many by surprise and heightened the risks that Yemen, the Arab world’s poorest country, would become even more of a breeding ground for terrorism. It was in this vacuum that Iran hoped to expand its influence.

The launch of operation Decisive Storm has been in play since the accession of Salman Bin Abdul Aziz to Saudi Arabia’s throne. King Salman was crowned in January and has quickly moved to address Saudi public opinion which has been getting increasingly worried about Iranian power surrounding the kingdom and perceived Saudi impotence in opposing the Iranian threat.

The Iranian response has reportedly been one of shock. The Iranian defense council is said to have met at 3 a.m. Tehran time on Thursday morning after receiving news of the airstrikes. The Iranian intelligence services did not anticipate such airstrikes, because Iran miscalculated the regional response to its expansion.

To complicate matters for Iran, it and Yemen do not share a border. The Iranian government is worried how it will recover the missile systems, intelligence and surveillance systems it has placed there.

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Iran has supplied the Houthis with weapons systems that can hit almost anywhere in Saudi Arabia including government buildings, landmarks, and infrastructure.

The airstrikes are designed to take out as much Iranian sponsored Houthi military equipment as possible.

Operation Decisive Storm has seven stages; first is the destruction of the Houthis air-power, then their air defense systems. This will be followed by flushing out any pockets of air resistance. The fourth stage is the establishment of air superiority to be followed by the establishment of complete control over the theater of operations. The sixth stage is the apprehension of key figureheads, and finally redeployment of Yemeni forces into the theater.

The land forces that will be deployed will be formed out of Yemeni special forces, tribes and factions loyal to former Yemeni President Abdrabbu Mansour Hadi while Saudi Arabia’s coalition forces will be ready to assist or intervene as well as providing air support for ground operations.

Saudi and Egyptian warships have been deployed to the strategic Bab al-Mandab strait, a key trade and oil route separating the Arabian Peninsula from east Africa.

It will be important to redeploy the Yemeni special forces because neither the Saudis nor the Egyptians are likely to be able to match the Houthi and their allies in combat in mountainous terrains in which familiarity with the grounds will prove a major advantage.

The Saudi coalition is arguably one the most significant developments within the Middle East in decades, because it is a complete reversal of Saudi Arabia’s former policy of quiet disengagement with its neighbors. It also reflects the emergence of two young Saudi leaders: the Deputy Crown Prince Muhammad bin Nayef and the Defense Minister and Royal Court chief Prince Muhammad bin Salman. This kind of proactive policy is not in traditional Saudi style and the credibility of these two men will be heavily impacted by the success or failure of this operation.

However, it is Saudi Arabia’s new King Salman who most threatens Iran’s dreams of expanding its power.

There is a danger that the longer this campaign continues, the more damage will be done to stability inside Yemen. Instability is a breeding ground for terrorist groups.

Another worry is that the Arab nations’ intervention in Yemen may cause them to lose interest in a different war – the fight against the self-proclaimed Islamic State. Most of the members of Saudi Arabia’s coalition are also members of the U.S.-led coalition in Syria that’s been waging an air campaign against ISIL.

As they begin to focus on the Yemen problem, the coalition’s resources will be used less in Syria.

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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.

Jihadi Cool

July 24, 2013

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

Al Qaeda has expanded into cyberspace

Al Qaeda has expanded into cyberspace

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

Jihadi Cool is a term that was originally coined by Marc Sageman, a psychiatrist and former CIA operations officer, to encapsulate the phenomenon of al Qaeda’s influence within Cyberspace. Jihadi Cool describes rogue vigilantism by politically disenfranchised Muslim youths. Jihadi Cool appeals to those radicalized youths who are often described as “wannabe thugs.”

Has the new front for the War on Terror become the internet? Twitter, Facebook, Youtube, and all electronic social networking media have become problematic, because al Qaeda operatives can operate behind electronic aliases and disseminate Jihadi propaganda. This propaganda then plays on Muslim youth’s politics of despair, in that these youths have a worldview where they perceive the Muslim world’s (Dar al-Islam) hegemonic power as being stripped away. Then there are the wars in Syria and Afghanistan, the political strife in Egypt, and the constant battle between Iran and Saudi Arabia over who will be the voice of the Middle East. Western popular culture and secular political forces are no longer the only targets of al Qaeda. The Sunni organization is increasingly getting into sectarian conflicts with Shi’ites. 

Al Qaeda essentially uses electronic social networking media to encourage random disgruntled youths into acts of violence against the West, Shi’a institutions, and the governments of Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Iran. By hiding their propaganda in forms of popular media, such as rap videos available in various languages, al Qaeda can provide a cultural counterweight to Shi’a popular influences which both excites and provokes impressionable youth into becoming soldiers for al Qaeda’s distinctive version of discord which often includes suicide bombers and large body counts. 

Two audacious and carefully coordinated jailbreaks that occurred in Baghdad over the weekend and which killed at least twenty security guards have now been claimed by the al Qaeda affiliate al Qaeda in Iraq. The al Qaeda franchise has been emboldened in recent months and these latest efforts have freed hundreds of Islamic militants including many senior al Qaeda officers. 

Prison guards in Baghdad's Abu Ghraib

The main target of the jailbreaks was the infamous Abu Ghraib prison which became famous in 2004 when American military prison guards were exposed for abusing its prisoners.

Until the attack, Abu Ghraib was one of Iraq’s most secure locations, and this is yet another example of security all over the country disintegrating.

More than 2,500 people have been killed in Iraq in the past three months alone while over 90,000 people have been killed next door in Syria since the beginning of its civil war. 

There is a real danger that many of these freed militant fighters will cross the border into Syria to join the ongoing sectarian war. Al Qaeda’s Sunni fighters have been heavily involved with trying to bring down the Shi’ite Syrian regime of Bashar al Assad.

The Syrian civil war has become ground zero for the Middle East’s sectarian conflict, and the violence is drawing in fighters (both Sunnis and Shi’ites from other countries) into Syria to join the battle. The resulting sectarian violence is then leaking over the Syrian border back into Iraq as well as into Jordan, Lebanon, Israel, Turkey, and Iran. This means Iraq could revert to being devoured by sectarian conflict as it was a decade ago, but the even bigger fear is that other countries could follow. 

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