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Ed Webb

The Uncounted - The New York Times - 0 views

  • In the effort to expel ISIS from Iraq and Syria, the coalition has conducted more than 27,500 strikes to date, deploying everything from Vietnam-era B-52 bombers to modern Predator drones. That overwhelming air power has made it possible for local ground troops to overcome heavy resistance and retake cities throughout the region. “U.S. and coalition forces work very hard to be precise in airstrikes,” Maj. Shane Huff, a spokesman for the Central Command, told us, and as a result “are conducting one of the most precise air campaigns in military history.”
  • The coalition usually announces an airstrike within a few days of its completion. It also publishes a monthly report assessing allegations of civilian casualties. Those it deems credible are generally explained as unavoidable accidents — a civilian vehicle drives into the target area moments after a bomb is dropped, for example. The coalition reports that since August 2014, it has killed tens of thousands of ISIS fighters and, according to our tally of its monthly summaries, 466 civilians in Iraq.
  • Our own reporting, conducted over 18 months, shows that the air war has been significantly less precise than the coalition claims. Between April 2016 and June 2017, we visited the sites of nearly 150 airstrikes across northern Iraq, not long after ISIS was evicted from them. We toured the wreckage; we interviewed hundreds of witnesses, survivors, family members, intelligence informants and local officials; we photographed bomb fragments, scoured local news sources, identified ISIS targets in the vicinity and mapped the destruction through satellite imagery. We also visited the American air base in Qatar where the coalition directs the air campaign. There, we were given access to the main operations floor and interviewed senior commanders, intelligence officials, legal advisers and civilian-casualty assessment experts. We provided their analysts with the coordinates and date ranges of every airstrike — 103 in all — in three ISIS-controlled areas and examined their responses. The result is the first systematic, ground-based sample of airstrikes in Iraq since this latest military action began in 2014.
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  • one in five of the coalition strikes we identified resulted in civilian death, a rate more than 31 times that acknowledged by the coalition
  • a consistent failure by the coalition to investigate claims properly or to keep records that make it possible to investigate the claims at all
  • the result simply of flawed or outdated intelligence that conflated civilians with combatants
  • “In the middle of the night,” he wrote, “coalition airplanes targeted two houses occupied by innocent civilians. Is this technology? This barbarian attack cost me the lives of my wife, daughter, brother and nephew.”
  • two direct hits. “O.K., this is my house, and this is Mohannad’s house,” he recalled. “One rocket here, and one rocket there. It was not a mistake.”
  • in 2003, the United States invaded. One night just a few months afterward, the Americans showed up at the Woods and took over a huge abandoned military barracks across the street from Basim’s property. The next morning, they started cutting down trees. “They said, ‘This is for our security,’ ” Basim recalled. “I said, ‘Your security doesn’t mean destruction of the forest.’ ” Walls of concrete and concertina wire started to appear amid the pine and chinar stands.
  • While assisting civilian victims is no longer a military priority, some authorities appear to remain concerned about retaliation. About a year after the strike on Basim’s house, his cousin Hussain Al-Rizzo, a systems-engineering professor at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, received a visit from an F.B.I. agent. The agent, he said, asked if the deaths of his relatives in an American airstrike made him in his “heart of hearts sympathize with the bad guys.” Hussain, who has lived in the United States since 1987, was stunned by the question. He said no.
  • “Radical Islamists grew as a result of this war, and many ideas grew out of this war which we have never seen or heard before,”
  • During the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts, war planners began to focus more seriously on condolence payments, seeing them as a way to improve relations with locals and forestall revenge attacks. Soon, American forces were disbursing thousands of dollars yearly to civilians who suffered losses because of combat operations, for everything from property damage to the death of a family member.
  • In 2003, an activist from Northern California named Marla Ruzicka showed up in Baghdad determined to overhaul the system. She founded Civic, now known as the Center for Civilians in Conflict, and collected evidence of civilians killed in American military operations. She discovered not only that there were many more than expected but also that the assistance efforts for survivors were remarkably haphazard and arbitrary. Civic championed the cause in Washington and found an ally in Senator Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont. In 2005, Ruzicka was killed by a suicide blast in Baghdad, but her efforts culminated in legislation that established a fund to provide Iraqi victims of American combat operations with nonmonetary assistance — medical care, home reconstruction — that served, in practice, as compensation.
  • not a single person in Iraq or Syria has received a condolence payment for a civilian death since the war began in 2014. “There really isn’t a process,” a senior Central Command official told us. “It’s not that anyone is against it; it just hasn’t been done, so it’s almost an aspirational requirement.”
  • When the Americans withdrew in 2011, Basim felt as if almost everyone he knew harbored grievances toward the occupation.
  • Because there was no established mechanism for Iraqi victims to meet American officials, his appointment was at the American Citizen Services section. He pressed against the window and showed the consular officer his dossier. One page contained satellite imagery of the Razzo houses, and others contained before-and-after photos of the destruction. Between them were photos of each victim: Mayada sipping tea, Tuqa in the back yard, Najib in a black-and-white self-portrait and a head shot of Mohannad, an engineering professor, his academic credentials filling the rest of the page. The most important issue, Basim had written, was that his family was now “looked at as members of ISIS” by the Iraqi authorities. This threatened to be a problem, especially after the city’s liberation. The consular officer, who spoke to us on the condition of anonymity, was moved. “I have people coming in every day that lie to me, that come with these sob stories,” the officer remembered telling him, “but I believe you.”
  • when Basim’s case was referred to a military attorney, the attorney replied, “There’s no way to prove that the U.S. was involved.”
  • By the time the information made its way to the coalition and it decided to act, the mortar had been moved. Such intelligence failures suggest that not all civilian casualties are unavoidable tragedies; some deaths could be prevented if the coalition recognizes its past failures and changes its operating assumptions accordingly. But in the course of our investigation, we found that it seldom did either.
  • Over the coming weeks, one by one, the coalition began removing all the airstrike videos from YouTube.
  • An alarm blares occasional high-temperature alerts, but the buildings themselves are kept so frigid that aviators sometimes wear extra socks as mittens
  • Most of the civilian deaths acknowledged by the coalition emerge from this internal reporting process. Often, though, watchdogs or journalists bring allegations to the coalition, or officials learn about potential civilian deaths through social media. The coalition ultimately rejects a vast majority of such external reports. It will try to match the incident to a strike in its logs to determine whether it was indeed its aircraft that struck the location in question (the Iraqi Air Force also carries out strikes). If so, it then scours its drone footage, pilot videos, internal records and, when they believe it is warranted, social media and other open-source information for corroborating evidence. Each month, the coalition releases a report listing those allegations deemed credible, dismissing most of them on the grounds that coalition aircraft did not strike in the vicinity or that the reporter failed to provide sufficiently precise information about the time and place of the episode.
  • They speak of every one of the acknowledged deaths as tragic but utterly unavoidable. “We’re not happy with it, and we’re never going to be happy with it,” said Thomas, the Central Command spokesman. “But we’re pretty confident we do the best we can to try to limit these things.”
  • Airwars, a nonprofit based in London that monitors news reports, accounts by nongovernmental organizations, social-media posts and the coalition’s own public statements. Airwars tries to triangulate these sources and grade each allegation from “fair” to “disputed.” As of October, it estimates that up to 3,000 Iraqi civilians have been killed in coalition airstrikes — six times as many as the coalition has stated in its public summaries. But Chris Woods, the organization’s director, told us that Airwars itself “may be significantly underreporting deaths in Iraq,” because the local reporting there is weaker than in other countries that Airwars monitors.
  • the coalition, the institution best placed to investigate civilian death claims, does not itself routinely dispatch investigators on the ground, citing access and security concerns, meaning there has not been such a rigorous ground investigation of this air war — or any American-led air campaign — since Human Rights Watch analyzed the civilian toll of the NATO bombing in Kosovo, a conflict that ended in 1999
  • we selected three areas in Nineveh Province, traveling to the location of every airstrike that took place during ISIS control in each — 103 sites in all. These areas encompassed the range of ISIS-controlled settlements in size and population makeup: downtown Shura, a small provincial town that was largely abandoned during periods of heavy fighting; downtown Qaiyara, a suburban municipality; and Aden, a densely packed city neighborhood in eastern Mosul. The sample would arguably provide a conservative estimate of the civilian toll: It did not include western Mosul, which may have suffered the highest number of civilian deaths in the entire war. Nor did it include any strikes conducted after December 2016, when a rule change allowed more ground commanders to call in strikes, possibly contributing to a sharp increase in the death toll.
  • In addition to interviewing hundreds of witnesses, we dug through the debris for bomb fragments, tracked down videos of airstrikes in the area and studied before-and-after satellite imagery. We also obtained and analyzed more than 100 coordinate sets for suspected ISIS sites passed on by intelligence informants. We then mapped each neighborhood door to door, identifying houses where ISIS members were known to have lived and locating ISIS facilities that could be considered legitimate targets. We scoured the wreckage of each strike for materials suggesting an ISIS presence, like weapons, literature and decomposed remains of fighters. We verified every allegation with local administrators, security forces or health officials
  • During the two years that ISIS ruled downtown Qaiyara, an area of about one square mile, there were 40 airstrikes, 13 of which killed 43 civilians — 19 men, eight women and 16 children, ages 14 or younger. In the same period, according to the Iraqi federal police, ISIS executed 18 civilians in downtown Qaiyara
  • in about half of the strikes that killed civilians, we could find no discernible ISIS target nearby
  • we wrote to the coalition ourselves, explaining that we were reporters working on an article about Basim. We provided details about his family and his efforts to reach someone in authority and included a link to the YouTube video the coalition posted immediately after the strike. A public-affairs officer responded, “There is nothing in the historical log for 20 SEP 2015,” the date the coalition had assigned to the strike video. Not long after, the video disappeared from the coalition’s YouTube channel. We responded by providing the GPS coordinates of Basim’s home, his emails to the State Department and an archived link to the YouTube video, which unlike the videos on the Pentagon’s website allow for comments underneath — including those that Basim’s family members left nearly a year before.
  • On the evening of April 20, 2015, aircraft bombed the station, causing a tremendous explosion that engulfed the street. Muthana Ahmed Tuaama, a university student, told us his brother rushed into the blaze to rescue the wounded, when a second blast shook the facility. “I found my brother at the end of the street,” he said. “I carried him.” Body parts littered the alleyway. “You see those puddles of water,” he said. “It was just like that, but full of blood.” We determined that at least 18 civilians died in this one attack and that many more were grievously wounded. News of the strike was picked up by local bloggers, national Iraqi outlets and ISIS propaganda channels and was submitted as an allegation to the coalition by Airwars. Months later, the coalition announced the results of its investigation, stating that there was “insufficient evidence to find that civilians were harmed in this strike.” Yet even a cursory internet search offers significant evidence that civilians were harmed: We found disturbingly graphic videos of the strike’s aftermath on YouTube, showing blood-soaked toddlers and children with their legs ripped off.
  • Human rights organizations have repeatedly found discrepancies between the dates or locations of strikes and those recorded in the logs. In one instance, the coalition deemed an allegation regarding a strike in the Al-Thani neighborhood of Tabqa, Syria, on Dec. 20, 2016, as “not credible,” explaining that the nearest airstrike was more than a kilometer away. After Human Rights Watch dispatched researchers to the ground and discovered evidence to the contrary, the coalition acknowledged the strike as its own
  • The most common justification the coalition gives when denying civilian casualty allegations is that it has no record of carrying out a strike at the time or area in question. If incomplete accounts like these are standard practice, it calls into question the coalition’s ability to determine whether any strike is its own. Still, even using the most conservative rubric and selecting only those 30 airstrikes the Air Force analysts classified as “probable” coalition airstrikes, we found at least 21 civilians had been killed in six strikes. Expanding to the 65 strikes that fell within 600 meters — for example, the strikes on the home of Inas Hamadi in Qaiyara and the electrical substation in Aden — pushed that figure to at least 54 killed in 15 strikes. No matter which threshold we used, though, the results from our sample were consistent: One of every five airstrikes killed a civilian
  • “We deeply regret this unintentional loss of life in an attempt to defeat Da’esh,” Scrocca wrote, using another term for ISIS. “We are prepared to offer you a monetary expression of our sympathy and regret for this unfortunate incident.” He invited Basim to come to Erbil to discuss the matter. Basim was the first person to receive such an offer, in Iraq or Syria, during the entire anti-ISIS war.
  • “This situation of war,” he continued, “big corporations are behind it.” This is where the real power lay, not with individual Americans. He’d come to believe that his family, along with all Iraqis, had been caught in the grinder of grand forces like oil and empire, and that the only refuge lay in something even grander: faith. He had rediscovered his religion. “There was some bond that grew between me and my God. I thanked him for keeping my son alive. I thanked him that my operation was successful. Now I can walk.”
Ed Webb

"It Started With Conversations - And Then They Started Hitting Each Other" - 0 views

  • Inside the prisons of Egypt and other Arab and Muslim countries, a ferocious competition has erupted between radical militants and more established political Islamists over fresh recruits. ISIS is often muscling out more peaceful groups for influence and loyalists among the mostly young men tossed into cramped cells for months or years.
  • Some inmates are subjected to torture and deprivation, despite having committed no or minimal crimes, fueling anger that researchers have long feared breeds extremism in Arab jails.
  • The political dynamics inside Arab detention centers have ramifications far beyond the prison walls. Jails in the Middle East have long forged radical extremists, including the Egyptian intellectual godfather of Islamic extremism, Sayyid Qutb, and the founder of al-Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri, as well as Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian ex-convict whose al-Qaeda in Iraq later morphed into ISIS. Alleged ISIS supporters find prisons to be fertile soil, especially in brutal Arab regimes like Egypt. There are numerous signs ISIS has begun using prisons that are intended to confine them and limit their activities to expand their influence and even plan operations. Egyptian authorities and activists believe former prisoners recruited by ISIS in jail were behind suicide bombings of churches in Cairo in December and on Palm Sunday this year in Alexandria and Tanta.
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  • “Many of the prisoners were already very angry after the coup and eager to fight,” said Yasser Khalil, an Egyptian journalist who has extensively covered prisons. “Telling them them they will go to heaven and get virgins just makes it that much more attractive. They say, ‘Yes, you have a Christian neighbor and he is lovely. But the Coptic Church supports the state, and thus they should be killed.’”
  • Reports have emerged of ISIS recruiters being locked up in prisons all the way from Algeria to Russia’s Caucasus region, Tajikistan, and Indonesia.
  • many warn that ISIS’s nihilism is overpowering the Brotherhood’s appeals. “This is the year of disappointment and disillusion when there’s no hope for the Islamist factions to get out of prison any time soon,”
  • Refusing legal counsel is one trait that distinguishes ISIS prisoners from other inmates, including alleged al-Qaeda supporters. “He used to love life. He used to be keen on getting out of jail. But not anymore.”
  • “ISIS says, ‘We tried democracy and we ended up in jail,’” Abdullah recalled. “‘It was the army that introduced the gun. Why is Sisi in power? He has guns.’”
  • “His mission was to get closer to the poor and the simple people and convince them that if they joined the Islamic State they would have power, money, and women,” he said, “and heaven in the afterlife.”
  • Ahmed Abdullah, the liberal activist, had had enough. He approached some wealthy businessmen inside the prison and arranged for them to bribe guards to allow in some books. He launched a reading group using Arabic translations of world literature and philosophy. They read Franz Kafka to understand the nightmarish nature of Egypt’s bureaucracy, George Orwell as an illustration of brutal authoritarianism, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau as an introduction to democratic governance and the social contract. To his delight the other prisoners were receptive; even some of the Islamists would attend the talks.Suddenly, security forces stormed in and seized the books, loudly accusing Abdullah, who is a professor of engineering at a university in Cairo, of poisoning the minds of the inmates. He was transferred to a dank solitary confinement cell, without a towel or blanket. After three days he was released from jail. He said authorities must have calculated he was more trouble inside prison than outside.“When we have a chance to compete we win,” said Abdullah, smoking flavored shisha at a cafe in central Cairo. “The inmates were really excited with what we had to say. But it turns out our government considers secular activists more dangerous than the Muslim Brotherhood, or ISIS.”
  • Many of Egypt’s estimated 40,000 prisoners are being held in makeshift jailhouses, interior ministry compounds and military camps that don’t have the capacity for separating inmates. One former prisoner described watching as another inmate was recruited by an ISIS supporter while sitting for hours in the van on the way from jail to court. One researcher described a brawl involving Brotherhood and ISIS prisoners during a similar transfer of inmates earlier this year.
  • “ISIS looks down on the Muslim Brotherhood, they consider them infidels, and they point this out to the younger Muslim Brotherhood members,”
  • ISIS targets recruits who have special skills. Gamal Ziada recalled intense competition between the Muslim Brotherhood and ISIS over a prisoner who was a student at Cairo’s elite Zewail City of Science and Technology, considered Egypt’s MIT. “ISIS told him, ‘You’re not going to carry a weapon,’” Gamal Ziada said. “‘You’re not going to fight. You will use your brain.’”
  • “He tried to convince me that I was an apostate and that my parents were apostates too, and I have to convince my family to give up the pleasures of the world and return to Allah,” the smuggler said of his 2015 imprisonment. “He used to ask me to share lunch and dinner with him. He was ordering the best Turkish food in town. He was very rich. He told me that I could continue my work in smuggling for the Islamic State and make much more profit than I did with working with refugees.”
  • “Imagine you are in prison — the great challenge is killing time,” said Ghadi, whose father and brother have been jailed. “Before you could read books. When they closed that door the only way to kill time is sharing your thoughts and experiences. The Islamist groups and factions are the great majority of prisoners. Imagine there’s a constant flow of radical ideas into your mind. They talk and listen and talk and listen. You start to give in. You get weak. You lose all rational argument. You are finally ready to absorb radical thoughts and arguments.”
  • Some experts fear ISIS has recruited potential sleeper agents in prison who might later become emboldened to act. Abdou, the researcher, said he interviewed one former inmate who joined ISIS in prison but dropped any Islamist pretenses the moment he walked out of jail, shaving his beard and going back to smoking shisha and lazing about with old friends.
  • ISIS recruitment and violence inside prisons jumped in 2015 when Egyptian authorities began clamping down on allowing books inside jails
Ed Webb

Trump has vowed to eradicate 'radical Islamic terrorism.' But what about 'Islamism'? - The Washington Post - 0 views

  • The very notion of Islamism often elicits fear and confusion in the West. Used to describe political action where Islam and Islamic law plays a prominent public role, it includes everyone from the European-educated “progressives” of Tunisia’s Ennahda Party to the fanatics of the Islamic State. Not surprisingly, then, “Islamism” can confuse more than it reveals.
  • The “twin shocks” of the Arab Spring and the rise of the Islamic State have forced mainstream Islamists — Muslim Brotherhood-inspired groups that accept parliamentary politics and seek to work within existing political systems — to better articulate their worldview and where it converges and diverges with the post-World War II liberal order.
  • While the Islamists we talked to unanimously opposed the Islamic State and were disgusted by its brutality, some couldn’t help but look with envy at the group’s ability to shatter “colonial impositions” — the Islamic State’s symbolic razing of the Islamists-Syria border, drawn up by Europeans, is perhaps the most infamous example. It’s not so much the arbitrariness of state borders as much as the fact that they exist.
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  • A general dislike of modern borders has been a feature of Islamist politics for some time now, and not just among the young and zealous. Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, for example, has been candid on how Turkey’s “emotional borders” extend far beyond those drawn on the map.
  • After the Arab Spring, a growing number of Islamists have begun to challenge what they see as uncreative approaches to the state — an overly centralized state, and one which, in its very constitution, is unable to tolerate dissent or alternative approaches to organizing society. There is a sense, as one participant put it to us, that the state actively interferes with everything, including religion.
  • a sort of libertarian streak
  • The Islamic State’s model is actually quite modern, with government control taking precedence over social and religious institutions rising organically from the grass roots.
  • As the scholar Ovamir Anjum has argued, pre-modern Muslim thought was not concerned with “politics” in the traditional sense, but with the welfare of the ummah — what he cleverly calls “ummatics.”
  • What’s discomforting is that many Muslims — and not just the Islamic State or card-carrying Islamists — might prefer, in an ideal world, to be free to pledge their ultimate loyalty to the ummah in the abstract, rather than to a nicely bounded nation-state. And while survey data shows the overwhelming majority of Muslims strongly oppose the group, the Islamic State nonetheless draws strength from ideas that have broader resonance among Muslim-majority populations
  • Maybe the reason Islam hasn’t fallen in line isn’t just the poverty, the lack of education, colonialism or wars. These all play a role, of course. But maybe the ideas Islamism brings to the fore also have a resilience and appeal that we have been reluctant to admit. And maybe the liberal order is not as desired, inevitable or universal as we thought.
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    Islamists pose intellectual challenge to liberal world order
Ed Webb

Exporting Jihad - The New Yorker - 0 views

  • A friend of Mohamed’s, an unemployed telecommunications engineer named Nabil Selliti, left Douar Hicher to fight in Syria. Oussama Romdhani, who edits the Arab Weekly in Tunis, told me that in the Arab world the most likely radicals are people in technical or scientific fields who lack the kind of humanities education that fosters critical thought. Before Selliti left, Mohamed asked him why he was going off to fight. Selliti replied, “I can’t build anything in this country. But the Islamic State gives us the chance to create, to build bombs, to use technology.” In July, 2013, Selliti blew himself up in a suicide bombing in Iraq.
  • Tourism, one of Tunisia’s major industries, dropped by nearly fifty per cent after June 26th last year, when, on a beach near the resort town of Sousse, a twenty-three-year-old student and break-dancing enthusiast pulled an automatic weapon out of his umbrella and began shooting foreigners; he spared Tunisian workers, who tried to stop him. The terrorist, who had trained at an Islamic State camp in Libya, killed thirty-eight people, thirty of them British tourists, before being shot dead by police.
  • he condemned the Sousse massacre and a terrorist attack in March, 2015, at Tunisia’s national museum, the Bardo, where three gunmen killed two dozen people. The victims were innocents, he said. Kamal still entertained a fantasy of joining a reformed police force. His knowledge of Islam was crude, and his allegiance to isis seemed confused and provisional—an expression of rage, not of ideology. But in Douar Hicher anger was often enough to send young people off to fight
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  • “The youth are lost,” Kamal told me. “There’s no justice.” Douar Hicher, he said, “is the key to Tunisia.” He continued, “If you want to stop terrorism, then bring good schools, bring transportation—because the roads are terrible—and bring jobs for young people, so that Douar Hicher becomes like the parts of Tunisia where you Westerners come to have fun.”
  • “Maybe it’s the Tunisian nature—we like risk,” a former jihadi told me. A million Tunisians live and work in Europe. “A lot of drug dealers are Tunisian; many smugglers of goods between Turkey and Greece are Tunisian; a lot of human traffickers in Belgrade are Tunisian. Online hackers—be careful of the Tunisians, there’s a whole network of them.”
  • “The radical narrative tells you that whatever you’ve learned about Islam is wrong, you have to discard it—we have the new stuff. The old, traditional, moderate Islam doesn’t offer you the adventure of the isis narrative. It doesn’t offer you the temptation to enjoy, maybe, your inner savagery. isis offers a false heaven for sick minds.”
  • Democracy didn’t turn Tunisian youths into jihadis, but it gave them the freedom to act on their unhappiness. By raising and then frustrating expectations, the revolution created conditions for radicalization to thrive. New liberties clashed with the old habits of a police state—young Tunisians were suddenly permitted to join civic and political groups, but the cops harassed them for expressing dissent. Educated Tunisians are twice as likely to be unemployed as uneducated ones, because the economy creates so few professional jobs. A third of recent college graduates can’t find work. Frustration led young people to take to the streets in 2011; a similar desperate impulse is now driving other young people toward jihad.
  • the factors that drive young men and women to adopt Salafi jihadism are diverse and hard to parse: militants reach an overwhelmingly reductive idea by complex and twisted paths. A son of Riyadh grows up hearing Salafi preaching in a state-sanctioned mosque and goes to Syria with the financial aid of a Saudi businessman. A young Sunni in Falluja joins his neighbors in fighting American occupation and “Persian”—Shiite—domination. A Muslim teen-ager in a Paris banlieue finds an antidote to her sense of exclusion and spiritual emptiness in a jihadi online community. Part of the success of isis consists in its ability to attract a wide array of people and make them all look, sound, and think alike.
  • Souli wasn’t sure what should be done with returned jihadis, but, like nearly everyone I met, he spoke of the need for a program of rehabilitation for those who come back. No such program exists
  • In its eagerness to modernize, the Ben Ali regime encouraged widespread access to satellite television and the Internet. The sermons of Islamist firebrands from the Gulf, such as the Egyptian-born cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi, entered the homes of Tunisians who felt smothered by official secularism. Oussama Romdhani, who was a senior official under Ben Ali—he was referred to as the “propaganda minister”—told me, “Radicals were able to use these tools of communication to recruit and disseminate the narrative, and they did it quite efficiently.”
  • Around 2000, the Tunisian Combat Group, an Al Qaeda affiliate, emerged in Afghanistan, dedicating itself to the overthrow of the Tunisian government. One of its founders, Tarek Maaroufi, provided false passports to two Tunisians who, allegedly on instructions from Osama bin Laden, travelled to northern Afghanistan posing as television journalists and assassinated Ahmed Shah Massoud, the Afghan mujahideen commander, on September 9, 2001. The Combat Group’s other leader, known as Abu Iyadh al-Tunisi, was an Al Qaeda commander; when the Americans overthrew the Taliban, in late 2001, he escaped from Tora Bora with bin Laden, only to be arrested in Turkey, in 2003, and extradited to Tunisia. (Sentenced to forty-three years in prison, he seized the chance to radicalize his fellow-prisoners.)
  • Why can’t the police do their job and stop the terrorists but let the smugglers go with a bribe?
  • revolution opened up a space that Salafis rushed to fill. There were a lot more of them than anyone had realized—eventually, tens of thousands. In February, 2011, Tunisia’s interim government declared an amnesty and freed thousands of prisoners, including many jihadis. Among them was Abu Iyadh al-Tunisi, the co-founder of the Tunisian Combat Group. Within two months, he had started Ansar al-Sharia.
  • Walid was vague about his reasons for returning to Tunisia. He mentioned a traumatic incident in which he had seen scores of comrades mowed down by regime soldiers outside Aleppo. He also pointed to the creation of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, in April, 2013, which soon engaged in bitter infighting with the Nusra Front. Walid spoke of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the caliph of the Islamic State, with the personal hatred that Trotskyists once expressed for Stalin. He accused isis of destroying the Syrian resistance and helping the Assad regime. He believed that isis was created by Western powers to undermine Al Qaeda and other true jihadi groups.
  • these aged men from the two Tunisias—Essebsi a haughty remnant of the Francophile élite, Ghannouchi the son of a devout farmer from the provinces—began a series of largely secret conversations, and set Tunisia on a new path. In January, 2014, Ennahdha voluntarily handed over the government to a regime of technocrats. Ghannouchi had put his party’s long-term interests ahead of immediate power. A peaceful compromise like this had never happened in the region. Both old men had to talk their followers back from the brink of confrontation, and some Ennahdha activists regarded Ghannouchi’s strategy as a betrayal.
  • To many Tunisians, Nidaa Tounes feels like the return of the old regime: some of the same politicians, the same business cronies, the same police practices. The Interior Ministry is a hideous seven-story concrete structure that squats in the middle of downtown Tunis, its roof bristling with antennas and satellite dishes, coils of barbed wire barring access from the street. The ministry employs eighty thousand people. There is much talk of reforming Tunisia’s security sector, with the help of Western money and training. (The U.S., seeing a glimmer of hope in a dark region, recently doubled its aid to Tunisia.) But the old habits of a police state persist—during my time in Tunis, I was watched at my hotel, and my interpreter was interrogated on the street.
  • The inhabitants of Kasserine, however neglected by the state, were passionate advocates for their own rights. They had played a central role in the overthrow of the dictatorship, staging some of the earliest protests after Bouazizi’s self-immolation. In every coffee shop, I was told, half the conversations were about politics. Although Kasserine is a recruiting area for jihadis, Tunisia’s wealthy areas are so remote that the town felt less alienated than Douar Hicher and Ben Gardane.
  • “You feel no interest from the post-revolutionary governments in us here. People feel that the coastal areas, with twenty per cent of the people, are still getting eighty per cent of the wealth. That brings a lot of psychological pressure, to feel that you’re left alone, that there’s no horizon, no hope.”
  • The old methods of surveillance are returning. In the center of Kasserine, I met an imam named Mahfoud Ben Deraa behind the counter of the hardware store he owns. He had just come back from afternoon prayers, but he was dressed like a man who sold paint. “I might get kicked out of the mosque, because last Friday’s sermon was something the government might not like,” the imam told me. He had preached that, since the government had closed mosques after terror attacks, “why, after an alcoholic killed two people, didn’t they close all the bars?” To some, this sounded like a call for Sharia, and after informers reported him to the police the governor’s office sent him a warning: “In the course of monitoring the religious activities and the religious institutions of the region, I hereby inform you that several violations have been reported.” The imam was ordered to open the mosque only during hours of prayer and to change the locks on the main doors to prevent unsupervised use. The warning seemed like overreach on the part of the state—the twitching of an old impulse from the Ben Ali years.
  • “I never thought I would repeat the same demands as five years ago. The old regime has robbed our dreams.”
  • According to the Tunisian Interior Ministry, a hundred thousand Tunisians—one per cent of the population—were arrested in the first half of 2015. Jihadi groups intend their atrocities to provoke an overreaction, and very few governments can resist falling into the trap.
  • New democracies in Latin America and Eastern Europe and Asia have had to struggle with fragile institutions, corruption, and social inequity. Tunisia has all this, plus terrorism and a failed state next door.
  • Ahmed told himself, “If I pray and ask for divine intervention, maybe things will get better.” Praying did not lead him to the moderate democratic Islam of Ennahdha. His thoughts turned more and more extreme, and he became a Salafi. He quit smoking marijuana and grew his beard long and adopted the ankle-length robe called a qamis. He un-friended all his female friends on Facebook, stopped listening to music, and thought about jihad. On Internet forums, he met jihadis who had been in Iraq and gave him suggestions for reading. Ahmed downloaded a book with instructions for making bombs. In the period of lax security under Ennahdha, he fell in with a radical mosque in Tunis. He was corresponding with so many friends who’d gone to Syria that Facebook deactivated his account. Some of them became leaders in the Islamic State, and they wrote of making thirty-five thousand dollars a year and having a gorgeous European wife or two. Ahmed couldn’t get a girlfriend or buy a pack of cigarettes.
  • “Dude, don’t go!” Walid said when they met on the street. “It’s just a trap for young people to die.” To Walid, Ahmed was exactly the type of young person isis exploited—naïve, lost, looking for the shortest path to Heaven. Al Qaeda had comparatively higher standards: some of its recruits had to fill out lengthy application forms in which they were asked to name their favorite Islamic scholars. Walid could answer such questions, but they would stump Ahmed and most other Tunisian jihadis.
  • “We need to reform our country and learn how to make it civilized,” he said. “In Tunisia, when you finish your pack of cigarettes, you’ll throw it on the ground. What we need is an intellectual revolution, a revolution of minds, and that will take not one, not two, but three generations.”
Ed Webb

The Middle East's New Divide: Muslim Versus Muslim - Al-Monitor: the Pulse of the Middle East - 0 views

  • For much of the last decade, most have digested the narrative of a Muslim-West divide. It was so pervasive that newly elected US President Barack Obama, portrayed as a symbolic messiah bridging two worlds, was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize before even completing a year of his term. Twelve years after the 9/11 al-Qaeda attacks, much of the discussion about the "Muslim world" has internalized this language, and why not? The conflict between the Palestinians and US-supported Israel remains unresolved, US drone strikes continue unabated in Pakistan and Yemen and terrorist attacks like the Boston Marathon bombing are still occurring in deadly fashion.
  • Al-Qaeda’s own ideology was based heavily on the writings of Sayyid Qutb, the Muslim Brotherhood leader executed in 1960s Egypt. Qutb had, in turn, borrowed heavily from the 14th-century theologian Ibn Taymiyyah, both of whom promoted intra-Muslim violence. The basis of the call to jihad was not against the West, but rather against "un-Islamic" regimes, even if they were helmed by Muslims. Embedded in al-Qaeda’s fight was a rejection (takfir) of regimes within the Muslim world. The United States and its Western allies were targeted for being the guarantors of these governments in the eyes of al-Qaeda
  • The battle lines have shifted from Islam versus the West to Muslim versus Muslim, and it is time for politicians and pundits in the United States and the Middle East alike to catch up
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  • With the end of the Soviet war in Afghanistan — in which the Americans and Muslim jihadists were allies — and the fall of the Soviet Union, a new dynamic began to set in. The 1991 Gulf War raised the specter of an American hegemon and also led inadvertently to the development of al-Qaeda as an anti-Western force. Over the next two decades, underlined by the 9/11 attacks, the notion of Samuel Huntington’s clash of civilizations appeared to be coming to fruition. With the Iraq and Afghanistan wars in full throttle, alongside the second Palestinian intifada, this divide sharpened in the early 2000s.
  • in recent years approximately 90% of terrorism-related fatalities have been Muslim
  • In 2008, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad were regarded as the most admired leaders in the Arab world. Subsequent events and sectarian strife have made such a result today inconceivable
  • The ripping open of the political space in Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Tunisia has brought contestation for power into play, and in the spotlight stands the debate over the role of Islam
  • three concurrent battle lines pitting Muslim against Muslim across the region: militants versus the state, Shiites versus Sunnis (and Salafists versus Sufis) and secularists versus Islamists
Ed Webb

Saudi Arabia Pleased With Morsi's Fall - Al-Monitor: the Pulse of the Middle East - 0 views

  • Saudi Arabia hosted Arab Muslim Brotherhood exiles during the repression of the 1950 and 1960s. They came not only from Egypt but also from Syria, Iraq and other Arab countries where they had been prosecuted. Brotherhood cadres played a pivotal role in Saudi educational institutions and later the transnational organizations set up by King Faisal to counter the spread of Arab nationalism and leftist movements. Saudis used the exiled Iraq as tools to weaken such movements and undermine their credibility, while emphasizing their un-Islamic character. During the anti-Soviet jihad in the 1980s, Saudis used the worldwide networks established by the Brotherhood to inflame the imagination of its youth and channel aid and weapons. Yet Saudi Arabia never allowed the Brotherhood to establish branches there as they did in other Arab countries and in the West.
  • Educated urban Saudis were attracted to the Brotherhood discourse and impressed by its ability to form civil society organizations, posing as charitable and welfare services. Individuals frustrated with the Wahhabi-Salafist tradition that forbids political action and unconditionally obeys rulers, found in the Brotherhood an authentic discourse capable of mobilizing society. The ideological vacuum that resulted from the death of Arab nationalism and socialism after 1967 was quickly filled by political Islam. To counter the appeal of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Saudi religious establishment condemned it as a divisive force and accused it of undermining people’s creeds. Saudi Arabia began to curb the activities of the Brotherhood after the latter condemned the Saudis for inviting foreign troops to expel then-Iraqi president Saddam Hussein from Kuwait in 1990.
  • After 9/11, suspicion of the Brotherhood evolved into outright hostility. Prince Nayif accused the Brotherhood of radicalizing Saudi youth and held it responsible for the terrorism wave that swept the country from 2003 to 2008. Such accusations were unfounded, as most jihadis operating in Saudi Arabia grounded their actions in the teachings of Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, the 18th-century preacher whose tradition has been dominant in Saudi Arabia up to the present.
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  • unlike official Saudi Salafists, who still believe that democracy is a Western import that promises to bring atheists, secularists and leftists to power, the Brotherhood engaged in elections, won seats in parliaments and even came to power in Tunisia and Egypt. Surely, then, Islam and democracy are not so incompatible. This in itself threatens the foundations of Saudi rule, which is still based on absolute kingship, difficult to justify from an Islamic point of view. The Brotherhood therefore exposes Saudi claims to legitimacy and undermines their credibility as lawful Muslim rulers.
  • The competition over the hearts and minds of Muslims in the growing global Muslim society worries Saudi Arabia, which seeks to monopolize these platforms.
  • Saudi Arabia feared that Morsi would make Egypt drift toward Iran, with whom Saudi Arabia competes for hegemony at the regional level.
  • The Muslim Brotherhood had already drifted toward Qatar rather than Iran, thus allowing this small but wealthy Gulf country to undermine Saudi designs for the region and split the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries over the desired outcome of the Arab uprisings.
Ed Webb

Welcome to the Syrian Jihad - By Marc Lynch | Foreign Policy - 1 views

  • in today's Arab world, there is nothing particularly distinctive about his comments at all. For many months, Arab and Muslim figures of all stripes have been loudly calling for support to the predominantly Sunni Syrian rebels, as have many Arab governments (and the United States and its allies, of course). The Muslim Brotherhood's branches have strongly supported the Syrian opposition -- acquiring too much power along the way, in the minds of some. Egyptian Salafis have described providing arms and funds to the Syrian rebels as "a form of worship" and killing Assad as a religious obligation. As the killing and destruction has escalated, such support for Syria's rebels has rapidly morphed into extreme anti-Shiite and anti-Alawi rhetoric
  • In January 2007, for example, he tried to use his influence to rein in spiraling sectarian rage following the execution of Saddam Hussein. At that time, Qaradawi was only weeks past a controversial appearance at a Doha conference on Sunni-Shiite relations, in which he had made a number of controversial remarks viewed by many as overly provocative toward the Shiite. But at that crucial moment, Qaradawi invited former Iranian President Hashemi Rafsanjani on al-Jazeera to push back against the rabid sectarianism then roiling the Middle East.
  • Qaradawi has long been described as among the most influential clerics in the Sunni world. A savvy political opportunist, he has long been one of the best barometers for the mood of a major swathe of the Arab mainstream, uncannily attuned to shifts in the political mood. He cleverly triangulated Arab politics, adopting populist positions on foreign policy while pushing for democratic reforms across the region and advancing a "centrist" Islamist ideology. In recent years, the Egyptian-born cleric has strongly supported most of the Arab uprisings, including a controversial late February 2011 appeal to Libya's army to kill Muammar al-Qaddafi.  In Egypt, he was welcomed the Friday following Mubarak's fall to lead prayer and deliver a pro-revolutionary speech in Tahrir. But he disappointed many observers by describing Bahrain's uprising as "sectarian," in line with the Arab Gulf country's collective stance intended to delegitimize it.
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  • His core doctrine of wasatiyya was always better understood as "centrism" than as "moderation" (whatever that might mean)
  • Qaradawi's alignment with the Saudi position has less to do with his theology or his personal views on the Shiites than with his calculation of regional political trends
  • Team Saudi is now celebrating Qaradawi's capitulation to their own anti-Hezbollah, anti-Shiite prejudices. No words could have been sweeter to Qaradawi's Saudi critics than his recent reversal on Hezbollah: "I defended the so-called Nasrallah and his party, the party of tyranny... in front of clerics in Saudi Arabia. It seems that the clerics of Saudi Arabia were more mature than me."
  • like it or not, his broad themes -- such as support for "resistance" from Palestine to Iraq, criticism of al Qaeda, calls for democracy, denunciations of most Arab regimes, and conservative social values -- generally seemed to reflect mainstream Arab political views.
  • Like al-Jazeera, Qaradawi's stances now seem to more closely follow Qatari foreign policy, and his influence has waned along with his host station and Qatar itself, which has experienced a regional backlash
  • Qaradawi now finds himself speaking to a narrower, more partisan audience. What does it say about his influence that his preferred candidate in Egypt's presidential election, the former Muslim Brotherhood leader and Islamist reformist Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, won less than 20 percent of the vote?
  • Qaradawi can no longer claim to speak to a broadly unified Arab public because such a creature no longer exists
  • The proliferation of media outlets and assertive new voices that define the new Arab public sphere tend to undermine any efforts to claim the center ground
  • Qaradawi has opted to join the bandwagon rather than try to pull Sunni-Shiite relations back toward coexistence. He clearly calculates that anti-Shiite sectarianism in support of the Syrian insurgency is both strategically useful and a political winner.  And those in the Gulf and in the West eager for any opportunity to hurt Iran seem happy to go along
Ed Webb

Libyans march against militias after attack - 0 views

  • Some 30,000 people filled a broad boulevard as they marched along a lake in central Benghazi on Friday to the gates of the headquarters of Ansar al-Shariah. "No, no, to militias," the crowd chanted, filling a broad boulevard. They carried banners and signs demanding that militias disband and that the government build up police to take their place in keeping security.
  • Residents of another main eastern city, Darna, have also begun to stand up against Ansar al-Shariah and other militias. The anti-militia fervor in Darna is notable because the city, in the mountains along the Mediterranean coast north of Benghazi, has long had a reputation as a stronghold for Islamic extremists. During the Gadhafi era, it was the hotbed of a deadly Islamist insurgency against his regime. A significant number of the Libyan jihadists who travelled to Afghanistan and Iraq during recent wars came from Darna. During the revolt against him last year, Gadhafi's regime warned that Darna would declare itself an Islamic Emirate and ally itself with al-Qaida. But now, the residents are lashing out against Ansar al-Shariah, the main Islamic extremist group in the city. "The killing of the ambassador blew up the situation. It was disastrous," said Ayoub al-Shedwi, a young bearded Muslim preacher in Darna who says he has received multiple death threats because has spoken out against militias on a radio show he hosts. "We felt that the revolution is going in vain."
  • Militiamen have been blamed for a range of violence in Darna. On the same day Stevens killed in Benghazi, a number of elderly Catholic nuns and a priest who have lived in Darna for decades providing free medical services, were attacked, reportedly beaten or stabbed. There have been 32 killings over the past few months, including the city security chief and assassinations of former officers from Gadhafi's military.
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  • Tribal leaders in Benghazi and Darna announced this week that members of their tribes who are militiamen will no longer have their protection in the face of anti-militia protests. That means the tribe will not avenge them if they are killed.
  • "We don't want the flag of al-Qaida raised over heads," he added, referring to Ansar al-Shariah's black banner.
  • "We will talk to them peacefully. We will tell them you are from us and you fought for us" during the civil war against Gadahfi. But "if you say no (to integrating into the) police and army, we will storm your place. It's over."
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