A massive blast rocked Syria’s Aleppo University on Tuesday, blowing the walls off dormitory rooms and killing at least 87 people with the death toll expected to rise. The explosion hit the campus as students were in the middle of taking exams.

Government institutions within Aleppo have been a target in the past, because Aleppo is the country’s largest city and it has been Syria’s main commercial hub. However, the targeting of students marks a major escalation in Syria’s civil war. The government and the rebel opposition have blamed each other for the university bombing, and it is easy to see why. The target of attack as well as the scale of destruction is inconsistent with the rebel’s modus operandi or the rockets they are known to possess. The bombing shows all the hallmarks of al Qaeda.

Aleppo University

The ongoing threat of terrorism by al Qaeda presents a different pattern from what has been seen in the past. Leadership of the network appears to have evolved from a centralized body to now being a loose aggregation of groups. One reason for this new development is that al Qaeda relies heavily on geographical safe havens. These are areas of the world where al Qaeda has the ability to set up training camps and meeting places without fear of interference or interruption. The chaos and confusion that has erupted around Syria’s civil war has created one of those safe havens.

Jabhat al Nusra is a member of al Qaeda’s loose aggregation of groups, and it has claimed responsibility for attacks on Syrian government targets in the past. In my opinion, this group is a prime suspect for the university bombing, but it may be reticent to take responsibility for fear of reprisals from other rebel groups.

As I’ve said in the past, 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 insurgents, unaffiliated groups who profit from drug smuggling, and now Syrian rebel forces. 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 with other groups like never before. This adds a whole new dimension to the insurgencies in both Afghanistan and Pakistan and a troubling new dynamic to Syria’s civil war.

The latest violence in Syria sees Jabhat al Nusra and other al Qaeda affiliated groups attacking soft targets in the larger cities. For al Qaeda, these methods are meant to establish a two-pronged goal. The organization is intent on making it more difficult for the weakened Shi’a led government of Syria to physically challenge al Qaeda and the network’s alliance with Sunni groups; more importantly, a weakened Syria could further destabilize the region and possibly further embroil the the United States in regional conflicts.

Al Qaeda’s goal remains the same. It aims to “provoke and bait” the United States into “bleeding wars” throughout the Islamic world.

Abu Musab al Zarqawi masterminded and oversaw the strategy that al Qaeda originally used to destabilize Iraq. Zarqawi focused on the fault line in Iraqi society – the divide between Sunnis and Shi’a – with the intention to cause civil war. The attacks he launched against the Shi’a became a kind of roadmap for wreaking controlled havoc. He did this with the intention of keeping the United States bogged down in conflicts with Muslim fighters; however, it must be noted that al Qaeda has always seen its ability to defend and preserve Sunni norms and law at the expense of Shi’a political power as a benefit to its war on the West.

I believe that if Syria’s government does eventually fall, al Qaeda will then initiate a second Syrian civil war among the Sunni/Shi’a divide in order to bait the United States to intercede. If a second civil war did occur, the United States would move to keep Syria’s stockpile of chemical weapons out of the wrong hands. They could play right into al Qaeda’s trap.

There are possibly hundreds of opposition rebel groups within Syria. Several of these groups consider themselves to be the incumbency for the opposition and would move to form a new government should President Bashar al-Assad’s government fall. These groups are not part of a larger monolithic whole; rather, they are divergent ethnic groups that are antagonistic and even violent towards one another. Their only unifying factor is that they oppose Assad. Al Qaeda will surely exploit this situation.

Syria’s civil war is only one round in a dangerous ongoing game of chess that al Qaeda is playing with the United States.

al qaeda in syria

Many of the al Qaeda fighters in Syria came from Iraq, and they promote a jihadist vision that is global in scope, intolerant of other Sunni doctrines, and fanatically anti-Shi’a. Al Qaeda’s main grievance with the Syrian regime is that it is run by Alawites, people who belong to a branch of Shi’a Islam. Syria’s population is over 70% Sunni, yet the country is run by minority Shi’ites who make up only around 12% of the population. Al Qaeda wants to change that, and they are building and expanding training camps in pockets of Syria where sympathetic Sunnis hold power.

Like all bombings associated with al Qaeda, the bombing at Aleppo University was designed to sow fear and induce economic damage. Syria’s state-run SANA news agency has quoted the minister of higher education, Mahmoud Mualla, as saying that Assad has ordered the reconstruction of Aleppo University “with the utmost speed.”

U.S. President Barack Obama and Afghan President Hamid Karzai held a joint press conference last week in Washington D.C. to announce that U.S. troops would move into a support role in Afghanistan starting this Spring. This puts the Afghanistan military in the lead a few months ahead of schedule.

The United States has been debating for some time on how best to end its involvement in Afghanistan’s conflict, and accelerating the transition in Afghanistan from NATO and U.S. control to Afghan control will affect the timetable for U.S. troop withdrawals.

Any residual American forces left in Afghanistan after the United States formally ends its combat mission there in 2014 will probably number between three and nine thousand. I’ve heard that any troop levels below ten thousand would only be expected to conduct a discreet counterterrorism mission inside that country using drones strikes. The U.S. Defense Department has said that it would take a force of thirty thousand U.S. troops or more to continue any boots on the ground operations. To compare numbers, the U.S. currently has sixty-eight thousand troops inside Afghanistan.

U.S. soldiers

Afghanistan’s central government will suffer after U.S. troop withdrawals. Tribal rivalries, Taliban insurgency, as well as less foreign aid and support will constrain the central government’s ability to govern its outside provinces.

According to a recent Pentagon report, only one of the Afghan military’s thirty-one battalions is considered to be trained to the point that it is ready for unilateral combat. The other thirty battalions lack the ability to battle insurgents without substantial NATO support. With the exception of this one battalion, the Afghan military has failed time and again to sustain itself in battle.

If outside provinces do fall into Taliban or other insurgent’s hands, that may make it easier for the remaining U.S. forces to target said insurgency’s command structure. Controlling a province requires a governmental structure and oversight that could draw insurgent commanders out in the open and expose their movements.

Whatever the size, some contingent of American troops will remain in Afghanistan.

Other funding aside, Mr. Karzai needs the United States to continue providing the $2.5 billion a year that the Afghan government uses to keep its soldiers paid, clothed, and armed. When American soldiers finally do leave completely, the U.S. government will have no reason to continue providing that country with foreign aid; therefore, Karzai laid the groundwork for ongoing negotiations on his trip to the U.S. last week. He hopes to keep U.S. troops in Afghanistan so that he can keep U.S. funds in Afghanistan.

People that live in the West have created stereotypes for terrorists. While profiling those who could become a terrorist can be beneficial and even save lives, creating iconic clichés can lead to misinformation and dangerous assumptions.

Rome Burning

Misinformation about terrorism has become popular, in part, because people crave a simple answer for the reasons why a heinous crime has been committed. The truth is that terrorism has been used by many groups and organizations throughout history as a tactic to influence populations. Terrorism has never been an isolated problem, and it has never been limited to a single religion or ideology.

Talal Asad, Robert Pape, Alan Krueger, and Mark Juergensmeyer are just some of the academics that have been theorizing about terrorism post 9-11. Their work and the work of others like them is incredibly important if we are going to correctly comprehend the motives and actions of terrorist groups. 

Terrorists have to commit themselves to a cause in order to be galvanized into action, and individuals associated with terrorism tend to experience a progressive radicalization.Terrorist organizations like al-Qaeda have a command structure of well educated operatives who often take a complicated worldview for their causes, and al-Qaeda is not the only group like this.

If one looks systematically across a number of terrorist organizations and at various incidents of terrorism, patterns begin to emerge. It can be argued that those who become involved in terrorist organizations are often from middle class backgrounds with a high amount of education relative to the society that they come from. The vast majority of Palestinian suicide bombers have been college students, for example.

Education can be an important mechanism for radicalization as it is an amplifier for the adoption of views, and for a confidence in the assuredness of those views. Furthermore, research has found that terrorist organizations typically send better educated individuals on the more important missions, because the better educated tend to have better odds at succeeding to carry out an attack. The most common occupation for a terrorist in an engineer. 

There are many instances where groups like the Taliban have recruited uneducated youths and indoctrinated them with an extreme ideology (religio-political) to incite and encourage them; however, data on failed terrorist attacks show that often terrorists are extremely educated people who are just as likely to cite nationalistic, economic, and civil inducements as they are to espouse religious ones.

Terrorists who do identify primarily as religious tend to coalesce their religious beliefs with existing socio-cultural views influenced by their economic status, national identity, and political reality. Religious terrorists may seek out extreme religious ideologies because they are in line with their pre-existing socio-cultural worldview. This would indicate that religious extremism is not a catalyst in creating a terrorist as much as it is an approbation.

As I have said in past posts, a better understanding of what role religious extremism may play (and may not play) in terrorist actions could save future lives. However, it is important to not sensationalize religion’s influence on acts of terrorism.

So, who believes in a cause so zealously that they are willing to give up their lives for it? Terrorism is a political tactic that is used to spread fear, but, more importantly, it is intended to inflict harm on a random group of people in order to reach and influence a much wider audience. Terrorism often targets a country’s foreign policy.

What countries do terrorists come from, and what countries do they target with their attacks?

Countries that have a suppression of civil liberties (such as Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen) tend to be a producer of terrorists. However, Islamic countries are no more likely to produce a terrorist than non-Islamic countries. By and large, the most common signifier for a terrorist producing country is chronic political instability and widespread suppression.

Terrorist organizations tend to target wealthier countries. Globalism has interconnected the international system like never before, and wealthier countries have more influence and power in the international system because of their ability for unilateral decision making. Terrorist attacks are commonly perpetrated by groups that wish to force states into a multilateral decision making process.

failed-female-suicide-bomber-speaks-out

The phenomenon of suicide bombings is one of the terrorist acts most reported by the media (even though those kinds of attacks only make up around 5% of terrorist attacks overall). These are people that are willing to kill themselves in order to kill other people. Experts have been studying Suicidology in an effort to prevent suicides for the last thirty years, but it is an incredibly difficult challenge. Are there better ways of identifying people who are radicalized or may have mental instability, and, if so, could policies be implemented that could reduce the frequency of suicide attacks?

One of the consistent factors in suicide bombings is that the bombing itself is an act of contesting authority.

We face risk every day going about our regular lives. We are at risk for getting in a car crash, falling down a flight of stairs, and getting assaulted by someone on the street. We adequately cope with that level of risk, and it is important that we keep the risk of a terrorist attack in perspective.

Terrorism can only effect us if we let it. We cannot let past terrorist acts rule our lives or direct our policymaking. We need to think about the ways that we can reduce acts of terrorism, and then we need to continue on with our lives.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai is spending the week in Washington D.C. He is meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama as well as other senior administration officials, and the talks are expected to help set the framework for U.S. involvement in Afghanistan after the bulk of American and NATO forces leave at the end of 2014. However, even when the American military pulls the majority of its troops out of Afghanistan, there will still be a huge American presence in the country.

Barack Obama, Hamid Karzai

According to the October 2012 quarterly contractor census report issued by the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), which includes Afghanistan as well as 19 other countries stretching from Egypt to Kazakhstan, there are approximately 137,000 contractors working for the Pentagon in the Middle East region. There were 113,376 in Afghanistan and 7,336 in Iraq. Of that total, 40,110 were U.S. citizens, 50,560 were local hires, and 46,231 were from neither the U.S. not the country in which they were working.

Candidly, there are currently more contractors than U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

The Middle East is overrun with U.S. government contractors, and not all of them work for the American Defense Department. For example, contractors working for the U.S. State Department are prolific. The CENTCOM report says that “of FY 2012, the USG contractor population in Iraq was approximately 13.5K.  Roughly half of these contractors are employed under Department of State contracts.”

While people now understand that contractors perform a lot of missions once done by troops – cleaning toilets, performing security — they may not realize how the size of contractors working in the Middle East has grown, or just how dependent on them the United States government has become.

In Afghanistan, the U.S. government is signing five-year contracts, well beyond the 2014 deadline for all U.S. combat forces to get out of that country. While Karzai is in the U.S. this week to negotiate a timetable for American troop withdrawal, one must assume that his talks won’t have much of an impact on the contractor population within his country. The subject of contractors remains conspicuously absent from Mr. Karzai’s global pulpit, and contractors have remained a strong presence in Iraq since all U.S. troops were withdrawn from that country in December 2011.

With contractors remaining in Afghanistan for the foreseeable future, what prospects will their presence have for Afghan peace? Many of the conflicts in Afghanistan are based on local grievances. Karzai has stated that he hopes that militants who were galvanized by local disagreements can be reformed while any factions that fight for a global jihadi movement can be omitted and frozen out of Afghanistan’s political structure.

American officials hope to use any reconciliation talks in Afghanistan as a way to neutralize Taliban regional control. For example, any talks with the Taliban or a Taliban aligned group would be designed to dismantle some parts of the Taliban while excluding the more hostile factions. American strategists are hoping that if the Afghan Taliban and other militant groups become politically impotent, it will lead to a change in their behavior.

Syria Defiant

January 7, 2013

Syria’s state media reported earlier today that government troops were successful in stopping last night’s rebel attack on a police school in the northern city of Aleppo. The attack occurred on the same day that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad called on Syrians to fight the rebel opposition driven by what he characterized as “religious extremists.”

Syria’s official SANA news agency said regime forces killed and wounded members of a “terrorist group” in the fighting late Sunday, but the agency failed to provide a number for the killed and wounded.

Aleppo, Syria’s largest city and a former commercial hub, has been a major front in the civil war since July, with battles often raging for control of military and security facilities such as the police school. Rebels have made progress in capturing territory around Aleppo, as well as in the east and in the capital Damascus, bringing Syria’s civil war closer to the seat of Assad’s power.

In yesterday’s speech, Assad outlined terms for a peace plan, but he dismissed any chance of dialogue with the rebel opposition, labeling them as “murderous criminals.” Bashar al-Assad addresses supporters in Damascus

This was Assad’s first public speech in six months, and he  appeared confident in the hour-long address. He vowed to continue the battle “as long as there is one terrorist left.”

The United Nations now estimates that 60,000 people have been killed in the civil war since that conflict began.

As violence spilling across Syria’s border with Turkey has increased in frequency, the international community has resolved to contain and constrain Syria’s border incursions.

Roughly 400 U.S. military personnel are being deployed to Turkey to help man Patriot anti-missile batteries. Turkey formally asked NATO for the missiles in November to bolster security along its 560-mile border with Syria. Turkey has repeatedly scrambled fighter jets along the frontier, and it responded in kind when Syrian military opened fire across its borders, fanning fears that the civil war could spread to destabilize the region.

The 400 U.S. troops will man two of the Patriot batteries out of a total of six batteries that have been promised by NATO allies. Two other anti-missile batteries left a Netherlands military base this morning en route to the Turkish border. Roughly 300 Dutch soldiers will man the Dutch  batteries. Germany has been tapped to send the final two anti-missile batteries requested by the Turkish government.

Five female teachers and two health workers were gunned down by militants in Pakistan yesterday in what appears to be the latest in a series of attacks targeting anti-polio efforts in that country.

Four militants on motorcycles were responsible for the deaths of the workers. Only the young son of one of the women who was riding in the van and the van’s driver were spared. The militants reportedly pulled the boy from the van before spraying it with bullets. Both survivors were being treated at a Peshawar hospital.

All seven victims worked at a community center in the Pakistani town of Swabi which included a primary school and a medical clinic that vaccinated children against polio. The Pakistani Taliban opposes vaccination campaigns, often accusing health workers of acting as spies for the U.S.; furthermore, the Pakistani Taliban alleges such vaccines are intended to make Muslim children sterile.

The history of the Pakistani Taliban targeting vaccination campaigns goes back to the killing of Osama bin Laden. A Pakistani doctor was enlisted to help the CIA locate bin Laden, and he used a fake polio vaccination campaign as a cover for his intelligence work. This doctor was later arrested by Pakistani authorities for spying, and, out of this narrative, militants began claiming that all of the medical community in Pakistan was suspect of working with the United States.

Many popular conspiracy theories among Pakistanis have been augmented to include medical professionals. Some militants even assert that Pakistan’s whole medical community is a cover for an elaborate spy network.

U.S. Drone in Pakistan

U.S. Drone in Pakistan

Fears of spying currently run rampant in Pakistan. The government is attempting to quell some of these fears by reportedly building its own fleet of aerial drones. Any Pakistani drones produced would be crude by U.S. standards, and the American government is refusing to share its drone technology with Pakistan; however, there has been chatter that China could provide Pakistan with any needed technology, or that the drones may be built in China and shipped to Pakistan.

What could be some of the consequences of Pakistan, or any other nation, using drone technology as the United States has? The U.S. has used drones all over the world to kill terrorists. U.S. drones have killed citizens of other countries, over borders, without sanction from the United Nations. What if Pakistan or another country started doing the same, and then pointed at the U.S. use of drones as setting a precedent? If Pakistani drones operated within Afghanistan, on what grounds could the United States object? Iran and China are both reportedly producing their own drone fleets. What happens when Hamas starts using drones against Israel? Israel already employs the use of drones to assassinate Palestinian targets. Could Pakistan’s drones antagonize India into creating a fleet of its own drones? Are we at the beginning of a new, lower stakes, arms race?

Pakistan is one of only three countries in the world where polio is still an epidemic. There has been a nation-wide campaign to fight this disease; however, this campaign is seriously threatened by the continued attacks on health workers.

The Coming Challenges

January 1, 2013

A leading yet underreported issue that I have tried to bring attention to with this blog is that social change on a global level has apparently weakened the nation-state. I realize that this is a major claim with countless consequences that will take scholars decades to understand, but scholars such as Mark Juergensmeyer have been alleging this reality for years.

One of the main consequences that I associate with the weakening of the traditional state is the likewise weakening of secular politics. This weakening has created a “political” vacuum, and, within this vacuum, religious politics have had a worldwide revival. I believe this is due in no small part to the fact that the internet is changing religion on a global scale.

The Internet

The remarkable growth in computer technology has allowed for the electronic mediation of religion across the globe. The ramifications of this religio-electronic globalization are still being debated, but internet studies indicate that very little in the real world isn’t reproduced online, and very little of what is online seems to have no offline foundation. This means that people do online pretty much the same as they do offline, but they work within a global space instead of their traditional local spaces. The internet has removed boundaries and made borders irrelevant.

Not only is religious information disseminated online, but the internet is commonly used for evangelism and proselytization, which are standard religious activities. The internet is therefore used as a tool for the expansion of religious knowledge and also as a tool for religious practice. The scholar Douglas E. Cowan has pointed out that the internet is also an excellent venue for religious antagonism and countermovement (Cowan 2004).

What does this all mean? The internet and other tools of globalization work as equalizers. They give everyone an equal access to information and an equal ability to make their voices heard. The nation-state no longer has the agency it once had in disseminating and controlling what information its masses consume. There are blatant exceptions to this of course, such as China. And in no way am I suggesting that access to the internet is universal. A digital divide exists (Norris 2001) where there are internet haves and internet have-nots. Africa’s population, for example, still has glaringly few internet users.

As I’ve said, religious actors are filling the political vacuum created by modernity. What I mean by a political vacuum is that the traditional nation-state’s power is splintering as hundreds of ethnicities and countless communities seek autonomy. As the nation-state loses its ability to influence these groups, other entities such as religious actors are filling the void with their new-found ability to influence using mediums such as the internet. To analyze the beliefs and actions of these actors is an examination in both comparative politics as well as comparative religion. Many non-state actors are responding in a religious way to a political situation, and they are using the internet and other forms of media to transmit their responses.

The nature of these lightening-fast communications, being culturally influential yet also prolific and often quickly forgotten, makes much of a religious actor’s internet exchanges useful for only a particular period of time. Furthermore, the nature of such communication creates the problem that there is so much information to sift through, that critical data is being overlooked and ultimately lost to scholars and analysts alike.

Students of both religious studies and political science will have to grapple with the new reality that modernity and globalization are creating. But one will not be able to study either of these disciplines without also employing the other. The nation-state has weakened to an unprecedented level. The implications for future conflicts and religious inspired terrorism are daunting.

I’ll attempt to cover some of these implications in future posts.

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