A reader recently asked why I focused on Hezbollah last week in posts about the Syrian civil war, so today I’d like to provide some additional context.

First, there are many ways to analyze the ongoing conflict in Syria. It can be seen as a revolution against an authoritarian regime, or as a proxy war between Sunnis and Shi’a, or as means for al-Qaeda and similar organizations to find new relevance. All of these approaches are helpful in understanding the nuances of actors and motivations in the war.

Second, Hezbollah has undeniably been an instrument of the Syrian government. Syria has helped to fund and train Hezbollah militants since the group’s inception. If the government has used Hezbollah to attack groups outside of Syria in the past, there is no reason to think it won’t use them to attack groups inside of Syria now. Furthermore, there is premature speculation in the media that the fall of the Syrian regime could spell the end of Hezbollah.

Personally, I am particularly interested in how a Shi’ite group like Hezbollah may try to counter the growing Sunni presence of al-Qaeda. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was not inaccurate when he characterized the opposition as “al-Qaeda terrorists” during the early days of the war. Many within the Western news media balked at that suggestion, but al-Qaeda was among the hundreds of opposition groups in Syria at that time and their numbers have only grown since.

The al-Qaeda fighters pouring into Syria from Iraq 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.

The Shi’a were an early Islamic political faction (Party of Ali) that supported the power of Ali, son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad and the fourth caliph (ruler) of the Muslim community. Ali was murdered in 661CE, and his chief rival, Muawiya, became the new caliph. It was Ali’s death that led to the great schism between Sunni and Shi’ite.

Caliph Muawiya was succeeded by his son Yazid, but Ali’s son Hussein refused to accept Yazid’s legitimacy. Fighting between the two denominations resulted. Hussein and his followers were massacred in battle near Karbala in 680CE,  and the deaths of Ali and Hussein gave rise to the Shi’a sect of martyrdom and a sense of betrayal.

The Shi’ite faith has always appealed to the poor and oppressed waiting for salvation. It is a messianic tradition in that it awaits the coming of the “Hidden Imam” (Allah’s messenger) who will reverse the fortunes of sect members and herald the end of the world.

Shi’ites  currently make up about 15% of the Muslim population worldwide. Al-Qaeda has vowed to wipe the Shi’ites from the face of the earth. The only way that the Alawite population can survive in the current Syrian climate is to use their own groups such as Hezbollah to push back against the al-Qaeda machine.

To sum up, I have focused on Hezbollah because that organization is a significant- and significantly underreported- player in the Syrian conflict.

Bin Laden Dead

May 2, 2011

The architect behind the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks was killed in an operation led by the United States, President Obama said Sunday in a late-night statement at the White House.

Osama Bin Laden was probably born in 1957. He was number 17 of 57 children to a father who made his fortune in the Saudi Arabia construction industry.  It is believed that the young bin Laden got his penchant for radical Islamist ideology at his university,  King Abdul-Aziz University, in Jeddah. This is where bin Laden was exposed to Islamist thinkers.

Bin Laden was influenced by the Sunni reformist movements of Deobandi and Salafi. Going forward, Bin Laden and his followers were bolstered by a genuine belief that they were reformulating the global order.

Bin Laden’s personal brand of Islamist ideology encouraged reconsideration of earlier Islamic religious positions. Among the goals of bin Laden were the defense and preservation of Sunni norms and law. Defensive arguments within bin Laden’s Salafi movement, often referred to as jihad, are often accompanied by an unusual degree of openness to departures from past Islamic analysis and understanding. These departures include a call for a more rigid conservatism while promoting a militant vision and culture unheard-of in classical Islam.

The Salafi and Deobandi movements are typically spread through schools run by religious teachers who have little knowledge of or appreciation for traditional Islam. The chief task of these teachers is to promote a jihadist vision that is global in scope, intolerant of competing with other Sunni doctrines, and fanatically anti-Shi’a. A main goal of Salafi and Deobandi schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan is having their pupils spread this form of Islam world-wide.

U.S. intelligence tracked the al Qaeda leader to a 3,000 square foot, custom built compound with high walls and two security gates. The compound is near the Pakistani town of Abbottabad. Bin Laden’s movements were monitored for months until President Obama decided that there was enough evidence for the U.S. military to act.

U.S. operatives moved on the compound early Monday local time. Helicopters descended on the fortified compound in Abbottabad, and a small contingent of the U.S. Navy Seals killed bin Laden in a raid.

President Obama announced the news at the White House. He called the death of bin Laden “the most significant achievement to date” in the war against al Qaeda.

“After a firefight, they killed Osama bin Laden and took custody of his body,” the president said, warning that the U.S. must remain vigilant because al Qaeda will “continue to pursue attacks against us.”

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

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

A U.S. drone missile strike in Pakistan last week reportedly killed around 40 people. Many of those killed were alleged terrorists, but many more were described by Pakistan as tribal elders. Pakistan’s government and military responded with a rare admonishment of the United States, and some tribal elders have declared what they call a renewed jihad against the U.S.

Demonstrations erupted around Pakistan the day after the attack. The Pakistani government claims that the meeting was a peaceful one intended to resolve a mining dispute, and that the meeting should not have been targeted. Read the rest of this entry »

The militant group known as al Shabab has claimed responsibility for the two bombings that erupted in Uganda this past Sunday.

The bombings killed more than 70 people who were watching the World Cup final.

Al Shabab is based in Somalia, and it is believed that the group has links to al Qaeda. The attacks on Sunday mark the first time that al Shabab has struck outside Somalian borders.

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

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

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Jihadi Cool

January 12, 2010

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

Al Qaeda is expanding into cyberspace

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

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