Iranian elections are scheduled to take place this spring, and elections inside Iran have the ability to trigger political instability and upheaval. These elections could change the political calculus and the national conversation around Iran’s nuclear issue. Possibly sensing this, Ayatollah Khomeini, the Iranian supreme leader, announced in a speech last week that he may be interested in reopening political channels with Israel and the United States to negotiate Iran’s nuclear program. 

The upcoming Iranian elections (and any instability that results) could complicate the strategic political decision the Iranian regime makes whether to actually build a weapon. 

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said in their latest report that the Iranian effort to develop a capacity to produce nuclear weapons persists. The enrichment process continues in an effort to reach bomb grade levels at 20 percent, the number of centrifuges at the Fordow facility, which is the Iranian facility that intelligence agencies are worried about.

Last September Israeli President Benjamin Netanyahu gave a speech at the United Nations where he held up an image of a cartoon time bomb and said that Israel could no longer tolerate Iran’s uranium enrichment after this summer, because that would be the time when Iran would reach a point of no return. Mr. Netanyahu warned that Israel would have to forcefully intercede before this happens. Israel sees a strike on Iran as a war of necessity, because Israel believes a nuclear Iran is a threat to its security. 

Mr. Netanyahu at the U.N. last September

Mr. Netanyahu at the U.N. last September

Consequently, Iran is facing both national elections and an Israeli deadline for war. 

Were Israel to bomb Iran, there is the very real possibility that it might set off a regional war. I say this because both Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Palestinian territories would come to Iran’s defense. 

The Lebanese Hezbollah has operated as an instrument for the radicalized Shi’ite community. Iran is seen as the de facto leader of the alliance between Shi’ite Muslim states, because the biggest effect the Iranian Revolution of 1979 had on the Middle East was to encourage the most uncompromising elements within the Shi’ite community to fight a regional counteroffensive against what was then a Sunni status quo

Syria has long been an important mechanism for arming pro-Palestinian militant groups to fight Israel inside Gaza. With the civil war in Syria refusing to abate, Hamas currently lacks the ability to re-arm itself like it once did in the past; therefore, Hamas now depends more heavily on Iranian power. 

Furthermore, the United States is in the process of drawing down its troops in Afghanistan. The Iranians will do everything possible to turn up the heat on American forces in Afghanistan if Israel attacks Iran. 

Iranian supplies to the Taliban and to other groups within Afghanistan cannot be trivialized. Insurgents have long moved freely across the border Iran shares with Afghanistan, and Iran has been a safe haven for members of the Taliban, al-Qaeda, and others hiding from Western intelligence. 

Sunni governments in the Middle East are also afraid of Iran acquiring a nuclear weapon. The Shi’ite faith has always appealed to the poor and oppressed waiting for salvation. Iran’s propaganda promotes an “Islam of the people,” and incites the poor to rise up against the impiety of Sunni-lead governments. An empowered and emboldened Iran would complicate the fragility of the region. 

The Middle East has been dominated by Sunni power centered in Saudi Arabia since the creation of the Islamic conference in 1969. However, Iran has considered itself the true standard-bearer of Islam since its revolution, despite its Shi’ite minority status. Iran considers the Saudis to be “usurpers who sold oil to the West in exchange for military protection–a retrograde, conservative monarchy with a facade of ostentatious piety” (Kepel 2000). 

Shi’ites currently make up about 15% of the Muslim population worldwide. 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. 

Back to Iran, the south eastern region of country is volatile due to narcotics trafficking. The area is known as a gateway for smuggling drugs from Afghanistan and Pakistan into Western Europe. Therefore, elements of the Taliban and al-Qaeda have connections with Sunni insurgents working there.

Jundullah (Army of God) is a Sunni resistance group openly opposed to the Shi’a led government of Iran. Jundullah first made a name for itself in 2003, and it is believed that Jundullah was founded by a Taliban leader out of Pakistan named Nek Mohammed Wazir. Jundullah has a sectarian/ethnic agenda: the group wishes to free the millions of Sunni Balochs which it alleges are being suppressed by Tehran. 

The Taliban and al-Qaeda’s regional influence has spread, and Jundullah has used suicide bombers, a hallmark of the al-Qaeda playbook, in it’s attacks against Iran. This indicates that Jundullah militants are likely receiving training from al-Qaeda (possibly within Pakistan’s borders), and one can only speculate how al-Qaeda would seek to take advantage of Iran turning into a war zone. 

We’ve already seen al-Qaeda fighters pouring into Syria from Iraq to promote a jihadist vision that is 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 it would love nothing better than to also install a Sunni government inside Iran. 

As I said in my previous post, much of the Middle East remains politically unstable, because most modern Muslim states are only several decades old and were carved out by now-departed European powers. Cobbled-together states (a Sunni ruler over a majority Shi’a population or vice versa) highlight the artificiality and fragility of the Middle East and Muslim politics. 

Iran is populated primarily by Shi’ites, and it remains a security (mukhabarat) state whose rulers focus on retaining their power and privilege by focusing on military and security forces at the cost of societal modernization. Islamic revivalism has stunted Iran’s march toward “Western” modernization, and is a prime example of what I was speaking of in my previous post when I said “a trend toward Westernization in Muslim societies has created a growing social split.” 

Iran’s official language of Persian (Farsi) helps to keep Iran culturally isolated from much of the Middle East where Arabic is the dominant language. While Persian and Arabic share an alphabet, they are completely different languages with completely different pronunciations. This causes difficulties with Iran sharing in cultural products such as news, entertainment, and religious services with the majority of the Middle Eastern region. This fact is especially important to remember when we consider Iran’s communications (or lack thereof) with other countries in the Middle East. A lack of clear communication could complicate and escalate any conflict brewing in the region. 

Iran, under the shah, wanted 22 nuclear reactors for energy, and at the time the United States supported this position. Iran only ever built one, but it has plans, it says, for others, but it’s taken a very long time to get to the point where it can build them. The question is, is Iran’s current regime also moving toward a weapon. Iran is supposed to declare everything that it’s doing on the nuclear front with the IAEA, but it has not cooperated with the international community in terms of giving it access to its scientists or in providing information on what it has been doing. Iran has blocked the IAEA at every turn, and it is currently in violation of the international agreements it has signed. 

Six months ago yesterday, an assault on the U.S. Consulate in Libya resulted in the first killing of a U.S. ambassador in more than 30 years. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans were killed in Benghazi on September 11, 2012.

Six months ago today, the U.S. government started oversight analysis on the attack. Officials from the White House, Congress, the Defense Department, the Intelligence Community, and the State Department began trying to piece together the events of the attack. Since that time, countless people have spent hundreds of hours going through thousands of documents. 

Reuters Image

The events of that night are no longer in dispute.

There were a series of security mechanisms at the U.S. Consulate. The first barrier consisted of local police officers sitting in a vehicle outside the Consulate. The two officers had only one gun between them, which is not uncommon in Libya, and the police fled when the initial attack began.

The local Libyan guard force within the Consulate as well as the U.S. Marines stationed there fought courageously to repel the attack to the best of their abilities.

Marines stationed in Portugal were then dispatched to help fight off the attack; however, the air assets that they needed to travel to Benghazi were located in Germany. This delayed the Marine’s arrival.

All of the Americans with the exception of the Ambassador eventually evacuated to the Consulate annex. It is believed that at this point the Ambassador was already dead, and after the evacuation, the looting of the Consulate began. Three more Americans then lost their lives at the annex.

After the attack was over, the Federal Bureau of Investigation was then tasked with evidence collection and intelligence gathering. Because the FBI did not have a presence in Libya prior to the attack, there was a serious time lag between the attack and the FBI arriving to investigate the scene. During this period, looters and reporters accessed the Consulate and tainted evidence. 

This attack was not a strategic intelligence failure. The U.S. government has assessed that the attack on the Consulate was an opportunistic but coordinated attack that was planned only a few hours in advance. The Consulate was a soft target, it was the anniversary of 9/11, and there may have been hope among the militants that regional fury over an internet video purporting to attack Islam could give incentive for other groups to join in once the initial militants instigated the attack.

If there was a failure, one could argue that it existed at the Executive level where there was a lack of a comprehensive national security policy for American interests within Libya. I say this because, after the fall of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, the Obama administration did nothing to either dismantle the Libyan militias that had popped up in Gaddafi’s absence, or to build a reliable security force that American interests could depend on. I’m not talking about anything as drastic as nation building here. I’m simply pointing out that the Obama administration took a hands off approach to security in Libya.

Those of us who work for principals in government are debating various issues going forward: How can we improve information sharing? How do we improve our national security policy? How can we improve our military posture in responding to such attacks? How can we improve our intelligence investigations?

First, I think it is fair to say that the United States has limits to its military power, because with a smaller budget, military assets that are already stretched thin will be expected to do even more with less. Second, the Obama administration has shifted the Department of Defense’s focus to Asia at the expense of security concerns in the Middle East and Africa. This reallocation of concern could allow militant organizations within those regions to rebuild their terrorist networks. Third, in order to address the gaps in the military’s threat response, the United State’s military is going to have to take a second look at their European presence. Marines stationed in Portugal should be tethered to air assets if they are expected to be first responders to terrorist activity.

The Obama administration’s insistence on using the FBI as the main mechanism for evidence collection and intelligence gathering instead of military assets had its own complications. Because the FBI had no prior presence in Libya, FBI agents had to go through official channels to make arrangements to enter that country. The FBI first had to get permission from the Libyan government, then they had to get visas, and then they had to acquire adequate security to guard them as they did their jobs. All of this took precious time.

Many Members of Congress and some in the press have taken issue with the talking points that were used by U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice. All I will say on this issue is that the talking points were not written for her specifically, but she used them anyway and they turned out to be inaccurate. If this teaches us anything, junior intelligence analysts should not be making talking points for senior level administration officials.

In any event, the U.S. State Department is going to have to have a fundamental rethink on what it means to have a diplomatic presence in another country. There needs to be a balance between keeping State Department employees protected and their desire to take risks and properly explore a country.

The political spectrum of the Middle East and Africa are changing rapidly, and trying to understand these changes is one of the greatest challenges in contemporary foreign policy and security analysis.

Chris Stevens was a career diplomat who spoke Arabic and French and was the first U.S. envoy to the Libyan resistance, which overthrew Colonel Gaddafi in 2011. He was the ambassador to Libya for less than a year. He was 52 years-old.

Finally, I apologize for my absence over the past month, but between my work on Capitol Hill and my ongoing attempt at writing a book, I’ve had little time to update this blog properly. I promise to be more prolific in the future. 

I first wrote about the Deobandi movement on this blog three and a half years ago. Since that time, Western interest in the Deobandi movement has increased both in the media and among the security community. I thought it might be helpful if I offered an updated version of that original post.

The Deobandi movement has evolved out of a Sunni reformist tradition. It began in the Indian subcontinent, but it’s political expression and ideology were co-opted by Pakistan’s Jamiyyat-i-Ulama-i-Islam (JUI). The JUI are a religious party with a strict, militant, anti-West, and anti-American culture. The JUI also denounce anyone who is non-Muslim. The JUI trained many members of the Taliban in their madrasas (seminaries). These schools were first set up for Afghan refugees in the Pashtun heavy areas of Pakistan during the Afghan-Soviet war.

Madrassa

The Deobandi movement is named for the originating Madrasa established in the town of Deoband in northern India in 1867. This school soon became the model for madrasas established all over Southern Asia. Thousands of Deobandi madrasas now exist in India and Pakistan. And out of all the sectarian orientations in South Asia, those associated with Deobandi have been the most intellectually dynamic and politically the most significant.

The majority of significant commentaries produced by Deobandi intellectuals have focused on hadith. A hadith is an oral story related to the prophet Muhammad and his customs. Hadith are understood as being important devices in deciding proper Muslim living. And it is important to stress that hadith are attributed to Muhammad as opposed to the Qur’an. Therefore, it is understood by Muslims that hadith are the words of Muhammad and not the word of God. The Sunni cannon of hadith is called the ‘Six major Hadith collections.’

Deobandi-scholarship on hadith has encouraged reconsideration of earlier religious positions. Among the goals of the Deobandi brand is the defense and preservation of Sunni norms and law. Defensive arguments within Deobandi, sometimes referred to as jihad, are often accompanied by an unusual degree of openness to departures from past hadith analysis. These departures include a call for a more rigid conservatism while promoting a militant vision and culture unheard-of in classical Islam.

Saudi funding to Islamic groups worldwide was drastically accelerated in the early 1980s as a means to create a Sunni wall  against Iran’s export of its Shi’a revolution. Iran’s funding of Shi’ite groups as well as its call for a global revolution threatened Saudi Arabia’s Islamic leadership role and the Arab world’s Sunni hegemony. The Deobandi movement’s emphasis on the defense and preservation of Sunni norms and law made the funding of Deobandi schools especially appealing to the Saudi regime.

Deobandi schools created close ties to Wahhabi militants in Saudi Arabia, and the creation of new schools boomed throughout the 1980s and 1990s from Saudi funding. In this way, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Saudi Arabia are closely tied together, to the dismay of their current respective governments. The criminal networks of militants operating in these countries all have ties to the Deobandi worldview. If world governments are going to overcome terrorism perpetrated in Islam’s name, they will have to better educate themselves in the Deobandi brand of radicalism.

Pakistan has a population exceeding 180 million people, and nearly two-thirds of this population is illiterate. The average Pakistani makes about $450 a year. Deobandi madrasas provide students with shelter, food, and a much needed education. It is sometimes estimated that between 80,000 and 100,000 Pakistanis trained in Deobandi madrasas just between 1994 and 1999.

Deobandi madrasas in Pakistan and Afghanistan are typically 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 Deobandi schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan is having their pupils spread this form of Islam world-wide.

All Female Madrasa in Pakistan

All Female Madrasa in Pakistan

The post-Deobandi boom  has affected both faith and politics in the Muslim World. Deobandi’s global vision is to establish a Deobandi caliphate, and Deobandi missionaries have brought greater piety, religious divisions, opposition movements, and conflicts. Deobandi schools were first opened in the United Kingdom, Canada, and the United States in the 1980s.

The British newspaper The Times has claimed that nearly 600 of the 1,400 mosques in Britain are run by Deobandi affiliated scholars, while 17 of the 26 Islamic seminaries follow Deobandi teaching. Significantly, the seminaries produce 80% of Britain’s domestically trained Muslim clerics.

In the States, Darul Uloom Al-Madania was opened in Buffalo New York in 1986, and Darul Uloom New York was opened in New York City in 1997. In Canada, the Al-Rashid Islamic Institute was opened in Ontario in 1980, and the Darul Uloom Canada was opened in Ontario in 1993.

It’s been more than two years since anti-government protests began in Egypt. Since then, the government’s been replaced, citizens gained their right to vote, and a new president has been sworn in; however, protests in Egypt have started again, and some of them have turned violent.

Egyptians are frustrated because revolutionaries haven’t been able to translate the protests that brought down the former government into greater political action and reform. Egyptian courts are seen as politicized, police have not been reformed, and citizens do not have due process protections. Protesters are furious over the abusive treatment Egyptians receive at the hands of security forces.

Egypt’s interior minister did offer a rare apology over the weekend after officers under his command were seen on television beating a naked man two blocks from the president’s palace.  The spectacle of Hamada Saber’s beating revived bitterness at Egypt’s police force, whose record of brutality helped set off the original revolt against Hosni Mubarak, the former president, and served as a reminder that nearly two years later, the new president, Mohamed Morsi, had taken few steps to reform the police.

A protester uses a loudhailer as she chants anti-Mursi slogans during a protest in front of the presidential palace in Cairo

The latest violence has deepened a sense of crisis in Egypt. The country’s quarreling political forces, supporters and opponents of President Morsi, have blamed each other.

The current ruling party in Egypt is the Muslim Brotherhood, and they have struggled with their leadership role. The Brotherhood was an oppressed group before the anti-government protests began, and they have had difficulty with the challenges of their new position.

The seven million bureaucrats that work in Egypt’s government have kept their jobs under Morsi; therefore the endemic corruption and bribe taking that has plagued Egypt has not been addressed. Furthermore, the Brotherhood have been so focused on seeing their Islamist constitution become law that they have ignored almost all other grievances. The Brotherhood  rammed their constitution through to approval in December.

Since becoming the president of Egypt as the candidate of the Muslim Brotherhood, Mr. Morsi has focused on turning Egypt into an Islamist state. Possibly because he doesn’t want to give any momentum to the secularist opposition, Mr. Morsi has not done any reforms that could alienate government workers or weaken his power base. Therefore, the little political capital that Morsi had not invested in shaping Egypt’s constitution has been focused on foreign policy. Here, Morsi is taking a page out of the North Korea playbook where he is attempting to shift attention away from internal politics. By shifting national focus to outside the country, Morsi is in less danger of offending government interest groups. Of course, so far he is failing to change the national subject.

Morsi has sought to reassert Egypt’s historical leadership role in regional affairs. In doing so, Morsi has tried to place Egypt at the center of negotiations to end the Syrian civil war. He has also warmed relations with Iran. Morsi rightly believes that if he can paint himself as a peacemaker, it will quell some of his political opposition. In that vein, Morsi has called for a national dialogue within Egypt as a response to the country’s ongoing violence.

Egypt’s Coptic Christian pope sharply criticized Morsi and the Brotherhood in an interview with The Associated Press earlier today, saying that the new constitution is discriminatory, because under it Egypt’s Christians are being treated as a minority.

The comments by Pope Tawadros II reflected the political stance, historically unusual for a Coptic Pope, that he has taken since being enthroned in November as the spiritual leader of the Copts, the main community of Egypt’s Christians. Christians are increasingly worried over the power of Islamists in the country.

Tawadros dismissed Morsi’s call for national dialogue as a way to dispel criticism that his government concentrates power in the Brotherhood without reforming corruption. Most secularist opposition parties have refused to join the dialogue, as has the Coptic Church, calling it mere window dressing.

“We will actively take part in any national dialogue that would benefit the nation,” Tawadros told The AP. “But when a dialogue ends before it starts and none of its results are implemented then we do not take part.”

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.

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.

Why is religion an important component of international security analysis?

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

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

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

Policewomen in Pakistan

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

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

Read the rest of this entry »

%d bloggers like this: