Jabhat al Nusra in Syria

April 22, 2013

As I explained last week, al Qaeda in Iraq has announced an official merger with the Syrian based jihadist group Jabhat al Nusra.

This marriage has already begun to affect that state of opposition within Syria and the involvement of outside powers.

Jabhat al Nusra is increasingly following a foreign agenda within Syria. In the areas of Syria where Jabhat al Nusra has gained control, the group has instituted Sharia courts, created a morality police, banned alcohol, imprisoned women in their homes, forced women to wear the full veil, and flown the black flag of al Qaeda. Understandably, tensions between the jihadist group and other rebel groups have flared – especially around access to resources and for control of governance in rebel-held areas. These issues of power are paramount, because they highlight Syrians grappling with both imported ideologies and with understandings of Islam that are new to them.  

Syria-Jabhat-al-Nusra

Some members of Jabhat al Nusra are showing signs that they are worried about a Syrian backlash. Abu Mohammad al Golani, a Jabhat al Nusra leader, denied knowledge of al Qaeda in Iraq announcing the merger. Instead, he stressed that Jabhat al Nusra is a local group that will continue to operate under the banner of Jabhat al Nusra. In a video statement, al Golani pledged allegiance to al Qaeda head Ayman al Zawahiri, publicly recognizing the group’s loyalty to al Qaeda, but rejected the idea that Jabhat al Nusra was merely an arm of al Qaeda in Iraq.

Issues of governance have eroded Jabhat al Nusra’s standing in opposition circles. Following its formation, the group was originally praised for its operational effectiveness and distribution of humanitarian aid. Popular support for Jabhat al Nusra was so high that, following the United States designation of the group as a Foreign Terrorist Organization, protests broke out across Syria on their behalf. People shouted the slogan, “We are all Jabhat al Nusra.”

Rebel commanders recognize the importance of distributing humanitarian aid as a mechanism for influence and power in the areas that they control. Jabhat al Nusra has gotten a widespread reputation for providing better services to citizens and for more properly distributing aid. This has given the group an established degree of authority in its operational areas. Yet other rebel groups have become reluctant to cede authority to Jabhat al Nusra and these groups now use humanitarian aid as a means of countering their influence.

Clashes for power and authority between Jabhat al Nusra and other rebel groups are becoming more widespread, and Jabhat al Nusra recently fought the Farouq Brigade for control of portions of Syria’s Raqqa province.

Jabhat al Nusra, being seen as an al Qaeda affiliate instead of an indigenous Syrian opposition group, will continue to erode  the organization’s authority and influence in that country. Jabhat al Nusra must retain popular support and ensure that other rebel factions are willing to work with them in order to maintain its preeminent position within the opposition.

Despite al Golani’s attempts to reaffirm Jabhat al Nusra’s Syrian identity, the merger announcement will likely continue to enhance existing fractures between the organization and other opposition groups. This does not bode well for Jabhat al Nusra’s continued popularity.

Other non-jihadist opposition groups may be able to assert a counter-authority if they are able to demonstrate the same level of operational effectiveness as Jabhat al Nusra. This is one of the reasons behind the United States’ announcement two days ago that the U.S. will double its aid to Syria. The Obama Administration hopes that, by giving other rebel groups aid, it will further weaken Jabhat al Nusra’s standing in the country as well as disrupt al Qaeda’s attempt at creating a refuge in Syria.

Last week, al Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi announced the official merger of his affiliate and the Syrian based Jabhat al Nusra into a single organization.

This is a very important move for al Qaeda which has been degraded over the last few years after suffering defeat after defeat.

Syrian rebels in training exercisesAl Qaeda would love nothing more than to find refuge in Syria as it once did in Afghanistan. The continuing internecine strife between various Syrian rebel factions along with an increasing lawlessness (following the degradation of the Syrian state) has enabled the growing and well-disciplined Jabhat al Nusra to expand their control over territory in Syria.

United States General James Clapper, the director of U.S. National Intelligence, stated in testimony on Capitol Hill last week that if and when Assad falls there will be as much as a year-and-a-half of continued civil unrest in Syria. This is because it will take that long for a new government to be consolidated due to infighting between former allies and various mujahideen groups within the opposition. 

There are possibly hundreds of opposition groups inside Syria. Several of these groups consider themselves to be the leader of the opposition. These groups are not part of a larger monolithic whole; rather, they are  divergent ethnic groups that are often antagonistic and even violent towards one another.

A Jabhat al Nusra-controlled Syria—with previously established connections between al Qaeda and other Jihadi affiliated groups, administered with a shared militancy, and isolated from Western political influence and military power—would provide a perfect location for al Qaeda to relocate its headquarters. Furthermore, Syria would be better positioned to rebuff Western intervention than Afghanistan was with its enormous stockpile of chemical weapons.

In July of last year, al Baghdadi released an audiotape where he warned the Syrian rebels “not to accept any rule or constitution but God’s rule and Shariah (Islamic law). Otherwise, you will lose your blessed revolution.”

The formal pact between al Qaeda’s Iraqi faction and Jabhat al Nusra could be the nail in the coffin for possible U.S. intervention in Syria. The announcement gives U.S. politicians (including President Barack Obama) the political cover needed to deny military action in Syria and to continue a strategy of diplomacy to oust the Syrian regime. However, a lack of U.S. support may drive the Syrian opposition to strengthen ties with al Qaeda.

As long as the rebels lack sufficient weapons, they will be forced to turn to those groups that are willing to provide them with arms. And right now those groups are the Jihadi affiliated groups such as al Qaeda. Arming the Syrian opposition could provide them with the opportunity to be independent of al Qaeda; however, there is the real danger that arming the opposition will funnel weapons into terrorist hands. 

The ongoing threat of terrorism by al Qaeda presents a different pattern from what has been seen in the past. Leadership of the network has evolved from a centralized body to a loose aggregation of groups. Plots are now emanating from African countries such as Yemen whereas before they exclusively emerged out of Pakistan, Afghanistan, or Iraq. 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. A safe haven like the one they are attempting to create within Syria.

Al Baghdadi became the leader of al Qaeda in Iraq after Abu Omar al Baghdadi, who was not related, and Abu Ayyub al Masri were killed on April 18, 2010 by a joint team of U.S. and Iraqi troops. 

A Syrian activist group claims that 6,000 people were killed in Syria during the month of March. If true, this would make March the most deadly month yet in the two year-old civil war. 

This number comes from the British-based activist group the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. The Observatory gave figures of 1,486 rebels and army defectors and 1,464 Syrian army soldiers killed, along with 2,080 civilians, 298 of them children and 291 women. In addition, the group listed 387 unidentified civilians and 588 unidentified fighters.

Syria6000

An increase in regime artillery could be to blame for the increased death toll: for example, airstrikes from the Syrian air force have had an uptick. 

The United States has stepped up its training of the Syrian opposition. The U.S. has also increased providing non-lethal aide to the Syrian rebels including body armor, communications equipment, and food rations. 

The Jordanian army has grown its role in training Syrian rebels as well. Jordan would like to set up a humanitarian zone in the southern part of Syria where the two countries share a border. Jordan hopes to employ former Syrian police and army defectors as peacekeepers for the zone. 

Plans for a humanitarian zone come as rebels have gained significant amounts of land along Syria’s border crossing with Jordan. The Jordanian government is apprehensive over which factions of the rebellion will ultimately control Syria’s border, however.

An Islamist leaning faction wielding power along the border could complicate Jordan’s plans for the area. A humanitarian zone could be installed in a matter of weeks, and such a place could slow the thousands of people flowing across the border into Jordan. But, this would only occur if Syrians felt the area was safe to stay in. If Islamists ran the zone, there are fears that Syrian refugees will refuse stay there, and Jordan’s government is desperate to relieve the refugee flow into their country. 

The Islamist element of the Syrian opposition is complicating more than just plans for a humanitarian zone. There are concerns across the Middle East and here in America that Islamist portions of the opposition could get their hands on some of the heavy arms being given to the rebellion. This gives the Syrian conflict the capability of spilling over Syria’s borders and destabilizing the entire Middle East region along the Sunni/Shi’a divide. 

Many of the Islamists in Syria come from al Qaeda and affiliated groups such as Jabhat al Nusra. These groups promote a jihadist vision that is fanatically anti-Shi’a. One of al Qaeda’s main grievances with the Syrian regime is that it is run by Alawites, people who belong to a branch of Shi’a Islam. 

The civil war began in mid-March 2011 with mass protests in Deraa as part of the wider ‘Arab Spring’.

Estimates for the number of killed vary depending on the source, and the United Nations has stopped providing regular numbers due to lack of reliable information.

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. 

The Crusades and European colonialism have had a widespread and lasting impact on the Muslim imagination.

For many in the West, the Crusades for the liberation of Jerusalem were a laudable moment of religious enthusiasm over the defense of Christianity. Images of the Crusades have long been used by Western media and marketing to project symbols of bravery, honor, and power. But for Muslims, the Crusades were a symbol of Western aggression where Christians sought to conquer or eradicate the Muslim world.

The Crusades have had a lasting impact.

The Crusades have had a lasting impact.

In that vein, many Muslims see colonialism and postcolonialism as another crusade. The legacy of European colonialism (foreign dominance of and Muslim subordination to European powers) is that it reversed a pattern of Muslim rule and expansion. This legacy has been long lasting, and its trend continues to threaten Muslim identity and autonomy. Why have Muslims fallen behind the West? Have Muslims failed Islam or has Islam failed Muslims? How should Muslims react? These questions remain a significant point of contention for many in the Muslim world.

The creation of the state of Israel in 1948 further complicated these questions. Muslim leaders considered Israel to be the ultimate symbol of European imperialism. Populated by Europeans brought in with European and American encouragement (at a time when Muslim countries were struggling to gain complete independence from European dominance), Israel’s borders were drawn arbitrarily and frequently cut off Arab villagers from their lands. In general, Israel found itself in an almost totally hostile environment. However, from the Israeli perspective, these Muslim attitudes were unwarranted. Israel’s view was that Muslim governments should recognize Israel and absorb the Palestinians into their own countries.

Many in the Muslim world have feared that the United States ‘war on terror’ would reproduce the dangers they faced from European colonialism in that Americans would attempt to infiltrate, dominate, and ultimately redraw the map of the Middle East once again. U.S. President George W. Bush’s use of the word crusade in a speech about the war on terrorism highlighted and propagated those fears.

Muslim responses to colonialism still form the foundations for actions that occur in the Middle East today: noncooperation, resistance, conflict, and withdrawal. Therefore, the West’s threat to Muslim identity and autonomy continues to encourage clashes and incidents within the Muslim world.

A trend toward Westernization in Muslim societies has created a growing social split. Modern secular schools matriculating alongside traditional religious madrasas produce two classes of Muslims living side by side but acquiring different worldviews and different prospects for their future. These two classes of people battle over models of political, social, and legal change. The liberal secular elites advocate emulating the West; however, resisters to Westernization often seek to follow the example of the Prophet: resistance in territory no longer under Muslim control, and fighting to defend the faith and lands of Islam (jihad). Some have tried to bridge the growing gap with a response called Islamic modernism. This answer has reawakened a sense of past power and glory while offering an Islamic alternative to completely assimilating or completely rejecting the West, but it has been both a success and failure at bringing Muslim societies together. 

Much of the Middle East remains underdeveloped and politically unstable, because most modern Muslim states are only several decades old and were carved out by now-departed European powers. For example, the creation of Pakistan and India resulted in communal warfare that left millions dead. The boundaries around Lebanon (drawn by the French) led to the Lebanese Civil War that pitted Christian and Muslim militias against each other. The country Jordan was a completely new British creation. And when the British created Iraq, the cobbled-together state (led by a Sunni ruler over a majority Shi’a population) highlighted the artificiality and fragility of the Muslim world.

Many violent radicals justify the horrors they commit by reciting a series of Muslim grievances against the West.

Historic memories of the Crusades and European colonialism get superimposed on current events. These societal memories feed resentment, anger, and deepen anti-Americanism in the broader Muslim world. Animosity towards the West is reflected in the common use of words like Zionist and infidels.

The globalization of jihad is a direct consequence of these memories. Groups that have declared war against America, like al-Qaeda, bring together many elements from Muslim history: condemnation of Western values, fears of foreign domination, militant jihad, a desire for Muslim expansion, and condemnation of any Muslim leader who forms an alliance with the West. Such groups harness these historic memories along with religion and modern technology to strike anywhere, anyplace, and at anytime. 

What do you think? Do you agree or disagree with what I have written? Requests for future posts? I would love to hear from some of you.

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.”

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.

Money and Expectations

August 14, 2012

Over the weekend U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with Turkish officials in Istanbul to work on contingency plans for the eventual fall of the Syrian regime. Secretary Clinton says that it’s urgent to prepare for a transition in order to make sure Syria’s institutions remain intact.

Syrian opposition groups are hoping that the U.S. will do more than just design transition plans. Many are calling for U.S. involvement in overthrowing President Bashar al-Assad’s rule through military and monetary support.

The U.S. Treasury has granted a license to an American-based organization to raise money on behalf of a coalition of armed opposition groups known as the Free Syrian Army (FSA). The “Syrian Support Group” (SSG) is a nonprofit organization that has an office in Washington, DC. The nonprofit is primarily comprised of Syrian ex-pats (12 are on its board of directors) and they volunteer their time to support “peaceful protests in Syria” as well as the FSA.

The SSG’s director of government relations, Brian Sayers, has suggested in media interviews that the nonprofit is providing needed intelligence to the U.S. government (through contacts it has on the ground) in exchange for the U.S.’s facilitation of monetary donations to the FSA.

As I have stated previously, there are possibly hundreds of opposition groups in Syria. Several of these groups consider themselves to be the incumbency for the opposition. These groups are not part of a larger monolithic whole; rather, they are  divergent ethnic groups that are often antagonistic and even violent towards one another.

Read the rest of this entry »

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.

Kofi Annan Leaves Syria

August 3, 2012

Another blow has been dealt to the Syrian peace process.

Former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan has resigned from his role as the U.N.’s chief peace negotiator in Damascus. The announcement comes as the severity of fighting has risen in recent weeks. This is yet another sign that there will not be a peaceful end to the Syrian civil war any time soon.

Mr. Annan had been in this role since February, but success always appeared to be a long shot for him: It can be almost impossible to demilitarize a conflict with so many moving parts. As I have written, there are possibly hundreds of opposition groups within Syria vying for a leadership position in the rebellion. Getting all of these groups to the table would be a daunting task in and of itself. Even then, getting them to agree on anything is another matter entirely.

So what are the consequences of diplomacy failing?

I’ve noted previously that the Syrian military is using war planes to fire on the opposition. These are fighter jets and helicopters that were designed to fight a different kind of war (a war with another state actor). This could indicate the military’s desperation and hint at a disintegration of its other capabilities.

Reports now attest that portions of the rebel opposition have become more capable and better organized since al-Qaeda got involved in the fight. News reports out this morning cite intelligence sources indicating that a substantial presence of al-Qaeda in Iraq is within Syria. This compounds matters.

Al-Qaeda operatives have previous combat experience, and they are probably offering to help the local opposition forces be more effective. Al-Qaeda will likely embed their fighters in existing opposition forces and move to systematically co-opt the agenda of these groups, once they are in place.

Western intelligence services need to find out who and where these operatives are – and fast: Syria is known to be armed with a substantial stockpile of chemical weapons. It will be vital for western governments to ensure that those weapons do not fall into terrorist hands.

%d bloggers like this: