Archive for the ‘Terrorism’ Category

Munich_Eye_05_15_49_00In a recent testimony to the House Committee on Homeland Security, National Counterterrorism Center Director Nicholas Rasmussen estimated that over 20,000 fighters from across Europe, North America, or elsewhere in the Arab world had left their homes to join militant groups operating inside Iraq and Syria. This figure is striking given global outrage over widely publicized executions, the depth of the US-led coalition, and extensive barriers to entry resulting from European legislation targeting would-be militants traveling to Syria. The common narrative is that despite these deterrents, potential fighters decide to join groups such as the Islamic State (IS) due to a shared religious ideology. However, this explanation is likely more convenient than accurate. Militants do not join IS because they adhere to the group’s specific interpretation or brand of Islam, but rather because of a secular combination of personal and environmental factors pushing and pulling them to the Levant.

Interviews, testimonies, and social media analyses of militants operating inside Syria and Iraq indicate that “pull” factors comraderiesuch as the yearning for adventure, seeking camaraderie, and search for purpose serve as greater internal motivators to join IS than one’s religious fervor. Within many Arab countries, youth seek to fill the “purpose void” in their lives that is the product of a lack of desirable career opportunities or social integration. Coupled with the inherent sense of adventure that most youth, regardless of faith or nationality, grapple with, a militant life in Syria can be as alluring as backpacking through Europe is for many western college graduates. Referring to fighters that had already left for Syria, several Jordanian men in a recent Foreign Policy article called IS militants “our friends and neighbors” – alluding to a pseudo-fraternal perspective of IS.

A bevy of environmental factors also provide the “push” that many militants consider in making the decision to join. An unemp;aforementioned lack of career prospects and youth unemployment rates over 29% region-wide portray IS as “a potential employer more than an ideological kinsmen” said one Jordanian man interviewed by Foreign Policy. Injustices at home in the wake of the 2011 Arab Uprisings, whether in the form of police brutality or community ostracism, perpetuate the “us versus them” mentality at the heart of many regional conflicts. Finally, a lack of faith in the West, particularly the US, to act leads many to think that they alone must turn the tide of the battle against Hezbollah, Bashar al-Assad, and/or creeping Iranian influence.

Rather than the common “shared ideology” narrative used to explain why militants decide to join jihadist groups such as the Islamic State, it is more appropriate to attribute such a decision to a complex and secular blend of personal “pull” and environmental “push” factors. However, given that each potential jihadist’s motivations are inherently unique and multifaceted, perhaps a greater focus on the “how” versus the “why” would succeed in stemming the flow of foreign fighters to Syria. While significantly more expensive and intrusive, “how” factors are easier to diagnose, address, and measure. Increased scrutiny of social media, communication surveillance, social network mapping, and enhanced airport security protocols all have the ability to impede the “how” why remaining applicable to all potential militants despite their elaborate spectrum of “whys.”

Despite an uptick in effective military strikes against IS targets in Syria, Iraq, Libya, and elsewhere, the problem of eliminating IS cannot be completely solved with the barrel of a gun or any number of “how” remedies. Insurgencies, by their nature, focus on hearts and minds to appeal to recruits. Therefore governments and societies from which foreign fighters flow must take a critical and introspective look at the conditions they are fostering at home and realize these circumstances are far more likely to send young men and women to the battlefields of Iraq and Syria than any radicalized interpretation of Islam.


In response to a friend’s recent question pertaining to current events in Iraq and Syria: What are your feelings on the situation [ISIS’ recent land-grab and subsequent US-led coalition strikes]? And why aren’t more Middle East countries involved in the coalition? I wish Iran would step up and show they are not as crazy as they use to be… and “for once” Israel has a legitimate reason to conduct air strikes, why don’t they take advantage of it?”

isis-ten-arab-nations-join-us-led-coalition-against-islamic-stateRegarding the question of why more Middle Eastern countries aren’t involved in the coalition, I would say it’s because the Middle East isn’t a unified, solitary actor/participant in regional or international affairs any longer. Countries throughout the region all have different goals and desired outcomes not only for Iraq/Syria, but for the new balance of power in the region at-large. Gone are the days were the Arab League, and even the GCC, spoke for everyone represented in their respective regional groups. Qatar/Kuwait are believed to be supporting non-ISIS Islamists – both political and militant varities – in places like Egypt, Tunisia, Syria, and Iraq with money, supplies, and even weapons. All the while, the UAE/Saudi Arabia are opposing, by means of arming and financing the competitors of, the very forces that Doha and Kuwait City are supporting. We saw this struggle occur very overtly in the recent Tunisian parliamentary elections (where the UAE-support secularist Nidaa Tounes party outgained the Qatar-backed Islamist Ennahda party), and we are seeing this on the battlefields of Syria each day. While I think there’s pretty unanimous animosity towards ISIS at the state-level, there are plenty of individual donors in all the above-mentioned countries who are supportive of the group. These donors all likely have some amount of political or economic leverage and leeway within their homelands. Granted, experts agree that private donations make up a tiny percentage of the money ISIS is sustaining itself on (oil sales and extortion being the chief methods and whole other cans of worms); it goes to show the level of disagreement alive in the Middle East at the state and individual-level right now-even on the most pressing issues. I also think Arab regimes have a legitimate concern that if they directly participate in the killing, whether collateral or deliberate, of other Arab tribesmen and militias sympathetic to ISIS, then uproar at home may result.

iran-historic-nuclear-deal.siAdding to the internal differences of opinion within Arab countries, Iran is an equally-looming issue for our Middle Eastern partners with respect to their cooperation with U.S.-led coalition efforts. As long as the U.S. refuses to deliberately target Assad’s forces, a puppet of Iran, Middle Eastern countries do not see the U.S. as supportive of one of their chief foreign policy interests (degrading Iran’s regional influence), and therefore they are hesitant to play bigger roles in the coalition. This is now coupled with/exacerbated by the U.S. and Iran coming closer and closer to a nuclear deal. I think Iran isn’t stepping up to do more unilaterally in Iraq because they know such action will fan the flames among their Arab neighbors/Israel more than they can tolerate politically at the moment. There are most definitely Iranian advisers (intel, military, political) at work in both Syria and Iraq, but unfortunately Iran is held to a different standard when it comes to a physical military presence in the region. They have many decades of suspicion and distrust to dispel among their Arab neighbors, and I don’t think seeing Saudi and Iranian jets flying side by side would end well.

syriaarabisiscoalitionRegarding Israel, we’ve actually seen Netanyahu paint Hamas in a similar light as ISIS recently. By drawing similarities between the two, he is retroactively legitimizing the bombardment of Gaza a few months back. Regardless of that political maneuver, I do not think ISIS poses a credible and existential threat to Israel- hence Jerusalem’s lack of involvement. It’s one thing for ISIS to challenge the territorial integrity of places like Jordan, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey where sympathetic radical Sunnis and widespread government resentment exist (albeit as a vast minority in terms of the former). However, history has shown us time and time again that in moments of crisis the Israeli population rallies behind their government’s choice to confront existential threats with massive shows of force. There also does not exist mobilized radical Sunni organization operating inside Israel* willing to cooperate with ISIS (*not to be confused with inside the West Bank or Gaza). I believe Israel would handily suppress, and repel, any maneuver ISIS attempts against their country. Geographically/tactically, ISIS would have to make HUGE gains in Jordan, Lebanon, and/or Western Syria before posing any kind of potential threat to Israel’s borders. Long before ISIS gets within 100 miles of an Israeli border, we’ll be seeing Israeli jets pounding their positions in Jordan, Lebanon, or Syria. I think Israel is also in a similar boat as Iran politically-speaking. Many of the Arab coalition members are participating in a limited fashion in an attempt to save face among their populations at home who want to see the Muslim communities in Iraq and Syria defended by Muslims. Mix in pictures of IDF forces collaborating with Emirati pilots, and you may see public support for the coalition effort wane. The West knows this, and therefore has probably told the Israelis to sit on the sidelines despite their probable desire to participate.

More on Israeli participation in the coalition effort here

flagsLast week prominent international relations scholar, and my personal academic idol, Stephen Walt published an insightful Foreign Policy article entitled “National Stupidity: In International Relations, Pride Goeth Before a Fall.” Inside his article, Walt outlines the valuable role that nationalism — the sentiment, belief, or feeling of identification with a particular nation — played in purging the world of some of its greatest historic afflictions (such as the rampant colonialism demonstrated by the British, French, Ottomans, and so on).  Nationalism is alive and well in modern international relations. Glancing across headlines, we rarely see a week go by where ethnic Kurds don’t flex their nationalist muscles against their Iraqi, Syrian, or Turkish overlords. Looking eastward, major Asian powers such as China, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan have been spatting over a series of contested rocks in the South China Sea that may or may not possess the catalytic lifeblood of most geopolitical conflicts: oil. While I agree with Walt that nationalism has negatively pervaded many of the most critical foreign policy headaches currently plaguing wonks worldwide, I think there’s a bit more to the nationalism onion that needs peeling back.

Victimization, what I loosely define as the feeling of being wronged, slighted, or harmed, has been politically operationalized to magnify nationalist sentiment for years. During my study of US-Iranian relations last semester, the underlying theme of victimization was constantly mentioned as a fundamental barrier to true social/cultural rapprochement between the two countries. Yes, major heads of state are participating in direct talks on nuclear, economic, and diplomatic prerogatives, but the feeling of victimization seems to be alive and well within both American and Iranian societies. In the opening minutes of Ben Affleck’s award-winning movie Argo, onlookers are greeted by chanting mobs, chador-adorned Iranian women, and crazed men scaling the walls of the former U.S. Embassy in Tehran. I have no doubt that these fleeting minutes of Hollywood storytelling did more to sully the image of modern Iran in the minds of the average American movie-goer than any poorly-scripted sabre rattle speech delivered by Senator Ted Cruz (TX) ever could. Similarly, annual footage of a handful of fanatical Iranians burning the American flag in celebration of their conquest of our “den of spies” back in 1979 isn’t making anyone more likely to endorse the easing of sanctions. The point is, the more we paint ourselves as victims of some wrongdoing – no matter how long ago that offense might have occurred – the less likely we are to see the current situation on the ground through a moderate lens, and the more likely our governments are to commandeer our sentiment in a way that promotes an “us versus them” foreign policy. We’re seeing Chinese emotions run high as Japanese leaders refuse to visit war shrines. We’re seeing Benjamin Netanyahu and the entire IDF twitterverse dedicate immense amounts of time and effort to publicize every Palestinian “threat” (despite Israeli vows to expand settlements amidst ongoing peace discussions – but that’s another story). We’re witnessing Bashar al-Assad and his regime loyalists emphatically denounce the efforts of foreign terrorists to destabilize his and the Syrian peoples’ homes, and we’re unfortunately seeing Egypt — my country of focus — descend into chaos.

cairo-bombingToday, on the eve of the third anniversary commemorating the downfall of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak on January 25, 2011, Egypt witnessed horrific (although predictable) violence inflicted against it. Three bombings rattled the Cairo metropolitan area in the early morning hours, and additional violence in form of a rudimentary bomb/clashes between protestors claimed the lives of at least a dozen more individuals. Though official spokesmen of the Egyptian regime were careful not to overtly blame the now outlawed, criminalized, detained, and terrorist-deemed Muslim Brotherhood for the attacks, surely few believe that the government is referring to anyone else as they vow to “pluck [these enemies] from the roots without mercy.” As General Sisi, President Mansour, and Prime Minister Beblawi continue to brandish the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization hell-bent on leading Egypt down the road to chaos, I fear that they may be snowballing to a point of no return. The more the anti-Morsi regime continues to portray themselves as under attack by the “others”, the more their exclusionary political platform will continue to take hold in the minds of the average Egyptian. Just as every Palestinian rockets serves the purpose of advancing Netanyahu’s right-wing ideology, every car bomb in Cairo will continue to reinforce Sisi/Mansour/Beblawi’s demonization of the Brotherhood – Egypt’s most powerful and organized political party. Granted, those that perpetrated the attacks of January 24th, the suicide bombing in Mansoura in December 2013, and other violence across the country last year, most likely have a political platform that mandates the reinstatement of Mohamed Morsi as President. However, continually condemning the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization based on the violent acts of a few individuals who have decided to manifest their political frustrations in the form of irrational violence is a foolhardy maneuver at best. Lest these very esteemed Egyptian political figures forget their history, the Brotherhood is an organization born and raised in the shadows of Egyptian politics and society. The Brotherhood was able to recruit intellectuals, consolidate power, and foster political support while operating in an ambiguous grey zone of illegality for over 80 years. Now that the Brotherhood has had a taste of political power and legitimization, a taste that they subsequently squandered by trying to abruptly accrue additional political clout in November of 2012, you cannot put the qitta (cat) back in the haqeeba (bag) and expect them to acquiesce. The Brotherhood represented a very substantial proportion of the Egyptian population who now, after having fought and died in the streets of Cairo, have expressed solidarity with their fallen political comrades even as they are met with the barrel of a gun. Continuing to condemn 10 million+ Egyptians as the “others” will only lead to additional violence, alienation, and turmoil on par, or greater than that, which we have seen today.

Egyptians of all political affiliations, genders, ages, and religious identities are suffering. No one group stands to gain from the kind of senseless violence and political exclusivity that has become the norm in Egypt. sisiGeneral Sisi, poised as he may be to become Egypt’s next president, has a lot to learn about appealing to all Egyptians before he may effectively consider himself a representative and guardian of the people. Just as Walt mentioned that nationalism can be a saving grace during times of duress, times that Egypt is surely experiencing at the moment, nationalism derived from victimization may also be the divisive factor that plunges a state into destruction. Though I think Egypt is a long way away from descending into the kind of disorder that we are unfortunately witnessing in Syria, very frightening and foreboding paths are presenting themselves. I remember playing cards with my Egyptian friends during my waning hours in Cairo last summer, and we were stunned to listen to Al-Jazeera’s coverage of ongoing clashes between pro/anti-Morsi forces on the May 15 Bridge. Crowds were flinging Molotov cocktails, chipping up pieces of the road to throw at their adversaries, and indiscriminately firing birdshot at each other with a level of furor never before seen. Though Eygptians are very proud of their ability to elicit change on January 25/June 30, they were shocked to see the type of widespread violence that their countrymen were inflicting upon each other. “Egyptians are not like this. We are not like Afghans, Syrians, or Iraqis,” I recall them saying. Now, more than 6 months after my departure from Cairo, I see the trend of mutual-victimization taking over more than I ever could have expected. If such violence is capable in Cairo, the umm al-dunya of all places, it is sadly no longer preposterous to start juxtaposing Egypt with the ongoing conflict in Syria. Walt’s article on nationalism could not have been more relevant given current developments in Egypt and around the world, however the idea of politically-instrumentalized victimization is not something that needs to be written about in prominent magazines to be pertinent. Victimization is a tool used by both the weak and strong to rally public support, and current events would suggest that world powers are increasingly viewing their adversaries through this lens. I fear that today’s violence in Egypt will serve as prelude to even bolder attacks on major metropolitan areas around the country, and that the responses handed down by the Egyptian security forces will plunge the country into even greater dichotomy. As former-president Morsi’s trial finally ensues, and as General Sisi prepares to assume his throne, Egyptians should strive to scale back the victimized undertones and make an effort to enact political decisions with the whole of the Egyptian people – women, youth, Muslim Brothers, etc. – in mind. The more the current regime tries to stifle the Brotherhood and simultaneously cast themselves as victims of the Ikhwan’s terrorism, the more likely their exaggerated condemnations will turn in to self-fulfilling prophecies.

As if American exceptionalism and maverickism (Microsoft spellcheck anyone?) could not swell any larger, Washington recently removed the People’s Mujahedin of Iran (MEK) from the State Department’s list of foreign terrorist organizations. Despite persistent condemnation of organizations such as Hamas and Hezbollah who, might I add, have received legislative votes of confidence from their respective Palestinian and Lebanese populations at one point or another, the MEK has become an interesting exception to the rule: a former terrorist organization with American, Iranian, and Kurdish blood on its hands turned U.S.-approved champion of regime change and democratic values.

To provide some background information, the MEK is an assembly of revolutionary and militant Iranian forces dedicated to the overthrow of the current regime in Tehran. The MEK has a checkered past characterized by flip flopping allegiances with both the Ayatollah and Washington over the past 50 years. Whereas the MEK initially aligned itself with Ayatollah Khomeini during the 1979 Revolution due to their shared disdain for Shah-begotten western liberal interests, they soon found themselves at odds with the Ayatollah due to the inherent power vacuum that a lack of political opposition naturally foments. Seeking political refuge in Iraq during the early 80’s, the MEK proved to be a considerable thorn in Tehran’s side while fighting tooth and nail on behalf of Saddam Hussein in the Iran-Iraq War. Fast forward to the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, MEK encampments near Fallujah were prime bombing targets for US forces due to their large caches of Iraqi-supplied weaponry and residual allegiance to the Saddam regime.  The MEK quickly brokered a ceasefire/surrender with U.S. forces, which bred natural criticism within Washington for Bush’s negotiations with a then-terrorist organization. More recently, and perhaps most importantly, the MEK has proven a valuable source of intelligence for U.S. security officials seeking detailed information about Iranian nuclear developments.

The MEK’s removal from terrorist organization list creates several moral dilemmas for the U.S. State Department and for U.S. national security in general.  For starters, the MEK’s history is replete with violent acts against Iranians, Kurds, and Americans alike. By sweeping these violations under the proverbial rug, the U.S. portrays itself as a malleable player of “favorites” amongst the who’s who of unsavory global non-state actors (NSA’s), further undermining our reputation around the world. Simultaneously, Hamas and Hezbollah continue to be vilified in mainstream American rhetoric (and rightfully so), despite being legitimate members of their respective nation’s[1] majority coalitions. How, then, can the U.S. so easily forgive an organization that has been credited with the deaths of not only 6 Americans in the mid-1970s, but also countless Iranian countrymen and “innocent” Kurdish Iraqis[2]? It’s simple: because the U.S. has been utilizing groups such as the MEK for decades against almost every adversary we’ve had since the turn of the 20th century.

Before we jump to a “Bush is to blame” conclusion with regard to the alleged funding and training of MEK forces in the mid-2000’s (which is a moot point anyway given the overwhelmingly bipartisan support for their removal from the list), let’s scroll down U.S. foreign policy’s Facebook Timeline a bit- which I hear they too are having a hard time adjusting to. Beginning with JFK’s infamous Bay of Pigs invasion, we find that Presidents of both parties have been equipping and training rogue NSA’s on behalf of U.S. national security prerogatives for generations. Shocking, I know, but America’s Democratic (with a capital “D”) poster child also utilized disgruntled foreign nationals as instruments of [ultimately disastrous] U.S. foreign policy. The same can be said of JFK’s CIA funding of Dominican rebels and their assassination plot against the entrenched dictator Rafael “The Goat” Trujillo, Reagan’s clandestine funding of the Contras in Nicaragua, and Bush Jr.’s use of indigenous Tajiks in Northern Afghanistan as spotters and guides during the initial days of the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan.

According to this trend, President Obama and Secretary Clinton’s removal of the MEK from the foreign terrorist organization list should come as no surprise as Iran blossoms into a greater and greater threat with each passing spin of its centrifuges.  As long as the MEK provides credible intelligence regarding Iranian nuclear developments, as long as the MEK continues to relentlessly lobby our politicians, and as long as figures like former Chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, former National Security Advisers, and former UN Ambassadors continue to endorse the MEK’s removal from the list, the U.S. will continue the tradition of selective favoritism towards organizations as historically distasteful as the People’s Mujahedin of Iran.


[1] I use “nation” liberally in terms of defining the Palestinian state.

[2] “Take the Kurds under your tanks, and save your bullets for the Iranian Revolutionary Guards” – Maryam Rajavi, President-elect of the NCRI: MEK’s political manifestation (pictured above with former NY Mayor Rudy Giuliani)

For anyone who’s seen the witty Starburst candy commercials depicting albino lifeguards and atypical dog behaviors (my favorite here:, you already know that contradictions have become the new flavor of the month. As media focus in the Middle East perpetually looms over Syria and the al-Assad regime’s cling to power, new stories are shedding light onto Lebanon’s position amongst the turmoil. Having had the opportunity to watch a former coworker, and leading Syria expert’s, jarring account of Syrian “spillover” into Lebanon and the region at large (you can find it here:, my interest in the unique Mediterranean country inconveniently sandwiched between its most detested enemy and its war-torn “big brother” has understandably piqued. What I find fascinating is not the situation on the ground in Damascus, Aleppo, and Homs, but the political climate in Lebanon as a result of the violence to the east. Hezbollah, the US-condemned terrorist organization turned political contender, continues to draw in political support from the population (evidenced by their 12 seats in parliament as part of the opposition alliance), and is now expanding its roots into Syrian affairs.

While I do not find Hezbollah’s support of the al-Assad regime surprising, I find it perplexing that Hezbollah continues to deviate from its original intent as an organization. Hezbollah was founded in the mid 1980’s with a clearly defined mission outlined in an official ‘Hezbollah Manifesto’. Included in this Manifesto were 2 very clear and very poignant goals: 1) “to expel the Americans, the French and their allies definitely from Lebanon, putting an end to any colonialist entity on our land“, and 2) “to permit all the sons of our people to determine their future and to choose in all the liberty the form of government they desire.” I understand the need for adaptability and modernity within an organization, especially one bent on the destruction of all things West and un-Islamic, but at what point will Hezbollah’s leadership find that their efforts in Syria are not only tangential to their very creation but downright contradictory? For an organization who’s sole purpose was to protect it’s territorial sovereignty and to enhance the freedoms of Muslim friends worldwide, they seem to be doing a poor job at both (listen to Jouejati and Fisks’s assessment of border violence in north Lebanon).

The Manifesto concludes “As for our friends, they are all the world’s oppressed peoples.” My Arabic is admittedly a little rusty, but I don’t think Bashar al-Assad wholly satisfies the idea of somebody who is “oppressed.” Maybe I’m wrong…

Sources: (CNN article regarding new US sanctions against Hezbollah) (English translation of the Hezbollah Manifesto)

Various U.S. government agencies refuse to release detailed reports about drone strike tactics being used in Yemen/Somalia/Afghanistan/Pakistan. ACLU reps claim the public has a “right to know”, while security officials claim that reports could compromise national security interests. Personally, this “right to know” business doesn’t hold much weight. What exactly do you, John Q. Citizen, have a right to know when it comes to eliminating the people who seek to eliminate you? Whatever happened to ignorance being bliss?  Whatever happened to things being above a person’s pay grade? Leave it to the glorified Halo player clutching his joystick somewhere in dusty ole Nevada and the man “pulling the trigger” at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.