Posts Tagged ‘terrorism’

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)

Let me start by saying that I don’t think Barack Obama is the worst president the U.S. has ever had, especially when it comes to his accomplishments overseas. I too was in a state of Christmas-like ecstasy when news of Osama bin Laden’s demise surfaced last year, and I still jump for jingoistic joy at the site of a UAV/RPA (unmanned aerial vehicle/remotely piloted aircraft) prowling the skies over South Asia and Yemen. However, in lieu of these triumphs I feel that the Obama administration has employed a grossly misguided, ill-conceived, and downright paradoxical national security strategy in the Middle East and South Asia.

In this entry I will present 3 examples of Obama’s flawed strategy in the region, specifically his expansive use of RPA’s to kill terrorists in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Yemen, ripped straight out of headlines within the last week. In each example I will present you with three components: (1) a snippet from President Obama’s speech at the end of last week’s Democratic National Convention which highlights his policy goals and attempted jabs at presidential-hopeful Mitt Romney; (2) a series of quotes from a recent CNN article authored by Peter Bergen, the Director of the New America Foundation (a non-partisan think tank in DC), about Obama’s RPA use; and (3) some personal and original analysis of the the previous two components. Let’s get started…

Obama’s Speech: “Around the world, we’ve strengthened old alliances” … “You [Romney] might not be ready for diplomacy with Beijing if you can’t visit the Olympics without insulting our closest ally.”
Reality: “In Pakistan, the [drone] program is deeply unpopular and the Pakistani parliament voted in April to end any authorization for the program, a vote that the United States government has simply ignored.” … ‘According to Pew Global’s research: “In Pakistan, only 13% say they have confidence that the new American president will do the right thing in world affairs”‘ … “the killing of at least 24 Pakistani soldiers in a NATO air strike in November severely damaged the relationship between the United States and Pakistan, and resulted in the eviction of CIA-controlled drones from Shamsi air base in Baluchistan in southwestern Pakistan.”
Analysis: Pakistan is (was?) the U.S.’s single greatest ally in the fight against terrorism in South Asia, period. Pakistan has sacrificed thousands of lives (many of which were military officers) trying to root out terrorists along their perpetually porous border with Afghanistan, and did so in support of a largely unpopular commitment to a war the U.S. brought to their backyard. President Obama’s flagrant disregard for a diplomatic, or even cordial, relationship with the historically hold-and-cold country is a strategic error and the precursor for worse relations to come. I understand that President Obama has set a withdrawal date from Afghanistan that he plans to stick to vehemently, but to burn your bridges along the way seems to be a foolish and amateurish move for our Commander-in-Chief.

Obama Speech: “And while my opponent would spend more money on military hardware that our Joint Chiefs don’t even want, I’ll use the money we’re no longer spending on war to pay down our debt and put more people back to work.”
Reality: “He [Obama] has already authorized 283 strikes in Pakistan, six times more than the number during President George W. Bush’s eight years in office.”
Analysis: To claim that Mitt Romney would be a frivolous purchaser of military hardware is a classic example of the pot calling the kettle black. In half the time that former-President Bush had at his disposal (during the onset and apex of 2 wars, mind you), President Obama has launched an astronomically larger and more costly drone campaign by comparison. Let’s not forget that paying for these drone missions and all the related expenses associated with them (such as fuel, transportation, pilot’s wages, missile payloads, etc.) is no frugal order. Some quick and conservative calculation indicates that President Obama has spent nearly $20 million on the Hellfire missiles alone that his cherished drones rain from above, with another million to cover the fuel costs and hourly rates of their pilots. With tens of millions of dollars being poured into the drone campaign each year, responsible voters must examine whether or not their hard-earned money is being put to effective use. This question leads me to the final section:

Obama Speech: “After all, you don’t call Russia our number one enemy – and not al Qaeda – unless you’re still stuck in a Cold War time warp.”
Reality: “Under Obama, the drone campaign, which during the Bush administration had put emphasis on killing significant members of al Qaeda, has undergone a quiet and unheralded shift to focus increasingly on killing Taliban foot soldiers.” … “Under Bush, al-Qaeda members accounted for 25% of all drone targets”, and “Under Obama, only 8% of targets were al- Qaeda”… “And while under Bush, about a third of all drone strikes killed a militant leader, compared to less than 13% since President Obama took office”
Analysis: Perhaps President Obama is the one stuck in a 2001 time warp because his current strategy is clearly not an effective use of our military tools and treasure. It was al-Qaeda that attacked the U.S. on 9/11 (among other times), not the Taliban. It is al-Qaeda that continues to expand its influence and destructive rhetoric around the globe, not the geographically-constrained Taliban. The Obama administration continues to spend money and dedicate inordinate attention to a futile tactic of killing strategically insignificant terrorists scurrying around the dusty villages of Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Yemen. Terrorists like the ones President Obama targets are essentially hydras: replaceable, bountiful, and inert in the grand scheme of U.S. national security. The Bush administration demonstrated level-headed and informed understanding of the true terrorist threat in South Asia, and recognized that one must eliminate leadership, not pawns, when dealing with global and top-down organizations like al-Qaeda.

As foreign policy and defense issues continue to take a back seat to economics, health care, and the battle for women’s hearts and minds during this election cycle, it’s important to remember that our president is not only a catalyst for job creation and admirable oratory, but also our Commander-in-Chief. The U.S. needs a President who understands the cultural sensitivities in a region who’s diplomatic relations are predominantly affected by custom, dialogue, and historic dispositions. Our future President should be cognizant of effective military spending, especially in an era where unprecedented budget cuts loom over our defense industry and the 2 million+ jobs it supports. Finally, our President should have a clearly defined plan to thwart and eliminate our greatest enemies before they have the chance to strike again. Though the U.S. remains invested in Afghan security for years to come, we must not have tunnel vision in conceptualizing who (and where) our enemies really are.


Welcome to al-Ra˚yee, or “the opinion”, in Arabic. Contained in this blog are a series of provocative articles I’ve found across the web pertaining to broader issues in international relations, national security, and terrorism, as they apply to the U.S. and the Middle East. I found the following articles intriguing, upsetting, or praiseworthy enough to share with all of you, and I hope to elicit some brief, yet academic, discussion about some of the toughest moral and political issues in our world today. I am by no means an expert in any field (including those listed above), but merely a student and a passionate follower of all things IR. I [far too] often play the devil’s advocate, and encourage my readers to take one of many controversial stances on the issues presented.  I aim to post something that caught my eye at least weekly, and to provide you with a very brief personal commentary about the matter at hand. If you’re looking for something long and scholarly, you’ve come to the wrong place.

A colleague once shared with me quote from 20th century politician/lobbyist/lawyer/actor Dudley Field Malone which went: “I have never in my life learned anything from any man who agreed with me.” That being said, leave your PC at the door and feel free to share your ra˚yeeka with the rest of us.