My Weekly Reader 30 May 2017.

Ali Soufan was born in Lebanon in 1971, but ended up living in the United States and became an American citizen.[1]  “Education’s the thing, don’t you know.”[2]  In 1995 he got a BA in Political Science from Mansfield University.[3]  Later on he got an MA in International Relations from Vanillanova.  Then he went into the EffaBeeEye.

No chasing bank-robbers or goombas for him.  The harps had those jobs sewn up.[4]  He spoke Arabic and the Bureau only had eight Arabic speakers, so he went into counter-terrorism.  In 1999 he went to Jordan to liase with the Jordanian intelligence service, which had uncovered leads to what would be called the “Millennium bomb plot.”  Here began another theme in his career.  He found a box of files in the CIA station, allegedly ignored by the over-worked agents, containing maps of the targets.  The CIA seemed more vexed than grateful.  In 2000 he went to Yemen as part of the team investigating the bombing of the USS “Cole.”  Here he made important discoveries.  He went back to Yemen after 9/11 to pursue leads.  Here he figured out that the CIA had held back information from the FBI that might have allowed him to connect the “Cole” attack with the 9/11 plot.[5]  The CIA seemed more vexed than grateful.  Then he interrogated captured Al Qaeda terrorists.  Subsequently, some of his subjects were transferred to CIA control and were subjected to enhanced interrogation techniques.[6]

By 2005 Soufan had become fed-up or burned-out.  He resigned from the Bureau to start a consultancy.  In 2011 he published The Black Banners: The Inside Story of 9/11 and the War Against al-Qaeda.[7]  Here he tracked the campaign against Al Qaeda from 9/11 to the killing of Osama bin Laden.  Now Soufan has published Anatomy of Terror: From the Death of Bin Laden to the Rise of the Islamic State (2017).[8]  The American invasion of Iraq (2003) triggered a disaster.  Partisan observer—Soufan included–put too much emphasis on the botched occupation.  Iraq was a social IED waiting to be tripped.  The invasion itself lit the fuse.

Even before OBL died, Al Qaeda had transformed into something else, something worse.  It had become Zarqawi’s Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia.  The remnants of that group fell back to Syria and became the Islamic State (ISIS).  More importantly (unless you’re stuck inside the Caliphate), ISIS called for the “lone wolf” attacks that have wreaked havoc in Europe and the United States.  Boko Haram (Nigeria), Al Shabab (Somalia), Jumatul Mujahedeen (Bangladesh), and Abu Sayaf (Philippines) all align themselves with the ideology of Al Qaeda.  We live with the results.

[1] I conjecture that his parents fled the awful Lebanese civil war of 1975-1990.  See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lebanese_Civil_War  So, that’s one anecdotal argument against President Trump’s “Muslim ban.”  The recent suicide bombing in Manchester, England, offers an equally compelling anecdotal argument on the other side.  So, we probably shouldn’t rely upon anecdotal evidence.  “Well, d’uh,”–my sons.

[2] I think that’s from one volume of the trilogy U.S.A. by John Dos Passos, but I can’t find the exact reference.

[3] Mansfield is a former teachers college in the middle of nowhere in north-central Pennsylvania.   He got his BA when he was 24, so he lost some time somewhere doing something.

[4] See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Whitey_Bulger

[5][5] Before people start jumping all over the CIA, read the Report of the 9/11 Commission.  Not just the executive summary, but the whole thing.  Then look at the list of Commission members and run down their career tracks.

[6] Soufan subsequently made public comments on the results obtained by the different approaches.  The CIA seemed more vexed than grateful.

[7] In Western culture, black flags usually denote pirates.  Until the 18th Century, captured pirates rarely got a trial.  You just hanged them at the yard-arm or threw them overboard if there were some sharks handy.  This is a plea for cultural sensitivity on the part of radical Islamists.  Falls under the heading of “enlightened self-interest.”

[8] At least he didn’t call it Al Qaeda: Covenant or Al Qaeda: Dead Men Tell No Tales.

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My Weekly Reader 1 April 2017.

Since 9/11 the imperatives of the war against radical Islamism have imposed an un-true interpretation of the enemy.  The radicals (Al-Qaeda, Boko Haram, Al Shabab, ISIS) form a minority within Islam, their most common targets are fellow Muslims, and the assistance of Muslim states is essential to victory over the Islamists.  Hence, it has become commonplace to describe the radicals as not truly Muslim, as heretics at best.

To argue differently is to open oneself to charges of Islamophobia.[1]  Nevertheless, radical Islamism diverges from contemporary Islam much more than it diverges from foundational Islam.  Originally, the Prophet Muhammad preached a single community of Believers (the “umma”), led by puritanical religious figures (a theocracy), and living in permanent hostility to Unbelievers (the conflict between the dar al-Islam/House of Peace/Islam and the dar al-Harb/House of War/Unbelievers).  Jews and Christians, the “Peoples of the Book,” were tolerated in return for payment of a tax, bit barred from proselytizing.  Slavery remained a hall-mark of Muslim societies from the time of the Prophet through the 19th Century.  Subsequently, mainstream Islam moved toward what Western observers think of today: fractured into nation states too weak to pull a hobo of their sister; economically stagnant in the face of swiftly rising populations; ruled by tyrannical soldiers and monarchs, and struggling to reconcile “modernization” in all its forms with core cultural values.

Gilles Kepel and others have argued that dissatisfaction with these governments sent people streaming toward a renewed religious commitment in the last decades of the 20th Century.  Some of those people turned back to a fundamentalist version of Islam.  The fruit of this commitment has been harvested in Syria, Iraq, Nigeria, France, Germany, Spain, and Britain.

It’s not difficult to narrate the rise and fall of the Islamic State.  It’s just difficult to explain—comprehend really—why people are willing to give their lives in support of it.  Graeme Wood argues that the “foot soldiers [of ISIS] view their mission in religious terms and spend great energy on piety and devotion.”[2]  They are filled with religious passion.  Dexter Filkins isn’t sure this is actually the case.  His own experience as a war correspondent in Afghanistan and Iraq for the New York Times leads him to believe that “the motives for joining a militant organization were varied and complex.”[3]  Psychopaths and sociopaths found a justification, not a motivation, in religion.  Possibly Wood’s response would be to point again to the identity between the theology of ISIS and the theology of early Islam.  In the 7th and 8th Centuries the Arabs over-run vast tracts of the Byzantine and Sassanian Empires.  Historians conventionally describe these armies as fired by a passionate religious enthusiasm.  Would Filkins argue that they actually were madmen and criminals?

The two different strands of interpretation can be reconciled if one understands that religious faith is intended to redeem those who feel themselves to be ruined by sin.[4]  Religion may become a tired and stifling bourgeois convention that upholds the established order.  It doesn’t normally start out that way.  So, perhaps ISSIS recruits a wide range of troubled people who are self-aware enough to embrace beliefs that may heal or channel their flaws.

[1] It isn’t immediately apparent why mouthing ignorance-based platitudes favorable to Islam is less Islamophobic than is mouthing ignorance-based platitudes hostile to Islam.  Both approaches seem to be based on an indifference to learning about Islam.

[2] Graeme Wood, The Way of the Strangers: Encounters With the Islamic State (2017).

[3] Dexter Filkins, “On the Fringes of ISIS,” NYT Book Review, 22 January 2017.

[4] See, for one example: https://waroftheworldblog.com/2015/02/24/the-islamic-brigades-1/

The Next Step in Syria.

The two current centers of resistance by the Islamic State’s caliphate are in the Iraqi city of Mosul and the Syrian city of Raqqa.[1]  Both cities have been heavily fortified by ISIS.  Coalitions of opposition forces are advancing on both cities.  Iraqi Kurds are important for the siege of Mosul and Syrian Kurds are important for the siege of Raqqa.

Of the two coalitions, the Syrian one is the more problematic.  Raqqa holds particular importance as the capital city of the caliphate.  President Obama has committed substantial military resources to the struggle: American planes are bombing; 400 Special Forces troops have been sent to Syria to serve as spotters for air strikes and to train local fighters; and Apache helicopter gunships have been used against Mosul’s defenses.  However, in both countries, the brunt of the fighting has and will fall on local forces.

As an American military problem, this is simple enough.  The Americans hope that the final attack on Raqqa can begin in February 2017.  The core of the anti-ISIS force laying siege to Raqqa is Syrian Kurds.  Around this core have been arrayed (or cajoled) loose groups of Syrian Arabs.  The Syrian Arabs have much less experience with war than do the Kurds.  This means that the Kurds will have to do most of the heavy lifting in the assault on Raqqa.  The Defense Department believes that the Syrian Kurds need to be supplied with better weapons for an urban assault than those that have served them on open battlefields.  These weapons would include rocket-propelled grenades, machine guns, and armored vehicles.  Furthermore, the Defense Department has recommended that Apache gunships be used against Raqqa.

As an American diplomatic problem, this is less simple.  Neighboring Turkey regards the Syrian Kurd political group (the Y.P.G.) as terrorists.  If the Syrian Kurds succeed in carving out an autonomous Kurdish enclave in Syria they will have expanded the proto-state that is being created in neighboring Iraq.  From this proto-state, at some point, the Syrian and Iraqi Kurds can begin to work to liberate the Turkish Kurds.  Arming up the Syrian Kurds poses a future danger to Turkey.  Turkey is a member of NATO and the United States is bound by treaty to defend it against outside attack.

The Turkish government has begun delaying approval of American air attacks launched from Incirlik air base and hampering the flow of supplies into the base.  American diplomats suspect that Erdogan might respond to an increased armament for the Syrian Kurds by attacking Kurdish enclaved along the Syrian-Turkish border.  This might compel the Kurds to divert forces from the attack on Raqqa.  Worse still, Turkey’s authoritarian president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has begun to lean toward Russia.  Already prone to blame the United States for many untoward events within Turkey and the region, Erdogan might contemplate disrupting the NATO alliance in the same fashion as did France’s Charles de Gaulle in the 1960s.  A pessimist might see one possible outcome of arming the Kurds to be the weakening of NATO’s southeastern flank at a time when Vladimir Putin is on the watch for opportunities to extend Russian influence.

Grasping at straws, the Americans have contemplated promising the Turks that close monitoring of any weapons will prevent their use against Turkey.  This is hardly credible given the failures to control weapons supplied to Syrian “moderate” forces.  This leaves President Obama with no easy choices.  Perhaps he’ll leave the decision to President Trump.  The new president would be torn between the devil of improving relations with Russia and the deep blue sea of destroying ISIS.

[1] Michael Gordon and Eric Schmitt, “Obama’s Syrian Options: Arm Kurds or Let Trump Decide,” NYT, 18 January 2017.

Sequence.

Can Bashar al-Assad win the Syrian Civil War?  The answer depends on definitions.  What does “win” mean?  What does “Syria” mean?

Aleppo and Palmyra are two ancient cities in Syria.[1]  One of them is today a major population center and the other is a mere tourist trap.  If Syria were at peace, the distinction wouldn’t matter.  Both would be income-streams.  However, Syria is at war and the distinction does matter.   The Syrian government of dictator Bashar  al-Assad has concentrated its military forces and received important foreign assistance —Russian air-power and Iranian fighters—to capture the rebel-held eastern sections of Aleppo, the population center.  In the meantime, he has yielded territory to ISIS forces around Palmyra, the tourist trap.  Probably to be able to claim that the regime was fighting ISIS, the Syrian army recaptured Palmyra in March 2016.  However, they didn’t put in the resources to hold it.  In mid-December 2016, while the Syrians and their allies concentrated on the capture of Eastern Aleppo, ISIS forces managed to retake the city.

How should we interpret this mixed outcome?  The main point to take away is that Aleppo matters to the Assad regime, but Palmyra—and most other ISIS-held territory–doesn’t matter to the Assad regime.  The regime has been most threatened by the rebellion in the much more heavily-populated western parts of the country.  Rebels there have received support from Sunni Arab countries.  In contrast, ISIS holds vast swathes of the less densely populated—and less important –eastern parts of the country.   Moreover, ever since its invasion of western Iraq, ISIS has been targeted by the Americans, the Kurds, and the Iraqis.  The Syrian Army has been at war for a very long time.  Both its current manpower and its ability to recruit new soldiers are close to exhaustion.  Russian aircraft and Iranian troops abruptly have dragged the regime out of a dire situation.  Why would the hard-pressed Assad regime devote scarce resources to the lesser enemy when other countries are willing to do the work?

Now Eastern Aleppo has fallen to the regime.  What further action will the regime take after this costly victory?  Wishful thinking abounds.  One conspiracy theory holds that the Assad regime sand-bagged the defense of Palmyra so that ISIS jihadis would appear in the news to distract the ADHD-prone Western media from the brutal final assault on Aleppo.  One Egyptian diplomat speculated that “unless the regime opens up negotiations with the opposition in finding a proper reconciliation, the guerrilla warfare will spread all over the place.”  The U.S. government urged the Syrians and Russians to divert their energies from pursuing final victory over the rebels in Aleppo to resisting ISIS in an inconsequential place.

More practically, the Assad regime may concentrate on consolidating its victory in western Syria.  It seems wise to anticipate a further flood of refugees into Turkey and—soon thereafter—into Greece.  Then, the regime, and the Russians and Iranians, will contemplate what further action to take.  Will they really want to embark on a costly new offensive to retake desert wastelands?  Will they want to imperial their existing substantial gains in order to fight ISIS?  Will they leave ISIS to the Americans and their allies?  Will they decide to wipe out the remnants of resistance in western Syria, then turn to dealing with the Syrian Kurds?  Given the alliance between the Russians and the Shi’ites of Iran and Iraq, all parties may be willing to sit and wait for a time before deciding the fate of ISIS.

So, “Syria” may mean western Syria and “win” may mean a localized victory followed by a period of watchful waiting.  Then, a new round in the unraveling of Sykes-Picot Agreement.  First one thing, then another thing.  Sequence.

[1] Yaroslav Trofimov, “Assad’s Choice: Fight Rebels but Cede to Islamic State,” WSJ, 16 December 2016.

CrISIS 9.

For all those angry with President Obama’s policy, the Islamic State is in retreat.  Iraq’s militias under the guidance of Iranian advisors, various Kurdish militias, and the Russian- supported Assad regime have rolled back ISIS gains.  At the same time, American efforts to focus narrowly on the danger of ISIS cut across the more powerful enmities and affinities in the region.  The Sunni-Shi’ite civil war in the Muslim world frames many local conflicts.  Russia has chosen alignment with the Shi’ites (Iran, the majority in Iraq, the Alawites of Syria, and Hezbollah in Lebanon).  The United States is having a harder time making a choice.

After the final American withdrawal from Iraq, the Shi’ite government of Nouri al-Maliki reverted to persecuting Sunni Iraqis.  Alienated, many Sunnis withdrew their support from the government.  Currently, on the principle of “once burned, twice shy,” the Sunnis of Iraq have been sitting-out the Reconquista by the so-called government of so-called Iraq.[1]  However, the occupation of the “liberated” areas by either Shi’ite militias or by Kurds merely shifted the locus of repression for the Sunnis.  The government has resisted pressure from Washington to arm Sunnis willing to fight ISIS because those same arms might later be used to resist the Shi’ites.[2]

Neither Russia nor its client Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad cared to focus on ISIS when they saw the other Sunni rebel groups as a target more dangerous and more near at hand.  Nor did the Sunni rebels against the Assad government see ISIS as the most pressing danger.  They often co-operate with Islamist groups in the fight against Assad.[3]  In the recent fighting around Aleppo, the Syrian Conquest Front (formerly known as the Al-Nusra Front—the Syrian off-shoot of Al Qaeda) has done much of the heavy lifting.  Will Islamist fighters in flight from the embattled ISIS caliphate head West to join the ranks of the Syrian Conquest Front?

If the Syrian Conquest Front, which the US still regards as a version of its old enemy Al Qaeda, becomes the dominant force in the war against the Assad government, Washington will face an ugly choice.  Which does it see as the greater threat?  With which will it align itself?  Will it support the increasingly Islamist-led rebels against the Assad government, even if that means a tacit alliance with the survivors of ISIS and a re-branded Al Qaeda?  Will it support the Assad government, even if that means following the Russian lead into a tacit alliance with the Shi’ites?

Where will future historians locate the root of this disaster?  The most obvious cause lies in the American decision to attack Iraq in 2003.[4]  Anyone who voted for that war has much to answer for.  Even before the occupation had been botched, the Turks had refused to cooperate because they foresaw the effect on Kurdish nationalism.  Then the occupation was botched.  Then came the Obama administration’s too-ready embrace of the “Arab Spring,” its overthrow of the Libyan dictator, and its un-deft handling of the Russians.

Looking farther back, though, can some of the origins be located in the refusal of Kuwait and Saudi Arabia to write-off the loans made to Iraq in order for it to fight the long war in the 1980s against the revolutionary Shi’ite regime in Iran, or to support higher oil prices so that Iraq could earn the money to rebuild?  Everything turns out to be complicated, rather than simple.

[1] Yaroslav Trofimov, “Islamic State Slips, But Sunnis Are On the Sidelines,” WSJ, 10 June 2016.

[2] For its part, Washington has limited the flow of aid to the Kurds because the weapons supplied to fight ISIS might well be used against the Turks.  Given the recent hostility of Turkish president Erdogan to the West generally and to the United States in particular, Washington may decide to re-think this position.

[3] Yaroslav Trofimov, “Syria’s Alliance Hang on Outcome in Aleppo,” WSJ, 12 August 2016.

[4] In my view on specious grounds.

CrISIS 8.

A certain amount seems to be agreed about the history of Islamic fundamentalist ideology: Saudi Arabia sought to fend off criticism of the monarchy by pouring money into the proselytizing of Wahhabism throughout the Muslim world; this intellectual milieu opened the road from one form of commitment to other, more extreme, forms of commitment; both al Qaeda and Hamas benefitted from this in the past in the sense that there existed a broad tolerance for Islamist terrorism.  However, now ISIS has emerged as the champion of conservative Sunni Islam.  The “end-of-days” thread in the thought of ISIS has alienated many (perhaps most) Muslims.  That still leaves people (the policy-makers, the politicians who front for them, and the scholars and intelligence officers who advise them) with dilemmas.

For one thing, ISIS might best be thought of as a coalition, rather than a coherent movement.  On the one hand, it is essentially an Iraqi Sunni movement.  Yes, it flourished in a Syria torn apart by civil war, but it has at its core Iraqi Sunnis who had participated in the insurgency that followed the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, then fled to Syria.  On the other hand, it is an international “brand” that inspires malcontents elsewhere to act against both “Unbelievers” and “Misbelievers.”  Will any one strategy succeed against ISIS or is it just an umbrella term for several separate wars?

For another thing, will mowing the lawn on a regular basis (i.e. drone strikes on Islamist leaders) accomplish anything?[1]  The answer probably depends on whether one is attacking a tightly circumscribed transnational terrorist network (like Al Qaeda) or a broadly-based insurgency (like the Taliban).  Killing the leadership of a network will disorganize it and disrupt its communications.  Killing the leader of a local insurgency may just lead to the movement coughing up another leader, one possibly more radical than his predecessor.   The U.S. has faced this dilemma since 9/11.  Starkly: hunt Osama bin Laden or invade Iraq?

For a third thing, “is the main threat the radicalization of Islam or the Islamization of radicalism?”[2]  That is, do some elements (individuals or groups) of Muslim communities move toward a conflict-oriented fundamentalism?  If that’s the case, then the solution may be more effective policing to discern people headed down a pathway to violence.  Alternatively, do some madmen just seek a “cause” with which to identify, and ISIS is the flavor of the month?  If that is the case, then perhaps the defeat of ISIS will reduce the appeal of “jihad.”  (NB: Probably both.  So, where are the physical and psychological spaces where the two groups meet?)

The Wall Street Journal’s Yaroslav Trofimov reports that about a quarter of the ISIS recruits in Europe are actually converts from some other faith or from no faith, while many of the Muslims come from families that were non-observant.  One way to read this is that secularization has left some people intellectually and emotionally adrift.  Another way to read it is that troubled people search for some rock to cling to so they aren’t washed away in their inner storms.  The two are not incompatible.  Moreover, Trofimov is understandably pre-occupied by the danger of attacks in the West.  What about the many more dissidents in the countries of the Muslim world?

Can ISIS be defeated?  In one sense, yes, obviously. Bomb them back to the Stone Age.  But can it “die”?  Are Bozo Haram and Bangladeshi terrorists and “lone wolves” in California and Florida actually in touch with the Islamic State in any meaningful way?  Or are they just inspired by the example?  If ISIS is defeated in Syraqia, will it be discredited or will people continue to evoke it as an ideal?  There are no easy answers to any of these questions.

[1] Yaroslav Trofimov, “U.S. Killings of Militant Leaders Deliver Mixed Results,” WSJ, 27 May 2016.

[2] Yaroslav Trofimov, “For Some New Militants, Islam is a Flag of Convenience,” WSJ, 17 June 2016.

CrISIS 7.

The war against ISIS has been small-scale, rather than a grand effort.[1]  The total American force in Iraq has slowly risen from 275 troops sent as trainers and advisers after the Iraqi Army collapsed in Summer 2014 to about 4,000 today.  American Special Forces spotters are directing American air-strikes in support of both Iraqi forces and Kurdish fighters (in both Iraq and Syria).  Others have been raiding ISIS targets and a number of ISIS leaders have been killed: notably the war minister and the finance minister.  An earlier effort at intelligence gathering (either human intelligence or signals intelligence) has led to targeted air attacks on the oil fields that provide much of the funds for ISIS and other sites.  Now, more Special Forces troops are being sent to Syria to bolster the efforts of those Sunnis who are willing to fight ISIS.  The Iraqi government forces don’t look too effective, but they are in the field and moving forward in fits and starts.

The results of this patched together strategy have been more impressive than one might think from the daily news: 26,000 ISIS fighters killed; 40 percent of the territory it once held recaptured; 3 million of the 9 million people inside the caliphate liberated; 30 percent of its revenue lost.[2]  Next on the agenda is a strike at Mosul.

That’s the good news.  What’s the bad news?  First, a large part of the explanation for the sudden expansion of ISIS in Summer 2014 lay in the political divisions, incompetence, and corruption of Iraq’s government at that time.  The US engineered the eviction of the then prime minister Maliki and his replacement by Haider al-Abadi.  However, things have not improved very much.  Corruption and division continue to plague the government.  Recently, Muqtada al-Sadr, a powerful Shiite cleric (and an old opponent of the Americans) forced al-Abadi to fire many of the government officials most deeply implicated in corruption.  In addition, the Sunni minority—whose “Awakening” greatly contributed to the defeat of the original insurgency—continue to be persecuted by the Shiite government.  All of this can impede the drive on Mosul.

Along the same lines, the Kurds have played a valuable role in the fight against ISIS, but now that success has become a problem.  The 250 additional Special Forces troops bound for Syria are intended to recruit, train, and coordinate Sunni Arabs because it is feared that the intrusion of Kurds into the area will set off ethnic conflicts that could derail the war effort.

Second, radical Islamism of the al-Qaeda-ISIS type has a widespread following in the Muslim world.  At the moment, the most troubling bastion of ISIS adherents outside the caliphate itself is in Libya.  Adherents of ISIS have been bolstered by ISIS fighters sent from Syria.  They have seized the oil port of Sirte.  They appear to be attempting the conquest of the Sirte oil region.

Third, the recent terrorist bombings in Brussels have led to reports that ISIS has sent a sizable group of terrorists to conduct operations in Western Europe.

It is natural to ask if, in the waning days of the Obama administration, victory or something like it will be in sight by the time his successor is inaugurated.  That would surely add to his legacy.  However, the continuing governmental disaster in Baghdad and the refusal of the Shiites to make a just peace with the Sunnis is a problem that is not going to go away.  The same is true of violent radical Islam.  Frustrating, infuriating, and humiliating as has been the Obama administrations course in the fight against ISIS, it is only a campaign in a larger, longer-running war.  Many of the dilemmas of engagement in this fight will plague the next administration.

[1] “The war against ISIS,” The Week, 6 May 2016, p. 11.

[2] Apparently, there is a military solution to the problem of ISIS.  The same may be true of the Syrian civil war.