Annals of Counter Terrorism 1.

Emanuel L. Lutchman lived in Rochester, New York.[1] He was born about 1990. His mother died soon afterward and he was raised by his grand-mother in Florida. He was diagnosed with mental problems early on. When he was 13 he returned to Rochester to live with his mother’s side of the family. He never graduated from high school. By 2006, at the latest, he was having “contact” with the police. In part, this stemmed from his unsteady mental health. In part, this stemmed from crimes. He did a five year bit for robbery. He became a Muslim while in prison. Prison doctors also loaded him up on meds for his mental problems. At some point he got married and the couple had a son, but Lutchman found the responsibilities of marriage and fatherhood a burden. He had a felony conviction, but no high school diploma. Who would hire him? After he got out of prison, he began to follow radical Islamist web-sites and complained on Facebook about the injustices of “the system.” He soon came to the attention of the authorities, who sprang into action. His grandmother said that he was visited by FBI agents in early Fall 2015. They asked him to work as an informant. He declined.[2]

Then he contacted a member of the Islamic State abroad. The government became aware of this and sicked on him several informants. The informants soon won Lutchman’s confidence. He told them of his desire to stage an attack in the near future. The informants told Lutchman that they would help him. His first thought was to imitate the Tsarnaev brothers by building a pressure-cooker bomb. However, he didn’t have enough money to buy a pressure cooker.[3] He thought about a stabbing attack in a restaurant on New Year’s Eve. His wife had a knife and he could get a ski-mask for $5. So, this was more in his price-range.

When Lutchman pledged his allegiance to ISIS, the internet contact urged him to kill many “kuffar” (Unbelievers). Lutchman then made an audio recording of himself pledging allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the self-proclaimed leader of the self-proclaimed Islamic State. He sent the recording to one of the informants. The informant gave the recording to his government superiors. Soon afterward, the superiors told the informant to pull out of the operation. This left Lutchman down-cast. He texted the informant that he “was thinking about stopping the operation.” The other informant quickly bolstered Lutchman’s resolve. He also took him to a Rochester Walmart. They scored ski masks, knives, a machete, and some other stuff. The bill came to $40. Lutchman didn’t have any money, so the informer paid the bill. The FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force then arrested Lutchman the next day.

William J. Hochul, Jr., the United States Attorney in Buffalo declared that “this New Year’s Eve prosecution underscores the threat of ISIL even in upstate New York, but demonstrates our determination to immediately stop anyone who would cause harm in its name.”

The ISIS member with whom Lutchman was in contact has not been publicly identified.

[1] Benjamin Mueller, “Rochester Man Charged With Planning a Machete Attack on Behalf of ISIS,” NYT, 1 January 2016.

[2] See: https://www.google.com/search?q=Walmart+pressure+cookers+price&ie=utf-8&oe=utf-8#q=Walmart+pressure+cookers+price&tbm=shop

[3] They range in price between $20 and $120. See: https://www.google.com/search?q=Walmart+pressure+cookers+price&ie=utf-8&oe=utf-8#q=Walmart+pressure+cookers+price&tbm=shop

Quagmire.

President Barack Obama has long insisted that any solution to the Syrian civil war will require President Bashar al-Assad to yield power to his “moderate” opponents. Russia and Iran don’t care what President Obama thinks.[1] The Russians decided to intervene on behalf of Assad in late Summer 2015.[2] Planes and personnel began arriving in September. Now the Russians have expanded their firepower in Syria with a long-range artillery system, while Iran has sent a small force that may be a spear-head for a larger contribution. Early Russian airstrikes chiefly have hit the non-ISIS opponents of Assad. Meanwhile, the American effort to raise, train, and arm a force of “moderates”[3] to fight just ISIS has turned into a highly-public exploding cigar.

For their part, both Turkey and the Sunni Arab states insist that Assad has to go as part of any negotiated peace. Neither Shi’ite Iran nor the Shi’ite Hezbollah group in Lebanon will agree to one of their chief allies being sent off, to be replaced by conservative Sunnis. Then there is the whole problem of ISIS, which is equally dangerous to the Shi’ite regimes in Iraq and Syria.[4]

All this is deeply frustrating for President Obama, who has had several chances to involve the United States more deeply in Syria and wisely did not take them. Equally frustrating is the torrent of abuse that he has suffered from Republican critics.[5] President Obama described the recent Russian intervention in the civil war as born “not out of strength but out of weakness.” In an obvious allusion to the “Arab Afghans” who flocked to oppose the Soviet Union in Afghanistan in the 1980s, the President argued that attacking non-ISIS forces as well as attacking ISIS will “turbocharge ISIS recruitment and jihadist recruitment.” President Obama went on to say that “an attempt by Russia and Iran to prop up Assad and try to pacify the population is just going to get them stuck in a quagmire and it won’t work. And they will be stuck there for a while if they don’t take a different course.”

Perhaps spurred by the Russian intervention, the Obama administration began touting a new initiative of its own.[6] A projected 3,000 to 5,000 Arabs in northeastern Syria will be armed in order to co-operate with the much larger Kurdish forces and both will be better supported by air strikes from Turkey. The objective of the offensive will be to isolate the ISIS capital city of Raqqa. The U.S. also hopes that its Syrian clients can cut off a 60 mile stretch of the border with Turkey between Kilis and the Euphrates River to end the influx of foreign fighters to ISIS. However, the new plan seems intended to counter Russia as much as ISIS: an expanded area of air operations might cause the Russians to restrict their own strikes.

One possibility is that the Russo-Iranian intervention will not turn into a quagmire. Additional fire-power might turn the tide against the non-ISIS opponents of Assad. It could reduce the flow of foreign fighters to ISIS. It could presage a greater involvement of Iranian forces in opposing ISIS in Iraq. Another possibility is that the Russians aren’t opposed to a protracted struggle against ISIS. Russia has been fighting Islamists in Chechnya for a long time. Success could give the Russians diplomatic leverage over their intervention in Ukraine.

[1] Peter Baker and Neil MacFarquhar, “Obama Sees Russia Failing In Syria Effort,” NYT, 3 October 2015.

[2] See: “The Teeter-Totter.”

[3] See: “Arming the Moderates.”

[4] It is possible that the current Syrian refugee crisis in Europe was facilitated by Turkey in an effort to exert pressure on the Europeans to demand action against Assad. See: “the Syrian Refugee Crisis.” At the same time, Turkey is equally unable to prevent the crossing of its territory by foreign fighters going to join ISIS. Perhaps the Turkish state is just really weak. Or perhaps not.

[5] They seem to have learned nothing from the Iran disaster.

[6] Eric Schmitt and Michael Gordon, “U.S. Aims To Put More Pressure on ISIS in Syria,” NYT, 5 October 2015.

The Teeter Totter.

During August 2015 the Russians decided to increase their support for their Syrian ally, Bashar al-Assad. This decision came into the open in the first days of September 2015 when an advance team of Russians appeared at a Syrian air force base near the port city of Latakia. Signs of things to come included pre-fabricated housing units for a thousand men and an air-traffic control system separate from the one in use by the Syrians.[1]

Really heavy equipment in large quantities would have to come by sea through the Bosporus. More immediately, the fastest way for the Russians to get men and weapons to Syria lay in an air-lift. The U.S. got Bulgaria to reject a Russian request for over-flight rights. With the Balkan flight route closed, the Russians turned to Iran and Iraq. On 5 September 2015, the U.S. “asked” Iraq to reject any Russian request for over-flight rights from Iran into Syria. Iraq declined to bar the flights. The advance team then welcomed a half-dozen battle tanks, 35 armored personnel carriers, 15 howitzers, and the personnel to operate and service them. One American expert described the Russian moves as “risky.” He didn’t say for whom.[2]

Beginning in mid-September 2015, Putin widened his efforts with suggestions that he and President Obama meet in New York during a U.N. conference on Syria; that the militaries of the two countries hold talks on Syria, and announcing his intention to lay out a peace plan for Syria.

American observers described these efforts as part of an effort by Putin to worm and slime his way back into the good graces of the U.S. after the costs of his intervention in Ukraine a year ago had begun to bite. The Russian view is that the Americans have wreaked havoc in the Middle East in recent years by sponsoring—or forcing—the overthrow of tyrants who were keeping the lid on explosive situations. Other voices suggested that the American problems in the Middle East (Iran, ISIS) would be difficult to resolve without Russian assistance. This would be all the more true if the Russians could expand their influence beyond the Syrian regime.[3]

In the first half of September 2015 Russia deployed two to three air-defense systems to the Latakia base, along with four fighter aircraft. In mid-September 2015, two dozen Russian ground-attack aircraft arrived at the Latakia air base.[4]

Then, in late September 2015, Russia formed an intelligence-sharing agreement with Iran, Iraq, and Syria. On the surface the agreement is directed only against ISIS. The announcement caught the Americans by surprise. It seemed just as likely that non-ISIS opponents of Assad will be targeted.[5] The early reports on bombings bear out this fear.

There are two questions worth asking.

First, the Russians are joining the Sunni-Shi’ite civil war within Islam on the side of the Shi’ites. The U.S. has been trying to straddle that conflict with “allies” in both camps (Shi’ite dominated Iraq and Sunni Saudi Arabia). Will the Russian move force an undesired clarity on American policy?

Second, Iraq’s embrace of the Russians caught the U.S. flat-footed. Did Iraq launch a big rat-hunt for spies the minute the Americans withdrew? Did CIA know it was blind?

[1] Michael Gordon and Eric Schmitt, “Russian Moves in Syria Pose Concerns for U.S.,” NYT, 4 September 2015.

[2] Michael Gordon and Eric Schmitt, “Russian Moves in Syria Widen Role in Middle East,” NYT, 14 September 2015.

[3] Neil MacFarquhar and Andrew Kramer, “Putin Sees Path to Diplomacy Through Syria,” NYT, 16 September 2015.

[4] Eric Schmitt and Neil MacFarquhar, “Russia Expands Fleet in Syria With Jets That Can Attack Targets On the Ground,” NYT, 21 September 2015.

[5] Michael Gordon, “Russia Surprises U.S. With Accord on Battling ISIS,” NYT, 27 September 2015.

CrISIS 3.

Robert H. Scales (1944- ) grew up in an Army family, went to West Point, went into the field artillery, served in Vietnam, won the Silver Star for his actions when an NVA attack over-ran his fire-base, and then climbed the greasy pole to the rank of Major General. This involved a combination of education (Ph.D., History, Duke University); field commands (South Korea, Germany); staff appointments (V Corps, Training and Doctrine Command); and teaching (Artillery School at Fort Still, Army War College at Carlisle Barracks). He is the author or co-author of six books. Two of those books are Certain Victory: The U.S. Army in the Gulf War (1994), the official history of the Army in the First Gulf War; and The Iraq War: A Military History (2003), a history of the initial military defeat of Iraq in 2003.

General Scales has thought a lot about warfare in the Arab world, so his opinions are worth consideration. Some of them are at odds with the dominant beliefs that appear to have led to a series of disasters, so they are worth careful consideration. You never know. We might learn something. Stranger things have happened.

He has argued that Arab armies don’t do “modern warfare” very well.[1] Western armies (Britain, France, Israel, United States) have beaten up on Arab armies a whole bunch of times. So far, “Westernized” Arab armies (Syria, Iraq) have not performed well against ISIS. General Scales is NOT arguing that Arabs lack courage or ability as soldiers. Rather he argues that Arab culture differs markedly from Western culture. Arab culture centers on powerful loyalties to “family, tribe, and clan.” The “nation” is a more remote concept. As a result, Arabs fight best when organized in groups based on sub-national loyalties. He cites the example of the long defense of Ramadi against ISIS (October 2014-May 2015), although Western media focused chiefly on the final ISIS victory. In Scales’ view, such troops fight best on defense and markedly less well on offense. However, the Egyptian attack across the Suez Canal in the 1973 Yom Kippur War shows under what conditions Arab conventional armies can be successful. The Egyptian attack set limited, specific, and achievable goals; it relied on careful training of troops and rehearsal of movements; and it accumulated over-whelming fire-power on a circumscribed battlefield.[2]

General Scales offers his advice on future operations in Iraq against ISIS. The next campaigning season starts in April-May 2016. What needs to be done? First, stop trying to build a “Western” army for Iraq. Acknowledge the power of sub-national loyalties. Build an army that includes militias based on the real loyalties in Iraq. Second, the attack on ISIS cannot be a drawn-out battle of attrition. It has to be prepared on the model of the Egyptian 1973 offensive. Third, the Americans are going to have to commit an immense amount of airpower to support this attack. Air support will have to be on the level of Operation Desert Storm. Fourth, the objective must be to break the will to fight of ISIS, not merely to retake territory.

All this sounds persuasive. Still, a couple of questions arise. First, if Arabs fight best for “family, tribe, and clan,” then why is ISIS doing so well? If Arabs don’t fight well on the offensive, how has ISIS over-run so much of Syria and Iraq? Second, sub-national loyalties can also be anti-national loyalties. Is defeating ISIS still going to lead to the disintegration of Iraq?

[1] Robert H. Scales, “The Iraqi Army Can’t Be Westernized,” WSJ, 26 June 2015.

[2] For the Egyptians, that meant a lot of surface-to-air weapons to negate the Israeli air superiority over the battlefield and a lot of anti-tank weapons to negate the Israeli armored advantage on the battlefield. The Egyptian offensive went awry when they moved out of the reach of their air defenses, when the US poured in aid to Israel, and when the Israelis proved exceptionally resolute.

What would Bismarck drive? 3.

ISIS looks like a coalition of old Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia survivors, Iraqi Ba’athists, and conservative Syrian Sunni rebels against the Assad government. If ISIS wins in western Iraq and eastern Syria and establishes a caliphate, what will happen to that coalition? Will the coalition hold together in happier times once external dangers are reduced? Or will “hunting season” open as the members pursue disparate goals?[1]

If you look at this over the long-run, working to strengthen good governance and economic development around the world is a good idea. The Islamist movements and the refugees seeking to break into Europe (and the US for that matter) are fleeing stagnant economies, misgovernment, and often violence.[2] “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” Alas, I’m not sure that we know how to do this—aside from empires.

The Iraq War was a disaster.[3] As a result, Americans don’t want another real war at the moment. It would take a real war to slow down Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons by any significant amount of time. It would take conquest and occupation to stop it entirely.[4] So, the odds are that President Obama’s pursuit of an agreement with Iran to delay that country’s acquisition of nuclear weapons by some indefinite, but shorter, period is about the best that we can hope for.

However, confessing that we don’t want to do anything serious about Iran estranges us from Israel and Saudi Arabia. A nuclear Iran appears to both Israel and Saudi Arabia as a grave security threat. One of these days, the two countries may decide that Allah/Yahwey helps those who help themselves.[5] Perhaps the key decisions will be made in Jerusalem. Israel and Saudi Arabia have a community of interest in doing something about Iran’s nuclear program. The Saudis probably could not manage a pre-emptive attack on their own. The Saudis probably could not manage to fend-off an angry American reaction on their own. In both cases, a tacit alliance with Israel would be very valuable. On the other hand, Israel and Iran have a community of interest in doing something about ISIS, while Saudi Arabia has not made much of an effort against ISIS because it is beating up on Iranian clients in Iraq and Syria. It is difficult to imagine Israel working a deal with Iran over ISIS if it meant tolerating Iranian pursuit of nuclear weapons. It is easier to imagine Saudi Arabia turning on ISIS as part of a deal with Israel. The thing all the decision-makers—in Riyadh, Jerusalem, Tehran, and Washington—are bearing in mind is that any attack on Iran’s nuclear program will start a bigger war in the Middle East, rather than end the current ones. So, perhaps cooler heads will prevail. Perhaps there will be a grand bargain instead of Armageddon. An American presidential campaign in which a host of Republican hopefuls appear to have been recruited from clown college and the anointed Democratic candidate once voted for the Iraq War just to appear tough enough to be president doesn’t inspire confidence.

[1] See: Gordon Craig, Problems of coalition warfare: The military alliance against Napoleon, 1813-1814 (Colorado Springs: U.S. Air Force Academy, 1966); Winston S. Churchill, The Second World War, vol. 6: Triumph and Tragedy. .

[2] It appears that the long drop in homicide rates in most American cities has been problematic for local television news stations. Perhaps they should just keep news crews in some place like South Sudan.

[3] In a few years, someone is going to add a chapter to one of those What If? books that explores “counter-factual history.”   My own version runs something like the following. Saddam Hussein was 66 when he was overthrown by the coalition of “the all-too-willing”; he had a bad back, but was afraid to have surgery because it would involve general anesthetic and something might happen; his sons were violent morons who were unlikely to be able to either share or hold power after the eventual death of their father; Iraq had attacked Iran in 1980 and the Iranians were—and are—eager for pay-back; the Shi’ite majority and the Kurds were eager to chart their own course, if only the Sunni minority would get their boot off the necks of the vast majority of Iraqis; and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the founder of Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia (the ancestor of ISIS) was operating in Syria from about 2002. So, even without the invasion, things might have shaken-out pretty much as they did. Only, we wouldn’t have our finger-prints all over the rubble. See: Richard K. Betts and Samuel P. Huntington, “Dead Dictators and Rioting Mobs: Does the Demise of Authoritarian Rulers Lead to Political Instability?”, International Security, Vol. 10, #3 (Winter 1985-1986), pp. 112-146.

[4] Perhaps we could partition the place with Russia? See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anglo-Soviet_invasion_of_Iran

[5] One of the ways to think about Saudi Arabian intervention in the Yemen civil war is as an opportunity to give their soldiers and flyers some combat experience before, you know…..

What would Bismarck drive? 2.

Israel (and therefore the United States) is going to have to decide some things pretty soon.[1] First, would Israel rather have a whole Syria under Assad (weakened for a long time by its terrible civil war) or would it rather have a Syria partitioned between a mini-state headed by Assad and the rest of Syria run by ISIS? Second, is there anything that Israel can do to shape the outcome? I don’t know. Israeli intervention might bring down on the head of Israel all sorts of hostility from the Arabs, just because. The governments of Jordan, Syria, and Egypt probably wouldn’t object to Israel beating up on ISIS. How would Saudi Arabia view such action? Then, there is the tension in many Arab countries between “the Street” and “the Palace.” How would ordinary people respond to Israeli attacks, regardless of how sensible those attacks might seem to the rulers?

What will happen inside the Cauldron? ISIS can (but may not) tear apart the carcasses of Iraq and Syria. Then its advance slams up against both strong states (Turkey, Iran, Jordan, Israel) and hard cores of enemy peoples with their back to the wall (Kurds, Shi’ite Iraqis, Alawite and Christian Syrians). At this point, the going will get a lot tougher. Will ISIS pause to regroup or will it attempt to maintain the momentum? I don’t know. They’re a bunch of fanatics. They might try to topple a bunch of other governments. On the other hand, the original armed expansion of Islam came in stages. Maybe that analogy will authorize ISIS to pause to consolidate its base in preparation for a renewed advance. If ISIS does pause to consolidate its base, it isn’t going to have a lot with which to work. The caliphate will consist of landlocked desert without much oil. Most of the world will be hostile toward the caliphate. Still, in their own particular way, they’re “Goo-Goos.”[2] Perhaps they’ll find a way.

If ISIS can’t swamp the surrounding strong governments, does that mean it can’t do any harm? That’s hard to tell. Governments find it useful as a heuristic device to link every new outburst to some earlier example. Start listening to the newspeople on the Devil Box, count how often they refer to an “Al Qaeda-affiliated” or “ISIS affiliated” something or other. On the other hand, radical Islam has a wide appeal in certain geographic and psychological realms. (See: The Islamic Brigades I, II.) So it is hard for me to tell what ISIS or Al Qaeda really controls. What does seem clear is that Islamist uprisings will continue to occur and that “foreign fighters” will continue to flow toward where the fighting is taking place. Libya, northern Nigeria, and Mali already have their share of troubles. Cameroun, Niger, and Chad are feeling the effects. Tunisia is a small place with limited ability to defend itself. Algeria survived one bloody civil war between secularists and Islamists: it could flare up again. (If that happens, the fleets of refugees crammed on fishing boats will be headed for Marseilles instead of Sicily. See: The owl and the pussycat I, II.) Whatever the formal links between ISIS and the Islamist movements in these countries, ISIS will do whatever it can to support them. Pretty much on the principle of setting fire to a neighbor’s barn so that they themselves can sleep better at night.

[1] One of those things is NOT the creation of a Palestinian state. There isn’t going to be one. The current version of Fatah is a spent force. There is no way that Israel will agree to put a Hamas-controlled government endowed with all the trappings of national sovereignty in charge of the West Bank. No Arab government has ever shown a real concern for the fate of the Palestinians. If Egypt and Jordan, for example, had wanted a Palestinian state, they could have created one on the West Bank and Gaza when they controlled thos territories between 1948 and 1967.

[2] “Goo-Goos”: derisive late 19th Century American reference to “Good Government” reformers who preceded the Populists.

What would Bismarck drive? 1.

Why hasn’t ISIS attacked Jordan? First, Jordan isn’t a failed state as are Syria and Iraq. It has an army and an air force and a BYK.[1] They will fight. Second, if ISIS heads too far west, then ISrael will get into it. That won’t be calibrated airstrikes and under-motivated conscripts either.[2] Third, ISIS is still busy in Syria and Iraq.

Why hasn’t ISIS attacked Turkey? First, Turkey isn’t a failed state as are Syria and Iraq. It has an army and an air force and an SPI.[3] They will fight. Second, the Turks are Sunni Muslims, and Turkey is the conduit for foreign fighters. Third, ISIS is still busy in Syria and Iraq.

Can the government of Iraq reconcile the Shi’a majority with the Sunni minority? No. The Shi’ites had their chance when the Americans left. They threw it away by persecuting the Sunnis. Now, in a moment of great danger, the Shi’ites want to make nice with the Sunnis. You can see how the Sunnis would be suspicious. What happens when the crisis passes? Back to the previous behavior? Furthermore, it isn’t clear to me that the government put in place after the United States overthrew the Maliki government last Fall are doing more than putting up window-dressing to pacify the Americans.[4] So, I suspect that the country will have to be partitioned.

Can ISIS conquer Iraq? No. Two thirds of the population are Shi’ites; twenty percent are Sunnis; and the rest are Kurds. The Kurds will fight and the United States will support them. Iraq’s Shi’ite majority would not have anywhere to run. Their backs would be against the wall. The civil war in Iraq during the American occupation showed that the Shi’ites are capable of great violence. They would fight hard—even savagely—against ISIS. Iran will commit troops to prevent the fall of the Shi’ite parts of Iraq to ISIS. The Sunnis areas? Well, that’s another story. Perhaps Iran would be content to have Kurdish and Shi’ite Arab buffer states between itself and an ISIS caliphate. How would the United States regard this outcome? “Another fine mess.”[5]

Can ISIS conquer Syria? Well, that’s yet another story. Years of very destructive civil war have ravaged the country. This has eroded the strength of the Assad government in ways that are not yet true of the government of Iraq. Recep Erdogan, the president of neighboring Turkey, wants the Assad government gone. Saudi Arabia wants the Assad government gone. The Russkies and the Iranians want Assad to stay. My suspicion is that nobody will get all of what they want. Like Iraq, the country will have to be partitioned. I believe that most of the Alawite and Christian populations live in the west of the country. Like the Shi’ites in Iraq, they will have their backs to the wall (in this case, the Mediterranean) as ISIS advances. They will fight hard to hold it, while being ready to yield the rest of the country to ISIS. A revived Medieval Principality of Antioch could emerge to abut Lebanon. (Or perhaps the two will merge.) Between Hezbollah in Lebanon and Assad in “Antioch,” Iran would have a couple of client states on the Mediterranean. On the other hand, such a retreat by Assad would bring ISIS that much closer to Israel.

[1] Brave Young King.

[2] See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Atomic_bombings_of_Hiroshima_and_Nagasaki#/media/File:Atomic_bombing_of_Japan.jpg

[3] Semi-Psychotic Islamist, as President.

[4] See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ngo_Dinh_Diem

[5] See: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W3qcj2MzPYc

CrISIS 2.

In a review-essay in the Wall Street Journal, James Traub makes a number of important points about the Islamic State.[1]

Al Qaeda Classic misunderstood the appeal of ISIS just as much as did Western observers. Western powers at least had the excuse that they were busy with many things and on many fronts. Al Qaeda had much easier contact, but still under-estimated its rival.

Americans have debated whether “nation-building” is possible in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. Billions of dollars already have been lavished on the effort in both countries, yet it would be hard to claim that the effort has been a success. However, ISIS appears to demonstrate that it is possible, and on a shoe-string budget compared to what Americans have spent. Recent reports have suggested that ISIS has begun to encounter al sorts of problems, so they may be presiding over the start of a “nation un-building.” Even that will not solve the problem of nation-building however. Can there be an effective alternative approach formulated by the West?

Former Baath Party members have been venting their rage at the Americans for more than a decade, often in alliance with radical Islamists like Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and now Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. How long can this alliance between the former supporters of a secular regime and religious extremists survive? By their excesses, the jihadists once drove many Sunnis into alliance with the Americans and—tacitly—with the Shi’ites. Subsequently, the Shi’ites returned to a policy of persecuting the Sunnis. Nouri al-Maliki gets the blame for this in American media, but the reality is that he had wide support among Shi’ites. This makes it difficult to imagine that the Sunnis will readily abandon the Islamists. So long as it is directed against Shi’ites and Americans, the alliance ought to be able to paper over any other divisions. At least neither party will abandon the alliance until after victory has been won.

The Saudis and their Gulf clients see the struggle in Iraq as part of a larger confrontation between Sunnis and Shi’a Islam that has been going on for a long time. The rift has been open for centuries, but it has been particularly acute since the Iranian Revolution toppled the shah. Defeating ISIS so that the Shi’ite majority in Iraq can sleep better at night isn’t at the top of the Saudi agenda. The uncertainties about the negotiations on the Iranian nuclear program will not make the Saudis more committed to opposing ISIS.

Could all this have been avoided had the self-satisfied, moralizing Baby Boomers who have run American foreign policy for the last twenty years or so been content to leave dictators in place? Saddam Hussein did not have to be overthrown. The Syrian rebels did not have to be encouraged to go on resisting after it had become clear that the Bashar Assad regime was going to hold onto power. The Gaddafi regime in Libya did not have to be bombed out of existence.

It has become a common belief that things would have gone differently had the Obama administration been willing to stay on in Iraq. Regardless of the truth of this belief, will the US be willing to stay on after the defeat of ISIS to prevent a return to stupidity? In ceding so much of the active role in opposing Iraq to Iran, is the US preparing the ground for a partition of the country. Will Saudi Arabia and Jordan absorb the Sunni parts of the country?

How serious a danger is ISIS? To the United States and other Western societies, ISIS is not very dangerous. It isn’t Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union. It may be a loathsome ideology, but it does not control a powerful state. So, a sense of proportion is needed. So, too, is patience. “Keep them penned in and wait for the food riots to start,” as one character in William Gibson’s novel Pattern Recognition described America’s Cold War policy of containment.

[1] James Traub, “The Demonic Wellspring,” WSJ, 14-15 March 2015.

The Islamic Brigades 1.

Why do young Muslim men go to fight in foreign wars? The “Afghan Arabs” were a feature of the resistance to the Soviet Union, then of Al Qaeda’s attack on the United States. Arabs went to fight in Chechnya in small numbers, and now in Syria in larger numbers.[1] What draws or drives these young people to take up arms for a non-national cause?

There is a sensitive discussion of one case in the New York Times.[2] Islam Yaken (1993- ) grew up in a middle-class family in Cairo. Conservatism and modernity co-existed in his family. His mother and sisters wear the veil, yet his parents sent him to a French-language private school, and then on to university. Like many young American men of his age, Yaken fell in love with body-building. He got “ripped” by any standard. He imagined himself as a future fitness instructor. Yet he had not abandoned religious faith.[3]

Obstacles barred his path. For one thing, the conservative cast of contemporary Islam disparages physical pleasure.[4] Both sex and body-building are physical pleasures. Yaken Islam desired women, even talking of emigrating to find a career and a “hot” girlfriend.[5] For another thing, in Egypt or America, it is hard to turn personal training into a decent livelihood. Yaken failed to break into an established gym, and had to make-do with private lessons in smaller gyms.

Leaving Egypt for greener pastures entered his mind.[6] Go where? Make a start how? The answers seemed impossible. A return to the conservative religious values in which he had been raised also entered his mind. Like the 17th Century English Protestant writer John Bunyan, he excoriated himself for “sins” that others would hardly notice. He grew a beard. Still Shaitan tormented him—in the form of girls in Levis and ballet flats.

In early 2012, when Islam Yaken was 19 years old, the Muslim Brotherhood came out in the open as a result of the fall of the Mubarak regime. After years of repression by the Sadat and Mubarrak governments, the Brotherhood had survived. Apparently, they had triumphed over their enemies. Their intransigent defense of strict conservative religious doctrines—something to believe in when secular society offered nothing to believe in—may have seemed like an explanation. They were in full throat. Sheikh Muhammad Hussein Yacoub preached before huge crowds of followers in a Cairo mosque. Yaken Islam became a follower. Religious commitment did nothing to assuage the terrors that haunted him. If anything, they worsened.

In July 2013 the Egyptian military regime re-asserted itself. A heavy hand fell on the Muslim Brotherhood. By August 2013 Yaken Islam had decided for jihad in Syria. He went to Turkey, then crossed the border to join the ISIS fighters. For a year-and-a-half he has been a soldier, physical training instructor, media personality for ISIS. He has found “a life free of [sins].., a greater cause, an Islamic state.”

He was young, foolish, sexually frustrated, living in a puritanical society with little economic growth or political freedom. All true, but not everyone seeks the easy path. There is a lot of will-power and striving in a six-pack.

[1] For example, there are at least 600 Egyptians fighting with ISIS, probably many more than that.

[2] Mona El-Naggar, “From Cairo Private School to Syria’s Killing Fields,” NYT, 19 February 2015.

[3] He used a mat in his room both for prayer and for crunches.

[4] “Suppose a young man falls in love with a girl in college. He doesn’t touch her or talk to her or send her messages. He doesn’t even look at her. That’s still fornication!”—Sheikh Muhammad Yacoub, video imam.

[5] The attitude toward women is not so different from that of many American men of his age (regardless of generation).

[6] Apparently this is common talk among young people. If it ever starts, the tide of Egyptian boat people will vastly out-number the Libyan one.

Your country gets an F.

In days of old when knights were bold and Nationalism was in flower, the sociologist Max Weber defined a State as a government that maintained law and order within the borders of the country, provided basic services to citizens, managed the economy, and dealt with foreign countries. Some countries do this really well. Who wouldn’t want to be a Canadian, eh? Other countries do this less well. Weber was discussing European countries at the end of the 19th Century.

However, in the 19th and 20th Centuries Western imperialism gobbled up a bunch of territories that had never been countries (notably in Asia and Africa), then divided them in to “nations” when the tide of imperialism ebbed after the Second World War. The imperial powers had not had the time to do very much to turn these places into “nations,” so some of them have come unglued in the years since independence. Tribal or religious loyalties may be stronger than patriotism; corruption may be so bad that the government can’t provide adequate public services; or rebels, war-lords, or terrorists can operate without much hindrance from the government. When these things happen, a country can be called a “failed state.”

The ten worst-off countries in 2011 were: Somalia, Chad, Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Haiti, Zimbabwe, Afghanistan, Central African Republic, Iraq, and Cote d’Ivoire (Coat Dee-Vwar). Most of them have made the Top Ten list since 2005. (See: rut.)

You know how people try to cheer you up by saying that there’s somebody in the world with worse troubles than you? Well, Somalia is the last guy in that chain. Somalia is in the “Horn of Africa,” on the east coast across from the Arabian Peninsula. It is close to the equator, arid, with very little land to farm. Herding and fishing are important to the economy. Britain, Italy, and Ethiopia all conquered chunks of the territory in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. (Mogadishu has some Art Deco buildings worthy of South Beach.) Much of it became independent in 1960, although Ethiopia held on to important chunks. An army general named Siad Barre seized power in 1969. He became a Communist, started a war with Ethiopia, and ran the economy into the ground by 1990. Just to get even, Ethiopia stirred up various tribes against the government. Siad Barre got chucked out in 1991, but no one could agree on who to put in his place. Northern Somalia declared its independence, various soldiers tried to seize power elsewhere, and civil war broke out.

The war caused a famine, bandits (called “technicals”) molested the humanitarian aid workers, and the US sent troops to stop the parts of the violence that might accidentally get on American television. This didn’t work out and left a bad taste in everyone’s mouth about intervening in humanitarian crises. (See: “Black Hawk Down”; see: Rwanda a little while later.) Civil war dragged on to the point that government just disintegrated; after 9/11 the US got very hostile to “Islamists,” of whom there are a great many in Somalia and encouraged people to fight them; many Somali fishermen and soldiers turned to piracy on the Indian Ocean; and drought hit the country in 2011. There are probably a million refugees and internally displaced people. Curiously, it has some of the best internet and cell-phone service in Africa. What about Nigeria?