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Terrorism 101

There was a time, as recently as 25 years ago, when military staff colleges around the world taught a reasonably effective doctrine for dealing with terrorism. Then it was forgotten, but we need it back. It would be especially useful in dealing with the terrorist state that has recently emerged in northern Iraq and eastern Syria.

The doctrine was painfully worked out back in the decades of the 1960s, 70s and 80s, when terrorism was one of the world’s biggest problems. Most of the time, the strategy worked, whether the threat was the urban terrorists who plagued most Latin American countries and a number of big developed countries, or the rural guerillas who fought the government in many African and Asian countries.

The key insight was this: Terrorist movements always want you to over-react, SO DON’T DO IT. The terrorists usually lack the popular support to overpower their opponent by force, so they employ a kind of political jiu-jitsu: they try to use the adversary’s own strength against him. Most domestic terrorism, and almost all international terrorism, is aimed at provoking a big, stupid, self-defeating response from the target government.

The Red Army Faction terrorists, for example, hoped that their attacks would provoke West Germany’s democratic government into severe repression. This was known, in the works of philosopher Herbert Marcuse, as “unmasking the repressive tolerance of the liberal bourgeoisie” – and once the West German government had dropped its mask, the RAF terrorists believed, the outraged workers would rise up in their millions and overthrow it.

But we never found out if the workers would actually do that, because the West German government refused to panic. It just tracked down the terrorists and killed or arrested them. It used violence, but only in legal, limited and precisely targeted ways. The same approach ended the terrorist campaigns in Italy (the Red Brigades), Canada (the Quebec Liberation Front), Japan (the Japanese Red Army) and the United States (the Weathermen).

In Latin America, by contrast, the “urban terrorists” did succeed in the first stage of their strategy. Their attacks drove the military in Argentina, Brazil and a number of other countries to seize power and create brutally repressive regimes. But even this did not cause the population to revolt, as the terrorists had expected.

Instead, “the people” kept their heads down while the military regimes destroyed the revolutionaries (together with many innocent bystanders). Extreme repression can also eventually succeed as a counter-strategy to terrorism, but it imposes a terrible cost on the population.
International terrorism has a somewhat better record of success, mainly because these terrorists are not actually trying to overthrow the government they attack. They are merely trying to trick that foreign government into using massive violence against the countries where they really do want to take power. The attacks of the foreigners will outrage and radicalise the local population, who will then give their support to the local revolutionaries.

The most successful operation of this kind was 9/11, a low-cost attack that incited the United States to invade two entire countries in the region where the revolutionaries of al-Qaeda hoped to replace the local governments with Islamist regimes. The local population has been duly radicalised, especially in the Sunni-majority parts of Iraq, and thirteen years later an “Islamic Caliphate” has taken power in the northern and western parts of that country.

Osama bin Laden would have condemned the extreme cruelty that the new Islamist state has adopted as its modus operandi, but in essence it is the fulfilment of the grand strategy that he worked out after the Russians left Afghanistan a quarter-century ago. He could not have predicted that the strategy’s greatest success would be in Iraq, for he had no allies or followers there before the US invasion, but he would still take credit for it.

So now that Osama bin Laden’s vision has finally taken concrete shape, how should we deal with it? (“We” in this case is practically every regime in the Arab world, most of the other Muslim countries, and all of the NATO countries, with Russia and China in supporting roles). ISIS’s behaviour is abominable, but is there any better option than simply bombing it from a great height?

Rule one in the old anti-terrorism doctrine was DON’T OVERREACT, and it still applies. That means as little bombing as possible, and only of strictly military targets. Preferably, it would mean no bombing at all except in specific areas where ISIS troops are on the offensive.

It means not letting yourself be lured into more extreme action by the public beheading of innocent hostages and the other atrocities that ISIS stages to attract a certain kind of recruit. Indeed, it means not launching a major ground offensive against ISIS (for which the troops are not available anyway), and waiting for events to take their course within the ‘Islamic State’.

Regimes as radical and violent as this one rarely survive for long. The revolution will eat its children, as so many have before, and it will happen a lot more quickly if they don’t have a huge foreign military threat to hold them together.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6, 7 and 10.  (“In Latin…population”; and “Osama…it”)

Coalition of the Unwilling

“If Hitler invaded Hell, I would make at least a favourable reference to the Devil in the House of Commons,” said Winston Churchill in 1941, defending his decision to regard Stalin as an ally after Germany invaded the Soviet Union.

If the brutal fanatics of ISIS and their new “Islamic State” in parts of Iraq and Syria were really an existential threat to the United States, then President Barack Obama, using the same logic, would now be treating the governments of Syria and Iran as allies. But he isn’t.

US Secretary of State John Kerry has just ended a recruiting tour of the Middle East, signing up Arab states and Turkey for a new coalition that will allegedly “degrade and ultimately destroy (ISIS).” Moreover, it must do so without ever requiring US “boots on the ground”: the American public would not stand for any more of that.

The US will happily provide air strikes if others will do the dying on the ground, of course, and the Iraqi government will go along with that deal since it has just lost a third of its national territory to ISIS. But it will take a long time to rebuild the Iraqi army after its recent collapse – and the only other US allies who are willing to die to stop ISIS are the Kurds.

Jordan will supply intelligence services. Turkey will make it harder for would-be jihadis to cross its borders with Syria and Iraq (the route by which most of ISIS’s foreign recruits have traveled), but it will not let the US use Turkish air bases for military operations. Egypt murmurs words of encouragement but makes no specific commitments.

Almost all the Gulf states, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait included, have promised to stop the large flow of donations from wealthy individuals to the various jihadi outfits in Syria (including, at least until recently, ISIS). The United Arab Emirates reportedly even offered to carry out air strikes against ISIS. But it’s hardly a mass mobilisation, and it doesn’t involve any “boots on the ground”.

There are plenty of boots available if Washington wants them, but they are on the wrong feet. The Syrian Army has been fighting the jihadis for almost three years now, and after its initial losses it has managed to hold its own against them everywhere except in eastern Syria. Elsewhere, it has actually been gaining back ground for more than a year now.

Then there is Iran, a big, industrialised country whose armed forces do know how to fight. Iran provided the key support for the local Shia militias that stopped ISIS from sweeping into Baghdad last summer, and it has been providing indispensable support to the Syrian government for years.
Finally, there are the “wrong” Kurds. The Kurds of Iraq can be part of the coalition, because they have their own self-governing region and are legitimate recipients of American military aid. But the Kurdish nationalist forces of northeastern Syria and southeastern Turkey, who have lots of combat experience and have been holding their own against ISIS, are classed as “terrorists” by Washington and so cannot be part of the gang.

But Washington has not asked these major players to join its new coalition. Indeed, it has invited everybody in the Middle East to join except those who are actually willing to fight ISIS on the ground. How peculiar.

There are reasons for this odd behaviour, of course. The obsessive American mistrust of Iran goes back to the hostage crisis of the late 1970s, and is reinforced by Israel’s paranoia about Iran.

Turkey would go ballistic if the United States started arming the Kurdish rebels of the PKK, who have fought a long and brutal war (currently in remission) against the Turkish state. And it’s just too abrupt a U-turn for Obama to start doing business with Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad, whom he was getting ready to bomb just one year ago.

Maybe a rebuilt Iraqi army can drive ISIS out of Iraq eventually, although ISIS has lots of local support in the Sunni Arab parts of Iraq. But where does Obama think the troops will come from to drive ISIS back in its Syrian heartland?

His only answer is to build a new “Free Syrian Army” composed of “moderates” who will fight on two fronts, defeating ISIS while also overthrowing Assad. But that’s ridiculous, since the old FSA has almost all been absorbed into the various jihadi groups in Syria. There is nothing left to build on.

For added comic effect, this new Free Syrian Army will be trained in Saudi Arabia, the principal supporter and paymaster of those same jihadi groups until ISIS scared it into hedging its bets.

One is tempted to think that Obama is not really all that worried about ISIS as a strategic threat. One is further tempted to speculate that he has learned not to care too much about what happens in the Middle East any more. But those are subjects for another day.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 9, 11 and 12.  (“Finally…gang”; and “There…ago”)

Middle Eastern Christians: Going, Going…Gone

Two high-profile incidents last week, at opposite ends of the Arab world. In northern Iraq, recently conquered by the zealots of the newly proclaimed “Islamic State”, the Christians in Mosul were given three choices: convert to Islam, pay a special tax (about $750, on this occasion), or be killed. They all fled, and now Mosul is Christian-free for the first time in almost two millennia.

Meanwhile, in Sudan, Meriam Ibrahim finally got permission to leave her homeland after spending months chained up in a jail cell. The young woman had been condemned to hang by a Sudanese court for the crime of having “converted” to Christianity, but the government couldn’t legally kill her until after her baby was born.

Now, neither of these incidents gives an accurate picture of government policy in Arab countries that have traditionally had Christian minorities (which is to say, most of them). Indeed, big Arab countries like Syria, Iraq and Egypt have all had Christian ministers in their governments, and their laws guaranteed  religious freedom.

Sudan, whose legal system has been based on Islamic shariah law since a military coup thirty years ago, does not treat its citizens equally regardless of their religion. At first glance, however, the restrictions apply mostly to the Muslim majority, who, for example, are forbidden to leave their faith on pain of death. That was the law that almost killed Meriam Ibrahim.

Her father had been Muslim, but he had abandoned the family when she was very young and her Christian mother had brought her up in the Catholic faith. Nevertheless, according to Sudanese law you are a Muslim if your father was, and professing any other faith makes you an apostate. She refused to abandon her Christian faith, and so she was sentenced to hang.

But they do understand the concept of bad publicity even in Khartoum. The suspicion hangs heavy that the prosecution grew out of a blackmail attempt gone wrong, for Meriam Ibrahim is a doctor and her husband, also a Christian, holds dual Sudanese and American citizenship. To your average impoverished Sudanese – like, perhaps, her absent father’s family – that would have spelled “money”.

So the accusation was made that she was really a Muslim who had abandoned her faith and married a Christian (both hanging offences), but it may have been made privately at first. Then, however, the professional zealots who make a living out of “defending Islam” got in on the act, demanding the apostate be killed, and the Sudanese government had to enforce its own laws.
The only saving grace was that Meriam Ibrahim was pregnant, and could not legally be killed until her child was born and had lived about two years. This gave time for the saner elements in the Sudanese government to work with her lawyers, and ultimately with US and Italian government representatives, to find a way to let her go. (Meanwhile, for all but the last month of her six-month ordeal, she was chained to the floor in a jail cell.)

It all finally came right, and last Thursday Meriam Ibrahim, her 20-month-old son and her newborn daughter flew out of Khartoum, landed in Rome, and was whisked off to a meeting with the Pope.

“She is unhappy to leave Sudan. She loves Sudan very much. It’s the country she was born and grew up in,” her lawyer told the BBC.  “Her life is in danger so she feels she has to leave. Just two days ago a group called Hamza made a statement that they would kill her and everyone who helps her.”

So a happy(ish) ending to the story – but there were probably several other Sudanese Christians on the same flight who were leaving their country forever with less fanfare. It’s no longer wise for Christians to live there if they have any other options. And that is rapidly becoming the case for Iraq, too.

There were still about 60,000 Christians in Mosul when the United States and its sidekicks invaded Iraq eleven years ago. By last year, it was down to 30,000. Only two months after the arrival of the ISIS extremists, there are none. Most have fled to Kurdistan with nothing more than the clothes on their backs. They are not going back, and if they can they will leave the Middle East entirely.

What has changed? For many centuries, the Christian minority of Arabs lived in relative peace and prosperity under Muslim rule. In the early 20th century, they were in the forefront of the nationalist and literary renaissance in the Arab world. But in the past decade, about a quarter of the Arab world’s 12 million Christians have emigrated, and the flow is increasing every year.

Most of them are not facing execution, like Meriam Ibrahim or the former residents of Mosul. They just feel excluded from an Arab discourse that is increasingly radicalised and obsessed with religious differences – both Muslim-Christian ones and Sunni-Shia ones – and they have lost hope. They are Arabs who have lost their place in the Arab world, and they have to find one elsewhere.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3, 4 and 10. (“Now…Ibrahim”; and “She…her”)

The Caliphate Returns

“Listen to your caliph and obey him. Support your state, which grows every day,” said Abu Mohamed al-Adnani, announcing the rebirth of the Caliphate in the broad territory between Aleppo in northern Syria and Diyala province in eastern Iraq. It hasn’t actually grown much more in the past couple of weeks, but it certainly intends to go on expanding.

The radical Sunni Muslim organisation that conquered almost half of Iraq in a whirlwind week at the beginning of June has changed its name. Before, it was ISIS, the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (the old Ottoman province that used to include Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Israel). But now it wishes to be known simply as the “Islamic State” – for there can only be one such state, and it should include everywhere that Muslims have ever ruled.

ISIS propagandists have even produced a map showing the ultimate borders that their Islamic State lays claim to. Spain and Portugal will be part of it, because they were ruled by Muslim conquerors during much of the Middle Ages. Iran, too (although something will have to be done about all those Shia Muslims).

All of India except the southern tip should be under the rule of the Caliph, because Muslim invaders also ruled there as minorities for many centuries – and of course Serbia, Croatia and Hungary will be part of the Islamic State, for the Ottomans conquered all the Balkans up to there. Not to mention half of Africa, and Indonesia, and southwestern Siberia (which was once ruled by the Sibir Khanate for a century or so).

There’s no point in protesting that Muslims were never more than a small minority in many of these places, for the lads of ISIS believe that only Muslims – indeed, only Sunni Muslims – have rights. “The legality of all emirates, groups, states and organisations becomes null by the expansion of the Caliphate’s authority and the arrival of its troops to their areas,” al-Adnani helpfully explained.

So much for the fantasy. What’s the reality? A group of jihadis have seized a big chunk of eastern Syria and western Iraq, erased the border between them, and declared an Islamic State. As little as ten thousand strong only a month ago, they have been rapidly growing in numbers as ISIS’s success attracts new recruits – but they are obviously never going to reconquer India, Spain or Siberia.

They aren’t going to make a dent in the two powerful states to the north of their Islamic State either. Iran, being overwhelmingly Shia, is immune to their charms and far too big to take by force. Turkey, although now governed by an Islamic party, is still a modern, secular state that is much too strong to attack.
To the west and east ISIS is already at war with regimes that are either very tough (Bashar al- Assad’s war-hardened dictatorship in western and central Syria) or very Shia (the south-eastern slice of Iraq, densely populated and with a large Shia majority). The Islamic State’s central position between its two enemies gives it a strategic advantage, but not a decisive one.

To the south are desert frontiers with more promising territory. Jordan’s population is about two-thirds Palestinian, and even among the Bedouin tribes that are the mainstay of King Abdullah’s rule there was some enthusiasm for ISIS’s victory in Iraq. If Jordan fell, the Islamic State would reach right up to Israel’s borders, with incalculable consequences.

Saudi Arabia would be a much tougher nut to crack, but the salafi religious ideology that animates ISIS is very close to the fundamentalist Wahhabi version of Islam that is the Saudi state religion. That’s why the Saudis gave arms and money to ISIS jihadis in the early days of the Syrian civil war, although they have subsequently recognised the threat that the organisation poses to the Saudi state.

But even if ISIS gets very lucky, it is unlikely to get farther than that. Egypt blocks its expansion to the west, although the Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis extremists who are active in the Sinai peninsula undoubtedly have some ties with it. Even its direct rivals in the Refound-The-Caliphate business – the original al-Qaeda, al-Shabab in north-east Africa, Boko Haram in northern Nigeria, and their lesser brethren – are unlikely to accept the ISIS leader as caliph.

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who now styles himself Caliph Ibrahim, has clearly been preparing himself for this moment for most of his adult life: he even chose the name of the first caliph, Abu Bakr, as his nom de guerre. His spokesman does not hide his soaring ambition: “We hereby clarify to the Muslims that with this declaration of Khilafah (caliphate), it is incumbent upon all Muslims to pledge allegiance to the Khalifah Ibrahim and support him.”

They are not going to do that, and the sheer radicalism and intolerance of ISIS’s members make it unlikely that their project will survive unaltered for more than a year or so even in the territory that now makes up the “Islamic State”. Nevertheless, it is extraordinary that the 7th-century caliphate has reappeared even fleetingly in the modern world. Bush and Blair have a lot to answer for.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 5, 7 and 10. (“There’s…explained”; “They…attack”; and “Saudi…state”)