Tag: Counterterrorism

Peace picks December 4 – 8

  1. 8th Annual Conference on Turkey | Monday, December 4 | 9:00 am – 3:30 pm | Middle East Institute (held at the National Press Club) | Register Here |The Middle East Institute (MEI) and the Friedrich Ebert Foundation are pleased to host MEI’s 8th Annual Conference on Turkey. At a time of critical internal developments and international tensions, this program of three panels on Turkey’s domestic politics, economy, and foreign relations will feature Turkish, European, and U.S. office-holders, policymakers, and expert analysts from both sides of the Atlantic. The conference’s first panel, “Turkey’s Domestic Politics,” will feature Aykan Erdemir of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, Ahmet Kuru of San Diego State University, Giran Ozcan of the People’s Democratic Party, Güneş Murat Tezcür of the University of Central Florida, and moderator Lisel Hintz of Johns Hopkins SAIS. The second panel, titled, “Turkey’s Economy,” will include Arne Lietz of the European Parliament, Sebnem Kalemli-Ozcan of the University of Maryland, and Omer Taspinar of the National Defense University. The Brookings Institution’s Kemal Kirisci will moderate. For the final panel, “Turkey’s Foreign Policy,” moderator Amberin Zaman of Al-Monitor will be joined by Dimitar Bechev of the Atlantic Council, Jonathan Cohen of the U.S. Department of State, Kati Piri of the European Parliament, and Ozturk Yilmaz, a member of the Turkish parliament representing the Republican People’s Party. Michael Meier of Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES) and Gönül Tol of MEI will deliver opening remarks, and Michelle Müntefering of the German Bundestag Foreign Affairs Committee will be the keynote speaker.
  2. Rebuilding Syria: A Localized Revitalization Strategy | Monday, December 4 | 12:30 pm | Atlantic Council | Register Here | The Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East is launching the first report of its two-year project, Rebuilding Syria: Reconstruction and Legitimacy. Over the course of the project’s first year, the Hariri Center has pooled expertise from specialists on the many issues surrounding rebuilding Syria, including economics, finance, development, infrastructure, political economy, civil society, food security, energy, law, and employment. From these insights, gleaned from multiple roundtable workshops, interviews, and commissioned research and writing from inside Syria, the project has created a strategic roadmap to rebuilding based on a localized, ground-up approach. The report, authored by Hariri Center Senior Fellow Faysal Itani and independent international security analyst Tobias Schneider, lays out this vision and offers concrete actions that can be taken now towards the long-term goal of revitalizing Syria with the participation of Syrians and the support of the international community. Itani and Schneider will be joined by moderator Mona Yacoubian of the United States Institute of Peace for this discussion. The Atlantic Council’s Ambassador Frederic C. Hof will introduce the panel.
  3. Conditions Facing Religious Minorities in Iraqi Kurdistan | Tuesday, December 5 | 3:00 – 4:30 pm | Middle East Institute | Register Here | Surrounded by conflict and grappling with a rapidly changing political landscape, the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI) stands out as a locus of relative stability in its region. A recently-released report by the United States Commission for International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), entitled “Wilting in the Kurdish Sun: The Hopes and Fears of Religious Minorities in Northern Iraq,” highlights the difficulties faced in the KRI to address religious freedom. The report underscores the KRG’s struggle to protect the region’s many vulnerable religious communities and discusses the grievances of the communities, and offers recommendations on how to address them in the sensitive, post-ISIS environment. The Middle East Institute (MEI) is pleased to host a panel discussion drawing on the report, featuring Bayan Sami Abdul Rahman (KRG), Jomana Qaddour (USCIRF), and Randa Slim (MEI). MEI senior vice president for policy research and programs Paul Salem will moderate the event.
  4. Turmoil Across the Middle East: What Does It Mean? | Tuesday, December 5 | 9:30 – 11:00 am | United States Institute of Peace | Register Here | What should we make of the Middle East’s upheavals? In recent weeks, the Islamic State (ISIS) “caliphate” collapsed. Syria’s Assad regime all but won the six-year war, thus consolidating Iranian and Russian influence. Saudi Arabia purged parts of its royal family. Lebanon’s prime minister abruptly resigned. Iraq’s Kurds voted for independence, triggering confrontation with Baghdad. Years of U.S. and international engagement has failed to rebuild fractured countries, and the very viability of states like Iraq and Syria has been challenged. At USIP, distinguished Middle East analysts will explore where the region is headed, and the U.S. roles amid this tumult. In the face of the region’s challenges, the Trump administration has voiced strong support for Israel and Saudi Arabia, while confronting Iran. Mike Yaffe, vice president of the Middle East and Africa center at USIP, will moderate this discussion with Robin Wright, who has reported from the region for four decades, Bruce Riedel, a 30-year veteran of the CIA, Mona Yacoubian, who recently coordinated U.S. assistance to much of the region, and Aaron David Miller, who advised Republican and Democratic secretaries of state on Middle East policy over two decades.  
  5. The Global War on Terrorism: Myths, Realities & Solutions | Wednesday, December 6 | 6:00 – 8:00 pm | Rise to Peace (held at George Washington University) | Register Here | Rise to Peace (risetopeace.org) is a nonprofit organization dedicated to educating others on the dangers of extremism and terrorism, particularly how these groups prey on and recruit the youth. In this discussion, hosted by Rise to Peace, the panelists will examine the Post-9/11 “Global War on Terrorism” and address such questions as: Have military operations in the Middle East and Africa suppressed terrorist safe havens? Have domestic surveillance efforts helped or hindered internal security in the United States? Have diplomatic efforts fostered cooperation among the United States and its allies to thwart the rise of extremism? Panelists will include Ambassador John W. Limbert of the United States Naval Academy, Christopher A. Kojm of George Washington University, Gawdat Bahgat of the National Defense University, Ahmad Shah Mohibi of Rise to Peace, Michael R. Sherwin of the U. S. Department of Justice, and Alicia Fawcett of Rise to Peace.
  6. The Nuke Ban Treaty: Now What? | Wednesday, December 6 | 12:00 pm | Stimson Center | Register Here | In July, 122 states voiced support for the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. The treaty will enter into force 90 days after 50 states ratify it. But what effect, if any, could this treaty have given that none of the nuclear weapon states have signed it? And if a goal of the treaty – as stated in its preamble – is to bring about complete nuclear disarmament, how could this be achieved through further treaty developments or other efforts? This event will be an on-the-record discussion co-hosted by The Washington Foreign Law Society and The Stimson Center on the prospects of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons and how complete nuclear disarmament can be achieved. The discussion will feature Barry M. Blechman of the Stimson Center, Ambassador James E. Goodby of the Hoover Institution, Mallory Stewart of the Stimson Center, and Cymie Payne of Rutgers University. Stimson’s Debra Decker will moderate the panel
  7. Lessons from the Syria Crisis: Old Rivalries, New Dynamics | Thursday, December 7 | 3:00 – 5:00 pm | Turkish Heritage Organization (held at the National Press Club) | Register Here | Recent developments in the Syria crisis have shaken up established rivalries and alliances in the region. NATO member Turkey is experiencing historic lows in its bilateral relationship with the U.S., while it is working closely with traditional rivals like Russia and Iran to manage the conflict on its southern border. However, President Trump’s recent promise to President Erdogan that the U.S. is looking to adjust its current military support to the YPG in Syria is a reminder of the commitment of both countries to continue efforts to resolve differences that have created strain in their relationship. Join THO at the National Press Club on December 7 to hear from a panel of distinguished experts on the new international dynamics that have arisen from the ongoing crisis in Syria. Speakers will include Barry Pavel of the Atlantic Council, Seyed Hossein Mousavian of Princeton University, Lincoln Bloomfield of the Stimson Center, and moderator Sinem Vatanartiran of BAU International University.
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Declining is the right answer

The Middle East is one of the few foreign policy areas other than climate change and trade that will get many electrons during the upcoming election year. Discord will dominate the discourse: President Obama is insufficiently resolute, he needs to stand up more against {you fill in the blank}, we should or should not intervene {here} or {there}. We should support our allies {more} or {less}, we {should} or {should not} condition aid on human rights concerns, and we should {defeat}, {deter} or {contain} one terrorist group or another.

You wouldn’t know that there is wide area of agreement among Americans and their political leaders on what US goals in the Middle East should be. Here they are, more or less in order of their salience to national security:

  1. Nuclear non-proliferation: no (more) nuclear weapons states in the greater Middle East (which stretches more or less from Mauritania to Pakistan).
  2. Free flow of energy: oil and gas should flow unimpeded from the Middle East to world markets.
  3. Counterterrorism: extremist groups in the region should not be able to mount a mass casualty attack against the United States or Europe.
  4. Support for allies: America’s regional allies should wield the means necessary to confront internal and external adversaries successfully.
  5. Spreading democratic values: all other things being equal (which they aren’t on most days), Washington prefers to deal with inclusive governments that reflect the will of their people.

If there is agreement on these goals, why so much dissonance on the Middle East?

It comes from two things: different priorities accorded to these generally agreed goals, and differences over the means to achieve them.

Priorities are important. The Obama Administration arguably has prioritized nuclear non-proliferation over support for allies, reaching an agreement with Iran that if implemented fully would prevent it from getting nuclear weapons for a decade or more but giving it relief from sanctions that strengthens Tehran’s position in the region and enables it to confront American allies. Washington would prefer a democratic government in Egypt, but has prioritized support for President Sisi and his fight against what he defines as terrorism. Some argue Washington’s focus on anti-American terrorism  is leading us to over-emphasize security cooperation and under-emphasize political reform.

So too are the means to achieve these goals. President Obama has preferred killing terrorists with drones to risking American lives in efforts to build up states in the region capable of confronting the terrorist threat with law enforcement means. He has also followed a long American tradition of keeping oil flowing through Hormuz principally through military means rather than encouraging oil producers to build pipelines to carry oil around the strait. Some still think threatening the use of force is necessary to ensure compliance with the Iran nuclear deal.

So yes, there is discord, but the discord is about priorities and means, not about goals. Basically, all American politicians are singing the same lyrics, even when they strike up different tunes or use an orchestra instead of a rock band.

The bigger question is whether these goals in the Middle East are increasing or declining in importance. Let’s look at the goals one by one.

With the Iran nuclear deal, we have at least postponed the major non-proliferation issue in the Middle East. There are still others: will Saudi Arabia, Egypt or Turkey now be tempted to at least match Iran in nuclear technology? Will Pakistan deploy battlefield nuclear weapons as a deterrent against India? Will Israel’s nuclear weapons generate increasing concern in the region? But on the whole I think we can say the issues are less urgent and less compelling, now that the Iran question is settled for a decade or more.

The US is now far less dependent on Middle East oil than it has been for decades, but energy experts will quickly counter that oil prices are determined in a global market, so a serious supply disruption would be felt economically in the US even if we imported no oil at all. Still, with prices around $50/barrel and Iran soon to regain and eventually expand its export position, there is little to worry about for the moment. The people who should worry most are in China, Japan and elsewhere in Asia, which is increasingly dependent on Middle East oil and gas exports. They should bear the burden of protecting energy flows.

Little can be said about the terrorist threat. An attack can always sneak through. 9/11 was less a probability than a “black swan”–a rare and unpredictable deviation from the norm. Ever since, the number of Americans killed by international terrorists has been less than the number killed by (non-Muslim) domestic ones (even if we don’t always call them terrorists). With Al Qaeda Central much diminished and the Islamic State preoccupied with taking and defending territory in Syria and Iraq, not to mention heightening of counterterrorist defenses worldwide, it is harder to plan and execute a major terrorist plot than it was 15 years ago.

Support for allies is arguably more important in the aftermath of the Iran nuclear deal, but the means we have chosen to achieve it are such that it involves little in-depth engagement with the Middle East. We ship truly gargantuan quantities of advanced armaments to the Gulf and Israel. We have also supported, despite a lot of doubts, the Saudi war against the Houthis in Yemen. The main purpose of our support for allies is to reduce the need for direct American engagement, not increase it.

Apart from guys like me and my friends in the thinktank community who make a living (or not) thinking and writing about the Middle East, there is little support left in the US for spreading democratic values in the region. The positive results of the Arab uprisings are so paltry–a fragile transition in Tunisia and some reforms in Morocco and Jordan–that most Americans (and certainly the presidential candidates) wouldn’t want to waste much taxpayer money or electoral breath on what they regard as a quixotic pursuit.

So declining is the right answer, even without considering the rising threats to the US from China in the Pacific and from Russia in Europe. Those of us who still worry about the Middle East need to figure out more economical and effective ways to achieve the goals that Americans agree on. More about that in future posts.

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Countering the ISIS narrative

The Brookings Institution hosted “Combating ISIS Propaganda Networks” Wednesday afternoon. Former ambassador and vice president of the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), Alberto Fernandez, presented his major findings and policy recommendations from his research into ISIS’s propaganda operations. Richard LeBaron, non-resident Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council, provided comments, while Brookings’ Will McCants, who has recently published The ISIS Apocalypse: The History, Strategy, and Doomsday Vision of the Islamic State, moderated.

Fernandez examined how ISIS propaganda developed, the reasons for its appeal, and efforts being made to counter its narrative. He observed that the crisis in Syria gave ISIS a window through which it could become more global and creative in its propaganda efforts, which had previously been inward-looking and somewhat amateurish. Syria historically and culturally holds much significance for Arab Muslims, and the city which holds apocalyptic significance, Dabiq, falls within its boundaries. ISIS’s English-language magazine is called Dabiq, after al-Zarqawi focused on it in one of his speeches.

Syria is also the first social media war, or tweeted war, according to Fernandez. So 2013 became a turning point for ISIS propaganda, as it also then began expanding into English.

ISIS’s appeal is based on four things: emergency, agency, authenticity, and victory. In Fernandez’s view, all propaganda stems from a political reality. To be successful, it must remain connected to that reality. ISIS exploits the sense Muslims have of being besieged and slaughtered everywhere. It provides the aggrieved with the opportunity, the invitation, to do something about this. Its character – grim, austere, brimming with zealotry and brutal violence – underscores its claimed authenticity. Finally, it is able to show that it gets results: it wins battles, takes cities, and expands its territorial control.

Efforts to counter ISIS need to be as comprehensive as ISIS’s approach. Fernandez has five recommendations:

  • Recognize that ISIS is a political problem with a media dimension: the phenomenon is not reducible to social media, but is a real war.
  • Counter volume with volume: efforts need a comprehensive network, including the information and experience of Syrians on the ground.
  • Content needs to be multifaceted: different focuses and styles should be used, rather than attempting to find a single silver bullet that alone will undermine ISIS.
  • Efforts must account for the personal dimension of radicalization and seek to replicate the tight personal relationships ISIS creates.
  • There is value in better policing of space online.

LeBaron by and large agreed with Fernandez, while also highlighting that many counter-propaganda efforts don’t provide any alternate options for people who may be susceptible to ISIS’s message. LeBaron believes that “We are the counter-narrative,” that is, Western liberal capitalism and democracy, the way people live in a Western country like the US.

This may be true for young Muslims who have little familiarity with the West and grew up under autocratic regimes and weak economies. But it hardly seems a likely counter-narrative to the hundreds of young people, Muslims or converts, who were born and raised in Western countries and are nevertheless attracted to ISIS or similar ideologies. Any counter message, like any explanation, must account for the numerous different factors contributing to ISIS’s appeal.

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The Anwar al-Awlaki tale

On Thursday Brookings hosted a conversation with the national security reporter for the New York Times, Scott Shane on “Anwar al-Awlaki, Yemen, and American counterterrorism policy.” Shane discussed his new book, Objective Troy: A Terrorist, A President and the Rise of the Drone, with Bruce Riedel, the director of the Intelligence Project at Brookings. An investigation of al-Awlaki’s path to becoming a charismatic English-language recruiter for al-Qaeda, the book deals with the important question of whether an executive authority should have the power to order the extrajudicial killing of its own citizens. The question of drones is especially relevant today, as Britain has also recently killed two of its citizens who were Islamic State combatants in Syria with a drone.

Riedel began by asking Shane why he became interested in al-Awlaki’s story. Shane highlighted how unexpected it seemed for al-Awlaki to become a conservative Salafi preacher and an ally of al-Qaeda, given his early background. The American-born son of a Yemeni minister who admired America, al-Awlaki studied engineering at Colorado State University. There he became attracted to Salafism, a puritanical, conservative form of Islam. He began preaching his new faith, surprising his roommates. He went on to become the most influential English-language recruiter for al-Qaeda, as well as an operational planner in Yemen. Even after he accepted Salafism, however, this role was not in any sense inevitable.

Shane became intrigued about this trajectory – what changed? He hoped he might shed light on the larger phenomenon of radicalization by investigating al-Awlaki’s story. Al-Awlaki attracted the FBI’s attention at various points, for suspicions of connections to known terrorists and, after 9/11, the hijackers involved in that attack. Shane determined in his research that at that point in his life, there was no real connection. Two of the 9/11 hijackers had attended the San Diego mosque at which he was imam, but al-Awlaki never had knowledge of the plot and soon after condemned the attacks to his younger brother.

What the FBI found, through following his movements on a daily basis, was that al-Awlaki habitually visited prostitutes. In Shane’s opinion, this is a fascinating part of his story that has not been highlighted enough. A well-regarded and even famous preacher on moral aspects of life, al-Awlaki appears a hypocrite when this aspect of his life is known. Though it is a small part of the larger story, it is information that the FBI and the administration could have used to discredit al-Awlaki publicly, reducing his effectiveness as a recruiter, Shane pointed out.

Riedel asked about al-Awlaki’s transition to Yemen, and how he began Inspire, which was a propaganda magazine for al-Qaeda, or as Riedel noted, from another perspective, public diplomacy. Once al-Awlaki was informed about the FBI’s file on him, and in the context of heightened tension about the treatment of Muslims in the US, he moved to the UK, with increasingly frequent trips to Yemen, where he eventually ended up. Al-Awlaki had always been a prolific preacher who was adept at using new media to disseminate his sermons – cassette tapes in the 90s, then box-sets of CDs, and finally Youtube, where there remain some 40,000 of his videos. Much of the content nevertheless concerned the banalities of everyday devout Muslim life, rather than incendiary calls for jihad or war with America. Shane said that for a few years al-Awlaki wavered about re-starting his life in the US. But after he was imprisoned in Sana’a and the US declined to intervene on his behalf, he began to get involved with al-Qaeda. Even while he was in Yemen, al-Awlaki’s path was not definite; he tried many different ventures, but he wanted to make his mark, according to Shane. Public diplomacy was something he excelled at.

It is from this point, as early as 2006 but certainly by 2008, that the US began noticing al-Awlaki’s presence in terrorism cases, in the searches suspects were making on line and the videos they were watching. After the case of the 2009 ‘Underwear Bomber’, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who had gone to Yemen to find al-Awlaki and was guided by him in his attempt, Obama asked his lawyers to explore the legality of adding him to his ‘kill list’ with the objective of eliminating him with a drone strike. While propaganda alone wasn’t enough to take this step, in Abdulmutallab’s case, al-Awlaki had taken the role of an ‘operational’ terrorist, in connecting the bomber to the bomb-maker.

Al-Awlaki had become prominent and convincing for American Muslims. Shane argues he was effective in this role because of his duality: equally fluent in English and Arabic, equally at home in Yemen and the US. Having lived in the US as a Muslim, he understood the tensions that brought about and knew how to activate young American Muslims’ grievances. Like other transnational Islamists, al-Awlaki stressed the umma, the global community of believers, allegiance to which overrides allegiance to any country.

Riedel observed that al-Awlaki’s influence seems only to have grown since his death. In light of that, were there alternatives that could have been taken to deal with him as a threat? Shane thought so. He believes that Obama and his administration did not take the role of the internet into consideration, nor how death by drone would effectively turn al-Awlaki into a martyr, whose legacy would then become valued. There were other options – the FBI, in 2003, could have used its information on his sexual habits to get him to cooperate with them, or the US could have attempted a deal with al-Awlaki’s tribe to hand him over. The legal justification for using a drone centered on the claim that it would have been too dangerous, and near impossible, to enter Yemeni tribal lands to capture or kill him. Shane also pointed out that it was a political decision on Obama’s part, in order to represent himself as a decisive commander in chief who could protect Americans from external threats.

Al-Awlaki’s story highlights questions about US counterterrorism strategy and the projection of American power abroad. Questions from the audience focused on why the administration was reluctant to use information about al-Awlaki’s sexual habits to discredit him, as well as to provide information from several closed cases that Shane researched while writing this book. In Shane’s view, there is an option for the administration to amplify its soft power and create a counter-narrative to religious extremism through highlighting al-Awlaki’s moral hypocrisy. Though al-Awlaki’s videos remain in the public domain on the internet, the response shouldn’t necessarily be censorship, or removing the videos, but rather to counter bad speech with more speech.

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