Sins of the Colonial Fathers

15 07 2015

Sins of the Colonial Fathers

The Bridge, Newsletter of the US Naval War College, Vol. 17, Fall 2014

PAGE 11:

http://nwcfoundation.org/Files/Admin/Documents/Bridge_FALL2014web.pdf

ME Map

 

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Sins of the Colonial Fathers – Why the Goal of ISIS is So Attractive

22 12 2014

This is my article about ISIS in the current issue of the NWCF newsletter, The Bridge (Fall 2014):

 

Sins of the Colonial Fathers – The Bridge Fall 2014





Ticket to Heaven: The Engine behind the Violence in Syria and Iraq

14 06 2014

Iraq fighters

Iraq map

iraq-update-3Feb

 

 

 

 

The pundits are churning out words like geopolitics, sectarianism, mission failure, and strategic expansionism regarding the current dynamics and jihadist gains in Iraq and in some parts of Syria. But, there is an underlying concept that serves as the driving engine for jihadism in the 21st century, and it is as old as Islam itself.

That concept is martyrdom, and intrinsically linked to it is the concept of jihad, two sides of the same coin. Although these are not new concepts in Islam, they have morphed over the last few decades. They now encompass the act that is prohibited in Islamic law, suicide, as well as the chillingly subjective tool of takfir, that is, rendering someone a “non-believer,” and hence allowing him or her to be fair game as a target for jihadists.

These are the concepts that are fueling jihadism today, and when we peel back the layers of the Sunni-Shia rivalry and geopolitical ambitions on all sides, the core concepts of martyrdom and jihad function as the meat on the bones of jihadist ideology. Martyrdom and jihad were useful tools in the fight against the Soviets in Afghanistan. However, armchair militant clerics are continuing to exploit these concepts for their own political, ideological, and strategic agendas.

Normally, religious concepts are a façade for territorial and geopolitical goals. The real objectives are usually gaining territory, ruling over people, toppling regimes, and basking in the glory of power, wealth, and totalitarian control over others. In the case of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the tangible goals still exist, but its followers are feverishly driven by ideology, the primary engine of their violent vehicle. And now, with the sharpening of the Sunni-Shia face off, the religious potency of each side’s motivations only becomes more acute. This is not to say that they are not your basic thugs and gangsters; yes they are indeed. But, add to the mix their puritanical religious obstinacy and combine that with their fearless attitudes towards death because of the concept of martyrdom, and then we have a recipe for disaster unfolding before us.

Both Sunnis and Shias embrace the concept of martyrdom, albeit with some nuanced distinctions. For both, martyrdom is a ticket to heaven, that is, eternal residence in paradise. The definition of a martyr is also generally similar in both sects, but for Shias it is dramatically and emotionally manifested in the slaughter of Imam Hussein and his family in Karbala at the hands of the Sunni Caliph at the time, Yazid. If you think that these 7th century events are long forgotten, think again. Twitter and social media are abuzz with profile names and labels like “Mu’awiya,” the Umayyid Caliph and father of Yazid, and invocations of Ali and Hussein.

Given that the new wave of conflict in Iraq is intensely along sectarian fault lines, the symbolism of Karbala only magnifies itself. For would-be jihadists and martyrs on both sides, religious history never dies. It only continues in ensuing chapters. We are witnessing the next major chapter in the Karbala legacy. Now that Iraq’s prominent Shia Ayatollah Sistani has made a call to arms to fight against the ISIS/Sunni onslaught, the new Karbala chapter is certainly about to be written.

Another dimension of these recent developments is that the ISIS incursion into Iraq is resurrecting the Iran-Iraq War “chapter two,” with the difference this time being that Iran will be fighting against primarily non-state actors in Iraq, with all of her state military assets along with her own non-state assets as well, and whereas in the first Iran-Iraq War the sectarian identities of Sunnis and Shias did not play a significant role – this was a major miscalculation by Ayatollah Khomeini. This time, sectarianism will be the primary reason and calculus for the bloody conflict ahead. Don’t forget that the first Iran-Iraq War lasted eight years. To refresh your memory, here is a description of the Iran-Iraq War, courtesy of Juan Cole in an article for Moyers & Company:

“From September of 1980, when Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi army invaded Iran’s oil-rich Khuzistan Province, until summer 1988 when Ayatollah Khomeini finally accepted an armistice, Iran and Iraq fought one of the Middle East’s longest and bloodiest wars. Its trench warfare and hidden naval encounters recalled the horrors of World War I, as did the Iraqi Baath government’s deployment of mustard gas against Iranian soldiers at the front and sarin gas against Kurdish civilians suspected of pro-Iranian sentiments.”

This second conflict is likely to match or surpass that, with varying degrees of intensity. Also, just like the first Iran-Iraq War, this one will also have powerful regional proxies backing their respective militias and armies. Some analysts are speculating that the venomous and violent nature of ISIS will oddly put Iran and the United States on the same side of this particular conflict. But in general, as in the case of the Syrian civil war, Iraq’s next conflict will be yet another Saudi-Iran face off vis-à-vis proxies.

ISIS has been disowned by Al Qaeda and other extremist jihadist groups fighting in Syria, because the former is considered too extreme even for them. Moreover, there is no doubt about ISIS’s anti-Western, anti-American, and anti-Jewish and anti-Christian sentiments. That has been made crystal clear with its actions and abuses against Syrian Christians; and, like all extremist groups, their first targets always are women. Iraqis are right to be terrified. Those Iraqi and other Sunnis who are celebrating the ISIS gains are delusional. All you have to do is see what is happening in Pakistan with the Taliban wreaking havoc against their own supporters. These are rabid dogs that bite the hands that feed them.

It is impossible to argue against a deep belief in martyrdom, jihad, and salvation in paradise. Yet, that is exactly what must be done. The failure to win the ideological battle only yields more bloodshed and intolerance.

No amount of airstrikes, bombings, intelligence, and counter-terrorism strategies will be completely successful without taking on the core ideology that drives individuals to jihad and martyrdom. Both Sunnis and Shias adhere to this ideology, hence the challenge is ever greater.

Ultimately, this will become a national security threat to the United States and European allies. The “foreign fighters” who constitute the volunteer jihadist fighters include many westerners among them. Many countries in the Middle East, Europe and the western hemisphere are worried about these fighters returning home, and then turning their guns and lethal expertise against their own governments and citizens. Since the contexts of jihad and martyrdom are increasingly translated in very nebulous ways, the ideology poses a dangerous threat to everyone.

Hayat Alvi, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor at the US Naval War College.

The views expressed are personal.

 





The Merger of Jihad Franchises in Syria: A War of Islamisms

22 11 2013

Syrian Rebels

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The Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (ISIS) accidentally beheaded one of their own commanders recently. Meanwhile, jihadist rebel groups have been fighting against the secular or more moderate Free Syrian Army forces, as well as against Syrian Kurds. Now, a group of Islamic rebel forces has announced a merger: “A statement posted online said Ahrar al-Sham, Jaysh al-Islam, Suqour al-Sham, Liwa al-Tawhid, Liwa al-Haqq, Ansar al-Sham and the Kurdish Islamic Front had agreed to a ‘gradual merger’. It said the new Islamic Front will be an ‘independent political, military and social formation’ to topple the Assad regime and build an Islamic state” (BBC News, Nov. 22, 2013).

Throw into that mix Shia fighters in Assad’s camp, including Hezbollah, Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), and other pro-Shia Islamist militias, and now we have a full-fledged complex multidimensional sectarian war vying for a dominant Islamism to take hold of Syria.

The announcement of the new Islamic Front “may also challenge the growing influence of the two al-Qaeda-affiliated jihadist rebel groups, the al-Nusra Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), although they have co-operated with some of its component groups in the past.”

In sum, Syria embodies multi-layered “spiders web-like “ networks of Sunni and Shia militias and paramilitary forces, and this can only continue to plunge Syria into violence and chaos not unlike the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990), although Syria’s war is at least a hundred times worse and intense and potentially will last a lot longer.

The supporters of these proxy rebel groups, like Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and other GCC states on the Sunni jihadists’ side, and Iran on the Shia side, have no regard for the innocent civilians suffering horrifically in Syria and also as refugees in neighboring countries. These proxy supporters are as guilty of atrocities as Bashar al-Assad. All sides are guilty of war crimes.

More crucially, this merger of jihad franchises in Syria encompasses a “war of Islamisms,” wherein even after Assad’s downfall, these religious rebel groups will continue – and possibly intensify – the war in power struggles, in order for their own Islamist ideology to win. We have seen this pattern of the war of Islamism in Afghanistan and Pakistan. In particular, once the Soviets pulled out of Afghanistan (1989), the multitude of Islamic fundamentalist/militant warlords and militias proliferating throughout the Af-Pak region turned their guns against each other. Within that scenario the Taliban arose and engaged these warlords in the Afghan civil war. We know the rest of the story, once the Taliban succeeded in taking Kabul and creating the “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.”

I have called the Syrian civil war the “Afghanistan of the Middle East.” I would love to be proven wrong about that, but this merger of Islamic rebel groups and the power struggles between the Islamic Front and the Al Qaeda-affiliated jihadist groups portend a similar outcome to Afghanistan after the Soviets withdrew. The war of Islamisms is nothing new, especially in terms of the sectarian rivalry between Sunnis and Shias. That’s as old as Islam itself. Now, we see the power struggles in the post-Arab Awakening Middle East and North Africa consist of all shades of Islamists trying to climb over each other for the seats of power. This is all at the expense of civilians, both Sunnis, Shias, Christians, and secularists.

To quote U.S. President John F. Kennedy, “Mankind must put an end to war before war puts an end to mankind.”

Those waging the war of Islamisms seem to fail miserably in grasping that concept.

Hayat Alvi, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor at the US Naval War College.
The views expressed are personal.