Professor Walid Phares serves as an advisor to the Anti-Terrorism Caucus in the U.S. House of Representatives and is a Co-Secretary General of the Transatlantic Legislative Group on Counter Terrorism, a Euro-American Caucus, since 2009.
Dr. Phares has taught global strategies at the National Defense University since 2006. Previously he was a Professor of Middle East Studies and Comparative Politics at Florida Atlantic University from 1993-2004.
He is author of several books in English, Arabic, and French, including Future Jihad: Terrorist Strategies against the West; The War of Ideas: Jihadism against Democracy; and The Confrontation: Winning the War against Future Jihad. His most recent book is The Coming Revolution: Struggle for Freedom in the Middle East, which predicted the uprisings in the region before they occur.
The savage slaughtering of a British soldier on the streets of Woolwich, England is not a common random crime; it is an act of terror, an expression of relentless war that is inspired by a jihadist ideology and sponsored by an international network of Salafist indoctrination. The reason we are making this assertion hours after the killing is to simply repeat what we have underscored in reports on similarly-inspired bloody attacks in the West in recent years. Rather, it is to prevent disorienting a shocked public by propaganda being diffused by apologists spreading intellectual chaos, covering up for the real culprit, and confusing audiences in Great Britain and around the world with irrelevant arguments. We will hear some pushing the argument of root causes being the Western presence in Muslim lands. The two assassins made sure to shout their “political motives” and the cri de guerre, “Allahu Akbar,” in a determined way. They said their actions were in response to Western occupation of Muslim lands. That is the same excuse that was repeatedly given by Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda jihadists in the 1990s, and increasingly since 2001. The two perpetrators are British citizens, but they act as citizens of the “umma” in defense of an emerging Caliphate. They do not speak on behalf of a community; they speak on behalf of a movement that claims to speak on behalf of a community. In short, they are jihadists, regardless of whether they are rank and file al Qaeda or not. They are part of a movement solidly anchored in a doctrine whether they act as individuals, a pair, or two commandos dispatched by a larger group.
The attackers spoke openly to witnesses on the street where they committed their treachery and spoke with predetermined certainly, not spontaneity. "We swear by almighty Allah we will never stop fighting you. We must fight them (the infidels-kuffar) as they fight us.” These words matter, not because of their content alone, but because they come from the Salafi jihadi dictionary used by committed operatives, fighters and killers around the world. In his letter to the American people Osama bin Laden said, "It is commanded by our religion and doctrine that the oppressed have a right to return the aggression. Do not await anything from us but Jihad, resistance and revenge." The commander of al Qaeda and his successor and other jihadi leaders around the world, have consistently used the expression “as long as we won’t have our security, you won’t have yours.” Translated strategically, the proposition means that as long as the enemies of the jihadists are obstructing the rise of a Caliphate, a Taliban-style empire to cover one fifth of the Planet for starters, all those who resist are enemies and will be treated with the full force of militants continually produced by pools of indoctrination.
The Woolwich butchers had no personal quarrel with the UK soldier they hacked to death with medieval weapons. They had no mandate from the Afghani people to commit bloodshed in Great Britain as a way of provoking a withdrawal. The mandate the two terrorists acted upon was from a standing, growing, creeping political ideology with a name, Salafi jihadism (al Salafiya al Jihadiya). Some will rush to connect their words to Islamic religious texts...
The State Department recently issued a report denouncing what it called "a spike in anti-Islamic sentiment in Europe and Asia." It said that "Muslims also faced new restrictions in 2012 in countries ranging from Belgium, which banned face-covering religious attire in classrooms, to India where schools in Mangalore restricted headscarves." The State Department report confuses religious persecution, which is to be condemned, with politicization of religions, which is a matter of debate and includes strategies of which the U.S. government should not be a part nor within which the U.S. government should side with one faction against another. If countries ban the right to pray, broadcast and write about theology, any theology of any religion, this would be against human rights. Belgium and India do not ban religions per se. In fact, they are more tolerant regarding diverse religious practice than most of the members of the Organization of the Islamic Conference. The Obama administration is not criticizing secular European and Asian Governments for deciding to ban prayer or theologically philosophical dissertations, but rather criticizing these countries for banning the hijab or niqab in public places.
In the Muslim world, there is a diversity of choices for females. The burka is not the only free choice.
The Obama administration understands the wearing of the hijab as religious injunction to all Muslims. This is not the case, as senior theologians have decreed, including al Azhar, and the niqab is not a universal Muslim obligation as one can see in fifty-three Muslim-majority countries. It is a matter of choice.
The organized groups calling for a systematic imposition of the niqab are Islamist forces. This translates politically into an official endorsement of the Obama administration of the Islamist political agenda under the camouflage of religious rights. The niqab is part of the political agenda of radical Islamists, indicating that the Obama administration is now directly or indirectly backing one faction in the Muslim world, the Islamists, against another faction, the moderates and liberals.
The Obama administration, by using the charge of Islamophobia against countries that oppose the political agenda of an ideological and political faction known as Salafists and Khomeinists, has become a partner with these factions against secular, liberal, reformist movements who do not abide by the niqab rule. It is one thing to defend religious communities and something else to defend the agenda of ideological factions. The niqab is part and parcel of the ideological agenda advocated by the Islamists, not a tenet held by all Muslims. If the Obama administration is worried about the Islamist agenda not yet met by European and Asian countries, it should claim so, but the administration cannot claim defense of a religious injunction to all Muslims while the latter have no consensus on the matter.
It has been noted over the past few years that U.S. foreign policy towards the Middle East, the Arab world and Muslim-majority countries has been increasingly under the influence of pressure groups implementing the doctrinal and political agendas of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Iranian regime. The State Department has been made to believe that the Islamist agenda and the beliefs and values of all Muslims are one, which is a grave mistake. The Obama administration should have learned from recent lessons as well as those from the past. Popular majorities in countries affected by the Arab Spring, particularly in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, and Yemen are not necessarily followers of Islamist principles. Rather, strong oppositions representing a vast swath of civil society are demonstrating vividly against the Islamist regimes produced by the Arab Spring. The issue of hijab and niqab is one of the many issues that divide Muslim-majority societies. The Brotherhood and the Iranian regime claim that the veil should be a manner of the female’s uniform, not only in the region but also for the women of Muslim communities in the West. This is the reason their lobbies are portraying the hijab and niqab as an obligation to all Muslim women, thus a collective religious right, above all other considerations in secular societies, including gender equality and public security matters. This is a wrong interpretation for the U.S. to take as it misrepresents the facts. The veil, as a collective uniform for women, is not a matter of full consensus in Muslim-majority societies. It is an expression by Islamist political factions that desire the expression to...
Two devices were set off at the terminal phase of Boston’s historic marathon. They blew up, killing and wounding a number of citizens, children and adults. According to law enforcement sources, more bombs were set to explode but did not. These facts, and maybe more, compelled authorities to identify the bombing as a “Terror Act,” and both the administration and Congress are dealing with the killings as such an attack. The main focus should be to determine who was behind the attack because the reason for it was pretty obvious: it was to terrorize the American public and to intimidate the U.S. government. The “why” is clear; the “who” remains to be determined, and it could be quickly unveiled.
The administration has to be very careful yet vigorous in addressing this attack on the homeland, regardless of who is behind it. Careful because in the case of domestic homegrown Terror, U.S. ultra-nationalist extremists have the capacity and have shown their ability to perform terror in a bloody fashion. The Oklahoma bombing of the mid-1990s is evidence of their capacity to improvise and strike decisively in urban areas. Their motives are ideological but also psychological. They are at war with their perception of the American government. However, if the domestic extremist factor is involved, the administration must rush to draw a line between terrorism and legitimate political opposition to Government. Any political error could fuel the extremist groups and alienate more citizens, giving the radicals a wider scope for recruitment. If this act or other possible future acts of terror come from U.S.-based terrorism, the administration should move to unite the aisles and isolate the extremists, right-wing or left-wing.
The jihadist possibility
If evidence confirms a “Jihadi” nature, which could occur as soon as perpetrators with links to al-Qaeda or sympathizers to the organization are identified, the administration should move swiftly and resolutely. With the Benghazi debacle still on Americans minds, delaying such identification or describing it as a workplace or public café violence would be a disaster. If it is “Jihadi” linked or inspired, call it what it is and inform the American public that this is part of al- Qaeda’s war on America. Politics must be sidelined. Though the Obama administration announced to the nation after the killing of Bin Laden and al-Awlaki that “al Qaeda is on the run and on its path of decline,” let that assertion not cast a shadow on reality. This country is in a state of War with al-Qaeda and its allies, foreign or domestic, and such attacks are part of that war, which since its start has never subscribed to international law or morality. And America is not alone in this struggle, for today’s Zawahiri Terrorists are striking in Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia and Somalia; it is a global confrontation, with strikes reaching U.S. soil as it slams other allies Overseas. The Boston massacre, if linked to self-described “Jihadists,” should not be seen strategically as out of the blue. In this case, it is part of a war that has never ended, an unfinished war that our withdrawal from Iraq, our projected pull out from Afghanistan, the elimination of old al-Qaeda figures and Washington siding with the Brotherhood in the Arab Spring, were not able to end. The investigation must be very thorough as “Jihadi Terrorism” could also be manipulated by the Iranian regime and its extensions such as Hezbollah. The world of terror is murky and complex. As in the Middle East, Tehran can use its own “Mujahidin” to send messages of intimidation to the U.S.
U.S. security policy needs revision
But whatever the inquiry will find out, the Boston massacre is evidence that U.S. national security policy needs revision. Better, clearer and transparent communications with the public have to be redesigned. American citizens must, like people in countries facing terrorism worldwide, be made aware that their daily lives are still at risk and thus the national defense effort is still a must.
In any case, this country is facing tremendous challenges and growing Terror threats. The targeting of men and women, girls and boys at peaceful and joyful events can happen anywhere, anytime, and our society must internalize this reality. The Boston attack was not the first indication of this, for there were many attempts in recent years. We always argued that one attempt we do not stop would become the one bloody disaster that would shock us but should not surprise us. This is a vision of urban warfare that the...
Credit: Wiki Commons.
In a stunning move, the Associated Press (AP) capitulated to pressures by the Islamist group Council on American–Islamic Relations (CAIR) to drop the use of the term "Islamist" when describing self-declared Islamist militants and movements. The AP's retreat is indicative of a crumbling of parts of the so-called "mainstream media" in its reporting about the Middle East, the Arab world and the Muslim world. By retreating from describing the Islamists as Islamists, AP isolates itself from the rest of the international media, which uses the term Islamist naturally and consistently with its Arabic translation and meaning. More importantly, the AP is isolating itself from Arab media. For while the media in the region use the terms "Islamy" or "Islami" (Islamist) to identify all movements that aim at the establishment of an “Islamist” state, regardless of these various movements’ strategic agendas, from the more political Muslim Brotherhood to the radical Salafists and the extremist al Qaeda, the AP will be entering the foggy zone established and encouraged by advisors of the Obama administration, where definitions are twisted by “Islamist lobbies” backed by petrodollars’ power.
The term “Islamist” is the most accurate term to translate “Islami” and “Islamy,” which in the original language means a militant movement working towards an ideological goal, particularly the establishment of a government based on a strict version of Sharia law. The term “Islamist” was created in Arab political culture, precisely to distinguish the militants from regular Muslims whose goals do not necessarily include establishing an Islamist state. All Arab media, in addition to European, Asian, African, Russian and Latin American media outlets, use the term on a daily basis. It clarifies to their readers and viewers that not all Muslims are Islamists inasmuch as not all Christians are fundamentalists, or all Hindus are not ultra-nationalists, etc.
By eliminating the term “Islamist” from the media and political dictionary, the public will revert to using more ambiguous terms, such as Muslim radicals or extremists, among others, which would actually have two negative effects. One, it would blur the difference between moderates and extremists in the Muslim world, and two, it would provide the actual extremists or militants a cover within society. In short, by eliminating the term “Islamist” as identification of “militants,” we would be running the high risk of having the actual Islamists merging with Muslim society and claiming they are simply devout individuals. In the Arab world and the rest of the international community, a clear distinction has been established between the “Islamist militants” and the rest. Even the Islamists themselves are proud of this terminology. Brotherhood, Salafists, Jihadists and Khomeinists, all use this term while disagreeing who among them deserves it best. Hence, the concept is as rooted as all well-established categories in Middle East politics. So why would Islamist lobbies in the United States wage a campaign to ban the use of the term for what it means and force media, particularly the influential news agencies, to refrain from identifying the militants as “Islamists”?
Ostensibly, it's precisely for that purpose. The narrative strategy employed by the Brotherhood-inspired pressure groups, such as CAIR, ISNA and others in Washington, is to deny the public the ability to distinguish between Islamists and Muslims or to understand that there is an ideological movement that is attempting to drive politics within a much wider and diverse community. In short, the lobbies aim at establishing as an accepted reality that all true Muslims are Islamists, and hence criticism against their own brand of Salafism is a criticism against the entire community. In the region, long established political narrative has made a difference between Muslims who follow Salafism, and thus are called Islamists, and the rest of the communities who happen to be Muslims but do not subscribe to the Salafi Islamist brand. Once the West identifies the brand or the political ideology, it would be able to operate strategically and isolate the extreme from the mainstream. However, by forcing the media and the government in the U.S. to blur the difference, the Islamists would be wrongly perceived as more religious Muslims than usual, not as an ideological current with a political agenda. This would have significant negative consequences on de-radicalization domestically and clearly affect U.S. foreign policy. Washington would be incapable of identifying the radicals from the moderates.
The AP move, according...
Earlier this week, Americans learned about the arrest and extradition to the U.S. of Suleiman Abu Ghaith, a former al-Qaeda member during the attacks on New York and Washington on 9/11. Abu Ghaith is also a son-in-law to the terrorist group’s late leader, Osama bin Laden. His arraignment on a series of counter-terrorism charges took place at the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York. The indictment charged Abu Ghaith as an “associate of bin Laden,” with participating in “a conspiracy to kill United States nationals, in violation of Title 18, United States Code, Section 2332(b).”
Assistant Director in Charge of the FBI’s New York Field Office George Venizelos lauded the arrest thus: "Suleiman Abu Ghaith held a key position in al-Qaeda, comparable to the consigliere in a mob family or propaganda minister in a totalitarian regime.” One might think Abu Ghaith was a postmodern Joseph Goebbels or Saddam Hussein’s “Baghdad Bob.”
Venizelos accused the former al-Qaeda spokesman of using his position "to threaten the United States and incite its enemies. His apprehension is another important step in the campaign to limit the reach of al-Qaeda and enhance our national and international security.” Assistant Attorney General Lisa Monaco hailed the arrest as “an important milestone in our ongoing counterterrorism efforts.” U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York Preet Bharara posited that the “law has a long arm and justice has a long memory."
Thirteen years have passed since Abu Ghaith worked alongside Osama bin Laden in his campaign of terror, taking to the public airwaves to exhort others to join al-Qaeda’s cause, and warning the West that equally catastrophic terror attacks would follow the events of 9/11. Memories of that fateful day are branded in the psyche of the American people. To be sure, Abu Ghaith’s arrest is testament to America’s commitment to bringing enemies of the United States to justice, no matter how long it takes.
That criminals and terrorists must be pursued until captured is axiomatic among counterterrorism and defense strategists who understood that Abu Ghaith needed to be brought to justice no matter how long it took. Israel’s and the Allies’ half-century long hunt for Nazi war criminals, and international prosecution of the progenitors of genocide during and after the Cold War, in Sudan, and the Balkans, testify to the relentlessness of Justice. As a non-U.S. citizen and enemy combatant, Abu Ghaith is the typical case of an al-Qaeda leader who should be sent to Guantanamo to join the other enemy combatants, not to Manhattan.
In the case of Abu Ghaith, however, the strategically minor significance of his capture is being ignored by the Obama administration and mainstream media. Some experts and a few lawmakers are portraying Abu Ghayth as a senior al-Qaeda leader, architect of the 9/11 attacks, and a powerful influence within the organization today. Congressman Peter King (R, NY) asserted that Abu Ghaith’s capture represents a great strategic victory for the U.S. counterterrorism community and that al-Qaeda’s core is being devastated. According to King, his capture represents “a psychological victory for us and a psychological defeat for al-Qaeda." Al-Qaeda specialist Seth Jones of the Rand Corporation, a nonprofit research organization, added that “the capture of Mr. Abu Ghaith is significant because it takes a key player out of the game and will provide a window into a shadowy component of al-Qaeda, the management council in Iran.”
Notwithstanding the tidal wave of opinion lionizing Abu Ghaith’s capture, I would like to propose a different reality. There is no disagreement about the victory that his capture represents for the American system of justice. At some point, however, overinflating the arrest of a jihadi spokesman becomes counterproductive to U.S. war efforts and misinforms the American people regarding actual progress we are making in the confrontation with al-Qaeda. Abu Ghaith is “small fry” in the global jihadi movement today, a toothless lion who was already out to pasture.
Suleiman Abu Ghaith is a symbolic representative of the old al-Qaeda, to be sure. His was the first face, other than bin Laden and Zawahiri, to appear on al Jazeera following the 9/11 attacks. He is not, however, a current effective leader of al-Qaeda. After fleeing to Iran, he spent a decade under house arrest. During his forced exile, Abu Ghaith advised Iranian intelligence officials on al-Qaeda and...
The new Secretary of State John Kerry has proposed $60 million in aid to the Syrian Opposition Council in order to provide basic services in areas they control as well as medical and food supplies for their military. This announcement was met with skepticism by some backers of the Syrian opposition affiliated with the secular forces and also by a number of military and Middle East experts. Farid Ghadri, leader of the Syria Reform Party and a secular supporter of the Syrian opposition, has been arguing that "since the bulk of the opposition, the one recognized by the United States, is dominated by the Islamists the funds will be used by the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists to ensure a political influence in the zones controlled by the rebels." Over the past few months, other opposition leaders, including former MP Ma'moun Homsi, who attended the opposition conferences in Turkey and Egypt and worked with the Muslim Brotherhood, told us "if Washington earmarks financial help strictly to the Brotherhood, they will get a Brotherhood dominated Syria after Assad." Homsi, himself a conservative Sunni, blasted the Brotherhood on December 12, 2012 for being “authoritarians.” Sherkoh Abbas, chairman of the Kurdish National Assembly of Syria said "it seems that the U.S. administration did not learn from past experiences with the Taliban in Afghanistan." He argued that by granting millions of dollars to mostly Islamist leaders of the opposition Washington will be responsible for the rise of Taliban like groups in Syria. The Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists are fighting the Assad dictatorship to replace it with a Jihadi totalitarian regime." He added: secular and moderate Syrians, Kurds and Assyrian Christians won't see much from that aid, it will fall into the hands of Salafists who are the foot soldiers of al Qaeda."
In my book The Coming Revolution: Struggle for Freedom in the Middle East that predicted the upheavals in 2010, I argued that whenever a dictatorship might fall, particularly in Syria, there will be a race between Islamists and secular reformists over the future of the country. It would be toxic for the free world to willingly arm and fund the Islamists, including the Salafists, for they will work on using this support to impose an Islamist regime instead of a liberal democracy. The decision by the Obama administration to fund the Brotherhood-dominated opposition in Syria with $60 million dollars will further the cause of the Islamists and empower them while doing nothing to promote freedom in that region of the world with the secular democratic forces in civil societies.
Military and terrorism experts also agree that this funding is a strategic mistake. An unnamed specialist in the study of insurgencies and counter insurgencies said: “How are we going to ensure that the 'good guys' are distributing this aid instead of jihadists, in general, and al Nusrah in particular, not taking credit for it?” The source explains: “Although initially a nationalist movement in spirit, the dynamics of the revolution have changed. Most of the effective military actions have been carried out by the experienced jihadists whose numbers are growing as this becomes the new Iraq of 2006 for al-Qaeda. Perhaps most importantly, though, the Syrian National Council/ Syrian Opposition Council expressed their support for the al-Nusrah front immediately following the U.S. designating al-Nusrah a terrorist entity. So we are aiding a group which supports al-Nusrah (an AQ franchise) while we continue to prosecute a war against AQ? What do we define as success in Syria? The removal of Assad is only partial success. The removal of Assad and emplacing an Islamist regime with access to chemical weapons is an utter failure.”
This stark warning from experts in counter-terrorism who have worked in the field should be heeded. Washington is funding an umbrella group backed by Qatar and the AKP Government of Turkey. While there are secular elements inside the coalition, the leadership, the command and control of the operations, is held by the Jihadi Salafists, connected to al Qaeda. As in Libya, the Administration is indirectly empowering Jihadists who will not hesitate, once they are in control, or free to operate training camps, to strike against U.S. targets, let alone against secular democrats. Benghazi must not be repeated. The Obama administration should not fund or arm...
In his State of the Union speech of 2013, President Barack Obama addressed several crises in the Middle East and on the front of fighting terror. On Afghanistan President Obama assessed the outcome of his policies as a weakening of the Taliban and committed to a sustained withdrawal from the country while helping the Afghan government to take the lead in military missions. The role of the U.S. after withdrawal in 2014, according to Obama will be to assist the fight against al Qaeda. It was noted that there was no mention of a fight against the Taliban after 2014. Does that mean that there will be a political engagement or possibly a partnership with the Taliban while pursuing combat with al Qaeda? How will that be to short of having the Taliban and al Qaeda splitting off? The Taliban is a Jihadist organization which is projected to make advances inside Afghanistan upon U.S. and NATO withdrawal. The Taliban is to al Qaeda what bone is to flesh, cemented by ideology.
On al Qaeda, President Obama continued to underline that "the organization that attacked us has lost significantly and is on decline." The administration has maintained over the past two years that the elimination of Osama bin Laden has crumbled the network. Reality on the world stage is read by many experts differently. The al Qaeda commanders and trainees are now leading Jihadi combat groups from Benghazi to Yemen, from Syria to Iraq. However, President Obama admitted that the "offshoots of al Qaeda are getting stronger" in Arabia, Somalia, Mali and the rest of the Sahel. He then announced that the U.S. will support local forces and allies in their fight with these groups, such as for the French campaign in Mali, which is the right policy to adopt. But a wrong assessment of al Qaeda's connection to its own branches and allies can be a strategic mistake. For "the organization that attacked us on 9/11" has morphed into an international one that is wider, stronger, and more determined than the one that launched the initial attacks. We are still fighting an al Qaeda that derived from the bin Laden constellation which, thanks to U.S. neglect to counter its ideology, has become a universe of constellations on four continents.
On the Arab Spring President Obama committed to ensure "universal rights to all people in Egypt." Which means that these rights are under attack, two years after the revolution. Indeed, daily images from Cairo, Suez, but also Tunis and other Arab cities are showing a greater discontent by civil societies against the ruling Islamist regimes. The president remained abstract by not mentioning the abuse of these rights by the Muslim Brotherhood regime in Egypt and its comparable regime in Tunisia. It is unfortunate that the State of the Union address missed an opportunity to speak to the American people about the struggles of peoples in the region, validating further America’s role in the Middle East, as an ally to freedom seekers. As in June of 2009 in Iran, the speech writers missed a historic opportunity to have the president speaking to the youth, women and minorities in countries undergoing a massive change affecting a large part of the planet.
On Syria, President Obama said he will continue to put pressure on the Assad regime and that he would be working with opposition leaders. Here too, it was an abstract position with no practical measures announced. What types of pressures will Assad be under and what kind of opposition will we be partnering with? We didn't hear new ideas, different from 2011 and 2012.
On Iran, the president invited the Iranian leadership, one more time, after three previous times, to negotiate with the international community. President Obama spoke of a wide coalition to isolate Iran while reality is that Tehran can count on two (Russia and China) of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council and is threatening more countries than ever before in the region.
In sum, President Obama remained abstract on Egypt and Syria, maintained the status quo with Iran's regime and committed to a disengagement from the battlefield with the Taliban while admitting that al Qaeda has grown stronger in the world. Washington has decided not to change its foreign policy in the Middle East from what it has been in the previous four years. Hence the opportunity to confront the strategic challenges in the region may fade away for one more year, at least.
As I stated on al Arabiya TV, it has become clear strategically that in order to save the Syrian people from violence and further massacres, an international intervention has to take place at different levels to force the Assad regime to stop military action and at the same time to stop the Jihadi militias from seizing further power. And in order to launch such an international campaign, there should be a U.S. central role in the leadership of such initiative.
But for Washington to engage in such a massive campaign, it needs to factor in the Iranian counterintervention in Syria. Without being ready to confront the Iranian countermove, it would be difficult to design a plan to single out Assad while avoiding the regional alliance that supports the Syrian regime. Iran, Iraqi militias, and Hezbollah will be siding with Assad's forces. And thus if decision is to mount a large-size campaign to unsettle Assad's regime there is no alternative than to design a plan that would integrate a multidimensional counter to Iran's capacities. Such a design isn't presently on the table, as far as we know. Certainly a long term and sustained uprising against the Syrian regime would weaken its foundation but the price for such a reality would be enormous to the Syrian people. This is why we presume, that the U.S. administration is attempting to find a diplomatic solution to the Syrian crisis through a joint initiative with Russia. But again, time is of essence and the humanitarian crisis is growing fast in Syria, millions are paying the price of this civil war.
Ten years have slipped by since Osama bin Laden’s jihadists massacred thousands of men, women and children in the northeastern United States, prompting the start of what Americans came to know as the War on Terror. The current administration, however, insists on more benign terminology, choosing for political reasons to describe the conflict as an “overseas contingency operation,” and a “war against al Qaeda.” But are we making progress in this conflict, whatever the name? Gaining an objective assessment begins with asking the right questions.
Has the decade-long global confrontation with al-Qaeda been an actual war, or a series of U.S.-led military operations against a single terrorist organization? Has al-Qaeda been acting alone against the U.S., or is it merely one among many in an expansive network of jihadists? Is it U.S. policy that incites jihadists, or a sui generis ideology with a centuries-old agenda? How does the broad-based U.S.-led coalition to defeat al-Qaeda measure up to the jihadist alliance to destroy the U.S.? Have U.S.-led military efforts defeated al-Qaeda globally and within nation-states, or have the jihadists increased their penetration of democracies around the globe? These are the “right questions” that need to be asked.
Shabab al Jihad
Traditionally, the Muslim Brotherhood and adherents of the Wahhabi creed have focused on seizing power in their immediate region, the Middle East, through a power struggle with regional regimes, and expanding their presence in the West through “influence operations.” The violent jihadists born out of the Soviet-Afghan conflict preferred a more direct route; they were convinced that war with the United States would allow them to build support for small emirates across the region, as a prelude to a Caliphate. From the end of World War II into the 1990s, the first mode predominated—with militant efforts led by political Islamists who preferred to expand their ambit by influence and indoctrination.
In the 1990s, however, al-Qaeda assumed the lead role in the jihad against the West. Lamentably, the U.S. national security apparatus has consistently failed to recognize the terror campaign against it—or to acknowledge that the efforts of jihadists form a single, intertwined global movement that is at war with the Western world.
A strategic deficiency of this magnitude (especially over the past four years) has led the U.S. and its allies to spend and sacrifice lavishly on the battlefields of Afghanistan, Iraq, Africa, and other places, and on homeland security, while reaping comparatively meager results. The American failure to grasp the big picture of a coordinated global campaign against it has hobbled Washington bureaucrats in the confrontation with global jihadists and al-Qaeda, political Islamist networks, and the regional Iranian efforts to spread radicalization.
Indeed, today we are witnessing what is in effect a unilateral withdrawal from the field of competition against the forces of Islamism. This new direction in U.S. policy is based on two flawed assumptions: The first, which I refer to as the “jihad as yoga” view, assumes no ideological root to the conflict. Instead of waging a global integrated strategy, it posits, the U.S. is fighting “local wars” in Afghanistan and Iraq—wars in which the only possible objective was not to win, but to quit. Instead of acknowledging a struggle against a jihadi web of influence and operations, it minimizes the current U.S. effort to a limited war against a single organization: al-Qaeda. In this view, the killing of the organization’s head, Osama bin Laden, provides the predicate for declaring success, and a basis for withdrawal from the battlefield.
As I was watching the carriage transporting the late Vaclav Havel, the first President of free post-Communist Czechoslovakia and the first President of the Czech Republic, into the Prague Castle I was sobered and deeply moved. Having been a witness to major world changes spanning from the end of the twentieth to the start of the twenty-first centuries, I was now watching the departure of a giant of his time who happened to be a modest and a shy man leading a small Central European nation. His words, his life story, and his commitment to liberty have brought hope to many people around the world, far beyond those who speak Czech.
In 1979 I observed the rise of a Jihadi regime in Iran under the leadership of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. In the 1980s I witnessed the assassinations of President-elect Bashir Gemayel of Lebanon who fought a heavy Syrian occupation, of President Anwar Sadat of Egypt who ended a war with Israel and signed the Camp David Peace Agreement, and the rise of the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev who began to spread Glasnost and Perestroika in a disoriented Soviet Union following the withdrawal from Afghanistan. But during that troubled decade when the world was unsure about the future of the Cold War and only vaguely aware of the oppression of millions of citizens trapped behind the Iron Curtain, men and women of extreme courage rose from inside the Red Empire and relentlessly spoke of freedom.
Budapest's uprising happened before I was born (1956). The Prague Spring (1968) bloomed while I was still in the middle school. But I saw the Gdansk strikes of the 1980s in Poland and I admired Lech Walesa, the Catholic worker who stood up to the Soviet bear.
In my weekly newspaper in 1982 I wrote about Solidarity resisting a diktat of the one party system. As part of the Mediterranean wing of the free world, we knew who the Russian dissidents were; Solzhenitsyn and Sakharov were popular among those who defended freedom in the Middle East. We related to them as they opposed a superpower, the Soviet Union, which was arming dictatorships in the Arab world - from Iraq and Syria to Egypt, Sudan, Libya and Algeria. In 1981, to my astonishment, a French scholar compared my modest writings then to those of a Soviet dissident Andrei Amalrik who predicted the collapse of the Soviet Union. Eastern European dissidents led the liberation against post-WWII Communist totalitarianism and the Middle Eastern dissidents were supposed to follow suit in the post-Cold War era. However, that did not happen.
In my book The Coming Revolution: Struggle for Freedom in the Middle East which is said to have predicted the Arab Spring, I attempted to explain why the region’s freedom seekers failed to set in motion their own revolutions at the heel of Bolshevik crumbling (post-1989). In short, the Arab world has a more lethal oppressor than Eastern Europe had and there are very few leaders who inspire societal change. Following the life story of one Central European leader, Vaclav Havel, I am convinced that the Middle East is still in dire need of men and women who would be modest enough, brave enough and selfless enough to make the necessary changes happen. Of all the freedom fighters in the Soviet Bloc, I admired Havel the most. A playwright, a poet, and a dissident, Havel was never a career politician but rather a public intellectual who was thrust into politics by the circumstances of his time and place. As a...
When the young Tunisian burned himself in protest against authoritarian oppression and lack of economic justice, triggering massive demonstrations in this small North African country, commentators hesitated to coin the movement as an Arab Spring. It took months, and events exploding in Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Syria before the West coined the upheavals "Arab Spring." And as the movement was developing throughout the region the West was also unsure as to which direction these revolutions are going to go. The main slogan in the media, and often in academia was -for many months- "we don't know who the rebels are, we don't really know if the Arab protesters are liberal, Islamists or populists." And at times few months before and still as elections have been taking place in Tunisia and Egypt, scholars and Government experts have been arguing that the Islamists who are winning the elections, "probably will behave as democrats and would be moderated by the political process." What was intriguing in these Western reactions was the amount of questions: we don't know, perhaps, maybe, probably. If anything it denoted a lack of understanding of many phenomena. First a surprise to see the region erupting against the authoritarian regimes to begin with, after decades of apathy. Second, a lack of understanding of the nature of the forces at work in the "Arab spring." Were they liberal, secular, Arab nationalist, Islamists and what kind of Islamists. Third, the internal situation inside these societies: which forces were ready for elections, which ones weren't ready to engage in political socialization. Who had financial support who lacked funds. etc. In short he West in general and its policy and opinion makers were left unsure and un-informed about the roots of the upheavals and the evolution of these movements. Let alone the future of the revolts and the politics generated by the regime change.
In my several briefings to the US Congress and the European Parliament throughout the year I noted a major concern lawmakers had vis a vis the Arab Spring. Legislators weren't getting real answers from the executive branches on both sides of the Atlantic. During the Egyptian revolt, legislative assemblies in the West weren't updated as to which forces were at the heart of Tahrir Square and which ones were maneuvering to seize the civil society movement. In the Libyan civil war, lawmakers were getting confusing reports about the "rebels" identity. Only when Gaddafi was killed and the TNC declared its ideological identity that the term "Islamist militias" started to appear. In Tunisia the introduction of al Nahda to congressional members and parliamentarian delegations begins with the term "the moderate" Nahda, while the secular opponents of the party in Tunisia sees the group as classical fundamentalist. So is the case regarding Syria. Congressional questions about the identity of the opposition and the role of the Turkish AKP are still fusing with little clarity in the answers provided. This raises the issue of the advising body to Western Governments.
Indeed since academia is the center of Government advising, including to executive branches and agencies, the scholarly experts are in charge of educating lawmakers, executive leaders and media as to the historical roots of social movements in the region, major upheavals and trends towards the future. One can say that -based on readings of its pre-Arab Spring literature- the North American and European Middle East Studies elite didn't project the social explosion, didn't describe the competition between seculars and Islamists as a result, and didn't prescribe appropriate guidelines for Western policies of engagement with secular and civil society forces. There is a significant body of research and literature available for students and researchers to excavate and reevaluate in terms of Middle East...
At the request of many of my readers, including students, lawmakers, analysts, opinion makers, and citizens across the United States and the world for over a decade, I am pleased to launch this blog on history and politics. I am grateful to the History News Network (HNN), a leading online media outlet for history discussions, for giving me this opportunity to engage readers on the web. In this introductory note, I’d like to explain the framework and the goal of my new blog on HNN and why I chose to launch it this year.
Since I published my very first book in Arabic in 1979 in Beirut (at the age of 22), I have authored twelve other volumes, many essays, and hundreds of articles on issues related to the history and politics of the Greater Middle East, the Arab world, and Muslim-majority countries. My three decades-plus writing activities, in Arabic, French, and English, have spanned enough subjects and time periods to allow the history angle to be explored. My first batch of books, mostly in Arabic and published out of Beirut between 1979 and 1987, focused on Arab Islamic history and the histories of ethnic minorities in the region, including in Lebanon, Egypt, Sudan, Syria, Iraq, and beyond. My original focus was on the conflict in Lebanon but widened to reexamine the historical evolution of the caliphate and its successor, Arab nationalism. My first book, published by the University of Kaslik (Catholic University) was titled Pluralism (I’ll comment on it in a future blog). It was followed by a series of essays and books focusing on the battle between democracy-leaning concepts and totalitarian ideologies such as Baathism, Islamism (Salafist and Khomeinist), and systems of governance which can adapt to multiethnic societies. In 1987 I published a book on Iran’s Islamic revolution outlining what Khomeinist strategies would project into the future. Let’s remember this was still during the Cold War, keeping in mind the complex equations between analyzing Middle East conflicts and the East-West confrontation. This string of books, in addition to interacting with politicians, NGOs leaders, thinkers and minorities representatives from the region, all happening during a long conflict, enabled me to watch the play of strategies, particularly in the domain of war of ideas. I have often engaged in exchanges in the press with writers and intellectuals from various backgrounds on issues as sensitive as identity and state structure. The political ramifications of events in Lebanon and the region didn’t have the most important effect on my work, rather it was the intense exchange of ideas and arguments, a matter that very few in my pre-American environment had a chance to experiment with. As early as the 1980s, I was watching the rise of political and doctrinal thinking which was at the root of the Arab Spring of the following century. But the conditions of a country in conflict didn’t help free thinking emancipate fully. In my near-future memoirs of the 1980s, I will detail some of these intellectual debates and experiences.
(My first book, 'al Taadudiya fi Lubnan', "Pluralism in Lebanon" including three volumes: History, Comparative Civilizational History and Modern History, published in 1979)
Towards the end of 1990, I immigrated to the United States and began teaching Middle East Studies at Florida Atlantic University after I obtained a Ph.D from the University of Miami in international and strategic studies. The 1990s were more productive than the previous decade in terms of academic research, advising to Congress and Middle East NGO work. In addition to pieces and essays published sporadically, I published my first American book with Lynne Rienner, again analyzing the ethnic conflict in Lebanon and challenging the traditional view on the nature of this conflict as portrayed by Western press and academia. But my most exciting work was through advising, briefing and testifying to the U.S. Congress on the Middle East, and more particularly on the issue of minorities’ persecution in the region. I participated in advising the research process leading to the voting of the International Religious Freedom Act in 1998. The last decade of the twentieth century was the hiatus between the Cold War and the so-called War on Terror triggered on 9/11. In my view, post-Soviet jihadism was rampant during that decade and American understanding of it was very low. I addressed the forthcoming campaign against the U.S. and the region’s secular actors in my hundreds of lectures on campuses but particularly to the large contingent of seniors in south Florida’s universities. The themes of these seminars and...