Tag: al Qaeda of Iraq

Gender, Violence and Digital Emergence

One of the most unsettling findings of our media and radicalisation research was the way in which the suffering of certain individual women is turned into a cause by radical Islamic groups that leads to violence by men in those women’s names. The availability of digital media, combined with a certain doctrinal entrepreneurialism by those using religion to justify political violence, has resulted in the widespread dissemination of amateur video clips depicting a specific woman’s plight and calling for reprisals. If you want to understand the link between online propaganda and offline action, it appears that representations of women’s bodies and their “honour” are often central. My project colleagues and I document two such cases in a research article published this week.

Dua Khalil Aswad, an Iraqi teenage girl of the Yazidi faith, was stoned to death on 7 April 2007 by a Yazidi mob consisting of tens of men, mostly her relatives, for eloping and spending the night with a Muslim man. Her death was recorded on a mobile cameraphone by a bystander and circulated on the internet. It was eventually picked up by NGOs and international media, where the killing was framed in terms of human rights abuses. However, the clip was also identified by so-called ‘mujahideen’ in Iraq, namely Al-Qaeda in Iraq and affiliated groups. They claimed Dua was killed because she converted to Islam. They argued her killing demonstrated how non-Islamic faiths violate human rights (they know how to call upon human rights discourse too), and that this warranted the mujahideen bringing their own kind of justice to Dua’s killers. Between April and September 2007 a series of high-profile retaliatory attacks saw the individual and collective killing of hundreds of Yazidis and the wounding and displacement of more. One of the jihadist groups involved in these attacks, Ansar Al-Sunna, posted a video justifying their violence. Dua’s death was woven into a longer strategic narrative perpetuated by jihadists concerning a war between Islam and other faiths.

Three years later, in 2010, we found considerable religious tension in Egypt and the Arab world stemming from several cases of young female Coptic Christians in Egypt who had allegedly converted to Islam and were forced by the Coptic Church, with the aid of the former Mubarak security forces, to return to Christianity. The alleged plight of these women became the subject of media debates, street demonstrations and protests by Muslims and counter-efforts by Copts in Egypt, inflammatory editorials, online speculation, and finally, violence against innocent people. One of the most prominent episodes occurred in July 2010. Camilia Shehata, a female Copt Christian in Egypt, disappeared, and allegedly converted to Islam. She then returned under the shelter of the Coptic Church and released various videos to explain her case. Her story was amplified by Christian and Muslim groups alike, but subsequent attacks in her name occurred in Iraq rather than Egypt. Al-Qaeda in Iraq took hostages in a Baghdad church in October 2010 and announced on YouTube:

Through the directions of the Ministry of War of the Islamic State of Iraq, and in defence of our weak and oppressed, imprisoned Muslim sisters in the Muslim land of Egypt, and after detailed choices and planning, a small group of jealous Mujahideen, beloved servants of Allah, launched an offensive against a filthy center of Shirk [the Church] which Christians in Iraq have for so long taken as a place from which to wage their war and plot against Islam. By Allah’s Grace, we were able to capture those who had gathered there and take control over all entrances.

The Mujahideen of the Islamic State of Iraq give the Christian Church of Egypt 48 hours to clarify the condition of our Muslim sisters imprisoned in the churches of Egypt, and to free them all without exception, and that they announce this through the media which must reach the Mujahideen within the given time period.

The Iraqi government chose to attack the hostage-takers rather than negotiate. The hostage-takers detonated their suicide bombs in the church and 53 people died.

These events confirm one thing we know: terrorist groups can derive asymmetrical benefit from digital media, since content from individual lives and incidents can be rapidly reframed to bolster longstanding narratives such as the notion of a clash between Islam and other religions. But what struck us as particularly significant was the degree of contingency involved. The line from the initial acts to the eventual victims and the way in which events are incorporated into others’ narratives seems chaotic, escaping the control of the initial actors. The economy of exchange through media is irregular: digital footage may emerge today, in a year or never, and it may emerge anywhere to anyone. The concept of agency becomes complicated. The span of things done ‘by’ Al-Qaeda is beyond its control. Is distributed agency something new, only made possible by digital connectivity, or have social and religious movements always depended upon – and hoped for – a degree of contingent taking-up of their cause?

While we cannot know why the Yazidi man with a digital camera recorded the stoning of Dua (or why he recorded others recording it with their cameras), the increasing recording of everyday life certainly produces more material for political and religious exploitation. As we have seen, this allowed Al-Qaeda to instantly reframe a woman’s life as a “sister’s” life to shame men into action. If the killing of Neda Soltan during the Iranian election protests in 2009 represented one face of today’s mix of gender, violence and digital emergence, the cases of Dua and Camilla show another.

Cross-posted from the journal Global Policy


When Myths Meet Reality in Iraq and Afghanistan

What are America’s prospects in Afghanistan?  Two articles from The New York Times today throw light on the question. 

[America’s Afghanistan] strategy looks a lot like the one that brought General Petraeus success in Iraq in 2007 and 2008. With Iraq engulfed in apocalyptic violence, American field commanders reached out to nationalist-minded guerrilla leaders and found many of them exhausted by war and willing to make peace. About 100,000 Iraqis, many of them insurgents, came on the American payroll. 
The Americans were working both ends of the insurgency. As they made peace with some insurgent leaders, they intensified their efforts to kill the holdouts and fanatics. The violence, beginning in late 2007, dropped precipitously. 
Can the Americans pull off something similar in Afghanistan?
The other article provides a preliminary answer—by undermining the question’s premise. 
Members of United States-allied Awakening Councils have quit or been dismissed from their positions in significant numbers in recent months, prey to an intensive recruitment campaign by the Sunni insurgency, according to government officials, current and former members of the Awakening and insurgents. 
Although there are no firm figures, security and political officials say hundreds of the well-disciplined fighters — many of whom have gained extensive knowledge about the American military — appear to have rejoined Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia. Beyond that, officials say that even many of the Awakening fighters still on the Iraqi government payroll, possibly thousands of them, covertly aid the insurgency. 
The defections have been driven in part by frustration with the Shiite-led government, which Awakening members say is intent on destroying them, as well as by pressure from Al Qaeda. The exodus has accelerated since Iraq’s inconclusive parliamentary elections in March, which have left Sunnis uncertain of retaining what little political influence they have and which appear to have provided Al Qaeda new opportunities to lure back fighters. 
The Awakening members’ switch in loyalties poses a new threat to Iraq’s tenuous social and political balance during the country’s ongoing political crisis and as the United States military prepares to withdraw next year. 
* * *
One Awakening leader in Diyala, Bakr Karkhi, said during an interview that nearly two dozen of his fighters had rejoined Al Qaeda during the past few weeks, a process he said had been occurring throughout Sunni areas of Iraq. Other fighters, he said, had abruptly stopped reporting for duty. “I became suspicious when some of them started making questionable comments, so I expelled them,” he said. “Others left the Awakening on their own and then disappeared from their villages. We found out they were conducting illegal operations and cooperating with armed groups, including Al Qaeda.” 
Sic Transit Pax Petraeus.  The supposed success of the Iraq “surge” is still anything but clear or assured—despite bipartisan acclaim for it here in the U.S.  The eagerness with which Republicans and Democrats embraced the surge was, of course, not based on long-term research or deep insight.  It was simply an easy way to declare a kind of “victory” in a hugely expensive and bloody war entered on false pretenses and without strategic vision.  In that, it was much like George Bush’s declaration of victory in Iraq onboard the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln back in 2003. 
On the bright side, the myth of the surge has provided short-term cover for a drawdown of American troops—though some 50,000 remain in Iraq.  That is progress of a sort, but leaves the U.S. heavily committed and the Iraqis still incapable of solving their problems on their own.
The Obama/Petraeus strategy in Afghanistan is to forge a similar myth—as a basis for a similarly slow and hugely costly “withdrawal.”  But if neither the Afghan nor Iraqi surges leads to durable peace–due to deep political distrust between the indigenous forces there–then the policies will in fact be failures.  Sadly, the straws in the wind from today’s news point to exactly that–the predictable result when myths meet realities. 

The role of al Qaeda of Iraq

Some of the remaining presidential candidates are this week debating the role of al Qaeda in Iraq. Senator John McCain points to AQI to justify his pro-war position, Senator Barack Obama points out that al Qaeda would not be in Iraq if the US hadn’t invaded. It was not in Iraq before the US invaded.

If the US abandoned Iraq, McCain says, then AQI would not just be “establishing a base.” No, he says, “they’d be taking a country.” President Bush has been making this same point for years — though the point is even more misleading now than it was then, when Bush was using this a justification first to attack Iraq and then to “stay the course.”

Steve Benen succinctly shoots down McCain’s point:

the reality is AQI has no real allies in Iraq. The Kurds have no use for them, the Shiite majority has no use for murderous Sunni jihadists running around their country, and Sunnis have been rising up against AQI since before the “surge” even began. If we left, al Qaeda would “take” Iraq? Not in this reality, it won’t.

Marc Lynch pointed this out as an argument against the case against withdrawal way back in mid-2006.

Time’s Joe Klein thinks McCain “knows” better than to make this argument, but is pushing this line of attack against Obama to appeal to the uninformed Republican base.

They’d be taking a country? Last time I checked, Iraq has a Shi’ite majority. McCain thinks the Shi’ites–the Mahdi Army, the Badr Corps (and yes, the Iranians)–would allow a small group of Sunni extremists to take over? In fact, as noted above, the vast majority of indigenous Iraqi Sunnis aren’t too thrilled about the AQI presence in their country, either….The sadness here is that McCain knows better. He knows the complexities of the world, and the region. But I suspect he’s overplaying his Iraq hand in order to win favor with the wingnuts in his party.


Maybe this calls for a quick examination of the thinking of some of the most eloquent war supporters. Let me take on two important claims in this debate.

1. First, hawks claim that Iraq will explode in new violence if the US departs. This will be according to al Qaeda’s plan.

Popular right-leaning blogger Engram argues that Iraq sectarian forces are currently aligned together against AQI, but worries that US withdrawal from Iraq would free AQI’s suicide bombers to again provoke civil war.

The Sunnis, the Shiites, and the Kurds, together with 160,000 American soldiers are all united in an effort to quell al Qaeda’s suicide bombers, who remain very deadly. According to what fantasy can we simply withdraw American troops from Iraq and not have al Qaeda once again succeed in deliberately fanning the flames of sectarian violence? John McCain knows that Barack Obama does not have a sensible explanation.

For some time, Engram has been arguing that the situation in Iraq changed dramatically when al Qaeda bombed the Samarra mosque. AQI — particularly its “foreign fighters” — launched a campaign of suicide terror to provoke civil war, assure US withdrawal and presumably allow the eventual establishment of a Sunni Islamic state.

While Engram’s concerns are thoughtful, he fails to account for a number of realities:

First, the best research on suicide bombings demonstrates that it is a strategy uniquely situated to ending foreign occupation.

Pape is the director of the Chicago Project on Suicide Terrorism, and has just published a book called Dying to Win, the Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism….Pape says his research indicates that, every major suicide campaign has what he calls a secular and political goal, to compel democracies to withdraw military forces from areas the bombers view as their territory….He says the objective of compelling countries to withdraw military forces from territory the terrorists perceive as occupied has been the central goal of suicide campaigns in Lebanon, Israel, Sri Lanka and among separatists in the Russian republic of Chechnya and the disputed region of Kashmir, which is divided between India and Pakistan.

“Suicide terrorism is mainly a response to the presence of foreign military troops, that is mainly a response to the threat of foreign occupation, not Islamic fundamentalism,” he said. “This is a terribly important finding, because it means that the use of heavy military force to transform Muslim societies is only likely to increase suicide terrorists coming at us.”

If the US withdraws from Iraq, the underpinning logic supporting the suicide bomber strategy falls apart. Sadly, AQI has been able to recruit suicide bombers from throughout the region to expel the US — but who will be recruited for the more cynical strategic purpose of AQI? Even Engram acknowledges that the bombers themselves likely have very different goals than does al Qaeda strategists.

The bombers are anti-American occupation, not pro-civil war.

Likewise, Engram ignores the best evidence about civil war. As James Fearon and David Laitin of Stanford have explained, civil war is NOT a result of ethnic or religious conflict. Thus, Engram’s logic about AQI reigniting civil war is seriously flawed:

Rather, The factors that explain which countries have been at risk for civil war are not their ethnic or religious characteristics but rather the conditions that favor insurgency. These include poverty—which marks financially and bureaucratically weak states and also favors rebel recruitment—political instability, rough terrain, and large populations.

The US created a failed states in Iraq, a country geographically and demographically suited to civil war, which perhaps inevitably triggered internal war.

Moreover, Fearon’s research on civil war demonstrates that civil wars are typically not ended by temporary strategic moves by foreign allies. Fearon testified to Congress in September 2006, the US troop presence in Iraq is NOT contributing to long-term stability:

The historical record on civil war suggests that this strategy is highly unlikely to succeed, whether the US stays in Iraq for six more months or six more years (or more). Foreign troops and advisors can enforce power-sharing and limit violence while they are present, but it appears to be extremely difficult to change local beliefs that the national government can survive on its own while the foreigners are there in force. In a context of many factions and locally strong militias, mutual fears and temptations are likely to spiral into political disintegration and escalation of militia and insurgent-based conflict if and when we leave.

Thus, ramping up or “staying the course” amount to delay tactics, not plausible recipes for success as the administration has defined it.

…Congress and the Bush administration have to ask what the long-run point is. The militia structures may recede, but they are not going to go away (absent some truly massive, many-decade effort to remake Iraqi society root and branch, which would almost surely fail). Given this, given myriad factions, and given the inability of Iraqi groups to credibly commit to any particular power- and oil-sharing agreement, ramping up or staying the course amount to delay tactics, not plausible recipes for success.

Since Engram refuses to define the Iraqi conflict as a genuine civil war born of political instability and poverty, it is not surprising that he ignores this research in his writing.

2. McCain’s fellow war supporters are also claiming (again) that the 2002 presence of terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in Iraq proves that al Qaeda had pre-war ties with Iraq. It was already part of their grand design.

I’ve debunked related claims many times before, when they were expressed by Vice President Cheney and President Bush.

Here’s Engram, repeating the point on Thursday

Zarqawi, the evil genius who later spearheaded al Qaeda’s incredibly successful campaign to incite sectarian violence, was in Iraq before the invasion.

Engram is somewhat agnostic as to exactly why Zarqawi was in Iraq.

Last night, on Bill Maher’s HBO show, writer Christopher Hitchens said that Zarqawi was in Iraq before the war and he “didn’t get in by accident.” I suppose these guys want the innuendo to speak for itself, eh?

How about letting Hitchens refute himself?

Hitchens, June 8, 2006:

Colin Powell was wrong to identify Zarqawi, in his now-notorious U.N. address, as a link between the Saddam regime and the Bin-Ladenists. The man’s power was created only by the coalition’s intervention, and his connection to al Qaida was principally opportunistic.

While I think Hitchens mumbled “Baghdad” when talking about Zarqawi’s pre-war presence in Iraq, he was actually in the Kurdish area — practically an independent entity even before the war. The BBC:

He is believed to have fled to Iraq in 2001 after a US missile strike on his Afghan base, though the report that he lost a leg in the attack has not been verified.

US officials argue that it was at al-Qaeda’s behest that he moved to Iraq and established links with Ansar al-Islam – a group of Kurdish Islamists from the north of the country.

He is thought to have remained with them for a while – feeling at home in mountainous northern Iraq.

The Kurds have been informal US allies for more than 15 years — though some PKK membership (Turkey’s main enemy in Iraq this past week) is apparently aliged with Ansar al-Islam in the Kurdish region.

Sorry for the length of this post.


Victor Davis Hanson proves once and for all that he is completely insane

I often strive to be evenhanded. I really do. At other times my anger and frustration at American foreign policy leads me to lose any sense of dispassion. With Hanson, I fear, evenhandedness is impossible. In Friday’s National Review Online, the classicist and yeoman farmer plumbs new depths of surreal self-parody.

How can one mock Hanson’s reminders of all the good things that have happened in Iraq, the Middle East, and South Asia? The Iraqis, he tells, us, “have been given a chance for something different than the old nightmare….” Indeed they have.

But Hanson doesn’t stop there.

Long forgotten is the inspired campaign that removed a vicious dictator in three weeks. Nor is much credit given to the idealistic efforts to foster democracy rather than just ignoring the chaos that follows war — as we did after the Soviets were defeated in Afghanistan, or following our precipitous departure from Lebanon and Somalia.

Yes, we should give props to the Bush team for not letting Afghanistan slowly spiral into chaos. And applause to the idealism of an Administration willing to pursue the invasion, regime change, and occupation of Iraq without much in the way of a post-war plan, sufficient troops, or government oversight of an army of private contractors.

The whole essay goes on and on in this idiom. Historical details contort into strange and sublime shapes. Sometimes they appear out of the dim recesses of neoconservative fantasy, in which, for example, the end of the Cold War had nothing to do with Reagan bucking his hard-line advisers and accepting Gorbachev as a negotiating partner. Hanson draws false equivalences of many kinds, including a rather strained analogy between the US failure to take decisive action against the ongoing genocide in Rwanda and invading Iraq with inadequate force and preparation.

But the clear height of Hanson’s indifference to his own craft comes towards the end of the screed.

The conventional wisdom was that, after Afghanistan (7 weeks of fighting) and its postbellum stability (a government within a year), a more secular Iraq (3 weeks of fighting) would follow the same timetable. In September 2002, well after the “miracle” in Afghanistan, I listened to a high-ranking admiral pontificate that war on the ground was essentially over in the new age of Green Berets and laptops, that after Bosnia and Afghanistan, air power and Special Forces were all that were needed.

We should take a moment to reflect on Hanson’s strange turn of phrase: “a more secular Iraq….” Is this a Freudian slip? The result of a bad editing job? Or did Hanson really believe that a more democratic Iraq would be more secular than Hussein’s regime? [Thanks to PM for pointing out my misreading of Hanson’s strained point].

But the most important, and revealing, part of this windup to Hanson’s conclusion is his use of the passive voice: the “conventional wisdom was that.” His construction nicely evades the question, “the conventional wisdom among whom?”

Hanson’s apologies for the Bush administration all share a similar refrain: it wasn’t their fault, it was the spirit of the times. We cannot blame Rumsfield for refusing to listen to those who called for more post-war planning and to those who suggested the US needed more troops to stabilize Iraq. The Administration found itself caught up in the “conventional wisdom,” even though reports prior to the invasion pointed to heated debate over all of these issues within the Executive Branch.

Anyway, read the whole thing. It isn’t so much a cogent argument as it is a series of sentences strung together: signs and mumblings signifying nothing.


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