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The road not taken – How Frost is teaching us to understand the Muslim Brotherhood in the fight against Al Qaeda

In Meor Alif on February 14, 2012 at 12:18 pm

“Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, and sorry I could not travel both”

For decades the international community pretended to lose sleep over the fate that had befallen Egypt. It wasn’t too long ago when instability, oppression, deprivation and the lack of respect for human rights were all words that we didn’t even think twice to use when describing the domestic conditions that the country was under. Despite our supposed best efforts to facilitate change, Egypt remained a quicksand for hope and with its hopelessness, thousands upon thousands of fellow human beings were left to rot under a government that they simply had no say in. And as though that was not bad enough – the real irony of the bigger picture was that Mubarak and his league of truly extraordinary gentlemen claimed to be coherent with democracy, and worst of all, our tacit acceptance and cooperation with his regime made a mockery out of the universal principles that we claim to stand for. Rather than change it – we lived with it. And we tried to make a profit out of it – after all what were we to do? It was just how it was and we were just making the best out of it.

Well, when enough is enough, three weeks is all it takes.

The events that unfolded between 25th January and 11th February 2011 were magnificent. The word uprising has never described something so meaningful in the 21st century until it was used to describe the protests that occurred in Egypt. The near impossible was achieved through several series of mass protests in Egypt, and now, almost a year after that fateful February day when Hosni Mubarak was escorted to the dustbin of history, the world and the entire Egyptian nation is still reeling from the shockwaves that Tahrir created.

However, the bigger question remains, how will the future look like? Can we support the change that is happening in Egypt? Can we, against every fibre of our conviction that is unwilling to support ‘evil Islamists’, rally behind the Muslim Brotherhood?

The devil is in the detail.

“Then took the other, as just as fair, and having perhaps the better claim”

As the story goes, and we thank god that it turned out the way it did – Egypt ascended into elections and avoided the long and painful descend into civil strife. And today, as the ‘democratic system’ has allowed it to be so – we have the Muslim Brotherhood supposedly emerging as the ‘will of the people’ at the ballot boxes.

But what is Al Ikhwan Al Muslimun? Or rather, what is the Muslim Brotherhood?

To many, the Muslim Brotherhood is a statistic – it reads; Freedom and Justice Party; 253 from a total of 498 seats translating into a 47.2% majority. To others, the Brotherhood is less Hassan Al Banna and more Sayyid Qutb’s Milestones, and to the rest, the Muslim Brotherhood is the new (old) Egypt. Either way, the Brotherhood is now at the cusp of meaningful historical institutional change in Egypt and for the first time since 1928, they have the means to make it count. However, despite their electoral gains (many say expectedly so) in the recent lower house elections in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood is slowly feeling the squeeze of responsibility – Egyptians are hungry for progress and the Brotherhood must now deliver.

Here in the West, there are still certain sections that see the Muslim Brotherhood as the bud of a greater evil that needs to be avoided at all cost. The memory of Hosni Mubarak’s removal on the 11th of February last year is now being replaced with the possibility of having to deal with Islamists at the helm of the Egypt of the future. To the sceptics, the uncompromising ambition of the Brotherhood to establish a state ruled by Sharia, the stance it adopts against Israel and the United States and the Brotherhood’s commitment towards human rights is of great concern. Understandably, as with any new regime anywhere in the world, old friends as well as old foes have good reason to be wary of what is to come.

It is a real mystery why it has taken so long for the international community to realize that the Muslim Brotherhood is not going away anytime soon. The once ally to Egyptian leader Gamel Abdel Nasser has seen purge after purge attempting to eliminate it, and yet despite Nasser’s best efforts at violent crackdown on the Brotherhood’s political role, it survived throughout the 1950’s and 1960’s. Even under the restrictions and hurdles that the Brotherhood had to endure under Sadat and subsequently under Mubarak, the Brotherhood still managed to somehow find a nice quite corner on the political spectrum in Egypt for itself.

The important thing to consider is this;

If the Brotherhood were really Islamists who were interested in being radicals, by right, they would have done so a long time ago. Instead, the Brotherhood has, since the 1970’s, refrained from engaging in any violent activism. Furthermore, it has also over the years, consciously made an effort to move into mainstream politics in Egypt, which is remarkable considering how futile and pointless mainstream politics really was during the Mubarak years. The Brotherhood first participated in local and parliamentary elections as independent candidates in 1984 and has consistently been involved in subsequent elections since then. In 2005, it won 88 seats in the parliament which made up about 20% of the legislature and at that point, it constituted the largest opposition block against the Mubarak regime. Tactically, it has displayed that it is willing to work within the system even when the system was broken – something which is worthy of a mention, a testament to their patience and an indication of a more moderate motivation than a radical one.

Moreover, and rather cynically, I would point out that the beauty of a democratic system lies in its respect for the public’s will. And it would be rather arrogant to discount the validity of the choice that the Egyptian public has made at the polls on the account that the outcome fits rather awkwardly with what all of us had in mind.

“Yet knowing how way leads on to way, I doubted if I should ever come back”

What about the Brotherhood’s historic ties with Al Qaeda?

One of the biggest concerns when discussing the Brotherhood is that of the connection between it and Al Qaeda.

Understandably, there are many out there who unequivocally deem the connection to be too close for comfort. They share the view that Al Qaeda is a spawn from the words of Sayyid Qutb who was once a member of the Brotherhood and by the thinnest of implications, this fact is used to pin culpability to the Brotherhood as being ‘just the same’. Moreover, it has become an open secret by now that Ayman Al Zawihiri was a great admirer of Qutb and his involvement with the Brotherhood at a young age makes it that much harder for a reasonable person to ignore the fact that the Egyptian Islamic Jihad and subsequently Al Qaeda has some roots in the Muslim Brotherhood.

There is no denying that the Brotherhood is a strong intellectual movement that has influenced great swaths of individuals – it has inspired many and many have taken inspiration from it. However, as we are rarely convinced by spurious causations to quench our curiosity, it would therefore be, in the words of Ed Hussain, a Senior Fellow from the Council for Foreign Relations, “wrong for us to make the brotherhood responsible for the actions of all of its intellectual offspring”.

The truth is that public spats between Ayman Al Zawahiri and the Muslim Brotherhood have become somewhat of a permanent fixture in the Islamists fight for broad based support amongst Egyptians and the Arab world in general. In attempts at ‘out Muslim-ing’ the Muslim Brotherhood, Zawahiri has not been shy to be publicly at logger heads with the Brotherhood on issues such as the Brotherhood’s participation in previous elections under Mubarak – claiming amongst others, that the Brotherhood had ‘abandoned’ the religion for democracy. It would be careless for us to forget that even early on during the Egyptian revolution when Al Qaeda called for violent Jihad amongst the Egyptians in the midst of all the protests – the Muslim Brotherhood was quick to disassociate and condemn these statements from Al Qaeda by insisting on their firm stance against using violence. The long standing exchange of blows (no pun intended) between the two entities is indicative of the undeniable gap between the Brotherhood and the more robust militant Salafists approach of conducting politics and promoting Islam.

Moreover, further proof of the Brotherhood’s moderate tendencies is the restraint that they exercised in the early stages of the revolution in self limiting their own involvement in the revolution to maintain the pedestrian character of the protests. Keep in mind that members of the Brotherhood were also amongst the many whom alongside others, protected Christians during prayers and pledged early support for the seemingly western oriented El Baradei.

Frightening as it is, an objective observer must firstly come to terms with the reality that although the discourse coming out of the Brotherhood is wrapped rather thickly with religious overtones, the Brotherhood’s true bite which allows it to resonate convincingly with the larger Egyptian public has more to do with its sensitivity towards very real contemporary social and economic problems in Egypt rather than the seemingly abstract conception of an Islamic state. Today, their political grievance is only different from others in so far as it is expressed through a religious worldview, in which other worldviews, like that of the Marxist-Leninist dialectical materialism, can equally perform the same function. Hence, although these real life ‘worldly’ problems like unemployment and social welfare are expressed through reference to religion instead of a 20th century thinker, it does not necessarily make those grievances a purely religious one.

Furthermore, over the years, the Muslim Brotherhood has shown a willingness of moving away from explicit Islamist content as a political platform and has opted instead for more moderate positions on different issues. Even their language has changed to reflect their mood. The Brotherhood nowadays hardly ever mentions an Islamic state anymore, rather they lay claim to the ambition of creating a democratically viable civil state with references to Islam. They have also seen it fit to pledge a willingness to work with other secular and liberal parties, and recently announced that they intend to include as many groups as possible from different backgrounds to work together for the future of Egypt. In addition, the Brotherhood also recently pledged their willingness to respect any treaties that Egypt has previously signed and have indicated that they intend to uphold their end of the Camp David treaty as long as Israel does the same. The rebranding efforts of the Brotherhood is in no means a recent development, and we need only to look at their efforts in 2005, when the Brotherhood launched an internal rebranding effort meant to fix their image in the West and to ultimately soothe any lingering suspicions that the Brotherhood is dangerous.

The Brotherhood’s increasing sensitivity to public opinion is a good sign for the future of Egypt. Their awareness is an indication of a more pragmatic approach towards politics instead of the usual ideological swash buckling, hardcore, and unflinching approach that is synonymous to the kind of Islamist group we have in our minds. Moreover, if the Brotherhood is made to realize that there is more at stake to be in cooperation with the West through Western assistance either in the form of monetary, trade or investment incentives, it will be less likely that the Brotherhood would be willing to engage willy-nilly in precarious and controversial policies. Surely even the Muslim Brotherhood knows that the last thing any transitioning democracy needs are more reasons for its legitimacy to be undermined both domestically and internationally. The Brotherhood would be wise not to squander their decades of patience with rash policy making. In any case, as long as the Brotherhood can keep the gains that it can get from the West to itself without looking too much like the Nasser elites of old and distribute these gains to the public appropriately, they wouldn’t find it too hard to justify their relationship to the West to any reasonable Egyptian.

In the long run, the Brotherhood would see it fit to take positive measures on issues such as internal security from destabilizing forces of terrorism like Al Qaeda to ensure its own survival. Like any government, improving the living conditions of Egyptians and ensuring that the new democratic system in place is not lost in transition to more extreme elements will come naturally – aspirations which to say the least, are congruent with the overall interests of nations in the West.

The rise of the pragmatic, more moderate group of Islamists into government deals a hard hand to the Al Qaeda circles who have for a very long time now advocated for violent resistance and revolution to institute change. However, as it is telling till this very day, their brand of change and the method in which that change is brought about is slow coming – a far cry from the difference that moderate political Islam has made in the past year. The message is clear – indiscriminate violence is so yesterday.

The only sticking point in the new arrangement of power in Egypt for the West is that of the Brotherhood’s stance against Israel and its association with Hamas. Of all of the revisions that will occur, the slowest change will happen here – and this is largely due to the greater context of the Israeli-Palestinian struggle and the long history behind it. However, if there is any consolation, the ascendency of the Muslim Brotherhood is slowly having a moderating effect on Hamas themselves. Speaking a day after the Brotherhood electoral success, Ghazi Hamad, deputy foreign minister of Hamas spoke to the press to highlight that the rising political power of Islamists in Egypt and everywhere else in the Arab world is encouraging Hamas to moderate its policies and adopt more peaceful methods to affect change.

“I took the one less travelled by, and that has made all the difference”

Either way, the way I see it, we can either moan all we want and continue to shout at the top of our lungs that we wanted a purely liberal group of individuals with little interest in fusing religion with state affairs to emerge as the replacement of Mubarak in Egypt, or we could start to smarten up and realise that considering the nature of the Brotherhood – the commitment to non violence that they have shown and their more moderate approach towards Islam and its relationship to the state – the world maybe has found the right partner to end this decade with.

In terms of priorities, what needs to be avoided at all costs at the moment is the possibility of Jihadist elements in Egypt (either through government in the form of the Al Nour party or outside government through any other means) hijacking the progress that the country has made. It would be prudent to constantly keep in mind that the Salafi section of Egypt will be relishing the opportunity to capitalize on any short comings of the Brotherhood in attempt to strengthen its own support base. We simply cannot afford to let the claim that the Brotherhood is not Muslim enough to gain resonance with the public for fear that this will be the inroad which will lead to more extreme elements gaining traction in the country and ultimately reverse the progress in Egypt.

Only time will tell and will reveal if the Brotherhood is pulling a fast one on all of us, but as it stands, we have good reasons to be optimistic of what is ahead. Yes, they might not be liberals (not that everyone should be), but at least they are democrats – and it is up to us now take the road less travelled by.

Meor Alif


Hezbollah – Enter the Arab Summer

In Meor Alif on January 23, 2012 at 2:52 pm

Hezbollah – Enter the Arab Summer.

Very few fighting units in the course of modern history can boast to have such an impressive portfolio than that of Hezbollah in waging effective asymmetric warfare. It doesn’t take much to realize that given the right time of day and the right weapons in their hand, Hassan Nasrallah’s band of brothers can make a Thermopylaeic stand against any incoming hoard. There is no doubt that it has traditionally been able to hold its own despite all sorts of geopolitical changes that has occurred in the Middle East. In recent weeks however, as we have witnessed in the news, there have been interesting developments in the politics surrounding the Sparta they live in. Hezbollah might be facing their toughest challenge to date with the slow but certain demise of the Assad family in Syria. This regime change seem to be ebbing away against Hezbollah’s traditional power bases and draws out a very intriguing point to consider; what is the future of Hezbollah in Levant? And will they be able to adapt to the changes to continue to be the force that they are in the axis of resistance?

It wasn’t too long ago that Hezbollah was just another reactionary group that emerged from the abyss of Palestinian refugee camps in Southern Lebanon. The creation of Israel in 1948 and the subsequent Arab-Israeli war that ensued the same year created a backdrop of the Nakba which would give birth to many attempts to salvage the conditions of the several thousand Palestinians who were pushed into Lebanon, Jordan and Egypt. Hezbollah’s meta struggle against Israel was in no means a cause that it took upon itself without any precedence. Before it, there was the PLO and although they were far from being joined at the hip as organizations, both were nevertheless associated through their struggle against Israel. It was Operation Galilee, a full scale invasion attempt by Israel in 1982, in retaliation to prior PLO attacks, which really brought Hezbollah to the fore.

The literature on Hezbollah is nothing short of diverse. However, a running consensus from the differing views appears to suggest that the foundation of Hezbollah rests on a few notable factors. Among those include the explanation of a structural imbalance that existed in the Lebanese National Pact which in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s no longer reflected an accurate demographical breakdown in Lebanon at the time. During this period, the Shiite population was no longer the small confessional group that it was during the early years post Lebanese independence. In fact, it had grown to become the largest Lebanese confessional community – rendering the old arrangement, and the outdated context it was created in, almost obsolete in terms of representation in the legislative, executive and military positions in Lebanon. The poor living conditions of the Shiite community, especially in the south, and the lack of development for them further entrenched the feeling of communitarian isolation. Hence, having always seen itself until this very day as the protectors of the Lebanese Shiite community – at its conception, the identity crisis plaguing the Shiites in the context of the broader Lebanese society is argued by many to be an important factor in precipitating the creation of Hezbollah. The overwhelming battering which the Shiite community had to endure as a result of military defeats, like that of Operation Litani, and the injuries inflicted as a result of Operation Galilee combined with the feeling of helplessness, contributed to the fostering of militant movements.  But more importantly, as the world witnessed in 1979 – the Iranian revolution carried out by fellow Shiite clerics in Tehran gave the Shiite community in Lebanon the impetus to take domestic matters into their own hands. The eviction attempt by Israel on the PLO brought together organizations like the Islamic Jihad, the Organization of the Oppressed on Earth and the Revolutionary Justice Organization to assimilate and form what is known today as Hezbollah. Either way, what was clear then, and is still clear now, is that this Iranian sponsored organization is essentially an armed organization hell bent on expelling Israel from Lebanon and fighting them in the long haul. Hezbollah has, till this day, managed to claim several hall mark victories in the cause of fighting Israel – starting with the 1984 American pull-out from Beirut and the subsequent Israeli pull-out under Ehud Barak in 2000, and its most recent ‘victory’ against Israel in 2006 – all of which have contributed to Hezbollah fame and the almost mythical status of Hassan Nasrallah. More importantly, Hezbollah’s efforts in the social and development programs that it provides for its people and the substantial electoral gains it has achieved over the year has made it a force like no other.

However, in these past few weeks, Hezbollah’s existence and its future has been called into question. Their close tie with Damascus is an open secret and with the regime in Syria slowly inching into disrepute, what can be said about the future of Hezbollah?

As the entire international community peers into the country, almost unequivocally, there is a consensus that a toppled Assad regime would create a more democratic Syria – something which Hezbollah would not necessarily welcome as openly as it did in Egypt and Libya. We know now that a few months ago, Hassan Nasrallah was quick to condemn the two ‘dictators’ but has since refused to say the same about Assad. A joint statement between Hezbollah and Amal claiming “firm support for the Islamic Republic in the face of American and Israeli threats” in November highlights Hezbollah’s stance with regards to the issue of Syria, as part of the statement read;

“What is happening in Syria is an international conspiracy targeting Syria’s rejectionist position and its policies which support the Arab and Muslim resistance movements, particularly in Palestine.” It goes on to reaffirm that Lebanon will never be “a conduit for a conspiracy against sisterly Syria”

In simple terms, a new, more democratic Syria would most likely be more reflective of the Syrian demographic, hence, in all likeliness a Sunni government will be formed in replace of Assad’s Alawite regime. There is a fear for Hezbollah that a new Sunni government in Syria would be disinterested in shaking hands with them, especially seeing how Hezbollah has grown to become the face of Shiites in the contemporary world. Although the new Syrian government would be united with Hezbollah in so far as fighting Israel is concerned the religious divide between them will prevent and stand in the way of Syria continuing to support Hezbollah in the way they previously used to. Furthermore, given this change in leadership, Syria would also be likely to review all its long standing relationships with its neighbours, including Iran, and position itself more moderately on different issues so as to gain as many new allies as they can, including those previously alienated by Assad. Given the atmosphere of revolution that the Arab spring has brought to the several countries that endured it, it would make sense for a new Syria to be interested to continuing its relationship with Iran and Hezbollah (albeit less vigorously in terms of ideological commitments) while balancing that out along more Arab nationalist overtures, which could bring together Egypt, Palestine and all the other Arab countries coming out of dictatorships over the last few months against Israel.

It would be interesting to also consider if the Muslim Brotherhood will play any part in a new Syria and how that would affect Hezbollah in the long term. Nasrallah’s continued support of Assad at the present moment is not doing itself any favours. The more Hezbollah continues to pledge unfettering support for Assad, the dimmer its post Assad future will be, because such a move will only result in Hezbollah positioning itself in direct contradiction to the Syrian opposition, as disorganised as they may be. Even if for some reason the new Syrian government does decide to take Hezbollah in as an ally in the future, it would surely never forget or lose sight of Hezbollah’s past and their staunch support in favour of the dictatorship at this present time. Either way, the way forward, presumably for Hezbollah, is to keep this consideration in mind and attempt to manufacture some sort of new relationship with the Syrian opposition as early as it can in anticipation of the crumbling of Assad and his government.

However, all of the above is not the worst case scenario – it’s far from it. The worst case scenario for Hezbollah is the possibility of the instalment of a new Syrian regime that although fights Israel, would also simultaneously crack down on Hezbollah viewing them only as nothing more than the dangerous religious splinter militant group they are.

Moreover, the cold hard reality is that, without Assad in the picture, Hezbollah will find it very difficult to transfer arms into Lebanon. Keep in mind that for decades now, the Levant area has always teetered on the brink of war and the prospect of it has, and always will, play in the back of the minds of Hezbollah leadership. In the event of war, anything less than a cooperative and supportive Syria would spell bad news for Hezbollah.

Unsurprisingly, on the other hand, the conflict which has engulfed Syria has definitely rung some bells in Israel. The changes in Syria have forced Israel to be more vigilant about the Hezbollah threat. The Israel Defence Force recently claimed that; capitalizing on the confusion in Syria – Hezbollah has managed to add the SA-8’s (a Russian truck mounted tactical surface-to-air missile system that has a range of 30 kilometers), several dozen M600 (the M600 is a clone of the Iranian Fateh -110, has a range of 300 kilometers, and can carry a half ton warhead with great accuracy) long-range missiles, and additional 302 mm. Khaibar-2 rockets (with a range of 100 kilometers) to its arsenal. This is to be added to the large quantity of shoulder-launched anti-aircraft missiles and the already significant arsenal of M600s that Hezbollah already possess. There is also a growing fear that in the state of chaos, Syrian chemical weapons could fall into the hands of Hezbollah. The heightened sense of insecurity following the thought that Israel would be encircled on different fronts from a better armed Hezbollah and a trigger happy Iran will put the hawks in the Knesset at the edge of their seats and more ready to commit to war or self-defence more than ever.

It will definitely be a big few months ahead for Hezbollah. Its traditional position in the old political order will be challenged and both Hezbollah and Iran will have to find a way to fit in a post Arab spring Middle East. The emergence of Turkey and Erdogan’s efforts to reassert influence over what it sees as its old Ottoman playground, alongside the rise of Egypt from the ashes with the Muslim Brotherhood at its helm trying to reclaim Egypt’s dominance in Arab politics will be a stern test to Hezbollah’s and Iran’s staying power in the coming months. What is certain is that there will be a genuine power struggle for the leadership position in the Muslim world, to be the defenders of Palestine and to lead the push for the fight against Israel – it would be careless to assume that the veteran players; the Muslim Brotherhood, Turkey, Iran or Hezbollah, would just give in without a fight – watch this space, enter the Arab summer.

Meor Alif

Beware the Al Qaeda phantom in Syria!

In Meor Alif on January 12, 2012 at 7:19 pm

Beware the Al Qaeda phantom in Syria!

As Hafez al Assad stares down at the rapidly deteriorating situation in Syria from that special place in heaven for Syrian dictators, surely the thought that a Libyan styled intervention happening in Syria would have crossed his mind. As much as it would make him turn in his grave, there is very little moral credit these days to staunchly deny that an imminent or at the very least a likely intervention is just around the corner.

All the quintessential elements are present and accounted for – there is a dictator with an alleged history of sponsoring terrorism who with each move he makes does no favours for himself in the eyes of the international community, there is a resilient population that knows not the meaning of being subdued, a Syrian National Council that should slowly gain momentum as things unravel in Syria and soon in the Free Syrian Army we might have a Northern Alliance. At the time of this writing, a humanitarian intervention makes sense, but what makes a moment opportune? Or more importantly is there something unseen here that ought to be?

In his recent address to the media, Mr. Bashar al Assad waved his iron fist and continued to pin the blame of instability unto the ‘terrorist’, possibly taking cue from his father and the responses meted out to the Islamists by the late Assad in the 1980’s. Quite understandably, given the impending end of this regime, the ‘blame it on the terrorists’ move is an easy card to reach out for which with it carries a certain hope of legitimation for the violence his regime continues to carry out every day. Logically, no one would say no to you when you are fighting terrorists in your own country, and who would be silly enough to get in your way if you are doing everyone a favour by making the world free of one less terrorist movement? Well, to this I say, the African National Congress were terrorists.

If we were to pause for a moment and muster in us the most minute amount of sympathy for Mr. Bashar by the mere fact that we respect the idea of an office of a president, then maybe we ought to look at certain facts and consider if there really are terrorist in Syria, and more importantly, are they the kind of fighters that we can learn to like and help or the kind that Mr. Bashar is right in blaming?

It is almost common knowledge by now that historically Mr. Bashar’s regime are bigger fans of Hezbollah and several other more nationalist oriented terror organizations than the Islamist fashioned Al Qaeda. Understandably, it might be unwise to drag Al Qaeda into yet another rapidly deteriorating complicated conflict zone, but in the light of recent reports of links between the Free Syrian Army and Al Qaeda, a thought has to be spared for the possibility that being the violent entrepreneurs they are, that there is some truth behind Al Qaeda wanting a piece of the action in Syria.

We know now that momentously but rather thinly a few months ago America and Al Qaeda found themselves of the same side of the political spectrum for once in their long history. Although Ayman al-Zawahiri’s motives deferred greatly from America’s in that it saw the change in Syria brought by the protesters in July as yet another step towards the annihilation of America. But despite this obvious difference, it cannot be denied by a neutral observer that fundamentally, for the briefest of moments, both America and Al Qaeda agreed that the Syrian population had a cause worth supporting.

As I mentioned earlier, those familiar with Al Qaeda and who of course as a prerequisite, buy into the notion that Al Qaeda is an organization with a proper functional structure with tentacle like networks wouldn’t be surprised at the entrepreneurial reaction of Al Qaeda to the developments in Syria. A rational theorist interested in analysing Al Qaeda’s reaction would agree that it is completely understandable for Al Qaeda to be interested in ceasing the opportunity to support a movement that quite potentially would topple a secular regime and replace it with a more theocratic one. Similarly, the same observer would understand that America and the west would see in Syria like they did in Libya an opportunity to replace a dictatorship with democracy.

But as far as Al Qaeda involvement in Syria is concerned at the moment, the link thoroughly ends at the video released by Ayman al-Zawahiri a few months ago – or at least this is how much we know about their involvement currently. Certain reports claim that towards the end of 2011 sometime in September, meetings occurred between the Free Syrian Army and Abdul Hakim Belhadj. Some might say that this is evidence that there are certain Al Qaeda elements trying to weasel their way into Syria. However, the problem with this claim lies with the mistaking of Abdul Hakim Belhaj as being Al Qaeda, for at the very least there should be a world of a difference between being an Al Qaeda sympathizer and an Al Qaeda member.  Mr. Belhaj has always denied being an Al Qaeda member and moreover, the National Transitional Council in Libya has always vociferously insisted that there are no links between their revolution and Al Qaeda.

Moreover, very few out there are convinced that any Al Qaeda involvement is present at all in Syria; at least Omar Bakri is unconvinced.

In an interview conducted by Ashraq al-Awsat in January 2012, Omar Bakri is reported to have said during the interview that;

“Through my study of the literature of Al-Qaeda, the Islamist movements, and the Salafi jihadi tendencies, through my following up of the reports of their activities and operations, and through my presence in Lebanon, I can say confidently (describing the reality at face value): neither Al-Qaeda Organization, nor the Salafi jihadi groups have any presence in Lebanon or Syria.”

He goes on further to analyze the supposed Al Qaeda involvement in the recent Damascus explosion and comments;

“In my opinion, what the Syrian regime claims is mere falsehood that is unfounded. We have not heard at all from any of these organizations, which the regime claims to exist, an announcement of its responsibility for any operation. This is bearing in mind that Al-Qaeda Organization and the Salafi groups usually publish video tapes after each suicide operation in order to recruit youths and attract new supporters, which has not happened in any of the Syrian events.”

This alongside the insistence of the media in refusing to believe any Al Qaeda or terrorist activities are present in Syria, further bites away at the credibility of the claim that they are somehow present. Even as early as December, governments like Lebanon through their own efforts have refuted the existence of Al Qaeda in proximity to Syria.

At the end of it, the terrorist that we can neither like or support nor fight against is one that Mr. Bashar al Assad and his regime only sees in their minds and on SANA. What does exist however is a rebel group that should be assisted at the very least in their efforts in providing protection for the protesters and the establishment of safe zones in Syria. Beyond that, there is very little chance that the events in Syria will solve itself unless Mr. Bashar woke up with an epiphany either to win this struggle with a much larger blitz against the ‘terrorists’ or steps down. As it stands, he remains committed to the former.

Meor Alif

Fundamentalism in Central Asia: Perceptions and state responses

In Joe Raimondi on January 7, 2012 at 4:16 pm

Proximity to Afghanistan and the evolution of terrorism have fostered much debate and analysis over the past few years about security threats posed by violent fundamentalist or extremist groups in Central Asia. In the context of places with relatively high-conflict potential, we have seen more emphasis placed on this region as a consequence of the spread of diffuse transnational organizations, prompting speculation about the spillover effect from Afghanistan and Pakistan. Recently, Louise Arbour identified “Central Asia” in a Foreign Policy post titled “Next Year’s Wars,” though her analysis does place “insurgency” as one issue among many that contribute to instability in the region – including ethnic conflict, poor inter-state relations, and natural-resource issues. Fundamentalism and extremism exist in this environment but are hard to isolate from the broader range of political and socio-economic issues.

Two groups that have gained notoriety of late are the Islamic Jihad Union (IJU) – an offshoot of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan – and more recently (and to a lesser extent), the Jund Al-Khilafah, a Kazakh group has taken responsibility for potentially religiously-motivated bombings, in Atyrau, Kazakhstan in October.

While Uzbekis are often the usual suspects for acts of terrorism and subversive behavior in Central Asia – a recent example being the tenuous claims about the IJU operating in the run-up to the Kyrgyz presidential elections in October – those involved in the Atyrau bombings as well as the attacks in Taraz, Kazakhstan in November don’t seem to be linked to any Uzbekistan-based groups or individuals. As far as the November attacks go, there is speculation that the man who carried out the attack in Taraz may have had links to Islamists based in neighboring Kyrgyzstan. The mere existence of certain extremist groups operating within Central Asia is not unequivocal.

Real or perceived security threats – often in the form of externally and/or internally destabilizing groups and individuals – are useful issues for regimes concerned with population control. This logic extends to the Central Asian Republics (CARs) when assessing government depictions, analyses, and portrayals of different threats, often characterized under the umbrella of fundamentalism or extremism for political purposes. A look at a recent Islam, Islamism, and Politics in Eurasia Report is illustrative of the difficulty in assessing extremism in the CARs, especially for external observers trying to figure out where the security threat ends (in terms of potential for violence or conflict) and government tampering or even human rights violations begin. The most recent report (“speculation”), from December 2011, contains references to the imprisonment of 16 men in Uzbekistan – from an “unidentified illegal Islamist organization” – as well as the imprisonment of 28 men in Tajikistan for “supporting a terrorist group.” The point is not that these convicted men pose no threat, are unaffiliated with extremist groups, or have had their human rights trampled on, but that to what extent can we gain an accurate understanding of the threat in cases where the legal system abides by a different set of rules and the governments have a high capacity to manipulate the system and either eliminate or marginalize dissent?

President Imomali Rakhmon’s response to Islamism in Tajikistan illustrates the sometimes uneasy relationship between religion and the state in the CARs. For at least the past year, there have been governmental shut downs as well as general police harassment of “men with beards.” Like other CARs, the conflation of endemic political corruption, constrained and suppressed media outlets, and the political utility of “threats” have undermined attempts to separate and identify real threats from manufactured ones, or ones based on expedience. George Camm frames the problem as such:

“Is it possible that some of the 1250 unregistered mosques really are fanning the flames of extremism? Certainly. But the work of determining   that with any degree of confidence is drastically complicated by the government’s perpetual exaggerations and non-transparency… With their ham-fisted policies, the authorities can’t seem to identify genuine threats to security. When officials do speak publicly on the topic, legitimate concerns are often so heavily laced with untruth that their claims elicit little trust.”

As in Kazakhstan, external assessments of extremism in Tajikistan entail analysis of highly repressive, opaque, and dysfunctional regimes which are noteworthy for dismal rankings on both corruption and press freedom indices.

Geographic proximity of the CARs to Afghanistan and Pakistan warrants comparisons of Islamism in both Central and South Asia, but is one plausible given the effect of decades of Soviet rule on religious life in the former? When we look at the CARs alongside the course of events in Afghanistan and Pakistan throughout the 1980s – specifically the influx of foreign money and manpower to fuel the jihad against the USSR, and the subsequent devastating effects on Afghan society, it is fair to say that religious life in South and Central Asia has developed in distinct manners. We have enough trouble with accurate depictions of religious life in Afghanistan in itself, let alone in a broader regional context.

At the same time, geography matters for analysis of extremism in Central Asia because porous borders and weak institutional capacity in Afghanistan and Pakistan are critical factors for operational capacity for Central Asian-based groups like Jund Al-Khilafah and the IJU. Radicalization in the CARs is also connected to broader jihadist movements, such as the one in the North Caucasus (the Caucasus Emirate), in terms of media and rhetoric (individuals from one region propagating jihad via videos, and the language used to do so), as well as training and manpower. One example: a Caucasian man named Magomed Bagilov, fighting for the Dagestani Vilaiyat, who received training in Waziristan with the IJU as well as religious education in Egypt.

There will likely be continued, localized, and sporadic violence emanating from the CARs, with responsibility being assigned to violent fundamentalist groups outright or individuals with alleged links to foreign/transnational groups. The recent government response to protesters in the Kazakh city of Zhanaozen (the basis of which is unclear) will probably affect the Kazakh government’s response and posture towards future unrest. In terms of political and religiously-motivated violence, though, “ham-fisted” approaches by Central Asian governments blur the mixture of different security threats to these states, and those posed by fundamentalist groups represent just a portion of the larger picture. The state narrative will continue to utilize the expediency of this threat, whether real, perceived or overblown.

Same old, same old?: Does Boko Haram fit into Trans-Sahelian global terrorism concerns or is it just an internal problem for the Nigerian state?

In David Meyer on December 30, 2011 at 12:32 am

Following coordinated Christmas Day attacks that struck Christian churchs in a suburb of Abuja and the central city of Jos, as well as state security forces in the northern city of Damaturu, it seems that everyone is talking about Boko Haram. The Nigeria-based insurgent group, which has yet to ascend to the official U.S. State Department list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations, has gained increased media attention this year following a suicide attack on the United Nations building in Abuja last August, which killed 24 people, and major attacks in November and throughout December. While more ink has been spilled on their behalf over the past year than since their founding in 2002, or even since their initiation to violent struggle against the Nigerian state in 2009, the general consensus seems to be that no one knows much about the organization or what exactly should be done to combat or appease them. The latest wave of violence has led to fears of renewed sectarian violence across the ethnically and religiously divided Nigerian state, finger pointing exchanged between government and opposition political forces, and an international community, especially the “terrorist”-phobic West, weighing their options.

The church bombings, which killed at least 27 people, parallel similar attacks that took place last year on Christmas Day in Jos, which led to stop-and-go Christian-Muslim violence throughout the following months. This threat of inter-religious violence is what’s on everyone’s mind right now. While the Nigerian state has had recent relative success quelling diverse insurgent forces in the Niger Delta, there is also a bloody history of the repression of the Biafra self-determination movement to deal with, which is often referred to as the Nigerian Civil War. While there are parallels to be drawn with both of these previous challenges to the Nigerian state, the question is whether Boko Haram can be confronted with old tactics or if a new strategy is needed.

The general descriptions of Boko Haram include several key attributes of the movement: 1) They are based out of the northeastern Nigerian states, including Borno, Yobe, Kano, and Bauchi 2) They advocate for the application of Shariah law across all of Nigerian (currently Shariah criminal courts have been implemented in twelve northern states; Boko Haram claims an Islamic state would allow for a more complete and consistent application of Shariah in the country) 3) They may or may not have connections to Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and/or Al Shabab. It is this third point that has Western governments, including the United States, most concerned. In fact, in August U.S. General Carter Ham, currently the head of AFRICOM, stated “What is most worrying at present is, at least in my view, a clearly stated intent by Boko Haram and by al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb to coordinate and synchronize their efforts…I’m not so sure they’re able to do that just yet, but it’s clear to me they have the desire and intent to do that.”

Boko Haram’s home base lies at the edge of the Sahel belt, the flat, semi-arid grasslands that separate the Sahara Desert from the rest of the continent. Following the downfall of the Qaddafi regime, fears of increased arms trafficking in the region stoked interest in regional anti-terrorist cooperation. Algeria organized a regional conference last September to promote this cooperation originally envisioned in the creation of the Comité d’état-major opérationnel conjoint (Cémoc, Committee of Joint Chiefs of Staff) in April 2010, but recent kidnappings and killings of foreigners in Mali have only added to the anxieties of Sahel state governments and the West (link in French). Indeed, on December 20 the Algerian government announced it had sent troops across the border into Northern Mali to “assist” in the fight against terrorism. This follows the Pentagon offering the Malian government 4.5 million CFA francs (which, though only around $10,000 US, is more of a symbol of support within the larger assistance budget) in equipment for its state security forces to combat terrorism (link in French). Of course, critics contend that pinning the upsurge in Sahelian “terrorism” to AQMI glosses over questions of whether AQMI is truly a centralized threat or a convenient attention-grabber for smaller militant groups. In addition, fears of a Tuareg uprising may obscure groups actually linked to AQMI or, at the other end of the spectrum, entrench AQMI elements within Tuareg circles. The complexity seems endless, but are the alleged linkages between Boko Haram and AQMI enough to bring this conflict under the same scrutiny as the alleged linkages between Sahelian “terrorism” and AQMI?

The U.S. government may be leaning in that direction. In November, the Nigerian military revealed that the U.S. Army has been providing counter-insurgency training to Nigerian troops. Of course, past U.S. military assistance has largely been based on the threat that Niger Delta rebels posed to oil extraction and Western oil companies based in Southern Nigeria, so there is likely some residue left over from these policies. Following the Christmas Day attacks, the White House announced that it would assist the Nigerian government in “bringing those responsible to justice.” This diplo-speak really tells us nothing, but past military cooperation shows that further security or anti-terrorism assistance shouldn’t be ruled out of U.S. security policy towards the country. If the U.S. government perceives Boko Haram to be tied to AQMI, even more money could be flowing into the West African state. However, this securitization of the conflict has some commentators worried.

Indeed, Africa Confidential frets about President Jonathan’s apparent lack of strategy to battle Boko Haram and that he seems to be content to throw money at the issue. They worry that this confused policy is weakening the Nigerian state and opening the country up to long-term instability. Drawing on the lessons of the Niger Delta amnesty programs and keeping in mind the major missteps made during the Biafra revolt are going to be extremely important for the Nigerian government going forward, especially as the exact organization and makeup of Boko Haram remains clouded. The last thing they need is the inflammation of a new self-determination movement or the fostering of more Christian-Muslim violence, rumors of which are floating throughout the country following a home-made bomb attack on an Arabic school in the southern Delta state during the night of December 27. There are even unsubstantiated concerns that Northern politicians have been directly or indirectly supporting Boko Haram’s ambitions.

It is widely believed that Boko Haram has split into several factions, with an extremist wing behind the continued violence, led by Abubakar Shekau. It is thought that he leads the group from outside the country, operating out of Chad, Cameroon, and Niger. While Boko Haram clearly remains active only in Nigeria, the porous borders of the Sahel region mean the intermixing of insurgent groups and possible contact with Al Qaeda or more “global” terrorist operations. However, at this time, according to Comfort Ero of the International Crisis Group, “Supposed links to al Qaeda doesn’t cover up the fact that Boko Haram is very much a Nigerian problem…It should be understood within Nigeria’s own endemic problems.” This is clearly the best way to approach this issue, but will the West be content to fix it within this framework? It seems unlikely, and with the recent overt deployments of U.S. military advisors into Uganda, drones over Somalia (not to forget the Kenyan invasion of Southern Somalia), and renewed fears of terrorism across the Sahel and in Nigeria, the Western anti-terrorism political-military complex may indeed be coming to town, again. It’s looking increasingly likely that 2012 might be the year that African “terrorism” begins to take a larger role in Western security policy.

-David Meyer