Radicalization and the Rohingya: How Terrorism Works On The Edges of the State System

Image result for map bangladesh myanmar rohingya

Is Myanmar SE Asia or is it the Subcontinent? Or are these arbitrary and meaningless?

First off, I’m not going to pretend to an expert, or even particularly knowledgeable about Myanmar and the Rohingya. Before the crisis of the last couple of weeks, I could have told you exactly three things about that group: they were Muslim, they were frequently the victims of persecution by the Burmese government, and they were essentially stateless. But if pressed, I don’t think I could have given you the details.

That said, it is a humanitarian crisis that has now come to the world’s attention, partly because the sainted Ayn Sung Suu Kyi seems to be, at the very least, complicit in the ongoing ethnic cleansing (if not outright genocide) of a long-persecuted people.

Hundreds of thousands of refugees are fleeing state-sanction violence, the latest in the ongoing Burmese campaign against the Rohingya. Who are they? I’ll leave that work to this easy al-Jazeera explainer.

The Rohingya speak Rohingya or Ruaingga, a dialect that is distinct to others spoken in Rakhine State and throughout Myanmar. They are not considered one of the country’s 135 official ethnic groups and have been denied citizenship in Myanmar since 1982, which has effectively rendered them stateless.

OK, but…why? Well, even though many historians agree that Muslims have been living in that area since the 12th-century, the Buddhist-majority post-independence government of Burma/Myanmar disagreed. They considered them recent interlopers, because a lot more Muslims had come to the area from Bangladesh. To the government, they are officially Bengali.

OK, so then…why aren’t they refugees? A delightful quirk of history!

During the more than 100 years of British rule (1824-1948), there was a significant amount of migration of labourers to what is now known as Myanmar from today’s India and Bangladesh. Because the British administered Myanmar as a province of India, such migration was considered internal, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW).

Because the British colonized both “India” (which also became Pakistan after independence, and then Bangladesh after the 1971 war which killed at least a million), as well as Burma, where Orwell shot an elephant, these are not refugees. But they also aren’t recognized. So they have no rights, and are denied basic services. That’s a neat trick!

Not everyone thinks so. When you have displaced and persecuted Muslims, that becomes a breeding ground for radicalization. Not necessarily of the Rohingya (I haven’t seen much about radical tendencies in that population), but for al-Qaeda, ISIS, and regional offshoots/independent groups.

This is quickly becoming a major cause for transnational Islamist groups. As The Soufan Group points out, “An example of how the situation can easily get worse and morph into a larger issue came in a September 12 statement by al-Qaeda  The terrorist group called for all Muslims to come to the defense of the Rohingya; a call to jihad similar to that of the Afghan War with the then-Soviet Union that set al-Qaeda’s foundation. Now three decades later, al-Qaeda is calling for more of the same in Burma. The statement derides the ‘fight against terrorism’ and calls for ‘all mujahid brothers from Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, and the Philippines to set out for Burma…to secure their [the Rohingya] rights, which will only be returned to them by force.’”

This is like Bosnia, Chechnya, Yemen, Algeria: a place for jihadis around the world to flock to, to train, and to use for recruitment purposes. It is also a boon for regional groups, as Eurasia Review points out, with the charismatic Masood Azhar, leader of Jaish-e-Mohammed, calling for much the same.

JeM is a Deobandi Sunni group, which is similar to Salafism, but has its roots in South Asia and the Subcontinent. It has largely been active in Kashmir, and its primary goal is to bring Kashmir back to Pakistan. Its relationship with the Pakistani government is officially complicated.

Actually, this is all really complicated. What, one might reasonably ask, does JeM really have to do with this? Is it just opportunism? And same with al-Qaeda. They’ve never shown a deep interest in Burma before (little need for aftershave)(sorry). So what is this all about?

For one thing, it is partially opportunism. Groups like Qaeda see a void in the state that leaves Muslims vulnerable and in danger, and they step up to be the protector. We’ll see of course if this translates into any action, but that’s almost beside the point. They are positioning themselves as champions of any Muslims, when the state can’t, and won’t protect them.

This is where this gets very dangerous. As we saw with the brief history above, the Rohingya are victims of history and geography; like Iran, their legacy rests on the perversions of colonialism and nationalism. The problem is that their land is in one of the soft spots of the state system, where maps were fluid and borders were permeable until, suddenly and horribly, they weren’t.

Whenever I had thought of the Rohingya before, skimmed a headline that talked about tens of thousands in misery or whatever, my mental map had people feeling in an Asian jungle, akin to Laos or Cambodia. That’s where I saw them going.

But that’s not really the case, as everyone now knows. They are inextricably linked to the bitter and violent history of the sub-Continent and the legacy of colonialism. Take a look at this map.

Image result for india bangladesh myanmar border

Look at the way India pushes through the top of Bangladesh, encircling it save for the tiniest border with Myanmar. And think how irrelevant these borders really are to the historic lived experience of these people. You don’t have “Indians” on the east of Bangladesh as something ethnically dissimilar. There is mixing and blending, right through to Myanmar.

This is where the ridiculousness of the state system makes itself known. This is where the bitter fruits of “partition and parturition”, in Christopher Hitchen’s memorable phrase, fall to the ground, overripe and rotting. And this is what groups like al-Qaeda (and especially al-Qaeda) are so skilled at manipulating.

Al-Qaeda is both pre-and-post state. They reject borders and want to move the world to how they felt it was before: huge rolling Eurasian landscapes united by Islam. It was never that neat, of course, but the vision is nearer to the truth. These borders, which divide groups, and render the same people stateless or stated depending on the accident of migration and the whims of Westminster, are ridiculous, and al-Qaeda knows that.

They exist to exploit the crumbling and ahistorical state system that exists on the Eurasian heartland (and that isn’t doing too terribly well in Europe, either). They are wrong to think that a continental centralized caliphate is in line with history; things were always more subtle and local and free-wheeling and interesting than that.

But they know that the modern system, a legacy of the West trying to impose itself over the long-held order of the East, a paternalism imposed upon highly-developed cultures, couldn’t last. The contradictions and conquests of the 20th century are breaking up the order of the world, and groups like al-Qaeda know how to exploit that. Until we understand what is actually happening here, we’re powerless against groups that actually do.

 

 

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Qatar and Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia, War in Syria: The Dangers of Unserious Leadership in Fragile Times

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I’m not saying that to be a successful President you have to understand what this map means. But you actually kind of do…

America has been rightfully consumed with the subdued opera of the Comey hearings, in which members of both parties accepted as a stipulation that the President was a grotesque, habitual liar, and that his best defense was he literally has no idea what he is doing, so how could he be obstructing justice? I don’t know the legal ramifications of this, but even as the GOP desperately tried to downplay Comey, which seems to imply a return to the status quo, I think there will continue to be a steady drip of revelations. Comey implying that Sessions is dirtier than we (well, the media) thought might be the first major crack. No one is going to want to be the last person to go down for this.

But think again about the essential shrugging reaction even senators from his own party have to the essential nature of Trump: sure he’s dishonest and completely incapable of being President, but is that illegal? Maybe for the former, probably not for the latter. But that’s not the issue: the issue is that it is extremely dangerous. It’s dangerous domestically, and potentially catastrophic abroad.

There could be few worse times to have a blundering, spite-filled, ego-driven ignorant man as President of the United States. The post-WWII order was crumbling, but just as importantly (if unremarked), the post-WWI order in the Middle East (and much or Eurasia) is crumbling and reforming in unexpected and difficult ways as well. This is a hinge moment for a huge part of the world, and with his disaster-junkie approach to things, Trump can’t help but make it enormously worse. And it starts, of course, with Qatar.

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Trump’s Saudi Arabia Speech Condemns Yemen; Shows Shallow Weakness of His Phony Tough Guy Approach

 

Admit it, you’d like to see how Trump would do filling this out, right?

 

I was in the car during the President’s big speech on terrorism to a bunch of gilded heirs in a gilded palace, and there was a certain peculiar horror at hearing that voice saying those words. Even ignoring for a moment the substance of what he said, it was the fact that Donald Trump, who couldn’t be bothered to learn the first thing about terrorism other than “it’s bad, ok, believe me?”, was giving a major talk to rapt heads of state, forced to listen because this was the most powerful man in the world, representing the United States of America. It really put into stark relief the absurdity of our moment.

In a way, it was even worse that most of what he said was insipid and banal, a series of rolling cliches that sounded like the book report of a middling college Republican. His teleprompted bromides made him sound, in our dumb media formulations, “Presidential”. But you also didn’t have to dig very deep to see the bloody soil right beneath his feet.

The President made very clear that only one thing mattered: “defeating terrorism” by force. The drumbeat of his speech, the part they probably most want remembered, is when he dimly intoned with fake-machismo that the collected autocrats and kings should “DRIVE THEM OUT”.  It’s a strange formulation, because for all his anti-PC swagger about how this is an Islamic problem, he seemingly ignores that you can’t just “Drive them out” without addressing the sicknesses and pathologies in society, both internal and imposed, that have led to ISIS.

Clearly, thinking about those contradictions aren’t important to Trump or Bannon or Miller. What’s important is to give free reign to the collected autocrats, which is why the triumph of the weekend was to sell the Saudis $110 billion worth of arms. We should remember that selling rich people something they want to buy could only be done by a master of the deal.

This landmark agreement includes the announcement of a $110 billion Saudi-funded defense purchase — and we will be sure to help our Saudi friends to get a good deal from our great American defense companies. This agreement will help the Saudi military to take a greater role in security operations.

And what are these security operations? Well, there is the internal defense of the Kingdom, of course. But he really gave away the game when he was talking about how the assembled countries are already…

“…making significant contributions to regional security: Jordanian pilots are crucial partners against ISIS in Syria and Iraq. Saudi Arabia and a regional coalition have taken strong action against Houthi militants in Yemen. The Lebanese Army is hunting ISIS operatives who try to infiltrate their territory. Emirati troops are supporting our Afghan partners. In Mosul, American troops are supporting Kurds, Sunnis and Shias fighting together for their homeland.”

I was thinking that we can ignore that he pronounced “Houthi” as if it should be followed by “and the Blowfish”; that’s the sort of internet-type snark that obscures bigger issues. Every politician makes mistakes, and anyway, who can blame him? It’s doubtful he’d ever said, or maybe even heard, the word “Houthi” before.

But that’s sort of the point. He blithely lumps the Houthi faction in the overlapping Yemeni civil wars with ISIS, even though Sunni extremists and the Houthis are bitter enemies. And while there is no question that the Houthis aren’t exactly stabilizing the region, the greatest damage has been done by the Saudi coalition, recklessly carpet-bombing the country into a bleak future of starvation and war. And disease. Due to the country’s already fragile infrastructure being destroyed, the WHO estimates as many as 300,000 cholera cases over the next six months.

Yemen shows the disastrous focus of the Trumpian approach. “We won’t tell you how to do your business, as long as you fight ISIS and stand against Iran.” There are so many areas where that is contradictory nonsense. To the extent that the Houthis are aligned, it is with Iran, against the Sauds, and against Sunni extremists, whether that is ISIS or al-Qaeda (in fact, multiple bombings of Houthis by extremists helped start the latest round of fighting, and helped draw them further into national battles). Allowing, or in fact encouraging, Saudi Arabia to have free reign in a country that we see only an “area of active hostility” will hurt the enemies of ISIS and create the very same “safe zones” that the Administration decries.

The problem is that the the primary focus is Iran, and stopping Iranian power. It’s part of Jared Kushner’s big play to unite the Sunni Arab world to stand against Iran, and get a peace treaty for Israel and Palestine out of it. This is one of those grand world plans which was drawn by the great Arabists and Orientalists in the early 20th century, drawing lines on a map, and assuming that “If we get Sunnis here, we’ve got it made.” Those ended in failure and bloodshed, and weren’t drawn by idiots with zero experience.

The problem is that these people think it is simple: a matter of will, and some brilliant negotiating tactics. They have zero knowledge of history, zero concern for how the region actually works, and zero ability to see past their own shallow ideas. They think it is an easy math problem, a quick sell. And there might even be surface-level successes!

There is no doubt that the gilded heirs sitting in Arabesque thrones are happy to see one of their own, and that the strongman tyrants are glad to see someone who emulates them, with his soft hands yearning to be considered callous and callused. I’m sure there will be papers signed and treaties made and grins exchanged. But by papering over everything but the headlines, and focusing on quick results rather than intelligent gains, this administration will set back the cause of freedom, of peace, and of actual security, another generation.

For them, the Middle East is, as is everything else in their dumbshow lives, a quick con and a chance to soak up applause before getting out of town. In going international, we’re finally giving thr world the bill of goods we so eagerly bought.

 

Yemen, Mosul, and a Strategy of Civilizational War

WASHINGTON — The senior United States commander in Iraq said on Tuesday that an American airstrike most likely led to the collapse of a building in Mosul that killed scores of civilians this month…

“My initial assessment is that we probably had a role in these casualties,” said General Townsend, who commands the American-led task force that is fighting the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. But he asserted that “the munition that we used should not have collapsed an entire building.”

On the one hand, the tragedy of Mosul was “one of those things” that happen in a war, and clearly not intentional, and obviously pales in comparison to the flagrant bloodlust of ISIS. It doesn’t pale to the hundreds killed, of course, and that’s exactly the other hand. It’s hard to say if this one specific incident was an outcome of the Trump administration loosening the rules on engagement, giving fewer restrictions about civilian casualties, or if it could have happened regardless, but we need to be prepared for more of these stories.

Because, while letting on-the-ground commanders have more freedom, and more coordination with local officers fighting ISIS, is theoretically a sound strategy in a vacuum (and there have been reports that Iraqi commanders are happy), we aren’t in a vacuum. We’re in the Trump administration, which has been openly hostile to the Muslim world. Mass civilian casualties won’t be seen as an outcome of war. They won’t be seen as terrible accidents by genuinely committed and largely decent military people who want to destroy ISIS and liberate the people of Iraq and Syria from medieval teenage monsters. It will be seen as an outcome of Trumpism.

And the problem might be that this is exactly what Trump and his people want.

Steve Bannon might be a slight outlier when it comes to dreaming of religious holy wars, but he isn’t that far off. For years, the GOP has been saying that the fight against ISIS is a war of civilizations, and of civilization, and that it is essentially an existential struggle in which the US might be destroyed. This is wrapped up, and exacerbated by, general hostility to Muslims. It also “confirms” and strengthens that hostility.

Part of that is the rhetorical tomb Republicans walled themselves in. Because Obama (correctly) didn’t consider ISIS more than just a very dangerous terrorist group, they had to imagine them as Nazi hordes landing on Floridian shores. And because Obama actually did act aggressively to fight ISIS, they had to ramp up the rhetoric to pretend that MORE had to be done, because Obama, of course, was a wimp and really probably wanted ISIS to win. Senator ISIS, he surely thought, had a great ring to it. So they’ve convinced themselves for years that a massive blitz was needed.

It goes deeper than that. It’s partly because the GOP is, by and large, a bunch of non-military types who pump themselves up with reflected glory, and that means elevating every threat to an existential level. But it is also because the GOP is, by and large, made up of religious bigots and hysterics who despise Islam and want the US to fight a Christianized battle against it. They’ll say against terrorism, but the two have a 1:1 conflation in the GOP mind.

So that’s where the new rules come in. It’s a way to push that battle forward, and that sounds good to Donald Trump, who 1) is a bigot; 2) thinks he’s tough, and 3) is too lazy to come up with a plan other than “kill”. So again, his personal pathologies perfectly line up with mainstream Republican goals, “mainstream” here meaning “lunatic”.

We see this in Yemen, probably more than in Iraq and Syria, largely because Yemen is off the map, for the most part, and seen as an ideological playground and a place in which one can experiment. It’s where the Special Forces-Drone strategy was tested by Obama, and it’s where Trump will test his “anything goes”s strategy.

The administration is expanding its role in Yemen, as the Soufan Group reports. It wants to expand help to the Saudi-led war against the Houthis, the large majority of which is a war crime. It is doing this because it believes that the Sauds are our friends, and that they can help broker Jared Kushner’s regional peace deal. They are doing this because they believe that the Houthis are essentially Iran, and that this is a war against Iran. They don’t believe Yemen actually exists, save as a battleground for their experiments.

But mostly, they are doing this because they can. They want this war, which is why they are expanding Yemen’s “area of active hostilities“.  This is a war of civilizations, against the Muslim tide. That they are doing this in conjunction with shutting down our borders from refugees, and specifically targeting Muslims, is not a coincidence. It’s a plan. Or, if this is a mistake, and they actually think that they are doing something positive for world peace, as opposed to Western domination, then they are doing an excellent incidental job of persuading people otherwise.

Yemen is facing a terrible, devastating famine, which will further destabilize the region. Can you imagine the Trump administration, which is gutting foreign aid, even pretending to care? The war in Yemen is not inherently regional; it’s a local battle steeped in Yemeni history and geography, and can only be resolved by taking that into account. Can you imagine Bannon or Trump or Kushner knowing any of that history, or even pretending to take it into account? Of course not.

And none of that is chance. They might be all bluster, but this isn’t a blunder. It’s a global tragedy, but it is intentional. They want a civilizational battle, and that’s essentially in lockstep with the majority of the Republican Party. The moral outrage of their actions is terrible enough. But knowing that any fleeting victory is ledgered against an ever-expanding and irresolvable conflict makes what happened in November a world-historic disaster.