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

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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.

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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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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.

 

The Killing of Abu Muhammed Al-Adnani and the Future of ISIS

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Image from The New Yorker.

In her New Yorker story on the purported death of ISIS spokesman and strategist Abu Muhammed al-Adnani, Robin Wright gets an interesting quote from an ISIS expert.

Hassan Hassan, the author of the Times best-seller “ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror,” described Adnani as one of a small handful of leaders left from among the organization’s founding fathers. “This means that the transition to the second and third tiers of the group is already well under way. And this could affect the direction of the organization and how it operates,” Hassan told me. “Those leaders who grew up within this organization are more attuned to the local dynamics, so the decapitation of such leaders could, in fact, inject a new life into the group. That said, the Islamic State is already shaped and well defined by those founding fathers, strategically and ideologically, so these new leaders have little wiggle room to make a change, but this is more possible than before.”

This is the central dilemma for ISIS, and the ISIS-inspired and affiliated groups, as it moves forward and struggles with AQ for the mantle of jihad. After all, they became so powerful because of their unrelenting dedication to violence, which is incredibly attractive to people, and always has been. It offers a sort of purity, and an elevation above petty morality, etc. It’s Fight Club with a glossy religious patina and a sort of medieval escape fantasy. But that’s not always successful, which is something that Adnani should have learned. As the Soufan group points out, he had an example in his mentor.

Al-Adnani was one of the few surviving members of the original group founded by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Long before the declaration of a caliphate, the Islamic State’s previous iterations—such as al-Qaeda in Iraq—were among the most violent and effective terror groups in Iraq after the 2003 U.S. invasion. Al-Adnani was a trusted associate of Zarqawi, whose manipulation of media and spectacle of public savagery would be imitated by al-Adnani as the Islamic State exploded onto the global scene in 2014. Over the last 14 years, al-Adnani has been front and center as Iraq, and then Syria, became the stage of unrelenting and escalating terror. He had been imprisoned both by the U.S. in Iraq and the Assad regime in Syria. As with other infamous terrorists, the arc of al-Adnani’s terror history was long, and bent towards massive suffering and destruction. His death will not bring about the end of the Islamic State. Nonetheless, it marks a significant loss for the group and removes a leading actor from the terror stage.

Zarqawi, of course, was brought down by the revolt against his methods. It’s the difference between him and the leaders of AQAP, which made sure to not alienate the locals, and tried to make grievances dovetail. ISIS is more powerful, with more foreign fighters, and were able to subjugate the territory under their control much more rapidly than AQI. That’s made a difference, but as they start to lose ground, it obviously won’t be permanent.

This is the crossroads for ISIS, as they move toward what Hassan calls “second and third-tier leaders”. If these leaders, especially ones around the world, move toward an “think global, act local” sort of jihad, they will be largely indistinguishable from AQ affiliates. If they continue to act as the caliphate, and ignore local concerns– the biggest one being “we’re concerned that you’re burning alive anyone who looks cross-eyed”– then they’ll never gain the local support they need.

That’s why I think the ISIS model is ultimately unsustainable. If it moderates, it loses adherents, the wild-eyed passion-filled radicals who seek a glorifying fire. But if it stays like this, it will never be able to gain actual local footholds other than through domination, which won’t last. That isn’t to say this isn’t a dangerous model; there will always be people emulating it in smaller and smaller cells, trying to pick up the mantle of “the real ISIS”. That is a global danger that could hit literally any community. I think that’s what is next for ISIS: a gradual splintering, and a new phase of terrorism.

Friday Jihad Reading

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A rebranding and personnel announcement by the CEO of a newly independent franchise. Image from al-Jazeera

1). Jabhat al-Nusra made an important move yesterday when they officially decoupled themselves from al-Qaeda, establishing an independent group. Charles Lister of Foreign Policy says that this shouldn’t make anyone think they are somehow more moderate or less dangerous.

Nobody should be confused by this maneuver: Jabhat al-Nusra, which is also known as the Nusra Front, remains as potentially dangerous, and as radical, as ever. In severing its ties to al Qaeda, the organization is more clearly than ever demonstrating its long-game approach to Syria, in which it seeks to embed within revolutionary dynamics and encourage Islamist unity to outsmart its enemies, both near and far. In this sense, the Nusra Front (and now Jabhat Fateh al-Sham) differ markedly from the Islamic State, which has consistently acted alone and in outright competition with other Islamist armed factions. Instead of unity, the Islamic State explicitly seeks division.

Ultimately, while this may be a change in name and formal affiliation, Jolani’s group will remain largely the same. Therefore, this is by no means a loss to al Qaeda. In fact, it is merely the latest reflection of a new and far more potentially effective method of jihad focused on collective, gradualist, and flexible action. Its goal is to achieve recurring tactical gains that one day will amount to a substantial strategic victory: the establishment of an Islamic emirate with sufficient popular acceptance or support.

This is what we talked about when discussing them last week: that they are smart enough to work in small local gains as a way to expand. It’s why they can outlast ISIS (which isn’t going away anytime soon). It’s also a really good sign of what is happening: we’re not at the beginning of the end, or the midpoint, of the Islamic extremist phenomenon. It’s probably much closer to the beginning. It is shaking itself out, and adjusting to new political realities (many of which are themselves an adjustment to the phenomenon). It will continue to mutate and evolve and operate in a variety of competing and complementary ways for decades.

2). This is a long, detailed, and amazing demographic report about what we know on ISIS foreign fighters, by Nate Rosenblatt at the International Security project of New America. Called All Jihad Is Local, it goes into what makes someone leave to fight for a group like ISIS. It’s a combination of their message and, of course, of local conditions that drive the fighter to leave. There is a lot to absorb in this report, which came out last week, and I’ll be doing a deeper dive into it next week, with its lessons and what it means for the next wave. In the meantime, Bethan Mckernan at The Independent pulled out some charts and info from it to look at.

All in all, what we’re seeing is a time of transition and regrouping. And, blogtimes aside, it is a long process without a clear path. An unexpected military setback by Asad could butterfly-wing the dynamic of jihad in 10 countries. But I think we’re really seeing the clear delineation between two different models: current-period Qaeda and ISIS. There are a lot of in-group differences of course, and there is also a lot of crossover, but for now, that seems to be the helpful model, and something we’ll come back to here. The way these models compete (because it would be reductive to say the “groups” are competing, because both models have incredible amounts of locally-driven varietals), and the way they influence each other, will shape our world for a long time to come.

Anyway, happy Friday.

 

 

Nice, The New Terrorism, And The Limits of Freedom

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Image from NYTimes

As of this writing, no jihadist organization has taken credit for the horrific attacks in France last night, when a petty criminal with no known ties to any group plowed a truck through a mile of death during a celebration of freedom. It doesn’t mark a new chapter in terrorism, but it does make everyone aware that we are firmly in that chapter, that the pages have turned around us, and we’re stuck in a new plot.

My initial instinct is that this will be the plot of a small, independent cell, possibly with some training behind them, but more than likely not. If it wasn’t coordinated with any central ISIS/Qaeda group (as seems to be the case), it also wasn’t entirely unsophisticated, despite the bluntness of the attack. The right street was picked for maximum efficacy, and the presence of weapons in the truck showed the ability to acquire the tools of war.

All that said, it wasn’t very sophisticated, and indeed was taken right out of the pages of Inspire, as well as a few smaller-scale attacks. This is the new kind of terrorism: as what ISIS actually is changes over the next few months, there will be more of these attacks, both coordinated by the remnants of the caliphate or their affiliates, or from independent groups/actors who might pledge allegiance to ISIS but in an essentially meaningless way, tactically.

That it is meaningless doesn’t really matter, though, especially to the dead. These small cells usually wind up shooting themselves in the ass, but they can sometimes be successful, especially if they keep things very simple. One of the main dangers, as I see it, is that as ISIS starts to create a vacuum, there will be more room for a) affiliated terrorist organizations to try to take the leadership mantle with coordinated, large-scale attacks; and b) unaffiliated-but-inspired groups to try to step up with attacks like these, which can be large-scale by dint of simplicity and luck.

The former can potentially be slowed down (if not stopped) by intelligence, and also luck. The latter might not be as spectacularly successful, but they can be extremely dangerous, and potentially do more to unravel the fabric of free society than larger groups. It makes everyone with a grudge, some sociopathic tendencies, and the “right” sort of inspiration (jihad, rather than The Matrix or whatever), a potential terrorist.

The problem is that a free society won’t really be able to stop these attacks until the fervor of jihad runs its course, which it will, at some point, though possibly not in the lifetime of anyone reading this. As the Middle East convulses, and as Europe tries to handle the expansion of superstates, the reaction of nationalists, and the influx of the stateless, emotions and politics on personal and international levels will be subject to huge changes and dangerous trends. We’re at the beginning of it now. The end is nowhere in sight.

The key is not to give up on the idea of a free society. Bastille Day was the right day to pick for this, for maximum symbolism. It is a celebration of freedom. Of course, the French Revolution became a horrible Goya flipbook of bloodlust and revenge, and ended in Empire, but through fits and starts, it became France. It has its problems with assimilation, but has strong democratic values.

As a free society, that’s the sort of timeline we have to look at when dealing with the mutating scourge of jihad. One day, it will be history. The question is if we’ll be reading that history in a free society, or if we’ll be looking at it through the gray-barred schoolhouse of a modern police state.