Despite the Arab Spring’s grassroots origins — disenchanted populations taking a stand against authoritarian regimes in an effort to promote democracy and fair governance — the rise of Islamist militias and insurgencies in some of these new “open” societies has become cause for concern. The April 2013 announcement by Syrian militia group Jabhat al-Nusra that it would pledge its allegiance to al-Qaeda and affiliate itself with al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), or the Islamic State of Iraq, is the most recent in a long line of promising Arab Spring uprisings turned sour. The ability of non-state actors like al-Qaeda to gain ground in unstable territories, co-opting revolutionaries, is an alarming side effect of these uprisings and is proving antithetical to the intended goal of the Arab Spring.
Al-Qaeda “franchises” have become fairly prevalent over the past decade as the group was driven out of Afghanistan with its senior leadership establishing safe havens in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Regions and promoting the rise of regional affiliates such as al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). However, with significant blows to its leadership and recruitment efforts, the group has turned to the instability caused by the Arab Spring for members to replenish itself. Since the beginning of protests across the Middle East over two years ago, many Salafi and Islamist Jihad groups with questionable ties to the dominant terror organization have emerged under the name of Ansar al-Sharia. These groups use political turmoil to promulgate their cause in countries such as Yemen, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, and Morocco.
Though many of these new groups may only tacitly acknowledge an affiliation with al-Qaeda, Syria’s al-Nusra has done just the opposite, publicly proclaiming its association with AQI. Starting out as one of many militant groups in the Free Syrian Army fight against the Assad regime, at over 5,000 men strong, al-Nusra has a reputation as being the most respected rebel group due to its disciplined fighters and past victories against the Assad regime. Al-Nusra is notorious for its violence and suicide bombings and has also been outspoken in regard to its plans for Syria after the current regime falls: building up and establishing a jihadist network under a common identity in the name of Islam, instituting Sharia Law, and establishing an Islamic Caliphate (the Levant). The creation of its own Sharia court in Syria has also helped al-Nusra gain ground amidst political instability and lack of rule of law.
While the “traditional” threat of al-Qaeda may appear to be waning, these franchised or marginally-affiliated groups may pose an even greater threat to U.S. interests as they do not subscribe to one doctrine or strategy, tend to be locally-embedded and sometimes garner the support of local populations due to their security-providing role. In many cases, weeding out jihadists from legitimate revolutionaries is an impossible goal, making decisions about arming opposition movements even more difficult, especially in the case of Syria. For other nations experiencing their own Islamist insurgencies and al-Qaeda resurgence, the key to defeating these groups lies in the state establishing stability and security to starve them of rhetorical fodder, further recruitment and ungoverned safe-havens.
One of the biggest spenders in the worldwide information space has made the U.S. population a prime target in its attempts to secure a more flattering image of itself on the international stage: China. The country’s efforts to reach Americans and overcome its general lack of credibility come with a significant price tag. The Communist Party of China has spent around $6 billion in the past few years on media campaigns in the U.S.
China’s efforts put an interesting twist on the U.S.’s own public diplomacy attempts to reach international audiences in an attempt to bolster U.S. objectives abroad, whether through Twitter diplomacy, education exchanges or other similar efforts.
As China becomes both an economic and political power, the threat it poses to U.S. supremacy has given China a global image problem. To thwart this perception, China has leveraged showcase events like the 2008 Beijing Winter Olympic Games and the Shanghai World Expo in 2010, in addition to more traditional methods of strengthening Chinese soft power.
Chinese diplomatic efforts in the U.S. have focused primarily on advertising campaigns and other soft power initiatives to drive positive public opinion of China. Notably, the government-run Xinhua News (with an office in NYC) has a national broadcasting station in the U.S. as well as online resources. Other efforts include the Confucius Institutes which aim to promote cross-cultural exchanges, although they are sometimes viewed as “Chinese foreign propagandists.”
The Chinese government’s soft power initiatives also help to satisfy the country’s seemingly insatiable demand for natural resources. The Chinese government’s work in Africa trade infrastructure development for access to the continent’s natural resources. However, rumors of human rights violations and lack of adherence to democratic principles in general make diplomatic efforts essential for China in this region. The expansion of China’s state news agency Xinhua to Nairobi, Kenya, is meant to thwart biased Western views of China. Particularly in countries where China takes an investment-for-resource approach to foreign policy, effective public diplomacy efforts are vital.
Generating credibility is at the root of public diplomacy efforts and China’s “peaceful rise’ is contingent on its ability to effectively target and influence audiences in the U.S. and abroad. With billions invested so far, will China improve its image among Americans and even best American influence in diplomacy efforts in Africa and worldwide?
As tensions swell in Mali over its rising Islamist insurgency, nearby Nigeria has been grappling with its own increasingly active group of terrorists, Boko Haram.
The 2010 election of Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan, a Christian, fueled Boko Haram’s legitimacy amongst its Muslim base. Unlike Ansar Dine in Mali, which recruits internationally, Boko Haram has exploited corruption and poverty in Nigeria to attract its members. Even educated and middle class men are increasingly rejecting western and Christian ways of life and joining the ranks of Boko Haram, making this insurgency even more threatening due to its entrenchment within society.
In order to address Boko Haram, the foundation of their legitimacy (Muslim-Christian tension) must be undermined. At a recent event held at the Jamestown Foundation, Jacob Zenn, an analyst for western and central African affairs, discussed Boko Haram and how to combat its effects.. Generally, Muslim Nigerians live in the north, while Christian Nigerians live in the oil-rich south, widening the gap between the religions as Christians profit economically and civilly. Zenn argued Muslim Nigerians, even non-members of Boko Haram, see Nigeria as an Islamic nation governed by a corrupt, Christian ruling class.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited Nigeria in early August and reiterated the United States’ willingness to help in the fight against Boko Haram. However, a State Department official correctly identified that President Jonathan has attempted to defeat the insurgency only militarily and not socially. While the Nigerian government has purportedly held talks with Boko Haram, the group is only becoming more powerful. Much like Mali, the increasing severity of this crisis has escaped the western media and it seems likely Boko Haram will go uncontested until western interests are directly threatened.
Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) has traditionally lacked the capability to directly threaten American interests outside of the region, but its gains in northern Mali could soon translate into the increasing provocation of Western strategic objectives in the region and abroad. With AQIM-supported Ansar Dine’s recent insurgency in northern Mali, some assess AQIM’s capacity is now able affect worldwide American interests.
National Public Radio recently interviewed former Canadian diplomat and U.N. envoy Robert Fowler on the international security implications of the terrorist group’s insurgency in northern Mali and potential options for the international community to address the group’s expanding base.
Fowler argued that AQIM’s insurgency in northern Mali should be regarded as an “enormous threat” to Western interests, particularly because Mali lacks the military capability to address Al-Qaeda’s stronghold on its own. He said letting a terrorist group “maintain [a] secure base, [AQIM] represents a significant threat to Western interests, most immediately to European interests but very soon after that, North American interests.”
According to Fowler, military force is the only way to address Al Qaeda in northern Mali. In light of Mali’s March 2012 coup and AQIM’s experience in remote geography, the international community has been unable to reach a consensus on which actions should be taken. While the international media has eyed the civil war in Syria and nuclear proliferation in Iran, the threat of an AQIM-run Mali has seemingly escaped the public conscious making Fowler’s call for military action unique in its severity and urgency.
The high-profile cases of regional soccer celebrities rising up to lead social change movements in the Arab Spring have thrust to the fore the importance of a highly-regarded sport in a highly contentious region (see Strategic Social’s earlier post about soccer as a battleground against authoritarianism).
In the second part of James Dorsey’s lecture “Soccer as an Engine of Change and Assertion of Identity,” he also described the paradoxical ability of soccer to create national unity and promote women’s rights, on the one hand, and to emphasize sectarian tension on the other. The stadium, he argued, is a battleground for identity. For example, Israeli Arabs and Jews have rallied around the Israeli national team but, at the same time, fans of the club Beitar Jerusalem have been known to violently attack Arabs. In this sense, soccer can be a powerful unifier but clearly its societal effects are difficult to predict or control.
Dorsey presents these two options, unity and sectarianism, as fairly evenly matched. Strategic Social looked at examples from Jordan, Lebanon, Tunisia and Yemen to see in which cases soccer is unifying and in which cases it is divisive. In Jordan, soccer is violently sectarian. For example, a soccer game in December 2012 between the Palestinian-backed al-Wahdat team and the Jordanian-backed al-Faisaly ended in a riot injuring hundreds after the Palestinian team won. An interesting and perhaps explanatory dynamic in Jordan is its lack of a common identity despite Palestinians accounting for at least half of the population. As one result, soccer team loyalty appears to be a vehicle for expressing and preserving these competing identities.
Soccer in Lebanon also can be divisive as lines are drawn along sectarian lines (as are most aspects of politics and society there). However the sport does not always turn to violence. The relative peacefulness of Lebanese soccer may be due to the state’s banning of spectators over concerns about sectarian rioting after the 2007 war with Israel. The ban was extended when the country was unable to select a president later that year. The government feared the violent ultras could have forced the hands of their co-religionists if rioting got out of hand. Like Tunisia, which banned soccer spectators for a year after the Arab Spring of 2011, Lebanon’s fragile peace in the aftermath of upheaval required a ban on soccer. Just as in Jordan and Israel, soccer matches seemingly cannot be held in Lebanon without stirring up violent sectarianism.
Somewhat ironically, Yemen may be the only example of soccer bringing unity as its hosting of the Gulf Cup in 2010 produced a large turnout of female fans. It would appear soccer fans in Yemen used the sport to trump sexism. For an already conservative country battling al-Qaeda, the soccer stadium provides a battleground that gives women a fighting chance.