The Souring of the Arab Spring and the Rise of Islamist Jihad

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.

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The Big Picture from the Hill

This past Tuesday and Wednesday, the heads of U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) and Special Operations Command (SOCOM), General James Mattis and Admiral William McRaven, respectively, appeared before the Senate and House Armed Services Committees ostensibly to testify on the FY2013 Defense Authorization.  Though the commanders and representatives rightly addressed the most pressing issues facing U.S. security, it is perhaps very telling that the defense budget didn’t make the cut for discussion during this hearing, as advertised.

As many combatant commands see their budgets being markedly cut (read EUCOM and the 2011 dissolving of Joint Forces Command (JFCOM)), SOCOM and CENTCOM are unique.  Neither is at risk for significant budget cuts and each appears to be either maintaining or requesting additional funds. SOCOM’s role in the future of conflict was discussed in particular as some congressmen questioned the transparency and accountability of the command, especially as it collaborates with the CIA. These concerns are not new; a New York Times article in mid-February argued that Admiral McRaven has a desire for “[a] freer hand in deployment of elite forces.”

The bulk of the hearings served to justify budget increases by focusing on the ever-increasing threats to American interests emanating from the Middle East and Central Asia, areas which, according to Gen. Mattis, have never been so tumultuous.  These threats are fourfold:

  1. Iran – The commanders emphasized that Iran is the primary threat to U.S. security, due to its increased overseas activities, like the attempted assassination of the Saudi ambassador to the U.S., and its influence in Syria, Bahrain, Kuwait, Yemen, and Sudan.  An Iranian attack could take the form of nuclear weapons, long-range missiles, blockades, or the clandestine Quds Force.
  2. Syria – The situation here is growing ever more chaotic, with over 7,500 now dead.  Gen. Mattis remarked that the situation will likely get worse before it gets better and that a longer conflict means a greater risk of civil war, as Assad might be capable of retaining power indefinitely.
  3. Al Qaeda – The organization is regaining strength, as evidenced by the recent killing of 139 civilians in Yemen and the reemergence of the group in western Iraq.  While Al Qaeda may be unable to significantly threaten any Middle Eastern government, it still poses a danger to the lives of their citizens.
  4. Afghanistan – The situation here has worsened recently due to the violent demonstrations against the U.S. military’s burning of Afghan prisoners’ Korans.  The commanders stressed that the military will not change the current strategy in Afghanistan but violence must be stemmed and security improved before the U.S. can pull out as planned in 2014.

This week’s Senate hearings generated a considerable amount of activity in the blogosphere and media space.  Interest was likely heightened by the recent statement by U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder arguing the legality of the U.S. targeting its own citizens abroad if they pose a risk to national security. Despite Holder not mentioning the role of SOCOM in these operations, both the traditional and digital media spaces were quick to draw the connection, with tweeters adding a SOCOM hashtag (#socom) to tweets regarding this announcement.

While the blogosphere and foreign policy community rage over the possibility of U.S. military interventions in Iran or Syria, the commanders’ comments on the post-2014 presence of U.S. troops in Afghanistan appeared to gain the most traction the media space.

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Defining Terrorism

A number of recently exposed terror plots and successful attacks are revealing an overlooked dimension in national security.  A small but dedicated number of American religious zealots have been beating the drums of holy war in our midst.  As this reality slowly begins to sink in, uncomfortable questions about the country’s security strategy begin to arise.  How we respond to the various aspects of our increasingly homegrown problem stands to have a lasting impact on American society.

First, let’s confront the problem of perception.  Who’s a “terrorist”?  The definition often depends on who you ask.  Is a terrorist necessarily affiliated with an organization such as Al-Qaeda?  Does an unorganized loner with the motivations and goals of a foreign terrorist qualify?  What are the relevant distinctions and similarities between attacks by foreigners and attacks by U.S. citizens?  Moving forward, will society view them as separate issues altogether, or different types of the same problem?

Consider the Virginia-born Army Major accused of the November 2009 Fort Hood shooting, Nidal Malik Hassan.  He allegedly murdered 13 people and wounded dozens of others.  A few months before that incident, Tennessee-born Abdul Hakim Mujahid Mohammad opened fire outside of an Army recruiting station in Little Rock, Arkansas, killing one soldier and injuring another.  Unlike Major Hassan, Mujahid Mohammad has claimed affiliation with Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and had lived in Yemen before being imprisoned and deported for overstaying his visa.

Both men were very public in their disdain for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan:  Lots of nonviolent people are.  Both perceived the U.S. Military operations as unjustified attacks on Muslims and Islam.  Again, this idea isn’t unheard of and is far more likely to incite debate rather than violence.  So, what pushed them over the edge?   Hassan’s lawyers have pointed to psychological issues, unrelated to any jihadist intentions.  Though he claims no terrorist group affiliations, he frequented sermons in Virginia by radical American-born Imam Anwar Al-Awlaki (who also preached to three of the 9/11 hijackers) and they communicated via email shortly before the shooting.  He allegedly yelled “Allahu Akbar” before he began firing.  If we take Mujahid Mohammad at his word, he was motivated by his faith and ideology as espoused by AQAP.  “He told the detective he wasn’t guilty of murder, that the shooting was an act of jihad.”  Both are facing murder charges.

Further than simple religious zealotry and having strong opinions about American foreign policy, both men allegedly escalated their ideology to violence.  Still, many of us feel uneasy about categorizing them as Islamic terrorists.  The uneasiness may come from the implication of American Muslims and the perceived backlash that this could incite against them.  Those fears aren’t without some warrant.  But explaining the attacks away as isolated psych cases or random acts of violence becomes difficult as a theme begins to materialize.  The recently attempted attacks in Oregon and Maryland have eerie similarities to the first two.  In Portland, Mohamed Mohamud (born in Somalia, raised the US) is charged with attempting to detonate a bomb near the city’s Christmas tree-lighting ceremony.  In Baltimore, Muhammad Hussein is charged with trying to blow up a military recruiting office.  Both were unambiguous about their jihadist intentions leading up to and during their would-be attacks.   If they believe what they say they believe—the evidence suggests that they do—then we should take these warnings seriously and not obscure the threat.

Al-Qaeda and other groups are openly seeking American and western converts to their cause.  To a small but unavoidable extent their strategy seems to be working.  The people most susceptible to this appear to be young, devout Muslim males.  Because anti-Muslim sentiment already stands to make them feel isolated from their neighbors, simple kindness and engagement from non-Muslims can go a long way to breaking barriers. Within the American Islamic community, reaching out to at-risk youth is especially important as they have the opportunity to shape their understanding of Islamic texts.

As with Christian and Jewish fundamentalists, Islamic zealots will have lots of violent and disturbing passages to bolster their cause.  It’s not enough to simply call them “bad Muslims” or “un-Islamic” while pointing to a majority of peaceful Muslims.  To stop the problem of radicalization, we have to address a big part of what makes it so convincing in the first place:  Devout religious faith.  If children (or new converts) are taught to endorse a book as inherently good and entirely true, then the violent and problematic verses may not seem very violent or problematic.  These should be discussed and explained in the most candid way without omission or euphemism.  Where needed, teaching should be infused with a healthy dosage of doubt.  Otherwise, terrorists groups, extremist websites and radical Imams are left to fill in the gap.

Homegrown terrorists need not be members of an organization so much as they consider themselves members of a movement.  To combat this movement, we cannot be evasive about its implications, composition or motivations.  “What I am trying to do in this interview is to make people aware of the fact that the threat is real, the threat is different, the threat is constant.” In disseminating that message, Attorney General Eric Holder may have his work cut out for him.

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How dangerous is al-Awlaki?

The Department of Justice Attorney General Eric Holder described the Yemeni-American-born radical cleric Ayman al-Awlaki as “He would be on the same list with bin Laden[1].” Al-Awlaki officially and legally is not affiliated with al-Qaeda yet his radical and violent Jihad views are falling in the same line as those of al-Qaeda. Though the Awlak tribe[2] in southern Yemen is providing the protection for al-Awlaki, the leader of the al-Qaeda Organization in the Arabian Peninsula Nasir al-Wuhaishi known with the pseudonym Abu Baseer, offered in a statement posted online in May 2010 that it is their “legitimate duty,” to protect al-Awlaki[3].

Al-Awlaki’s name rose in a very short time in comparison to that of Osama bin Laden and al-Libi[4]. First time we heard of Awlaki’s name was after the horrific Ft. Hood shooting in November 2009[5], and then a month later with the failed Christmas Day underwear-bombing plot[6]. He is behind the radicalization of the 21-year old London-University student Roshonara Choudhary who attacked British MP Stephen Timms “in revenge for the people of Iraq.[7]” Today his online statements and lectures in English and Arabic are the powerful recruiting method that is reaching out to the moderate young Muslim youth living mainly in the United Kingdom and the United States[8].

Al-Awlaki is different from other radical leaders in that he was born and raised in the United States, i.e. he is able to think, understand, and communicate smoothly with followers living in the West. His danger lies in that he knows both Arab/Muslim and Western cultures very well which lifts all barriers in communicating with his victims born and raised in Western/Muslim communities. In other words, he is one of us who turned against us so he knows our weakness and our strength. His statements and calls for Jihad are clear, based on a western-style rationalization unlike the vague and poetic Bin Laden speeches and the loud sectarian al-Qaeda in Iraq statements.

Al-Awlaki sent out a video message in November 2010 that there is no need for a Muslim to seek a special fatwa or consultation from a Muslim authority to kill Americans, “because fighting Satan does not require a fatwa or advice. They are Satan’s party and fighting them is the duty of this era.[9]” He is dissolving all nationalities and uniting all of his “students” under one identity as Muslims who need to be enlightened about the Western oppression to Islam and attempts to change Islam as it did to Christianity and Judaism.

The factors that help Awlaki spread his views are the intelligent young Muslims living in western communities and suffer a form of an identity crisis due to the lack of open and free communication with their parents. These young self-radicalized Muslims though brought up in the west still cling to habits from their original cultures such as the mixed respect and fear emotions of parents, seeking success to make parents proud, not debating seniors, being a proud Muslim yet not educated about Islam. When children fear to ask a question lest they would be ridiculed or reprimanded for thinking of such ideas, they tend to turn to the internet or a friend, where the high risk of learning immoral ideas and wrong patterns of thinking about one’s religious duties and one’s rights and duties as a human being. Self-radicalized individuals are difficult to track down, because these individuals tend to work not as a group, motivated by views of well-educated and charismatic rational radical speakers whom they do not necessarily meet in person. The power of the word and the means used to spread that word is what makes al-Awlaki dangerous both to the national security in general, and to the Muslim families living in the West in particular.


[1]Attorney General’s Blunt Warning on Terror Attacks,” ABC News December 21, 2010.

[2] Anwar al-Awlaki is suspected to be hiding among his tribe the Awlak in the south of Yemen in the Shabwa Province mountains, “Yemen orders troops to ‘forcibly arrest’ al-Qaeda cleric Anwar al-Awlaki,” CSMonitor, November 7, 2010.

[3] CNN World, “American-born cleric praised in al-Qaeda audio message,” May 16, 2010

[4]Rising Leader for Next Phase of Al Qaeda’s War,” NY Times April 4, 2008.

[5]Fort Hood gunman Nidal Hasan ‘is a hero’: Imam who preached to 9/11 hijackers in VA praises attack,” NY Daily News, November 9, 2009.

[6]Nigerian Man Indicted in Bombing Attempt,” CBS News January 6, 2010.

[7]Curse the judge, shout fanatics as the Muslim girl who knifed MP smiles as she gets life,” Daily Mail, November 5, 2010.

[8] Steven Stalinsky, “Part V: YouTube-The Internet’s primary and Rapidly Expanding Jihadi Base: One Year Later on YouTube-Anwar al-Awlaki’s presence Expands, … ”MEMRI December 11, 2010.

[9] Ana al-Muslim chat forum, http://www.muslm.net/vb/showthread.php?t=407810

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Wikileaks Part 2: Yemen’s al-Qaeda Policy

Much has been said in the past week about the potentially troubling diplomatic relations which will result from Wikileaks’ leaked State Department cables, but despite all the attention given to the Arab world’s rhetorical hatred of Iran, Qaddafi’s Ukrainian nurse and Russia’s Batman and Robin, the Yemen cables in particular could affect US national security more tangibly than any others. A recent series of foiled terror plots on US soil originating in Yemen have reinvigorated debate over Obama’s terrorism policy toward al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). And while the leaked cable only confirms what we already knew about Yemen, including its eagerness for US aid (even if it is to be used in ways it was not intended) and the presence of US air strikes against al-Qaeda , how will the public release of these cables affect the United States, Yemen, their relationship and transnational actors who also have a stake in the region?

Middle Eastern governments have always tried to walk a fine line by cooperating with the US behind the scenes to avoid public backlash and Yemen is no exception. The most damning (and oft-quoted) element of the Yemen cables is President Saleh’s “We’ll continue saying the bombs are ours, not yours” in reassurance to General Patreaus that Yemen is serious about helping the United States monitor and weed out AQAP. However, other parts of the cable confirm that Saleh may have other priorities on his mind such as nearly doubling US foreign assistance to the country and as American Ambassador to Yemen Stephen Seche implies, bolstering the Yemeni military: “Raising a topic that he would manage to insert into almost every item of discussion during the hour and half-long meeting, Saleh requested that the U.S. provide the ROYG with 12 armed helicopters.  Possessing such helicopters would allow the ROYG to take the lead in future CT operations, ‘ease’ the use of fighter jets and cruise missiles against terrorist targets, and allow Yemeni Special Operations Forces to capture terrorist suspects and identify victims following strikes…‘We won’t use the helicopters in Sa’ada, I promise.  Only against al-Qaeda,’ [Saleh continued].”

While Saleh gives the impression that he holds the same concerns as the United States, Yemen’s characteristic misuse of US military aid and “catch and release” terrorist policies reaffirm that Saleh has different priorities. Former Ambassador to Yemen William Rugh argues that “[Saleh’s] priority, however, is not al-Qaeda but dealing with discontent in the south; the bloody, ongoing rebellion in the north [Sa’ada]; and the complex array of tribal and local interests that threaten his leadership. Yemen’s sagging economy only galvanizes Salih’s critics.  At Washington’s insistence, al-Qaeda is on Salih’s list of priorities but he has other existential concerns that trump counterterrorism cooperation with the United States.”

However, with the release of confidential reports, Al-Qaeda may pose more of a threat to Saleh than he originally envisioned as public knowledge of US-Yemeni military cooperation may radicalize Yemenis against their president. Gregory Johnson, an expert on Yemen from Princeton University postulates just this, stating that “in some of the tribal areas where al-Qaida is really attempting to recruit people, having something like this where the president and his ministers are on the record talking about lying and deceiving parliament and the Yemeni public, I think it will have traction. Al-Qaida will be able to use it in the months to come.” If regime security is Saleh’s main concern, then somewhat ironically, he has been emboldening his opposition all along.

Whether news of the leaks and Saleh’s comments reach the Yemeni public remains to be seen, but there is no doubt that AQAP will use the leaks to further their own agenda. In the 1990s, Rugh argues that “Salih calculated that strong action against al-Qaeda and its tribal allies might strengthen his domestic opponents and feared that open cooperation with the United States would validate al-Qaeda’s narrative that Salih was an anti-Muslim American puppet.” This same fear exists today and presents a deterrent to full collaboration with the US, however with al-Qaeda armed with the newly leaked knowledge and poised to act, the Yemeni government, which denies the reports, may find that fighting al-Qaeda is actually in its best interest and that of its most powerful ally.

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