Shia JFM Creates Graphic Tribute to “The Lions of the Shia Resistance”

Without saying a word, a pro-Shia militant group has asserted that Shia groups are the soldiers of Imam Ali, the most important figure in Shia Islam after the Prophet Muhammad himself.  A posting to an Iraqi Shia militant web forum shows footage of the “Great Lion” Aslan, the central character from the 2005 Walt Disney Movie The Chronicles of Narnia:  The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (based on the 1950 C.S. Lewis book, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe), side-by-side with logos of two militant Shia groups, Kata’ib Hizbollah and Asa’ib Ahl al-Haqq. It’s ironic that the creator chose Aslan to represent the Imam Ali, as The Chronicles of Narnia contain a significant amount of Christian symbolism and parallels to Christian scripture.  In fact, the Aslan character is thought by some to represent Jesus Christ.  Regardless, by combining the images of Aslan the Lion with the logos of these two groups, the creator of the graphic is declaring them soldiers of the Imam Ali, as fierce and dangerous to their enemies as he.  Further, the creator is saying that primary mission of these militant groups, defeating the US military in Iraq, is a holy one blessed by Imam Ali himself.

Depiction of Imam Ali accompanied by a lion

The lion has special significance in Shia Islam because of its association with the Imam Ali.  During his lifetime, Imam Ali was given the nickname of “Haydar,” meaning “Lion,” and was often referred to as “The Lion” or “The Lion of Allah.”  Because of this association, Imam Ali is often accompanied by a lion in graphical representations, or depicted as a lion himself.  Shia militant groups in Iraq, like Kata’ib Hizbollah, and Asa’ib Ahl al-Haqq, frequently refer to their fighters as “the Lions of the Shia Islamic Resistance.”[1] Two of the most notorious Shia militant groups in Iraq, Kata’ib Hizbollah and Asa’ib Ahl al-Haqq are suspected of being offshoots of Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army, which was officially disbanded by the Shia cleric in 2008.  Both groups are thought to have received support from Iran and/or the Lebanese terrorist group Hizbollah and have conducted attacks against US military forces in Iraq.  Kata’ib Hizbollah has even been officially designated as a Foreign Terrorist Organization by the US State Department.

A lion depicted with a body of calligraphic invocations to Allah

Iraqi Sunni insurgent groups occasionally compare their fighters to lions as well.  For example, when a group like the Islamic State of Iraq[2] claims to have conducted a suicide bombing attack, they may claim responsibility with a reference to the lion, saying that the attack was carried out by the “brave Lions of the Islamic State of Iraq.”  However, when Sunni groups make such claims, their comparisons lack the religious significance that they hold for Shia groups.  The Sunni comparison comes as a reference to the lion’s ferocity, strength, and reputation as a top predator, not as an association with a holy figure.

The Lion Imam Ali T-Shirt design, sold by Islamic Artistic Design

The association between Imam Ali and the lion is so strong that it often appears in popular culture.  For example, in this YouTube video, footage of an actor portraying Imam Ali on horseback chasing down an enemy is interspersed with footage of a lion chasing down another animal.  In another example, a clever and entrepreneurial group of artists has designed a T-shirt for sale online showing a lion with facial features represented by intricate Arabic calligraphy, to include the word “Ali” in the center of his face.

Yet another example of this association permeating popular culture is a common Iraqi joke.  Intended as a commentary on the current state of Sunni vs. Shia sectarian violence in Iraq today, this joke is a bit of gallows humor that further demonstrates the strong connection that Shia Muslims make between Imam Ali and lions:

An Iraqi lion arrives in the United States to apply for asylum.  When immigration officials ask the lion for his reason for requesting asylum, he shows them a picture of Imam Ali with a lion.

“You see?” says the lion,“the Sunnis are after me because they have seen pictures of me with Imam Ali!”


[1] The names of these two groups are translated as “The Hizbollah Brigades in Iraq” and “The League of Righteous People.”

[2] The Islamic State of Iraq is a political front organization used by the terrorist group Al-Qaeda in Iraq to issue public statements on behalf of the group.

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Lebanese Journalist Examines, Challenges Violent Extremists

If you asked Osama bin Laden to compile a list of Al-Qaeda’s greatest enemies, most of the names on that list would probably come as no surprise.  The United States would probably top that list, followed by selections such as Israel, U.S. President Barack Obama, Western Europe, the government of Saudi Arabia, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Christianity, Zionism, Afghan President Hamid Karzai, and Iran – no real surprises there, as bin Laden and other radical Salafist-jihadists rail against the evils of these individuals, countries, institutions, and movements on a regular basis.  But you might also find an unfamiliar name on that list:  Rima Salha, a young female Lebanese journalist who is challenging Arab and Muslim television audiences to take a hard look at extremist groups like Al-Qaeda and the violence that they commit in what those groups say is the defense of Islam.

Rima Salha, the host of Al-Arabiya TV’s Death Industry program

Rima Salha, the host of Al-Arabiya TV’s Death Industry program

Salha is the host of “Sina’at al Mowt” (Death Industry), a weekly program appearing on Al-Arabiya TV, a pan-Arab satellite TV news and entertainment channel that is one of the most prominent TV channels in the Middle East.  Death Industry typically focuses on people who join violent extremist groups like Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) and the Somalia-based Shabaab al-Mujahideen Movement, and the consequences that joining such groups has on those individuals and the people close to them.  The program provides insights from experts and scholars in order to examine the phenomenon of violent extremism from political, religious, social, and economic perspectives.  But the program also places a major emphasis on personal perspectives by interviewing people who are former, or even current, members of violent extremist groups, or friends and family members of people who join such groups.  For example, she has interviewed family members of the late founder and leader of AQI, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, and also Kamal Habib, who was one of the organizers of the assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat but has since renounced violence.  The recent May 8, 2010 episode of Death Industry focused on former Islamic State of Iraq leader Omar al-Baghdadi[1] and featured interviews with his father, the mother of his second wife, and former friends from his childhood. To feature these kinds of guests, Death Industry travels to dangerous places – refugee camps, insurgent strongholds, Iraq, Yemen.  Al-Arabiya TV general manager Abdul Rahman al-Rashed said, “There are a lot of programs debating the issue of terrorism, a lot of debating. But this is the only program with field trips, with special footage, with a lot of revelations in it.”[2]

al-zawi

Dawood al-Zawi, the father of slain Islamic State of Iraq leader Omar al-Baghdadi, from the May 8, 2010 episode of Death Industry

Salha’s motivation for hosting this program is to discourage people from embracing violence as a means for achieving political and social change, as she indicates in a statement given to Fox News“As we know, there are lots of Muslims who are brainwashed so they believe in terrorism but there are also big sections of Muslims who sympathize with terrorists,” says Salha. “We are targeting those people and trying to explain to them that terrorism is not a good thing.” She also seeks to counter the assertion frequently made by Salafist-jihadist groups that violence acts are necessary to defend.  In much the same way that the United States has grown increasingly aware of the importance of its image in the non-Western world, Salha stresses that these Islamist assertions in fact tarnish the image of Islam held by many non-Muslims: “Terrorism is illegal violence, as it targets innocent people to achieve a political objective. Terrorists who are acting under the name of Islam are killing civilians without thinking.”  Extremists engaging in terrorism, she argues, defame the image of Islam and Arabs who reject and criminalize these inhuman actions. “There is what we call now ‘Islamophobia’ worldwide. But in reality, terrorism knows no religion, sect or nationality.”[3]

Al-Arabiya TV was founded in 2004 to be a direct competitor to Al-Jazeera TV.  At the time, Al-Jazeera was a target of significant criticism in some circles for not providing objective coverage of violent extremist groups in Iraq and for its clear hostility to the U.S. military’s presence in the country.  At that time, the station had a tendency to portray Iraqi insurgent groups with some degree of sympathy (because of their opposition to the U.S. military presence in the country) while tending to overlook some insurgent groups’ attacks against civilian targets.  Al-Arabiya TV now generally offers more balanced views of such topics and has instituted a number of practices to reinforce this balance in coverage, some of which have been adopted by other Arab media outlets.  For example, it is now much more common for Arab media outlets to refer to Iraqi insurgents by the term musulaheen, or armed men, instead of muqaawama, or resistance, which was a common practice in the early days of the war in Iraq.  The Death Industry program seems to fit in with Al-Arabiya TV’s approach of providing a more objective and balanced coverage of major issues in the Arab and Islamic worlds by providing a much more in-depth look at violent extremist groups and the people who join them than most other Arabic-language media outlets.

A program like Death Industry has the potential to be a great complement to U.S. efforts to combat violent extremism because it emphasizes messages similar to those that the U.S. frequently emphasizes in strategic communications efforts targeted at Arab and Islamic audiences, and because it can reach a huge viewership thanks to the extensive reach of Al-Arabiya TV.  The fact that the program comes from an Arab media source rather than a Western one, as well as the fact that the program often features actual former members of violent extremist groups speaking in their own words about their own experiences, lends considerable credibility to the program.  The program’s emphasis on the impact of family members makes the program’s messages particularly effective, given the importance of family in Arab and Islamic societies.

How do we know that the Death Industry program is having an impact?  Because unfortunately, Salha has received death threats from jihadists who have called her derogatory names such as “Christian Crusader” and “sister of the Jews,” and have declared her “fair game for the mujahideen” for her criticism of extremist groups for conducting violence against civilians.  Even Al-Qaeda deputy leader Ayyman al-Zawahiri has reportedly singled out Death Industry and Al-Arabiya TV for criticism in one of his video diatribes.  But Salha seems undeterred by such criticisms and threats:  “They accuse me of fighting jihad, they accuse me of destroying the image of Islam. This is not true. We are not distorting the image of Islam,” says Salha. “The program is just trying to show some facts about terrorism and these so-called jihadists. Of course I receive threats on a regular basis, but that does not prevent me from doing my mission.”[4]


[1] The Islamic State of Iraq is an AQI front organization; it basically serves as the public face of AQI in an attempt to give the organization more of an Iraqi character and to downplay the group’s links to foreign organizations and leaders (namely Osama bin Laden and his global Al-Qaeda network).  Al-Baghdadi was killed, along with AQI leader Abu Hamza al-Muhajir (aka Abu Ayyub al-Masri), in Iraq during a joint U.S.-Iraqi security operation on April 18, 2010.

[2] This excerpt is taken from the Fox News story on Death Industry titled “Popular Arab TV Program Exposes the Real Al-Qaeda” which is available at http://www.foxnews.com/world/2009/09/02/popular-arab-tv-program-exposes-real-al-qaeda (accessed on 14 May 2010).

[3] Excerpt from http://pibillwarner.wordpress.com/2009/09/02/rima-salha-host-of-death-industry-in-dubai-exposes-al-qaeda-and-receives-death-threats-christian-rima-salha-must-be-decapitated (accessed on 14 May 2010).

[4] Excerpt from “Popular Arab TV Program Exposes the Real Al-Qaeda”.

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A Tale of Two Analysts

Tim and Tamzyn are both Iraq analysts.  Tim is a media analyst, deriving the majority of his knowledge on Iraq from his extensive experience monitoring and assessing overall media coverage of Iraq.  Tamzyn however gets her understanding of Iraq almost exclusively from primary source social research with local Iraqis.  I realized that this contrast in sources between two Iraq analysts provides a unique opportunity to examine how an analyst’s sources can influence his or her assessments.

I conducted loosely-structured interviews with both Tim and Tamzyn in order to get their assessments of the main issues in Iraq today, as informed by their sources.  The main overall topics that we discussed were politics, security, and foreign influence in Iraq.

Tamzyn’s and Tim’s assessments differed on the subject of politics and the recent Iraqi national elections.  Tamzyn, with her reliance on social science research, stressed that religion is viewed as very closely tied to politics; all clerics are believed to have a political agenda.  Tim disagreed, arguing that religion really on plays a prominent political role for Iraqi Shi’a, and even then, just for selecting high-level political leaders.  Tamzyn also noted that the Iraqi electoral commission is generally viewed as legitimate, and most Iraqis want the opportunity to vote.  With his reliance on media sources, Tim however had a much greater appreciation for the more subtle nuances in Iraqi politics, and his political assessments were much more targeted as a result.  He highlighted the overwhelming coverage that the Western media gave to the secular political candidate Ibrahim al-Jaafari and argued that the recent election does not represent a sea change in Iraqi politics.

On the subject of security, Tim was much more optimistic than Tamzyn.  He explained that the security features prominently in the Western media, and by all objective measures, security has improved drastically across Iraq.  Tamzyn disagreed, noting that though Baghdad residents have witnessed some marginal improvements in security, perceived security has actually decreased since the elections.

The two analysts broadly agreed on the general ranking on foreign influencers in Iraq.  Tim and Tamzyn agreed that the United States, of all the foreign players in Iraq, exerts the most influence.  However, Tim placed Iranian influence almost on par with American influence, while Tamzyn put Iran in a distant second place.  Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq’s other neighbors fell into third place.  Nevertheless, Tim emphasized that the U.S. role in Iraq has diminished, and the United States now primary plays the role of mediator.

The real value in this exercise was not to learn the lessons that Tim and Tamzyn have to teach us, but rather to observe how their source biases reveal themselves in their analyses.  While media monitoring and analysis provides for a more nuanced assessment of the political conditions in a country, social research gives a much better feel for local opinion.  Strategic Social has extensive experience with both the strengths and weaknesses of various research approaches, and incorporates these lessons into the products that we offer our clients.

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Personal reflections on absentee voting in the Iraqi elections

As an Iraqi citizen, I voted here in the United States in both of Iraq’s democratic parliamentary elections.  Below, I have shared my reflections on both voting experiences.

In December 2005, I voted in an Iraqi election for the first time since Saddam Hussein was deposed by the Coalition in 2003.  My family and I had left Iraq well before the election, but the Iraqi authorities set up procedures for Iraqis living in certain countries, including the United States, to vote in the elections.  Rather than send in an absentee ballot through the mail, the procedures for Iraqis living abroad required them to physically go to a local polling place to cast their ballots.

Iraqis living in the Washington, DC area were very excited in the run-up to the 2005 election, because for the first time they would get a chance to have a say in who should run the country without fear of retaliation.  The polling location was in New Carrolton, Maryland, an inconvenient location for people who live in Washington, DC or northern Virginia.  As a result, many local Iraqis tried to organize groups of people to travel together to ensure that as many Iraqis as possible could get to the polls.

I had some mixed feelings about the voting process in the 2005 election.  As we arrived at the polling place, we heard Kurdish music playing and saw some young Kurdish men dancing the Kurdish debka outside the building – I felt at home.  However, I also could not help but notice that they were prominently flying the Kurdistan flag not the Iraqi flag; as an Iraqi, I would have preferred to see the Iraqi flag displayed more prominently to signal that the elections were for all Iraqis, not just the Kurds.  Nonetheless, the music and the smiling faces of the many Iraqis present reassured me.

Once we entered the polling place, it became apparent that the preparation for the election left something to be desired.  There was a general lack of professionalism on the part of those staffing the polling site.  In addition, there was no sort of guide to the candidates and the lists that they represented.  Prior to the elections, the major Iraqi political parties chose to organize themselves into coalitions of parties, which Iraqis refer to as lists, rather than run as individual parties.  My Iraqi friends and I had discussed the different candidates who were running for office, but we were not very familiar with the various lists.

In the end, I was glad that I had a chance to exercise my right to vote, but I could not help but wish that the process had gone more smoothly.

The 2010 election provided me another chance to help choose who would run Iraq, as once again the Iraqi High Electoral Committee (IHEC) allowed for Iraqis living abroad to vote.  This time, a polling location was set up at a hotel near the Ballston Metro stop in Arlington.  Outside the hotel, we saw a van decorated with posters of Iraqi President Jalal Talabani and playing Kurdish music.  However, the van prominently displayed a Kurdish flag but not the Iraqi one.

Once we got inside the hotel, the first thing that stood out to me was how long the line of people waiting to vote was.  This was the most Iraqis I had seen together in one place since I left Iraq.

One of the big improvements in this voting experience over the previous one in 2005 was that, despite my misgivings about the Kurdish flag flying on the van outside of the hotel, the polling place had much more of an Iraqi feel to it.  All of those present spoke Iraqi Arabic, even the Kurds and Assyrians.  Though there were no Iraqi flags and no Iraqi music playing within the polling location, which I thought would have been appropriate for such an important national event, there were also no flags, banners, or signs particular to specific ethnicities, sects, or political organizations, like the Kurdish flag, which helped reinforce the feeling that this was an important event for all Iraqis.

This voting process was much better organized than that of the 2005 election.  There were five observers present in the room and there were about ten other observers scattered throughout the polling location. One IHEC member checked the voters’ IDs, as voters were required to have Iraqi identification documents to prove that they were Iraqi nationals and therefore eligible to vote.

The another IHEC member later handed each voter a poster-size ballot paper stamped on the back and a thick, nicely-printed booklet with the names of all the candidates, organized by province and by list.  This was a major improvement over the 2005 election, which had no guide to the candidates and the lists.

After ticking the list and the number of the candidate, I folded the paper again, placed in it in the small envelop then the larger one, and came out of the booth. To my surprise, one of the members of the IHEC who was overseeing the voters at the three booths said that I should not have done that: “The observer and the IHEC member at the ballot box has to check your paper to see if it is the one stamped or not.” Fear of forgery. The IHEC member brought me two fresh envelopes and I checked that they had my original ordinal voting number and Baghdad as my hometown, then showed it to the observer, who made me dip my index finger in a small jar of purple ink, then she folded the envelopes and, with the help of the IHEC member, pushed it down the ballot box. My voter number was 625 and the big ballot box was full to the brim when they pushed my ballot inside.

Going to vote, I had been worried about my negative voting experience in 2005, but when I left with my purple fingertip, I felt very proud of the huge strides Iraqis have taken in the last 5 years.

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Could ignoring Iraqi refugees pose a threat to national security?

This past Thursday, Strategic Social attended a conference on Iraq sponsored by the Jamestown Foundation and held at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.  The conference’s last panel, titled “Future Challenges to Iraqi Stability,” included a presentation by Council on Foreign Relations fellow Rachel Schneller on “The Impact of Demographics on the Future of Iraq’s Stability.”

Typically, the Iraqi IDP/refugee issues discussed by Schneller are not couched in security terms. Rather, IDP/refugee issues are largely seen – and dealt with in practical terms – under the umbrella of international aid and assistance.  She noted out that the large numbers of Iraqi refugees live in volatile neighboring countries that are unable to effectively handle the influx of people and do not grant the Iraqis any legal status.  Schneller stressed that this untenable situation poses a potential security threat, as the refugees’ situation them “ripe for recruitment” for insurgencies.

Whether or not this situation actually increases radicalization, the refugee problem caused by the war in Iraq will inevitably hold long-term consequences for Iraq and the region.  Perhaps because the refugee crisis has not expanded beyond the personal realm of individual suffering, this issue has not been widely discussed or examined in the context of U.S. national security strategy.

Unfortunately, Ms. Schneller did not explore what a shift to a more security-centric approach to dealing with refugee issues would entail. Is the Department of Defense better equipped to handle refugee matters than the Department of State? Could DoD provide more money than the Department of State has to notoriously underfunded refugee-related programs? Could the American public be more easily sold on increasing resettlement quotas if the situation were framed in terms of security?

Certainly, the human displacement caused by the war will not be solved on its own and definitely not without considerable attention, money, and thoughtful effort.  However, perhaps these refugee issues would receive the resources and attention that they require if they were brought under the auspices of the Department of Defense.

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