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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Al-Manar: Hizbollah’s Version of Must-See TV

“If it was not for Al-Manar, the victory would not have been achieved.”[i]

- Hizbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah commenting on the withdrawal of Israeli forces from Southern Lebanon in May 2000

One of the most important weapons that the Lebanese terrorist group Hizbollah has in its arsenal for its struggle against its adversaries is not a rocket launcher or an anti-tank missile or a suicide bomber.  It is a TV station called al-Manar, which is Arabic for “the beacon.” Al-Manar serves as a platform for the group to disseminate its views to the people of Lebanon and other parts of the Middle East.  Al-Manar has been so successful at reaching Hizbollah’s target audiences that it seems to have become a model for extremist Shia groups in Iraq which have launched copy-cat versions of al-Manar.

A screenshot from an al-Manar TV clip. Note the Hizbollah logo in the top left of the screen and how it appears to be co-equal with the al-Manar logo in the top right.

Hizbollah launched al-Manar TV as a small terrestrial TV station in 1991, just as the group started becoming active in Lebanese politics.  The station initially focused on programming that helped Hizbollah make a political issue of the Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon.  Since then, its reach and its content have expanded significantly.  It is now a major satellite station with significant viewership not just in Lebanon, where it is generally believed to be the third most-watched station in the country, but other parts of the Middle East.

Al-Manar resembles other major Arab satellite TV stations in its broadcast of a variety of content, including news programs, sports, entertainment shows, family programs, and talk shows.  But the station also displays a very clear bias reflective of Hizbollah’s political outlook.  For example, it is strongly anti-Israeli and anti-US; it is openly supportive of Hizbollah’s fighters and military operations; it openly promotes “resistance” to include violent attacks in response to Israeli control of the Palestinian territories and the US military presence it Iraq.[ii]

Programs that Al-Manar has aired in recent years include The Spider’s House, an anti-Israeli talk show which emphasizes how Israel can be defeated over time through a combination of low-intensity warfare and population growth in Arab communities. Returnees is a program dedicated to the issue of Palestinian refugees. Terrorists is a weekly documentary highlighting what the station refers to as “terrorist acts” that Israel has committed against Arabs. My Blood and the Rifle is a documentary series that glorifies Hizbollah fighters.  The station also airs “filler material” which come in the form of short segments aired during commercials, like this one which glorifies Hizbollah fighters.

Al-Manar’s primary target audience is the people of Lebanon, particularly Lebanese Shia Muslims, but the station also makes an extensive effort to appeal to Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank.  Since 2003, the station has also devoted significant broadcast time to commenting on the US military presence in Iraq.  The station regularly rails against the continued US military presence, accusing the US Forces of committing a variety of abuses and atrocities in Iraq.  The station also openly calls for violent resistance to US Forces in Iraq and airs video clips of attacks against US Forces circulated by Iraqi Shia extremist groups, like Kata’ib Hizbollah (Arabic for “The Hizbollah Brigades in Iraq”) and the Promised Day Brigade, which is the successor to Muqtada al-Sadr’s now-defunct Mahdi Army.[iii]

The growth and success of Al-Manar TV may have provided inspiration for the emergence of at least one relatively new outlet:  Iraq’s al-Ahd TV.  the station’s programming reflects very strong political opinions, one of the most notable of which is strong opposition to the US presence in Iraq.

The picture on the left shows a female broadcaster on al-Manar TV, the one on the right shows a male and female broadcaster from al-Ahd TV.  Note the similarity in the dress of the two women from al-Manar and al-Ahd, which is an indication that both stations embrace relatively conservative social mores and anti-Western political views.  Contrast this with the picture in the center of Al-Arabiya TV correspondent Rima Salha, who is dressed in Western-style clothing, which is much more typical of female correspondents who appear on major Arab TV stations.

While no firm evidence currently exists to suggest that the launching of al-Ahd TV was inspired by al-Manar TV, there are at least on the surface there are some noticeable similarities between the programming of the stations.  These similarities seem to be based on similarities in the political and social views of the forces behind the two stations (see the pictures below for an example of how the social views of the people who control these two TV stations seem to appear on-screen), which may have formed entirely independently of one another, but the creators of al-Ahd TV may have taken inspiration from al-Manar TV as an example of how to use television as a platform to spread their political messages.

The growth of al-Manar and its potential to influence/inspire the creation of copy-cat stations like al-Ahd TV represent a significant challenge for US strategic communications initiatives in the Middle East and the Islamic world.  US policymakers need to be able to monitor the types of messages and themes that stations like al-Manar TV disseminate so that the US can adjust its to account for the impact of such messages if US strategic communications efforts in the Middle East are to be successful.


[i] Zahera Harb, “Aiming at Liberation:  Al-Manar Media Campaigns Against the Israeli Occupation of Southern Lebanon (1998-2000)”, Middle East Journal of Culture and Communications, Volume 2, Number 1, p. 55-56.

[ii] Beacon of Hatred:  Inside Hizballah’s al-Manar TV by Avi Jorisch (Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 2004).

[iii] Muqtada al-Sadr announced the disbanding of the Mahdi Army in 2008 and that the group was being replaced by two new organizations:  the Momahidoun, which he stated would be a political, social, and religious organization, and the Promised Day Brigade, a military group which would conduct attacks against US Forces in Iraq to liberate the country from US occupation.  It is believed that the Promised Day Brigade is smaller much more tightly organized than the old Mahdi Army, thus giving al-Sadr greater controller over the group than he had over its predecessor, and that he disbanded the Mahdi Army organization and created the two new organizations at least in part for this reason.

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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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