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The West’s Crisis of Leadership

Sylvie Kauffmann

Sylvie Kauffmann


PARIS — A few days before the Bastille Day terrorist attack in Nice, President Obama was in Poland for the NATO summit meeting, his mind obviously as much in Dallas as in Warsaw. As I listened to him during his closing news conference, on July 9, I was struck by the sad, tired, almost defeatist tone in the way the leader of the most powerful nation on earth addressed the divisions within American society, after that week’s killings. “This is not who we are,” he insisted, as if trying to convince himself.

By the time he spoke in Dallas three days later, at the memorial service for the police officers shot dead there, President Obama seemed to have regained his confidence. But two days later, on July 14, I was reminded of that brief moment when he let his guard down as I listened to another president, François Hollande, speaking during an interview on French television. Mr. Hollande said that the state of emergency in force since the Nov. 13 terrorist attacks would soon be lifted. But as much as he wanted to sound optimistic, with a presidential election 10 months away, he still looked somber toward the end. “To be president,” he said, “means to have to face death, tragedy.”

That was lunch time on Bastille Day. At 3 the next morning, the French president was back on television, after the carnage that killed 84 people on the enchanting Promenade des Anglais in Nice, to announce that the state of emergency would be extended, for the third time. “France is strong, stronger than the fanatics that want to strike her,” he said. His opponents were quick to ridicule him either for having suggested that the state of emergency would be lifted, or for keeping it in force even though it had proved useless to prevent the attack in Nice.

Today, France and the United States are probably the West’s two main targets of Islamist terrorism. In France, our government warns that we must “learn to live with terrorism.” Yet just when they need to be stronger, our societies seem fragile, tense, stirred by powerful winds of revolt against their elites and an economic order that has increased inequalities. Can they withstand the shock?

Defying the odds through the last 18 difficult months — three bloody waves of terrorist attacks and sporadic terrorist incidents, strikes, violent protests against a reform of labor laws, high unemployment and floods — the French have proved surprisingly resilient. The annual survey of the National Consultative Human Rights Commission, carried out in January, even showed tolerance on the rise “despite the posture of some public figures.” While the 2008 economic crisis reduced tolerance, the 2015 attacks produced the opposite effect, “leading to soul-searching and civic mobilization” against extremists, the commission said.

Similarly, the Pew Research Center’s 2016 Global Attitudes Survey found that France (the European Union country with the biggest Muslim and Jewish populations) was the European nation second only to Spain in valuing diversity. The monthlong Euro soccer competition, hosted by France just before the Nice attack, also inspired intense fervor from the French public for its very diverse national team; it was supported throughout by enthusiastic singing of “The Marseillaise,” even after it lost the final game.

Some statistics from the Ministry of Interior, though, show a different picture: The number of racist criminal acts went up 22.4 percent in 2015. The reason for this contradiction, the Human Rights Commission’s experts suggest, is that while individuals who carry out such acts are becoming more radicalized, the society at large is more aware of the dangers of polarization. This attitude shows in an increasing number of civic initiatives, and in the results of the regional election last December: After the far-right National Front did very well in the first round, voters rallied against it and prevented it from winning a single region in the second round.

 Whether such healthy reactions will prevail after the Nice massacre — and any future one — is an open question. With a big immigrant population from North Africa and a very strong National Front locally, Nice itself is particularly vulnerable.
 The sad reality is that people of good will are not helped by a significantly mediocre political establishment. There could be national unity at the bottom — if only there were at the top.

This was illustrated again immediately after the Bastille Day attack. While citizens of all backgrounds and colors joined to pay their respects to the victims on the Promenade des Anglais, while the florists of Nice united to cover the bloodied avenue with flowers, while the nation was in shock, our politicians bickered over whether the government could have prevented this new atrocity. With the 2017 presidential election flashing big on his radar screen, Mr. Hollande’s rival and predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy, did not even wait for the end of three days of national mourning before mounting a ferocious attack on what he saw as the government’s passivity.

The political debate in France has not quite reached the abyss of the campaign for the June 23 referendum on Brexit in Britain yet, nor of Donald J. Trump’s surreal pronouncements, but it is going in that direction. Le Monde’s longtime cartoonist Plantu feels that politicians, media and social networks have stolen his job: “They are now more caricatural than my own caricatures,” he said. In an interview with the Journal du Dimanche on Sunday, Prime Minister Manuel Valls openly worried about a trend that he describes as “the Trumpization of minds.” This, he said, “cannot be our response to the Islamic State.”

When citizens behave more wisely than the men and women who compete to represent them, the time has come to take a hard look at the state of our political systems and its impact on our societies further down the road — particularly when modern democracies are under threat from outside forces that have declared war on them.

Religion’s Wicked Neighbor

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David Brooks


Barack Obama is clearly wrong when he refuses to use the word “Islam” in reference to Islamist terrorism. The people who commit these acts are inflamed by a version of an Islamist ideology. They claim an Islamist identity. They swear fealty to organizations like ISIS that govern themselves according to certain interpretations of the Quran.

As Peter Bergen writes in his book “The United States of Jihad,” “Assertions that Islamist terrorism has nothing to do with Islam are as nonsensical as claims that the Crusades had nothing to do with Christian beliefs about the sanctity of Jerusalem.”

On the other hand, Donald Trump is abhorrently wrong in implying that these attacks are central to Islam. His attempt to ban Muslim immigration is an act of bigotry (applying the sins of the few to the whole group), which is sure to incite more terrorism. His implication that we are in a clash of civilizations is an insult to those Muslims who have risked and lost their lives in the fight against ISIS and the Taliban.

The problem is that these two wrongs are feeding off each other. Obama is using language to engineer a reaction rather than to tell the truth, which is the definition of propaganda. Most world leaders talk about Islamist terror, but Obama apparently thinks that if he uses the phrase “Islamic radicalism” the rest of us will be too dim to be able to distinguish between the terrorists and the millions of good-hearted Muslims who want only to live in fellowship and peace.

Worst of all, his decision to dance around an unpleasant reality is part of the enveloping cloud of political correctness that drives people to Donald Trump. Millions of Americans feel they can’t say what they think, or even entertain views outside the boundaries laid down by elites, and so are drawn to the guy who rails against taboos and says what he believes.

The fact is that 15 years after 9/11 we still haven’t arrived at a true understanding of our enemy. How much is religion involved in jihadism, or psychology, or politics?

And the core of our confusion is that we are unclear about what a religion is, and how it might relate to violence sometimes carried out in its name.

For clarity on that question, it helps to start with William James’s classic work, “The Varieties of Religious Experience.” In that book, James distinguishes between various religious experiences and “religion’s wicked practical partner, the spirit of corporate dominion, and religion’s wicked intellectual partner, the spirit of dogmatic dominion, the passion for laying down the law.”

In other words, there is the spirit of religion and, frequently accompanying it, its wicked neighbors, the spirit of political and intellectual dominion.

It seems blindingly obvious to say, but the spirit of religion begins with a sense that God exists. God is the primary reality, and out of that flows a set of values and experiences: prayer, praise, charity, contrition, grace and the desire to grow closer toward holiness. Sincere faith begins with humility in relation to the Almighty and a sense of being strengthened by his infinite love.

In some sense the phrase “Islamic radicalism” is wrong because terrorism is not a radical extension of this kind of faith. People don’t start out with this kind of faith and then turn into terrorists because they became more faithful.

The spirit of dominion, on the other hand, does not start with an awareness of God. It starts with a sense of injury and a desire to heal injury through revenge and domination.

For the terrorist, a sense of humiliation is the primary reality. Terrorism emerges from a psychic state, not a spiritual one. This turns into a grievance, the belief that some external enemy is the cause of this injury, rather than some internal weakness.

This then leads to what the forensic psychologist Reid Meloy calls “vicarious identification” — the moral outrage that comes from the belief that my victimization is connected to the larger victimization of my group.

It’s only at this point in the pathway that religion enters the picture, or rather an absolutist, all-explaining political ideology that is the weed that grows up next to religion. Bin Ladinism explains all of history, and gives the injured a course of action that will make them feel grandiose and heroic. It is the human impulse for dominance and revenge that borrows righteous garb.

For the religious person it’s about God. For the terrorist, it’s about himself. When Omar Mateen was in the midst of his rampage, he was posting on Facebook and calling a TV station. His audience was us, not the Divine.

Omar Mateen wanted us to think he was martyring himself in the name of holiness. He was actually a sad loser obliterating himself for the sake of revenge.

When the Caliphate Crumbles: The Future of Islamic State affiliates

War on the Rocks

Clint Watts

Panic over which future Islamic State affiliate should be of chief concern rises each day as the Islamic State loses turf in Iraq and Syria and foreign fighters flee. This panic should be muted, though, as all Islamic State affiliates are not created equal. A scary jihad map from al Qaeda last decade looks remarkably similar to a scary Islamic State map today. The names change but the places largely remain the same. Much like al Qaeda affiliates eight years ago after jihadi battlefields in Iraq and Afghanistan cooled, only a few Islamic State affiliates will grow while many others wane. Anticipating which Islamic State affiliates will rise and fall in the coming years requires a deeper examination of the current construct of each affiliate, the bonds that bring affiliates closer to the Islamic State, the convergent and divergent interests between headquarters and the affiliates, and a long-term outlook for each region. Examining these factors across 16 current or potential affiliate regions paints a dire picture for the Islamic State as an enduring cohesive global terrorist organization. Its strongest current affiliates in North Africa and the Arabian Peninsula face stiff competition from local rivals and rising counterterrorism pressure. For the Islamic State to endure beyond Iraq and Syria, its options are few and depend more on its ability to self-finance than any other factor.

All Affiliates Are Not Created Equal

Islamic State affiliates; referred to by the group as wilayats (provinces), like their al Qaeda parallels come in different shapes and sizes. Will McCants, Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institute and author of ISIS Apocalypse, characterizes Islamic State affiliates in three ways:

  • Statelet — a governate that holds territory and operates like a state
  • Insurgency — a governate that occupies territory, but cannot always hold it, and is unwilling or unable to perform the functions of a state
  • Terrorist Organization — a governate that holds no territory and can only operate clandestinely

As an example, the Islamic State’s three wilayats in Libya represent statelets, its Boko Haram affiliate in Nigeria represents an insurgency, and its wilayats in Saudi Arabia only qualify as terrorist organizations. This affiliate landscape is dynamic; the status of all affiliates remains in flux. The Islamic State’s strongest affiliate in Libya sustained losses just this week. To illustrate the different types of affiliates currently composing the Islamic State brand, I’ve assessed each affiliate and its current status in a chart below (Figure 1). In some cases, regions host terrorist groups pledged to the Islamic State that have not been designated formally as wilayats. I describe these areas that produce high numbers of foreign fighters or suffer large amounts of Islamic State-inspired violence as “Horizon Wilayats” that may emerge over time as official provinces.

ISIS affiliates Figure 1

The Bonds That Bind 

Three years ago, counterterrorism debates ignited over a rumored conference call in which Ayman al-Zawahiri presided over a global gathering of al Qaeda affiliates. News of this communications session initially sparked the familiar chirp of pundits: al Qaeda is growing stronger, it’s winning, it’s on the march. But this terrorist communication was confused for commitment and allegiance at a time when al Qaeda’s network instead began to crumble. Bonds were not strengthening, but breaking. Affiliate pledges and communications provide only weak indicators of terrorist collaboration. The stronger bonds that bind terrorists together and suggest true coordination between a headquarters are physical, not merely virtual.

Similarly, today’s Islamic State social media propagation across a wide range of affiliates has been interpreted as a strong sign of its growing network. Electronic communication and sharing suggest coordination, but represents only one of the softer, weaker bonds surfacing in the open source. Pledging bay’at (allegiance) to the Islamic State proves the most obvious indicator, but the speed and nature in which Islamic State Central confirms bay’at tells more about the relationship. Following allegiance, collaborative social media work naturally occurs, but the specifics can be telling. Some affiliates broadcast in lockstep with headquarters, while others, either lacking routine communication with headquarters or sufficient technical production capability, broadcast only sporadically.

True allegiance, whether to al Qaeda or the Islamic State, occurs when terrorists physically collaborate on battlefields. Those affiliates closer to the head shed in Syria and Iraq naturally build tighter relationships with leadership. As seen with al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), one of the first affiliates to rebrand as al Qaeda last decade, failed digital communication and collaboration with al Qaeda Central (AQC) in Pakistan during the group’s surge in 2012likely contributing to the group’s decline. Affiliates in West Africa, the Horn of Africa, and Southeast Asia have always struggled to get equal attention as compared to those more proximate to the bosses. Beyond social media posts, affiliates best emulating the headquarters will duplicate their administrative governance documents. Islamic State wilayats in Libya and Yemen have duplicated governance policies closely mirroring law in Syria and Iraq. Physical relationships always prove the most telling. Countries with large volumes of foreign fighters surfacing in Syria and Iraq will have more and stronger connections with the Islamic State over the long term. Affiliates enjoying tighter relationships with headquarters will also receive investments in money and men to help sustain or grow their emirate and generate high profile attacks.

Above all, the movement of headquarters’ leaders from Syria and Iraq to an affiliate signals strategic calculation effectively done only through an in-person meeting. Drone strikes outside of Pakstan, Iraq and Syria or surprising Delta Force raids provide some of the only open source clues of affiliate connections to those outside of government intelligence circles. During al Qaeda’s move to affiliates, key operatives were unsuccessfully dispatched to capitalize on the Arab Spring and secreted into the Khorasan Group among Jabhat al-Nusra. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) dispatched envoys to al Shabaab, providing some of the first overt signs of the Somali group’s official connection to al Qaeda. The recent U.S. airstrike killing an Iraqi stationed in Libya, Abu Nabil, suggests the Islamic State now follows a similar pattern.

The Converging and Diverging Interests Of Terrorist Affiliates

Beyond the strength of bonds that bring militants together, a deeper examination of the converging and diverging interests between the Islamic State and its blossoming affiliates will signal which battlefields show promise beyond Syria and Iraq. Those affiliates expanding the brand and providing the group future options will be favored over those former al Qaeda affiliates reaching for the Islamic State’s fame.

The Islamic State accrues straightforward benefits accepting affiliates. After declaring a caliphate, receiving bay’at pledges from global affiliates became a signature way for the Islamic State to demonstrate its rise over its former overlords in al Qaeda. The Islamic State orchestrated the first pledges for maximum propaganda value by pulling in support from former al Qaeda strongholds such as Algeria and Afghanistan. Affiliates have also become a vehicle for achieving success with minimal effort. The Sinai wilayat downed a Russian airliner, providing the Islamic State brand effortless success and increased media content and distribution benefiting both parties. Depending on the environment, a good wilayat can provide potential financial support over the longer term, an expanded set of recruits to join the ranks in Syria, and may even serve as a future safe haven for the Islamic State should its current caliphate evaporate. Both Yemen and Syria served this purpose for al Qaeda over the last decade as its leaders expired in Pakistan. The Islamic State also benefits if affiliates can provide access to specialized skills, equipment, and even targets (such as Westerners). Most importantly, a good affiliate will energize global supporters. Al Qaeda’s affiliates over the last decade demonstrated that Arab affiliates closer to the ideological heartland inspire global supporters in ways African and Asian affiliates sprinkled around the periphery cannot.

From the affiliate’s perspective, pledging to the Islamic State brings a mixture of self-interests, some of which may be more of detriment than benefit to the headquarters. Those first affiliates pledging to the Islamic State largely consisted of breakaway al Qaeda middle managers frustrated by local lack of progress who sought promotion. Frustrated, relatively unknown background players formed wilayats in Afghanistan and Algeria to directly challenge longtime al Qaeda strongholds. Hardliners and violent young bucks broke from al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula to form a Yemeni wilayat. These new affiliates benefited by connecting to the Islamic State, whose unprecedented media machine amplified its new local group. Should they fail, these new Islamic State upstarts could retreat to a safe haven in Syria and Iraq.

Breakaway faction interests in Algeria, Afghanistan, and Yemen do not hurt headquarters like those long-lasting terror groups who glom onto Islamic State fame while offering little to the global brand. As seen with al Shabaab, which clung to a merger with al Qaeda after its fortunes waned in 2012, some affiliates jump to the Islamic State to reinvigorate their dying efforts. Ansar Bayt al Maqdisi, now the Islamic State’s Sinai wilayat, likely serves as a similar example. Naturally, resource-strapped affiliates may seek out the Islamic State for money and resources, draining the headquarters’ coffers. Today, many selfish Islamic State affiliates, particularly those in Nigeria and Southeast Asia, have clamored for the Islamic State to allow them to keep local manpower at home and possibly incentivize global fighters to relocate as the war in Syria and Iraq declines.

Factors Driving Future Islamic State Growth

The Islamic State’s headquarters, should it crack under coalition pressure over the next year, will face a similar dilemma as al Qaeda did during the Pakistani drone siege of 2009 to 2011: Where should they move to survive and thrive?Regardless of the bonds and ainterests that help describe the relationship between the Islamic State and its affiliates, three factors will largely influence where the Islamic State seeks a new homeland. First, the Islamic State proved able to break away from al Qaeda largely because it was self-financed. Moving forward, those affiliates able to generate their own revenue will have a significant advantage in the post-caliphate era. Second, as seen by post-Bin Laden al Qaeda’s failed emirates in Yemen, Somalia, and the Sahel, affiliates facing less counterterrorism pressure in the near term will have a greater chance of surviving over the longer term. Third, affiliates in many countries face a range of jihadi competitors. Wilayats with less competition will likely prove more fruitful for the Islamic State as they can conserve resources by avoiding battle with their former al Qaeda brothers.

The chart below evaluates 27 factors noted in the above discussion weighted and compared across 16 affiliate regions. Factors were informed by open source indicators I populated, foreign fighter data discussed in “Beyond Syria and Iraq, The Islamic State’s HR Files Illuminate Dangerous Trends,” and a comparison of expert judgments. I relied on the godfather of Islamic State administration, Aymen al-Tamimi, to understand where governance practices were being shared, used the work of Charlie WinterJ.M. Berger, and Aaron Zelin to assess social media collaboration, and leaned on Will McCants for comparing affiliate constructs. The horizontal axis assesses perceived bonds between affiliates and the headquarters. The vertical axis depicts the degree to which an affiliate’s interests converge with that of the Islamic State. Arrows show the affiliate’s future outlook, either positive or negative depending on potential revenue, counterterrorism pressure, and jihadi competition.

Three clusters of affiliates naturally arose after evaluation of more than two dozen factors. Those affiliates with the tightest bonds and convergent interests with Islamic State headquarters (upper right quadrant of Figure 1 “al Qaeda Rivals”) represent locations with long histories of jihadi violence and were some of the first to pledge to the Islamic State and challenge al Qaeda. The outlook for “al Qaeda Rivals” seems dim as they struggle against a combination of challenges: local jihadi competitors, international counterterrorism efforts, intense state opposition, and financial challenges. The Islamic State’s most promising affiliate in Libya suffered a serious setback this week losing their prized port of Sirte.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, several “Bandwagon” affiliates offer a better outlook since they face fewer local rivals, weaker counterterrorism pressure, better ability to self-finance. Yet Indonesia, the Philippines, Somalia, and Nigeria have the weakest bonds with the Islamic State. Comparatively few foreign fighters from these locales have traveled to Syria. Disloyal al Qaeda affiliate Boko Haram and the Somali splinter emerging for the Islamic State often pursue wanton violence that ultimately proves detrimental to the greater brand. Invigorated Indonesian and Filipino terror groups, now Islamic State devotees, show little difference from their al Qaeda-supporting forms of a decade ago. All of these affiliates pledge to either the Islamic State or al Qaeda to bolster their own image and keep their troops at home. Finally, these “Bandwagon” affiliates have never drawn significant global support and would likely be the least preferred travel destinations of most surviving Islamic State foreign fighters, who for the most part will differ ethnically from these peripheral groups.

In between the “al Qaeda Rivals” and “Bandwagon” affiliates are “Morphing” existing and future affiliates. Those “Morphing” include two affiliates from historical jihadi conflict zones on the decline. Russians from the Caucasus joined the Islamic State in Syria largely because their efforts were crushed at home. AQIM splinters joining the Islamic State immediately after declaration of the caliphate have largely been routed by the Algerian government and outpaced by their previous AQIM overlords.

Emerging areas may provide possible alternatives with greater viability compared to traditional affiliates. Islamic State-inspired violence has sprung up in Bangladesh; though the outlook there appears positive for jihadis, the country lacks tight linkages with Syria and Iraq. Central Asia provided a significant uptick in foreign fighters to Syria, and jihadi-inspired violence hit Kazakhstan this week. Meanwhile, Lebanon not only produces a high rate of foreign fighters to Syria, but also offers an easy transit point from Syria.

Al Qaeda affiliates may have a marginally better outlook than the Islamic State

The Islamic State’s options for reconstituting in an affiliate appear bleak, should it need to scale back in Syria and Iraq. All of its fountains of support across North Africa, the Middle East, and Asia face stiff local competition or mounting counterterrorism pressure. More importantly, the Islamic State’s vaunted caliphate-funding model may quickly become the group’s lynchpin if it moves from state to affiliate and from conventional army to insurgency and terrorism. With no turf to govern, there will be no spoils to take, necessitating a shift to donations and black market operations. The Islamic State has employed off-putting violence, alienating many potential donors. Al Qaeda, on the other hand, always measured its violence in part to prevent the loss of its core financial donors. Al Qaeda’s approach endures to this day, as seen by Qatari kingpins powering the al Qaeda affiliate in Syria, Jabhat al Nusra. Over time, Islamic State affiliates will struggle under competition because no affiliate, at present, seems to govern on sufficient scale to replenish this funding stream, and their type of violence will be unlikely to attract committed donors. Islamic State affiliates will be dependent on black market spoils that often turn local populaces against terrorists in ways more legitimate taxes and donations do not.

What to look for as the caliphate crumbles?

Financial outflows from Syria and Iraq, the dispatching of Iraqi Islamic State envoys, and the emigration of foreign fighters (already underway) will provide the most illustrative signals of the post-Islamic State terrorism landscape. The most indicative data will come from the roughly 15% of Islamic State foreign fighter survivors I estimate will be unable or unwilling to return home. These “floating” fighters lacking roots to a homeland affiliate will be inclined to choose the most promising global affiliates for safe havens. As noted last week, Europeans will be the most important tell and will be inclined to mix with those of similar ethnicity and language. For example, French and Belgian foreign fighters may be better suited for North Africa or Lebanon.

Central Asian, Russian, and Chinese fighters will be another important contingent to watch should they choose to resettle with an Asian group known for attracting foreign fighters, such as the Khorasan wilayat or possibly more likely the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU). In the coming months, some Islamic State affiliates will decline and be absorbed by other affiliates in a natural process of consolidation and reconstitution. As an example, recent news suggests Sinai wilayat members may already be relocating to Libya. Ideological leaders represent the bishops of the Islamic State chessboard, and their movement from the caliphate will confirm the game is up. Keep an eye on their travel. If they choose to leave Syria and Iraq, they will be the last to go and will only move to the safest of affiliates — those most amenable to continuing the Islamic State’s vision for governance.

Having controlled territory to this point, the Islamic State has been able to stockpile cash, although coalition airstrikes have recently taken quite a toll on this reserve. In preparation for a move or to survive in general, the Islamic State will increasingly transfer funds to other locations. Analysts should watch for increased hawala transfers from the Levant to affiliates, increased money laundering through black market connections in Turkey, Lebanon, and Iraq, and even financial sheltering via social media applications and digital currencies leveraging the Islamic State’s global network of supporters.

Lastly, of all locations, Lebanon may be the most important to watch. A fragile state close to Syria, Lebanon is producing high rates of foreign fighters, faces floods of refugees, lacks a strong international counterterrorism presence, faces constant sectarian strife, and sits proximate to every jihadi’s common enemy, Israel. Lebanon, moreso than any other country, seems an ideal opportunity for the Islamic State should the caliphate end. Much like the American withdrawal from Iraq six years ago, the Islamic State’s demise, when it comes, won’t spell the end of jihad — just the close of a chapter and the start of a new one somewhere else.

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