31 March 2015

Dubious Strategies to Stop ISIS

Possibly due my morbid fascination with ISIS, my friends ask me with some regularity why no one is doing anything to stop this ugly band of beheaders.

I tell them that that is because, despite all the horrifying acts committed by ISIS and the bleak lives of people in the regions they occupied, we are not serious about stopping them.

As I sense them to doubt my seemingly cavalier statement, I present to them the currently entertained solutions.

In this post I will enumerate these dubious strategies.

In a subsequent post, I will explain why ISIS is still useful for regional Sunni powers and why no one is arming and supporting the one group that is capable of defeating ISIS.

The following is in no particular order of effectiveness.

Cyber-trolling ISIS

The State Department has decided to fight ISIS through a newly established Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications (CSCC). They have been attacking sites that are frequented by ISIS sympathizers and by blocking social media messaging and re-tweeting activities of ISIS fanboys called "the knights of the uploading."

Yes, that is the name they gave themselves.

If, as I suggested, people join ISIS because the newly-minted Caliphate provides a solid identity and a path to redemption to people whose artificial national identities were too weak to withstand the radicalizing onslaught of Wahhabi imams and the alienating sense of rejection that came after 9/11, then, online trolling will have no dissuading effect on them.

The lure is much stronger and its roots are elsewhere. This is why hundreds or perhaps thousands of new recruits flock to Syria every month. (And apparently helped by intelligence agencies to complete the journey)

This is also why all sorts of former al Qaeda affiliates are pledging allegiance to al Baghdadi.

In that context, providing disapproving or sarcasting links to ISIS carnage videos would not be a deterrent because blood and gore is not repulsive to these people. In fact, their new cult identity is such that, they enjoy both the graphic violence and the expression of horror it creates in other people. In a recent piece on women joining ISIS, the Economist noted that "one [woman] describe[d] repeatedly watching a video of a beheading, and demand[ed] more such films."

And this is one of the reasons why ISIS always comes up with more outrageous acts of violence.

Besides being ineffective, cyber warfare is also risky business. Just a couple of months ago, ISIS trolls hacked Centcom's official Twitter account and left messages like this.

That's US Central Command.

And on 22 March, Pentagon announced that ISIS stole the personal details of 100 US military personnel and released them online.

Cyber-trolling a technologically sophisticated adversary makes no sense.

Out-Salafisting ISIS

Another strategy is to provide support to rival Salafi groups to undermine ISIS and its alleged hold over true-Islam.

Accordingly, a recent article in the Atlantic magazine extensively quotes a Princeton lecturer of Lebanese descent to establish the notion that ISIS has the most literal and therefore the best interpretation of Islam.

It turns out that ISIS was sincere about going back to the 7th century and to recreate the conditions of the Rashidun Caliphs.

Then the article intones that, once a Caliphate is declared, it becomes the duty of all Muslims to emigrate there and to give their allegiances to the new Caliph. Anything less is apostasy.

This is, of course, inane rubbish.

First of all, there is no such thing as a literal interpretation of Islam. Or of any other religion for that matter.

From a general sociological perspective, even if you stipulate that the messages were conveyed by God - and I have no problem stipulating that - it is clear that their meaning would be limited by the understanding of the recipient. In that sense, there is no way anyone can claim to know what God really intended by reading a text that was necessarily understood and reproduced within the confines of the historical, social, linguistic and cultural context in which it was received.

To put it in everyday terms, if I were able to go back in time and met my paternal grandfather before his death in 1928, there would be no way for me to explain to him what Twitter is. Even though he was an intelligent man by all accounts, he simply would not have had the vocabulary and knowledge structures to grasp the concept as it currently exist. Since he had never experienced computers, Internet, smartphones and related technologies, he might have gotten a vague idea about communicating in short sentences. But not much beyond that.

If this is too modernist for you and you are a believer, you can make the same argument from an Islamic perspective.
Determining what texts “plainly” say is not as easy as spotting some words on a page. Islam’s interpretative tradition exists because the differences between plain and hidden, elliptical and direct, absolute and qualified, are not always obvious. The Quran speaks of itself as a book containing passages that are muḥkam, or clear in meaning, and mutashābih, or symbolic, allegorical, or ambiguous (even the significance of this word is debated among Muslims).
Secondly, the Sunnah, that is the teachings of the Prophet and his sayings (Hadith) were recorded several generations after his death. Sunnis believe in one set of Hadith and Shia in another. There is also third group of Muslims who dismiss the Hadith completely as they argue that only the Koran should be guiding Muslims: God's word should have primacy over what his earthly messenger said and did in his lifetime.

By the time the Abbasid Caliphs proceeded to write the Hadith down they had hundreds of thousands of statements many of which were contradictory or mutually exclusive. So, they picked and choose what to include. This is what we have and this is the basis of Sunnah and more importantly, the foundation of Sharia.

Given this background, how can one claim ISIS or any other entity has the most literal interpretation of Islam?

Finally, even if ISIS was the most scholarly pure source of Koranic interpretation (and they most certainly are not), they can never claim to be Salafi. You see, the Salafi movement was based on a Hadith where the Prophet said "The people of my own generation are the best, then those who come after them, and then those of the next generation."

Remember Karen Armstrong's notion of orthopraxy? The emphasis placed on purity of practice? Accordingly, Salafis try to emulate exactly what the Muslims of these first three generations did. They eat with three fingers, have their beard trimmed in a certain way, their clothing are of a certain length and all their daily actions are carefully regimented.

To live your life exactly the way the first three generations of Muslims lived was the argument used by the House of Wahhab to ban movies in Saudi Arabia and the Taliban to ban music in Afghanistan.

Do you think as-Salaf as Saleh (Pious Predecessors) used their smartphones to tweet in between daily prayers?

ISIS has movie studios that rival Sony's. Its members use Twitter better than Jack Dorsey. Its leadership pushes the boundaries of social media technologies and has an extraordinary grasp of modern marketing techniques.

They are so far more removed from the 7th century that, your average secular Muslim can out-Salafist them with a glass of wine in his hand.

Besides, if you could somehow out-Salafist them, that is, if you could find another Salafi group and support their claim that their interpretation of Islam is superior, what would that achieve?

According to the article, other Salafis are more inward looking:
Quietist Salafis believe that Muslims should direct their energies toward perfecting their personal life, including prayer, ritual, and hygiene. Much in the same way ultra-Orthodox Jews debate whether it’s kosher to tear off squares of toilet paper on the Sabbath (does that count as “rending cloth”?), they spend an inordinate amount of time ensuring that their trousers are not too long, that their beards are trimmed in some areas and shaggy in others.
But what is the point of these efforts ultimately?
Through this fastidious observance, they believe, God will favor them with strength and numbers, and perhaps a caliphate will arise. At that moment, Muslims will take vengeance and, yes, achieve glorious victory at Dabiq. 
In other words, they will turn into ISIS at a later date.

Great plan, if you ask me.

Count me in.

Bolstering Syrian and Iraqi Governments

This is another rubbish pseudo solution that pops up sporadically.

Let's face it, both Syria and Iraq are failed states at this point. It's just that no one has given them the news yet.

Right now, they are functioning and fighting with the help of Iran. In Syria's case, there is also help from Russia to ensure that the creation of Pipelineistan is delayed.

The news items about Iraqi army taking over Tikrit do not mean much as they refer to Iranian generals providing logistical and tactical support and the Shia militia doing the fighting.

The Iraqi military has been a joke since Paul Bremer's incredibly stupid idea to disband Saddam's army. The Naqshibandi Armyacting on behalf of ISIS, invaded a city of 2 million in no time. There was no resistance and no fighting back from Iraqi troops. Even with all this foreign assistance to take Tikrit back from ISIS, the Iraqi army eventually required US air strikes.

Even if you could miraculously turn the military into a fighting force, there is no way you can govern the country. Iraq has de facto been divided into Kurdish, Sunni and Shia regions. After countless atrocities from both sides, the Sunnis and Shia will never accept to live in the same country.

As for Kurds, they have already achieved independence and they are not about to give it up.

You have the same exact picture in Syria. The Nusra Front was first at the scene and just like ISIS, they were fighting other anti-Assad forces and fellow Islamists and using horrifying video clips to achieve ethnic cleansing. ISIS took over from where they left off and made the whole think more effective, more graphic and more technologically advanced.

Once again, we have a country where Alewites -a branch of Shia Islam- and Sunnis could never, ever cohabitate. And, once again we have the Kurds who, especially after Kobani, are unlikely to mingle with anyone else.

In that sense, we have two Sykes-Picot countries that are already dissolved into smaller and more numerous entities: Sunni, Shia and Kurdish.

If you were a decision maker looking at this picture armed with the knowledge that that there was no way to keep these three groups in a unitary nation state and if, while you were pondering, a very effective fighting machine was slaughtering civilian populations, what would you do?

If you supported moderate Sunni groups (as the US and Turkey did) you would know by now that the majority of Sunnis sympathize with ISIS and similar groups and any arms given to moderate Islamist factions end up in the hands of more radical Jihadis.

If you supported the Shia, you would know that, while they are slightly less crazy than the Sunnis, bolstering them could tilt the regional balance of power in Iran's favor.

That leaves one group.

And one question: Why is no one supporting and arming the Kurds?

The answer is the subject of my next post.

10 March 2015

UN Women: Men Know Better

The original idea behind UN Women was to create an agency that would promote Gender Equality. 

If UNDP is United Nations Development Programme, this was supposed to be something like UNGEP.  

In his infinite wisdom,  UN's Secretary General Ban Ki Moon decided to name the new organization, UN Women.

And therein lies a serious problem. 

Empowering Women Without Addressing Gender Equality

Gender is a social construct and as such includes a large number of identities beyond the biological male and female categories. (Actually, biology is not that clear cut either but that is a whole other discussion). 

Naming it UN Women meant that the agency was not there to address gender equality issues but was conceived as an advocate for women. 

Clearly there is nothing wrong with having a UN agency promoting the empowerment of women. In fact, it is a very good thing. The problem is that you cannot do that without addressing gender equality.  

You see, women are the only minority on the planet that are universally discriminated against without any serious repercussions. They are beaten up and murdered everywhere. They are raped in peace time as in war time. They earn less than men everywhere. They are underrepresented in political institutions or in companies. They own a tiny 2 percent of global assets. 

And they live as objectified "things" everywhere, the objectification varying according to culture, country and context.

If you remove the focus from gender equality, which would be very challenging for many cultures, countries and contexts, you make the new agency, a pleading entity that begs member states to do a bit more to improve women's lives. And this, despite the certainty that no member state would actually lift a finger to improve women's lives and status.

Without gender equality at its core, the new entity was DOA.

A Distinguished Executive Council

Ban Ki Moon did not stop there. He made sure that the new entity would be a failure by saddling it with an extraordinarily bad governing body.

The 41 member Executive Board of UN Women is composed of

- 10 countries from Africa
- 10 countries from Asia
- 4 countries from Eastern Europe
- 6 from Latin America and the Caribbean
- 5 countries from Western Europe, North America and others group
- 6 from major donor countries.

In other words, most of the Executive Board members are poor countries which would be unable to contribute to the work of the agency financially. And  empowerment of women is not even on their list of priorities.

So where do you get money?

When the first Executive Director Michelle Bachelet left after two years to run for president in her native Chile, as her replacement, the Board and Ban Ki Moon selected an unknown South African politician, Phumzile Mlambo Ngcuka. Whereas Bachelet was a charismatic and well-known politician who could get countries to pledge money and support to the new agency, her successor was such a marginal figure that she could not get any world leader on the phone. 

Incidentally, do you know who the donor countries are in the Executive Board?

Mexico, Norway, Sweden, United Kingdom, United States of America and Saudi Arabia.

Yes, Saudi Arabia is a member of the privileged club of "contributing countries" in the Executive Board.

Ban Ki Moon did one more thing that I consider astonishingly patronizing for women's movement.

Only Men Can Empower Women

The head of the UN Women is supported by two Assistant Secretary Generals (ASG). 

One looks after intergovernmental support and strategic partnerships. It is currently occupied by Lakshmi Puri. She has no gender expertise or experience either. But one could argue that for this work a gender background might not a strict necessity..(Her CV states that she has always promoted women's rights and sadly, such ex post facto assertions and being a woman are typically the only qualifications needed for these posts). 

The other ASG position was given the Policy and Programme portfolio. Basically, anything of substance the new entity was supposed to undertake was going to be decided by this person. 

And they gave the job to a man. 

On 11 March 2011, three days after the International Women's Day, Ban Ki Moon appointed a man, John Hendra to that position, a regular UNDP officer with zero gender experience and expertise. He was the man to devise and design the policies and programs that would empower women.

Now if I were a woman I would be somewhat miffed that the only UN agency with a mandate to empower women left its policy and programming work to a man. One without even a passing acquaintance with that field.

But I would be really upset if history repeated itself: When John Hendra went back to UNDP, his successor was also a man. A Frenchman no less.

Yannick Glemarec, another UNDP officer with no gender experience and expertise, is now in charge of determining all the policies and programming options of UN Women. 

Apparently, he knows about climate change and fund management but absolutely nothing about the field of gender equality.

And this time he was appointed just a day before the International Women's Day.

The message is as clear as the glass ceiling. 

There are no qualified women for these senior jobs. 

Even men with no expertise and proper qualifications are better than women.

What About Gender Parity?

I heard someone making the argument that since this is about gender and there are two ASG positions, it is perfectly reasonable that one should go to a man. 

There are two problems with that argument. One, why should the policy job go to a man? Right? This is about women after all.

Two, achieving parity at UN Women would be desirable if parity existed elsewhere within the UN system. Women occupy roughly 30 percent of all senior UN jobs and for the top of the echelon their numbers went down by 2.9 percent between 2011 and 2013 (to 27.1 percent). 

In case you are wondering, UN Women jobs were overwhelmingly held by women at the outset. Since then, in every category except for the most junior positions there has been a decline in the number of women officers. 

That is to say, they replaced most departing or retiring personnel with men.

And the signature achievement of UN Women in the last two years has been to start a new movement called He for She

The idea behind it is for men to achieve gender equality for women.

Can the message be any clearer?

03 March 2015

ISIS, Intelligence Agencies, Missing Women and Jihadi John

I have been writing about how ISIS was an artificial monster which was created for the specific task of establishing a Sunni state out of the ashes of Syria and Iraq.

To highlight the economic incentives behind ISIS, I borrowed Pepe Escobar's term and nicknamed that country Pipelineistan.

Even though ISIS popped up out of nowhere with $4 billion in its pockets, amazing production and post-production studios, software development units and an extraordinary social networking presence, people were reluctant to see them for what they were. Instead, they preferred "them Muslims, the beheading barbarians" discourse.

As I am not a moralist, I have no issue with such dubious generalizations other than the fact that they are no help to me in my quest to understand what ISIS is and what they are doing.

To me, their collaboration with Georgian and Turkish intelligence services to smuggle Jihadis, like Tarkan Batirashvili to Iraq and Syria is more telling.

Or the help they get from Turkish Intelligence Agency (MIT) to allow ISIS fighters crisscrossing the border between Turkey and Syria.

Or the arms and ammunition trucks destined for ISIS and actually driven by (MIT) officers.

Or the ISIS munitions manufactured by MKE, a Turkish company owned by the state.

Or the training camp set up in Jordan by American officers to train fighters who eventually ended up as ISIS foot soldiers.

Or the recent documents leaked by the Turkish army about MIT shipping arms to ISIS and al Qaeda, which were made public by a Dutch Parliamentarian.

I can now add two more pieces to this picture.

Last month, I stumbled upon the story of a remarkable Kurdish woman in Northern Iraq who has been trying to liberate and re-integrate missing women taken by ISIS.

Her name is Tavga Omer Rashid. She is Kurdistan Regional Government's (KRG)  Human Rights Commissioner and a Member of Parliament.

When she found out that ISIS was selling missing women in slave markets, she came up with idea to buy as many women as she could.

So far she "bought"- to use the unfortunate Nicolas Kristof terminology- 500 out of 2,800 officially missing women (some estimates put the actual number in the 4,000-5,000 range).

She also tried to find local men (mostly from Yazidi tribes) to accept them as brides. She set up workshops to explain their ordeal and their victim status. And she tried to find workarounds for the abortion issue for unwanted pregnancies.

Interestingly, she tried to contact ISIS through humanitarian agencies and nobody could help. Then someone explained to her that every regional and global intelligence agency was active inside ISIS. So she asked for their help. They obliged and that is how she got access to these women.

The other piece was the revelation of the identity of Jihadi John as Mohammed Emwazi. Besides informing us that he was a Kuwait-born idiot with anger issues, the reports included this tantalizing bit.
It's believed both Britain and the US have informers inside the Islamic State "capital" of Raqqa. Yet this seems to have been little help in stopping the actions of Mohammed Emwazi, or bringing him to justice. 
ISIS is certainly a monster but focusing on the horrific nature of its action will not help us understand what they are doing. Actually, what they really want is for you to be mesmerized by their savagery. That is the whole point of those production facilities and professionally shot and edited video clips. And that is why they come up with more and more horrific executions.

If you want to understand what ISIS is doing, ignore Jihadi John and focus on Pipelineistan.

Cui bono?

Or as Deep Throat said "follow the money."