February 13th, 2014
11:05 AM ET

Could Pakistan become a Sharia state?

By Michael Kugelman, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Michael Kugelman is the senior program associate for South Asia at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC. You can follow him @michaelkugelman. The views expressed are his own.

Shireen Mazari is a prominent Pakistani politician who many say is as feisty as she is conservative. In 2011, for example, Pakistan’s Express Tribune reported an incident at an Islamabad restaurant in which Mazari allegedly cursed out a Westerner after his chair bumped into hers. One of the printable portions of the polemic was “Who do you think you are, you bloody CIA agent?”

These days, Mazari is strongly supporting Islamabad’s preliminary peace talks with the Pakistani Taliban (TTP). It’s a little ironic, because if these talks succeed, Mazari may no longer have the same kind of freedom to pick fights at restaurants – or even many freedoms at all. After all, the TTP vows to impose extreme forms of Sharia law throughout Pakistan – just as it once did in Swat, a region it briefly controlled in 2009. Girls’ schools were shuttered or blown up, and women were whipped. The region gained international notoriety when gunmen boarded a bus and shot schoolgirl Malala Yousafzai.

In reality, the current talks will likely go nowhere. The TTP’s demands – which go well beyond Sharia – are hopelessly unrealistic. They reportedly require Pakistan to sever all ties with Washington, and to withdraw all its troops from the tribal belt.

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The secretive battle for Sochi
February 5th, 2014
08:13 AM ET

The secretive battle for Sochi

By Brian Michael Jenkins, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Brian Michael Jenkins is senior adviser to the RAND president and the author of Al Qaeda in Its Third Decade: Irreversible Decline or Imminent Victory? The views expressed are his own.

The investment Russia has made in security to protect athletes and spectators at the Winter Olympics in Sochi is unprecedented – but so is the threat.

Doku Umarov, the leader of a shadowy group responsible for a number of recent terrorist bombings in Russia, has vowed to attack the Olympics – no holds barred. He has described the games as a “satanic dance on the bones of our ancestors.” Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is staking a vast amount of political capital on a successful Olympics, has vowed to surround Sochi with a protective “ring of steel.”

Behind the public terrorist threats and visible security measures, though, lies a secretive contest that pits Russian counterterrorism strategists against a determined terrorist foe. The world can only guess at what capabilities or plans the terrorists may already have in place. Equally invisible are the dark strategizing and intelligence efforts of Russian counterterrorism authorities, who already may have penetrated terrorist plots.

With just days until the lighting of the Olympic flame, Russian authorities have vowed to make the Sochi Games the most secure ever. They have established a wide perimeter around the city and the venues, manned by an overwhelming force of tens of thousands of police and military. Vehicles from outside Sochi are banned. Police are going door to door searching for terrorist suspects. For the first time in Olympic history, spectators are being vetted and credentialed. Equally important, though less visible, is the intelligence gathering and analysis, the plots uncovered and arrests made. This is where Sochi security will rise or fall.

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Iraq picture may not be as bleak as it seems
January 30th, 2014
08:32 AM ET

Iraq picture may not be as bleak as it seems

By Ben Connable, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Ben Connable is a senior international policy analyst at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation. The views expressed are his own.

Over the past month, al Qaeda affiliated Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has made a concerted effort to seize the Iraqi cities of Ramadi and Fallujah. Images of armed militants roaming the streets have generated widespread concern that Anbar Province – the heart of Sunni Iraq – is once again sliding into chaos. But while the danger in Anbar and Iraq more generally is real, understanding the threat there requires historical context and objective analysis. Indeed, both Iraqi and U.S. policy leaders should see opportunity as well as danger in the reported chaos in Anbar.

The danger, while sensationalized, is nonetheless a reality. An ISIS victory in Anbar against Nuri al-Maliki’s government, and its increasing power in rebel-held Syria, raises the specter of a resurgent al Qaeda in the heart of the Middle East. Some believe that al Qaeda’s actions might fan the flames of a burgeoning regional sectarian war between Sunni and Shia. Under this view, sectarian conflict in Iraq – fueled in Syria – might widen and lead to greater instability in much of the Middle East.

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The limited allure of extremism
January 27th, 2014
10:52 AM ET

The limited allure of extremism

By Richard Wike, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Richard Wike is Director of Global Attitudes Research at the Pew Research Center. You can follow him @RichardWike. The views expressed are his own.

The recent news from Fallujah and elsewhere in the Middle East and Africa must be pretty encouraging for al Qaeda sympathizers. The Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), an al Qaeda affiliated group, has a significant presence in the city where the bloodiest battle of the Iraq War took place nearly a decade ago. ISIS and other al Qaeda inspired groups have also met with success on the battlefield in Syria, while extremist groups who embrace both violence and a severe, distorted version of Islam are on the offensive not just in Iraq and Syria, but in Libya, Afghanistan, Nigeria, and elsewhere.  

Yet if recent history is any guide, extremists’ current momentum will likely be followed by a strong backlash. After all, when it comes to hearts and minds, al Qaeda and its ilk have repeatedly demonstrated that they have very limited appeal. Indeed, generally speaking, the more people are exposed to extremist violence and al-Qaeda-style rule, the less they like it.

Take Pakistan, a country that generates lots of headlines in the U.S., few of them positive. But a major trend over the last decade has been underreported: declining Pakistani support for extremism. Pakistanis have seen violent extremism up close, and they have rejected it. For example, in 2004, 41 percent of Pakistani Muslims said suicide bombings and other forms of violence against civilian targets could often or sometimes be justified. However, by 2013 a Pew Research Center poll found that number had fallen to 3 percent.

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Sochi has (almost) nothing to fear but fear itself
January 22nd, 2014
09:22 AM ET

Sochi has (almost) nothing to fear but fear itself

By Mark Galeotti, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Mark Galeotti is professor of global affairs at New York University’s SCPS Center for Global Affairs. You can follow him @MarkGaleotti or on his blog, ‘In Moscow’s Shadows.’ The views expressed are his own.

News potential female terrorists – so-called “black widows” – may be loose inside or around the Sochi Winter Olympics security zone has inevitably stirred up fresh concerns about the Games. Athletes and prospective visitors are wondering if they will be safe. The United States is preparing plans in case its citizens need to be evacuated. The more the conversation about Sochi is about the threat, though, the more the terrorists have won – and a cheap victory at that.

The Games have become a symbolic test for Russian President Vladimir Putin, and what matters to Putin gets top priority. The security effort is unprecedented. There will be up to 40,000 police and security officers there, including Interior Ministry troops, and an anti-terrorist commando force: that’s the equivalent of one for every nine inhabitants of the town of Sochi, and more than were on duty at peak times during the much larger London Olympics in 2012. There will also be regular soldiers on duty, including divers will also be divers watching the Black Sea coast and surface-to-air missile batteries that could claw a 747 out of the skies. And those skies will also be patrolled by drones, while elite Spetsnaz commandos scour the surrounding mountains, just in case terrorists try to get into the zone cross-country.

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The War on Terror’s authoritarian template
January 14th, 2014
08:00 AM ET

The War on Terror’s authoritarian template

By Sahar Aziz, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Sahar Aziz is associate professor at Texas A&M University School of Law where she teaches national security, civil rights, and Middle East law. She serves as president of the Egyptian American Rule of Law Association and is a fellow at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding. The views expressed are her own.

Egyptian society, once teeming with calls for freedom, justice and dignity, has been replaced with an atmosphere of vengeance. Instead of calls to preserve fundamental human rights, Egyptians now praise their internal security forces for killing and arresting en mass those associated with the Muslim Brotherhood – the newly declared enemy of the state.

That these are the same people who won Egypt’s first freely contested parliamentary and presidential elections is apparently of no consequence. What is consequential, however, is the transformation of a grassroots revolution into an indefinite War on Terror. Rather than challenge police abuses, Egyptians compete to be the most patriotic in supporting the army and security forces’ violent crackdown of the Muslim Brotherhood, while the crackdown's expansion to secular youth groups is met with equal support.

When criticized by the international community for violating international norms, the Egyptian state points to the language of the U.S. government as its exemplar. And, sadly, it is true that the United States’ War on Terror effectively legitimized practices that were once only associated with pariah states.

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Al Qaeda is down. Al Qaedism isn't
January 6th, 2014
09:19 AM ET

Al Qaeda is down. Al Qaedism isn't

By Andrew Liepman and Philip Mudd, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Andrew Liepman is a former principal deputy director of the National Counterterrorism Center and a senior policy analyst at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation. Philip Mudd, former Senior Intelligence Advisor at the FBI and Deputy Director of the CIA Counterterrorist Center, is the director of Global Risk at SouthernSun Asset Management. The views expressed are their own.

The recent New York Times investigation into the deadly 2012 attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi has reignited the debate over the nature and trajectory of al Qaeda. The conclusion of the report – that there was no evidence of an al Qaeda role in the attack – reinforces our view that the organization that attacked the United States more than 12 years ago is in decline. But it also serves as a reminder that the threat has not disappeared. Rather, it is morphing into a new, more dispersed, less predictable, but still lethal enemy.

The 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon showed al Qaeda at its deadliest. At the same time, though, 9/11 also represented the beginning of al Qaeda’s decline as an organized terror enterprise that would ultimately lead to its emergence as a decentralized, factious amalgam of freelance groups, each with its own methods and agenda. This new organization may lack the infrastructure to plan and carry out attacks like the one that occurred in Benghazi (and certainly attacks like 9/11), but today’s al Qaeda remains a threat to strike where and when it can and to fan the flames of extremism.

The decade that followed the 9/11 attack saw the gradual decline of bin Laden’s core al Qaeda. The architects of 9/11 were largely killed or detained, the remnants were in hiding in Pakistan, and the revolutionary message had lost ground globally in the face of relentless al Qaeda killings of Muslims across the Islamic world. Some of its most promising potential successors experienced similar declines, from Jemaah Islamiyya in Indonesia to al-Shabaab in Somalia, along with al Qaeda cells in Saudi Arabia and Europe.

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China’s Xinjiang problem
November 5th, 2013
08:42 AM ET

China’s Xinjiang problem

By Elizabeth Economy, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Elizabeth Economy is C.V. Starr Senior Fellow and director of Asia Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. The views expressed are her own.

In the aftermath of an apparent suicide attack in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square on October 27 that injured dozens of people and killed five (including three involved in the attack), Chinese authorities moved quickly to label the incident terrorism and to arrest a handful of suspects who reportedly helped plot the attack. In the process, word leaked out that those involved were from Xinjiang, a Muslim-dominated region in the far northwest of China. For decades, Xinjiang, itself, has been the site of often-violent ethnic strife between the Muslim Uyghur majority and the Han Chinese minority. Uyghur discontent, however, has rarely spilled over into other parts of China. Now, Chinese authorities are claiming that Uyghur extremists have, for the first time, taken their cause to Beijing.

Assuming this suicide attack was, in fact, a premeditated terrorist attack and not simply an act of individual desperation – an assumption many in and outside China continue to question – the government’s next step will likely be to crack down in Xinjiang itself. Past violence in Xinjiang has been met by Beijing with highly repressive policies, mass arrests, and demonstrations of military and police force. In fact, the Tiananmen incident occurred while Beijing was already in the midst of a government-directed crackdown on online activists in Xinjiang. Even more moderate approaches have fallen flat. In May, for example, residents of one county in Xinjiang were the beneficiaries of more than 100 government-sponsored lectures on ethnic relations during “ethnic harmony education month.” The following month, 35 people died in ethnic violence in that same county.

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Why China should be open about Tiananmen attack
November 1st, 2013
06:23 PM ET

Why China should be open about Tiananmen attack

By Robert Daly, Special to CNN

Editor's note: Robert Daly is director of the Kissinger Institute on China and the United States at the Woodrow Wilson Center. The views expressed are his own.

At noon on October 28, an SUV exploded in front of Beijing's Gate of Heavenly Peace, or Tiananmen. Five people were killed and forty injured. The symbolic nature of the site, as well as the timing of the violence – China's Communist Party is about meet to set the country's direction for the next decade – make the explosion more important than a bombing would be in another Chinese city in a less sensitive season. The bus bomb that killed 16 in Wuhan in February, 1998, for example, did not get as much attention.

Not that Monday's tragedy has been widely covered in China. The site of the fire was barricaded and cleaned within hours. Chinese censors were just as thorough in scouring China's Internet for mention of what should have been the day's major story.

We will probably never know the intentions of the people in the SUV, but it appears that that this was either a murderously clumsy self-immolation or a terrorist attack. Beijing has declared that it was terrorism and has five suspects in custody who have confessed to planning it.

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October 25th, 2013
11:09 AM ET

Saudi Arabia, Qatar may be playing dangerous game over Syria rebels

By David Andrew Weinberg, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: David Andrew Weinberg is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. The views expressed are the writer’s own.

Saudi Arabia and Qatar have been working overtime arming rebel groups in Syria.  But events of the last month suggest these American allies have been throwing their lots in with radical, hardline Islamists.

Some observers are bullishly optimistic about the foreign policies of America’s Gulf allies, suggesting Saudi Arabia backs “the least Islamist component of the rebellion” and Qatar’s young new emir is displaying a more “mature” foreign policy that seeks to avoid controversy in places like Syria. However, there is worrying news coming from Syria’s Raqqa Province, now controlled by the al Qaeda affiliate Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).  Hateful books described by several different sources as the area’s new academic curriculum, reportedly originate from Saudi Arabia.

Ali al-Ahmed, who directs the Institute for Gulf Affairs in Washington, has conducted previous reviews of official Saudi textbooks. He told me that although the seal from Saudi Arabia’s education ministry has been removed from the books, they otherwise appear identical to the ones he has reviewed.  Al-Ahmed said that the two collections being brandished in Raqqa are “toxic,” promoting extremism and the dehumanization of non-Muslims.

But this isn’t the only development that appears to shed light on Saudi and Qatari objectives in Syria.

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Pragmatism, not grand gestures, should guide Sharif
October 23rd, 2013
09:07 AM ET

Pragmatism, not grand gestures, should guide Sharif

By Khurram Husain, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Khurram Husain is the Pakistan scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The views expressed are his own.

As Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif prepares to sit down with President Barack Obama on Wednesday, he might want to look to history for guidance.

Almost a quarter century ago, newly elected Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto visited Washington DC, where she was received like a celebrity. There was an address to a joint sitting of Congress, a commencement address at Harvard University and a dinner at the White House in her honor. In her address to Congress, Bhutto repeatedly emphasized her democratic credentials, and tapped into the triumphalist mood sweeping Western capitals as the disintegration of the Soviet Union gathered pace. She also underlined the common purpose between her country and her hosts as the war in Afghanistan drew to a close, describing both countries as “friends and partners, who have fought, side by side, in the cause of liberty.”

“We are now moral as well as political partners,” she said. “Two elected governments bonded together in a common respect for constitutional government, accountability, and a commitment to freedom.”

These words might have made some of her hosts a little uncomfortable.  After all, here was a woman in her 30s who had already endured imprisonment and exile at the hands of a dictator embraced as a friend by the United States, one lavished with U.S. economic and military assistance.

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How to undermine Al-Shabaab
October 18th, 2013
08:53 AM ET

How to undermine Al-Shabaab

By Mohamed Ali, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Mohamed Ali is the founder of the Iftiin Foundation, an organization that incubates social entrepreneurs and young leaders to encourage innovation in Somalia. He is also a New Voices Fellow at the Aspen Institute. The views expressed are his own.

As new footage emerges of gunmen chatting on cell phones and praying during their attack on an upscale Nairobi mall last month, many are still wondering how the group was able to lay siege to the building for four days, claiming almost 70 lives in the process.

But while understanding how the attack was orchestrated is important, the more pressing question should surely be why, despite international efforts to quell its power, Al-Shabaab is still able to recruit so many to its cause – including, reports suggest, foreign Somalis who grew up in the West?  And why are many of those who participate in Al-Shabaab attacks young men? The answers to these questions could hold the key to undermining Al-Shabaab’s influence in the region.

Al-Shabaab, which means “youth” in Arabic, is aptly named – not because it is a youth movement (the group is led by older religious clerics) but because young people remain its greatest resource in a bloody campaign to impose radical Islam in the region. After all, it was a Mogadishu girl who walked into the home of her uncle, a Somali government minister, and detonated a suicide vest in 2011. I have also been repeatedly advised by Somali officials that attacks such as the one on a U.N. compound in June, regularly involve youths. And now, several young attackers who broke into the Westgate mall with guns and grenades have murdered dozens of men, women and children.

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