Don't let ISIS distract from al Qaeda threat
June 20th, 2014
06:00 PM ET

Don't let ISIS distract from al Qaeda threat

By Jane Harman, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Jane Harman is Director, President, and CEO of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. A former U.S. representative from California, she was the ranking Democrat on the House intelligence committee from 2002 to 2006. The views expressed are her own.

The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria is a disaster with momentum – we have every reason to fear that they’ll gain more ground, and little reason to hope that the Iraqi government has what it takes to beat them back. But while we watch Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s demotion to “mayor of Baghdad” with horror, let’s remember who (and what) our enemies are.

It’s a media cliché by now to say that these insurgents were “too violent for al Qaeda.” That might be true, but it’s not because core al Qaeda flinches at the sight of blood. For the short term, ISIS is looking for territory; al Qaeda hasn’t stopped looking for targets.

Yet with all eyes on ISIS’s warpath, we risk being distracted from al Qaeda’s very real efforts to launch the next major terror plot. Remember that al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has demonstrated its intent to strike our homeland – and that its dangerously inventive bomb maker, Ibrahim al-Asiri, is still at large. Remember that al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb has made a point of targeting the interests and citizens of our European allies and that it still enjoys safe haven in Mali’s ungoverned north. These are threats that can’t drop off our radar, no matter how savage the destruction in Iraq and Syria.

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Topics: Iraq • Terrorism
Iraq badlands might be inevitable
June 16th, 2014
04:46 PM ET

Iraq badlands might be inevitable

Watch "Fareed Zakaria GPS," Sundays at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. ET on CNN

CNN speaks with Fareed Zakaria about the advances made by militant group Islamic State of Iraq and Syria over the past week, what role the United States can play in assisting Iraq's government, and whether the latest violence was inevitable. This is an edited version of the transcript.

What can the U.S. do?

I think that what the president is trying to do is to force the Iraqis, particularly Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, to make some political overtures to the Sunnis. Because I think he recognizes at the heart of this problem what you have is a disaffected population – about 20 percent of Iraq that is fueling and supporting the insurgency.

Remember, the problem is not arms or men. The Iraqi army is about three-quarters of a million men strong. They have been trained in equipment supplied by the United States for ten years. The insurgents are about 2,000 or 3,000 people. So the fact that the insurgents [are] taking this down tells you that the basic problem is not a military one, it’s a political one. The army won't fight. The Sunnis in the area are providing support for the insurgency. FULL POST

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Topics: Iran • Iraq • Syria • Terrorism
Will Pakistan finally tackle the Taliban?
June 13th, 2014
03:44 PM ET

Will Pakistan finally tackle the Taliban?

By Daniel Markey, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Daniel Markey is a senior fellow for India, Pakistan, and South Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of No Exit from Pakistan: America’s Tortured Relationship with Islamabad. The views expressed are the writer’s own.

On Wednesday and Thursday, U.S. drones fired missiles in Pakistan’s tribal areas on the border with Afghanistan for the first known strikes since late December. In the wake of this week’s two terrorist attacks on Karachi’s airport, the drone strikes mean one of two things. Either Pakistan’s leaders have finally decided to launch a long-awaited military offensive in North Waziristan, the home base of the Pakistani Taliban (TTP), or U.S. officials have grown so frustrated with Pakistan’s dithering that they decided to take the fight into their own hands.

Let’s hope that Pakistan has finally decided for war. The next six months offer what is likely the best – and quite possibly the last – chance for Washington and Islamabad to work together against a terrorist group that threatens the peace in Pakistan, has extended its operations into Afghanistan, and would undoubtedly attack the United States if ever given the chance.

Any further delay would be costly. As President Barack Obama announced last month, all but 9,800 U.S. troops will leave Afghanistan by year’s end. That drawdown in military power will also mean reduced CIA operations along the Pakistani border, including the sort of surveillance and drone strikes that would give any Pakistan military operation a greater lethal punch.

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Topics: Pakistan • Terrorism
Iraq is on a precipice
June 12th, 2014
09:12 AM ET

Iraq is on a precipice

By Michael Rubin, Special to CNN

Editor’s Note: Michael Rubin is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and author of Dancing with the Devil: The Perils of Engaging Rogue Regimes. The views expressed are his own.

Iraq is on a precipice from which it may never recover. The fall of Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, to forces ostensibly from the al Qaeda-affiliated Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), may simply be the tip of the iceberg. What has happened in Iraq increasingly appears not simply to be a binary struggle between government and insurgent, but rather a more complicated problem that may be impossible to fully unravel.

I drove from Tikrit through Beiji to Mosul earlier this year, and into Syria along the same roads ISIS and other insurgents now use. Even then, government control over Mosul was tenuous. Iraqi soldiers at checkpoints on the outskirts of town urged me and my driver to reconsider my trip because Mosul was not safe; they relented only because a local vouched for me. After all, while Tikrit was home to former President Saddam Hussein and his immediate entourage, Mosul was the hometown of much of Saddam Hussein’s officer corps. It still is. As I continued on to the Syrian border, a special security agent at a checkpoint separated me from my taxi driver and another man accompanying us to ensure that I was there of my own free will. A senior security official in Baghdad subsequently told me that was standard protocol. It also reflects, however, the lawlessness of that area.

While Americans focus on the shock of al Qaeda flags over Mosul, Iraqis describe a more complicated scene. One Iraqi reported that insurgents in Mosul told his brother that they were not al Qaeda, but rather veterans of Saddam’s army. Rumors are rife throughout Mosul and Tikrit that Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, Saddam Hussein’s vice president and the most senior official of the previous regime who evaded American capture, has returned from Syria and is leading renewed insurgency.

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Topics: Iraq • Terrorism • Turkey
How to respond to the ISIS threat
June 12th, 2014
12:39 AM ET

How to respond to the ISIS threat

Just a day after overunning Mosul, Iraq's second-largest city, militants from the al Qaeda splinter group the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) gained nearly complete control of the northern city of Tikrit. How should the Iraqi government and United States respond? And what are their chances for success? Leading analysts offer their take on what to look for. The views expressed are their own.

U.S. should deal with Iraq and Syria together

By Brian Katulis, Special to CNN

The astonishing advances of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) across parts of northern and central Iraq has reignited a debate about what the Obama administration should do in Iraq and Syria. For now, the centerpiece of the struggle is sharply focused on how Iraq’s government responds and how countries in the region react.

The first key question is how Iraq’s government, led by Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, responds to this assault. Al-Maliki, a leader from a Shia party who has led Iraq for the past eight years, has been accused by his opponents of becoming increasingly authoritarian and not inclusive when it comes to reaching out to people in the Sunni minority community.  Some have gone so far to say that his neglect of the Sunnis created the opening for extremist groups like ISIS to achieve the rapid gains over the past few days.

If al-Maliki can put together a cohesive response that cuts across the Shia-Sunni sectarian divide and the Arab-Kurd split, this would go a long way toward building a more stable political foundation to address Iraq’s dangerous security problems.  These events come just as Iraqi leaders are negotiating a new governing coalition after national elections on April 30.

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Topics: Iraq • Syria • Terrorism
June 9th, 2014
12:28 PM ET

How the market can undermine terrorism

By Jay Cohen and Barry Blechman, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Jay Cohen (RADM, USN, Ret.) is a principal at Chertoff Group. Barry Blechman is a distinguished fellow at the Stimson Center. They are chair and vice chair, respectively, of Stimson’s Partners in Prevention Task Force, which released its final recommendations on May 29. The views expressed are their own.

On October 29, 2010, airplanes carrying two unremarkable packages left Yemen. Were it not for an eleventh-hour intelligence tip, the bomb inside each parcel, disguised by al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb as a printer cartridge, likely would have continued to evade standard security checks and detonated over the eastern United States.

Despite its frantic search for a quick fix to prevent similar incidents in the future, the U.S. government surprised many by foregoing immediate regulatory action. Instead, it collaborated with the major express air delivery companies to enhance sharing of security information without hampering legitimate trade.

The result of those discussions – the Air Cargo Advance Screening regime – highlights one of the many ways government and industry can work together to create a successful solution to the challenge of maintaining security in a global economy. At once, globalization has opened opportunities for billions of people, but it has also empowered criminals and terrorists on a worldwide scale. Unfortunately, nearly four years after the cargo plane plot, many critical security gaps that take root in modern global trade remain.

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Topics: Economy • Terrorism
Poverty fostering extremism in Nigeria
May 28th, 2014
10:21 AM ET

Poverty fostering extremism in Nigeria

By Imam Mohamed Magid and Ritu Sharma, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Imam Mohamed Magid is the Executive Religious Director of the All Dulles Area Muslim Society (ADAMS) and president of the Islamic Society of North America. Ritu Sharma is co-founder and president of Women Thrive Worldwide and author of the forthcoming book ‘Teach a Woman to Fish: Overcoming Poverty Around the Globe.’ The views expressed are their own.

More than a month has passed since some 300 Nigerian girls were abducted from their boarding school in the dead of night by Boko Haram militants, and the world is still left hoping that somehow, some way, the girls will return home safe.

The attack in Chibok was, unfortunately, just a single recent example of Boko Haram’s ongoing assault on the people of northern Nigeria. Indeed, what we have witnessed over the last several weeks is part of a long running and deadly dance between Nigeria’s largely unresponsive central government and Boko Haram’s relatively small faction of extraordinarily violent men.

But whatever Boko Haram says, the group’s actions do not reflect Islam’s teachings, and Muslim organizations have rightly condemned its terrorist actions. These are militants bent on political and economic gain at the expense of the freedom and dignity of women and girls in Nigeria, Chad and Cameroon – for years, we have seen how poverty and hopelessness can catalyze religious extremism and violence against women.

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Topics: Nigeria • Terrorism
May 14th, 2014
06:24 PM ET

Kristof: There's a misperception the great divide is between different faiths

Fareed speaks with New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof about the recent abduction of hundreds of schoolgirls in Nigeria by Boko Haram.

You talk about this in your last book. How do you make sense of – would it be fair to call this Islamic fundamentalism? What is behind this?

You know, I think we have this misperception that the great divide is between different faiths, between Christianity and Islam, for example. And I think actually Eliza [Griswold] was one of the first people I know to really make the point that it's not so much between different faiths – it's between moderates and extremists generally. And, you know, moderate Muslims and moderate Christians have a great deal in common. Extremist Muslims and extremist Christians have in common the willingness to resort to violence, oppression. And that is what we're seeing with Boko Haram.

But this does seem specifically Muslim these days, which is whenever you see these young men, they always have this incredibly brutal attitude towards women. And it does seem like it's across many parts – though, of course, a minority – of the Islamic world.

It's true that if you look at places where women and girls are least likely to get educated, where they're most likely to be oppressed, then those are disproportionately countries with conservative Muslim populations. But they're also places where the culture itself, quite aside from religion, is deeply oppressive of women. I mean, Afghanistan, for example.

And I think that what we're seeing here is, unfortunately, a spiral. So in northern Nigeria, there’s very little education. Women are marginalized, partly for cultural and historic reasons.  Often, people cite Islam as the reason. Female literacy in this region is less than 50 percent. And then that leads people to think girls shouldn't get educated... FULL POST

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Topics: GPS Show • Islam • Nigeria • Terrorism
How Nigeria should respond to Boko Haram
May 3rd, 2014
10:19 AM ET

How Nigeria should respond to Boko Haram

By Orji Uzor Kalu, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Orji Uzor Kalu is a former governor of Nigeria’s Abia State and 2007 presidential candidate. The views expressed are his own.

The announcement last month that Nigeria’s economy had finally surpassed South Africa’s to become the largest in Africa should have been a cause for celebration – a shift that recognized the significant progress this country has made. Sadly, what was to have been a landmark announcement was overshadowed by an all too familiar problem.

On April 14, a bomb ripped through a crowded bus station in Abuja, claiming dozens of lives. The scene was described by some as post-apocalyptic, with body parts strewn across the area. The Islamic militant group Boko Haram claimed responsibility for the attack, with one alleged representative issuing a chilling warning that “this was but a minor incident” and that “we [continue to] walk among you, yet you do not know who we are.”

The group didn’t take long to act on its threat. Less than 48 hours later, the group abducted almost 200 girls from their boarding school in the northeast of the country, with gunmen storming the school as they slept. Reports this week suggest many of the girls may since have been sold into marriage.

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Topics: Nigeria • Terrorism • Uncategorized
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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Topics: Pakistan • Terrorism
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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Topics: Russia • Security • Sports • Terrorism
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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