ISIS — a faceless organization that stands for nothing

Icons are inescapable — even for those who make it their business to destroy them.

For Al Qaeda, Osama bin Laden was an iconic figure. The American effort to hunt him down had more to do with the need to destroy his image than to thwart a terrorist.

So who or what stands as the central symbol, the image around which ISIS gravitates?

In early July, ISIS released a short video showing the stone-faced Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi preaching in a mosque in Mosul. Even if this man happens to be a brilliant military strategist, he possesses no obvious charisma. He looks somewhat less personable than Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin.

Caliph-Ibrahim

Badhdadi’s brief appearance carried much less significance than the arrival of a new caliph and seemed to have more to do with proving the existence of what was and remains a shadowy figure.

Based on the little he has revealed about himself, his followers have clearly committed themselves through acts of blind allegiance.

The head of ISIS is for all practical purposes invisible.

Moreover, in spite of the fact that ISIS has recruited fighters from dozens of countries, many from the West and many speaking English, from throughout its ranks it appears they have no one competent to serve as a spokesman. Instead they rely on the face and voice of their British hostage, John Cantlie, whose BBC-English offers them credibility they fear they would lack if they dared represent themselves.

ISIS has no face of its own.

Likewise, their media offerings unintentionally pay homage to American cable news and Hollywood, as though there could be no means of communication superior to the crude aesthetic conventions that have been globalized by CNN and Warner Brothers.

On the battlefield, nothing appears to have been a source of greater pride than ISIS’s ability to capture and use American-made military hardware.

ISIS is not American-made in the sense intended by conspiracy theorists, yet in ways its followers would be loath to acknowledge it is in large part an American product — first and foremost as a product of America’s misadventure in Iraq, but also in the multiple ways in which in leans upon American culture.

If there is one image that ISIS has made its own and that serves to symbolize everything ISIS stands for, it is that of grinning men holding aloft freshly severed human heads.

Thanks mostly to Twitter, these are the images we get confronted by with a frequency that would until recently have seemed unimaginable.

Ask anyone in the world about ISIS and the one thing everyone knows is that decapitation is the ISIS signature.

As a symbol of the enemy vanquished, the severed head represents a victory more absolute than unconditional surrender. As such, ISIS presumably engages in these acts of ritual slaughter in order to display its uncompromising, ruthless power.

But the symbolism also cuts another way: the organization with an invisible head and no public face of its own, through decapitation represents its own headlessness.

Furthermore, through its subjugation of women by slavery and rape, ISIS manifests its relationship with the powers of creation: its powers are solely destructive.

What does ISIS ultimately stand for? Death, and little else.

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In the West, a growing list of attacks linked to what?

Linked to “Islamic Extremism” says the headline in the New York Times.

Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, Martin Rouleau-Couture, Alton Nolen, Mohammad Ali Baryalei, Mehdi Nemmouche, Michael Adebolajo, Mohammed Merah, Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, Abdulhakim Mujahid Muhammad — all Muslims in the West, all involved in deadly attacks, all linked to Islamic extremism. The link is surely clear-cut, right?

And now comes the latest on the list:

New York Daily News reports: A man armed with a hatchet who attacked a group of rookie cops on a Queens street, critically injuring one, was shot dead by the officers on Thursday afternoon, and a female bystander was hit by an errant round.

Police are investigating the possibility that the attacker killed on a rainswept shopping corridor, identified by police sources as Zale Thompson, 32, had links to terrorism. A Zale Thompson on Facebook is pictured wearing a keffiyeh and had a recent terrorism-related conversation with one of his Facebook friends, according to a police source.


Radio Free America and the New York Daily News, please take note: The man in the photo above is not Zale Thompson and he’s not wearing a keffiyeh.

The photo is of a Tuareg Berber warrior and was taken somewhere in the Sahara in the nineteenth century. His head garment is called a tagelmust which provides essential protection for those living in a region subject to frequent sand storms. The Arabic text is the Sūrat al-Fātiḥah, the first chapter of the Quran.

CNN reports: Authorities are looking to see if the unprovoked attack, in the New York borough of Queens, is tied to recent calls by radicals to attack military and police officers, law enforcement officials say.

Asked about a possible connection to terrorism, Bratton said, “There is nothing we know as of this time that would indicate that were the case. I think certainly the heightened concern is relative to that type of assault based on what just happened in Canada.”

On Wednesday, Cpl. Nathan Cirillo was shot and killed as he stood guard at Canada’s National War Memorial before shots erupted in the halls of the country’s Parliament minutes later.

The Ottawa gunman had “connections” to jihadists in Canada who shared a radical Islamist ideology, including at least one who went overseas to fight in Syria, multiple U.S. sources told CNN on Thursday.

Connections, ties, links — human beings have an insatiable need to try and understand how things fit together; how to discern coherence when confronted by chaos. This drive is at the core of the creative impulse. Without it there would be no science or art.

At the same time, discovery is more popular than exploration. Most people would rather have answers than be left with questions.

When with disturbing frequency on the relatively peaceful streets of Western cities, men identified as Muslims who appear to be acting alone, attack soldiers and police officers, it’s hard to avoid seeing these acts of brutality all being connected. But there are multiple problems in jumping to this conclusion.

Firstly, in attempting to identify a trend there is always the risk that the imputed trend is actually a function of the act of labeling. The trend might be more of a construction than a discovery.

How many isolated incidents need to occur before they are seen as connected? That determination is subjective, often arbitrary and can easily be affected by whatever happen to be the competing news stories of the day.

Consider for instance something that threatens the lives of all Americans — a threat far greater than that posed by terrorism.

Physicians for Social Responsibility note: “About 6% of cancer deaths per year — 34,000 deaths annually — are directly linked to occupational and environmental exposures to known, specific carcinogens.”

Yet when legal efforts are made to hold the manufacturers of those carcinogens responsible for any of those deaths, the legal process most often leans in favor of commercial interests. Epidemiologists have to painstakingly document all the evidence that clusters of cancer cases can indeed be linked to an industrial polluter before courts are persuaded that the connection is irrefutable and criminal responsibility has been proved.

Some connections are scientifically established years before they become legally accepted.

It’s one thing for an individual to be tied to Islamic extremism because they are in direct communication with members of organizations such as ISIS or al Qaeda, but what if they are merely inspired by such groups?

If the ties have been formed and sustained purely through social media, mainstream media, and the popular obsessions of a particular era, then for the individuals listed above, their links to Twitter and Fox News, for instance, played just as instrumental role in their radicalization as the ideology to which their actions are being ascribed.

Moreover, in spite of the fact that the media is attached to one narrative — a narrative that sells well because it exploits popular xenophobic fears — another link that might be even more important than ideology is the psychology of conversion.

Most of these men converted to Islam and religious conversions of any kind are fraught with psychological risks.

The convert invariably has a much deeper personal investment in the object of their faith than someone for whom their religion was simply a dimension of their upbringing. The convert is always more self-conscious about their religious identity.

This might make the convert more devout, but often it also unleashes a vindictive self-righteousness. A fractured ego can be empowered by an acquired religious authority that purges self-doubt and provides a zealous sense of purpose. Those who once felt downtrodden and demeaned may decide that they are going to teach the world to show them respect after having concluded that with their new-found faith they have God on their side.

This says much more about the psycho-dynamics of conversion than it says anything about the nature of Islam.

That Zale Thompson, having been kicked out of the U.S. Navy, chose the image of an African warrior as his avatar on Facebook, probably says more about his experiences as an African-American and a desire to identify with men who once conquered Spain rather than those who were once enslaved, than it says about the extent of ISIS’s influence.

Even though 9/11 taught about the importance of “connecting the dots,” it’s equally important not to connect too many dots or the wrong dots.

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Terrorism exists in the eye of the beholder

Should a man who believes he’s being chased by the devil, shape pubic policy and guide international relations?

Dave Bathurst was a friend of Michael Zehaf-Bibeau — the gunman whose brief shooting rampage yesterday led to the Canadian capital city, Ottowa, getting locked down for several hours.

The Globe and Mail reports:

Mr. Bathurst said he met Mr. Zehaf-Bibeau in a Burnaby, B.C., mosque about three years ago. He said his friend did not at first appear to have extremist views or inclinations toward violence – but at times exhibited a disturbing side.

“We were having a conversation in a kitchen, and I don’t know how he worded it: He said the devil is after him,” Mr. Bathurst said in an interview. He said his friend frequently talked about the presence of Shaytan in the world – an Arabic term for devils and demons. “I think he must have been mentally ill.”

Nevertheless, Mike Morell, CBS News senior security contributor and former CIA deputy director, seems to believe that Zehaf-Bibeau represents a threat to the United States:


Unlike Morrell, I’m much more concerned about what his own reaction reveals about thinking inside the CIA than what Zehaf-Bibeau reveals about Canada.

In 2012 there were seven murders in Ottawa (population close to a million), 2013 nine murders, and so far in 2014 there have been five (including yesterday’s).

The overwhelming majority of the crazy men running round shooting innocent people are on this side of the border. What makes them dangerous is much less the ideas in their heads than the ease with which they can lay their hands on a gun.

It’s often hard to be clear about what should be described as terrorism. What’s much easier to discern is hysteria.

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Negotiate with ISIS?

Offering the latest iteration of one of the cardinal truths that has supposedly become irrefutable over the last decade or so, Robert Fisk writes: “For every dead Isis member, we are creating three of four more.”

Through its hydra-like capacity to self-replicate, ISIS is apparently more contagious than Ebola and the method of transmission is martyr-producing U.S. airstrikes.

In anticipating the proliferation of violence in an expanding war against ISIS, Fisk seems more perturbed about what a “murderous bunch of gunmen” might do — those being private security contractors ostensibly destined to be “let loose” in Syria — than the apparently overstated capabilities of that other murderous bunch of gunmen who like to be known as Islamic State.

It remains to be seen whether ISIS will grow in the way Fisk anticipates. What has been widely reported is that so far this year, its rapid growth has been driven not by U.S. airstrikes; it has come from the group’s success in capturing territory and creating a rudimentary Islamic state.

The allure of the caliphate and battlefield victories seems greater than the allure of martyrdom. For these holy warriors the promise of an afterlife with virgins in heaven probably figures less in their imagination than the prospect of acquiring slaves in this life.


The glaring problem with the thesis that killing members of ISIS can only make the problem worse is that it discounts the gruesome toll each of these fighters continues to ratchet up.

Just as we might fear that with each ISIS member killed, another three or four might be created, we should include in our calculations those who have already become ISIS’s victims and those whose lives are in imminent danger.

When Kurdish fighters say that we either kill them or they will kill us, they are simply stating a fact.

In spite of this, an old argument that has in the past in different circumstances been relevant and valid is being pressed once again — the argument that our perspective on ISIS has been skewed by misleading rhetoric about terrorism.

This comes from Tomis Kapitan:

To put it bluntly, by stifling inquiry into causes, the rhetoric of “terror” actually increases the likelihood of terrorism. First, it magnifies the effect of terrorist actions by heightening the fear among the target population. If we demonize the terrorists, if we portray them as evil, irrational beings devoid of a moral sense, we amplify the fear and alarm generated by terrorist incidents, even when this is one of the political objectives of the perpetrators. In addition, stricter security measures often appear on the home front, including enhanced surveillance and an increasing militarization of local police.

Second, those who succumb to the rhetoric contribute to the cycle of revenge and retaliation by endorsing military actions that grievously harm the populations among whom terrorists live. The consequence is that civilians, those least protected, become the principle victims of “retaliation” or “counterterrorism.”

Having been desensitized by language, the willingness to risk civilian casualties becomes increasingly widespread. For example, according to a CBS/New York Times poll of 1216 Americans published on September 16, 2001, nearly 60 percent of those polled supported the use of military force against terrorists even if “many thousands of innocent civilians may be killed,” an echo of the view taken by Netanyahu in his book.

Third, a violent response is likely to stiffen the resolve of those from whose ranks terrorists have emerged, leading them to regard their foes as people who cannot be reasoned with, as people who, because they avail themselves so readily of the rhetoric of “terror,” know only the language of force. As long as groups perceive themselves to be victims of intolerable injustices and view their oppressors as unwilling to arrive at an acceptable compromise, they are likely to answer violence with more violence. Their reaction might be strategic, if directed against civilians to achieve a particular political objective, but, with the oppression unabated, it increasingly becomes the retaliatory violence of despair and revenge.

There’s a problem with on the one hand attempting to deconstruct the terror rhetoric while at the same time persisting in the use of the category: terrorists.

To do this is to sustain the notion that, for instance, “Hamas, Hezbollah or ISIS” — a grouping Kapitan employs — have a sufficient number of common features that we can start making generalizations about better ways to “tackle terrorism” and then assume they could be employed in each instance.

The most commonly promoted alternative to using military force to combat terrorism is negotiation. Indeed, many governments directly or indirectly talk to Hamas and Hezbollah, so why isn’t anyone talking to ISIS?

An American ex-servicemen who has joined the ranks of the Syrian Kurdish YPG and is now fighting against ISIS provides a blunt answer:

“You can’t talk to people like that. There’s no reasoning at all. There’s a war and we have to eliminate them.”

Obviously, those who argue that violence begets violence will reject this soldier’s position. Some may argue that he is himself a victim of the terror rhetoric which has demonized ISIS.

Perhaps. But if this argument against war is to acquire more weight, then those who imply that there are viable alternatives need to spell out in greater detail what those alternatives are.

The only willingness to negotiate displayed by ISIS up to this point has been on the terms for releasing hostages. If that’s the extent of its flexibility, it’s not worth much.

But let’s imagine, just for the sake of argument, what the terms might be for political negotiations.

Can we imagine some kind of compromise caliphate? Sharia with due process? No female under the age of 18 can be enslaved? No one can be decapitated without first receiving an anesthetic?

Maybe if the negotiations went particularly well, ISIS would be willing to make a major gesture of conciliation and reach out to the West by implementing an outright ban on crucifixions.

There is of course another alternative approach for dealing, or to be more precise, not dealing with ISIS — a common ground that unites a significant number of Americans across the political spectrum.

It’s an approach that’s voiced more freely on the Right than the Left since it expresses a cold-blooded nationalism. It simply says: ISIS poses a threat to Syrians, Kurds, Iraqis and others in the Middle East. It poses little threat to Americans. Why should we care? Why should we get involved? It’s not our problem.

In its progressively tempered form, this sentiment gains a little warmth and says: we do care, but as much as we get involved, we’re sure to make things worse. Sorry, we feel your pain, but look at the mess we’ve already created in the Middle East. You’re really better off without our “help.”

I don’t believe there are any avenues available to negotiate with ISIS, but neither do I think it can be ignored. If its growth was to remain unchecked, a region already deeply fragmented will only become more violent.

The Kurds on the frontlines fighting against ISIS deserve America’s full support, but Obama’s war against ISIS thus far lacks an real strategic foundation.

The growth of ISIS stems as much as anything else from a pernicious cycle of American engagement with the world, oscillating between efforts to exercise too much control, followed by periods of withdrawal. Either America is in charge or it won’t play.

At some point America needs to outgrow this cycle of domination and isolation, acting as one nation among many to pursue goals that serve global interests. America can’t save the world but neither should it try to escape from it.

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ISIS vs the farmers. Who turned the field into a battlefield?

ISIS and its social media followers have been celebrating the death of a ten-year old boy with the nom de guerre Abu Ubaidah.


There are also Kurdish children fighting against ISIS.


Some observers in the West are perturbed by the idea that a double standard is being applied on the involvement of children in war based on whether they happen to be fighting with the “good guys.”

But this looks to me like one of those situations where allegiance to a particular principle (in this case, opposition to the use of child soldiers) is coming at the expense of common sense.

The difference between the armed jihadist father and son and the armed farmer and son is that it is the former who insisted on turning the latter’s field into a battlefield.

One was content to farm, while the other demanded to fight.

The farmer and his family could have fled, but they can hardly be faulted as they make a desperate effort to defend their land.

ISIS is an invading army on a ruthless campaign of conquest. Their actions are no more excusable than those of any imperial power.

Those who turn these combatants into equals just because both are using guns and arming their children are denying the fundamental inequality in this conflict.

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Kobane and the Kurds: Clueless at the New York Times

Turkish Inaction on ISIS Advance Dismays the U.S.,” a report in today’s New York Times identifies three reporters in the byline: Mark Landler and Eric Schmitt in Washington, and Anne Barnard in Beirut.

It sometimes seems like the more names there are in the byline, the worse the reporting and the less the accountability.

Even though international journalists are offered a grandstand view of the battle in Kobane from the relative safety of Turkey, the Times does not appear to currently have a staff reporter there. No disrespect to “news assistant” Karam Shoumali, but it’s hard to understand why they have no one else there right now.

Today’s report makes vague references to “Kurdish fighters” in Kobane but doesn’t identify them as belonging to the People’s Protection Committees, the YPG, until the penultimate paragraph.

As the headline suggests, the general narrative is of American “frustration” and “dismay” at Turkey’s unwillingness to defend Kobane.

The Kurds are crying for help, the Turks aren’t listening, and the Americans are wringing their hands (“the United States took pains to emphasize its support for the embattled Kurds in Kobani”).

Kurdish fighters in Kobani said they were running out of ammunition and could not prevail without infusions of troops and arms from Turkey.

The Guardian reports more accurately: “the US, reluctant to commit ground troops itself, wants Turkey to send in soldiers to confront Isis.”

But the point is this: unlike the U.S., the Kurds have no desire to see Turkish troops enter Kobane. Their arrival would be seen as having more to do with Turkey’s desire to suppress Kurdish autonomy than an effort to thwart ISIS.

As Jenan Moussa in the tweet above says, the appeal the Kurds are making is for their own fighters to be allowed to cross the border and for their dwindling supplies of ammunition to be replenished. Additional weapons, such as American TOW anti-tank missiles would help too.

As much as American officials may want to cast themselves as willing defenders of the Kurds as they face an ISIS onslaught, both the U.S. and the Kurds frustrated by a lack of support from Turkey, the lack of support has come just as much from Washington, hamstrung by its own anti-terrorism fundamentalism.

The New York Times peddles the administration’s excuses:

“We have anticipated that it will be easier to protect population centers and to support offensives on the ground in Iraq, where we have partners” in the Kurdish pesh merga fighters and the Iraqi Army, said a senior administration official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations. “Clearly, in Syria, it will take more time to develop the type of partners on the ground with whom we can coordinate.”

For this reason, the official said, the military strategy in Syria so far has focused on “denying ISIL safe haven and degrading critical infrastructure — like command and control and mobile oil refineries — that they use to support their operations in Iraq.”

The report correctly notes that the Kurds have been left feeling abandoned: “even though they are the sort of vulnerable minority group that Mr. Obama has made a priority of protecting — political moderates who have women fighting alongside men and have provided refuge for internally displaced Syrians of many ethnicities.”

So when U.S. officials talk about the time needed to develop “partners on the ground,” they are trying to obscure the fact that the YPG is already qualified to serve as such a partner. In its gender equality, it’s even more progressive than the U.S. military itself!

Moreover, President Obama owes a personal debt of gratitude to the YPG because after he promised “to prevent a potential act of genocide” when in early August thousands of Yazidis stranded on Mount Sinjar in northern Iraq were in peril from ISIS, it was the Syrian Kurdish fighters who enabled their escape by creating a safe corridor for their evacuation.

As Global Post reported:

Despite a widely publicized US bombing campaign to save them, family after family tells the same story of escape: While the Western media narrative has emphasized the US role and that of the Iraqi Kurds’ peshmerga fighters battling IS in recent weeks, it was instead the Kurds coming in from Syria and Turkey who saved the Yazidis’ lives. A limited number were airlifted off the mountain, but the mass exodus took place on foot. The much-vaunted peshmerga [in Iraq], meanwhile, initially ran.

“The PKK [a political and militant Kurdish party based in Turkey] saved us. They cleared a path for us so we could escape the Sinjar Mountains into Syria.”

“Thank God for the PKK and YPG [a Syrian branch of the PKK].”

“If it wasn’t for the Kurdish fighters, we would have died up there.”

For the U.S., the problem with the YPG is its affiliation with the PKK which has been designated as a terrorist organization. This has resulted in calls from some quarters that the PKK be delisted. Were that to happen, it would antagonize Turkey but also highlight the arbitrariness with which the U.S. labels terrorists.

The real problem is not that the YPG or the PKK can be linked to terrorism; it is that criminalizing membership of organizations is itself incompatible with the basic principles of democracy.

How can the United States on the one hand recognize the constitutional right of Americans to join anti-democratic extremist organizations like the Ku Klux Klan, while at the same time refusing to partner with a group like the YPG that is genuinely and literally fighting for democracy?

The United States does not lack a partner on the ground in Kobane with which it could currently be coordinating its air strikes on ISIS. It lacks the willingness to discard a counterproductive security doctrine.

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First ISIS destroys Kobane and then Turkey can save it?

AFP reports that Turkey’s President Erdogan says Kobane is “about to fall” and that a ground operation is needed to defeat ISIS.

Of course Kurdish forces are already in the midst of a valiant ground operation — they just haven’t received the support they need.

Thus far, Turkey has appeared resolute in its military inaction as its armored forces have quietly watched ISIS advance on Kobane. Likewise, until the last few hours, U.S. airstrikes have been minimal.

An explanation of U.S. objectives with ISIS was provided by an official who said: “We’re not trying to take ground away from them [in Syria]. We’re trying to take capability away from them.”

That’s an ambiguous statement when it’s widely recognized that the territory ISIS holds in Syria is the foundation for its capabilities. So the official explanation about why the U.S. has not been more forceful in preventing ISIS from capturing Kobane really makes little sense.

At the same time, it’s been said by many that it looks like Turkey would prefer to see ISIS rather than the PKK-aligned YPG controlling this part of the Syrian border. But even though the Turkish government feels threatened by the presence of an emerging Syrian Kurdish state, Rojava, ISIS is surely an unacceptable neighbor.

Maybe — and this is just speculation — there has been some cunning in American and Turkish inaction and neither power has any intention of allowing ISIS to gain full control of Kobane.

A Kurdish fighter tells Jenan Moussa: “ISIS brought in 1000s of fighters to Kobane. Seems whole of Raqqa is standing at our gates.”

Might this be what the U.S. and Turkey have been hoping to see as the prelude to a joint U.S.-Turkish operation? Turkish ground forces “rescue” Kobane as high concentrations of ISIS fighters approaching the city make themselves easy targets for air strikes.

At the end of the battle and after the self-congratulatory statements about the devastating impact this has had on ISIS, Turkey then establishes what it calls a “buffer zone” and what Kurds will see as the occupation of Rojava.

If a scenario along these lines is unfolding, it probably means that in the eyes of the U.S. and Turkey, the Kurdish men and women fighting on the front lines against ISIS are not engaged in a heroic struggle — they are simply bait.

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Glenn Greenwald’s Khorasan conspiracy theory misses the point

Washington is often — and justifiably — criticized for viewing the world through a U.S.-centric prism. But many of the U.S. government’s fiercest critics are guilty of the same narrow orientation.

A case in point is an analysis provided by Glenn Greenwald and Murtaza Hussain in The Intercept yesterday: “The Khorasan Group: Anatomy of a Fake Terror Threat to Justify Bombing Syria.”

Up until last week, hardly anyone, including seasoned Syria watchers and Syrians themselves, had heard of an outfit called the Khorasan Group and so sober warnings from high officials in the U.S. government that this group poses a greater threat to the U.S. than ISIS, were received by some observers with a measure of skepticism.

The Intercept analysis traces the recent evolution of the Khorasan narrative as presented by the servile American media and reaches this conclusion:

What happened here is all-too-familiar. The Obama administration needed propagandistic and legal rationale for bombing yet another predominantly Muslim country. While emotions over the ISIS beheading videos were high, they were not enough to sustain a lengthy new war.

So after spending weeks promoting ISIS as Worse Than Al Qaeda™, they unveiled a new, never-before-heard-of group that was Worse Than ISIS™. Overnight, as the first bombs on Syria fell, the endlessly helpful U.S. media mindlessly circulated the script they were given: this new group was composed of “hardened terrorists,” posed an “imminent” threat to the U.S. homeland, was in the “final stages” of plots to take down U.S. civilian aircraft, and could “launch more-coordinated and larger attacks on the West in the style of the 9/11 attacks from 2001.””

As usual, anonymity was granted to U.S. officials to make these claims. As usual, there was almost no evidence for any of this. Nonetheless, American media outlets – eager, as always, to justify American wars – spewed all of this with very little skepticism. Worse, they did it by pretending that the U.S. Government was trying not to talk about all of this – too secret! – but they, as intrepid, digging journalists, managed to unearth it from their courageous “sources.” Once the damage was done, the evidence quickly emerged about what a sham this all was. But, as always with these government/media propaganda campaigns, the truth emerged only when it’s impotent.

The first problem with this conspiracy theory — its claim that the Khorasan Group was invented for domestic propaganda purposes — is that such an invention would largely be redundant.

Having successfully presented ISIS as worse than al Qaeda, why muddy the narrative by introducing into the picture a previously unheard of group? If a pretext for bombing Syria was being fabricated, why not posit an “imminent” threat to the U.S. coming from ISIS itself?

The actual story here is one that is somewhat more complex than appeals to conspiracy theorists like Glenn Greenwald and Alex Jones and it requires giving as much attention to what is happening in Syria as to what is happening behind closed doors in the capital of the Evil Empire.

The invention of the Khorasan Group — which is to say, the creation of the name — seems to have been necessitated not by the desire to find a pretext for bombing another Muslim country, but instead the desire to avoid headlines which would identify the target of a cluster of airstrikes by its real name: Jabhat al-Nusra (JN).

I dare say that the average American is no more familiar with the name Jabhat al-Nusra than they are with the Khorasan Group, so why construct a distinction between the two?

This actually has little to do with how expanding the airstrike targeting beyond ISIS would be perceived in the U.S. and everything to do with how it would be seen in Syria.

As was noted in a 2013 report “Jihadist Terrorism: A Threat Assessment,” by the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Homeland Security Project chaired by Lee Hamilton and Thomas Kean, Jabhat al-Nusra is “widely acknowledged as the most effective fighting force in the war against Bashar al-Assad’s regime.”

Unlike ISIS, JN has pursued a strategy designed to avoid alienating Syrians who oppose the Assad regime yet do not support JN’s Islamist ideology. The Syrian fighters at its core, having learned from the mistake of alienating the local population while they were fighting in Iraq as members of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s Al Qaeda in Iraq (the precursor of ISIS), made some strategic adjustments for JN.

As a Quilliam Foundation report notes, JN opted for:

  • predominantly military rather than civic targets, with no bombing of shrines and careful use of suicide bombs to minimise civilian casualties,
  • downplaying JN’s rhetoric concerning sectarianism and kuffar (labelling Alawites, Shiites and Sufis as non-Muslims)
  • the decision to use a different name to avoid preconceptions associated with Al Qaeda.

If the Obama administration chose for debatable reasons to target a unit inside JN and wanted to explain itself to the American public, it didn’t need to concoct a new name for this unit. It could simply present the same assertions about plots to attack the homeland and say that they emanate from Syria’s al Qaeda affiliate, Jabhat al-Nusra.

After all, Mohsin Al-Fadhli who in recent reports has been described as the leader of the Khorasan Group has also been referred to as the de facto leader of al Qaeda in Syria.

An Arab Times report in March this year said:

Al-Fadhli lives in north of Syria, where he is in control of al-Qaeda. He entices and recruits jihadists from among the European Muslim youths, or from those who embrace Islam. After choosing the youths, he trains them on how to execute terror operations in the western countries, focusing mostly on means of public transportation such as trains and airplanes. His activities were also focused on directing the al-Qaeda elements to execute operations against four main targets, which are Assad’s military, the Free Syrian Army, the ‘Islamic Front’ and ‘Da’esh’ [ISIS]. Sources revealed that Al-Fadhli supports ‘Al-Nusra Front’ against ‘Da’esh’, especially after the Al-Nusra leader Abu Mohammad Al-Joulani declared his loyalty to al- Qaeda group in April last year.

The decision taken by [Al Qaeda leader] Al-Zawahri to support ‘Al-Nusra Front’ to face ‘Da’esh’ was made after Al-Fadhli provided information about what is happening in Syria. Sources stressed that such a decision indicates the confidence al-Qaeda leadership has in Al-Fadhli. It also confirms that Al-Fadhli is the de facto leader of al-Qaeda in Syria, even though it has not been officially announced over fear of exposing him.

If the leader of the so-called Khorasan Group had such a central position in JN, why should the Obama administration see fit to try and educate the American public about some finer details in the organization’s internal structure?

It didn’t. The distinction between the Khorasan Group and Jabhat al-Nusra appears to have been contrived in a vain effort by Washington to fool Syrians rather than Americans. The U.S. hoped it could chop off one of JN’s limbs without appearing to strike its body.

The problem with a frontal attack on Jabhat al-Nusra is that this would inevitably be perceived in Syria as an attack on part of the opposition which has been on the frontline of the fight against ISIS and the regime — an attack that can thus only provide additional help to Bashar al-Assad.

President Obama says that the fight against ISIS will require ground forces drawn from the Syrian opposition, but by attacking JN the U.S. has swiftly alienated itself from the very fighters — the so-called moderates — on whose support the U.S. supposedly depends.

The ploy of inventing the Khorasan Group didn’t succeed in deceiving Syrians who knew that the men being killed in airstrikes in north-west Syria all belonged to Jabhat al-Nusra. Thus, by the end of last week instead of there being popular rallies welcoming a campaign to destroy the much-despised ISIS, ordinary Syrians were taking to the streets to protest against the U.S. airstrikes.

They already had reason to question American motives, given that Assad can be blamed for far more carnage and destruction than ISIS has wrought, and now it seems their worst fears have been confirmed — whether by design or sheer incompetence, the U.S. despite its oft-stated desire to hasten Assad’s departure seems to be doing more to ensure that he remains in power.

As for whether the U.S. truly has the desire to destroy ISIS remains far from clear. So far it has demonstrated a greater interest in destroying empty buildings than responding to desperate calls to block the ISIS assault on Kobane, the Kurdish city in northern Syria that truly faces an imminent threat to its survival.

Least of all is there any evidence that Obama has anything that barely resembles a coherent strategy.

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Assad regime strongly supports Obama’s war on ISIS

The New York Times reports: President Obama said the American-led airstrikes in Syria were intended to punish the terror organizations that threatened the United States — but would do nothing to aid President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, who is at war with the same groups.

But on the third day of strikes, it was increasingly uncertain whether the United States could maintain that delicate balance.

A Syrian diplomat crowed to a pro-government newspaper that “the U.S. military leadership is now fighting in the same trenches with the Syrian generals, in a war on terrorism inside Syria.” And in New York, the new Iraqi prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, said in an interview that he had delivered a private message to Mr. Assad on behalf of Washington, reassuring him that the Syrian government was not the target of American-led airstrikes.

The confident statements by Syrian leaders and their allies showed how difficult it already is for Mr. Obama to go after terrorists operating out of Syria without getting dragged more deeply into that nation’s three-and-a-half-year-old civil war. Indeed, the American strikes have provided some political cover for Mr. Assad, as pro-government Syrians have become increasingly, even publicly, angry at his inability to defeat the militants.

On the other side, Mr. Obama’s Persian Gulf allies, whom he has pointed to as crucial to the credibility of the air campaign, have expressed displeasure with the United States’ reluctance to go after Mr. Assad directly. For years, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have pressed Washington to join the fight to oust the Syrian president.

And for years, the United States has demurred.

“We need to create an army to fight the terrorists, but we also have to fight the regime,” Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, emir of Qatar, said Thursday in an interview with New York Times editors. “We have to do both.”

Mr. Obama told the United Nations General Assembly on Wednesday that the United States would work with its allies to roll back the Islamic State through military action and support for moderate rebels. But he added, “The only lasting solution to Syria’s civil war is political: an inclusive political transition that responds to the legitimate aspirations of all Syrian citizens, regardless of ethnicity, regardless of creed.”

Yet as the Syrian conflict transformed from peaceful, popular calls for change to a bloody unraveling of the nation, it also became a proxy battlefield for regional and global interests. Iran and Russia sided with Mr. Assad. Arab Gulf nations sided with the rebels, though not always with the same rebels. The United States called for Mr. Assad to go, but never fully engaged.

The rise of the Islamic State militant group, also known as ISIS, prompted Mr. Obama to jump in, but under the auspices of an antiterrorism campaign. The United States was not taking sides in the civil war, or at least it did not intend to. But the minute it entered the battlefield, it inevitably muddled its standing in Syria and across the Middle East, analysts and experts in the region said.

When American attacks, for example, killed militants with the Nusra Front, a group linked to Al Qaeda, it angered some of the same Syrian insurgents who Mr. Obama has said will help make up a ground force against the Islamic State.

Some of the groups that had said they would support the United States’ mission have now issued statements condemning the American strikes on the Qaeda-linked militants. Those groups have also expressed concern that by making the Islamic State its priority, the United States has acknowledged that it does not seek to unseat Mr. Assad.

Conversely, supporters of the Syrian government say hitting the Nusra Front is proof that the United States has switched sides.

“Of course coordination exists,” said a pro-government Syrian journalist speaking on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution, who had criticized the prospect of the strikes but turned practically jubilant once they began. “How else do you explain the strikes on Nusra?” [Continue reading...]

Even if the U.S. is not officially coordinating its operations with the Syrian government, Iraqi National Security Advisor Faleh al-Fayyad is already viewed as serving as an intermediary between Damascus and Washington.

What was initially presented as a military operation to degrade and destroy ISIS, suddenly broadened in scope this week when it included strikes on Jabhat al Nusra. Given that the Obama administration refuses to refer to Nusra by its real name and has instead adopted the fictitious label the “Khorasan Group” in reference to a Nusra unit, it’s hardly surprising that the whole operation even after almost two months still has no official name.

The Pentagon has a page on its website called “Targeted Operations Against ISIL Terrorists” — a description of the operation which, even if it lacks the Marvel Comics-style hyperbolic language that the U.S. military favors in its choice of names, was until this week fairly accurate. But since Nusra got rolled onto the target list, it’s started to look more like Targeted Operations Against Assad’s Worst Enemies.

No surprise then that, at least so far, Assad likes the way the war is proceeding.

Obama has been described as a “realist” who “feels bad about it.”

But Max Abrahms, a Northeastern University professor and terrorism analyst, is the kind of realist willing to assert without apology that U.S. policy should be guided solely by self interest and thus not preclude a working relationship with the Syrian dictator:

“I know of no one who says that Assad ever posed a direct threat to the U.S. homeland. I’ve seen no evidence to ever suggest that, going back to his father. It makes obvious sense in my mind, if the U.S. is going to side with the militants or with Assad, for us to side with Assad.

“The big objection to that is a normative one. People are appalled by the suggestion of the US working with a dictator who’s massacred so many of his people. And yet Assad poses a threat to his own population, not to ours.

“I think there may be an opportunity for the US to work with Assad against ISIS.”

So, given that currently the U.S. appears to have a free hand conducting military operations inside Syria — the Syrian government has raised few objections — are we to imagine that Obama and Assad have formed some kind of secret alliance?

Probably not, but if America’s actions so clearly serve Assad’s interests why would the Syrian leader need a more formal arrangement?

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If the U.S. wants to destroy ISIS, why did it just attack the group’s arch rival?

“We don’t have any specific, credible information about specific plans that they [the "Khorasan Group"] had. On the other hand, the intelligence did lead us to believe that they were in the process of getting very close to the execution phase of general plans that we know that they were interested in,” said Attorney General Eric Holder in an interview today with Yahoo’s Katie Couric.

“So for some time now we’ve been tracking plots to conduct attacks in the United States or Europe. We believe that that attack plotting was imminent, in that they had plans to conduct attacks external to Syria,” said Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser at the White House.

Close to the execution phase of general plans? Imminent plotting for an attack somewhere outside Syria?

The New York Times reports:

[O]ne senior counterterrorism official, who insisted on anonymity to discuss intelligence matters, said the group might not have chosen the target, method or even the timing for a strike. An intelligence official said separately that the group was “reaching a stage where they might be able to do something.”

When government officials make vacuous statements like these and warn about the “imminent” threat posed by America’s latest diabolical foe, is it any wonder that conspiracy theorists like Alex Jones find it so easy to capture a mass audience?

Those Americans less inclined to question official statements and willing to accept that airstrikes against a terrorist group they never heard of must nevertheless be a good thing if that group was about to attack the U.S., would be well advised to ask this question: does an administration that just presented its strategy for degrading and destroying ISIS, actually have a clear strategy if its war against ISIS is now also targeting one of ISIS’s principal adversaries?

Aron Lund writes:

What is being discussed is not a “new terrorist group,” but rather a specialized cell that has gradually been established within, or on, the fringes of an already existing al-Qaeda franchise, the so-called Nusra Front. What this seems to be about is a jihadi cell consisting of veteran al-Qaeda members who have arrived to the Nusra Front in Syria from abroad, mainly via Iran, and who are in direct contact with al-Qaeda’s international leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, himself believed to be based in Pakistan.

Lund continues:

Whatever one decides to call it, this is not likely to be an independent organization, but rather a network-within-the-network, assigned to deal with specific tasks. Most likely it has no fixed name at all, and the “Khorasan Group” label has simply been invented for convenience by U.S. intelligence or adopted from informal references within the Nusra Front to these men as being, for example, “our brothers from Khorasan.”

The issue of the name is significant because it appears that from the vantage point of most Syrians, the U.S. strikes were simply strikes on Nusra and the implications are clear:


U.S. officials have repeatedly said that a campaign of airstrikes against ISIS will not accomplish its ultimate goal of destroying the organization without a ground operation involving Syrian opposition fighters. How will those fighters be recruited if the U.S. is seen as having already further undermined the war against Assad?


Whatever the U.S. might claim about imminent plots being hatched by the Khorasan Group, its leader is apparently viewed as having played a crucial role in the fight against Assad. Indeed, it seems somewhat more plausible that a guy who trains snipers would be focused on the war in Syria rather than some vague plot directed elsewhere.

Whether attacking Jabhat al Nusra has made America any safer is highly debatable but it seems much more likely this will help ISIS — and Assad.

And lastly there’s this footnote: New evidence that Twitter obediently takes directions from the U.S. government:

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The fence around the White House needs to be raised — and removed

white-house-fence

Omar Gonzalez, who on Friday scaled a fence at the White House and sprinted across the lawn towards the Oval Office, is reported to have told a Secret Service agent that “he was concerned that the atmosphere was collapsing and needed to get the information to the president of the United States so that he could get the word out to the people.”

In New York City on Sunday, more than 300,000 people marched for similar reasons. Will their effort, unlike Gonzalez’s, have any tangible effect?

To describe the atmosphere as collapsing might be a technically inadequate description of climate change but it sounds like this is the issue that worried the army veteran. No doubt his fears had been compounded and distorted by traumas experienced while fighting in a war that served no purpose, along with the inadequate care that has been provided for soldiers returning from Iraq. His reasons to mistrust the way the government works certainly cut deeper than those that trouble the average American citizen.

Gonzalez’s action, not surprisingly, has provoked the wrong debate — a debate about whether the White House has adequate security.

But a reluctance to deal with a simple problem — replace a scalable six-foot fence with a much less scalable ten-foot fence — is itself a product of the desire to sustain an illusion: that American presidents have a keener desire to hear and respond to the voices of “ordinary folks” than pay heed to the White House’s regular and much more influential visitors.

We live in a world where the capacity of ordinary people to raise their voices has never been greater, yet with this has come an increasing sense that fewer and fewer people can make themselves heard.

If Gonzalez acted out in a delusional way, it sounds as though there was a kernel of sanity in his impulse.

The atmosphere is collapsing, the sky is falling, and this observation far from being emblematic of an hysterical unwarranted fear, is in fact a crude description of the precarious condition of our planet. The hysteria, in the few places where it is evident, is not an overreaction to the danger we all face, but is instead triggered by the lack of response from those invested with the powers to instigate global changes through the instruments of law and regulation.

Grassroots movements can shape and articulate popular will but that then has to be translated into actions taken by responsive governments — governments led by courageous leaders who do not hide behind unscalable fences.

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Turkey somehow secures release of 49 hostages held by ISIS

Not a shot fired, no ransom paid, no prisoners exchanged, but somehow Turkish intelligence (MİT) agents managed to escort 49 captives out of Syria and back to Turkey earlier today.

So far, the only clue on how Turkey managed to pull off this operation comes from Hurriyet Daily News reporting this: “there are indications of a kind of false flag, or deception operation by MİT. In answering such a question one ranking official said MİT ‘has tried every possible method and left no stone unturned’ to get the hostages alive.”

But the same report also describes ways in which the operation was coordinated with ISIS:

It was ISIL’s condition to give the hostages to Turkey at the border with Syria, “Because of their own security concerns due to their heavy clashes with Kurdish forces. They did not want to make the handover through the Kurdish region,” a security source told HDN.

The report also says: “One official source said ISIL might have ‘not wanted to get into a clash with Turkey’.”

As has widely been reported, a reluctance to put the lives of these hostages in jeopardy was one of Turkey’s main reasons for declining to join the U.S.-led coalition against ISIS — all the more reason to assume that ISIS must have believed that its interests would in some other way be served by releasing the hostages.

The PKK has called on Kurds in Turkey to join their comrades in Kobane, northern Syria, where they are fighting alone against ISIS. Perhaps Turkey threatened ISIS that if it did not free the hostages, Turkey would do nothing to prevent the flow of Kurdish recruits into Syria.

In spite of the suggestion that ISIS was deceived in some way, I’m inclined to believe that the group had reason to expect that it had more to gain by releasing its Turkish hostages than it could by holding on to them.

Slemani Times, an independent English language news publication, covering the Kurdistan Region, Iraq, and the Middle East, in an unsourced tweet offers this explanation for how Turkey successfully negotiated the release of the hostages:

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Harsh sentences for Happy Iranians

IranWire reports: It’s been a tense, worrying time for Iran’s “Happy” group, the seven young men and women arrested in May for posting their version of Pharrell Williams’ music video on YouTube. Over the last few days, they’ve been pacing up and down the hallways of the Tehran courthouse where their trial was due to take place , making sure all their legal papers were in order.

Today their lawyer, Farshid Rofugaran, told IranWire that six of his clients had been sentenced to six months in prison and 91 lashes. One of them was given a sentence of one year in prison and 91 lashes. “Fortunately,” said Rofugaran, “the sentences were suspended.” But he was quick to point out that, until he received official notification, he could not be 100 percent sure of his clients’ situation.

“A suspended sentence becomes null and void after a certain period of time,” Rofugaran said. For the Happy Group, that period will be three years. “When it’s a suspended sentence, the verdict is not carried out, but if during this period a similar offense is committed, then the accused is subject to legal punishment and the suspended sentence will then be carried out as well.” [Continue reading...]

I expect that among the anti-imperialist left, this story will pass without comment or perhaps without even being noticed — don’t expect it to be covered by Press TV.

Iran’s credentials as a resolute critic of American hegemony along with its vocal opposition to Zionism, means that for some in the West, the Islamic republic’s failings can mostly be forgiven.

There is in such an attitude a perverse contradiction.

On the one hand the West is viewed as fundamentally undemocratic, operating a system of rule in which the masses are pacified with distractions and trivial freedoms while their lives are controlled by corporate and political interests that are indifferent to the common good. But at the same time, political oppression in a state like Iran is largely ignored — as though, depending on the circumstances, oppression can be justified in the name of a noble cause.

What to my mind is inexcusable is that anyone, anywhere, should find it excusable that someone could be threatened with imprisonment and lashing because they were “guilty” of dancing and failing to follow a dress code.

If this kind of harmless self-expression is not viewed as a human right, it calls into question the very notion of human rights.

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‘Lend me your ears’ (and pay up) — an ISIS ransom note

john-cantlie

“After two disastrous and hugely unpopular wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, why is it that our governments appear so keen to get involved in yet another unwinnable conflict?”

The question comes from a British journalist, John Cantlie, who has been a prisoner of ISIS for most of the last two years and who has now been compelled to become the organization’s spokesman.

In a newly released video he continues:

I’m going to show you the truth behind these systems and motivation of the Islamic State, and how the western media, the very organisation I used to work for can twist and manipulate that truth to the public back home.

There are two sides to every story – think you’re getting the whole picture? And I’ll show you the truth behind what happened when many European citizens were imprisoned and later released by the Islamic State and how the British and American governments thought they could do it differently to every other every other European country.

They negotiated with the Islamic state and got their people home while the British and Americans were left behind.

It’s very alarming to see where this is all headed and it looks like history repeating itself yet again. There is time to change this seemingly inevitable sequence of events, but only if you, the public act now. Join me for the next few programmes and I think you may be surprised by what you learn.

Stay tuned.

ISIS is frequently credited for its media sophistication, but its use of a prisoner to serve as a spokesman shows how impoverished the organization must be when from among its thousands of Western recruits apparently there aren’t any fit to represent and articulate the cause they are all fighting for. (Individuals like Moner Mohammad Abusalha from Florida might accurately represent the Western face of ISIS, but they also undermine the organization’s credibility.)

When we are told that several European governments successfully negotiated with ISIS and “got their people home,” no mention is made of ransoms being paid.

While ISIS’s latest message tries to leverage antiwar sentiment in the West, no one should mistake this as a wise warning whose purpose is to forestall another military misadventure.

Put most simply the message is: hold fire, pay up, or John Cantlie will meet the same fate as James Foley, Steven Sotloff, and David Haines.

Other commentators have argued that ISIS’s use of beheading videos has been designed to bait the West — to draw the U.S. and its allies into another unwinnable war — but the latest video seems to confirm what I have said repeatedly: ISIS wants to consolidate and expand its caliphate since its success in doing that serves as a much potent magnet for recruits than the prospect of being targeted in U.S. airstrikes.

In response to the start of U.S. military operations in Iraq, ISIS seems to have focused most of its efforts beyond America’s current reach by making gains in Syria.

Even though President Obama says he is ready to order airstrikes in Syria, there seems little reason to believe that these are imminent, and ISIS wants to use the intervening period to its full advantage.

The Cantlie video is the second ISIS releases this week.

flames-of-war

“Fighting has just begun” declares the “trailer” for its Hollywood-style “Flame of War,” but as it did in its other video release this week, Alhayat Media Center is addressing the public, rather than Western governments, in an effort to increase war fears more than war fever.

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Most Americans support war against ISIS but lack confidence it will achieve its goal

NBC News reports: Nearly 70 percent of Americans say they lack confidence that the U.S. will achieve its goals in fighting the terrorist group ISIS, according to a new NBC News/Wall Street Journal/Annenberg poll. The findings come in the wake of President Barack Obama’s national address announcing new measures to combat the Sunni militants.

Pressure is mounting on the U.S. and its allies to cripple the militants, who have waged a brutal campaign across Syria and Iraq. ISIS already has beheaded two American journalists and on Saturday released a video showing the execution of a third Westerner, British aid worker David Haines.

The poll – conducted before the latest execution emerged – showed that a combined 68 percent of Americans say they have “very little” or “just some” confidence that Obama’s goals of degrading and eliminating the threat posed by ISIS will be achieved. Just 28 percent said they had “a great deal” or “quite a bit” of confidence. Still, 62 percent of voters say they support Obama’s decision to take action against ISIS in Iraq and Syria, while 22 percent oppose it. [Continue reading...]

There are lots of ways of reading these numbers and I imagine that all of the following explanations are applicable to varying degrees:

1. “Do you support the war?” A certain percentage of Americans would answer “yes” even if they didn’t know which war they were supporting.

2. “Do you believe it’s necessary to fight ISIS even if the outcome of this fight is uncertain?” In an era where wars all appear to be wars of choice, it’s easy to lose sight of the fundamental meaning of a war of necessity: there appears to be no alternative. For instance, Britain’s commitment to continue fighting against Germany even after the Nazis had taken control over all of the rest of Europe, might in 1940 have looked unrealistic, but it was a stance driven by necessity rather than confidence in the outcome. Likewise, it’s possible to believe that fighting against ISIS is a necessity, even if it remains unclear whether this fight will be successful. (And before anyone leaves a comment: No, I’m not comparing ISIS to the Third Reich.)

3. “Do you think this war will have any direct impact on your life?” Since most Americans can reasonably assume that a war on ISIS will affect them personally to no greater extent than it impacts what they see on television, it’s relatively easy to support a war whose costs are relatively intangible. Likewise, it matters less what the war’s outcome might be when it involves little sacrifice.

4. “Do you think President Obama presented a credible strategy for destroying ISIS?” If the answer’s “no” and this is why you lack confidence in this war, then I’d take that as a fairly good indication that you are following this story reasonably closely.

5. Of course the most obvious reason why Americans would be skeptical about the chances of success for a war against ISIS is the fact that after sinking trillions of dollars into wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and the war on terrorism, al Qaeda still exists.

As has happened so many times before, Obama formulates his policies in reaction to banal, superficial, political imperatives whose primary purpose is to fend off critics.

On Thursday he presented his strategy for destroying ISIS because only days before he got slammed for admitting he didn’t have a strategy.

After he made various comments suggesting that he only aimed to contain ISIS and was thus criticized for underestimating the threat it poses and for being too timid in his response, he answered critics by saying that his aim was to destroy ISIS.

After it was pointed out that fighting ISIS in Iraq would accomplish little if it could continue to consolidate its strength in Syria, Obama said the fight would be taken to Syria.

Each of his steps is reactive and political — as though the primary task at hand was to deflect criticism.

If there’s a vision that guides the Obama presidency, it seems to be one of utter cynicism: a recognition that whatever seems urgent today will soon be overshadowed by another urgent issue, accompanied by a quiet confidence that eventually everything will be forgotten.

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The latest message to America’s allies from ISIS

As has been widely reported, ISIS has released “a video that appears to show the execution of David Haines, a 44-year-old British aid worker kidnapped by the militant group last year in Syria.”

Understandably, a lot of people would like to see an #ISISmediaBlackout — to deprive ISIS the media attention it craves. Frankly, it’s too late for that.

Moreover, it’s a mistake to think that ISIS simply wants publicity or that its barbarity is intended purely as an act of provocation.

The previous two executions of American citizens came after President Obama had already committed U.S. forces to engage in military action against ISIS in Iraq. And the latest execution comes after his announcement that this operation is going to be extended into Syria.

The executions of Americans and now a British citizen have raised questions about the policies of each respective government and whether they did enough to protect their own citizens.

ISIS strategists understand perfectly well the principle of divide-and-rule and this is what they employ in their latest message, using Haines as their involuntary spokesman addressing British prime minister, David Cameron:

“You entered voluntarily into a coalition with the United States against the Islamic State, just as your predecessor, Tony Blair, did, following a trend amongst our British prime ministers who can’t find the courage to say no to the Americans.

“Unfortunately, it is we, the British public, that will in the end pay the price for our Parliament’s selfish decisions.”

If there’s a bait here, it’s not being dangled in front of any government — it’s being offered to the many in the public who are only too eager to echo ISIS’s demand that the U.S. and its allies intrude no further into the territory that ISIS has claimed as its own.

At some point, ISIS may engage in an act of pure provocation and if that happens, I don’t think anyone will be in any doubt — just as there was no doubt that the bombing of the al-Askari Mosque in the Iraqi city of Samarra on February 22, 2006, was intended to fuel a civil war.

The Guardian reports: After 12 years in the RAF, David Haines decided that he wanted to use his experience to work with NGOs who were operating in some of the world’s most turbulent regions. Over the next 15 years, as a security adviser and manager, he worked with refugees in the former Yugoslavia, disabled people in Libya and ceasefire monitors in South Sudan.

He had been in Syria for just three days when he was kidnapped and handed over to Islamic State militants. Along with an Italian aid worker, Federico Motka, and a Syrian driver and translator, Haines had been surveying possible sites for refugee camps that a French charity, Acted, the Agency for Technical Cooperation and Development, was planning to establish, near the Turkish border.

Their translator, who asked not be named, later described the moment the kidnapper struck. “Two very fast cars came up behind – one overtook and the other stayed behind. They shouted at us to get out of the car in formal Arabic. They were wearing black masks and were so professional. They knew that two of us were Syrians and they knew who else was in the car. One of them put a gun to my head and threatened me not to tell anyone what I had seen. They put [Haines and Motka] in the boot of their car and shot out the tyres of our car.”

That was in March last year. During that time Haines, 44, has seen a number of other hostages held by the Islamic State released in return for ransoms. Among them was Motka, freed in May this year with the Italian government reportedly handing over almost £5m. Motka later said that he had been tortured, and moved six times. Haines’ plight went unreported, however. The UK foreign office advised Haines’s family and friends to keep quiet about his ordeal. [Continue reading...]

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Will the U.S. launch airstrikes in Syria?

The New York Times reports: The prospect of the first American attacks on Syrian soil during three years of brutal civil war electrified Syrians on Thursday, prompting intense debate over whether airstrikes on the extremist Islamic State in Iraq and Syria would help or harm President Bashar al-Assad, his armed Syrian opponents and war-weary civilians.

Raqqa, the northeastern city that ISIS has ruled for more than a year, was abuzz with the news. Civilians fled areas near ISIS headquarters. Anti-ISIS insurgents pronounced themselves energized by the prospect of new American aid and said Turkish officials had recently contacted them, promising new arms to fight the foreign-led Sunni group.

But even among fervent opponents of ISIS — including Syrian insurgents, some of whom stand to gain aid to battle the group — there was ambivalence over President Obama’s declaration that he would “not hesitate” to strike ISIS in Syria.

Many warned that if weakening ISIS strengthened Mr. Assad, allowing him to continue attacking opposition-held civilian areas with impunity, and was not accompanied by political enfranchisement of the Sunni majority in Syria, the strikes could backfire, driving more Sunnis to support or tolerate ISIS. Others worried that Syrian civilians could be killed in the attacks. [Continue reading...]

In his national address last night, President Obama said:

I have made it clear that we will hunt down terrorists who threaten our country, wherever they are. That means I will not hesitate to take action against ISIL in Syria as well as Iraq. This is a core principle of my presidency: If you threaten America, you will find no safe haven.

In terms of military strategy, it’s well understood that ISIS will not be weakened, let alone destroyed, if it is pushed back in Iraq while consolidating its strength in Syria. But when Obama says he will not hesitate to strike ISIS in Syria, he is not tying that choice to the campaign in Iraq. Instead, he appears to be making it conditional on his assessment of the threat that ISIS poses to the United States.

He also said, “we have not yet detected specific plotting against our homeland,” and warned that ISIS fighters “could try to return to their home countries and carry out deadly attacks.”

So, Obama appears not to see ISIS as posing an imminent threat to the U.S. and for as long as that remains the case, I’m doubtful that he will order airstrikes in Syria.

If the White House lawyers insist that an imminent threat is the required trigger, then identifying an imminent threat could simply be a matter of political convenience. But I really doubt that Obama is itching to launch such an attack, so I don’t think he’s actively looking for a pretext.

At the same time, if as many have argued, ISIS is trying to bait the U.S., then an adequate bait would involve nothing more than making a few phone calls (which can predictably be intercepted by the NSA) in which plotters discuss plans for attacking America.

As things stand right now, I believe that neither ISIS nor Obama are ready to see U.S. airstrikes on Raqqa.

Foreign Policy notes:

[T]here are good reasons American policymakers haven’t yet rushed to bomb Syria. “There’s a good risk of losses to the U.S. Air Force if we go into Syria without consent,” says Poss. “Syrian air defenses are among the best in the world because they have to go up against one of the best air forces in the world, the Israelis, almost daily.” Israel has managed to outwit its neighbor’s ground-to-air missile defenses a few times thanks to tactical surprise. But a concerted U.S. air campaign against IS in Syria would require multiple sorties every day. Syria’s foreign minister has already warned that the United States will need President Bashar al-Assad’s permission to carry out operations against the terrorist group — something few in Washington have the appetite for requesting. Even so, there’s a risk that bombing in Syria could open an unwanted front in the war.

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Is ISIS a terminal disease?

President Obama might have been slow to come up with a strategy for defeating ISIS but he seems to have been much more resolute in his choice of metaphor for describing the enemy.

After James Foley was murdered, Obama said, “there has to be a common effort to extract this cancer so it does not spread.” A few days later he said: “Rooting out a cancer like [ISIS] won’t be easy and it won’t be quick.” Again, last night he said: “it will take time to eradicate a cancer like ISIL.”

I can see several reasons why Obama finds this cancer metaphor appealing.

Firstly, it avoids the language of George Bush fighting a war of good against evil — a war whose only acceptable conclusion is victory.

Secondly, it implies that there is likely to only be qualified success since cancer has a tendency to reappear.

Thirdly, it implies that “treatment” is likely to be prolonged or perhaps continue indefinitely, just as there is no certain cure for cancer.

Obama’s political goal appears to be to secure support for an open-ended relatively low-key military operation that will be of such little concern to most Americans that it can continue for years without any real accountability.

Even though Obama insists that ISIS must be destroyed, nearly everything he has said indicates his goal is containment.

Here’s most of his speech with a few observations of my own thrown in: [Read more...]

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