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.


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


“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.


“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.


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.


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...]


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.


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...]


America’s island mentality

“Traveling in Europe made me understand that America has an island mentality: No one exists except us. There’s a whole other world out there, but most Americans – all they know is America” — will.i.am

A recent Pew poll asked Americans about what they perceive as “global threats facing the U.S.” the threat from ISIS being among them. The news is that 67% of Americans view ISIS as a major threat to the U.S. — a threat only exceeded by the threat from “Islamic extremist groups like Al Qaeda.”

I guess that after more than a decade of indoctrination in which we have been led to regard Al Qaeda as the purest distillation of evil ever known, it will take some time for the average American to accept the idea that there could actually be anything worse than Al Qaeda.

Even so, the fact that most Americans now perceive ISIS as a major threat doesn’t really reveal a whole lot more than the fact that most Americans watch television.

What I find more interesting than the numbers is the premise behind the pollster’s question: that something could be a global threat and yet not necessarily be a threat to America.

This is a reflection of the prevailing mentality among Americans: that America and the world are in some sense separable.

America can be engaged with or disengaged from the rest of the world because, supposedly, if we are so inclined, the rest of the world can be shut out while America tends to its own affairs.

Is it any wonder that a nation that has such difficulty in seeing itself as part of and as inseparable from the world, also has difficulty viewing climate change — the greatest challenge facing our planet — as a threat?

The Pew poll found that 52% of Americans view the spread of infectious diseases as a threat to the U.S., lower, for instance, than the perceived threat from North Korea’s nuclear program.

No doubt for most people being questioned, when it comes to infectious diseases the issue of the Ebola outbreak in West Africa will have been uppermost in their minds.

President Obama’s announcement on Sunday about a U.S. response to the crisis again reflects America’s island mentality. This is how he framed the urgency of the issue:

“If we don’t make that effort now, and this spreads not just through Africa but other parts of the world, there’s the prospect then that the virus mutates. It becomes more easily transmittable. And then it could be a serious danger to the United States.”

He also said, “We have to make this a national security priority.”

For the United States, the Ebola outbreak is less of a humanitarian issue than it is a threat to America’s security.

It’s as though if health workers in Africa could guarantee that the disease was contained and there was no risk of it spreading overseas, then the U.S. would have no reason to be concerned.

America sees itself as a generous country, in part because Americans have a staggering level of ignorance about how much foreign aid the U.S. grants.

Americans on average believe that 28% of the federal budget — more than is spent on defense — is spent on foreign aid when in reality it is just 1%! When informed about actual spending, the majority of Americans say that 1% is about right or too much — only 28% say that 1% of the budget is too little.

What these numbers imply is that most Americans perceive the world as a drain on this nation’s resources. Having been led from birth to believe that this is the greatest nation on earth, how could the rest of the world be perceived otherwise?

When Obama lays out his strategy for dealing with ISIS this evening, it goes without saying that one of the central pillars of his argument will be that this organization poses a threat to America’s national security. To present ISIS in any other way would risk implying that the threat which ISIS poses across the Middle East constitutes a sufficiently urgent threat that even if it was to advance no further, this should nevertheless concern Americans. Such an argument would likely elicit a shrug — we don’t live in the Middle East so why should we care?

The idea that we might care because we all live on the same planet, breath the same air, and inhabit the same world, has little traction in the hearts and minds of Americans who see the world as somewhere else.

The idea that those whose lives are not in danger have a responsibility to pay attention to the needs of those in peril, is a humanitarian impulse which in an era of unquestioned realism, is always a lower priority than the national interest.

Returning to the question about global threats, rather than ask Americans a conceptually mangled question about threats to the U.S., it might have been more interesting to try and gauge awareness about actual global threats, which is to say, threats that are global in scale.

These would be — at least by my reckoning:

  • the excessive production of greenhouse gases by human activity resulting in climate change
  • the Holocene extinction — the mass extinction of species and loss of biodiversity that has resulted from human activity
  • population displacement which now exceeds 50 million people, the largest number since World War II
  • industrialized agriculture involving the use of toxic pesticides and genetically modified crops which poisons the food chain, degrades ecosystems, resulting in the loss of topsoil thereby undermining the basis for agriculture
  • nuclear weapons both in existing arsenals and through proliferation
  • infectious diseases including antibiotic resistant superbugs
  • chronic illness caused by unhealthy lifestyles, poor nutrition, and profit driven pharmaceutical protocols promoted by the disease-maintenance industry
  • racism and other forms of intolerance which undermine the growth of political pluralism
  • the endangered ethnosphere in which the accumulated knowledge of indigenous peoples, their languages and cultures is rapidly being lost
  • homogenized global culture in which human aspirations are manipulated in the service of commerce
  • technological dependence through which intelligence is being displaced from minds into devices
  • inequality stemming from inadequate political representation and excessive corporate power
  • ignorance resulting in the proliferation of all the above threats.

Compared with these issues, I don’t believe that ISIS constitutes a global threat, yet it nevertheless poses an urgent threat calling for a global response — a response that should not be artificially separated from the need to envision a post-war Syria.


Obama expects ISIS to still be in power when he leaves the White House

Rami Khouri: [C]ombining American militarism with Arab dictatorships is probably the stupidest recipe that anybody could possibly come up with to try to fight jihadi movements like al-Qaeda and Islamic State and others, because it was that combination of Arab autocracy and American militarism that actually nurtured and let these movements expand. There has to be a more intelligent, more realistic process that allows the people in the Middle East to roll back these threats. And these people need to be fought; I’m not saying you sit around and do nothing. You have to fight these people and eradicate them…

What do we do about this Islamic State? These guys are taking more territory. They’re enforcing their rule by force, by terrorizing people. And very few people are happily accepting them. They don’t — you know, ordinary people don’t have a choice. If the Islamic State comes in with their guns and chops people’s heads off or crucifies a couple of people, everybody else stays [inaudible]. And this should be a telltale sign that these groups only can operate in zones of chaos. And the United States and others, the British, have helped create these zones of chaos in the last 20 years in Afghanistan and in Iraq, most recently. So, there’s really a lot of shared responsibility for this terrible situation we’re in, but the bottom line is we need to figure out how to fight the two real problems, which Obama keeps repeating as his strategy, the two real problems of autocratic, nondemocratic, abusive, corrupt, pretty inefficient and mediocre Arab government systems, Arab regimes, across the board. And the other one is the repeated use of American, British, Israeli, other military power in the region to try to enforce an order that the West and the Israelis and others feel is suitable for them. Those two problems are two of the root causes of all of these issues that we’re seeing, and the Islamic State is simply a symptom of years and years of this, of these kinds of problems of bad governance.

The driving force behind President Obama’s formulation of a strategy for dealing with ISIS appears to have been the mere fact that he inadvertently revealed he lacked such a strategy.

In other words, the strategy he is about to unveil on Wednesday is not really a strategy for dealing with ISIS; it’s a strategy for dealing with the fact that he looked inept when he said he didn’t have a strategy.

Having been forced by embarrassment to quickly formulate this strategy, it appears to have been stitched together as an effort to deflect earlier criticisms. For instance, in Libya the administration was embarrassed by Obama’s reluctance to lead. This time, the New York Times reports, “the Obama administration is no longer ‘leading from behind,’ but plans to play the central role in building a coalition to counter ISIS.”

Still, by framing this as an operation likely to last longer than his administration, the president wants to insulate himself from the risk of personal failure, while most likely he passes on the most difficult phase to his successor:

The final, toughest and most politically controversial phase of the operation — destroying the terrorist army in its sanctuary inside Syria — might not be completed until the next administration.

What do we do about ISIS?

This isn’t a debate about the pros and cons of military action. As Khouri says: “You have to fight these people and eradicate them.”

If Obama invests less time on message management and more on genuine strategic thinking, then he might see that the coalition he’s trying to build should place at its core the people who have the ability and desire to fight ISIS: Syrians, Iraqis, and Kurds who should not be used as proxy forces following the commands of the Pentagon, but fighters fighting their own war with U.S. and allied support.


Kissinger still at work covering up his war crimes

In an interview broadcast on NPR on Saturday, “realist” supremo, Henry Kissinger, made this extraordinary statement:

I think we would find, if you study the conduct of [the military], that the Obama administration has hit more targets on a broader scale than the Nixon administration ever did. And, of course, B-52s have a different bombing pattern.

On the other hand, drones are far more deadly because they are much more accurate. And I think the principle is essentially the same. You attack locations where you believe people operate who are killing you. You do it in the most limited way possible. And I bet if one did an honest account, there were fewer civilian casualties in Cambodia than there have been from American drone attacks. [My emphasis.]

kissingerObviously, Kissinger’s purpose in making this claim is not to portray President Obama as a war criminal. After all, Obama often acts like one of Kissinger’s most devoted students.

Kissinger wants to be seen as having done during the Vietnam war what any American in his position would have done. And since from the American public there has been little opposition to Obama’s use of drones, Kissinger hopes to liken himself to Obama and thereby shed his image as a war criminal.

There’s no doubt that Obama’s use of drones has been cynical, counter-productive, and indeed a criminal exercise in extra-judicial killing. But for Kissinger to claim that more civilians have been killed by drones than he killed by carpet bombing Cambodia is outrageous, absurd, and patently false.

The Bureau for Investigative Journalism has been the leader in documenting the effects of America’s drone wars. Its estimate of the number of casualties in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia since 2002 is at least 571 and at most 1225 civilian deaths.

In the four-year secret bombing campaign of Cambodia which Kissinger instigated, “the U.S. dropped 540,000 tons of bombs, killing anywhere from 150,000 to 500,000 civilians.”

The Trials of Henry Kissinger (2002) describes how this happened:

Kissinger is now 91 and no doubt increasingly preoccupied with how he will be remembered after his death. Americans born after the Vietnam era might view him as a figure from the past (if they view him in any way at all), but no one should underestimate his enduring influence. Ironically, his realist worldview has tacitly been accepted even by people who identify themselves as anti-interventionists and opponents of war and for whom Kissinger might be one of the despised characters in American history.

In post 9/11 America, even those who are willing to argue that U.S. foreign policy should be informed by humanitarian principles also feel compelled to bow towards U.S. national interests. For instance, in as much as there was any debate about military intervention in Syria after the chemical attacks a year ago, the element in the argument that carried more weight than any other was America’s national interest. The wide consensus that America had no appetite to become entangled in another war and that getting dragged into the war in Syria would not serve our interests, overshadowed any consideration about what might serve the interests of the Syrian people. Their appeals for international support in their struggle to overthrow Assad have fallen on deaf ears among those who believe that there is no cause greater than the pursuit of our national interests.

Likewise, when it comes to a global issue such as climate change, America’s role in having precipitated the crisis and the fact that world’s poor living in flood-prone countries such as Bangladesh will suffer the worst consequences, appear to be of less influence in shaping American public opinion than are perceptions of how much the U.S. will be affected. In other words, to the extent that Americans believe this country can adapt and even prosper, the expectation that we can live while millions of others die, makes climate change look like a manageable problem.

Kissinger doesn’t have to worry about his legacy because with very few exceptions, Americans are all Kissingers now.


French jihadist, alleged ISIS torturer, ‘looking for a destiny of his own’

Nicolas Henin, a French journalist who was released in April after being held hostage in Syria by ISIS, has identified Mehdi Nemmouche, who is also French, as one of his captors. Henin says that over a period of several months he was repeatedly tortured and beaten by Nemmouche.

In July, Nemmouche was charged with murder following the killing of four people at the Jewish Museum of Belgium, in Brussels, on May 24.

The case of Nemmouche raises concerns in at least two ways: firstly, because he is viewed as a fear come true by those who warn of the risk posed to the West by European passport holders returning from the war in Syria who, having been trained by ISIS, may bring their jihad home. Secondly, his violence is being linked to the rise of antisemitism across Europe, particularly in France.

Henin’s perspective on Nemmouche is interesting because unlike terrorism experts who maintain much more distance from their subjects, the French journalist got to know this individual in a much more intimate way: as his torturer.

It would be easy to conclude that the nature of this relationship would make it impossible for Henin to be objective. Maybe so. But I think it’s just as likely that a victim of torture would feel driven to try and understand the mind of his persecutor — especially when they were in the unusual situation of sharing the same first language.

For this reason, I find Henin’s brief psychological profile of Nemmouche particularly interesting.

Henin observed that Nemmouche “came to Syria not because he wanted to fight for a specific cause but because he was looking for a destiny of his own.”

The term “radicalization” appears in the media a lot these days and it conjures up images of empty vessels — young men susceptible to being radicalized.

While that might accurately describe the hapless path that leads some into jihad, there are others — and who’s to say which are more numerous — for whom jihad simply becomes the vehicle for a destiny they were already pursuing.

My hunch is that it is the latter kind of jihadist for whom ISIS has the greatest appeal — that they are pursuing destinies of their own for which they have been provided an ideological vehicle which legitimizes and articulates their visceral drives.

France has about 70,000 prisoners, 60-70% of whom are Muslim. However prevalent the radicalization of Muslim prisoners has become, only a small minority become jihadists. Given that only 5-10% of the French population is Muslim, France’s larger concern should be that so many Muslims are being thrown in jail.

The French journalist Marc Weitzmann recounts how one prisoner describes the system.

Karim Mokhtari, who was sentenced to 10 years in the mid-1990s after he tried to rob a drug trafficker and accidentally killed him with a shotgun, reveals in his book Redemption how easy it is to be approached by Islamists there. “In prison,” he told me, “there are two things you catch as soon as you get there. One is how lonely you are, and the other is how lonely you don’t want to be. So you look in the courtyard and you ask yourself, to which group do I belong? There are the junkies, there are the dealers, there are the rapists, and so forth. And there are the religious. Cleaner than the rest, they also seem to suffer less, they take care of each other. I watched them for a week, then the improvised Imam came to me to ask if I were a Muslim and I said no, not yet, and he introduced me to someone freshly converted — a European — who taught me the first rudiments of Arabic, the first prayers and rituals. And it went on from there.”

After the conversion rate started to turn the group into a force of some sort, the administration decided out of precaution to dismantle the religious group: The imam was transferred. He came to Mokhtari’s cell, as Mokhtari told me: “ ‘Listen’ he said, ‘I’m being transferred and I must leave. But you, your mission as a Muslim is to kill. Kill miscreants anywhere you find them. You need to keep in touch for that even when you’re out so do it. And if you need military training, we have places for that too.’ ”

“That’s when I realized what I was going into,” Mokhtari said. He was the son of a violent mixed marriage, and his French mother got divorced and remarried to a racist Frenchman who lived on welfare and off robbery. … Mokhtari started to get regularly beaten by the man, who also woke him up at 4.a.m. on Saturday nights to take him along with him on his robberies of villas and apartments while Karim kept watch. But despite an incomparably more violent background than Nemmouche endured, Karim Mokhtari never turned to terrorism.

In the following film, Mokhtari describes his own redemption.

Destiny is a dangerous and intoxicating idea. It empowers the individual by allowing him to shed doubt.

Where there is no internal struggle, conviction easily translates into action. Those pursuing their destiny, swiftly move forward, while those unsure of their destiny, are more inclined to waver, aware of their capacity to make mistakes. Destiny is dangerous both subjectively and objectively.

If we believe some individuals are destined to become to become terrorists, we’re also likely to view them as irredeemable.


As NATO allies unite against ISIS, it’s time for the U.S. to talk to the PKK

The Washington Post reports: The Obama administration accelerated efforts Friday to build an international coalition to combat the Islamic State, winning pledges of support from nine allies but leaving questions about the extent of possible expanded military force.

The United States has waged a series of airstrikes seeking to slow the advance of the Islamic State in northern Iraq and bolster the defenses of Western-allied fighters in the Iraq’s nearby Kurdish region.

But Washington is now eager to broaden the military and diplomatic pressures on the group, which has drawn international condemnation for sending non-Muslim minorities fleeing in fear and waging bloodshed such as mass killings and the beheadings of two American journalists.

The 10-nation alliance, forged at a NATO summit in Wales, could raise worries about deepening Western military engagement in the region nearly three years after the withdrawal of U.S. combat forces from Iraq.

Secretary of State John F. Kerry and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel used the NATO forum to hold meetings with foreign and defense ministers from nine countries: Britain, France, Germany, Canada, Australia, Turkey, Italy, Poland and Denmark.

The leaders described themselves as the core of an emerging coalition to counter the Islamic State, although they downplayed the prospect of imminent joint military action. They also left unsaid whether they were planning to attack Islamic State’s strongholds in Syria or limit their mission to Iraq. [Continue reading...]

The New York Times adds this tough-talk from Kerry: “There is no containment policy for ISIL,” Secretary of State John Kerry said at the beginning of the meeting, using an alternate acronym for ISIS. “They’re an ambitious, avowed, genocidal, territorial-grabbing, caliphate-desiring quasi state with an irregular army, and leaving them in some capacity intact anywhere would leave a cancer in place that will ultimately come back to haunt us.”

So even though the text of the statement issued by the State Department makes no mention of attacking ISIS in Syria, that’s part of the plan — right?

It’s widely recognized that the most effective force fighting against ISIS is the YPG (People’s Protection Units), the branch of the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) based in Rojava, Syrian Kurdistan.

When the U.S. claimed success in rescuing thousands of Yazidis trapped on Mount Sinjar, it was YPG fighters on the ground who played the crucial role in creating a safe corridor.

In building its international coalition to fight ISIS, the U.S. will naturally want the support of as many allies as possible, yet what could be the most productive alliance of all — with the PKK — will remain hamstrung unless Washington grows up and ditches its childish anti-terrorism fundamentalism and quickly de-lists the PKK as a so-called terrorist organization.

Not only is this particular designation unwarranted — as Henri Barkey points out, the U.S. should be willing to talk to the PKK when the PKK’s chief adversary, Turkey, is already doing so — but the whole idea of designating organizations and individuals as terrorists is itself an insult to the rule of law. Such labeling functions as a political tool used without much more subtlety than the Catholic church’s practice of branding heretics at the time of the inquisition. Democracy, however, only allows for the designation of illegal actions — not illegal opinions or affiliations.

The necessity of fighting ISIS has arisen not because it promotes a diabolical ideology; it derives from the fact that the members of ISIS are engaging in genocide, ethnic cleansing, war crimes, and crimes against humanity.


How #ISIS wants to exploit anti-interventionist sentiment in the West


Like any organization that takes messaging seriously, ISIS has to study its audience while crafting its messages.

In its “second message to America,” the blunt warning from the militant group boiled down to this:

… just as your missiles continue to strike our people, our knife will continue to strike the necks of your people… We take this opportunity to warn those governments that enter this evil alliance of America against the Islamic State to back off and leave our people alone.

Beheading Americans — first James Foley and now Steven Sotloff — might seem like a counterproductive way of influencing American public opinion, but ISIS isn’t interested in gaining American sympathy. It just wants the U.S. to back off.

After several months in which it has enjoyed success after success during its often unopposed advance across Iraq, U.S. airstrikes have thrown an unwelcome obstacle in the progress of this would-be Islamic state.

ISIS’s victories have been its biggest recruiting asset and the promise of life in the new caliphate is much more appealing than the prospect of getting bombed by Americans.

ISIS had four American prisoners and now it has just two. Despite its flagrant disregard for the value of human life, there should be no doubt that ISIS applies a brutal but careful calculus in deciding when to sacrifice an American life, given that it has power over so few.

The killing of Foley and Sotloff seems much less like “an announcement of global jihad” than an indication that ISIS feels threatened.

No one inside or outside ISIS can have had any illusions that President Obama — his expressed determination to protect American lives notwithstanding — would base his decisions solely on the need to protect the lives of four American captives. For that reason, neither the death of Foley two weeks ago nor that of Sotloff now, could be expected to manipulate U.S. policy.

Even so, ISIS is surely well aware that America as a country has lost most of its appetite for war and “back off” is a demand that harmonizes with the anti-interventionist sentiment to which everyone in Washington is well attuned.

Even the most gung-ho hawks nowadays always feel obliged to qualify their war-making recommendations with an obligatory promise: no boots on the ground. The Pentagon and the American public collude with each other in sustaining the deceit that military action only becomes war after American soldiers start getting killed. Thus, no boots on the ground supposedly means no war.

Post 9/11, post the war in Iraq and as we approach the end of America’s longest war — the one in Afghanistan that is generally recognized as having accomplished nothing — Americans express less a sense of defeat than an easy resignation that “the problem” is really the nature of the Middle East. “The solution” thus appears patently obvious: have nothing to do with the region.

Yes, ISIS is a monster and we helped create it, but it doesn’t operate in the U.S. And even if we did try to defeat it, we’d more likely make the problem worse and turn the U.S. into a direct target for ISIS attacks.

For many Americans, there’s clearly something comforting in this perspective, but it leaves me wondering: what happened to everyone’s sense of humanity?

We each have many layers of identity, but doesn’t the sense of being human matter more than all the others? Or does being human matter less than being American?

Some commentators argue that the alarm calls about ISIS are being driven by Empire’s insatiable lust for war — suggesting that ISIS is in some sense a manufactured threat.

That’s a view that easily finds traction on the internet, but each time I hear this I have the same reaction: who would have the audacity to make this argument directly to this Yazidi girl?

Here is a child who has to carry a gun to defend herself and her family from ISIS because there is no one else she can rely on. She has been let down by humanity.

Perversely, we now inhabit a world in which the concept of humanity seems to have gradually fallen out of circulation even among people who would have once dubbed themselves humanists.

Supposedly, the only arbiter which can be applied to determine whether the threat posed by ISIS concerns Americans is ISIS’s ability or intention to kill Americans or harm American interests.

In an interview Obama gave in January he said:

[H]ow we think about terrorism has to be defined and specific enough that it doesn’t lead us to think that any horrible actions that take place around the world that are motivated in part by an extremist Islamic ideology is a direct threat to us or something that we have to wade into.

In other words, America should only concern itself with terrorism if and when it poses a threat to America.

It’s easy to understand what has led Obama to this conclusion — it’s part of his measured effort to wind down the war on terrorism.

Yet Obama lacks the political courage, moral conviction, or imagination to propose a new paradigm through which Americans can view the world.

The terrorism paradigm has become so entrenched in the American zeitgeist that this president has done little more than make minor modifications. Indeed, he had done so while expanding the national security state.

Ironically, the failure of the terrorism paradigm is becoming particularly evident in the debate about how the U.S. should respond to ISIS.

As war-weary Americans view the Middle East, it’s worth remembering what happened in South-East Asia after the U.S. withdrew from Vietnam. Within two years the Khmer Rouge in neighboring Cambodia had embarked on the worst genocide since the Holocaust.

Kenneth M. Quinn who later served as U.S. ambassador to Cambodia wrote:

[T]he explanation for the terror and violence that swept Cambodia during the 1970s is that a small group of alienated intellectuals, enraged by their perception of a totally corrupt society and imbued with a Maoist plan to create a pure socialist order in the shortest possible time, recruited extremely young, poor, and envious cadres, instructed them in harsh and brutal methods learned from Stalinist mentors, and used them to destroy physically the cultural underpinnings of the Khmer civilization and to impose a new society through purges, executions, and violence.

As the writer Sean Thomas has noted, the parallels between ISIS and the Khmer Rouge are striking.

In many ways Isis are the Khmer Rouge with prayer mats. Both wear, or wore, black, as if to emphasise their nihilism. Both expanded – even exploded – from stupid wars engendered by the West. Both ruthlessly murdered any rival factions, ensuring that they became the sole standard-bearer for fellow travellers.

The parallels go on. The Khmer Rouge used hallucinatory violence as a technique and leitmotif – ripping foetuses from living women, smashing babies against trees – as do Isis, beheading anyone they fancy and tweeting the result, burying women and kids alive. Just as Isis are fiercely, fundamentally religious – slaughtering the infidels, the heathens, the Christians, the Shia, or even tribes of Sunnis who don’t cut the jihadi mustard, so the Khmer Rouge were fiercely, fundamentally atheist – promising to tear down every temple, and throw every single monk into the sea. Which they did.

The two forces are likewise similar in their aims and accomplishments. The Khmer Rouge managed to kill 2 million Cambodians (a third of the nation’s population), Isis will aim to kill many more than that, and they may well succeed, if they manage to get hold of chemical weapons, dirty bombs, nukes, and/or the lost souls of lonely young men in London, Paris, Moscow, and Detroit. As the KR despised and feared anyone outside their core, Isis believe we – by which I mean everyone on the entire planet who does not submit to their ideals, or convert to their deviant form of Islam – are at once a threat and an abomination, worthy of nothing but death, or grotesque servitude.

There is plenty of evidence that ISIS has committed genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity — as has the Syrian government. These are crimes that should concern all humanity however far removed some of us might be from the carnage.

If we reassure ourselves that these horrors are occurring somewhere else but not here, we are in a methodical and dispassionate way allowing our own humanity to slowly dissipate. As we gradually become less humane we slowly succumb to a pervasive indifference. If we might once imagined we could feel safe by standing apart from the rest of the world, in the end we will feel nothing.


ISIS beheads second American journalist — sends ‘second message to America’

NBC News reports: The Islamic militant group ISIS beheaded Steven Joel Sotloff, an American freelance journalist who was abducted a year ago in Syria, in a video made public Tuesday by a jihadist monitoring organization.

The monitoring organization, SITE Intel Group, announced on Twitter that Sotloff had been beheaded. It said that ISIS had also threatened to execute a British captive, David Cawthorne Haines.

The video, titled “A Second Message to America,” opens with a clip of President Barack Obama speaking after ISIS beheaded another American journalist, James Foley, last month. Obama vowed in those remarks to be “relentless” when Americans are harmed.

The video then shows Sotloff, wearing an orange jump suit and kneeling, in a sparse desert landscape, next to a black-clad ISIS fighter — a replica of the conditions in the video in which Foley was beheaded.

Speaking to the camera, Sotloff questions U.S. intervention in the Middle East and blames Obama for “marching us, the American people, into a blazing fire.”

The ISIS fighter then blames Obama for an “arrogant foreign policy towards Islamic State” and for refusing to heed ISIS’s warnings and end military strikes.

Those Middle-East watchers in the West who suffer from the affliction of seeing America at the center of all things, will be inclined to persist in their interpretation that ISIS is trying to goad the U.S. into stronger military intervention in Iraq.

This strikes me as a gross misreading of events — and it misrepresents the timeline.

U.S. airstrikes in Iraq started before James Foley was murdered. At that time, Foley’s killer — while holding Sotloff — warned: “The life of this American citizen, Obama, depends on your next decision.”

The airstrikes continued and ISIS has now carried through on that threat.

And as ISIS now says that Obama is marching the American people into a blazing fire, the jihadists are again saying: back off.

Much as ISIS’s fighters and jihadists in general are widely perceived as being driven by a desire for martyrdom, it is ISIS’s success in laying the foundations for its own state and in the swift expansion of this state, that is the driving force behind the movement’s growth.

ISIS wants to be seen as an unstoppable force and the battles it loses and the retreats it is forced to make, will weaken that image.

If there’s a credible alternative to using military force against ISIS, I have yet to see it.


The impatient jihadist

With ISIS being infamous for its brutality, one might assume that anyone joining such an extreme organization would first have to go through the ill-defined process called “radicalization.” Not so.

The story of a young Bahraini man, appearing in the latest issue of CTC Sentinel, is perhaps more representative of the path leading to violent jihad than we might imagine.

Having received a short pep talk in an ISIS office in Syria, this man signs up and then gets instruction on the cause he’s about to fight for and for which he’s ready to sacrifice his life (and the lives of others).

The jihadists grabbing the headlines these days are commonly described as living out a kind of medieval fantasy. I’m not so sure. I wonder whether on the contrary their behavior is symptomatic of a thoroughly modern affliction: the death of the interior life.

When the means through which an individual understands their identity is wholly defined by outward forms and the perceptions of others, they lose their capacity for self knowledge. An inner vacuity then has to be filled by something from outside. Most people can be satisfied with a steady supply of pleasurable distractions, whereas for others their discontent is strong enough to drive them to take up a cause.

In both cases they are running away from themselves. Some run away to Syria.

BahriniAbu Thar al-Bahrini, from Bahrain, began his story by discussing how he was “not religiously committed” in high school, although he knew that this was “wrong.” After he graduated high school with high grades, his family assumed he would go to medical school. Al-Bahrini, however, had different ideas, as he thought that this was his chance to “repent” and the best way to do that was by joining a Shari`a school in Saudi Arabia. He changed his mind, however, after deciding that the path of studying Shari`a was too long, so he made a decision to join jihad in Syria instead. At the start, al-Bahrini mentioned that he did not “differentiate between the Free Syrian Army (FSA), Jabhat al-Nusra (JN) or ISIL.” His main concern was finding a coordinator to show him the way to Syria, and collecting enough money to cover the expenses of his trip. He started to post photos of the FSA, JN and ISIL on his Instagram account, and during that time he was able to meet with a coordinator in Bahrain who linked recruits with the FSA. At this point, al-Bahrini had only 50 Bahraini dinar (about $130), and the coordinator told him that he needed at least 200 dinar (about $520) to cover his expenses. Al-Bahrini was able to convince only one of his friends to appeal to a wealthy individual on his behalf, and the affluent man agreed to cover all his expenses. For some unidentified reason, the agreement between the coordinator and al-Bahrini fell apart, so he decided to travel to Turkey alone.

“I didn’t know the route to take, didn’t have any recommendation letter, and didn’t know anything about my journey,” al-Bahrini said. “All what I knew is that I should fly to Istanbul airport, from there fly to one of the villages near the [Turkish-Syrian] borders, and then a car would take me from there to enter Syria.”

He flew to Istanbul as planned, purchased a ticket to a “bordering city,” and while he was waiting for the plane he saw “a man with a beard reading the Qur’an, and I knew that he was going to Syria.” Without hesitation, al-Bahrini approached the man, and said to him confidently: “you are going to Syria and I’m going with you.” After a short discussion, al-Bahrini convinced the man to help him. “The man was in touch with coordinators from the Free Syrian Army,” who were supposed to smuggle him into Syria to join JN. They went to a house used by the FSA as a clinic in Turkey, and on the second day a “brother from ISIL came to that house to visit his friends,” al-Bahrini explained. “We told him that we are going to join JN in Idlib, and he offered to take us to JN after we enter Syria.”

Two days after they entered Syria, the same person from ISIL came to them, explained the tensions between the two groups, and suggested they join ISIL instead of JN. They found the explanation complicated, as they knew little about the mujahidin, Usama bin Ladin or any basic jihadist issues, so he took them to one of ISIL’s headquarters so they could learn more about jihad in general and ISIL in particular. After a short interview with the group’s amir of that area, al-Bahrini was sent to a training camp and took military courses and a Shari`a class where he learned “the correct creed.”

Al-Bahrini’s parents were religiously committed, but in his opinion they “were not following the correct creed” because they believed that “jihad now is selective duty and not an individual duty.” Therefore, al-Bahrini decided not to inform them about his intentions to travel to Syria. Once he arrived at the Istanbul airport, al-Bahrini posted a scanned copy of his “ticket and passport on his Instagram account to inform his family about his real intentions to migrate to Syria.” Despite his family’s best efforts, they could not convince him to return to Bahrain. Al-Bahrini concluded his story by acknowledging that his mother and brother, who was a soldier in the Bahrain army, later visited him and were both convinced to join ISIL’s ranks in Syria.

Al-Bahrini appeared in the recently released ISIL video Salil al-Sawarim 4 (Sound of the Swords Clashing 4), in which he delivered a short and powerful speech followed by him ripping up his Bahraini passport and promising to “return to Bahrain not with this useless passport, but marching with ISIL army to liberate all Muslim lands.”


Netanyahu shows why his claim — Hamas is ISIS — is BS

Eager to grasp a political opportunity that seemed to have been created by the murder of James Foley, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu got busy on Twitter saying that “Hamas is ISIS.”

But Netanyahu seems to have changed his mind because he now says that it is the close proximity of the threat from ISIS — in the opposite direction from Gaza — that necessitated the ceasefire with Hamas. Otherwise Israel could have continued bombing Gaza for 500 days instead of stopping after 50 days.

In other words, even if Netanyahu won’t be tweeting this, Israel accepted a ceasefire with Hamas in part because Hamas is not ISIS.

AFP reports: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel agreed to a permanent truce in its 50-day Gaza war with Hamas in order to keep focused on the threat from regional militants.

“We fought for 50 days and we could have fought for 500 days, but we are in a situation where the Islamic State is at the gates of Jordan, Al-Qaeda is in the Golan and Hezbollah is at the border with Lebanon,” Netanyahu said in an address on public television.

He was referring to Islamic State jihadists in Syria and Iraq — both neighbours of Jordan — Al-Qaeda-linked Al-Nusra Front Syria rebels on the Israeli-annexed Golan and Lebanon’s Shiite movement Hezbollah.

“We decided not to get bogged down in Gaza, and we could have, but we decided to limit our objective and restore calm to Israeli citizens,” Netanyahu added.

His remarks come as the United States, Israel’s chief ally, is calling for a global coalition to fight the jihadists who have set up an Islamic “caliphate” in areas they have overrun in Syria and Iraq.


The truth about ISIS, 9/11 and JFK

You know… is a funny expression.

Someone leans forward slightly and confides, “You know…” on the assumption that the person he’s talking to doesn’t know. (I say “he” because men are much more inclined to share their presumed wisdom in this way.)

If I say you know what I really mean is I know and you probably don’t, but listen up because I’m going to share a privileged piece of information with you.

Conspiracy theories are favorites among those who like to trade in information in this way. They resolve much of the angst in a world weighed down by too many unanswered questions. For those who feel politically impotent, these narratives of intrigue secretly at play inside institutions which exercise unassailable power, provide a comforting vehicle for safely contained outrage. Knowing how the system works means knowing why you have no power to change it — so the mindset works.

Conspiracy theories spread as ad hoc clubs in which the storytellers — these are after all just stories — dole out offers of free membership to anyone who shows an interest.

With the creation of the internet we now live in the Golden Age of conspiracy theories where ill-formed ideas spread like invasive species.

These mind-weeds most easily grow where government is viewed with the deepest suspicion and the mainstream media is assumed to be inextricably bound in a servile relationship with concealed political and commercial powers.

An article of faith that seems to bind together most conspiracy theorists is a conviction that the root of all evil in the world is the U.S. government. Ultimately, everything comes back to Washington.

You know this terrorist group ISIS? Did you know it was created by the U.S. government?

Of course! How else could such a devilish organization have come into existence.

Robert Mackey has delved into the latest rendition of this familiar story.

According to the theory, which appears to have started in Egypt and spread rapidly across the region, ISIS was created by the United States as part of a plot orchestrated by the former secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton to replace the region’s autocratic rulers with more pliant Islamist allies. The evidence cited to back up this claim sounds unimpeachable: passages from Mrs. Clinton’s new memoir in which she describes how a plan to bolster the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt was foiled at the last moment when the Egyptian military seized power on July 5, 2013, and deployed submarines and fighter jets to block an American invasion.

If that plot sounds like the stuff of fiction, that’s because it is. The passages described by supporters of the Egyptian military on Facebook as quotes from Mrs. Clinton’s memoir were entirely fabricated and do not appear anywhere in the text of her book, “Hard Choices.”

The fictional plot was reported as fact by Egyptian, Tunisian, Palestinian, Jordanian and Lebanese news organizations. [Continue reading...]

But if the story that the U.S. created ISIS is a work of fiction, where did ISIS come from?

That’s a more complicated question than it sounds and at this point, I don’t think anyone can claim to have presented the definitive account. Even so, there has been wealth of strong reporting and analysis that fleshes out many of the key components of the picture — the role of Sunni disenfranchisement in Iraq; the cultivation of a nemesis that suited Bashar al-Assad’s narrative of his war on terrorism; and perhaps most importantly, ISIS’s focus on self-sufficiency.

Here is some essential reading:

Sarah Burke — “How al Qaeda changed the Syrian war” (December 27, 2013)

Peter Neumann — “Assad and the jihadists” (March 28, 2014)

Ziad Majed — “Fathers of ISIS” (June, 2014)

Victoria Fontan — “ISIS, the slow insurgency” (June 13, 2014)

Alex Rowell — “Blame Assad first for ISIS’ rise” (June 17, 2014)

Simon Speakman Cordall — “How Syria’s Assad helped forge ISIS” (June 21, 2014)

Rania Abouzeid — “The Syrian roots of Iraq’s newest civil war” (June 23, 2014)

Hannah Allam — “Records show how Iraqi extremists withstood U.S. anti-terror efforts” (June 23, 2014)

Bassam Barabandi and Tyler Jess Thompson — “Inside Assad’s playbook: time and terror” (July 23, 2014)

Gary Anderson — “Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and the theory and practice of jihad” (August 12, 2014)

Hassan Hassan — “ISIS: A portrait of the menace that is sweeping my homeland” (August 16, 2014)

Maria Abi-Habib — “Assad policies aided rise of ISIS” (August 22, 2014)


Another American killed in Syria fighting for ISIS

Douglas-McCainDouglas McAuthur McCain was described by former classmates who knew him growing up in Minnesota as “a good guy,” “goofy,” “a fun guy,” and “a goofball” who was “always smiling.”

The New York Times reports that McCain was killed in a battle in recent days in Marea, a city in northern Syria near the Turkish border. He was fighting for ISIS.

At least 100 Americans have traveled to Syria to fight for rebel groups, according to senior American officials, but only a few are believed to have died there. In May, Moner Mohammad Abusalha, a 22-year-old Florida man who had traveled to Syria, killed himself in a suicide bomb attack. A year earlier, Nicole Lynn Mansfield, 33, of Flint, Mich., was killed with Syrian rebels in Idlib Province.

News of Americans fighting and dying in Syria renews concerns about the risk of some returning and bring their jihad home.

Frankly, for several reasons I think these fears are being overstated:

1. ISIS’s effort to recruit a few good men to fight in Syria and Iraq does not seem to be appealing to America’s best and brightest.

2. “We are coming for you, mark my words, listen to my words you big kuffār,” warned Moner Mohammad Abusalha, who grew up in Florida. But then, having burned his passport, he went on to blow himself up.

As things stand right now, foreign fighters from the U.S. or elsewhere in the West are most likely ISIS’s most expendable assets because what they lack in talent, they make up for in fervor and thus are the most suitable candidates for suicidal missions.

3. The skills these guys are acquiring are not necessarily ones they can transfer outside the battlefield. Look at the assembly of the truck bomb that Abusalha detonated. Having captured numerous Syrian military bases, ISIS doesn’t have any trouble filling a truck with artillery shells, but that’s not an exercise that would be instructive to the next would-be Timothy McVeigh.

4. Obviously, causing mayhem doesn’t require great skills. But neither does it require the motives driving a zealot.

The next time there’s a mass shooting in the U.S. the perpetrator might be a guy who acquired his blood lust under the tutelage of ISIS. But it’s even more likely that he will be some kind of misfit angry about his inability to find a girlfriend, or driven by whatever other personal demon that happens to haunt him.

The threat that ISIS poses is very real and broad in scope, but it’s not the lives of average Americans which are at stake.

The fears that the world needs to address are those that compel a young girl to carry an AK-47.


To defeat ISIS we must understand that despotism is the disease, not the cure

On Sunday, Richard Clarke, a former top counterterrorism adviser in the Bush administration, said:

If we want to eliminate this ISIS we are going to have to deal with people we don’t like. The president said we wanted Assad out. Well, we are going to have to say something to the Syrian government if we are going to start bombing in Syria. And if we are going to get rid of ISIS, we are going to have to start bombing in Syria.

This is one of the latest examples of the movement inside Washington which views a working relationship with Assad as a practical necessity — a form of realism which implies there is no alternative.

It is also an expression of a typically American view of what it means to be practical, which is to say that practicality is often viewed as a way of dispensing with the need for analysis. Just do it — don’t think.

Ziad Majed, a Lebanese political researcher teaching Middle East studies at the American University of Paris, has a response to Clarke and those making similar arguments:

Those who think that they should be impartial toward or even support tyrants like Assad in the fight against ISISism fail to realize that his regime is in fact at the root of the problem.

Until this fact is recognized — that despotism is the disease and not the cure — we can only expect more deadly repercussions, from the Middle East to the distant corners of the globe.

Majed sees ISIS as the progeny of six fathers:

ISIS is first the child of despotism in the most heinous form that has plagued the region. Therefore, it is no coincidence that we see its base, its source of strength concentrated in Iraq and Syria, where Saddam Hussein and Hafez and Bashar Al-Assad reigned for decades, killing hundreds of thousands of people, destroying political life, and deepening sectarianism by transforming it into a mechanism of exclusion and polarization, to the point that injustices and crimes against humanity became commonplace.

ISIS is second the progeny of the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, both the way in which it was initially conducted and the catastrophic mismanagement that followed. Specifically, it was the exclusion of a wide swath of Iraqis from post invasion political processes and the formation of a new authority that discriminated against them and held them collectively at fault for the guilt of Saddam and his party, which together enabled groups (such as those first established by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi) whose activities have been resumed by ISIS to get in touch with some parts of Iraqi society and to establish itself among them.

ISIS is third the son of Iranian aggressive regional policies that have worsened in recent years — taking Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria as its backyard, feeding (directly or indirectly) confessional divisions and making these divides the backbone of ideological mobilization and a policy of revenge and retaliation that has constructed a destructive feedback loop. [Continue reading...]