In Defense of the Past, or What I Want to Teach My Daughter.

 

I apologize that this isn’t my normal style of post. It doesn’t have to do with terrorism or world conflict. This is my opinion. There will be others who disagree, and that’s ok. I did not write this to start an argument, or even to begin a discussion. It is something I feel strongly about, and wanted to share, for my child and others. It is part of how I view the world.

There has long been nostalgia for the idyllic times of the 1950s. People like to romanticize this mythical era of family values, of lesser violence, of simpler times. This was the time of ‘Leave It to Beaver’ and ‘Father Knows Best,’ fictional accounts of happy families whose day to day problems could be solved in 30 minutes. These families represented the ideal of the times.

There are those who push back against the want of this seemingly happier time in history. It was wrought with racism, bigotry, sexism (while true, it was not universal). They say nuclear families aren’t necessary for happiness. They say religion is no basis for happy lives. Men don’t need to be “men,” and “women” don’t need to be women. Women shouldn’t strive to be vapid housewives. I’ve heard that women shouldn’t want to be stay-at-home moms because they are to be so much more. A working woman is a happy woman. Women shouldn’t be dependent on anyone, let alone a man.

I ask: is there not a place for that anymore?

As my daughter grows, I want her to know that none of it is wrong. There is a place for traditional families, teaching religion-based values, with stay-at-home feminine moms raising feminine daughters while the father works.  In a time when these things are looked down upon, I want my daughter to know that they are still legitimate, that they still have a place in society along with everything and everyone else.

In today’s society, families of all make-ups are acceptable. Single moms, single dads, same-sex parents all share the table with traditional families, yet it’s the traditional families that are deemed old-fashioned and out of date. The mere thought of promoting a traditional family can bring disdain, as if a traditional family automatically means hate. Wonderful children are being raised by families of all types, however, studies continue to show that children in stable, traditional families fare better. It seems, fathers AND mothers know best. And they can coexist in a world of single moms, and two dads, without prejudice.

Just as a father and mother have a place in society, religion has a place in the home today. I am lucky in that my church is one filled – truly – with love. I have never sat through a liturgy filled with hate. Although the Church has a stand on certain issues, they are not preached. What is taught is kindness and forgiveness. That though some may sin, they are not lesser human beings in the eyes of God. Though we may not agree with a person or their choices in life, it does not mean they are worth less or should be demeaned. Of course religion is not required to make a good person. People of one religion aren’t better than those of another. But religion can provide structure for those values we prize, a way to teach and learn. It can provide a community and support for those who have none.

As I stay home to raise my child, I will teach her these things. I have chosen to stop working to raise my child. Of course, I am lucky enough to have a supportive partner. There is no time-frame for me to return to work. I will go back – or not – when or if I am ready. I have worked hard to get my degree in a field I love, but I love my baby more. There is nothing more important to me than raising a good person. In my case, a good person, a good woman, can come in the form of a stay-at-home mom who chooses to dress like a lady, who happily cooks dinner, and who prays. I want my daughter to know that a woman doesn’t need to measure her self-worth by how much she makes, or if she can juggle a family and career. Women don’t need to “have it all” to be a successful woman or person. She can be happy taking care of the family. What better a person than a kind, generous, caring person?

The world is full of contradictions, and my daughter’s mother is no exception. I am proud to be a smart, educated, self-sufficient woman. At the same time, I want to be in a committed family relationship with a strong, caring, masculine man. Feminine women are not weak or submissive. Dresses and heels do not mean a woman is conforming to a sexist ideal, but can be seen as embracing the woman. I don’t want my daughter to think she has to dress in a revealing manner to attract men, nor do I want her to think she has to dress masculine to prove she isn’t giving in to a beauty standard. I want her to be proud of being a woman, that she is different from a man. And I want her to not be afraid recognizing that difference. While there are many women that can do the same things men can, there are many more that cannot. And that’s ok. A girl must find her own role in life, not be forced into one by pressures from men or other women.

Finally, men. This could be a dissertation in itself. Even though her father and I will provide guidance, it’s something my daughter will have to learn along the way, as with all people. But men don’t need to be neatly categorized into good feminist men, and bad masculine men. A strong, religious, old-fashioned man does not automatically mean misogynistic. Traditional gender roles still produce a respectful, devoted, caring, generous man, a man who will provide for his family while teaching his daughter to be self-sufficient. A good man will protect his family, but also encourage independence.

These are, of course, all universal values; no one era owns them. Unfortunately, many of them seem to have been lost to today’s anything goes attitude. Traditional roles and values aren’t so traditional anymore, as more and more people shun them as old-fashioned or even harmful. Sadly, those people are only looking at those who have twisted the meaning and sentiment. Traditional roles and values don’t automatically mean racism or misogyny. It means strong, resilient, and respectful. And these are qualities I want my daughter to have.

 

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The Spanish Threat

In March 2004, ten explosions ripped through the Madrid train system. The blasts killed 192 people, and are widely attributed to an al Qaeda-affiliated organization. The previously unknown group calling itself Abu Nayif al Afghani claimed responsibility for the attacks. Those attacks happened at the time the current government had cooperated with the US on the invasion of Iraq, causing many people to vote in the opposing party, who called for the removal of Spanish troops. The bombings in Madrid achieved what terror is meant to do: cause fear, and change policy.

Since 11-M, as the Spanish refer to the Madrid bombings, there have been no reported incidents of terrorism in Spain. Abu Nayaf al Afghani has all but disappeared. In recent years, eyes have turned to France and Belgium, both countries having been victim to numerous attacks, large and small. But given the number of cells detected and militants captured in Spain, it is only a matter of time before Spain falls victim again, and with it more of Europe.

Since 2011, there have been nearly 200 people arrested on terror-related charges. That is approximately three times as many as were arrested between 1996 and 2012. In late 2015, Spanish terrorism experts released a report revealing the statistics about who made up Spain’s terror threat. Nine out of ten arrested were affiliated in some way with a known terror organization. Of those arrested, over half were born outside of Spain. This year alone, Spain has arrested almost 30 on terror-related charges. A pair of Moroccans were arrested in July were charged with financing a terror organization.

At least 75% of the terror suspects have been residents of the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla in northern Morocco, but cells have been interrupted all over southern Spain. The would-be terrorists captured by Spanish authorities are sometimes found to be plotting attacks inside Spain itself, or are involved in recruiting and support efforts. In August 2012, three al Qaeda-connected men were caught plotting to attack Gibraltar. Curiously, two of the men were Chechen, claiming to be in Spain seeking asylum. One Chechen, Eldar Magomedov (AKA Ahmad Avar), was said to have been former Spetsnaz before leaving to join terror training camps in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Mohammed Ankari Adamov is also said to have trained in Afghanistan, and is rumored to have been involved in 2011’s Domodedovo Airport bombing.

This is not to say Spanish terrorists are happy to plot inside Spain. Their efforts have reached into neighboring France. One individual was arrested in Malaga in April 2015 on charges of supplying Paris supermarket gunman, Amedy Coulibaly, with arms. While the 27 year-old was a French citizen from Sainte Catherine, the fact that he was in Malaga should be no coincidence. Other potential jihadis have been caught in Malaga, some caught coming from or going to Syria. Months later, Ayoub El Khazzani, a Moroccan-born Spanish resident from Algeciras, was tackled on a Paris-bound train, disrupting an attack.

Yet, Spanish jihadis are not exactly streaming out of the country to join the cause. As of December of 2015, there were an estimated 150 Spanish fighters in Syria and Iraq. A more recent report stated than fewer foreign fighters are joining Islamic State. Does this mean there are fewer individuals willing to join the cause? The answer is likely ‘no.’ Given the recent attacks in Europe – specifically France and Belgium – it makes more sense to assume the fighters are staying put to plan attacks at home. Since Islamic State’s rise to power, more terrorists have switched support from al Qaeda, including affiliate al Nusra, to supporting the cause of IS. Years ago, support for a group calling itself Nadim al Magrebi briefly appeared on the radar. This is notable because of the group’s call to liberate Ceuta and Melilla from Spain. (It is interesting to recall that Ayman Zawahiri once called for the reconquering of al Andalus.) There had been concerns about Islamist infiltration into the Spanish military based in the enclaves. In 2013, there was a document issued by the Spanish Ministry of Defense reporting the detection of radicalism among the ranks.

The trend in terrorist attacks is leaning toward those inspired, rather than ordered directly by, Islamic State. A May 2016 message released by the group called on supporters to attack Europe and the U.S., encouraging lone wolf attacks. Other messages have encouraged Paris-style attacks in Germany and elsewhere. There is no reason to believe that Spanish IS supporters won’t eventually heed the call.

In the last 18 months, France, Belgium, and now Germany have been hit with several terror attacks, from large coordinated events (such as in Paris) to individual attacks, like the most recent in Germany. Since withdrawing from Iraq after the Madrid attacks, Spain has made little waves in the Muslim world. By contrast, France, Belgium, and Germany have actively fought both at home and in the Middle East against Islamic extremism. One attack in France came after that government began airstrikes in Syria, another after they announced they were moving their aircraft carrier to rejoin the fight. Spain, while not committing to airstrikes, vowed to support other countries in their fight against Islamic State.

For now, Spain has been lucky. Many of those arrested have been suspected of supporting terrorists rather than plotting their own attacks. We can hope that the number of arrests by Spanish authorities mean they are getting more proficient at identifying and apprehending the threat. However, we must not kid ourselves into believing that is the only case. That another major attack has not happened in Spain since 2004 does not mean there will not be another. Somebody may just be waiting to take advantage of Spain’s inaction and unpreparedness to attack.

Reviewing ‘No One Avoided Danger’

The good folks over at The Strategy Bridge asked if I was interested in doing a review. Since the book in question was about Pearl Harbor – a subject that I have interest in – I took on the task. 

No One Avoided Danger: NAS Kaneohe Bay and the Japanese Attack of 7 December 1941.  J. Michael Wenger, Robert J. Cressmen, and John F. Di Virgilio. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press. 2015.

There have been many accounts of the Japanese attacks on Hawaii on 7 December 1941. Nearly all of them focus on Pearl Harbor. Other military installations on Oahu also suffered on that day. Danger tells the story of how the Japanese delivered their attack on Kaneohe Naval Air Station (NAS), and how the sailors and marines responded.

No One Avoided Danger begins with the months and days leading up to that fateful day in 1941. Kaneohe NAS was still under construction, a fact that would prove significant once the attack was underway. The base was not fully staffed, not all the buildings were complete, and not all squadrons had received the full complement of planes. Although a significant number of planes and buildings were destroyed, the loss could have been much worse.

Read the rest at The Strategy Bridge.

The Roles Women Play: al Qaeda and Islamic State

“It’s not my role to set off bombs — that’s ridiculous. I have a weapon. It’s to write. It’s to speak out. That’s my jihad. You can do many things with words. Writing is also a bomb.”

 It has been over a month since the husband and wife team of Syed Farook and Tashfeen Malik committed an act of terrorism is San Bernardino, California. In the aftermath, as a way to determine a motive, investigators initially focused on a garbled message on Facebook left by Malik. The message purported to claim an allegiance to Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi. This led many in the media – and armchair analysts online – to confirm that the attack was at least inspired by IS. But digging deeper into the lives of Farook and Malik revealed a more al Qaeda-style ideology. The fact that Malik was involved in the shootings suggests more al Qaeda than Islamic State. Why? Because of the roles women play in each organization.

In 2008, al Qaeda’s then second-in-command Ayman Zawahiri issued a statement saying women are not to be suicide bombers, but should stay at home raising a family. Just a year later, Zawahiri’s own wife went online encouraging more women to be more active in jihad.

But the role of women as active participants in al Qaeda’s jihad goes back further. Long having been linked to terrorist through a marriage to a Jamaah Islamiyah leader Abdul Rahim Ayub, Australian Rabia (Robin) Hutchinson played an active role in supporting terrorism. While there is no proof, it is rumored that she engaged in some violent activities in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Most of her activities involved teaching and training. After marrying her fourth husband in 2000, Osama bin laden confidant Abu al Walid al Masri, Hutchinson ran a hospital for mujahideen.

Women associated with al Qaeda have done more than teach and work in hospitals. Many have been involved in operational support and have even conducted operations themselves. Malika el Aroud, also known as Oum Obeyda online, was a Belgian of Moroccan decent who was thought to be a recruiter. She began her online propaganda in 2001, after her husband was killed in a suicide attack in Afghanistan. A marriage to a second husband led her to Switzerland, where she and her husband were charged in 2007 with running pro-al Qaeda websites. After serving a six month sentence, she returned to Belgium. Again, she was detained, this time for allegedly plotting with other women to free a convicted terrorist, and for conducting surveillance for a forthcoming attack.

Another Belgian, Murielle Degauque, is said to be the first Western woman suicide bomber for al Qaeda. It was after marrying her second husband that she went down the path of jihad. Her husband, Issam Goris, was known to Belgian authorities as an Islamist. After their marriage, he was recruited into Abu Musab al Zarqawi’s Iraq network. Degauque followed. Six months later, 6 November 2005, Degauque strapped on a suicide belt and detonated herself near a US Army patrol in Buquba.

That same November, Sajida al Rishawi’s suicide belt failed to detonate when her and her husband attempted to bomb the Amman Radisson Hotel. Her husband was successful, but al Rishawi was able to escape. She was eventually caught, becoming the first woman of al Qaeda arrested. She has since been executed by Jordan.

Fast forward to 2014. Tashfeen Malik marries Syed Farook, entering into a marriage that included copies of Inspire magazine (official magazine of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula) and sermons by Anwar al Awlaki. After having attended conservative madrassas in Pakistan, as well as having exposure to more radicalization through her husband, Malik would have been easily influenced. She may have pledged an allegiance to al Baghdadi in a Facebook message, but Tashfeen Malik was more al Qaeda than Islamic State.

So what of women’s roles in Islamic State?

In a manifesto released early 2015 by supporters of Islamic State, it was written that the main role of women shall be in the home. It is only in certain circumstances that women would be allowed outside the home. The first is the study of religion. Female doctors and teachers may be allowed out if they follow Sharia. And finally, via fatwa and only if there not enough men, may a woman engage in jihad.

Another role women play in IS is that of propagandists. As in the manifesto, women from IS flood social media with messages of the paradise that awaits new recruits in the caliphate. Their message, mostly directed toward young women and girls, is one of freedom, freedom from the perceived constraints placed on them by the Western world. The women on Facebook and Twitter proudly pose, fully veiled, with shopping or eating fast food, saying their lives are normal. They brag about the free apartments and televisions they are given by IS, all in exchange for supporting and marrying the fighters. Women, they say, are needed to support the men fighting the infidels, and to raise the next generation of fighters. Their job as wives and mothers, they say, is important to the Caliphate. And if they are lucky, their husbands and sons will become martyrs.

It is not just propaganda, either. Some women in Islamic State are part of what has been called ‘morality police.’ Based in Raqqa and Mosul, al Khansaa Brigades are in charge of making sure women are complying with Islamic State’s form of Sharia. They make sure the women are dressed appropriately and are accompanied by men. They arrest non-compliant women and issue lashings – or worse –  as punishment. Members of al Khansaa Brigades are the few women in IS that are allowed to drive and carry weapons.

Despite the propaganda, the reality is that most women in Islamic State are captives. Whether they join as al Khansaa Brigade members or travel to Syria to become brides, they can never leave. Some, once widowed, are married off to others, sometimes becoming slaves. Once the reality of living under IS sets in, some women try to leave. Those women are beaten and sometimes killed, such as the case of Samra Kesinovic.  Samra was a 17 year old Bosniak from Austria who left her family because she thought she could be free to practice her religion and “serve Allah.” She tried to escape Raqqa after saying she was sickened by the IS brutality, only to be beaten to death by supporters.

A few have managed to escape, but continue to live in fear that IS members will find them. The brutality of the Islam State is widely reported yet girls still make their way to Syria.

In the case of what roles women play in terror groups, female members of al Qaeda have the upper hand, so to speak, over Islamic State. Women in al Qaeda have a sort of operational equality that isn’t afforded to those in IS, up to and including conducting attacks. The have a part to play, something women in IS do not. The lucky ones get to be wives and mothers, for the alternatives are much worse.

 

I previously wrote about women and Islamic State here.

 

 

The Migrant Crisis and the Paris Attacks.

The Syrian refugee-as-terrorist narrative remains uncertain, but the question remains: who is checking the migrants?

In the days following the most recent terror attacks in Paris, details began to emerge regarding the identity of the attackers. Recovered from one of the attackers was a Syrian passport that had been processed through border check points in Greece, Serbia, Croatia, Austria then France. Fingerprints from the remains matched those of someone using the passport in Leros, Greece. The true identity of the man remains a mystery. But that passport, along with Islamic States’ claim of responsibility, seemed to confirm what many people had been thinking during the migrant crisis, that terrorists might be sneaking in with the migrants. Reports have since come out saying the passport was a fake. Some have taken this to mean it was a plant to demonize the migrants, highlighting the xenophobic rhetoric of Europe’sand America’s – right.

There is a legitimate argument to make in voicing concern that not all migrants and refugees are what they appear. Syrians escaping civil war aren’t the only ones pouring into Europe. Migrants from all over the Middle East, South East Asia, and Africa are making their way to Europe in search of everything from peace to better job and family opportunities. But as early as March of this year, there have been concerns that there are more than migrants among their ranks.

Before the focus shifted to the Balkan route, thousands were making the perilous journey across the Mediterranean from North Africa to Italy. Since IS have been establishing themselves in Libya, there have been reports that they would begin using it as a jumping-off point to reach Italy. In May of this year, Libyan security adviser Abdul Basit Haroun made the claim that IS would exploit the migrant crisis by posing as refugees. Supposed IS documents have said that the terror organization intends to send people into Europe under the guise of refugees or migrants. Some European officials have also expressed concern about IS militants slipping through the gaping security holes. It should be noted the recent arrest of the two extremists in Hungary is unrelated to the migrant crisis, though still concerning.

The issue isn’t that a passport of dubious legitimacy was found next to a terrorist in Paris. Criminals – terrorists – use forged documents all the time. Nor is it out of the ordinary for a foreigner to be carrying his passport. Terrorist do ordinary things to blend in to their surroundings, to not tip anyone off that they are about to cause mass casualties. Remember, the September 11 hijackers shaved their beards, wore Western clothes, and partied so they would appear normal, and not as radical, devote Muslims.

No, the issue here is that a fake passport was checked through several checkpoints from Greece through Austria. The sheer number of people flooding into Europe via the Balkan route is overwhelming countries. So many people are arriving that they cannot be processed thoroughly. Officials at processing centers and checkpoints know they are dealing with fake documents and people pretending to be Syrian – Syrians get special status – but, lacking resources, seemingly have no choice but to let them pass. The countries on the routes to Germany and other destinations don’t want to deal with the migrants so they pass them through.

Lacking the resources or will to properly process the migrants and refugees, anyone can get through, including IS militants and other would-be terrorists. Letting the migrants flow through Europe unchecked opens the door for exploitation. IS has said many time that they want to strike Western targets. There are already terror cells and IS sympathizers all over Europe. Raids in Spain, Italy, France and Belgium are increasingly regular events. There is much talk that foreign fighters in Syria returning to Europe could mount attacks.

The bigger threat remains home-grown terrorists; five of the eight Paris attackers were French. The majority of recent terror attacks in Europe have come from individuals who were radicalized in their home countries. This does not mean, however, that the threat of militants coming in or returning via the migrant routes should be ignored. Blocking and turning back migrants is not the answer. More needs to be done in processing the migrants at entry points. Destination countries, like Germany, that are willing to offer millions of euros in aid for migrants should be able to offer aid for checkpoints and processing centers.

There is no perfect solution; there is no 100% guarantee all migrants entering Europe will be properly screened, as there is no guarantee all would-be criminals will be caught upon entry. Putting into place serious measures of screening is a start, and anything is better than the current system. To continue to allow the free flow of migrants into Europe is an open invitation for trouble.

Boko Haram’s Girl Bombs

Islamic State’s gruesome acts fill the headlines, but in Nigeria and nearby states, Boko Haram is engaging in acts just as disturbing.

Boko Haram has been active in their quest to bring an Islamic state to Nigeria since 2009, although the group has been around since 2002.

It wasn’t until June 2014 that they began to employ a new tactic: suicide bombers. These suicide bombers are seen as unique in that many of the bombers are girls, some as young as 10. What makes this even more disturbing – if possible – is that it coincides with Boko Haram’s campaign of mass kidnapping, most notably the Chibok schoolgirls. (Note – it has not been confirmed if any of the Chibok girls have been used as bombers.)

Female suicide bombers aren’t new. They’ve most infamously been employed by Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE or Tamil Tigers). Perhaps the most well-known female suicide bombers are Russia’s Black Widows. Disturbingly, child bombers aren’t new, either. The Taliban has been known to use children – both boys and girls – as bombers on occasion. In Afghanistan and Pakistan, children were picked individually and groomed for the task. What is worrisome about the Boko Haram bombers is the frequency of use and the ages of the girls involved. More importantly, how they are being made into bombers?

There are several possible scenarios in regards to the women and girls being bombers. The first is that the woman willingly take on the task, as like the Black Widows. They choose to blow themselves up out of duty or shame. Nigeria is still very much a patriarchal society, where women are seen as inferior or property. Many of the women and girls stolen by Boko Haram are raped, bringing shame upon her and her family. A second scenario involves coercion. These women are told to carry out an attack out of threats to them or their families, although the idea that they are being brainwashed with Boko Haram’s ideology is is possible. Brainwashing could also play a role in the final scenario: the youngest girls sent out wearing explosives and blown up remotely. This is the most disturbing of the scenarios as these girls would have little to no idea what is happening to them. A girl that young could be told anything to get her to walk into a crowd.

Despite the announcement in March by then-president Goodluck Jonathan that Boko Haram was getting weaker, they continue to launch attacks. Just this year, Boko Haram has conducted nearly 20 suicide attacks in Nigeria, Chad, and Cameroon, with the majority involving women or young girls. The Pentagon is planning to send 300 US troops to Cameroon to help stop Boko Haram. Some are saying Boko Haram’s use of these suicide bombers is a sign of weakness or desperation at a loss of able fighters, or that they are employing this tactic because the Nigerian army is succeeding in their fight. While Boko Haram may not have made much gains in recent months, they have not lost their hold on northeast Nigeria. Using suicide bombers – especially women and girls – is just a change in tactics. In short, Boko Haram has found a new, horrific way to extend their terror campaign. By using young women and girls, soft targets become more easily accessible. Women and girls are not out of place in markets, where many of these attacks have taken place. Typically, fighters – even suicide bombers – are male. Women and girls don’t attract the same sort of attention as a strange male would. Also, using women and girls in traditionally Islamic societies allows for the concealment of explosives under their clothes, and allows them to enter an area without being searched, as is forbidden in Islam.

By using suicide bombers, Boko Haram splits focus between traditional fighting with the Nigerian army and hitting soft target attacks. Additionally, by using the women and girls, they have expanded their fighting force. Despite claims to the contrary, Boko Haram appears to have gained an advantage with their shift in tactic. With claims that Boko Haram has kidnapped well over 40,000, it appears that that advantage will last for the foreseeable future.

Propaganda of the Deed, or Russia in Syria

Propaganda of the deed has its origins in the anarchist/revolutionary movements of the 1800s. The actors then tried to spread their message through actions, feeling that would have a bigger impact than traditional propaganda. Those early anarchists and revolutionaries used violence to attract more attention and gain a bigger audience than any speeches or pamphlets had done.

Today, propaganda of the deed is used regularly to describe the terrorist playbook. Spectacular attacks, such as September 11 by al Qaeda and the destruction of Palmyra by Islamic State (IS), capture the attention of the world. The names become recognizable, and put the messages on a world stage.

But propaganda of the deed isn’t just for terrorists. We are witnessing it right now in the geopolitical power play between Russia and the West. Several weeks ago, Russia began moving military equipment into Syria, a move welcomed by President Bashar al Assad. Russia and Syria watchers took notice, awaiting the reaction from the Western nations – especially the US. As early as 2012, the US government began backing the Syrian rebels*, whose intent was to overthrow the Assad regime. By 2014, Islamic State had established a foothold in Syria. Later that same year, the US began conducting airstrikes against IS. Despite White House reports to the contrary, the strikes have not been overly effective in stopping IS.

Enter Russia.

Russia, a major ally of Syria, moved in with the promise to help Assad defeat IS. Almost immediately, Russian planes began bombing not only IS targets, but Syrian rebel positions as well. To those who know Russia, their true intent is no secret.

In Russia, image is everything. The intensity of their bombing campaign is designed to show the world how effective Russia is compared to the West (read: US) in defeating an enemy in the Middle East. In recent years, the gains made by the US in the region seem to have been lost. Russia, looking to improve their image tarnished by their annexation of Crimea, wasted no time stepping in. During his speech to the United Nations General Assembly in September, Vladimir Putin all but called out the US for acting superior to the world, and for creating the power vacuum that now exists in the Middle East. He also announced a strategy to stabilize the region, in this case providing military and technical assistance to Assad.

Putin’s speech was a message to the world that Russia is still a superpower. Russia’s actions in Syria deliver a bigger message that the West is ineffective when dealing with terrorists and unrest in the Middle East. Russia is asserting its (perceived) dominance while increasing its presence in the Middle East, traditionally dominated by the US. Putin is also showing the world that he is a real leader, that President Barack Obama and other Western leaders are weak. In the wake of US failures to train and aid the Syrian opposition, Putin is stepping in with guns blazing.

The image of a strong, manly Russia has long been feed to the masses, from the New Soviet Man to Vladimir Putin’s shirtless photo ops. Putin openly challenging the West in Syria is more effective propaganda than any UNSC speech. Any attempt to show Russia as a great power, all the while showing up the US, is a great victory for Putin. The outcome of Russia’s actions in Syria remains to be seen. In the meantime, those actions are speaking volumes

 

*On 9 October, the Pentagon announced it was ending its program of training Syrian rebels, focusing instead on supplying weapons.

 

Obligation: The European Refugee/Migrant Crisis

As I write this, a crisis is unfolding in Europe. The four-year long Syrian civil war has displaced millions. In recent months, tens of thousands from Syria, Afghanistan and other conflict zones have made their way to Greece with the ultimate goal of reaching richer European countries. The numbers are expected to grow to hundreds of thousands, if not millions. Transit countries like Greece and Hungary, as well as well the Balkan states, are so far bearing the brunt of the crush. For many of these refugees and migrants, the ultimate goal is Germany, an economically sound country with billions on offer.

As the number of refugees and migrants increased, some countries began to respond negatively. Slovakia announced that they would only take a couple hundred refugees, and only if they were Christian. Interior Ministry spokesman Ivan Metik claimed the country’s lack of mosques would make it difficult for Muslims to integrate. Hungary responded to the early waves of people by building a fence on its border with Serbia.

In response, European Union countries had to quickly come up with a plan to handle the flood of people. On 9 September, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker announced there would be quotas put in place to distribute the refugees and migrants among the EU member nations. Days later, some countries began refusing the quotas. Hungary has since effectively closed their border with Serbia, declaring a state of emergency and deploying police along their border. Austria and Slovakia has re-imposed border controls, in opposition of the EU’s Schengen Agreement, as migrants make their way to those countries.

Why are these Eastern European countries so opposed to the migrants and refugees pouring in from conflict zones, and do they have legitimate reasons to refuse to help?

Moral obligations aside, why should EU countries take in migrants and refugees? The first answer will obviously be the 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention. Countries that signed on agreed to take in refugees as long as they qualified under the terms of the Convention, as many migrants coming into Europe right now do. And of course it’s easy to tell countries they must be bound by the agreement and help refugees. But shouldn’t other factors also be considered when faced with a burden now being experienced by Eastern Europe?

Economically, not all countries who signed the agreement are equal. Germany, the leading destination for many migrants, is an economically sound country. Greece, the main landing point for the majority of migrants fleeing Syria and other conflict zones, teetered on the edge of default earlier this year. The Greek islands of Kos and Lesbos have beared the brunt of the influx, the daily arrival of migrants taxing the islands economically and emotionally. Germany, one of the most economically sound countries in Europe, estimates it could spend up to 10 billion euros in 2015 helping the refugees. This isn’t so much an issue for a country whose budget is over 300 billion euros. Greece, Hungary, Croatia…these countries don’t have the luxury of a strong economy to support the refugees and migrants, even in transit. The transit countries – with more being added seemingly daily – are being overburdened. Their police and security forces are being overrun at the borders and in transit centers. They don’t have the facilities to accommodate the thousands of migrants and refugees who arrive daily.

Hungary is also being flooded with migrants on their way to Germany. Most are streaming in via Serbia, prompting Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán to build a 175 kilometer long fence on the border. Orbán just announced he would begin extending the fence along Hungary’s border with Romania, as well as along Croatia’s border. Migrants finding themselves unable to get through Serbia to Hungary made their way to Croatia. That country initially welcomed the migrants before being overwhelmed with nearly 7000 in a single day. Croatia’s interior minister threatened to seal the border if the migrants continued to flood in.

Hungary has taken a stance on how to deal with the refugees: keep them out. Building a fence, deploying police and the military to enforce its borders are are Hungary taking a stand in the migrant crisis. Croatia tried to welcome the migrants and had their borders overrun. Croatia responded by closing their border with Serbia, not just to people but to nearly all traffic, inflaming tensions between the two countries. To deal with the migrants who did make it into the country, Croatia began busing them to Hungary, resulting in raising tensions between those two countries, as well. Between Germany’s welcoming attitude and Hungary’s rejection, Croatia has become a how not-to example of dealing with the refugees.

Economics aside, Orbán has his own reasons for keeping out the migrants: history. In citing Europe’s Christian roots and decrying the migrants’ Muslim faith, Orbán is in essence recalling the Ottoman occupation of Hungary, as well as other events from Hungary’s history. Hysterics or not, the reality is Hungary had suffered under over a hundred and fifty years of Muslim rule via the Ottomans, when much of Christian Hungary was made to convert. Following Ottoman rule was a reconquest by the Habsburgs. Much of the 20th century saw Hungary occupied as well, by Germany then the Soviets. European history is not quickly forgotten.

Like it or not, Orbán’s and Metik’s views aren’t isolated. Though Orbán’s Fidesz party has seen a slip in popularity since his election (mainly due to economic issues), how Orbán handles the migrant issue could give him and the party a boost. Not as far right as Jobbik, center-right Fidesz still promotes nationalism, a Hungary for ethnic Hungarians. Some Hungarians and EU “officials” have been quoted as saying Orbán doesn’t have control of the situation, that Hungary should welcome the migrants, but others see him as a hero protecting Hungary.  Hungary was one of four nations who voted against the EU’s plan to distribute the migrants among all its member. Slovakia, Czech Republic and Romania also voted against the plan. Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico opposed the quota plan due largely in part to the majority forcing the migrants upon member countries when most of the migrants want to go to Germany. He also maintains the – echoed by Metik – stance that Muslims would find assimilating in Slovakia difficult. Fico plans on bringing legal action against the EU.

Hundreds of thousands of migrants and refugees will continue to stream into Eastern Europe from Greece through the Balkan states with the goal of reaching Germany. What Orbán and other leaders are seeing is a mass occupation of their countries by migrants and refugees, and their countries’ identities compromised. Many of the countries in Eastern Europe are largely Christian; Orbán, Metik and their supporters want it to remain that way. They also see what has happened to other countries – the multicultural experiment and immigrants failing to assimilate – in Western Europe and don’t want to see it at home.

The nations carrying the burden of this crisis never asked for the migrants and refugees to come; they are caught in the middle. They are being asked to allow the migrants and refugees to enter their countries, feed, shelter, process and transport them with little to no help from the EU. Both Greece and Hungary have received some help, but not enough to deal with the thousands arriving daily; they have been left to deal with the migrants in their own way. In Hungary, officials and volunteers offering help have been met with some refusals of food and water, the migrants claiming they don’t want anything but to go to Germany. 

As the migrants and refugees continue to pour into Europe, more countries are getting fed up with the lack of planning and assistance, and with the migrants themselves. Even Germany is setting up restrictions to implement some sort order. Is forced assimilation and financial burden enough to challenge the obligation to help the hundreds of thousands of migrants and refugees? It is easy to sit back and criticize the countries balking at taking in refugees and migrants. It is not as easy to learn and understand the history behind their reasons. The monetary consequences should also be considered when they have to make a decision regarding the welfare of their country. None of these reasons are right or wrong, but does the EU and the rest of the world get to disregard the concerns? Is the EU looking out for the best interest of the EU, its members, or the migrants and refugees? And at which point does the forced obligation create more disruption and help no one? The real solution is to address the cause, as well as treat the symptoms.

 

The Twisted Saudi Connection and Ramzan Kadyrov

Could Chechnya’s one-time thorn in the side be just what they need to make the move toward independence?

During the Russian invasion of Chechnya in the 1995, a Jordanian (though he identified as both Jordanian and Saudi) named Ibn al Khattab quietly slipped into the country under the guise of being a reporter. His goal was not to report about the Chechen War, but rather to fight in it. With him he brought an impressive jihadi resume, and the highest of connections.

Ibn al Khattab began his mujahideen career in the late 1980s, fighting with in Afghanistan against the Soviet Army. It was in Afghanistan that al Khattab met Osama bin Laden, becoming a close follower of the al Qaeda founder. After the withdrawal of Soviet forces, al-Khattab traveled to Central Asia to fight in the Tajik Civil War. After seeing on television Chechen fighters praying before going into battle, al Khattab felt compelled to fight along side them against the Russians. By then, he was an experienced and respected fighter, even having lead an Arab unit in Tajikistan.

Once in the Caucasus, Emir Khattab (or Khattab, as he was known by then) used his influences to secure funding for the fighters. It has been reported that Khattab set up training camps in the Caucasus, much like those used by al Qaeda in Afghanistan. He is also said to have taken Chechens back to Afghanistan to train, including Chechen commander Shamil Basayev.

While in Chechnya, Khattab produced videos to aid in fundraising, and acted as an intermediary between the fighters and the charities that funneled funds to aid the insurgency.

One of the most well-known of these charities was al Haramain. Al Haramain was an NGO founded in Saudi Arabia. Its stated purpose was to distribute food and aid to poor Muslims around the world, but it also operated as a front to funnel money to various al Qaeda-linked organizations. In 2010, an Oregon man was convicted of tax fraud related to a donation to Checnhya. Pete Seda, the man who founded al Haramain’s US branch, was charged with failing to report $150,000 the charity sent to help fund the Chechen insurgency, via Saudi Arabia. Although that conviction was overturned, Seda plead guilty in 2014 to tax fraud stemming from his work with al Haramain. The US government has since declared al Haramain a terrorist organization.

Another well known charity-slash-terror funding organization is Benevolence International Foundation. Originally founded in Saudi Arabia, BIF was at one time one of the largest Islamic charities in the US, as well as having offices in nearly 20 countries. During a 2002 raid on BIF’s Bosnian offices, authorities found material offering proof the organization was funding al Qaeda. And as with al Haramain, BIF’s director, Enaam Arnaout was charged with financing terrorism. Like al Haramain, the US government designated BIF as financiers of terrorism.

After the end of the Chechen Wars, Saudi money began to show up elsewhere in the Caucasus. Religious school teaching Wahhabi doctrine began to spring up, most notably in the Pankisi gorge. Finding the source of the backers of these schools is difficult to uncover but it’s believed Saudi-backed charities are part of the funding.

In the run-up to the Sochi Olympics, Saudi Arabia guaranteed the security of the Games during a meeting with Vladimir Putin. Prior to that, Caucasus insurgents were threatening to attack the Games. Two months prior, a pair of suicide bombers linked to the insurgency struck Volgograd in separate attacks. The Sochi Olympics went off without incident, leaving few to wonder of the Saudis really did have a hand in keeping the insurgents at bay.

Enter 2015.

In recent months, however, Saudi Arabia and Chechnya have been building relations. On the surface it may seem strange that Wahhabi Saudi Arabia and Sufi Chechnya are cozying up, especially since Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov’s security forces have been at the forefront of the fight against the insurgency.

One school of thought is that Russia is using Kadyrov to repair relations between Russia and Saudi Arabia. It is entirely plausible, given Russia’s recent support of Iran – a rival of Saudi Arabia – during nuclear negotiations. Iran and Russia are viewed by many as international pariahs, whereas Saudi Arabia, despite a raft of human right violations, is welcome in most international political circles. There could be a second reason for Kadyrov’s new found friendship with Saudi Arabia. Kadyrov could be making a move away from Russia, to establish more independence.

In the past year, Kadyrov has been taking many steps in what appears to be in defiance of the Kremlin. Following the December terror attack in Grozny, Kadyrov ordered the houses of the perpetrators’ families to be destroyed, a move that the Kremlin chastised. A month later, Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov was gunned down outside the Kremlin. Those charged with the crime had close ties to Kadyrov, leading many to believe he played a part in the murder. During recent security operations in Stavropol by local police, Kadyrov publicly announced he would not tolerate this and told his own security forces to shoot any foreign service members, including Russian. This is all in addition to a well-known mutual dislike for FSB, a feud which spawned the infamous incident of Kadyrov ordering the doors of the local FSB building welded shut after they refused his men.

One reason for Kadyrov to make friends with Saudi Arabia has to do with economics. In an interview in June, Kadyrov announced that Chechnya has as much oil as Saudi Arabia, saying it hasn’t been capitalized due to “chronic underinvestment.” He all but said it was Russia’s fault, citing Rosneft’s command of Chechen oil reserves, and Russia’s refusal to grant Chechnya licensing.

If Kadyrov is indeed looking to break free from Russia, gaining economic independence is the beginning. If he can lure Saudi investors – and get the necessary licensing – he might be able to build up the Chechen economy, one that sees nearly a 22% unemployment rate.

Beyond economics, Kadyrov seems willing to do anything to secure his republic against any threat, internal or external. Though effective in anti-terror operations in the region, effectively quashing the insurgency, his kadyrovtsy aren’t an army. One line in a Jamestown article regarding Chechen-Saudi relations and Islamic State may offer a veiled explanation: “the Chechen government is prepared to cooperate with anyone to prevent the group’s emergence in the North Caucasus.” If Kadyrov is willing to partner with Saudi Arabia – the very country funding the Chechen insurgency, many of whom support IS – to fight IS, what else are they willing to partner for? As Kadyrov keeps straining at his Russian leash, acquiring a wealthy and powerful partner could be just the thing that leads to Chechen independence.

Of course Ramzan Kadyrov will be fully aware of what happens to those who defy the Kremlin. Russian soil is soaked in the blood of dissidents. Is Kadyrov so important in keeping terrorism out of Russia that Russia is willing to look the other way, as it has in previous incidents? Or will Kadyrov finally take one step too many? Ramzan Kadyrov, like Putin, will keep pushing until someone pushes back. Except for Ramzan, that might mean a bullet to the head.

Caught in the middle: Zaur Dadaev & the murder of Boris Nemtsov

On the night of 27 February 2015, Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov was walking with his girlfriend on Moscow’s  Bolshoi Moskvoretsky Bridge when someone fired at least six shots into Nemtsov’s back. A car quickly pulled up, providing a getaway for the shooter. The biggest political assassination to happen during Vladimir Putin’s presidency happened in the shadow of the Kremlin, the most secure place in all of Moscow.

Six days after Nemtsov was killed, investigators announced they had arrested five men in connection with the crime. Not surprising to Russia-watchers, the suspects were Chechen. Two of the men, Zaur Dadaev and Anzor Gubashev, were charged with the murder. The other three, Shagid Gubashev (Anzor’s brother), Tamerlan Eskerkhanoz, and Khamat Bakhayev, were charged as accomplices. Dadaev and Anzor Gubashev were both members of Battalion Sever, part of the ‘kadyrovtsy,’ paramilitary Chechen police named after Chechen president Ramzan Kadyrov. Dadaev was deputy commander of Sever until he reportedly stepped down the day after Nemtsov’s murder.

Almost immediately following Dadaev’s arrest, Chechen leader Ramzam Kadyrov made a statement on his Instagram account calling Dadaev a “as a patriot of Russia,” “a profoundly religious man,” and implied that Zaur may have murdered Nemtsov over the politician’s comments following the Charlie Hebdo attacks in January. It was at this time, on 8 March, that word came out that Zaur Dadaev had confessed to the crime.

Within a week of Dadaev’s confession came word that it may have been made under duress. Russian Human Rights Council member Andrei Babushkin reported that Dadaev had wounds on his wrists from handcuffs and marks on his legs from rope. He also claimed that Dadaev said he had been tortured with electricity and that he had signed a confession only in exchange for the release of a friend who was arrested with him.

Nearly a month after the murder of Boris Nemtsov, a new witness stepped forward. Previously, only Nemtsov’s girlfriend had been the only witness but she claimed not to have seen the shooter who came at them from behind. This new witness, identified only as Yevgeny, said he was walking behind the couple, wearing headphones and looking at his phone. He said he didn’t hear the shooting but looked up right after to see Nemtsov on the ground and the shooter leaving the scene. Most importantly, Yevgeny provided a description of the shooter: medium height, slim build with dark, possibly wavy hair about four centimeters in length. This is not a description of Dadaev, who is tall and athletically built. Yevgeny also gave a different description of the getaway car.

During the first week of April, news came out that Dadaev had been arrested in Ingushetia but unidentified men and held for two days in an unknown location. Dadaev said he was not told why he was picked up, but that it was at this time he was “told what to say and how to say it.” At the same time, Unian posted a story claiming Dadaev had confessed and was cooperating with officials despite earlier reports of him pleading not guilty and having an alibi.

Nemtsov was killed steps away from the Kremlin, arguably the most secure place in Moscow. Coincidentally, security cameras facing the bridge where Nemtsov was murdered were down “for maintenance.”  One camera did manage to record the moment Nemtsov was shot, but at the exact moment a snowplow drives by, obscuring the couple and the gunman. Perhaps another coincidence, but it appears to be a coordinated effort to hide the identity of the shooter.

With Zaur Dadaev vehemently denying his involvement in the murder, theories abound as to who was really behind the killing of Boris Nemtsov. Given what is known, the most likely scenario is that Kadyrov had Nemtsov killed as a sort of present for Putin. Kadyrov has continually expressed his loyalty to Putin, even calling him a father-figure of sorts. Although no proof exists, it is said that Kadyrov was behind the murder of journalist Anna Politkovskaya. Nemtsov could be just another “gift,” a way for Kadyrov to show his devotion by killing a popular rival of Putin’s. But it could also be Kadyrov sending a message that he is more than just Putin’s lapdog in Chechnya. In recent months, Kadyrov has become more bold in his actions and words. After the December 2014 militant attack in Grozny, Kadyrov ordered the removal of the families of those involved, and the destruction of their homes, earning a reprimand from Putin. In late April of this year, Russian security forces and local police from Stavropol conducted operation inside Chechen territory, during which an armed Chechen man was killed. Having not known of the operation, Kadyrov replied by saying “open fire if someone from Moscow or Stavropol appears on your turf without your knowledge.”  The statement appeared on Grozny TV and has since been taken down, but not before the statement reverberated back to Moscow. Many, and not just in Moscow, saw Kadyrov’s statement one of insubordination, openly testing the reach of his power.

The alleged involvement of another Chechen in the Nemtsov murder leads some to believe Kadyrov was behind it. Ruslan Geremeev was an officer with Sever Battalion, and is a member of a prominent Chechen family. It had been reported by Novaya Gazeta that Geremeev was not only wanted for questioning in connection with Nemtsov’s murder but that was actually the organizer. When authorities went to Chechnya to arrest him, they found his home guarded by Chechen agents. Geremeev has since disappeared, and is thought to be hiding in Dubai.

Why Zaur Dadaev? If Ruslan Geremeev was truly behind the murder of Boris Nemtsov, Dadaev may be a convenient patsy. He served with Geremeev in Sever Battalion, and was on leave around the same time as Nemtsov’s murder. That in itself is a flimsy argument as to Dadaev’s involvement. The truth – if it is ever revealed – will only come from those directly involved: the one who really pulled the trigger and the one who ordered it. In the meantime, it seems Zaur Dadaev is a pawn in a Kadyrov game.