Tunis Designates Ansar al-Sharia in Tunisia

Since the assault on the U.S. Embassy in Tunis on September 14, 2012, a collision course has been set between the Tunisian state and the salafi-jihadi organization Ansar al-Sharia in Tunisia (AST). It highlights the utter failure of the Ennahda-led government to fully appreciate or understand AST as a movement. Ennahda believed it could use a light touch approach and attempt to co-opt AST and bring them into the political system. This strategy was fraught with false assumptions; most notably that AST itself stated repeatedly it is against the democratic process since it contravenes Islam and places men on the same level as God. Today, Tunis designated AST as a terrorist organization. How the Tunisian government uses this new mandate against AST will likely provide more information on AST’s connections to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghrib (AQIM) and/or the extent to which it has a secret fighting apparatus.

AST’s Public Persona

Following the founding of AST in April 2011, it has promoted an image of an organization only interested in conducting da’wa (missionary activities). The leader of AST Sayf Allah bin Hussayn (better known as Abu Iyadh al-Tunisi) continually noted that Tunisia was not a land of jihad, but a land of da’wa and that his movement did not carry weapons. Abu Iyadh also emphasized that the media distorted AST and that one should “hear from them, not about them.” While it is true that the majority of AST’s activities have been related to da’wa like passing out religious literature, providing food and medical services to the needy, and putting on lectures, among other things, from the beginning there has been a more nefarious side of the group, too.

Ties to the Global Jihad

Most notably, Abu Iyadh previously was involved in the jihadi counter-culture of “Londonistan” in the 1990s where he studied under al-Qaeda’s European cleric Abu Qatadah al-Filistini. Further, in the late 1990s, Abu Iyadh traveled Afghanistan and was in charge of the Jalabad House, which housed Tunisian foreigner fighters and co-founded the Tunisian Combatant Group with Tarek Maaroufi, who is also now a leader, though, with a less public role within AST. Abu Iyadh and Maaroufi are responsible for the planning, recruitment, and facilitation of the assassination of Ahmad Shah Messud, the leader of the Northern Alliance and ally of the West, two days prior to 9/11 in anticipation of the America’s response in Afghanistan. Maaroufi, along with Sami Ben Khamis Essid and Mehdi Kammoun, who are also leaders in AST, were a part of al-Qaeda’s recruitment and facilitation networks in Brussels and Milan in the 1990s.

In terms of post-AST founding, there have also been signs of duplicity. In interviews in the winter of 2012, Abu Iyadh hinted that he was inciting and recruiting members of his organization to fight abroad so as to provide different roles for members who were not interested in only conducting da’wa. There are reports that AST members were in northern Mali and there is evidence that AST members are fighting jihad in Syria. Further, AST’s official news Facebook page since its inception has promoted news and propaganda on and from the “mujahidin” in the various fronts from Afghanistan to Yemen to Iraq to Syria to Libya to Mali as well as typical anti-Western and anti-Arab ‘tyrant’ regime rhetoric. AST even had the London-based jihadi and former leader in the Egyptian Islamic Jihad Hani al-Siba’i Skype into their second annual conference in May 2012.

Vigilantism

Moreover, while AST has not called for jihad in Tunisia, some of its members have been involved in vigilante-type activities going all the way back to late spring 2011:

June 2011: In response to the Tunisian film “No God, No Master,” individuals protested and rioted on Avenue Habib Bourghiba in the heart of Tunis because AST and other Islamists viewed the film as blasphemous.

October 2011: Similarly, only a few months later, in the run up to the Constituent Assembly election, the private station Nessma TV, aired the movie Persepolis. It is about one young woman’s experience of the Islamic revolution in Iran and contains a scene in which God is depicted in human form — a blasphemous act for religious Muslims. This led AST’s leader Abu Iyadh to incite his followers to violence against it and activists looted the home of Nessma’s owner.

November 2011 – March 2012: Following the election, a small group of Salafi students, the ring leader being Muhammad Bakhti a member of AST, started a sit-in at Manouba University to force the dean Habib Kazdaghli to allow women to wear niqab in the classroom and during tests. This led to a violent confrontation with Kazdaghli who was recently acquitted of any wrong doing during the incident.

March 2012: On a day when AST had called for a peaceful protest to honor the Qur’an, most Tunisians will remember the images of young protesters who climbed a clock tower at Tunis’s main intersection to raise al-Qaeda’s black flag. Some of these demonstrators also attacked and harassed a troupe performing in front of the city’s municipal theater.

June 2012: An art exhibit in La Marsa, a suburb of Tunis, which showed allegedly explicit images became the center of attention for AST and Salafis alike. They viewed it as an attack on the ‘holy’ and led to a riot for a few nights and confrontation with the police.

September 2012: Most notoriously, almost a year ago, members of AST as well as other Islamists attacked the U.S. Embassy. Had the attack gone on much longer, it is likely that more American diplomats would have been killed similar to what occurred at the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi a few days prior.

February 2013: Following the assassination of leftist political leader Chokri Belaid, AST activated what it dubbed ‘Neighborhood Committees’ and ran around at night in different neighborhoods of major cities and smaller villages waving al-Qaeda’s black flag and serving vigilante justice against anyone they felt was misbehaving. How these individuals would assess this is unknown.

These are likely just the tip of the iceberg in terms of what we know since there have likely been other smaller and unreported incidents, especially in the interior of the country. In addition to this, the Tunisian government believes that members of AST have been involved in the fighting against the military in Jebel Chaambi on the Tunisian-Algerian border over the past few months. It has also claimed that AST was responsible for the assassinations of leftist political figures Belaid and Muhammad Brahmi in February and July 2013. Both accusations are unverifiable and need more independent corroboration, but would not be at all surprising if true.

What Next?

Put together, it is understandable why the government would designate AST. Dealing with groups that use da’wa as a tactic to ingratiate themselves to the local population and therefore make it more difficult to crackdown on the movement is something quite familiar to the United States and its allies as it has tried to deal with groups like Hizballah and Hamas in the past. How the Tunisian government deals with the da’wa aspects of AST will likely show if they plan to fully crackdown on the organization or use a more judicious approach as it relates to actual members that have connections to terrorist activities or associates of AQIM. This will be a difficult balancing act since the Tunisian government if it fails could create a full-blown insurgency, which it is unlikely to be able to deal with due to not having the proper training as well as being stretched thin as it is. We will likely know more about the trajectory of how AST and the government/military respond to this new designation mandate in the coming weeks and months.

Abstract and updates on MUJAO and Mokhtar Belmokhtar

Given the length of yesterday’s post on Belmokhtar and MUJAO and the detail I used in explaining the subject, I decided to write an abstract for those who don’t want to wade through 3,000 words on Sahelian militant groups. I’ve also added in a few thoughts since yesterday. You can read the full post here.

The Mauritanian news service ANI carried the news Thursday that two closely linked Sahelian jihadist groups, the Movement for Tawhid and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO in French, generally MUJWA in English) had merged with the group led by former AQIM commander Mokhtar Belmokhtar, Katibat al-Mulathimeen, creating a new group called al-Murabitun after the 11th-century Muslim empire that encompassed parts of Morocco, Mauritania, Algeria, and southern Spain. While there is much we do not yet know about this group, including the identity of its leader, the post details some of my initial thoughts about the reasons behind the merger on a local and more international level, as well as what the merger might mean.

Given the close personal and operational ties between Belmokhtar and MUJAO, going back to the latter group’s founding, it is not surprising that the two merged. What is less clear is why the groups decided on a formal merger when their cooperation was so close, and why they did it now. One possibility is that the formalization of their relationship was meant to deal with organizational and leadership deficiencies in MUJAO, especially given the fact that the group has had to adapt after the French intervention in January of this year in Mali scattered the region’s jihadist groups.

Another possible explanation for the merger is that the impetus came from an outside force, notably al-Qaeda’s Core command in Pakistan. This is possible given Belmokhtar’s longstanding connections and frequent appeals to the group’s core leadership, and interesting timing in light of the reports that recently surfaced about a “conference” held electronically by Ayman al-Zawahiri with inputs from a number of representatives of al-Qaeda affiliates. Such a move could be a recognition of Belmokhtar’s high-profile attacks on the Tigentourine gas plant in southern Algeria in January, as well as the attacks on the Agadez military base and Arlit uranium mine in northern Niger in May. It could also be a sign of the continuing shifts in Sahelian militant structures, as AQIM continues to focus more on the Maghreb states while Belmokhtar and MUJAO further solidify their place as the Sahelian face of al-Qaeda. Without knowing more about the aforementioned conference, it’s impossible to say, though RFI’s report from this morning that the name of the group’s new leader may come “from Pakistan” suggests the hand of al-Qaeda’s central leadership. Either way, we’ll know more when the new emir’s identity becomes public.

Given the rhetoric used in the initial announcement to ANI as well as a statement Belmokhtar made to the paper, it would seem that the group seeks to represent a continuation and evolution of AQIM’s “glocal” position, with a possible territorial expansion based on Belmokhtar’s growing regional connections and profile as well as ongoing events of intense interest to jihadis, such as the military coup and crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. In this context, the group’s name is very evocative; it represents on the one hand a continuation of AQIM’s use of local historical figures and references, with an eye to the themes and terms that will also have resonance with the global jihadist community. Notably, while the statements reference Egypt (which caught the eye of the international media) its stated focus remains French interests and those of France’s allies, again a continuation of past rhetorical and operational practices from both AQIM and Belmokhtar.

Finally, there is the question of why Belmokhtar would decide not to take over the new group himself. If the decision was made by AQC, then he may  not have had much choice in the matter. Given his taste for independent actions and flexibility, however, this arrangement would allow Belmokhtar to focus on his operational pursuits, rather than the management of a new and larger entity. Since writing the post, it appears that some analysts, notably France-based AQIM specialist Mathieu Guidère, have suggested that the merger and Belmokhtar’s language about the need to pass leadership on to a younger generation means that Belmokhtar is removing himself from the picture. While this is possible, I do not share Guidère’s interpretation. For years now, dubiously-sourced reports have circulated about Belmokhtar’s imminent plans to retire from the jihadist scene, to only pursue smuggling activity, to cut a deal with the Algerian government and more. Yet in this time Belmokhtar’s activity and status have grown, and these reports have all been proven false. So I will not believe that Belmokhtar has left the game until I see it.

Of Mergers, MUJAO, and Mokhtar Belmokhtar

Mokhtar Belmokhtar, also known as 'the one-eyed',  who broke away from Aqim to form al-Mulathamin

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Yesterday morning, the Mauritanian news service Agence Nouakchott d’Information (ANI) carried an announcement from  the Movement for Tawhid and Jihad in West Africa, or MUJAO in French (led, according to the story, by Ahmed Ould Amer, previously identified as the group’s military commander) had merged with longtime Algerian jihadist leader Mokhtar Belmokhtar’s Katibat al-Mulathimeen (“the masked/veiled Battalion”) to form a new jihadist group, al-Murabitun, an homage to the 11th-Century Almoravid Empire that founded Marrakesh and at one point stretched from southern Spain south to Mauritania, and also included parts of what is now Algeria. In the initial statement, the group spoke of the merger as part of an effort to unite Muslims “from the Nile to the Atlantic” in order to meet the “zionist campaign targeting Islam and the Muslims.” The statement also notes that the group will fall under the leadership of another emir who for the moment is unnamed, which a source told ANI is a non-Algerian who fought Soviet forces in Afghanistan as well as American forces in 2002, before eventually traveling to Mali and taking on a leadership role in fighting against French forces.

In the more complete Arabic version of the ANI article (full disclosure, I used Google Translate and got help from my blog partner Aaron Zelin for these references), the statement mentions a litany of abuses against Muslims, including the infamous cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad that appeared in 2006 in Denmark, attacks on Muslims in Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan, and now Northern Mali, and the rejection by secularists of all things Islamic, specifically citing the recent coup in Egypt that deposed President Mohamed Morsi. The statement calls for unity of Muslims and Islamic groups, and specifically threatens attacks against France and its interests around the world, as well as those of its allies. The statement also hailed Mauritanian ‘ulema who expressed opposition to the French intervention in Mali, and closed by affirming the group’s commitment to al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri and drew its inspiration from al-Qaeda and the Taliban, notably Mullah Omar, Zawahiri, and Osama bin Laden. As Aaron pointed out to me, the statement specifically uses the term “Nafir” a term used by Abdullah Azzam and Abu Musab al-Suri to refer to a call to arms or to battle, in this case “to the land of jihad” — though the statement does not specifically state where this “land of jihad” is.

In another statement to ANI (so far only published in Arabic), Belmokhtar explained the decision to form the group by making strikingly similar statements to the release announcing the creation of al-Murabitun, saying that the group would operate regionally in North Africa as a first step toward uniting the mujahideen and all Muslims “from the Nile to the Atlantic” and affirming the commitment not just to Zawahiri and Mullah Omar, but to the intellectual, moral, political, and military ideas and methods espoused by bin Laden. Belmokhtar repeatedly stressed the need for unity and explained why he was not taking on the group’s leadership role in saying that it was time for a new generation of leaders during a time of “promising prospects” in the advancement of religion.

What follows are some of my thoughts about what this merger may or may not mean, what the shift specifically says about militancy in the Sahel, and how it fits into broader regional shifts and those specifically related to al-Qaeda. I should caution that these are initial thoughts, and may very well change as new information comes out related to this new venture.

Chronicle of a merger foretold

For the small group of people passionately tracking affairs in northern Mali and the broader region, a merger between Belmokhtar — who established a new katiba late last year while also taking his own katibat al-Mulathimeen from AQIM’s command structure — and MUJAO will likely not come as much of a surprise. Belmokhtar has always been close to MUJAO, and all of those who have at various times been named as MUJAO’s leaders, including Hamada Mohamed Ould Kheiru, Sultan Ould Badi, and now Ahmed Ould Amer (also known as Ahmed al-Telmassi, a reference to his origins in the Tilemsi Valley north of Gao) either worked with at various times or directly under Belmokhtar, and Ould Kheiru and Ould Amer are both reportedly very close to Belmokhtar. This closeness has been apparent for some time (I have written about it here, here, here, and here), and became all the more apparent after northern Mali fell last year and Belmokhtar chose to quite openly set up shop in Gao, the city that MUJAO controlled partially from April until June and then exclusively until they were forced out by the French intervention. Some sources have even described Belmokhtar as one of MUJAO’s original founders.

Moreover, MUJAO and Belmokhtar worked closely together, whether during the attack in Gao in which Belmokhtar’s and MUJAO’s forces expelled the Tuareg MNLA from the city, to when Belmokhtar’s and MUJAO’s forces took control of the smuggling town of In Khalil in December, and then the coordinated attacks at In Amenas in January and against a military base in Agadez and uranium mining facility at Arlit in northern Niger in May, as well as the assault on Niamey’s civil prison on June 1.

So if they were working together before, why merge now? For one thing, MUJAO has undergone a series of changes in the short time that it has existed, and may still be working its issues out. On the one hand, MUJAO has carried out or taken part in numerous successful operations (in the odd metrics often applied by jihadist groups to their own actions), including small- and large-scale suicide bombings, the kidnapping of foreigners for ransom and possibly the release of prisoners, and the administration of a city — even as it’s harsh interpretation of shari’ah helped drive people away from the group.

Still, MUJAO has gone through a series of important shifts. In October 2011 MUJAO’s stated goal was to propagate jihad in West Africa, referencing key figures in regional Muslim history in the process, yet its first operations were all against Algerian targets. After the fall of northern Mali the group was involved in the administration of Gao and increasingly the areas around it, even while staging a large suicide attack at the Algerian Gendarmerie base in Ouargla in June. With the jihadist push south (in which MUJAO took part, despite reported opposition from Kheiru) and French intervention a new phase began, one of guerrilla attacks in multiple parts of northern Mali, and the involvement of MUJAO fighters and sometimes key personnel in the In Amenas and Niger attacks.

During this time, the group has also experimented with different structures and dealt with leadership conflict; as I previously noted, it remains very unclear who actually runs MUJAO, and different leaders at different times have clashed with others over the handling of matters in northern Mali, notably when Ould Badi reportedly took his fighters to join Ansar al Din last fall in opposition to the takeover of In Khalil. The group has, by my count, reorganized its leadership and battalions at least three times before now, including Belmokhtar’s reported creation in January of a “Mujahideen shura” that would comprise fighters from MUJAO and Belmokhtar’s al-Mulathimeen, and the designation of Ould Badi as the head of a group specifically tasked with dealing with MUJAO’s remaining hostages.

Today’s announcement, then, appears to be the latest in a series of adaptations to changing environments in the region, and may even just be the formalization of a merger that had already happened. It could also be, as Mauritanian journalist and AQIM expert Hacen Ould Lebatt noted in an email, an attempt to give the group true leadership, which it has lacked since its founding. In that vein, it will be very interesting to see who is actually taking over this new batallion, but if ANI’s description is accurate it will be someone with extensive jihadist experience, as well as someone who mirrors Belmokhtar’s path, with a history both in Afghanistan (possibly with al-Qaeda’s core organization) and the Sahel.

It’s evolution, baby

As with many things related to Belmokhtar and the past activities of those close to him, the statements and group formation have both very local and very international registers. Over the past few years I have repeatedly expressed my support for the conception of AQIM and related groups as “glocal”, groups that often think and speak globally but generally act much more locally.

For lack of a better way to put it, the group’s announcement is a very “al-Qaeda” statement, redolent with themes and direct messages linked to the group and it’s “core” leadership. While jihadist statements often appear very similar by virtue of shared ideologies and reference points (not to mention a shared self-image), it is worth pointing out that this statement and Belmokhtar’s comments make repeated and explicit reference not just to al-Qaeda’s leadership (as well as the Taliban), but also the reference of specific concepts favored in the past by leading global jihadist figures, such as Azzam and al-Suri. Moreover, the statement explicitly threatens not just a more “global” jihadist target, in the form of France, but also situates al-Murabitun, at least rhetorically, as trying to unify and defend Muslims across the region, even papering over the decades-long disputes between jihadists and the Muslim Brotherhood to present all groups as part of a broader Islamist project, one opposed in this context by Crusaders, Zionists, and secularists.

On the other hand, the statement still fits within Belmokhtar’s past and more recent history of imbuing his speech and actions with local and more regional and international significance. Despite long being derided as a mere smuggler, a criminal, and as one paper briefly wrote after the In Amenas attack, a “One-Eyed Pirate King of the Sahara”, Belmokhtar has a long jihadist resume that includes training in Afghanistan and two decades of membership in Algerian militant groups, from the GIA to the GSPC to AQIM. He was the first Algerian militant commander since the GIA to actually stage an attack outside of Algeria (and he paid direct homage to the GIA unit that carried out those attacks), and he has for years spoken of his admiration and loyalty to bin Laden, Zawahiri, and situated his own actions and thinking within those of al-Qaeda. Before he formed al-Mouwakoune bi-Dima (“Those who Sign with Blood”), Belmokhtar’s close confidant Omar Ould Hamaha confirmed that Belmokhtar would still remain under the orders of al-Qaeda’s core command.

At the same time, while this new venture continues Belmokhtar’s and MUJAO’s rhetorical association with al-Qaeda, it also emphasizes the group’s regional focus, both in explicitly mentioning its operations within North Africa (even as the group hopes to expand, geographically) and specifically in threatening France, the onetime colonial power in much of North and West Africa. This is, in effect, still a continuation of AQIM’s mold, given that the group was given entrance in al-Qaeda to “form a bone in the throats of the crusaders” in Zawahiri’s words – notably France. And Belmokhtar’s attacks against international targets, especially at In Amenas and in Niger, have had both local and international resonance.

With this new group and announcement, Belmokhtar and MUJAO have sought to broaden their rhetorical horizons, notably through reference to hot-button current issues to jihadis current events and the struggles of Islamists in Egypt, while still retaining the focus on North Africa and presumably the Sahel, something AQIM has also done with their propaganda in recent years. One need only look at the group’s name to see this significance; the Almoravids have long featured in AQIM propaganda and group naming, providing an ideal symbol for the group (and now its offshoots), as a pious and strict Muslim Berber empire that spread across North Africa and into Andalucia (a prominent historical touchstone for jihadis).*

Belmokhtar out of the spotlight?

If you’ve gotten this far, you might ask why, if Belmokhtar is so important and central to happenings regarding MUJAO, he did not simply take command of this new group himself. The honest answer is that at this point, I have no idea. However, I do not share the surprise that some very smart AQIM watchers have expressed that Belmokhtar would not submit to someone else’s control; he has at least paid lip service in the past to his position under al-Qaeda’s command as well as that of his AQIM leadership (notably Abdelmalek Droukdel), and his problems with leadership in the past seem to have largely been specific rivalries, such as that with his fellow Sahelian AQIM commander Abou Zeid or with Droukdel or AQIM’s shura in northern Algeria. That said, it took him years to break with this structure, and only, it seems, under immense pressure from the organization itself. He also operated under multiple commanders in the Sahel, including Yahya Djouadi and Nabil Makhloufi, without actually breaking from the organization.

What is clear is that Belmokhtar likes to do his own thing, and has made wide-ranging contacts outside of his native Algeria, from Mauritania (where he has recruited fighters for years) to Mali (where he has married into at least one local family) to Niger (where he has operated and recruited) to Libya (where he spent time in late 2011 and 2012 making connections in key areas like Oubaria, connections that reportedly helped him acquire weapons and later operate). I would suggest the possibility, then, that accepting a technically subordinate role for Belmokhtar may not be a slight, but instead the chance for him to divest himself of the tasks of running a larger organization in order to focus on his operations.

This explanation is of course speculative, and rests largely on who the new leader of the brand-new al-Murabitun is. Their identity will hopefully tell us, for instance, if the emir is a friend or contact of Belmokhtar’s, another figure of the Sahelian jihad, or perhaps someone imposed from the outside. It is possible, for instance, that this maneuvering came about as a result of the now-infamous “conference” headed online by Zawahiri and involving the participation of a number of al-Qaeda leaders and the heads of affiliated or linked groups.  Without knowing who participated in that conference, and in particular without knowing if Belmokhtar or anyone linked to his organization or MUJAO participated, it is impossible to say. But the identity of al-Murabitun’s chief may tell us some important things about what exactly the group wants to do, and where.

What’s the point?

I’ve explained from an organizational perspective why I think this new group may have been created. But that doesn’t necessarily explain why, on a more general level, this group would come into being. Perhaps it is as simple as needing to assert more control over an unruly organization buffeted by intense combat with French forces and pressure to scatter across the Sahel.

On the one hand, the tumult in Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia could have provided the impetus to create a new group, or the appearance of a new group, in order to take advantage of the chaos and signal an intention to expand operations accordingly. The references to Egypt, for instance, stuck out to some as a direct threat to attack there. While this is absolutely possible, in light of the lively weapons and other smuggling networks from Egypt to Libya and the rapidly expanding conflict with jihadists in Egypt, the actual statement only directly threatens attacks against French targets and those of their allies. Reference to Egypt here seems much more like a rhetorical device, one that will certainly resonate with many people, but not necessarily a signal of impending attacks.

While it is also possible that this group’s creation was ordered by al-Qaeda’s central command, it is just as likely that the group is an attempt to set up a more coherent jihadist organization in the Sahel and North Africa with a more explicitly broad reach. While AQIM likely has connections with fighters in Libya and perhaps beyond, and is said by regional intelligence agencies to be playing a significant role in events in Tunisia, notably in Jebel Chaambi on the border with Algeria, its actual activities seem to have remained focused largely on Algeria. In the last months and even years, AQIM has quietly increased its activities in the north, largely concentrated around traditional tactics of IED emplacement and ambushes. Yet this still leaves space for another organization willing to engage in attacks across a wider geographical space, and in particular the kind of large-scale attacks that Belmokhtar and MUJAO executed in Algeria and Niger.

In this context, it is interesting that al-Murabitun’s leader is supposedly not Algerian, and that the group has threatened attacks across a wide front; MUJAO was purportedly created due to anger among non-Algerian members of AQIM, notably Mauritanian and Malian Arabs, that too much preference was still given to Algerians for leadership positions within the organization, and that AQIM had strayed too far from the path of jihad. The death of Abou Zeid in March, along with other AQIM leaders close to him, may have made even more space for Belmokhtar to operate.

Ultimately, this kind of analysis is an exercise in trying to read dancing shadows in a candlelit room. We do not know far more than we will know about these groups, their interactions with each other, and the interpersonal and environmental dynamics that drive them. Hopefully as more information emerges our knowledge of these moving pieces will change, grow, and sharpen. Until then, all we can do is continue to watch this space.

*As an added aside, al-Murabitun (those who do ribat), comes from the Arabic word for fortress, and denotes warriors on the edge of an empire or state who protect those inside or expand the territory. For those who have read al-Qaeda’s history, that sounds an awful lot like al-Qaeda’s original ideal, to establish a small group of fighters who would be a vanguard for a broader revolution that would sweep the Muslim umma. Thanks again to Aaron for pointing out the original meaning of the word.

New Evidence on Ansar al-Sharia in Libya Training Camps

Over the past few years there have rumblings about training camps in Libya that are run by jihadi entities such as al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghrib in southern Libya as well as ones by Ansar al-Sharia in Libya (ASL), the organization most likely responsible for the attack on the US Consulate in Benghazi last September. It has been difficult to confirm these camps due to the secretive nature of these groups and the lack of self reported evidence by these groups. For the first time, though, on August 6, 2013, credible sources within Libya have confirmed such camps exist.

On Facebook, Moaoya EL Wrffli, posted two videos of two separate Tunisians that had been detained by locals in the Darnah region and later interrogated. The two videos below provide fascinating insights into Ansar al-Sharia in Libya and its non-publicized activities as well as facilitation networks as it relates to the war in Syria. Based on the information given in the these videos, even though they were just posted online, it is likely that they are from late spring/early summer 2012. Highlighting that ASL was already at that point very active with training fighters for Syria as well as other likely nefarious activities in light of what we know would eventually happen in Benghazi on September 11, 2012.

First Detainee:

The first individual mentions that his name is Usama al-Jufayr and admits that he is of Tunisian descent. Says he entered Benghazi, Libya in May 2012 and his purpose was for training to go fight in Syria. al-Jufayr states that the group running these camps is Katibat Ansar al-Sharia, which was the name used by ASL prior to consulate attack and only changed it afterwards for rebranding purposes. The detainee claims that the regime in Tunisia needs reform, but the set up in Libya is “al-hamdullilah,” suggesting good or permissive to the activities they are undertaking. It is likely that al-Jufayr is indeed a jihadi because he notes that parliamentary systems are contrary to the Islamic sharia, which in his eyes is the only acceptable system of governance. Further, he notes that those training with him had not been involved in military jihad previously and come from civilian backgrounds. The program takes twenty days and only included up to that point weapons training and no religious schooling.

Second Detainee:

The second individual does not give his name, but claims he is Tunisian as well. This man entered Benghazi, Libya by plane on April 20, 2012 and also joined the ASL camp in Benghazi. He notes that it is more like army training than police training. He also highlights that he was recruited to this camp by a man named ‘Abd al-Rahman from Tunis and had previously not known about it. Unlike al-Jufayr, the second detainee suggests that there is other types of training noting that he had been involved with learning guerilla warfare, booby traps, and surprise attacks. This training was supposed to last for about a month. In the end, his goal was to go to Syria and fight with the Free Syrian Army, illustrating that he might not be a jihadi and wanted to join up for more altruistic reasons, though, it is impossible to know for sure.

These two videos show that although ASL’s public image has been tied to its da’wa (missionary work) over the past eleven months, it is likely that they are also still active in training individuals to fight in Syria. Moreover, it shows in the case of the second detainee that there are active facilitation networks between recruiters in Tunisia and training camps to get fighters prepared for Syria before they head off to the front lines. These two videos likely only scratch the surface. While some might be skeptical of these videos, based on the level of detail, and what we generally know about how these groups and networks operate, I am confident that they are legitimate. That being said, more information is definitely needed to fill gaps in what we know about all these types of activities. Hopefully, this is the first of other leaks that uncovers more information related to the nexus of  these jihadi recruitment and facilitation networks.

Thanks to Adam Heffez, a research assistant at the Washington Institute, for helping with some of the translations of the Libyan/Tunisian Arabic. 

 

IN PICTURES: Somalia’s Harakat al-Shabab al-Mujahideen, Part 7: Qur’an Competition for Youth in Lower Shabelle (August 2013)

Harakat al-Shabab al-Mujahideen (Al-Shabab) Al-Shabaab 1

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-Christopher Anzalone (McGill University)

A photo essay essay on the Somali insurgent movement Harakat al-Shabab al-Mujahideen:

-Part 1 can be viewed HERE

-Part 2 can be viewed HERE

-Part 3 can be viewed HERE

-Part 4 can be viewed HERE

-Part 5 can be viewed HERE

-Part 6 can be viewed HERE

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Harakat al-Shabab al-Mujahideen (Al-Shabab) Al-Shabaab 2

Harakat al-Shabab al-Mujahideen (Al-Shabab) Al-Shabaab 3

Harakat al-Shabab al-Mujahideen (Al-Shabab) Al-Shabaab 4

Harakat al-Shabab al-Mujahideen (Al-Shabab) Al-Shabaab 5

Harakat al-Shabab al-Mujahideen (Al-Shabab) Al-Shabaab 6

Harakat al-Shabab al-Mujahideen (Al-Shabab) Al-Shabaab 7

Harakat al-Shabab al-Mujahideen (Al-Shabab) Al-Shabaab 8

IN PICTURES: Somalia’s Harakat al-Shabab al-Mujahideen, Part 6: Al-Shabab Military Forces in Baraawe, Late April 2013

Al-Shabab (Al-Shabaab) in Baraawe 1__________________________


-Christopher Anzalone (McGill University)

A photo essay essay on the Somali insurgent movement Harakat al-Shabab al-Mujahideen:

-Part 1 can be viewed HERE

-Part 2 can be viewed HERE

-Part 3 can be viewed HERE

-Part 4 can be viewed HERE

-Part 5 can be viewed HERE

Al-Shabab (Al-Shabaab) in Baraawe 2

Al-Shabab (Al-Shabaab) in Baraawe 3

Al-Shabab (Al-Shabaab) in Baraawe 4

Al-Shabab (Al-Shabaab) in Baraawe 5

Al-Shabab (Al-Shabaab) in Baraawe 6

Muhammad Abu Abdullah (Al-Shabab, Al-Shabaab) governor of Lower Shabelle

Muhammad Abu ‘Abdullah, Al-Shabab’s governor of Lower Shabelle

Al-Shabab (Al-Shabaab) in Baraawe 12

Al-Shabab (Al-Shabaab) in Baraawe 11

Al-Shabab (Al-Shabaab) in Baraawe 10

Al-Shabab (Al-Shabaab) in Baraawe 9

Al-Shabab (Al-Shabaab) in Baraawe 8

Al-Shabab (Al-Shabaab) in Baraawe 7

Niger attacks and the Sahel’s shifting jihad

Areva's uranium mine in Arlit was targeted, where 13 people were hurt.Against the odds and predictions of many analysts, Niger has, up until recently, been able to fend off the security crises that have shaken the Sahel over the last two years. However, with the near-simultaneous suicide attacks that struck two key northern areas — a military base in the key city of Agadez and the uranium mine in Arlit run by Somaïr, a subsidiary of the French nuclear giant Areva — this period of relative calm may have come to an end. While news is still emerging, this post is an attempt to provide context and a preliminary assessment of what we know so far about these attacks. I will also look at what the attacks signify regarding the evolution and current state of jihadist militancy in the Sahel, before briefly looking at the overall security environment in Niger.

The bombings took place in the early morning hours on Thursday, about 30 minutes apart. At Arlit, suicide bombers believed to have been in military uniforms snuck their truck into the compound before detonating their explosives, wounding 13 Nigerien Areva employees and killing one. In Agadez, northern Niger’s most important city and a nodal point for the military as well as licit and illicit business, the toll was far worse: the initial suicide bomb killed at least 20 soldiers and a civilian, while several fighters reportedly equipped with suicide vests took several Nigerien army officer-trainees hostage. It was not until the following morning that French Special Operations Forces intervened alongside Nigerien soldiers to clear the holdouts, but not before the militants executed three of the officer-trainees. While Niger’s defense minister initially denied that any hostages had been taken, as many as three jihadists and three hostages may have been killed in the assault. At least 25 people were killed in total, and at least eight jihadists may have been involved in the attacks, the first suicide bombings ever on Nigerien soil. The attacks were also among the worst security incidents in the region since the January 2013 assault on the Tigentourine gas plant in southern Algeria by fighters operating under former AQIM commander Mokhtar Belmokhtar.

Just hours after the attack and an initial claim of responsibility by the AQIM spinoff MUJAO, it was Belmokhtar’s turn to claim that he too was responsible for the attacks. He followed a claim by his longtime media representative Hacen Ould Khelil (also known as Juleibib) with a written claim of responsibility sent to the Mauritanian Agence Nouakchott d’Information (ANI), and also posted on jihadist forums. The MUJAO statement referenced Niger’s involvement in France’s “war against shari’ah” and promised attacks in Senegal, Côte d’Ivoire, and Benin, while Belmokhtar’s statement on behalf of his Katibat al-Mouwakoune Bi-Dima (“Those who Sign With  Blood”) promised further attacks in Niger if they do not withdraw their forces from Mali. It also threatened attacks against other countries involved in peacekeeping and other operations there conducted by “columns of jihadists and martyrdom candidates…awaiting the order” to attack their targets. Juleibib, for his part, said that Belmokhtar himself supervised the “operational plan” for the attack. Both Belmokhtar’s and Juleibib’s statements described the operation as a joint attack by MUJAO and al-Mouwakoune Bi-Dima. Juleibib added that the group of fighters involved jihadists from Sudan, Western Sahara, and Mali, and that the operation was named for deceased Saharan AQIM commander Abdelhamid Abou Zeid, long reputed to be locked in a rivalry with Belmokhtar for dominance in the Sahel.

Belmokhtar’s return

Belmokhtar’s re-emergence caught many by surprise — at least those who believed the less-than-convincing assertions from Chadian officials and then President Idriss Deby, first that Chad’s forces had killed Belmokhtar in March in Mali, and then that Belmokhtar had “blown himself up.” If Belmokhtar’s role in these attacks are confirmed, it would mark the second time this year that he had staged significant and deadly attacks in the Sahel, attacks that have an increasing geographic footprint at a time when Belmokhtar and others linked to AQIM and a slew of other jihadist groups have also deepened ties in countries like Libya, from where Nigerien President Mahamadou Issoufou stated the Arlit and Agadez attackers crossed into Niger. And despite the persistence of “gangster-jihadist” headlines and monikers to describe Belmokhtar, he appears to have shown again his willingness and ability to stage attacks against well-protected and vitally important targets.

First, let’s look at what these attacks do (and don’t) tell us about militancy in the Sahel. On the surface, there are points of comparison to In Amenas — the heavy use of high explosives (400 kg at Arlit according to Le Monde), coordinated attacks on heavily-secured targets with an experienced, well-trained, and well-prepared group of fighters who almost certainly had up-to-date information about their targets and a level of local complicity or assistance in planning and staging the attacks, and attacks against targets of strategic importance to regional governments as well as Western countries.

The attacks showed, on the one hand, the continued close relationship between Belmokhtar and the fighters around him and MUJAO. Various sources disagree on when, exactly, the rapprochement between Belmokhtar and MUJAO took place; while MUJAO ostensibly started as a breakaway of AQIM, key leaders of the group included longtime Belmokhtar associates, and Belmokhtar made his headquarters in Gao, MUJAO’s base of operations in northern Mali, soon after the city fell. The two groups of fighters also collaborated militarily throughout last year and the Islamist offensive in Mali in January 2013, and some analysts have even described MUJAO as having initially been Belmokhtar’s initiative.

Regardless, the collaboration has no doubt helped propel MUJAO forward as an extremely active group in terms of military activity. Since the January offensive, MUJAO has claimed all but one of the suicide bombings and combined-arms attacks against Malian, French, and other African forces in Gao, Kidal, Timbuktu, and elsewhere. MUJAO and commanders close to Belmokhtar (notably Omar Ould Hamaha) have also been involved in fighting in places like In Khalil, Ber, and Anéfis against the Tuareg nationalist National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad (MNLA), and has deployed suicide bombings to varying degrees of effectiveness.

The assaults in Agadez and Arlit, however, are notable for the scope and tactics deployed, as well as explicit decisions in targeting. The Niger attacks, unsurprisingly, far more closely resemble the siege at In Amenas (and earlier MUJAO attacks in the Algerian cities of Tamanrasset and Ouargla) than the more guerrilla-style engagements in northern Mali. For instance, the Agadez and Arlit attacks appear to have used vastly higher quantities of explosives than other engagements in Mali, and made more of an effort to plan assaults in a way that would create higher casualties and more damage, in particular to infrastructure. While the vast majority of those killed in the attacks died at the military base in Agadez, the attacks at Arlit reportedly seriously damaged the facility, shutting operations down for the moment at the Somaïr mine for at least two months, a shutdown that will cost an estimated 27 million Euro a month as the company continues to assess the true extent of damage there. Likewise, various reports from In Amenas have showed that at least one of the key goals for the attackers was to destroy or seriously damage the facility, not just to kill or abduct foreign workers.

In some ways, the Niger attacks marked not just a continuation but an escalation from In Amenas. Both attacks struck key targets in the energy industry, targets that were not just vital sites of foreign investment, but sites that were of key importance for both international governments but also for local governments. The Tigentourine site (which is still not fully operational nearly five months after the attack) provides close to 10% of Algeria’s natural gas and is exploited jointly by the Norwegian company Statoil and British Petroleum, though the latter have expressed concerns about their the level of security around oil and gas sites in Algeria. The Somaïr mine, meanwhile, is the largest of the Areva-linked mines in Niger, a country which provides approximately 37% of Areva’s uranium and nearly 20% of France’s uranium, in addition to 5% of Niger’s GDP. For a poor country whose biggest private company is Areva, as well as a rich country heavily dependent on nuclear power plants, uranium production in northern Niger is thus of extreme importance.

Moreover, while Arlit has been the site of AQIM activity in the past (notably the kidnapping of seven employees or dependents of Areva subcontractors in September 2010 and the theft in 2011 and 2012 of drilling and other heavy equipment) this attack marks the first attempt to seriously impact production and damage the site itself, much like In Amenas. However, the attacks exhibited differences in the specific use of violence. While the In Amenas attackers brutally executed some foreign workers outright and turned others into walking bombs, Algerian workers at the site were largely spared violence, something the attackers made a point of explaining to the workers. In Niger no such overt attempt to spare Muslims was made, though it is worth noting that Muslim soldiers are hardly a new target for Belmokhtar and AQIM, who have in fact long restricted their attacks either to foreign government targets or regional military targets, and whose units have clashed with Algerian, Mauritanian, Malian, and Nigerien military units. Still, the Agadez bombings and subsequent assaults show a more direct, effective, and planned assault on a major military base, something more familiar to Iraq or Afghanistan than the Sahel.

Rarely, however, have AQIM or AQIM-linked fighters attacked such heavily-protected targets. Since late 2010, France has quietly been increasing its Special Operations and other military presence in Niger and other Sahelian countries, with the troops serving in France’s Commandement des Opérations Spéciales (COS, more or less the French equivalent of the American JSOC) serving under the auspices of Operation Sabre. American and French (and possibly other) Special Forces have been providing training for Nigerien forces for years. Niger was part of the original four countries under the American Pan-Sahel Initiative, launched in 2002. And intelligence, support, and kinetic forces have been increasingly present in Niamey and points north, notably Agadez — where the American military initially wanted to base surveillance drones currently in Niamey — and Arlit. In addition to the 500 Nigerien troops in Arlit and the 5,000 soldiers on the border with Mali, there are reportedly 60 French SOF members in Arlit alone, likely part of the post-Operation Serval deployment of SOF to reinforce mining sites, including Arlit. Yet despite this impressive array of forces and security arrangements, Belmokhtar and MUJAO still opted to strike.

Niger and the region beyond

The attacks marked the emergence of Niger as a new terrain of combat operations for Sahelian jihadists, demonstrating the migration of fighting away from Algeria and Mali as well as providing more possible evidence of the emergence of southern Libya as a site for militant training, planning, and staging for operations in other countries. This is the continuation of a multi-year process of diversification of militancy in the Sahel. This period has seen splits and subdivisions within militant groups that has allowed for more targeted recruitment and a re-focusing of militant activity along broadly regional lines. In keeping with its stated foundational purpose MUJAO has expanded its operations in Sahelian or Saharan areas (Mali, southern Algeria, Libya, Niger, and possibly Chad), while AQIM, notably the northern Algeria-based katibat have adopted a lower public profile while moving progressively further east into Tunisia, among other areas.

The AP’s Rukmini Callimachi uncovered fascinating evidence of some of these internal splits and divisions in Timbuktu, including a letter from AQIM’s shura chastising Belmokhtar for a litany of purported slights. These critiques focused in part on Belmokhtar’s failure to follow orders, but also failure to stage a large-scale “spectacular” attack, a supposed deficiency many specialists noted Belmokhtar may have been trying to fix first with the attack at In Amenas and now in northern Niger. It is notable, then, that Belmokhtar decided to name the attack after his erstwhile rival Abou Zeid, a sign of conciliation and unity among Sahel-based jihadists after the splits of the last year that could also be seen as a snub in the direction of AQIM in the north — though we should be careful not to read too much into a name. What is clear, though, is that jihadism in the Sahel has bled progressively into new areas even as groups shift and change orientation, all the while continuing to draw in a diverse cross-section of actors and even groups.

Looking at this new map of jihadist activity in North Africa and the Sahel, it would be premature to posit a clean distinction between these groups nor the emergence of what some have termed an “arc of instability” in North and West Africa, but rather to show the diversification and spread of these movements among other salafi-jihadi groups that have emerged in the Maghreb and Sahel and have either sent fighters to places like northern Mali for combat and training or otherwise come into contact and forged relationships with their more-established counterparts. This is an ongoing process that has already had a marked influence in militant attacks from Libya to northern Nigeria, one that will continue to evolve and impact parts of the region in different but serious ways.

This impact will likely be felt in an acute way in Niger. For the past two years, Niger has juggled an almost impossibly complex security situation. The government of Mahamadou Issoufou has dealt with the fallout from the crisis in Libya, including the return of hundreds of thousands of fighters and workers as well as the loss of remittances and patronage, the collapse of Mali next door, a worsening of the security situation on the southern border with Nigeria, and according to interviews in Niamey last month the rumblings of unrest in Toubou areas in northeastern Niger. And now, despite having a fairly professional and well-trained military, not to mention intelligence, material, and combat support from Western countries, a well-trained group of fighters was still able to penetrate and damage two heavily-protected and important areas.

Increased attacks in the country, whether in the north or in the capital, would increase the strain on a government that already prioritizes security issues (albeit with good reason). Niger’s defense budget, which occupies 10% of the total budget, has been increased twice in two years, and nearly half the armed forces are either in Mali or on the border with Mali. Further unrest in Niger or on the borders will make things increasingly difficult for the country to muddle through, despite its intelligent handling of past crises and maneuvering over the last two years. This is a particularly acute concern in light of evidence of local radicalization and Nigerien recruitment to MUJAO, the reports of increased connections over the past several years between AQIM, MUJAO, and Boko Haram, and the increased Boko Haram activities in northern Nigeria.

Many questions remain about the attacks last Thursday and their effect on the region. We will get answers to some of those questions, but not all. But the attacks in northern Niger have once more shown the determination of militants to stage significant attacks, cast a light on the changing nature of militancy in the Maghreb and Sahel, and shown the persistent security challenges facing the region’s fragile states.

A Few Notes on Shi’ism in Syria and the Emergence of a Pro-Asad Shi’i Militia, Liwa’ Abu’l Fadl al-‘Abbas (Liwa Abu al-Fadl al-‘Abbas)

Liwa Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas martyr  كرار عبد ألامير أبو أسدLiwa’ Abu al-Fadl al-‘Abbas “martyr” Karrar ‘Abd al-Amir Abu Asad: “We’re [all] Your ‘Abbas, O’ [Sayyida] Zaynab

-By Christopher Anzalone (Institute of Islamic Studies, McGill University)

July 26, 2013: Read my article, “Zaynab’s Guardians: The Emergence of Shi’a Militias in Syria,” CTC Sentinel (July 2013)  HERE.

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UPDATED MAY 22

A few initial notes/observations about Shi’i historical presence in Syria and the emergence of a pro-Syrian government militia, Liwa’ Abu’l Fadl al-‘Abbas (Brigade of Abu’l Fadl al-‘Abbas/Abu al-Fadl al-‘Abbas; Liwa’ Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas)  in Syria:

(1) It is clear that the Iranian government has an interest on the part of the Iranian government and its regional allies in expanding their sphere(s) of influence in the Middle East and North Africa and the wider world, particularly in Muslim-majority countries and among Muslim communities, Shi’i and Sunni.  While recognizing this desire and organizational, economic, and military support from the Iranian government to allied groups in countries such as Iraq, Bahrain, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Syria, it is important to also understand the goals of these local actors in accepting such support.

Iranian government missionary activity and the emergence of Qum as the premier location of Twelver Shi’i religious education following the expulsion of foreign students and intensification of Iraqi Ba’th targeting of the Shi’i religious leadership and political activists in the late 1970s has allowed the Iranian government to expand its influence to other parts of the Middle East and North Africa as well as to Western Europe, West Africa, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Southeast Asia.  It is important to recognize, however, that the Iranian government’s goals are not shared by all Twelver Shi’is and the claimed religious authority of ‘Ali Khamenei is not universally recognized.  Critiques of the late Grand Ayatullah Ruhollah Khumayni’s conception of wilayat al-faqih emerged the very year of Iran’s Revolution and have continued to be written to the present day.  The politics of Iranian government attempts to expand its sphere of influence and the local factors aiding and hindering such expansion are complex and should be considered in any analysis of Twelver Shi’i communities and political activism.

Liwa Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas 1A photograph showing members of Liwa Abu’l Fadl al-‘Abbas with men who appear to have been performing one of the mourning rituals involving bloodletting during the Muharram mourning for Imam Husayn and his party.  Not all Twelver Shi’is perform these rituals and Shi’i mujtahids have taken different positions on the permissibility of such rituals.  Some have noted that none of the Twelve Imams, according to Shi’i tradition, performed such rituals, even in mourning for the Ahl al-Bayt.  The rituals are particularly popular among segments of the South Asian, Iraqi, and Afghan Twelver Shi’i communities as well as followers of the Lebanese AMAL party and adherents (Shiraziyyin) to the Shirazi family of religious scholars, a member of whom founded Damascus’ Zaynabiyya seminary (hawza).

(2) Individual motivations for joining groups such as Liwa’ Abu’l Fadl al-‘Abbas may differ from the reasons the Iranian government or other state or powerful non/quasi-state actors have for supporting, organizing, or backing such groups.  As Thomas Hegghammer has noted in his studies of the Muslim foreign fighter phenomenon, it is often very difficult to know exactly what the motivations were for specific individuals in becoming a “foreign fighter” since martyr biographies and accounts (martyrologies) released after their deaths often address/justify their decision and involvement in certain conflicts after the fact.  Thus, they are not always reliable in understanding the actual motivations, outside of hagiographical narratives.  There may (and in my opinion, likely are) personalized pietistic reasons (from the viewpoint of volunteers/recruits) at play in the decision of at least some of the individual Shi’is fighting under the Liwa’ Abu’l Fadl al-‘Abbas banner.

Liwa Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas (Ali in bullets)“[Imam] ‘Ali”

(3) It’s very important to note the deep-rooted reverence and love Twelver Shi’is have for Zaynab bint ‘Ali (Sayyida Zaynab), which, in my view, almost certainly has played a role in motivating at least some of the individuals who have traveled to Syria to, as they see it, defend her shrine and other important Shi’i shrines from destruction and desecration by some of the Syrian rebel groups.

Among her roles in Shi’i tradition, Zaynab is believed to have been one of the main reasons that the message of Husayn (Hussein, Hussain), the third Shi’i Imam, and thus Islam (according to the Shi’i point of view) was preserved even after his martyrdom at the hands of the Umayyad army of Yazid bin Mu’awiya.  Her defiant speech in front of the Umayyad caliph himself is particularly heralded in the Shi’i tradition, particularly during the annual Muharram rituals of ‘Ashura, which commemorate the death of Imam Husayn and many of his small party (including his half brother, al-‘Abbas, whose honorific “Abu al-Fadl”/”father of” denotes his eldest son, Fadl.)  His mother, Fatima bint Hizam al-Kilabiyya, was one of Imam ‘Ali ibn Talib’s wives and, according to Shi’i tradition, raised his sons by Fatima al-Zahra/Fatima bint Muhammad (the Prophet) as if they were her own.  Al-‘Abbas, to Shi’is, is one of the heroes of Karbala, of whom portraits are painted and nasheeds and mourning recitations (latmiyas) recited during Muharram.

Sayyida ZaynabSayyida Zaynab bint ‘Ali

(3) The neighborhood around Sayyida Zaynab’s shrine in Damascus has long been a center for a community of Twelver Shi’is and popular devotees to the Ahl al-Bayt (the Prophet Muhammad’s family), both residential and scholastic (it’s been the site of a seminary, the Zaynabiyya, affiliated with the Shirazi family of scholars since the 1970s) as well as a center of Shi’i pilgrimage. Shi’i shrines, however, are also located in other areas of the city, such as that of Ruqaya bint ‘Husayn and Sukaina bint Husayn.  These shrines have benefited from Iranian and Syrian governmental funding of restoration and expansion projects, but their importance as local holy sites and the sites of pilgrimage for the region’s Shi’is predates the advent of Iran’s “Islamic Republic.”   These sites, however, have benefited from state patronage, which helped them become fully integrated as regular stops for Shi’i pilgrims from abroad (at least before the start of the uprising against Bashar al-Asad).  Before the Syrian civil war, it and other important shrines in Damascus were regular sites of Shi’i pilgrimage, often as part of pilgrimage (ziyarat) trips that also visited Shi’i shrines in Iraq, Iran, and Saudi Arabia.

Iranian and Syrian state support and promotion of the Syrian Shi’i shrines in the 1980s was a part of both countries’ shared opposition to the Iraqi Ba’th government, which had imposed itself on the Shi’i shrines in Iraq, going as far as to appoint its own officials to “supervise” the sites in cities such as Najaf, Karbala, and Kufa.  Similarly, the Zaynabiyya hawza benefited from an influx of seminary students, including a number of Afghan Hazara Shi’is, from neighboring Iraq expelled by Saddam in the second half of the 1970s.

Liwa Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas (Wahhabis)“We’re coming, O’ Zaynab…Thirsty for blood of the Wahhabis (al-wahhabiyya)…BANNER: We Heed Your Call/are at your service, O’ Zaynab,” denoting the Salafi foes that, according to the few available sources, Liwa’ Abu’l Fadl al-‘Abbas see themselves as fighting.  Pro-Brigade Facebook pages and Internet postings often include photographs of killed “Wahhabis” and members, the sites claim, of puritanical Salafi rebel groups such as the Al-Qa’ida in the Land of the Two Rivers (Iraq)-connected Jabhat al-Nusra.

Liwa Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas“We Heed Your Call/are at Your Service. O’ Asad”

(4) Shi’i presence and shrines have existed in Syria, including in the north, from much earlier periods.  Many of the Sunni rulers during the medieval period also had pro-‘Alid inclinations even if they themselves were not Shi’is.

(5) Syrian Sunnis (or some of them) also revere these figures. Salafis, due to their iconoclasm, oppose such shrines to varying degrees, the most extreme being actively targeting them for destruction.

(6) Some individual members and supporters are likely swayed by the claimed “axis of resistance” image heralded by the Iranian and Syrian governments as well as Hizbullah in Lebanon.  According to this worldview, support for the besieged Syrian government is a way of resisting what is seen as U.S. hegemony in the region and the broader world.

Liwa Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas (Hasan Nasrallah & Bashar al-Asad)An Internet poster from a pro-Liwa’ Abu’l Fadl al-‘Abbas Facebook page showing Hizbullah’s secretary-general Hasan Nasrallah (right) and Syrian president Bashar al-Asad.  The photograph of Nasrallah was taken after the 2006 Hizbullah-Israel war and has clearly been edited to show light emanating from the book (presumably the Qur’an).  The same is true of the posed image of al-Asad.  Both are shown by the designer as pious (thus, presumably, deserving of support).

(7) The membership (and death) of a number of Iraqi Shi’is with Liwa’ Abu’l Fadl al-‘Abbas in Syria may have much to do with both the presence prior to the civil war of a large Iraqi expatriate community and contention in Iraq over who truly represents the legacy of the late grand mujtahid Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr.  Though one of his sons, Muqtada, leads what can be termed the “mainstream” Sadrist trend (Tayyar al-Sadr, al-Sadriyyun), which is composed of political, social, and paramilitary branches, he faces competitors from among those who studied or claimed to have studied (and excelled) with this father in the seminary.  These include movements with varying degrees of messianist outlook such as that led by Mahmoud al-Hasani as well as individuals widely considered (or who consider themselves) mujtahids or grand mujtahids such as Kazim Ha’iri and Muhammad al-Ya’qubi.

Liwa Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas (Qays al-Khaz'ali, Qais Khazali), Ali Khamenei, & Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr“Lion of the League [of the Righteous], Yahya Sarmud Muhammad al-Fayli,” pictured with the late Iraqi mujtahid Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr (top left), Iran’s supreme leader (rahbar) ‘Ali Khamenei (top right), and ‘Asa’ib Ahl al-Haqq secretary-general Qays al-Khaz’ali/Qais Khazali (bottom right).

Others, such as Qays al-Khaz’ali (leader of the Iraqi Shi’i militia ‘Asa’ib Ahl al-Haqq/League of the Righteous, which is believed to enjoy Iranian state support), have donned the turban (‘amama) in a bid for religious scholarly legitimacy, despite often questionable education credentials.  Though a number of the pro-Liwa’ Abu’l Fadl al-‘Abbas videos, many which appear to have been made and uploaded by “fans,” include photographs of Muqtada, it is possible that intra-Sadrist (using the term “Sadrist” to refer very broadly to a number of different movements claiming at least part of their legitimacy from the contested legacy of the late Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr, who is considered a martyr at the hands of the Iraqi Ba’th, who assassinated him and two of his sons in February 1999) is also at play in the organizing of volunteers/recruits to fight in Syria.

Qays Khaz'aliQays al-Khaz’ali (seated to the right) in front of a picture of the man whose legacy he claims to be upholding, Grand Ayatullah Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr.

Qays al-Khaz'ali (Facebook)“His eminence, the Shaykh Qays al-Khaz’ali, the general-secretary of the Islamic Movement of the Righteous [People of Truth].”

Liwa Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas (Hasan Nasrallah, Ali Khamenei, Qays Khazali)Liwa’ Abu al-Fadl al-‘Abbas martyr Karrar ‘Abd al-Amir Abu Asad (lower left) pictured with Iran’s supreme leader (rahbar) ‘Ali Khamenei (top), Hizbullah’s secretary-general Hasan Nasrallah (right), and ‘Asa’ib Ahl al-Haqq secretary-general Qays al-Khaz’ali (far right).  There is also part of a verse (13) from the Qur’an, chapter (surah) al-Saff (The Ranks): “Help from God and victory is near.”

Liwa Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas 2 (Surah al-Kahf)Liwa’ Abu al-Fadl al-‘Abbas martyr Karrar ‘Abd al-Amir Abu Asad (lower left and right) pictured with the logo of ‘Asa’ib Ahl al-Haqq, which includes a part of a verse (13) from the Qur’an, chapter (surah) al-Kahf (The Cave), which reads: “Lo, they were young men who believed in their Lord and We [God] increased them in guidance! [We/God guided them].”

Liwa Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas martyr Muthanna Ubays Khafif‘Asa’ib Ahl al-Haqq “joyful martyr” (al-shahid al-sa’id) Muthanna ‘Ubays Khafif (right) pictured alongside ‘Ali Khamenei.  Khafif is listed as having “self-sacrificed” (istishhad) in defense of the holy places (al-muqaddasat) on May 15, 2013.

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Given my research focus on martyrdom, the study of political Islam, and Shi’ism in the contemporary period, I hope to write more in both the near future on these topics as well as, probably, down the road for my dissertation.

Radicalization and Political Violence

Rolling Stone has published a new article entitled “Everything You’ve Been Told About Radicalization is Wrong.” It is primarily an attack on the NYPD’s study Radicalization in the West: The Homegrown Threat, written by Mitchell D. Silber and Arvin Bhatt, but it more broadly makes the bold claim that there is no causal connection between radicalization and violence. (I will define some of these terms subsequently — something that Rolling Stone failed to do, and that certainly contributed to the piece’s lack of clarity.)

In studying what drives people to undertake terrorist violence, it is extremely important to be open to new ideas, and new ways of thinking about the issue. Further, I have my own criticisms of the NYPD’s model, which I have already outlined at Al-Wasat. But the major problem with Rolling Stone‘s argument is that it is a broadside against entire lines of inquiry without actually presenting evidence that these ways of thinking about the problem set are flawed.

Framework

It is worth beginning any discussion of radicalization by exploring what the concept refers to. I’ll offer two definitions. Since Rolling Stone is attacking the NYPD’s study, we might start with how that study conceptualizes the process of radicalization.

The NYPD’s study views salafi jihadist ideology as “the driver that motivates young men and women, born or living in the West, to carry out ‘autonomous jihad’ via acts of terrorism against their host countries.” Radicalization, according to that study, is a four-step process (sequential though not necessarily linear) that terminates in a final step that it refers to as jihadization. NYPD defines this phase:

Jihadization is the phase in which members of the cluster accept their individual duty to participate in jihad and self-designate themselves as holy warriors or mujahedeen. Ultimately, the group will begin operational planning for the jihad or a terrorist attack. These “acts in furtherance” will include planning, preparation and execution.

NYPD’s study notes that “individuals who do pass through this entire process,” to the jihadization phase, “are quite likely to be involved in the planning or implementation of a terrorist act.”

Now, if I were critiquing the NYPD’s study, I would argue that the definition of jihadization makes the study’s conclusion almost tautological. Is it any surprise that people who “accept their individual duty to participate in jihad and self-designate themselves as holy warriors,” and then take the extra step to “begin operational planning” for a terrorist attack are “quite likely to be involved in the planning or implementation of a terrorist act”? But, oddly, Rolling Stone takes the opposite tack. It actually argues that there is no connection between completing the steps in NYPD’s study and the propensity to undertake violence.

Moving away from the NYPD’s definition of radicalization — which, as I said, seems to contain a tautology — let’s also employ a more generalized definition of radicalization. I find the definition offered by Peter Neumann and Brooke Rogers useful: “radicalisation describes the changes in attitude that lead towards sanctioning and, ultimately, the involvement in the use of violence for a political aim.” In other words, under this definition radicalization refers to various changes in attitude that culminate in the idea that using violence for political aims is acceptable. So if we’re querying whether there is a causal connection between radicalization and political violence, the question is if embracing an ideology that holds political violence to be acceptable or even required makes one more likely to engage in political violence, or if it makes no difference.

Finally, I should mention that there is no single pathway to terrorism: this discussion is not about whether ideological radicalization is the only cause of terrorist violence. As I wrote on Al-Wasat earlier, sometimes “political anger, group dynamics, even sense of adventure” may be the dominant factor driving people to violence. Rather, this discussion is about whether ideological radicalization is one such pathway to terrorism, or whether that causal connection is a myth.

John Horgan: “The Greatest Myth Alive”

“The idea that radicalization causes terrorism is perhaps the greatest myth alive today in terrorism research.”–John Horgan

I recognize Horgan as a talented academic, albeit one whose past work has sometimes had a blind spot with respect to the role of religious ideas. So I was interested to see the evidence for such a bold claim. But none of the points he made to Rolling Stone establish that the connection between radicalization and terrorism is a myth. I engaged Horgan on Twitter, and he provided two different sources that he said grounded his argument in far deeper research than is reflected in the Rolling Stone piece. But neither of those sources support his strong conclusion either.

Before addressing Horgan’s arguments, let me point out that the idea there is some causal connection between radicalization and terrorism is one of the more intuitive connections in all of terrorism research. One would expect that someone who believes in an ideology that justifies the use of violence for political ends would be more likely to engage in politically-motivated violence than someone who does not. Of course, sometimes the intuitive answer is not the right one — so let’s look at Horgan’s evidence.

Arguments to Rolling Stone. Horgan provides two arguments to Rolling Stone about why the idea that radicalization causes terrorism is a myth. First, he says that “the overwhelming majority of people who hold radical beliefs do not engage in violence.” I agree with this, and in fact made a similar point in a recent CNN interview. (When I said this, I was defining “radical beliefs” in a different way than the NYPD does in its jihadization phase, and Horgan is almost certainly employing a different definition as well.) But the point that most people who hold radical beliefs don’t engage in violence doesn’t disprove a causal connection. I find that, because people tend to be uncomfortable discussing religion, they have a far lower threshold for accepting evidence discounting the connection between religious ideas and terrorist violence than they might in other contexts; I noted this tendency in a recent review of a book by Clark McCauley and Sophia Moskalenko. So let’s take this out of the context of religion and examine parallel claims and refutations:

  • Poverty is a causal factor in crime. “That’s not true. The overwhelming majority of poor people do not commit crimes.”
  • The widespread availability of firearms is a causal factor in gun violence. “That’s not true. The overwhelming majority of gun owners do not commit gun violence.”
  • Government repression is a causal factor in revolutions. “That’s not true. The overwhelming majority of repressive governments do not experience revolutions.”

In these cases, the refutations do not disprove the initial claims. Similarly, Horgan’s statement makes the point that there is hardly a one-to-one relationship between radical ideas and terrorism. But that doesn’t mean there is no causal connection.

Horgan’s second argument is that “there is increasing evidence that people who engage in terrorism don’t necessarily hold radical beliefs.” I asked him about this on Twitter, and he explained that “it’s not that they don’t hold extreme beliefs. It’s that the beliefs don’t always precede involvement.” This is obviously a different claim than his quotation in Rolling Stone. Since I don’t have access to the data he’s referring to, I can’t really speak to it, except to make one point: the fact that in some cases involvement in a violent extremist movement doesn’t precede beliefs does not disprove a causal connection between radicalization and terrorism.

Horgan also makes a third point later in the Rolling Stone article: “There are the bigger social, political and religious reasons people give for becoming involved… Hidden behind these bigger reasons, there are also hosts of littler reasons – personal fantasy, seeking adventure, camaraderie, purpose, identity. These lures can be very powerful, especially when you don’t necessarily have a lot else going on in your life, but terrorists rarely talk about them.” But as Adam Elkus pointed out on Twitter, multicausality is part of social science. While Horgan’s point is, again, true, it doesn’t substantiate his claim that the causal connection between radicalization and violence is a myth.

Terrorism and Political Violence. Horgan pointed me to his article in Terrorism and Political Violence (Jan. 2007) entitled “A Conceptual Framework for Addressing Psychological Process in the Development of the Terrorist.” It was an interesting and worthwhile read, but did not demonstrate that the causal connection between radicalization and terrorism is a myth. Here is what that article had to say about ideology and terrorist violence:

The influence of ideology in a psychological sense has been little explored with respect to terrorism. As noted earlier, Hall describes ideology as ‘‘the framework for thinking and calculations about the world—the ‘ideas’ that people use to figure out how the social world works, what their place is in it and what they ought to do.’’ In a psychological sense, this implies influences on an individual’s cognitive state, a point noted by Aaron T. Beck in his paper on terrorism: ‘‘Ideology concentrates their thinking and controls their actions.’’ For Beck, ideology implies not only cognitive influences, but that it operates as a process, changing or ‘‘controlling’’ behaviour; ideology therefore might be expressed in forms of cognitive structure, but it also has a sense of content that may exercise significance influence over behaviour. From a different context, as noted earlier, Louis Althusser also emphasises the significance of meaning and representation expressed through language and social action and practice. Taylor and Taylor and Horgan explored the role of rule governance as one way of understanding the behavioural process that might be involved in ideological control over behaviour, and it may be that further empirical exploration of this would yield valuable results.

Far from implying a lack of causal connection, this passage thus implies that further research into the connection between ideological radicalization and terrorism could “yield valuable results.” So did something change in the six years since his article came out to change his mind about that point?

START article. A second article Horgan pointed me to, published by the University of Maryland’s START center last year, speaks to that question. In it, Horgan argues that we should “end our preoccupation with radicalization so that we can effectively regain a focus on terrorist behavior.” This article is primarily concerned with problems with practically applying the concept of radicalization. Nowhere does it provide evidence that there is no causal connection between radical beliefs and violence. In fact, it addresses his above-discussed point that involvement may precede beliefs. He writes:

A lingering question in terrorism studies is whether violent beliefs precede violent action, and it seems to be the case that while they often do, it is not always the case. In fact, the emerging picture from empirical studies of terrorists (including over a hundred terrorists I have interviewed from multiple groups) is repeatedly one of people who became gradually involved with a terrorist network, largely through friends, family connections, and other informal social pathways but who only began to acquire and express radical beliefs as a consequence of deepening involvement with a network.

There are two things worth noting about this. First, it is useful that he quantifies that radical beliefs “often” precede violent action. Second, Horgan’s statement is entirely consistent with the conclusions in the NYPD study, which speaks of the role of social networks:

  • The key influences during this phase of conflict and ‘religious seeking’ includes trusted social networks made up of friends and family, religious leaders, literature and the Internet.” (p. 30)
  • “Clusters of like-minded individuals begin to form, usually around social circles that germinate within the extremist incubators.” (p. 31)
  • “These groups, or clusters of extremists … are not ‘name brand’ terrorists or part of any known terrorist group. For the most part, they have little or no links to known militant groups or actors. Rather they are like-minded individuals who spend time together in clusters organized, originally, by previously established social network links.” (p. 85)

Overall, Horgan’s paper makes some valuable points about practical applications of the concept of radicalization, and about some of the lack of clarity some scholars have when discussing radicalization. While I disagree with some points that Horgan makes in his paper, it is a) a valuable read, and b) one that does not support the very strong claim he made about the causal relationship between radicalization and terrorism being a myth.

Rolling Stone‘s Other Arguments

I examined Horgan’s ideas in depth because, as I said, I respect him as a scholar. Though none of the rationales he gave support his strong claim that “the idea that radicalization causes terrorism is perhaps the greatest myth alive today in terrorism research,” I wanted to examine them in detail and point out where they contribute valuable critiques to our discussion of radicalization as a concept. The rest of the article provides less meat, although it does contain one critique with which I agree.

The critique I agree with comes from Jamie Bartlett, who states: “I have found that many young home-grown al-Qaeda terrorists are not attracted by religion or ideology alone – often their knowledge of Islamist theology is wafer-thin and superficial – but also the glamour and excitement that al-Qaeda type groups purports to offer.” As I said in my last Al-Wasat post on radicalization, “an on-point criticism of the NYPD study … is that it assumes the primacy of ideology (religious or otherwise) in moving an individual toward the embrace of violence.” Ideology, as Bartlett notes, is not always the primary moving force. However, this doesn’t mean that the study and the concept of radicalization lack value: I find that the NYPD’s study provides a useful conceptual framework in cases where ideology is the predominant pathway toward undertaking terrorist violence. This seemingly includes the case of Tamerlan Tsarnaev, thus making this a strange time for Rolling Stone to launch a broadside against the concept of radicalization.

Other critiques that Rolling Stone offers:

If media accounts are to be believed, the accused Boston marathon bombers were “radicalized” by watching American-born Yemeni cleric Anwar al-Awlaki’s YouTube sermons and reading Inspire, the al Qaeda magazine.

False. My last Al-Wasat entry goes through media accounts carefully. This is not the impression one would come away with after reading my entry. If Rolling Stone‘s contention is that you’d get this impression by reading narrowly and selectively within the media accounts… well, okay, but not the best critique.

Jamie Bartlett, head of the Violence and Extremism program at the think tank Demos, echoes these doubts. “The word ‘radicalization’ suggests a fairly simple linear path toward an ultimate violent conclusion,” he says. Studies suggest that although there may be stages in the evolution of a terrorist, placing them sequentially on a line, as the NYPD’s report literally does, is far too pat. The stages are fluid, not a simple trajectory, and it is virtually impossible to predict who will or won’t engage in violence based solely on their beliefs.

Ignores what the NYPD study actually says. That study clearly states (p. 19): “Each of these phases is unique and has specific signatures associated with it. All individuals who begin this process do not necessarily pass through all the stages and many, in fact, stop or abandon this process at different points. Moreover, although this model is sequential, individuals do not always follow a perfectly linear progression.”

As I flagged before, the idea that “it is virtually impossible to predict who will or won’t engage in violence based solely on their beliefs” is rather absurd if those beliefs are represented by the “jihadization” phase of the NYPD’s study. Once individuals “accept their individual duty to participate in jihad and self-designate themselves as holy warriors or mujahedeen,” it is probably a bit less difficult to predict who will or will not engage in violence. Further, while the ability to predict violence is relevant the utility of radicalization models, it does not really speak to the truth of the models. In other words, a radicalization model can simultaneously accurately describe the process leading one to commit violence while also doing little to help us distinguish between those who will drop out and those who will not.

“To be a radical means to reject the status quo, which in some cases propels society forward,” says Bartlett. “Equating radicalism with terrorism can produce a dampening effect on free expression – either by government or by self-censorship.”

Employs a different definition of radicalism than either the NYPD study or Neumann and Rogers. Salafi jihadism, the focus of the NYPD study, has never propelled any society forward.

Conclusion

The Rolling Stone piece also mixes in a great deal of criticism of the NYPD’s policing efforts. This is a fair area for discussion, but even if one concludes that the NYPD’s efforts were wrong in every way, the policies undertaken by NYPD do not invalidate the concept. Again, taking this outside the context of religion and political violence, let’s examine a few similar claims to Rolling Stone‘s contention that the connection between radicalization and terrorist violence is invalid because it led to what the magazine considers to be bad, discriminatory policies:

  • A carbon tax would be an economically disastrous, awful policy. Therefore, the idea that carbon dioxide causes global warming is invalid.
  • Gun control would put us on the road to dictatorship. Therefore, the idea that the availability of firearms is linked to violence is invalid.
  • Abortion is a positive evil, akin to murder. Therefore the idea that an abortion can ever be in the health interests of a mother is wrong.

Rolling Stone‘s readers would, I suspect, disagree with all three of these propositions, and see the logical flaws in them. The fact that you might oppose a carbon tax does not prove that global warming is a myth. Likewise, one’s views of the NYPD’s policing practices do not invalidate the connection between radicalization and terrorist violence. Overall, there may be a strong argument that, as Horgan suggests, there are serious problems with applying models of radicalization in the law enforcement context. But that is a far different argument than the contention that everything we’ve been told about radicalization is wrong.

Let me close by explaining, briefly, why the connection between extreme ideas and violence matter. Last month I did field research in Tunisia, where there has been an alarming amount of vigilante violence undertaken by hardline salafis against artists, activists, women, and religious minorities. If there were no connection between extremism and violence, we would expect vigilante violence to be evenly distributed within Tunisian society–undertaken sometimes by secularists, sometimes by Communists, sometimes by sufis. It is not. And if radical ideas and terrorism are not connected, then the growth of Ansar al-Sharia Tunisia, which openly shares al-Qaeda’s ideology, should not be seen as particularly problematic. After all, since it is not currently engaged in a terrorist campaign, its ideology should not be seen as predictive of future violence — right?

If we pretend that a connection between certain radical ideas and political violence does not exist, we will be taken by surprise, time and again, by future acts of non-state violence.

Notes on the Tsarnaevs’ Radicalization

The investigation into the radicalization of the Boston Marathon bombing’s Tsarnaev brothers has only just begun. While the picture of the radicalization of the Tsarnaev brothers remains incomplete, many have already pointed to what appear to be obvious warning signs of violence. Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the younger of the two brothers, seemingly became a recruit of his older sibling Tamerlan. However, the older brother Tamerlan showed many classic signs of radicalization and a turn to violence. When placed in context, the question shifts from “How was Tamerlan radicalized?” to “Why was Tamerlan’s radicalization not detected?”–Clint Watts, “Detecting the Radicalization and Recruitment of the Boston Bombers”

In this entry, I will outline some of my thoughts and notes on the Tsarnaevs’ radicalization. In the above-quoted piece, Watts utilizes Chris Heffelfinger’s radicalization model, which consists of four different stages: 1) introduction to an extremist ideology, 2) immersion in the ideology’s “thinking and mindset,” 3) frustration that other adherents to the ideology are not taking action, and 4) resolve to undertake violence to advance the ideology’s cause.

Heffelfinger’s model is similar, though not identical, to the model offered in the NYPD’s 2007 study, written by Mitchell D. Silber and Arvin Bhatt, Radicalization in the West: The Homegrown Threat. While Heffelfinger’s model is generalized, and a researcher could try to apply it to a range of extremist ideologies, the NYPD model is focused exclusively on salafi jihadism. That study similarly identifies four phases in the radicalization process. The first is pre-radicalization, an individual’s life before his journey to extremism. The second is self-identification, in which the individual begins exploring salafi Islam “while slowly migrating away from their former identity — an identity that now is re-defined by Salafi philosophy, ideology, and values.” The third phase is indoctrination, where the individual’s beliefs intensify, culminating in “the acceptance of a religious-political worldview that justifies, legitimizes, encourages, or supports violence against anything … un-Islamic, including the West, its citizens, its allies, or other Muslim states whose opinions are contrary to the extremist agenda.” The fourth and final phase is jihadization, where the individual comes to accept an individual duty to undertake violence, and may even “begin operational planning for the jihad or a terrorist attack.”

In both models, it should be noted, many more people will begin the process than will complete it: most people who come to hold extremist ideology drop out at some point before using violence in service of those beliefs. (Many people may in fact continue to hold extreme beliefs, but not be driven to violence by them.) A great deal of criticism has been directed at the NYPD model in particular. Some of this criticism is off-base: in Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) Literature Review, Minerva Nasser-Eddine and colleagues criticize the NYPD study for “leav[ing] out militant Christians, … as well as other groups within the West that employ terrorist and guerrilla tactics in their campaigns.” The rather obvious problem with this criticism is that it unreasonably assumes that all militant ideologies should share a common radicalization trajectory. However, an on-point criticism of the NYPD study, which is also applicable to Heffelfinger’s model, is that it assumes the primacy of ideology (religious or otherwise) in moving an individual toward the embrace of violence. In my own research on “homegrown” jihadist terrorism in the West, I’ve found that ideology is sometimes the central factor in an individual’s radicalization, while sometimes another factor — political anger, group dynamics, even sense of adventure — predominates.

I find both the Heffelfinger and also the NYPD model useful so long as we understand that they don’t explain the entirety of terrorist cases, and not even the entirety of cases where the terrorist attack is designed to further the salafi jihadist cause. Rather, they can help us to understand radicalization trajectories in cases where ideology is the predominant factor.

I wanted to introduce these radicalization models because they will help us to think about the points that follow. But my goal in this entry is not to discuss the merits or shortcomings of existing radicalization models. Rather, I want to outline some aspects of this case that strike me as significant.

The end of Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s boxing career

The New York Times carried a long article on the impact that the change in entry rules in the Golden Gloves national tournament had on Tamerlan Tsarnaev. The tournament rules changed in 2010 to disqualify legal permanent residents, after which Tamerlan “dropped out of boxing competition entirely, and his life veered in a completely different direction.” The Times explains:

Mr. Tsarnaev portrayed his quitting [boxing] as a reflection of the sport’s incompatibility with his growing devotion to Islam. But as dozens of interviews with friends, acquaintances and relatives from Cambridge, Mass., to Dagestan showed, that devotion, and the suspected radicalization that accompanied it, was a path he followed most avidly only after his more secular dreams were dashed in 2010 and he was left adrift.

Fox News has published an article where Tamerlan’s former coach, Bob Russo, commented on the Times piece: “That’s ridiculous. You can’t tie the sport of amateur boxing — that has helped so many immigrants and unfortunate people — to his transition to radical Islam.” This critique represents a gross misreading of the Times article, which in no way implies that boxing made him do it. The NYPD’s study, wherein the radicalization trajectory is largely based on salafi-jihadist ideology, notes that the catalyst for the religious seeking that exemplifies the self-identification phase “is often a cognitive event or crisis, which challenges one’s certitude in previously held beliefs, opening the individual’s mind to a new perception or view of the world.”

Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s disqualification from boxing in future Golden Gloves national tournaments seems to have been a personal crisis of this kind, which made him open to new ideologies and ways of understanding the world. Acknowledging this in no way blames boxing, excuses Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s actions, nor obscures the role of radical Islamic ideology.

Religious ideology and radicalization

The reporting on Tamerlan Tsarnaev makes religious ideology appear to be a powerful force — and, I would say, likely the dominant force — in his radicalization and turn toward violence. It should be noted that when we talk about the role of religious ideology in this context, we aren’t speaking about the role of Islam writ large, but rather a particular understanding of the faith that many other Muslims oppose. This is illustrated in Tamerlan’s case, when some of his theories about the faith were rejected at a Cambridge, Massachusetts mosque.

I had an interesting conversation on Bloggingheads with Adam Serwer that I recommend for those interested in this topic, in part because I thought it did a good job of broaching controversial aspects of this discussion that are often shunted to the side, while not veering into the sensationalistic or offensive. Further, much of my academic work on the topic has focused on the role of religious ideology in the radicalization process. While studies like the NYPD’s may over-emphasize the role of ideology, other studies unfairly marginalize it. Examples that I have reviewed include the work of Clark McCauley and Sophia Moskalenko, and of Jessica Stern. To help navigate this controversy, my work has outlined indicators of religious ideology being a guiding force in a subject’s radicalization: their presence or absence can help researchers determine the importance of religious ideology to a particular terrorist’s radicalization.

Here are some data points that I have found relevant with respect to Tamerlan Tsarnaev:

Where did his radicalization occurThe N.Y. Times (Apr. 27) reports that Tamerlan’s landlady, Joanna Herligy, said, “He certainly wasn’t radicalized in Dagestan.” That is, she believes signs of his extremism were evident before he left for six months in the Caucasus. Herlihy “told law enforcement officials that his trip clearly merited scrutiny,” and said “that Mr. Tsarnaev’s embrace of Islam had grown more intense before that.”

Adoption of a legalistic Islamic practice. One of the steps that my 2009 study on religious ideology and radicalization identifies is adoption of a highly legalistic practice of Islam. A legalistic practice in itself is not alarming: most often it is indicative only of someone becoming more conservative in his practice of the faith. But in a great deal of homegrown terrorist cases, adoption of a highly legalistic practice was an early step in the process indicative of an individual coming to adopt a new identity, and new ideas at odds with his previous life.

As part of this step, several homegrown extremists stopped listening to music. Those who gave up music included Adam Gadahn (who once made his own death metal albums) and John Walker Lindh (who used to post obsessively in online hip hop chat rooms, at one point claiming that he was “a famous MC who shall remain anonymous due to dickriders”). Tamerlan also gave up music as his practice of Islam became more severe. He not only listened to all kinds of music, but also was a talented musician. The N.Y. Times (Apr. 27) recalls that “during registration for a [boxing] tournament in Lowell, he sat down at a piano and lost himself for 20 minutes in a piece of classical music. The impromptu performance, so out of place in that world, finished to a burst of applause from surprised onlookers.” Tamerlan listened to all kinds of music, including classical and rap, and used the email address The_Professor@real-hiphop.com. In fact, a few years ago he had planned to enter music school. AP (Apr. 23) shows that Tamerlan’s interpretation of Islam guided his eventual avoidance of music. Six weeks after Tamerlan had told Elmirza Khozhugov, the ex-husband of his sister, about his plans to enter music school, they spoke on the phone. Elmirza asked how music school was going. Tamerlan said that he had quit, and explained that “music is not really supported in Islam.”

Growing a beard is another act that can indicate an increasingly legalistic practice (though, again, is not at all alarming in itself). Members of the Fort Dix Six, for example, had a rather long conversation, captured on tape by an informant, about the details of how beards should be kept according to religious law. The N.Y. Times (Apr. 27) reports that Tamerlan “grew first a close-cropped beard and then a flowing one.” Tamerlan shaved off his beard prior to the bombing.

Spiritual mentor. In his turn toward a stricter practice of Islam, Tamerlan may have had a spiritual mentor. Referred to in early reports as “Misha,” this alleged influencer’s real name is Mikhail Allakhverdov. Tamerlan met him in 2008 or 2009. The AP (Apr. 23) reports that Tamerlan’s family thought Misha/Allakhverdov was instrumental in his decision to stop studying music. Elmirza Khozhugov told the AP about his method of religious instruction: “Misha was telling him what is Islam, what is good in Islam, what is bad in Islam. This is the best religion and that’s it. Mohammed said this and Mohammed said that.” Khozhugov witnessed the conversation, which occurred until Tamerlan’s father, Anzor, came home from work around midnight. When he asked why Misha was still there, Tamerlan’s mother, Zubeidat, replied, “Don’t interrupt them. They’re talking about religion and good things. Misha is teaching him to be good and nice.” Tamerlan’s relationship with Misha would cause tension with his father, who felt that his son was listening to Misha and not to him. But it apparently did not cause tension with his mother, who was also coming to practice a stricter form of Islam (as I will discuss momentarily). Though much of the steps Tamerlan took suggest a move toward strict salafism, Christian Caryl, the writer who first tracked Misha/Allakhverdov down, has said that he did not think Misha was a salafi.

Misha was apparently also influential in turning Tamerlan toward political extremism and conspiracy theories. Tamerlan “turned to websites and literature claiming that the CIA was behind the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and Jews controlled the world,” AP reports. He read The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, and also developed an interest in Alex Jones’s conspiracy website Infowars. Tsarnaev began to frequent jihadist websites, and read extremist literature like Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s English-language online publication Inspire.

Attempts to impose his religious beliefs on others. Another step in my 2009 study was attempts to impose one’s religious beliefs on others. Tamerlan seems to have done this with his mother, Zubeidat Tsarnaeva, with respect to the wearing of hijab. The Times (Apr. 27) reports that his mother used to not cover her head, and in fact “she began wearing a hijab only a few years ago, in the United States, prodded by her son.” This actually caused tension at home. The Wall Street Journal (Apr. 22) reports that Tamerlan’s father, Anzar, said, “You are being crazy, covering yourselves.” Zubeidat replied, “This is what Islamic men should want. This is what I am supposed to do.” Tamerlan’s mother and father later divorced.

Intolerance toward perceived religious deviance; belief in a schism between Islam and the West. Two of the steps in my 2009 study were extreme intolerance of perceived religious deviance, and perception of an irreconcilable schism between Islam and the West. Both of these appear to have been present in Tamerlan, based on the same incidents.

Belief in a schism between Islam and the West can be manifested in self-isolation, or distancing oneself from previous friends and acquaintances who are non-Muslim. In one U.K. case, that of attempted suicide bomber Nicky Reilly, his stepfather noted that Reilley “started to hate us. He went on about how he’d die and find Allah and lasting paradise.” Likewise, acquaintances of 7/7 bomber Germaine Lindsay noted that he “shut himself away,” and that “when he converted, he stopped hanging out with his normal friends.” We can see evidence of this in Tamerlan. After his one-time best friend Brendan Mess was killed in a gruesome triple murder (which Tamerlan himself may have committed, as I will discuss), Tamerlan did not attend the funeral, explaining, “I don’t have any American friends.”

Both of Tamerlan’s outbursts disrupting services at the Islamic Society of Boston’s Cambridge mosque were in service of his vision of a schism between Islam and the West, and showed his intolerance of what he saw as religious deviance. As the L.A. Times reports:

The older brother twice disrupted services. In November, Tamerlan Tsarnaev disputed a preacher’s statement that it was appropriate to celebrate national holidays, according to the society’s statement. Then in January, he challenged a preacher who praised the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.: Tsarnaev “stood up, shouted and called him a ‘non-believer'; said that he was ‘contaminating people’s minds’ and began calling him a hypocrite,” according to the statement. Congregants urged Tsarnaev to leave, and once the service was over, he was told he was not welcome to attend the mosque if he continued interrupting services.

Earlier signs? There has been a great deal of speculation that Tamerlan may have carried out a gruesome triple murder before leaving for the Caucasus: one of the victims was his former best friend, Brendan Mess. The victims were bound, had their throats slashed, and were sprinkled with marijuana. The linked piece provides possible reasons for this murder, including the possibility that Tamerlan was outraged that Mess had given marijuana to his younger brother Dzokhar, and also the possibility that the victims may have been targeted because they were Jewish.

Russia’s FSB warned the FBI and CIA about Tamerlan in 2011, saying that he had “changed drastically” and become “a follower of radical Islam.” The FSB also stated that he planned to travel to the region, where he would connect with “underground” militant groups. Much of the inevitable debate about whether an intelligence failure occurred prior to the Boston bombing will focus on the FSB’s warning, Tamerlan’s trip to the region, and how evident the danger Tamerlan posed in 2011 was. However, it is worth noting that there is a difference between someone holding extremist views and someone being likely to undertake violence. In a free society, the fact that someone holds extreme views does not automatically confer the right for the government to put him under surveillance, nor should it.

Dzokhar Tsarnaev. Dzokhar, on the other hand, did not display his brother’s signs of religiosity. He was a pot smoker, a drinker, a partier — all of which contributed to people who knew Dzokhar feeling such disbelief that he could be involved in the Boston plot. (Those who knew Tamerlan, in contrast, were able to recall various data points illustrating his transformation.) This is why, in my Bloggingheads conversation, Adam Serwer and I agreed that “religious identity politics” were likely more important to Dzokhar than religious belief itself. And other factors may have loomed even larger, such as peer pressure from his respected older brother.

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