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May 1, 2013

Terrorist Threat Growing with New Breed of Jihadists

April 24, 2013 by

Tamerlan Tsarnaev (left) and his brother, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev

The influence of radical Islam is on the rise around the world — and in the United States. Mosques and Islamic schools called madrassas increasingly are teaching extreme, fundamentalist interpretations of the religion that presumably inspired the Chechen-born suspects in the Boston Marathon bombings.

“The way to gain influence among the Muslim community is to control the mosques — to control what people think — to have the right imam preach the right message,” says Steven Emerson, an award-winning journalist and author.

Mr. Emerson, executive director of the Investigative Project on Terrorism, shared with me shocking insights about the growth of radical Islam in the United States, noting that terrorist network cells have grown rapidly since 1991.

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Islamists have struck Timbuktu

April 3, 2013 by

Mali’s President Dioncounda Traore, center, listens to questions from journalists as Senegalese counterpart Macky Sall, left, looks on. Image via The Washington Times

Last month, I met with then-French Ambassador to Mali Christian Rouyer, who told me that “French troops will stay [in Mali] until the job is finished.” But French President Francois Hollande stated Thursday that French troops in Mali would be reduced from 4,000 to 2,000 by the end of July, and to 1,000 by the end of the year. Mr. Hollande previously had stated that French troops would not leave until a U.N. peacekeeping force was in place.

Currently, the French are helping train the Malian army and troops from neighboring African countries for a counterinsurgency operation, should the Islamists return. But events can have a way of changing even the best-laid plans.  When I was in Timbuktu two weeks ago, an Islamist suicide bomber detonated his belt at a checkpoint near the outskirts of town. In the ensuing gunbattle, seven jihadists were killed and one was captured; seven Malian soldiers were wounded and one was killed.

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Syria’s Multi-Sided Chess Game

March 31, 2013 by

Free Syrian Army fighter Mohammad Jaffar patrols a street in Bustan Al Basha, one of Aleppo’s most volatile front lines, Oct. 22, 2012. Sebastiano Tomada/Sipa USA

In some ways the Syrian civil war resembles a proxy chess match between supporters of the Bashar al-Assad regime— Iran, Iraq, Russia and China—and its opponents— Turkey, the oil monarchies, the U.S., Britain and France. But the current conflict only resembles chess if the game is played with multiple sides, backstabbing allies, and conflicting agendas.  Take the past few weeks of rollercoaster politics.

The blockbuster was the U.S.-engineered rapprochement between Israel and Turkey, two Washington allies that have been at loggerheads since Israeli commandos attacked a humanitarian flotilla bound for Gaza and killed eight Turks and one Turkish-American. When Tel Aviv refused to apologize for the 2010 assault, or pay compensation to families of the slain, Ankara froze relations and blocked efforts at any NATO-Israeli cooperation.

Under the prodding of President Obama, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu phoned his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and buried the hatchet. The apology “was offered the way we wanted,” Erdogan said, and added “We are at the beginning of a process of elevating Turkey to a position so that it will again have a say, initiative and power, as it did in the past.”

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Assessing U.S. Foreign Policy in Mali

March 4, 2013 by

If Washington continues to avoid direct engagement in Mali there remains a possibility that Mali’s instability could spread throughout West Africa and to the greater region. There is some evidence of this in Nigeria with the growth of Boko Haram. Mali’s internal strife not only represents a threat to Mali and its neighbors but the fragile state of intra-African politics. The African Union (AU) and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) are engaged in Mali with ECOWAS dedicated to the restoration of democracy and the AU committed to preserving the territorial integrity of Mali.

So far the Obama administration has not made any official commitments regarding direct military relief in Mali aside from limited support in the form of ferrying supplies to the region. Adding further urgency, various insurgency groups and Islamists are joining forces in some instances. Organizations such as the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (NMLA), Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Polisario Front, Ansar Dine, and Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MOJWA) represent a network of terrorist and separatist movements whose combined actions characterize a growing threat to the economic and political development of the region. There are links that bind these movements together like ideology, tribalism, ethnicity, politics, and religion. Mali’s fate is just another piece of the puzzle in resolving issues in West Africa but Washington refuses to address the dynamic relationship between these guerilla conflicts. Reaffirming Mali’s progress towards democracy is the first step that U.S. foreign policy needs to take to resolve Mali’s and the region’s chaos.

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The U.S. Can Play a Key Role in Mali

February 22, 2013 by

Pentagon Press Secretary George E. Little briefs the media on the U.S. role in supporting France’s efforts to expel Islamist militants from Mali

A U.S. congressional delegation on Monday made a one-day visit to the Malian capital of Bamako. Headed by Sen. Christopher A. Coons, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee on Africa, the delegation included Sen. Johnny Isakson, Georgia Republican, and Democratic Reps. Karen Bass of California and Terri A. Sewell of Alabama.

“The United States is likely to eventually resume direct support for Mali’s military, but only after full restoration of democracy through elections,” Mr. Coons, Delaware Democrat, said, according to the Reuters news agency. He noted that “U.S. law prohibited direct assistance to Mali’s armed forces” after President Amadou Toumani Toure was overthrown in a military coup in March, but U.S. military aid will resume after democracy is fully restored.  ”We are committed to ensuring support…in the ongoing fight against extremism,” Mr. Coons said.

The delegation’s one-day visit to Mali was reminiscent of former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s 10-day visit to nine African countries in August. The common threads in Mrs. Clinton’s remarks were the building blocks for democratic institutions, good governance, the rule of law and security. Mali was not on the itinerary and was barely mentioned.

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Mali was a Breeding Ground for Terrorists before Current Crisis

February 21, 2013 by

Malian troops patrolling the northern town of Diabaly, Mali, on January 22, 2013. Civilians in Mali’s north have suffered extrajudicial killings and other acts of violence both by the Malian army and by armed Islamist rebels, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International report. Nic Bothma/AAP

The French liberation of northern Mali from embedded Islamists has finally put Mali on everyone’s radar screen.  In the House Committee on Foreign Affairs last week, Ambassador Johnnie Carson, assistant secretary of state for African affairs, testified about the crisis in the West African nation and what the U.S. and other countries should do.  Mr. Carson noted that the “crisis is one of the most difficult, complex and urgent problems West Africa has faced in decades.” He further noted: “The March 2012 coup and subsequent loss of northern Mali to Islamic extremists demonstrates all too clearly how quickly terrorists prey upon fragile states,” referring to the presence of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).

The U.S. could have subdued the AQIM in 2003 when its fighters fled Algeria to Mali’s northern frontier region, which has become a safe haven for al Qaeda-linked Islamists from Mauritania, Nigeria, Niger, Chad, Somalia and as far away as Pakistan and Afghanistan. The U.S. knew that northern Mali was becoming a breeding ground for these terrorists; the Trans-Saharan Counterterrorism Initiative training program was launched in Mali in 2005. Two years later, special operations forces carried out additional training, and U.S. Africa Command considered setting up a base there. An ongoing program would have reduced the presence of the Islamists.

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Canada’s Mali Conundrum

February 15, 2013 by

A French military convoy crossing Timbuktu during their military campaign against Islamic insurgents. Eric Feferberg/AFP/Getty Images via National Public Radio

Roughly a month after France began its aerial bombardment of Islamic extremists in Mali, Canada’s offering to the western response has remained largely unchanged: one C-17 heavy-lift cargo plane, and $13-million in humanitarian aid announced at an International donors’ conference in Addis Ababa.

The government’s reluctance to pledge more resources has come amidst consternation from foreign policy watchers at home. Historically Canada has had a significant presence in Mali as a major donor. It remains one of the Canadian International Development Agency’s (CIDA) focus countries, and is home to significant Canadian mining interests. According to Natural Resources Canada, in 2010 there were 15 Canadian mining and exploration companies in Mali with an estimated $230 million in assets.

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Mali’s Chaos exacerbated by the Arab Spring

January 26, 2013 by

Militants from the Islamist terrorist group Ansar Dine stand guard during a hostage handover in the desert outside Timbuktu, Mali, in April. Associated Press via The Washington Times

Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) infiltrated Mali’s northern frontier in 2003, after a 10-year civil war to overthrow the Algerian government. This desert region has become a safe haven for numerous Islamists linked to al Qaeda.

U.S. intelligence sources have known that northern Mali was becoming a breeding ground for these terrorists. In 2005, the U.S. launched the “trans-Saharan Counterterrorism Initiative,” a military training program in Mali. In 2007, additional training took place with special operations forces. U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) had considered a base in northern Mali, but the idea never materialized.

The Arab Spring in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya led to the destabilization of the Sahel, leaving a number of countries at risk. Our lack of continued military support in Mali left the country unprepared to deal with the fast-growing threat from the well-armed and well-financed Islamist extremists. Northern Mali has now become the “epicenter” for terrorists coming from Niger, Chad, Sudan, Nigeria and Somalia, and as far away as Pakistan and Afghanistan.

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Implications of the Rise of Radical Muslim Groups in Libya

January 23, 2013 by

Ansar al-Din is seeing an increased number of defections as military raids against terrorist groups continue. Romaric Ollo Hien/AFP via Magharebia

It would be an understatement to say that the National Transition Council (NTC) has failed to govern Libya effectively since the fall of Gaddafi. The majority of territory outside Tripoli has fallen under the control of armed militias that have refused to disarm. Violent campaigns along tribal and ideological lines have been waged by Libyans determined to settle old scores and influence the ongoing political transition. Libya’s armed Islamists are well positioned to shape the course of events. This year the NTC will be challenged to integrate the Islamists into the national political system, yet failure to do so will likely result in marginalized militants playing the spoiler. If current events in Algeria and Mali are an indication of what the future holds for Libya, Islamists may be expected to wage armed attacks against their opponents and western targets, which can only further damage Libya’s investment climate.

Although the majority of Libya’s Islamists supported the 2011 uprising, they hold a diverse set of political views and are divided by tactics. The Libyan Muslim Brotherhood (LMB), National Front for Salvation of Libya (NFSL), Islamic Rally Movement (IRM), and Libyan Islamic Movement for Change (LIMC) have all expressed an interest in non-violence and participatory democracy. Last June the LMB’s political wing — the Justice and Construction Party (JCP) — participated in the election for the General National Congress, winning 17 of 80 seats.

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The U.S. Aided Mohamed Morsi’s Rise to Power in Egypt

January 17, 2013 by

“Morsi has usurped all state powers and appointed himself Egypt’s new pharaoh, a major blow to the revolution that could have dire consequences.”

– Mohammed ElBaradei

The Obama Administration supported the Arab Spring uprisings, which led to regime change in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. In Tunisia Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was deposed and found a new home in Saudi Arabia. In Egypt Hosni Mubarak was deposed and imprisoned. In Libya Islamists hunted down and killed Muammar Gaddafi. However in the aftermath of the regime changes, neither of the countries has seen stability or a better quality of life for their people.

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The Mali Intervention: France, Islamic Fundamentalism and Africa

January 15, 2013 by

French President François Hollande announcing his decision to intervense in Mali. Image via Ministère des Affaires étrangères

The French government has decided to take it upon itself to intervene in the conflict plagued state of Mali to stop the advance of the Islamic Jihadi. On Monday, France’s ambassador to the United Nations, Gerard Araud, explained that France had received UN Security Council approval to intervene. An aerial campaign on Thursday had commenced at the request of Mali’s government against al-Qa’ida linked rebels marching on Bamako.

The fears from France and her allies is that the al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) poses a grave threat in its efforts to create what would amount to a Taliban styled regime.

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Education Reform in Indonesia Likely to Backfire

January 11, 2013 by

Students in Central Jakarta. Photo by Charles Wiriawan

The decision by the Indonesian government to radically alter its current primary school curriculum by replacing science with classes focused on religion and courses that strengthen nationalism will have a generational impact that may prove to make the country less economically competitive and less attractive to foreign direct investment in the years ahead. The drastic changes in primary school curriculums in Indonesia’s public school system, slated for implementation this summer, could lead to greater persecution of the nation’s Catholic, Buddhist, and Protestant religious minority groups.

With religious violence on the rise and the declining effectiveness of the educational system in Indonesia, reform efforts to address these issues are a logical pursuit. However, the decision to remove science and social sciences classes will likely backfire and create a lost generation, which will lead to economic decline, social instability, and religious radicalization.

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Can John Kerry change State Department Culture?

January 8, 2013 by

As the next Secretary of State, Senator John Kerry will need to focus on changes at the Foggy Bottom headquarters in Washington, DC. At the top of the list is redundancy—overlapping job descriptions—which needs to be streamlined. The constant rotations of Foreign Service Officers (FSOs) should be considered, followed by an overhaul of the Employee Evaluation Review (EER) system for promotions, in which peers take part in the preparation and approval process. Above all, the State Department needs to change how we deal with the host countries. To win back friends, we need to be more consistent, and not just be a provider of aid.

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Red Lines and Syria’s Chemical Weapons

December 15, 2012 by

While the Obama administration has for many months stressed the need to give diplomacy another chance to work in Syria, the administration has now decided that if Assad were to employ his vast chemical weapons stockpile against the rebels, the U.S. would have no choice but to intervene in the nearly two-year old conflict. Fears about the potential fallout of the demise of the Assad regime are running high, as a post-Assad Syria could likely degenerate into a sectarian civil war that would make Iraq look like a picnic, given the complex religious and ethic fabric of Syrian society.

With the rebels making significant advances throughout Syria, and inching closer to the heart of Damascus, the fear is that Assad could launch chemical weapon attacks against rebel positions in a bid to halt their advance. Employing chemical weapons is not a precision game – numerous factors would impact the success or failure of their use, including prevailing winds. Collateral damage would likely be immeasurable, essentially constituting mass murder on a scale not witnessed in decades. Assad could be using the threat of chemical weapons as a bargaining chip to secure more preferential terms, should he decide to flee – which is becoming increasingly likely.

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Fostering a New Generation of African Leaders

December 14, 2012 by

A Tuareg nomad stands near a mosque in Timbuktu. Image via Al Jazeera

My July 2012 commentary “Artistic Endeavor: Can Change the Face of Africa” was about Sundance Institute Theatre Lab’s play premiere “Africa Kills Her Sun”, which I attended. The play was a collaboration of African playwrights and actors, expressing the plight of the Ogoni tribe in Nigeria, under Dictator Sani Abacha’s corrupt regime; human rights abuses, and suppression of free speech. Sundance had brought into focus the injustices in Africa through a social awareness–reaching out to young minds.

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