Egypt mosque atrocity shows ISIS weakness, but beware elsewhere

So this is what failure looks like? A horrendous atrocity that kills more than 300 people at prayer?

Yes. It shows what happens when an Islamist terror group with outsized political goals faces defeat on the battlefield. Despite the horrible outcome, it shows weakness, and it could be the first page of their last chapter. I discussed the situation a few minutes ago with host P.J. Maloney on KQV News Radio in Pittsburgh.

Friday’s attack on a mosque in Egypt’s Sinai is the worst terrorist strike to hit the country in modern times. It also marks the first time that ISIS-linked militants there have attacked a major mosque. Dozens of terrorists were involved, setting off a bomb, opening fire on worshipers trying to escape, and even targeting ambulances.

It’s important to note here that the militants are Sunni Muslims and so were the victims, with a critical difference:

IMG_0957The mosque in the Sinai serves Sufi Muslims, from a branch of Islam that emphasizes mystical rites and is arguably the most peaceful sect in all of Islam. Among tourists, Sufis are probably best known for their colorful dancing.

But it’s far from a radical splinter group or a recent development. Sufism dates back to the eighth century, and it represents an internal interpretation of Islam, not a rival sect. Even so, radical Sunni Islamists consider Sufis as heretics, and therefore, targets for death.

ISIS and other violent extremists have targeted Sufis and their mosques in other places in recent years, notably Pakistan and Mali. In the Sinai, militants have destroyed several Sufi shrines.

Al-Azhar Mosque.JPGYet the Imam of Cairo’s Al Azhar Mosque, considered the seat of Sunni Islamic learning and ruling, is himself a hereditary Sufi sheikh. Ahmed el-Tayeb can be considered the most influential Sunni Muslim scholar in the world–but even that status doesn’t protect Sufi followers from Islamist militants.

For two decades, Islamists in Sinai have been battling the Cairo government. In recent years they have self-identified as affiliated with ISIS. President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi, who ousted the Muslim Brotherhood president in 2013, has been hunting them down relentlessly. They have been responding with the usual guerrilla tactics–hit-and-run gunfire, bombs, ambushes. More than 1,000 militants have been killed, along with hundreds of Egyptian police and soldiers.

El-Sisi started his reign with a crackdown on Muslim Brotherhood activists that included street battles in Cairo that killed more than 1,000 Brotherhood supporters. Thousands of others, including the entire leadership, are in Egyptian prisons. El-Sisi has demonstrated his resolve to crush the Islamists, and despite a high cost, he’s making progress.

So it’s clearly a dead-end prospect for the Islamists. They can’t defeat the Egyptian military. They can’t impose an extremist Islamist government on Egypt. Another bit of perspective–they continued fighting even when the Muslim Brotherhood was in power in Egypt for a year before el-Sisi ousted them. The Brotherhood isn’t radical enough for them.

So what does a frustrated religious and political terror group do when it’s stymied on the battlefield? It turns to targeting civilians. There are no failures in such attacks–only their side is armed. But it shows the level of their desperation–and it could be the beginning of their end.

The horrific attack on the Sufi mosque in the Sinai has evoked condemnation from almost all parts of the Islamic world. Even Hezbollah and Hamas, themselves violent, extremist Muslim groups with political aspirations, condemned the atrocity. ISIS, so quick to claim responsibility for attacks large and small around the world, even those it could not conceivably have had a role in, has been silent about this one. In context, that amounts to a condemnation.

That shows that the militants have finally overplayed their hand, at least in Egypt. That could be a game-changer.

It is clear from Western-aided military campaigns against ISIS in Syria and especially Iraq that the Islamist militants cannot be defeated by military means alone. Once vanquished on the battlefield, ISIS heads for the hills, literally and figuratively, planning guerrilla attacks against armed forces and terror attacks against civilians, often in the West. They represent an ideology that cannot be bombed into oblivion.

So there’s only one way to defeat ISIS and its ilk–the people must rise up and expel them. The anger in the Muslim world against the ISIS-affiliated terrorists in Egypt’s Sinai could well set off a movement there to expose and eliminate the militants. And Sinai could be the first step in a grass-roots campaign across the Muslim world to root them out.

This won’t take place overnight. If it starts at all, it will be a long, painful process. There will be more terror attacks, more deaths, more injuries. But one day analysts might look back at the massacre at the Sufi mosque in Sinai as the beginning of the end of ISIS influence.

That’s how an attack that kills more than 300 people becomes a sign of weakness.


Yemen starves; Saudi, Iran, and US share blame

Yemen is the world’s worst ignored disaster. A civil war there has caused widespread famine and a huge epidemic of cholera. I discussed the crisis a few minutes ago with host P.J. Maloney on KQV News Radio in Pittsburgh.

It’s not just a civil war. It’s also a proxy war, with Saudi Arabia backing one side and Iran the other. The US is involved, indirectly but significantly.

As usual in the Mideast, there are no good guys–only bad guys and worse guys. As part of the Arab Spring revolts in 2011, Yemeni President Saleh, a corrupt, hated despot with close ties to the US, was forced to resign. His vice-president, Hadi, took his place. Iran-backed Houthi rebels, representing Yemen’s Shiite minority, ousted Hadi in a coup with considerable popular support. The Houthis controlled the north, so Hadi fled to the south.

Further to the north is Saudi Arabia. Feeling threatened, the Saudis weighed in on the civil war to oppose the Houthis and their Iranian backers. Directing the Saudi effort is the new strongman, Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman. Chances are he figured that what with the billions of dollars worth of weapons Saudi Arabia has bought from the US over the years, he could make quick work of the Houthi rebels. Instead, he entered the proverbial quagmire. He’s stuck in Iran, and the people are suffering.

Waves of Saudi aircraft have been attacking thousands of Houthi targets for two years, accomplishing little besides destruction, death, and chaos. Yemen is one of the Arab world’s poorest countries to begin with, and now the situation is critical. Did I say now?  The UN has been terming the humanitarian situation in Yemen “critical” for two full years.

It got even worse this month. The Saudis imposed a blockade on Yemen, ostensibly to 23755422_10155431416228736_3009637840956105140_nkeep weapons out–but it also blocked aid shipments. After a world outcry, the Saudis eased the blockade a bit, but aid officials say it’s still hampering their efforts.

The UN says three million people are in danger of starvation, and 17 million others are in urgent need of aid, out of a total population of 27 million. Also, the water table has dropped significantly, leading to pollution, and inevitably, cholera.  And nearly a million are affected by the cholera outbreak. Without proper medical treatment–and there is little proper treatment in Yemen–cholera is often fatal.

Where does the US come in here? It’s been selling weapons to Saudi Arabia for decades, but it’s hard to criticize that–the Saudis had billions to throw around, and they would have bought their weapons somewhere. This way, goes the theory, the US maintains some control over their use and maintains Saudi Arabia as a close ally.

Now the equation appears to be changing, and Yemen is paying the price. The young, bash, inexperienced Saudi crown prince appears to believe that Washington backs his moves in the Mideast, opposing Iran–and gives him a free hand to meddle in Yemen, Lebanon, Syria, and elsewhere. President Trump’s envoy, Jared Kushner, made a semi-secret trip to Riyadh to meet the crown prince, and Trump himself has had extensive business dealings in the kingdom for many years.

If the signal has not been sent from Washington that it’s time for Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman to scale back his adventures, this would be a good time to send it.

And Yemen would be a good place to start.



Libya: Humpty-Dumpty threatens us

The world–especially the US–is making the same mistake all over the Mideast, fighting ISIS and trying to restore an artificial order from the 1920s, instead of dealing with real issues. Libya is a dangerous example. I discussed the situation a few minutes ago with host P.J. Maloney on KQV News Radio in Pittsburgh.

The latest news is that the forces in eastern Libya, based in Benghazi, say they’ve expelled ISIS from one of its last strongholds there. That should be good news, but it obscures the real picture. Under the present circumstances, Libya remains a lawless jungle that can quickly become a prime staging area for all kinds of Islamist terror groups. While we’re concentrating on ISIS there, for example, al-Qaida is quietly building up its presence.

When NATO helped overthrow Libyan dictator Moammar Ghadafi in 2011, the assumption was that the hard work is done, now let’s let the Libyan people sort this out, elect a government and get back to their lives in peace and freedom. It’s the same policy error the West made in its view of Iraq, Egypt, and Syria–just get of that awful dictator and everything will turn out rosy.

How often do we have to do that before we figure out that it’s a mistake?

Libya is one of several examples of an artificial country, created by Britain and France middle-east-featured-map-1024x604in the aftermath of World War I. In fact, if you look at a map of the region, just about everywhere you see a straight line, that’s an artificial border from the 1920s that has little or no relation to the actual ethnic or national situation on either side of it.

The straight lines of Libya’s borders are easy to see in the map above. Libya never was a cohesive country. It is, in fact, made up of at least three distinct sections–East, West, and South. There are many other tribal divisions as well as competing militias, but that’s the framework.

Now look at that map again. It depicts who is holding territory today, and where. And glory be, the country is divided roughly into those three sections, with pockets of resistance here and there. As an illustration of how misguided it is to try to put this all back together the way it was–the people in the south are not even ethnic Arabs like the others in the rest of Libya–they’re Africans.

What makes sense today is to put the fight against ISIS, with airstrikes and all the rest, into second place, and work to stabilize the situation that’s already presenting itself on the ground. What could be more logical?

The end result could be a confederation or a loose alliance among the three sections. First, though, there has to be recognition that the three parts have their own legitimate legs to stand on. In this otherwise interesting analysis of US interests in Libya, the government of the East is called “self-styled,” a derogatory term implying that it has no legitimacy. That leads the authors back into the trap of “restoring” old Libya.

The problem is that the UN and leading nations are committed to restoring the traditional borders of the nations they deal with–even if those borders have no actual tradition behind them–only colonial rule. The UN keeps sponsoring peace talks among the factions. That’s hopeless as long as the goal is to disarm two of them and leave all the power with the “legitimate” government in Tripoli. But that’s the way the UN is set up–it’s an organization of member states, and it just can’t negotiate the dissolution of one of its members. So it’s trying to put Humpty Dumpty back together again. We know how that worked out. In this case, it perpetuates the internal conflicts, which is the opposite of the West’s interests.

If we abandon this doomed Humpty-Dumpty strategy, and the state stabilizes in some form around the three entities, then the Islamist extremists can become a common target. They are, after all, everyone’s enemy, not just ours. The key is to get the Libyans to stop fighting each other. That should be our goal.

Syria war winds down–is Lebanon next?

Nothing is ever as it appears in Lebanon. It’s usually worse and more dangerous. The resignation of its prime minister, Saad Hariri, is the latest example. I discussed the situation a few minutes ago with host P.J. Maloney on KQV News Radio in Pittsburgh.

Usually when a prime minister resigns somewhere, it signals a local political crisis of some sort. Often it’s a disagreement over domestic policy or a change in the mindset of the voters.

Not with Lebanon.

Hariri’s strange resignation shows how Saudi Arabia and Iran are relating to the whole region as a stage, setting proxy groups against each other in ideological and, often, military combat.

Hariri was summoned to Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia, to deliver his resignation. He read the statement uncomfortably on camera. It certainly appeared to be a Saudi statement, as Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Lebanon’s Iran-backed Hezbollah charged–one of the few times that he’s ever said something credible.

In  the forefront of this turmoil is the new ruler of Saudi Arabia, the young Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman. OK, he’s not the king, not yet, but he’s in charge. He has outsized ambitions of reforming Saudi Arabia’s economy into a post-oil power, moderating his country’s extreme and violent form of Islam, and purging his rivals to make himself the supreme ruler of the Middle East. Economics, reform and ego, in other words.

The first two are admirable. The third is not. The future of the Mideast might well depend on which order he puts those goals in, and the Lebanon story leaves little room for optimism.

The centerpiece of Hariri’s statement was condemnation of Iran and Hezbollah. Yet for the past year, he’s been leading a government with Hezbollah as a prominent member, bringing at least a veneer of political stability to a nation that hasn’t had a parliamentary election since 2009 and couldn’t even agree on who should be president for two whole years.

Lebanon’s political system is at least partly to blame for this, though it’s impossible to distinguish between the system and the society itself. Reflecting the intractable divisions in the tiny nation, Lebanon’s prime minister must be a Sunni Muslim, its president  Maronite Christian and speaker of parliament a Shiite Muslim. The chances of all of them getting along for any length of time are slim–the country has been wracked by conflicts and civil wars over the past several decades. It’s also hosting 2 million refugees from Syria, who suddenly make up a third of Lebanon’s total population.

Now add in the external powers. There’s Israel to he south. Israel has invaded Lebanon several times to fight terrorists and guerrillas who use Lebanon as a staging area. In the last war, in 2006, Hezbollah fired 4,000 rockets at Israel, and Israel flattened the Shiite section of Beirut with airstrikes.

Since then, Hezbollah has vastly increased its arsenal of rockets threatening Israel, its primary enemy and reason for existence. The internal turmoil caused by the Hariri resignation could trigger another Israel-Lebanon war.

That would be just fine with Saudi Arabia, which is always eager to let others fight its battles (reference Yemen for an example). Saudi Arabia is anxious to have someone cut Hezbollah down to size after its successful alliance with Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad, who is well on his way to “winning” his civil war (quotation marks because it’s hard to say you’re winning when your country is destroyed, 400,000 people are dead and millions are refugees).

That’s all but irrelevant to Saudi Arabia. Its only regional goal is to defeat Iran and stop its expansion of influence. Syria appears to be lost, Iraq is not looking so good–so how about a new proxy front–say, Lebanon?

So this is just the beginning.