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Why Al-Shabaab targets Kenya – and what the country can do about it



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An armed policeman searches for Al-Shabaab gunmen during the deadly Westgate shopping mall terrorist attack in Nairobi in 2013.
Reuters/Goran Tomasevic

Brendon J. Cannon, Khalifa University

Kenya has suffered the far-reaching effects of repeated attacks by Somalia-based Al-Shabaab terrorist group for years. Tourism has declined. Jobs have been lost and foreign direct investment has withered. The greater Horn of Africa region bordering Somalia has also suffered, but statistics indicate that Kenya experiences an inordinate number of attacks by the terror group.

This trend cannot be explained by geography alone. Granted, Kenya’s porous and ill-guarded borders does make it easier for terrorists to infiltrate the country. But Ethiopia has a much longer border with Somalia than Kenya does.

Between 2006 and 2007 Al-Shabaab conducted few attacks outside of Somalia. There was only one terrorist attack in Ethiopia; there were none in Kenya. In contrast, between 2008 and 2015, the group executed a total of 272 attacks in Kenya and only five in Ethiopia.

Some scholars have focused on Al-Shabaab’s retaliation for Nairobi’s armed intervention in Somalia, beginning in late 2011, as the reason for Kenya’s woes. Yet Ethiopian forces have been in Somalia for more than a decade and both Burundi and Uganda contribute heavily to the African Union Mission In Somalia (AMISOM).

It is also worth remembering that the incursion by the Kenya Defence Forces (KDF) was itself a reaction to Al-Shabaab attacks within Kenya that date back to 2008.

So what explains Al-Shabaab’s focus on Kenya? Our research indicates that Al-Shabaab attacks critical Kenyan targets for both logical and opportunistic reasons. They are based on geographical proximity to Al-Shabaab’s bases in southern Somalia and reinforced by other variables that play into terrorist groups’ general modus operandi.

For example, attacks such as those perpetrated by Al-Shabaab in Kenya exploit existing opportunity spaces and can be referred to as “propaganda by deed”. In this, they seek to raise attention to the group’s existence and viability, thereby enticing recruits to its ranks and spreading fear. In essence, the larger and more brutal the attack, the more the group is perceived as potentially more relevant and powerful than it possibly is.

Indeed, Al-Shabaab’s attacks in Kenya have been characterised by their gruesome effect and have attracted critical news coverage internationally. This gives Al-Shabaab a level of publicity, notoriety and international relevance that often belies its increasing isolation in Somalia.

Why Al-Shabaab targets Kenya

Al-Shabaab’s current – though shrunken – stronghold is in southern Somalia. The geographic proximity of southern Somalia to targets in Kenya makes it easier to plan and launch terrorist attacks. The terror group has attacked not only Nairobi, but Mandera and Garissa in the north-east, as well as Kenya’s tourist-filled coastline. In contrast, potential targets such as Addis Ababa, Djibouti or Kampala are geographically distant and logistically difficult to reach.

Kenya is also one of sub-Saharan Africa’s most important states and East Africa’s hub. Its international visibility and status lead Al-Shabaab to make conscious decisions and efforts to attack it. Attacking targets in Kenya, particularly in Nairobi or on the coast, guarantees Al-Shabaab a level of international coverage that a similar attack in Ethiopia, for example, would not.

Most international media operate freely in Kenya. Many outlets, such as Xinhua, CNN and Al-Jazeera base their Africa operations in Nairobi. The media coverage given to horrific attacks here presents presents Al-Shabaab the “oxygen” it needs to survive and, potentially, thrive.

Kenya’s highly-developed tourism sector is another target. The cumulative result of attacks and terrorism related travel advisories has been a marked decline in the number of tourists visiting the country since 2013. This has also led to hotel closures and job losses along the entire tourism supply chain.

This appears to bleed into arguments that posit Al-Shabaab attacks Kenya to bring it to its knees economically, influence foreign policy and force it to withdraw from Somalia. We argue that while this is partially true, it is not the only reason Al-Shabaab attacks Kenya’s tourist spots. Rather, it attacks Kenya because it’s a tourist hub and offers ample, opportune targets for terror.

Finally, Kenya’s security services are reportedly riddled with inefficiency and corruption. Al-Shabaab has exploited this fact. There have been strong allegations as well as hard evidence that Kenya’s police and military have occasionally colluded with Al-Shabaab.

What Kenya can do

Kenya needs to squarely face this reality and take appropriate measures to counter a persistent and therefore predictable threat.

This does not imply that the Kenyan government should anticipate the location or timing of attacks. But it should be aware of and take appropriate measures to counter this threat.

Research has demonstrated that the most promising way to reduce terrorism is to reduce the terrorists’ confidence in their ability to carry out attacks. Kenya needs to proactively address border security and revamp national security apparatuses.

But before shelling out money for the recruitment and training of more security and military personnel, Kenya must firmly deal with the omnipresent bugbear of corruption. Research on the proposed Kenya-Somalia border wall, for example, demonstrated it will have little positive effect if the design and construction are simply vehicles for corruption.

Walls may stop some determined terrorists but they are largely useless if guards are susceptible to bribes and let attackers through. In 2014 two Al-Shabaab affiliated border guards bribed Kenyan border guards to escort them from Somalia to Mombasa. The two were later captured in the city driving a vehicle stuffed with automatic weapons, rounds of ammunition and almost 50 kilograms of explosives.

The overall lack of training and professionalism in the security sector must also be addressed. Close attention should be paid to the well-being and quality of security personnel and equipment at installations ranging from shopping malls to private homes, government buildings and borders.

Third, the Kenyan government has been unable or unwilling to effectively counter negative news stories and Al-Shabaab propaganda that paint the country as a “hotbed of terror”. The fact remains that some states, including Kenya, appear to suffer more from the public perception of instability and danger from terrorism than others. These perceptions often correspond little to reality or statistics.

Terrorism is a region wide problem. It makes sense for Kenya to work with Somalia and Ethiopia on shared borders, refugees and the like.

Yet Kenya must also understand that it is the primary Al-Shabaab target outside of Somalia. No amount of regional cooperation will entirely alter that. As such, it must attempt to positively and consistently address the reasons why it is the target of attack largely on its own.

The ConversationDominic Ruto Pkalya contributed to this article and the research it cites.

Brendon J. Cannon, Assistant Professor of International Security, Department of Humanities and Social Science, Khalifa University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

What draws ‘lone wolves’ to the Islamic State?



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Police work near a damaged Home Depot truck on Nov. 1, 2017, after a motorist drove onto a bike path near the World Trade Center memorial.
AP Photo/Andres Kudacki

James L. Gelvin, University of California, Los Angeles

The recent attack on a bike path in lower Manhattan once again compels us to ask: Why do people pledge allegiance to the Islamic State?

Sayfullo Saipov, the suspect in the attack, isn’t a devout Muslim. He cursed and came late to prayers, according to acquaintances who talked to The New York Times. So why would he want to be a martyr?

As a professor of modern Middle Eastern history, I have spent the majority of my professional life studying the region, its culture, society and politics. In recent years, I have researched and written about IS and its terrorist activities. While other experts and I have long looked at how radicalization occurs, some new ideas are emerging.

Of lone wolves, flaming bananas and machismo

Like this recent attack in New York, many IS attacks around the globe are carried out by individuals the media have dubbed “lone wolves” – that is, freelancers who act without the direct knowledge of the IS leadership. To avoid glamorizing them, the RAND Corporation prefers the term “flaming bananas.”

There are two theories as to why these individuals pledge allegiance to the group. The first is that they get “radicalized.”

Radicalization refers to a step-by-step process whereby individuals become increasingly susceptible to jihadi ideas. First, they cut themselves off from social networks such as family, which provide them with support and a conventional value system. They then immerse themselves in a radical religious counterculture. They might do this on their own, or a jihadi recruiter might bring them into the fold. Either way, the result is the same.

Some observers claim IS propaganda plays a key role in recruitment. Rather than presenting a religious rationale for the group’s actions, IS propaganda tends to focus on the violence the group perpetrates. IS has even released a video game based on Grand Theft Auto 5 in which, rather than stealing cars and battling the police, the player destroys advancing personnel carriers and shoots enemy soldiers.

Perhaps, then, the radicalization model is wrong or not universally applicable. Perhaps there’s something other than religious zealotry at play.

Consider the widely reported story of two would-be jihadists who, before they left Birmingham, U.K., for Syria, ordered “Islam for Dummies” and “The Koran for Dummies” to fill the gaps in their knowledge.

Newspaper stories time and again puzzle over the problem of how it happens that individuals who go on to join IS were found in bars, even gay bars, or had Western girlfriends and smoked and drank almost up to the time they committed some act of violence for the group. The most common explanation is that their dissolute lifestyle was a cover.

After the driver of a truck ran down and killed 84 people in Nice, France, for example, the French interior minister was at a loss to explain how someone who drank during Ramadan – which had ended a week and a half before – could have radicalized so quickly.

Former French President Francois Hollande in Paris in September 2016 at a memorial service for victims killed by terrorism in France.
AP Photo/Michael Euler

A number of experts have argued that the radicalization model should be replaced by, or supplemented with, a different model.

Rather than joining a radically different religious counterculture, individuals are attracted to IS, these experts argue, because its actions reaffirm the cultural values of those who are marginalized, or those who exhibit what psychiatrists call “anti-social personality disorders.”

Could it be that IS volunteers are drawn to a value system that asserts an aggressive machismo, disparages steady work and sustains the impulse for immediate gratification? Could it be that they are attracted to a culture that promotes redemption through violence, loyalty, patriarchal values, thrill-seeking to the point of martyrdom and the diminution of women to objects of pleasure?

The ConversationIn this reading, IS more closely resembles the sort of street gang with which many of its Western and Westernized enlistees are familiar than its more austere competitor, al-Qaida.

James L. Gelvin, Professor of Modern Middle Eastern History, University of California, Los Angeles

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

US shouldn’t give up benefits of ‘green card lottery’ over low risk of terrorism



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The Statue of Liberty casts a wary eye at the bike path that runs along the western edge of Manhattan, where the Oct. 31 attack occurred.
Songquan Deng/Shutterstock.com

Ethan Lewis, Dartmouth College

After a man barreled down a New York City bike path on Oct. 31, killing eight, President Donald Trump reacted by calling for an end to the “green card lottery” program that allowed the attacker to enter the country.

The Diversity Immigrant Visa Program, as it is officially known, has been in the sights of the president for a while. In August, Trump publicly backed a GOP bill that would end the program and replace it with a merit-based system.

Trump and his fellow Republicans have long decried illegal immigration, but they have traditionally favored the legal kind, partly because their business donors demand it.

As someone who researches the impact of immigration on workers, I believe their plans to change who can enter the country legally is a big mistake. We would be giving up a program that benefits American workers with very little chance of a gain in safety.

While the driver reportedly entered the country through a green card, very few Americans have been killed by recipients of such visas.
AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews

Curbing immigration

While Trump’s tweets about the lottery program are based on security concerns, the usual argument supporting curbs on immigration is that new arrivals hurt native-born American workers and the economy at large.

I’ll leave analyzing the security concerns to other experts; suffice it to say that the risk, according to experts, is very small. Green card holders have killed just 16 people – including yesterday – in terror attacks on U.S. soil since 1975.

As for the economic impact on U.S.-born workers, the key thing to bear in mind is that the more homogeneous and similar immigrants are to natives, the greater the odds they’ll in fact have a negative effect.

In contrast, immigrants who come from diverse backgrounds with a range of skills – such as the lottery winners and the so-called “Dreamers” – tend to produce greater economic benefits. That may be one reason at least some Republicans and most Americans are in favor of keeping the Deferred Action for Child Arrivals program that protects the Dreamers from deportation, which Trump recently ended.

A new approach

Currently, the U.S. receives a lot of immigrants without a college degree or with imperfect English. About half of immigrants fit either description.


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Legislation proposed earlier this summer – the Reforming American Immigration for Strong Employment (RAISE) Act – would exclude most such workers and reduce the total number of green cards awarding permanent legal U.S. residence to just over 500,000 from more than one million today.

It would also end the green card lottery, which awards 50,000 green cards a year to people from countries with low rates of immigration to the U.S.

Importantly, it would also change who gets a leg up when applying for a green card. Currently, family of U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents, including siblings and adult children, are able to apply. The new system would limit that to minor children and spouses.

Instead, the bill would create a point-based system like those used in countries such as the U.K. and Australia that use factors such as English ability, education and job offers to rank applicants. However, it would be stricter than point systems used in those countries, which admit immigrants through other programs as well.

In essence, the plan would make the pool of immigrants more homogeneous and dramatically smaller in number, mirroring the misguided origin-based restrictions from the 1920s.

The DACA program’s inherent diversity is what makes it a boon for the U.S. economy.
AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais

What economists say

Those who wish to restrict immigration often cite what they naïvely call “supply-and-demand economics” to essentially argue that the economy is a fixed pie that gets divided among a country’s residents. Fewer immigrants means “more pie” for the U.S.-born, as the story goes.

I am an economist, and this is not what my colleagues and I say. The commonplace argument that more immigrants, by themselves, lower wages and take jobs from Americans – an argument which Attorney General Jeff Sessions used to defend ending the “Dreamers” program – has neither empirical nor theoretical support in economics. It is just a myth.
Instead, both theory and empirical research show that immigration, including people with few skills and little English, grows the pie and strengthens the American workforce.

The main registry building on Ellis Island is shown in this 1905 photo. It was once the nation’s gateway for millions of immigrants.
AP Photo

Value in diversity

While all the recently proposed changes to our immigration system will make U.S. workers worse off, the English requirement is likely to be particularly harmful to U.S. workers, especially low-skilled ones.

Indeed, I have found the relative fluency of U.S.-born workers is what keeps them from being harmed from labor market competition from immigrants.

The reason for this is the following. Essentially, immigrants with imperfect English skills tend to specialize in jobs that are less “communication-intensive,” such as manual labor. Americans fluent in the language, on the other hand, tend to take on higher-paying, communication-intensive jobs that are out of reach of those without a strong grasp of English. In other words, these groups aren’t likely to compete for the same jobs, making them more complementary than adversarial.

In contrast, when new immigrants are more fluent in English, something the Trump-backed proposal would encourage, the types of occupations they are qualified for are almost identical to those of American workers. Thus, insisting on strong English skills as a condition of coming to America is likely to increase labor market competition and suppress wages.

When Congress in 1964 ended the Bracero program, which allowed large numbers of Mexicans to work on U.S. farms, neither wages nor employment rates of American workers rose.
AP Photo

Immigration that helps

Immigration that emphasizes diversity, rather than merely merit, tends to attract more people who specialize in occupations uncommon among U.S.-born workers. And, in fact, this is the key source of the well-known economic benefits of immigration.

Studies by economists Giovanni Peri and Chad Sparber, for example, show this tendency toward job specialization is a key reason the large volume of low-skill immigration does not drive down incomes of Americans. Other research by Peri and Gianmarco Ottaviano shows that simply encouraging immigration from diverse origins lifts wages.

Put differently, there is direct evidence that the sort of diversity that the green card lottery encourages makes all Americans better off. It would be a shame to give all of that up because of a tiny risk of terrorism.

The ConversationThis is an updated version of an article originally published on Sept. 15, 2017.

Ethan Lewis, Associate Professor of Economics, Dartmouth College

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

‘They shot my two daughters in front of me’: Rohingya tell heartbreaking stories of loss and forced migration



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A military crackdown has led to staggering 600,000 people fleeing Myanmar on foot since late August.
Ronan Lee, Author provided

Ronan Lee, Deakin University

If there’s anything positive about the sprawling Rohingya refugee camps near Cox’s Bazaar, Bangladesh, it’s that the residents – despite their appalling recent experiences and obvious deprivation – are at least safe here from Myanmar’s military.

I’ve been visiting Rohingya refugee camps close to the Bangladesh/Myanmar border, and the scale of the forced migration is truly horrifying. Land unoccupied in late August is now a cramped shanty city of bamboo, tarpaulin and mud that seems to go on forever.

Interviews in the camps paint a desperately sad picture. The details of these interviews are invariably confronting and often distressing, and explain why so many Rohingya fled Myanmar so quickly.

A farmer becomes understandably emotional when he tells me:

I lost my two sons, and two daughters. At midnight the military come in my house and burnt the house, but first they raped my two daughters and they shot my two daughters in front of me.

I have no words to express how it was for me to suffer to look at my daughters being raped and killed in front of me. My two sons were also killed by the government. I was not able to get the dead bodies of my daughters, it is a great sorrow for me.

The Honey Stream at Kutupalong Camp.
Ronan Lee, Author provided

Background to the refugee crisis

The military’s ongoing “clearance operation” began in late August with the supposed aim of ridding Myanmar of a recently emerged militant group. But this campaign’s real intent is now widely regarded as being to force the ethnic Rohingya, a Muslim minority, from their homes, away from their land, and out of Myanmar.

Myanmar’s military, the Tatmadaw, has used tactics that are brutal, indiscriminate, and yet sadly familiar to the Rohingya and other groups in Myanmar such as the ethnic Kachin and Karen.

Witnesses described to me how, when the Tatmadaw arrived at their village, the soldiers fired weapons and killed people inside wooden homes, arrested young men, raped women, told residents to leave, and then burned homes to prevent the residents’ return.

Myanmar’s Rakhine State, where the Rohingya have mostly lived, remains locked down by the Tatmadaw, preventing media and humanitarian access. But NGO Human Rights Watch has released satellite images showing almost 300 Rohingya villages razed.


Video courtesy and copyright the author (Ronan Lee).

In some instances, these burnt Muslim villages stand adjacent to fully intact Buddhist communities. Disturbingly, at the camps in Bangladesh, UN doctors have treated dozens of Rohingya women for injuries consistent with violent sexual assaults.

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights describes Myanmar military’s actions as a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing”. French President Emmanuel Macron has called it “genocide”. He is not the first to make this assertion.

In 2015, the International State Crime Initiative published a detailed research report that concluded the Rohingya were victims of a process of genocide, and predicted the ferocity and intent of the current Tatmadaw campaign.

Aid queue at the Kutupalong Camp.
Ronan Lee, Author provided

Stories from the ground

The result of this crackdown has been one of the fastest and largest forced migrations in the region since the second world war. Within just eight weeks, and during the monsoon season, a staggering 600,000 people have fled Myanmar on foot.

These new arrivals are not the only Rohingya here. They are joining hundreds of thousands already forced to live in Bangladeshi camps who are victims of previous intensive Myanmar military persecutions. This highlights the decades-long discrimination against the Rohingya in Myanmar.

I conducted interviews with male residents of unregistered camps and at Kutupalong Camp. One elderly man who has recently arrived in Kutupalong Camp explained that ten men were arrested in his village. Their families, he said, had not heard from them since. He said the military told his village’s residents to leave:

The military led us to prayer and some kind of religious work, and they openly told us to go to Bangladesh – otherwise you will be killed.

A Rohingya man, dressed in a traditional Burmese Longyi skirt, said his village was “friendly” and “quiet”:

We were living there, very friendly. At midnight we heard the sound of bullets, we went outside to see what is happening. I think they behaved like this – arresting, torturing, shooting, hitting – because we are Rohingya and Muslim. We’re not at fault, we are really innocent.

When asked if anyone in his village was hurt, he said:

No-one in my family was killed, but some near my home were killed.

A 60-year-old man from Buthidaung explained his village was burnt, showing me a large bandaged leg wound he said was from a bullet injury:

Among my four sons, one was killed by the military in front of me, and one arrested, and one of my daughters – my adult daughter – was arrested but I don’t know where she is.

Explaining how he travelled to Bangladesh, a man in his 20s said:

When our village was burned we moved to another village, and then they came to burn that village, and we moved another village, and when they came to burn that village and we moved, and that’s how we came here at last. They used the helicopter to burn the villages.

I am grateful to camp residents for their courage in sharing still-raw experiences with me in the hope the international community would hear them and help them.

Myanmar has denied the Rohingya their human rights, so it’s up to the international community to provide the Rohingya with the protections they are entitled to as human beings. They deserve no less.

A Rohingya man in his 20s asked:

I humbly request to you that, we want to be human, live as a human, but Myanmar treats us as animals. We want to go back there as humans.

He should not need to ask.


Video courtesy and copyright the author (Ronan Lee).

Yahiya Khan contributed to this article.

The ConversationEditor’s note: The syntax and grammar has been edited in some of the quotes to ensure they are comprehensible for readers.

Ronan Lee, PhD Candidate, Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation, Deakin University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.