Author Archives: Daveed Gartenstein-Ross

Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and Al Qaeda’s Senior Leadership

With recent events in Mali and Algeria, there is a notable uptick in interest in Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). One question commentators are asking is what the relationship is between AQIM and al Qaeda’s senior leadership (AQSL) in Pakistan, under Ayman al Zawahiri. The word I’ve seen employed most frequently to describe the links between the two is “murky.”

I agree with the characterization that the relationship between AQIM and AQSL is murky; but when it is translated into popular discourse, murkiness is often inaccurately understood as “we don’t know if there are ties between the two.” For example, Max Fisher writes at the Washington Post, “It’s tough to know the exact connection between leaders in the Algeria-based AQIM and those in far-away Afghanistan and Pakistan…. It’s entirely possible that AQIM’s links to al-Qaeda already are, are becoming, or will become closer to al-Qaeda than we think.” The clear implication is that there may be some connections between AQIM and AQSL, but that it is impossible to know whether they exist, and if so, to what extent. Likewise, Jason Burke writes in The Guardian, “The ties binding AQIM to the leadership of al-Qaida far away in south-west Asia have always been tenuous. The difficulties in communication, let alone travel, precluded any tight co-operation.”

But the documents captured from Osama bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad do reveal communications between AQIM and AQSL that extend over the span of four years, and include discussion of strategic and operational issues. While it is possible that after bin Laden’s death, when Ayman al Zawahiri became AQSL’s emir, these communications were crippled or otherwise ceased, there’s no reason that this should be our a priori assumption. This entry is designed to add granularity to the discussion of AQIM and AQSL through a look at the Abbottabad documents. It concludes by agreeing that the AQIM/AQSL relationship is murky, but explaining that commentators can do a better job of representing the ambiguities.

The Abbottabad Documents on AQSL and AQIM

Four of the released Abbottabad documents make referfence to the AQSL/AQIM relationship. I examine these documents in the chronological order in which they were written:

Document 11, circa early 2007. The author states that he is in in contact with members of AQIM, who are doing fine. He includes an upbeat message from AQIM (“the brothers in Algeria”) saying that “things are steadily improving: morale is rising, support is growing, and military activity has been improving recently. Every week there is a bombing, an encounter or ambushes.” The message from AQIM says that “the enemy,” presumably the Algerian military, was “thrown off by the recent strikes and have responded with continuous random shelling of the mountains. This has been very good for the brothers, as much of the ammunition has not detonated and the brothers are using it.” AQIM records five casualties within the week preceding their message.

There are tactical notes from AQIM regarding the fight against the Algerians. They state their concern “about the Russian Cobra helicopters (MI-34) with laser-guided missiles; they are impacting on the four-wheel-drive vehicles, which are indispensible in the Sahara Desert. Underlying that is the problem of badly needed money for good-quality weapons to counter these menacing helicopters; the mujahedin don’t have single one of them, nor a single missile.” The Algerians’ infrared sensors are singled out as being of particular concern.

The correspondence records that the “commander of the east” informed AQIM that they received four Libyan recruits in the past week, following a group of thirty the week before that. (Note that this precedes al Qaeda’s formal merger with the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group by around a year, indicating that Libyans were already joining AQIM before the merger occurred.) The Libyan recruits were being trained at Tabsa, which is about 600 kilometers east of Algiers, and featured in late 2006 AQIM/GSPC propaganda.

Document 19, circa May/June 2010. This letter, from bin Laden to ‘Atiyya, requests (p. 26) that messages be sent to the leadership of AQIM and Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) asking them to coordinate with Yunis al Mauritani (“Shaykh Yunis”) in “whatever he asks of him.” In particular, bin Laden asks ‘Atiyya to “hint” to AQIM that they should provide al Mauritani with “financial support that he might need in the next six months, to the tune of approximately 200,000 euros.” Bin Laden specifies that al Mauritani should be given a name that doesn’t divulge his nationality, and asks ‘Atiyya to set up “a secure method of communications and coordination” between al Mauritani and both AQIM and AQAP. Bin Laden stresses the need for “the utmost secrecy” regarding al Mauritani’s doings, and says that knowledge of his operations should be restricted to AQIM and AQAP’s leadership.

Document 15, October 21, 2010. In this letter from bin Laden to ‘Atiyya, Abu Yahya al Libi is appointed as ‘Atiyya’s first deputy, and a big part of his mission is providing religious guidance (“sharia research”) to both AQIM and Somalia’s al Shabaab. With respect to AQIM, bin Laden writes (p. 5): “The brothers in the Islamic Maghreb might experience divisions. To avoid this, the research that you said that you are going to prepare on dealing with the apostates should be sent to them. It should be complete and comprehensive and it should include the opinions of the scholars.”

Bin Laden also sends a messages to Abu Musab Abd al-Wadud (the head of AQIM) through ‘Atiyya, stating that ‘Atiyya should add an attached file “to the files of brother ‘Abd-al-Wadud or you can send it to them [i.e. AQIM] as part of your correspondence to them.”

Further, bin Laden advises AQIM (p. 11) that “planting trees helps al mujahedin and gives them cover” from satellites and spy planes. He notes that trees “would give al mujahedin the freedom to move around especially if the enemy sends spying aircraft to the area.” He suggests that they get trees from plantations, “or they can even create their own plantation.”

Document 10, April 26, 2011. In this letter to ‘Atiyya, Bin Laden writes about French hostages being kept by AQIM. At the time, France was involved in military operations against Muammar Qaddafi’s regime in Libya. Bin Laden warns that because the French are involved in this way, French hostages should not be killed because “the atmosphere after the French standing towards the Libyan people does not condone killing the French, due to what will follow of negative reflections, after it became evident that most of the common people are supporting Sarkozy.”

Bin Laden advises AQIM to keep the hostages until after the 2012 French elections; and if this isn’t possible, he wants to exchange half of them, and keep the other half (“the higher ranking and the more important ones”). He does not want the negotiations between AQIM and the French government to be public, but he does want the hostage issue to remain a political liability for Sarkozy. AQIM appears to have largely handled the hostages in a manner consistent with bin Laden’s directives, though obviously it is difficult to ascribe causality to bin Laden’s letter.


Only a fraction of the Abbottabad documents that U.S. forces captured have been released publicly. However, the limited released material indicates ongoing communication between AQSL and AQIM that goes beyond current implications in the public discourse that we do not know if they were in touch. This communication extended over several years — 2007 through 2011 — and survived changes in AQIM’s leadership and also attrition within AQSL’s ranks.

There are most definitely ambiguities within this evidence due to the fact that we’re only seeing a shadow of the overall relationship. For example, we are only seeing one side of the correspondence: in every instance, we do not know the response prompted by the letters that were sent. It is worth noting, though, that nowhere in these documents do we see indications that bin Laden thought AQIM had been unresponsive to him, nor that the length of time it took to communicate precluded effective contact or some form of cooperation between AQIM and AQSL.

Al Qaeda and its various branches and affiliates did not operate as a perfectly hierarchical organization even before bin Laden’s death. An article that I continue to recommend detailing the relationship the senior leadership had with other entities is Leah Farrall’s “How Al Qaeda Works,” which was published in Foreign Affairs in early 2011. Farrall wrote, “Due to its dispersed structure, al Qaeda operates as a devolved network hierarchy, in which levels of command authority are not always clear; personal ties between militants carry weight and, at times, transcend the command structure between core, branch, and franchises. For their part, al Qaeda’s core members focus on exercising strategic command and control to ensure the centralization of the organization’s actions and message, rather than directly managing its branch and franchises.”

The Abbottabad correspondence fits well with Farrall’s framework. One may adopt a minimalist or maximalist interpretation of what the Abbottabad documents mean. On the maximalist side:

  • AQIM was sending situation reports back to AQSL, which may indicate that they sought its strategic guidance or even approval.
  • Bin Laden was providing significant guidance into how AQIM should fit into al Qaeda’s plans in other theaters. Al Mauritani, for whom bin Laden was trying to ensure both AQIM and AQAP’s cooperation, was at the time preparing a terrorist plot for Europe, news of which would break later that year.
  • The religious guidance that bin Laden wanted provided to AQIM in Document 15 suggests that he sees AQSL as influential enough to heal potential rifts within the group.
  • One can argue that the fact the French hostages whom bin Laden wrote about in April 2011 were handled consistent with his advice may indicate his influence over AQIM.
  • One can argue that Document 11 indicates that communication between AQIM and AQSL may have been relatively fast. The correspondence refers to events that were happening during the past week, which may indicate that AQIM thought AQSL would receive the missive while it was still timely.

On the minimalist side:

  • One can point to the language bin Laden used to suggest that he did not consider himself to have a great deal of control over AQIM. For example, in Document 19, rather than just ordering AQIM to provide Mauritani with financial support, he asks ‘Atiyya to “hint” to AQIM that they should do so.
  • One can argue that the path of the correspondence indicates that it was likely slow. Bin Laden was communicating with ‘Atiyya rather than communicating directly with AQIM, and ‘Atiyya may have in turn needed to pass the message through another intermediary.
  • Further, the indirect nature of the communication may have diminished the sway bin Laden could have over AQIM through the force of his personality.

Of course, when you are seeing only a fraction of a relationship, there will be a great deal of questions about the whole. But the Abbottabad documents are indicative of long-running communication between AQIM and AQSL preceding bin Laden’s death that goes beyond the public commentary suggesting that we don’t even know if there are “ties” between them. This does not mean the AQIM/AQSL relationship isn’t murky — it is — but our discussion of that murkiness should certainly take note of the data points that are available to us.

Posted in Al Qaeda, Mali | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments

“Send Lone Wolves to Strike Inside of France”

In an article I wrote yesterday for the Globe & Mail, I noted that online jihadists have been inciting attacks against France. One post in this regard, from the Ansar al-Mujahedin Network, was particularly interesting in light of a monograph I co-authored last year with my G&L colleague Dan Trombly about the tactical and strategic use of firearms by terrorists. One of our conclusions was that “small arms are quite useful for terrorist organizations. They are among the most tactically flexible weapons for complex operations, and for lone wolf or small group attackers, they are one of the most simple to use and readily available options. For this reason, small arms will continue to be an obvious choice not only for al Qaeda, but also for other terrorist groups that wish to carry out attacks.”

The post that caught my interest went up on January 13, written by a forum participant calling himself Abu Ubaydah al Masri al Salafi. Entitled “Advice to Our Brothers in the Islamic Maghreb,” the post provides a number of pieces of tactical and strategic advice. Some of the advice includes encouraging other jihadis to “join the army with the goal of killing the largest possible number of French soldiers, and thus weakening the trust between the two sides,” and capturing the French rather than killing them in order to create an anti-war climate in that country. But given my monograph on firearms, his fifth piece of advice stood out:

Send lone wolves to France to strike inside of France. It is preferable for the operations to be like Mohammad Merah’s operation [i.e., the Toulouse shooter]; that is, carried out by gunfire rather than explosives because it takes a long time to prepare explosives and the operation might be uncovered before implementation due to surveillance.

This passage concisely summarizes precisely why firearms will continue to appeal to terrorists, both individuals and groups, even despite the existence of proliferating options.

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Why Tom Ricks’s Fox Appearance Was Less Impressive Than You Think

You’ve probably already seen Tom Ricks’s Fox News appearance from yesterday that has created so much buzz on social media. His buzz-inspiring line came at the end of a short debate about Benghazi, when Ricks said, “I think the emphasis on Benghazi has been extremely political, partly because Fox is operating as the wing of the Republican Party.” The interview promptly ended after that remark. Since then, Ricks’s interview has been hailed in many quarters as a minor act of heroism, particularly by liberal commentators and others who simply don’t like Fox. And Ricks seems to agree, judging from his comments on the incident to the Washington Post‘s Erik Wemple:

I also have been thinking a lot about George Marshall, the Army chief of staff during World War II, and one of the heroes of my new book. He got his job by speaking truth to power, and I have been thinking that we all could benefit by following his example as much as we can.

After I went off the air I saw some surprised faces in the hallway. One staff person said she thought I had been rude. My feeling was that they asked my opinion and I gave it.

Put bluntly, Ricks’s Fox appearance is far less impressive than his supporters believe, and in fact I think it’s clear that he was out of line if people assess the appearance objectively. To provide some context before I bear out this point, I am speaking as someone who thought Benghazi was overblown as a campaign issue on the Republican side, and did find the coverage overly politicized. Don’t just take my word for this: this appearance on a conservative talk radio show, The Jon Justice Show, does a fairly good job of illustrating where I stood on the issue. So this critique isn’t the product of sour grapes by someone who disagrees about Benghazi. But describing Fox as a “wing of the Republican Party” during the course of the interview is weak stuff.

The first reason: it’s nothing more than an ad hominem attack. Ad hominem attacks are recognized as logical fallacies because they distract from the argument, instead turning attention to the person making the argument. But someone’s bad character, lack of intelligence, etc. does not speak to the truth or falsehood of their argument. As Bill James, the idol of baseball nerds everywhere, has said, “If an undergraduate with a C average can show by clear and convincing evidence that leading scientists are wrong about something, the scientists will not say, or should not say, ‘Who are you to argue with Jonas Salk?’ What counts is evidence, not the authority of the person making the claim.”

So let’s turn this particular case around. What if Jon Scott, the anchor, had said to Ricks: “Of course you’d take that position, since you’re a Democrat”? Is there any way in which that would be a proper question or line of argument? Virtually nobody, other than the most partisan observers, would think that was proper, precisely because it is attacking his character and motivation. But that is essentially what Ricks was doing to Fox. Rather than contributing to a conservations, ad hominem attacks are conversation-enders.

Incidentally, this makes the early termination of Ricks’s interview utterly unsurprising. Wemple writes, in his blog, “What happens when you agree to come on Fox News and then proceed to hammer the network for serving as a ‘wing of the Republican Party?’ Answer: You don’t stay on the air too long.” Wemple thus implies that this is either surprising or sinister. But come on: it’s really not. Try going on MSNBC and slamming them as a wing of the Democratic party, or going on Al Jazeera and hammering them for serving Qatari state interests. You’re probably not going to stay on the air too long there, either.

The second reason: Ricks’s attack on Fox is hypocritical. There are two layers to this hypocrisy. The first is that, though Ricks is no shill, he hasn’t made a habit of insulting every media outlet whose bias shows through in a segment. For example, Ricks utterly confounded Keith Olbermann during Olbermann’s MSNBC days, when the anchor had brought Ricks on with the expectation that he would slam John Boehner. But Ricks got through the entire segment without insulting either the network or Olbermann: instead, he respectfully but firmly refuted Olbermann’s extremely biased presentation of facts. Ricks defended his practice of insulting Fox by saying that “they asked my opinion and I gave it.” Then why not similarly insult MSNBC? He certainly had time to do so. If Ricks is going to make a practice of “speaking truth to power” by insulting networks who bring him on, he should be sure to insult his hosts whenever he senses bias.

I might even respect, in some perverse way, a public commentator who habitually insulted networks and hosts of all political stripes during appearances. I still wouldn’t find it particularly useful: not only would doing so still constitute needless ad hominem attacks, but also it’s not like we need a Tom Ricks on the air to know that Fox skews conservative in its coverage and MSNBC liberal. But, anyway, the available evidence suggests that while Ricks is not a shill for one political party, he also isn’t the guy who will insult all comers.

The second layer to Ricks’s hypocrisy: why did he appear on Fox in the first place, if he has so little respect for the network? I mean, you can’t avoid insulting the network when confronted with a line of questioning with which you disagree, but they’re good enough to appear on to pimp your new book?

Third, does Fox News represent “power”? You might have noticed that in the last election the Democrats won the presidency and retained the Senate. I think Ricks’s statement that Fox is a wing of the Republican party is hyperbolic, just as it would be hyperbolic to call MSNBC a wing of the Democratic party. But even if the relationship were what Ricks claims, isn’t there more of a need for a network that will consistently try to hold the party in power accountable rather than a network that will tend to defend the party in power? In other words, isn’t Ricks’s calculus backward? Wouldn’t Fox have represented “power” during the eight years of the Bush administration, and wouldn’t MSNBC now be the network representative of “power”?

Further, it isn’t at all clear that the administration is blameless in the Benghazi fiasco. I tended to avoid this issue during the election precisely because the reporting was far too politicized for me to get a good sense of what had actually gone down. But to consign Benghazi to being an issue that only a wing of the Republican party might care about seems awfully incurious for a former journalist.

Fourth, rather than “speaking truth to power,” Ricks seems to be “kicking the fat kid.” I have always liked the idea of speaking truth to power, but in practice often (though not always) find that those claiming to do this are in fact exercising power by extending discursive norms in a direction that delegitimizes their opponent’s opinion without actually refuting it. Let’s face it: among liberal intelligentsia, Fox is the proverbial fat kid, and no news organ is more consistently mocked and disrespected. Ricks’s comments were sure to find a ready audience within the preexisting and rather widespread sentiments that hold Fox, and the viewpoints it represents, to be illegitimate in some fundamental way. For a guy like Ricks, Fox is a very easy target. Sure, his segment gets cut short, but he then gets to boast about how he spoke truth to power and spend the next few days basking as a minor hero.

You may enjoy what Ricks did. But we shouldn’t pretend it’s particularly courageous, nor should we pretend that it has in some way enhanced the public sphere.

Posted in Libya, Media | Tagged , , , , , , , | 11 Comments

Petraeus and Schadenfreude

Back in 2006, I was asked to deliver a series of lectures at Tyndale University College and Seminary in Toronto. At the time, the Ted Haggard scandal had just become big news in the U.S. Haggard was the head pastor at the New Life megachurch in Colorado, one of the U.S.’s most prominent evangelicals — and, it turns out, he had paid a male prostitute for sex over a three-year period and also used methamphetamine in front of him. One of the professors at Tyndale engaged me in conversation about the Haggard scandal, and noted his advice to other Christians (the professor’s advice, not Haggard’s): when you see a public figure engulfed in a humiliating scandal, imagine that your own worst sins and darkest secrets were being broadcast to the entire world. This was not an argument for lack of accountability, but rather an argument for compassion, humility, and realization of our own weaknesses.

I thought of this conversation when news of David Petraeus’s own scandal broke. My impression about some of the public reaction to this scandal was similar to that of Andrew Exum, who wrote on Twitter: “My feed right now is filled with schadenfreude, crass comments, and general idiocy. Apparently there are axes in need of grinding out there.” Similarly, Mark Jacobsen noted — in the most perceptive piece I’ve seen about the Petraeus scandal — that he was “already weary from the onslaught of bitter political commentary.” Jacobsen wrote that, “with the first cracks defacing his legacy,” Petraeus’s detractors “are thrilled to continue the job, tearing stone from stone and demolishing everything we thought we knew about the man and his accomplishments.”

Jacobsen emphasized how in many ways, the story of Petraeus’s fall from grace is the story of the human condition. “In our desperation to find heroes, we gloss over faults and overemphasize virtues,” he wrote. In that way, “we establish impossible expectations, which are certain to come crashing down around us later.” I think the creation of impossible expectations is one part of the picture; the other part is the glee with which we then tear down our heroes (or, if not heroes, our prominent public figures) once the cracks in their armor become evident.

Schadenfreude is an emotion I rarely feel, and generally find it highly distasteful in others. I am not touting my own virtues here: I have more than enough faults to go around. But it is in large part my awareness of my own flaws that makes me feel schadenfreude so rarely, and find it to be such an ugly, human emotion. To be sure, part of it is the political climate in which we live. In a very good piece about the 2012 election, Matt Taibbi noted that “we should be confident that whoever wins has our collective best interests at heart, even if we don’t agree with his or her ideology, the same way we reflexively assume that the pilot of any plane we board doesn’t want to fly us into a mountain.” Yet that basic confidence has eroded. “People today on both sides are genuinely terrified of a wrong outcome in this election,” Taibbi wrote. “They’ve been whipped into a state of panic – people everywhere are freaking out and muttering to themselves and firing off vitriolic emails.” In this climate, our political foes are seen as less than human, and we rejoice at their humiliation, whether it is Bill Clinton, Larry Craig, Ted Haggard, Anthony Weiner. Sometimes we cheer not only their humiliation, but also their deaths, as could be seen earlier this year in Matthew Yglesias’s thoroughly disgusting remarks when conservative figure Andrew Breitbart passed away.

There is something at play beyond the political climate, though. I think there is something about men like Petraeus — a war hero, a four-star general, a Princeton Ph.D. — that makes others feel a bit smaller, like their own lives do not measure up. When they fail, our reaction is: you aren’t so special after all. We are delighted to learn that our heroes aren’t too different from us after all, and in some ways may be even worse than we are.

But that is exactly the point: they aren’t too different from us. Humans are capable of great things, but there is also something inherently flawed and broken in the human condition, something that is prone to straying and spectacularly failing. And that is just as true of the people who gloat at the fall from grace of Petraeus, or Weiner, or Craig, or Haggard, as it is of the men who stand at the center of these scandals.

At the end of the day, the advice I got at Tyndale in 2006 is the best thing one could have in mind about scandals like these. We should all imagine that our own worst flaws and failings are on display before the world, just as Petraeus’s now are. Yes, let’s have accountability when something like this occurs. Petraeus absolutely should have resigned, and there is a good chance that this story will look even worse as more information trickles out. But everyone could do with less schadenfreude, less pure joy when the heroes that we built up fall far short of the impossible standards to which we would like to hold them.

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Ayman al Zawahiri’s New Video Messages

Al Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahiri released a new two-part installment of his video series focusing on Egypt, which was posted on Oct. 24. It seems there was a delay in releasing this installment, as Zawahiri apologizes for the delay of the release, and blames “the vicious war” that has been waged by “the Crusader alliance in Afghanistan and Pakistan against the mujahedin.” Thus far these messages have not generated much reaction on jihadi web forums.

In this entry, I analyze the first part of Zawahiri’s new installment, which seems to have been recorded in the run-up to Egypt’s presidential election. It features not only Zawahiri’s speech, but is also spliced with footage of other figures. The italicized texts below are either excerpts from Zawahiri’s characteristically long speech (based on a translation I obtained) or else descriptions of footage of other figures. If Zawahiri is speaking, rather than the italicized portion being a description of other footage, I enclose his words in quotations. My commentary follows each excerpt.

The video features footage of the son of the recently deceased extremist scholar Shaykh Rifa’i Surur speaking on his father’s position regarding the Egyptian elections. He states that Surur “saw the invalidity of democracy,” as democracy ceded the right of legislation to humanity rather than God. Any results from such a foundation would inevitably “not be respected and not be the result of good.”

Within the first year of salafi jihadi reactions to the events of the “Arab Spring,” there still wasn’t a clearly delineated position throughout the movement’s major organs on the legitimacy or illegitimacy of elections. The position being expressed by Rifa’i Surur’s son, and attributed to Surur, is representative of traditional salafi jihadi position. However, as Will McCants has noted, Islamist parliamentarians pose challenges to both the salafi jihadi outlook, and also al Qaeda’s outlook specifically.

“I urge Muslims everywhere, and especially those in countries neighboring Syria, to rise up to support their Syrian brethren in every way possible. I urge them not to deprive these Syrians of anything which they might have to offer, should it help rid the Syrians of this criminal and cancerous regime which has safeguarded Israel’s borders for nearly forty years.”

Syria is a frequent theme in jihadi propaganda. In this release, Zawahiri is particularly interested in the impact of regime change on Israel, arguing that “Cairo and Damascus are the two gates to Jerusalem.” I recently conducted a review of salafi jihadi perceptions of the Arab Spring in the first year of the revolutionary events that will be published in Studies in Conflict & Terrorism in November, and not surprisingly found that harm to Israel was a recurring theme. Due to the longstanding Egyptian peace treaty with Israel, jihadis perceived the fall of Hosni Mubarak as a significant strategic setback for the Jewish state (as Zawahiri noted, Cairo is seen as one of the gates to Jerusalem).

Malcolm X makes three appearances in the video, and is identified on-screen as “The martyred preacher, as we consider him, Haj Malik al Shabazz (Malcolm X), may God have mercy on him.”

Malcolm X has previously been featured in Zawahiri’s releases. This indicates that al Qaeda likely thinks that African-Americans are a promising demographic for recruitment. One interesting question is whether the idea to use Malcolm X has been promoted by a particular Zawahiri media adviser (my guess), or whether it was done on Zawahiri’s own initiative. If it was pushed by a media adviser, that decision could well reflect the particular interests and outlook of the adviser.

“I am seizing this opportunity to repeat and affirm our support for our people in Syria and their sons, the lions of the Levant and Islam, who have thrown themselves into Islam’s battle against the forces of secularism, corruption, and injustice in the Levant of the frontline and jihad.”

Zawahiri and other salafi jihadi ideologues have a particular way of framing revolutionary events in the region. When explaining what the people are rebelling against, secularism is always at the top of their list. Indeed, in the fourth episode of his ongoing series on Egypt (posted on March 4, 2011), Zawahiri explained at length that the Egyptian people have “repeatedly demanded that the Islamic sharia be the source for laws and legislation.” Secularism, Zawahiri argues, was forcibly imposed: the Egyptian people themselves never chose it. (It goes without saying that if you were to compile the major grievances that Syrians had against the Assad regime, secularism would not be their top problem.)

“I think that our father and shaykh, Shaykh Hafiz Salamah, learned from me of the maneuvers that were being undertaken so that sharia would not be established in Egypt. Among the examples of these maneuvers were the games played by the Military Council in the presidential elections. Guided by the Military Council, the committee overseeing the presidential elections brought about the disqualification of Hazim Salah Abu-Isma’il, despite a ruling from the judges in his favor, while they affirmed Ahmad Shafiq, despite a judicial ruling against him. The disqualification of Hazim Salah Abu-Isma’il is a lesson for every Muslim who thinks that sharia can be established in Egypt by way of secular constitutions that give sovereignty to the people, whereas in Islam, this right goes to God alone.”

A significant portion of Zawahiri’s speech focuses on how Egypt’s implementation of sharia will be watered down. He speaks, for example, of the inadequacy of constitutional provisions stating that sharia is the principle source of legislation, saying that “resorting to texts like these, so full of holes, will not achieve sharia rule.” Among other things, the inadequacy of Egypt’s sharia provides an ongoing justification for opposing the Egyptian state.

The video also features footage of several Egyptian jihadi clerics whom Zawahiri endorses. These include Ahmad Ashush and Abd al Hakim Hassan (a.k.a. Mujran Salim).

Ashush is one of several salafi jihadi figures who have given interviews to Arab television stations over the past few months; Muhammad al Zawahiri is another. When he appeared on Al Jazeera Mubashir Misr (Al Jazeera Egypt Live) in July, Muhammad al Zawahiri said that it was “the first time I have been allowed — not me as a person but we as a trend — to speak about ourselves.” He continued, “We were the only trend prevented from airing our views. The media always paint us in a false and brutal light, so that America’s aims of tarnishing the image of Islamic jihadist trend are achieved.” Though Muhammad al Zawahiri’s appearance did not go particularly well, it will be worth watching the long-term impact of having salafi jihadi figures represent their movement on television, if it continues.

In the footage of Ahmad Ashush featured on Ayman al Zawahiri’s new release, he also adopts an anti-election posture, warning his audience against being drawn into “the political process,” such that the elections would become “the alternative to the revolution.”

“The battle in Egypt is crystal clear… It is a battle between the secular minority that is allied with the Church and is supported by the junta — the product of Mubarak and the Americans, and supported by America and the West — and between the Muslim ummah in Egypt that is striving to implement sharia, liberate itself from subordination, liberate Palestine and the lands of Muslims, achieve social justice, and fight financial and moral corruption. This is the reality of the battle, and the enemies of Islam possess the military might, the security apparatuses, the corrupt judicial system, and the money that corrupts politics and media.”

This is also a common jihadi framing: that the overarching conflict is between Islam and secularism. Note that if the post-Mubarak Egyptian government is anything less than perfect — and surely it will be — Zawahiri’s framing blames secularism for corruption, social injustice, etc. In this regard, Zawahiri’s speech has much in common with other utopian ideologies that hold the change they advocate will sweep away all that is wrong with the world.

There is footage of Ahmad Ashush sitting with other men in Tahrir Square. He criticizes the constitutional court that issued rulings legalizing “fornication, alcohol, sodomy, and gambling,” and calls for changing the “security, judicial, and cultural institutions” built on “secularism.”

This footage is used by Zawahiri to point to the constitutional court as “an idol that is imposed on us.” Its rulings on these social issues, to Zawahiri, demonstrate how it is subordinating Islamic law and allowing immorality. I am currently working on a larger project about how academics understand religion in the context of the salafi jihadi movement. A number of prominent commentators have held that religious ideas are essentially irrelevant to this movement, but instead it is motivated almost exclusively by politics — a position that was always difficult to sustain, but is becoming increasingly so. In that regard, Ashush’s listing of these constitutional court rulings, and the fact that they made their way into an al Qaeda video, is a data point worth noting. To Zawahiri, the constitutional court “is a secular court whose religion is secularism,” and its only legitimacy “is the legitimacy of wolves and thieves.”

“The battle has not ended, but it has started, and it is incumbent upon Shaykh Hazim, his supporters, and all the sincere people in Egypt to wage a popular campaign of incitement and dawa to complete the revolution that has been aborted, and whose gains have been compromised. They must do that to realize the aspirations of sharia implementation, as well as honor, justice, freedom, and dignity for the mujahid, Muslim, and steadfast people of Egypt, and to compel the corrupt forces in Egypt to submit to the demands of the people through the popular, revolutionary work of incitement and dawa.”

Note that Ayman al Zawahiri’s immediate call is not to violence, but rather to “incitement and dawa.” As noted earlier, Muhammad al Zawahiri said that his television appearance represented the first time that the jihadi current was allowed to speak for itself. Beyond that, some of the changes in the new Middle East — regardless of whether this process of opening up is on the whole good for these societies — provide jihadis with the opportunity to undertake more intense dawa efforts than they have before, in an effort to draw others toward their understanding of Islam. This advocacy of undertaking dawa in the wake of the revolutions is widespread among jihadi observers, including Hamzah bin Muhammad al Bassam, Abu al Mundhir al Shinqiti, and Ayman al Zawahiri himself. One should not conclude, however, that intensified dawa efforts mean a repudiation of violence. Thinkers such as Ayman al Zawahiri see the salafi jihadi response to the “Arab Spring” as moving in stages, and a current dawa strategy will in Zawahiri’s view give way to a stage of jihad. Bassam has argued that dawa efforts need to eventually produce “real and open existence for jihad,” which will in his view produce a true implementation of sharia. Without violence, Bassam asserted, the efforts of Islamists will have no results “other than gathering and dispersion,” because a number of different “intellectual trends” will be competing for power.

“The second condolence goes to the enduring and steadfast shaykh of the mujahedin, the revered Shaykh Umar Abd al-Rahman, may God release him from captivity, and his son Muhammad, better known as the lion, and to his honorable family, for the martyrdom of their son Ahmad Bin-Umar Abd al-Rahman, may God have mercy on him, in an American bombardment in the pure land of Khorasan [Afghanistan]. May God grant expansive mercy upon him and accept him and the jihad he waged and the emigration he undertook. May He provide for this noble family that has remained steadfast and patient for God despite afflictions. Let me emphasize to our noble shaykh, Shaykh Umar Abd al-Rahman, to his sons, and all the other Muslim prisoners and their families, that we will spare no effort, with the aid and support of God, until we liberate every prisoner in infidel hands, or we will die trying.”

Zawahiri is of course referring to the “Blind Sheikh,” imprisoned in the U.S., whom Egyptian president Muhammad Morsi has also said he would work to free.

There is an excerpt of a video interview with Julian Assange with Arabic subtitles, in which he explains his views on the “military-intelligence complex,” Guantanamo, and the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Colombia. Al-Zawahiri continues: “This is what America fears about al Qaeda. It knows that this message and that call portends its demise and destruction, God permitting. Therefore, America and its allies and rabble seek to eliminate the leadership of al Qaeda both morally and materially. But by the grace and power of God, this shall never, ever happen.”

Individuals have little control over whether organizations like al Qaeda use their words and ideas for propaganda purposes, but it is interesting to see Assange used as a propaganda piece in this video.

There is footage of Malcolm X predicting worldwide revolution against “the international power structure” set against signs from the Egyptian revolution. Zawahiri continues: “What is encouraging is that these regimes began to collapse and crumble before the American withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan, whereas the Soviet-supported regimes of the Warsaw Pact did not begin to collapse until after the Russians left Afghanistan. This indicates that America is in a state of profound weakness that may surpass that of the Soviet Union in its final days, and that the coming change will be even greater, God permitting.”

Two aspects of this are worth noting. One is that a continual feature of bin Laden’s rhetoric was the idea that he and other Arab mujahedin had caused the Soviet Union to collapse — and that by bleeding the U.S. economically, al Qaeda was doing the same to America. (Bin Laden’s October 2004 speech is most prominent in this regard, but he made similar claims in other addresses, such as a September 2007 video.) Zawahiri is hitting the same theme in this speech. Among other things, this framing places al Qaeda as a key cause behind the Arab Spring through the damage it did to America, even though it played little role in the actual revolutions. The second thing worth noting is the way the Malcolm X clip is being used. Malcolm X wasn’t predicting an Islamist or jihadi revolution, but rather a more widespread revolution against the “power structure.” Throughout this tape, Zawahiri positions al Qaeda as a kind of ecumenical organization that can fulfill the revolutionary aspirations of many disparate groups.

“Obama should admit that he was defeated in Iraq and that he withdrew from it, and that he is being defeated in Afghanistan and has decided to withdraw from it. He was defeated in Tunisia when he lost Zine El Abidine, and defeated in Egypt when he lost Mubarak. He was defeated in Libya when he lost Al-Qadhafi, who handed him his nuclear program and cooperated with him in the torture of the detainees in the war on Islam under the pretext of terrorism.”

The claim that Obama was defeated in Libya when he lost Qaddafi is a bit difficult to sustain, isn’t it?

There is a still image of Malcolm X with Arabic subtitles of his statement: “The slave master took Tom and dressed him well, and fed him well, and even gave him a little education. A little education. Gave him a long coat, and a top hat, and made all the other slaves look up to him. They used Tom to control them. The same strategy that was used in those days is used today by the same white man. He take a negro or so-called negro and make him prominent. Build him up, publicize him, make him a celebrity, and then he becomes a spokesman for negro, and a negro leader.” Zawahiri continues by saying that Obama “was brought in as the progeny of a Muslim father and from African origins to continue the system of aggression against Muslims and the vulnerable others, which exploits and robs them.”

This is not the first time that Zawahiri has referred to Obama as a “house negro” or an “Uncle Tom.” He has in the past also relied on Malcolm X to make this claim. Zawahiri’s new tape similarly uses footage of Cynthia McKinney as a propaganda piece for this racialized claim, in which McKinney says that “these wars are being carried out in black face.”

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Shabaab’s Godane Releases Eid Message

Shabaab leader Ahmad Abdi Godane (a.k.a. Mokhtar Abu Zubayr) released an audio statement on Saturday commemorating Eid al-Adha that was posted on the pro-Shabaab Calamada website. Here I excerpt relevant parts of his statement (in italics), and provide my own commentary.

This eid season comes at a time of major changes and historical events across the world. The first of these is the setback faced by allied infidels who have invaded the Muslim world. This is manifested by their defeat in Iraq and Afghanistan, the economic decline in their countries, the collapse of puppet regimes in the Arab world, the Jews feeling more insecure following the fall of the walls surrounding them. The second example of the ongoing changes in the world is the success achieved by the Muslim ummah. The first one is the fall of infidel-allied regimes in the Arab world and the spread of jihad activities in Egypt, India, Syria, Mali and Nigeria.

Two points can be made about this passage. First, as I have pointed out, most prominently in Bin Laden’s Legacy, al Qaeda and other jihadi groups have seen the U.S. economy as its center of gravity, and much of their strategy has been designed to wear down the American economy. (Shabaab is, as of February, an official al Qaeda affiliate.) Thus, it is unsurprising that the first of the setbacks faced by “infidels” that Godane points to is “the economic decline in their countries.” Second, there has been a longstanding debate about the impact of the “Arab Spring” on al Qaeda and other jihadi groups. Early last year, the majority of regional security analysts held that the Arab Spring was devastating for al Qaeda, and jihadism more broadly, by showing that the old dictatorships could be toppled by nonviolent protests and removing the grievances that bred jihadism. (I was publicly skeptical of this position.) But it is becoming clearer that jihadis themselves do not interpret the Arab Spring this way. Godane says that he thinks it has helped jihadi effects because “the Jews” (i.e. Israel) feel “more insecure following the fall of the walls surrounding them” and because “infidel-allied regimes in the Arab world” have fallen, while jihadi activities have spread. Of course, the fact that jihadis perceive the Arab Spring as positive for them doesn’t mean they are right, but it is always a mistake to declare what impact new events will have on an enemy without considering the enemy’s own perceptions.

The first is the infidel invasion of our country. They used all available political, media, intelligence and military resources. Their main aim is to stop the implementation of the sharia. They cannot afford to see our people getting peace and justice through the religion and its sharia. They are also worried about the rise of Islam and see it as a threat to their oppression and injustice through which they control the world. Their other aim is to loot the country’s resources especially oil and minerals. Since the world is facing economic collapse, they see Somalia as a resource reservoir. This has forced them to end the apostate transitional system in the country so that they would legitimize the looting of the nation’s resources through agreements [with the new government]. The apostate leaders have come up with a plan they named “International Cooperation,” a pretext used to loot public funds and the country’s resources so that they could surrender them to the infidels.

Shabaab lost its final stronghold of Kismayo in late September, but the group is not defeated. Instead, it is resorting to insurgent mode (and also continues to administer some areas, as I will discuss momentarily). I am keeping a database of Shabaab attacks, and between the loss of Kismayo and October 15, I count sixteen attacks in Somalia and Kenya that can be attributed to Shabaab and its sympathizers, with around 24 killed and 92 wounded. (I have two caveats. First, obviously the database needs to be updated to reflect attacks that occurred in the past two weeks. Second, the limitations of the Somali press impact the count of those killed and wounded. My estimates are as conservative as the reporting will allow.) The above passage — focusing on the enemy’s desire to prevent the implementation of sharia, hatred of Islam, and intent to exploit Somalia’s resources — gives us a sense of the narrative that Shabaab will use to try to use to convince people to join or support an insurgency against Somalia’s transitional federal government (TFG) and African Union forces in the country (African Union Mission in Somalia, or AMISOM).

Thank God the AMISOM invasion is being defeated and they are not achieving their objectives. The administrations in the Islamic regions are still in place and are fully operational. The Islamic administrations still control the very few towns the enemy has penetrated. The enemy’s hope that once the regional capitals are captured, the Islamic administrations in the country would collapse has backfired.

Shabaab does still administer a number of towns in Somalia. As pro-government forces have advanced, however, Shabaab fighters have generally melted away. In other words, there is no evidence that they are making an effort to hold territory in the face of advancing pro-TFG forces. However, Godane’s statement suggests that Shabaab still sees its administration of these areas as significant, and he argues that its administration is more enduring than the enemy’s penetration of these areas.

It is important to note that one of the historical mistakes made by the enemy is dragging Kenya into the war. They will regret this move for a long time. Their celebration over the capture of Kismayo will be short-lived, God willing.

Godane is arguing that Kenya’s involvement will serve as an irritant that drives people toward the insurgency, similar to how Ethiopia’s invasion in December 2006 helped produce a powerful insurgency. Indeed, Godane concludes with a call to “Somali clans, clerics and traders to make use of this opportunity to fight the enemy.” He says: “History is being written. The true followers and adherents of the sharia are being separated from the ones who follow their whims. Fight the enemy. Victory is from Allah.”

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Should the Fort Hood Attack be Classified as an Act of Terrorism?

The question of whether the Fort Hood attack carried out by Nidal Hasan should be classified as an act of terrorism is in the news. As ABC News notes, survivors of the attack have “released a new video … calling on the government to classify the November 2009 shooting as a terrorist attack rather than ‘workplace violence,’ a change that would make them eligible for specific combat-related benefits.”

The coverage of this issue has been a bit confused, because there are actually three different questions embedded within it, and media coverage has conflated them. The three questions are: 1) should the attack be classified as “an international terrorist attack” for the purposes of satisfying Purple Heart criteria?, 2) should terrorism-related charges have been brought against Hasan?, and 3) was the Pentagon’s Fort Hood review too narrowly focused on the incident as “workplace violence” rather than ideologically-motivated terrorism?

Should the attack be classified as “an international terrorist attack” for the purposes of satisfying Purple Heart criteria? The bottom line is that it doesn’t qualify as one under existing criteria. As ABC News explains, a Purple Heart may be awarded to service members who are killed or wounded “in action against an enemy of the United States; as the result of an act of any hostile foreign force; or as the result of an international terrorist attack against the United States, provided the Secretary of the military department concerned recognizes the attack as an international terrorist attack” (emphasis added). An international terrorist attack, in turn, is defined as “premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by sub-national groups or clandestine agents” when the act involves “citizens or the territory of more than one country.”

The Fort Hood attack really did not involve the citizens or territory of more than one country. Those who want it classified as an international terrorist attack will argue that Anwar al Awlaki’s involvement makes the attack international. Leaving aside the objection that Awlaki was also American (he was, in fact, a dual U.S.-Yemeni citizen), the problem with this argument is that Awlaki did not direct the Fort Hood attack. Indeed, the correspondence between Hasan and Awlaki could be classified as a case of unrequited love on Hasan’s part, as Awlaki barely gave Hasan the time of day.

One may argue that the criteria should be changed to allow the award of Purple Hearts to Hasan’s victims. I am not going to evaluate that argument here — but regardless of whether it is right to change the criteria to allow Hasan’s victims to be awarded Purple Hearts, current criteria do not support the award without such a change.

Should terrorism-related charges have been brought against Hasan? As Pentagon spokesman George Little noted in an email to the Washington Times, Hasan was charged with 13 counts of premeditated murder and 32 counts of attempted murder. I should note that in my initial version of this post, since edited, I erroneously sympathized with the idea that terrorism charges should have been brought in the first instance, because I was looking at applicable federal law. However, as Louis Klarevas flagged on Twitter, the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) does not contain a separate charge for terrorism offenses. Indeed, in pre-trial coverage, Time explained that UCMJ would make for a simpler trial for this exact reason:

While the debate swirls about Hasan’s motives, connections and communications, opting for a military trial avoids the legal mire of treason or terrorism charges. Military prosecutors will have a Dragnet view of the case — “just the facts” as Jack Webb, star of the television cop classic was fond of saying. Why he did it is not essential, [Scott] Silliman says, although the defense may seek to cloud the picture with digressions into motivation. Prosecutors will focus on what the accused intended to do and how he allegedly did it: when he bought the gun, what he said to neighbors and how he acted on the morning of the crime.

In August, I did field research in Little Rock, Arkansas, on the Carlos Bledsoe case (Bledsoe is the man who carried out a shooting in 2009 at Little Rock’s military recruitment station, killing one soldier and injuring another). I spoke to the prosecutor in that case, Larry Jegley, about why the fact that Bledsoe’s motivations made the shooting an act of terrorism was treated as incidental. His response illustrated why prosecutors may opt for a simpler case in chief in instances such as this:

We have anywhere from 40 to 100 killings a year in my jurisdiction, and we try a lot of homicides. Of course, this thing got a lot more attention because the victims were in uniform, and were at an installation of the U.S. military. Our attitude about it early on was that we’ll let our cops do their thing, because unfortunately they’ve got a lot of experience. We’ll figure the rest of it out when we get there. Whether it would be tried as terrorism didn’t really enter into our mind. If you read the statutes, the only unusual factor at work in this case was the fact that one element of the capital murder statute involves someone in the military: Arkansas Criminal Code § 5-10-101(a)(3) applies to premeditated and deliberated killing for the purpose of causing the death of military personnel. That is what made this capital murder.

In other words, to Jegley it was simpler to treat the Bledsoe case as one of the too-frequent murders his office has to deal with every year: he had the evidence that he needed to prosecute the case as a capital murder, and playing up the ideological dimension would, in his view, only have complicated matters. Jegley and his team looked at Bledsoe’s motivations (rooted in his jihadist beliefs) to see if anything jumped out at them as an aggravating factor during the sentencing phase, but they found nothing.

Similarly, UCMJ does not contain a terrorism charge. This is not to say that Hasan’s attack couldn’t garner terrorism-related charges under federal law; but charging Hasan with a terrorism offense under UCMJ is a non-starter because UCMJ does not include terrorism charges.

Was the Pentagon’s Fort Hood review too narrowly focused on the incident as “workplace violence” rather than ideologically-motivated terrorism? In this area, I agree with the criticisms of the Pentagon review. Hasan’s attack was not a simple case of workplace violence, and it is impossible to understand the incident without taking a hard look at Hasan’s motivations, and the ideology that drove the attack. In this regard, the U.S. Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs report, A Ticking Time Bomb: Counterterrorism Lessons from the U.S. Government’s Failure toPrevent the Fort Hood Attack, was far more rigorous and thorough.

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Finishing the Job

One of the memes that emerged following Wednesday’s presidential debate is the idea that Mitt Romney wants to kill Big Bird. This may or may not be fair: Romney said that he loves Big Bird, but wants to cut the federal subsidy to PBS. As soon as Romney said that, though, his detractors went to work. One standard meme is phrased: “Pres. Obama took out Bin Laden. Romney took out Big Bird.” This just underscores a point that I’ve made before: meme writers really need to undertake more rigorous research.

One of these men is dead. The other is still at large.

Here is the key question: is Big Bird actually the target? After all, Romney explicitly stated his adoration of Big Bird before saying that he would cut the PBS subsidy.

Those pundits who were so quick to contrast Mitt Romney’s alleged targeting of Big Bird with Obama’s targeting of Osama bin Laden should be aware that a Sesame Street character has been prominently linked to bin Laden, and it wasn’t Big Bird. Rather, there is a famous (and rather old) image of Bert, of Bert and Ernie fame, standing behind bin Laden at a press conference. This was a PhotoShopped image, of course: to date, not a shred of evidence has emerged suggesting that Bert was anywhere near either Tora Bora or Abbottabad. Further casting doubt on the authenticity of this image is the fact that San Francisco artist Dino Ignacio ran the web site Bert is Evil!, which featured (doctored) images of Bert standing alongside some of the most evil figures in history.

But somebody forgot to tell the jihadists. Shortly after the September 11 attacks, this picture of Bert standing behind bin Laden clearly made its way onto a sign at a pro-bin Laden protest held in Bangladesh:

This is a real photo of a rally, as verified by Snopes and other sources. As Snopes notes, the company that made these posters, the Dhaka-based Azad Products, claims that it didn’t intend to include Bert. They got the photos from the Internet, and Azad production manager Mostafa Kamal told reporters, “We did not give the pictures a second look or realize what they signified until you pointed it out to us.” If I may, this is either extremely sloppy work — or else Kamal and his minions were fooled by the image of Bert as a fearsome mujahid. At any rate, the picture of Bert alongside bin Laden is now part of the historical record, immortalized by its display at an actual rally.

Similarly, the meme writers got sloppy after Wednesday’s debate. If they wanted to link Obama’s killing of bin Laden to Romney’s comments on Sesame Street, they should have realized that Bert is the real target. And now Romney supporters who stand behind his subsidy cuts to PBS have been given an opening for a classic comeback. Using the above graphics, all they need to say is: Romney 2012. Time to finish the job.

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The Nusra Front’s Threats Against Captured Yemeni Officers

As reported in Asharq Al Awsat, the Nusra Front (Jabhat al Nusra) claims to have captured five Yemeni officers who were sent to Syria to help the Assad regime’s fight against the uprising in that country. (A Yemeni rights group claims, in contrast, that they were studying at a military academy in Aleppo.) The video shows their passports with biometric information in both Arabic and English, provides the names and ranks of the five captured men, shows pictures of them in military uniforms, and records their “confessions.” For example, one man who identifies himself as Mohammed Abdo Hezam al Meleiky says, “I ask the Yemeni government to cut all logistical and military ties because Bashar al Assad’s regime is a regime that is killing its people and that is what we saw with our own eyes when we came here.”

There is still some question about the authenticity of the recording, but the capture of the five officers is likely to be valid based on the fact that five Yemeni families reported that their sons had disappeared in early September. Their report corroborates what is on the video.

One  relevant detail has not made its way into the press reporting. At the beginning of the video, an unidentified voice recites verse 5:33 of the Qur’an in Arabic: “The punishment of those who wage war against God and His Messenger, and strive with might and main for mischief through the land is: execution, or crucifixion, or the cutting off of hands and feet from opposite sides, or exile from the land: that is their disgrace in this world, and a heavy punishment is theirs in the Hereafter.”

Whenever individuals are captured by groups like the Nusra Front, a threat of physical violence is quite obviously implied. But this video makes the threat of violence explicit at the outset (although “exile from the land” is obviously a more appealing option for the captured officers than any of the other listed punishments). It is possible that this introductory remark could be a warning of grisly things that are yet to come.

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Free Speech and Political Violence

I find the number of people willing to censor offensive speech in the wake of the anti-Islam film, and the reaction that it has provoked, disturbing. One example is this USA Today op-ed, written by a professor of religious studies, arguing that “Sam Bacile” (Nakoula Basseley Nakoula), who is said to be responsible for the film, should be arrested. I assume that this view is not widespread among prominent American commentators, but the idea that the U.S. should alter its speech regime is rather prominent abroad. As a couple of quick examples (and there are many more), one Pakistani senator claims to have spoken to Interpol’s secretary general “to enact international law to stop anti Islam material being projected on the Internet”; and a Turkish columnist writes that “the committing of blasphemous acts, be it cartoons, a film or what so ever, [is] not implicit in the right to express one’s self freely.” But the primary reason I write this post is because of the great number of intelligent people I’ve interacted with on social media or by email who feel that arrest or censorship is an appropriate response in this case.

Before making several points about free speech and political violence, I should note that Bacile/Nakoula may have violated the terms of his parole through his work on this film. If so, I have no objection to throwing the book at him. Violating the terms of his parole breaks the law in a manner that renders First Amendment considerations beside the point. Rather, I write against the idea that the First Amendment should be rendered inoperable in this particular case, where some faction would respond to the (admittedly offensive) exercise of free speech with violence. Here are a few points that I think are worth bearing in mind:

  • Deciding to censor speech based on the reaction of an audience is a very slippery slope. Doing so would essentially create a “heckler’s veto,” which our legal system rightly rejects at present. If we as a society made speech illegal when offended people are willing to use violence in response, then essentially those willing to use violence have control over the limits of speech. Is that desirable? If anti-gay groups adopted a strategy of violent protest in response to homosexual imagery in media, should we outlaw such imagery because of their willingness to use violence? Are works like The Last Temptation of Christ or Serrano’s “Piss Christ” protected by the First Amendment only so long as offended Christians (whom both of those works intend to offend!) do not use violence in response? Free speech would be contingent upon the audience reaction.
  • Leaving aside the implications of what kind of censorship might occur if other groups decided to embrace a violent strategy, note the utter unfairness of this speech regime toward groups that do not use violence to respond to works that offend them. Those willing to use violence will have the legal system protect them from being insulted or offended, and it would actually prosecute creators of works they find offensive; whereas those who respect civil society and refrain from violence can be subjected to insult and offense at will.
  • The First Amendment is designed to protect offensive speech. After all, if nobody found a certain kind of speech offensive, then nobody would be pushing to prohibit it. The offensiveness of any kind of speech is thus an awful rationale for arguing that it can be prohibited.
  • A system that only prohibits offensive speech toward one particular faith is absolutely unacceptable. Such a system would in effect run counter to the First Amendment’s reluctance to allow speech restrictions that discriminate based on content (i.e. the principle of content neutrality).
  • The speech contained in the film does not fall under any exception to First Amendment protection. One exception is the incitement standard, that speech can be excluded from First Amendment protection if it is likely to produce imminent lawless action, and if the speaker intends for it to do so. In this case, there is no evidence that the intent of this film was to spark violent mob action; certainly the movie does not call upon mobs to form and attack U.S. diplomatic outposts. Nor is hate speech a legally proscribed category: a good example of this is the Skokie case, which upheld the rights of neo-Nazis to march through the predominantly Jewish town of Skokie, Illinois. (The existence of college and university hate speech codes, which are of dubious constitutionality in the first place, does not alter this dynamic.)
  • It is not clear that jailing those responsible for this film would actually reduce the propensity to violent protest. Isn’t it possible that the opposite is true: that using the legal system to punish the purveyors of offensive speech would send the signal that violence works, and is thus a desirable reaction?

I am all for criticizing the speech contained in this film. The traditional cure for offensive and inaccurate speech under our legal regime is counter-speech. But censorship has significant ramifications that people advocating it are not, in my opinion, fully considering.

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