Tag Archives: islam

As spring 2017 vote approaches, populist Wilders leading Dutch polls

The majority of polls show that Geert Wilders is leading in advance of the next Dutch election. (Geoff Pugh / The Telegraph)
The majority of polls show that Geert Wilders is leading in advance of the next Dutch election. (Geoff Pugh / The Telegraph)

Europe, it’s safe to say, was focused on a lot of threats in the last month — a polarized British electorate that voted to leave the European Union, ongoing worries about the Italian banking sector, yet another terrorist attack in France, a failed military coup in Turkey.Netherlands Flag Icon

No one has spent much time considering the possibility that political instability could come to the Netherlands, a northern European country that was one of the six founding members of what is today the European Union.

As Americans and non-Americans alike turn to Cleveland to watch the unorthodox spectacle of Donald Trump’s formal coronation as the Republican Party’s presidential nominee, one of the Europeans in attendance hopes to become the next prime minister of The Netherlands. And he has reason for optimism. According to polls, Geert Wilders’s Partij voor de Vrijheid (PVV, Party for Freedom) could win the next Dutch election, which must take place before March 15.

If those polls hold, Wilders, who has been a fixture in Dutch politics for more than a decade, would win the election by a robust margin, dwarfing the more traditional center-right, liberal Volkspartij voor Vrijheid en Democratie (VVD, People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy) of prime minister Mark Rutte.

Wilders has enthusiastically embraced Trump at a time when nationalist populism is on the rise throughout the United States as well as Europe, tweeting out ‘Make The Netherlands Great Again’ to supporters earlier this spring. He’s arrived with a splash at the Republican National Convention, invited by the Tennessee delegation. As an outspoken critic of immigration, Islam and the European Union, Wilders hopes that he can finally break through to an election victory in March and perhaps, at long last, fulfill his dream of becoming prime minister.

Far-right Dutch leader Geert Wilders poses for a photo with Tennessee senator Bob Corker, chair of the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee. (Twitter)
Far-right Dutch leader Geert Wilders poses for a photo with Tennessee senator Bob Corker, chair of the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee. (Twitter)

Wilders inherited much of the support that Pim Fortuyn once commanded before the latter’s assassination in 2002. Wilders is known mostly for his outright rejection of Islam and his quest to terminate all immigration from Muslim-majority countries into the Netherlands. Though Wilders often denies links to other European far-right parties by pointing to his more liberal record on economic policy, he is clearly the Dutch analog to figures like Britain’s Nigel Farage and France’s Marine Le Pen. Wilders is  currently on trial in the Netherlands for inciting hatred as a result of disparaging comments he made about the Dutch Moroccan minority, though he wears the legal dispute as a badge of honor — a politician willing to speak the truth about Muslims. For more than a decade, following the assassinations of Fortuyn and filmmaker Theo Van Gogh (the latter killed by a Dutch citizen of Moroccan descent in 2004), Wilders lives under strict protection from potential threats.

Continue reading As spring 2017 vote approaches, populist Wilders leading Dutch polls

It’s time for Flanders to put up or shut up… and leave

Citizens in Brussels took to downtown to write messages of love and peace in the wake of horrific terror attacks Tuesday. (Alexander Koerner/Getty Images)
Citizens in Brussels took to downtown to write messages of love and peace in the wake of horrific terror attacks Tuesday. (Alexander Koerner/Getty Images)

At the heart of the tragic jihadist assault on Brussels this week lies what economics and political scientists know as a collective action problem.Belgium Flagflanders flag

Within the hollowed-out central state of Belgium, virtually no one wants to foot the bill for the kind of counter-terrorism, security and police investigation operations that Brussels needed to avert Tuesday’s horrific simultaneous airport and subway attacks. The European Commission, which calls Brussels home, has neither the power nor the inclination to provide a supranational layer of security to the city.

Brussels, a majority French-speaking city, is its own region, though it lies completely outside the borders of the left-leaning, French-speaking Wallonia. Meanwhile, the more economically vibrant Flemish-speaking Flanders has, as a condition for keeping the Belgian union together for the past half-century, increasingly demanded more regional powers from both Wallonia and Brussels.

No one — at the European level, at the national level or at either of the Walloon or Flemish regional level — has a proper incentive to fund what’s obviously become a disproportionate security cost for Brussels, in particular (and not, say, Antwerp or Ghent or Charleroi).

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RELATED: Is Belgium destined for breakup after
another inconclusive vote?

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While there are obviously many reasons for Tuesday’s terror attacks, it’s no surprise that Brussels recurs as the setting for jihadist attacks. Radical Islamists in the Molenbeek community, now an infamous byword for jihadist agitation in Europe, were central to planning the 2004 Madrid attacks, last November’s attacks in Paris and, now, the terrorist strike that Belgian authorities feared four months ago — and that forced Brussels itself into a four-day lockdown as police forces tried to stymie a terrorist plot last November.

Just four months after the Paris attacks, planned from Brussels, brought the Belgian capital to a standstill for 96 hours, and just four days after Belgian police, at long last, captured Salah Abdeslam, the remaining suspect in last year’s Paris attacks, Belgian authorities were already on high alert.

That didn’t matter. Tragedy still struck. Continue reading It’s time for Flanders to put up or shut up… and leave

A primer on Raqqa, Islamic State’s so-called ‘capital’


Now that the Islamic State/Daesh has taken credit for three major attacks — the downing of a Russian flight over the Sinai peninsula, a double suicide bombing in southern Beirut and the concerted Friday night onslaught in Paris — there’s a growing consensus that the international community is doubling down on concerted efforts to confront the radical Sunni jihadists at their core in Syria.Syria Flag Icon

That began on Sunday afternoon, when French forces hit Raqqa, a city in northeastern Syria that IS/Daesh has claimed as its de facto capital, with more than 20 airstrikes. In the aftermath of Friday night’s coordinated terrorist attacks in Paris, French president François Hollande declared that the attacks amounted to an ‘act of war,’ pledging to lead a response that ‘will be pitiless,’ and the French military reaction came even while police still search for one of the alleged perpetrators of Friday’s attacks.

Well before Paris, US officials have been increasingly focused on Raqqa

As the world’s attention now turns from Paris and Beirut to Raqqa, those terrorist attacks seem likely to accelerate what’s been a gradual effort to place pressure on ISIS in Raqqa. US airstrikes last Thursday killed militant Mohammed Emwazi, popularly known as ‘Jihadi John’ in the US media. A Kuwait native who grew up in London before traveling to Syria to fight for IS/Daesh, he appeared in several videotaped beheadings of westerners, proclaiming jihadist slogans in perfect English as he and his allies murdered their victims.

In early July, a series of 16 US airstrikes also targeted Raqqa, with the goal of destroying ISIS strongholds and disrupting transit routes — an attack that killed at least six civilians. News reports suggest that the United States and its allies are gradually preparing a campaign to liberate Raqqa in tandem with the Syrian Democratic Forces, a new coalition of Kurdish, Arab and other Syrian minorities in the country’s northeast, though its strength may be more aspirational than anything else.Formed just last month, it Forces are still a somewhat nebulous group, anchored by the YPG (the Kurdish acronym for the People’s Protection Units, the Kurdish armed peshmerga fighting IS/Daesh), but which also includes Sunni Arabs and, most incredulously, some longtime pro-Assad forces.

US special forces that entered Syria in the last month, in particular, are thought to be spearheading the Raqqa effort. As Vox‘s Zach Beauchamp wrote earlier in October, a successful US-led siege on Raqqa would be difficult but would also call into doubt the Islamic State’s ability to hold, control and govern territory in Syria (or Iraq, for that matter).

Raqqa, in Syria's northeast, is the de facto capital of the Islamic State's so-called caliphate. (BBC)
Raqqa, in Syria’s northeast, is the de facto capital of the Islamic State’s so-called caliphate. (BBC)

In the immediate aftermath of the Paris attacks, there have already been calls in the US media to ‘erase’ Raqqa:

Alain Bauer, a leading French criminologist and adviser to officials in Paris, New York, and elsewhere about counter-terror strategies, is among those who believes that ISIS is lashing out precisely because it is under pressure on the ground….

“If we really want to do something, we need to erase Raqqa,” [criminologist Alain] Bauer told The Daily Beast. What keeps this from happening? In Bauer’s opinion, the United States. “Every bombing is a nightmare to negotiate,” he said. “Here’s a target. ‘Oops, there’s a garden there. Oops, there’s a family there. Oops, you cannot destroy this, you cannot destroy that.’”

But ISIS is embedded among the civilian population. Bauer thinks there’s an important distinction. “They are representing the civilian population,” he says, at least those who have remained and sometimes profited from the group’s presence. “They are not enslaving them. And a war is a war.”

But the facts suggest otherwise, and the limited reporting from Raqqa over the past year indicates an urban population terrorized by the Islamic State’s fundamentalist grip. Gruesome public executions are now a routine occurrence, foreign-born militants from Africa and Europe alike (often unable to speak Arabic) mix awkwardly with the local population and jihadists routinely police their moral vision, for example, forcing women to wear niqabs. Though Islamic State certainly has its supporters among the Sunni population, many of Raqqa’s civilians are, like the victims of the Beirut and Paris bombings, victims of Daesh-led terrorism.

How once-secure Raqqa became so notorious

A Vanity Fair report from last October describes a shellshocked city where bakeries no longer produce enough bread, religious police forbid smoking tobacco,photos of models and even swearing, while young children are forced to trawl through garbage in search of valuables that they can sell for money.  Continue reading A primer on Raqqa, Islamic State’s so-called ‘capital’

In Charlie Hebdo massacre, French values find a rallying point


Even before the gruesome murder of 12 civilians today in the name of Islam, France wasn’t exactly having the best run. France Flag Icon

Nicolas Sarkozy came to power in 2007 amid promises of rupture and reform, signaling youthful, nervous energy that would transform France’s public sector after the somnolent 12-year reign of the genteely corrupt Jacques Chirac. While he did manage to raise the retirement age and make some tweaks, the full-throated rupture never quite arrived, and his administration amounted to an embarrassing series of bling bling moments, capped off by his whirlwhind romance and marriage to singer Carla Bruni. It’s still hard not to cringe at the photos of Sarkozy and Bruni at Disneyland Paris just months after his inauguration or the thought of Sarkozy lapping up the excesses of wealth on one of Silvio Berlusconi’s yachts.

François Hollande easily defeated his reelection bid in May 2012 with a promise to boost growth and employment in policy matters and to be a ‘normal’ president in, ahem, more personal matters. France got neither from its new president, whose popularity rating today is stuck in the high 10s or low 20s, depending on the poll. Even before the 2012 election campaign ended, his then-consort Valérie Trierweiler had already gotten into a spat on Twitter attacking Hollande’s former partner of three decades, Ségolène Royal, herself a former presidential candidate and a top figure within the Socialist Party. That presaged the ridiculous split between the two earlier this year, catalyzed by the impotent image of Hollande sneaking out of the Elysée Palace on a scooter for a tryst with French actress Julie Gayet.  Charlie Hebdo, it should be noted, ruthlessly mocked Hollande for his shortcomings as well as organized religion of all faiths:


If the United Kingdom held the ‘sick man of Europe’ crown in the 1970s and Germany held it in the 1990s before its labor market reforms and amid the tectonic growing pains of reunification, France would hold clear title to that position today, if not for so many other pretenders across Europe, each struggling under the strains of joblessness, economic malaise, depopulation and precarious public debt. After starting to fall in 2013, France’s unemployment rate leapt back to record levels (10.4%) at the end of 2014. Short of a contentious battle to legalize same-sex marriage and his soon-forgotten success from decisive military action to liberate northern Mali from jihadists, Hollande has precious few policy victories to show for his administration.

It might be more accurate to call France the ‘invisible man’ of Europe.

While Germany has emerged, for now, as the sole engine of Europe, its chancellor Angela Merkel dictating fiscal policy to the rest of the European Union and its central bankers vetoing the kind of aggressive eurozone-wide quantitative easing that could reverse deflationary trends, you don’t hear much talk about the vaunted Franco-German axis anymore. British prime minister David Cameron, who’s courting disaster in his promise to hold a referendum on his country’s EU membership, has more influence on the German chancellor than Hollande or even his relatively right-leaning prime minister Manuel Valls, who leads Hollande’s second government in three years. Whether it’s banking unions or Russian aggression in eastern Europe or eurobonds or the risk of a far-left Greek government in elections later this month, no one gives a hoot about what Hollande has to say on EU matters — or anything else for that matter.

As Sarkozy, plagued by legal challenges, plots a center-right comeback and Hollande’s center-left Parti socialiste (PS, Socialist Party) loses more credibility by the day, the xenophobic, far-right Marine Le Pen and the Front national (FN, National Front) are basking in the victory of emerging as the top-placed party in last May’s European elections. Polls for the first round of the 2017 presidential election routinely place Le Pen leading or tied with all the major contenders, including Sarkozy and former foreign minister Alain Juppé, on the right, and Hollande and Valls, on the left. But you could see the rumblings a decade ago, when the French single-handedly ended the push (led by former French president Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, no less!) to draft a constitution for the European Union, when voters rejected the constitutional treaty in a May 2005 referendum.

We’ve all read too many stories in the past decade or so about the tristesse or the ennui afflicting modern 21st century France.  

So it’s understandable that so many commentators looked at the horrific attack on the Charlie Hebdo office on Tuesday and worried that it would unleash a wave of anti-Muslim sentiment, fueling the insular nationalism that drives Le Pen and the French far right, which has responded to France’s collective economic slump by lashing out at the political elite, at immigration and at the European Union.   Continue reading In Charlie Hebdo massacre, French values find a rallying point

What is happening in Iraq, Fallujah and al-Anbar province?


So is it 2004 or 2014?  Iraq is once again making headlines, and second-guessing over both George W. Bush and Barack Obama’s performance with respect to the US occupation of Iraq is in the news with the publication of former defense secretary Robert Gates. iraq flag icon

What do you need to know about Iraq these days?  Here’s a list of the top 10 question you probably have about the current turn of events there — and probably more than you wanted to know about the state of governance in Iraq today.

So did terrorists take control of Iraq last weekend?

Not quite.  A group called the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS or ISIL, الدولة الاسلامية في العراق والشام, ad-Dawla al-Islāmiyya fi al-‘Irāq wa-sh-Shām‎), which formerly styled itself as Iraq’s local branch of al-Qaeda, took control last Friday of parts of Fallujah and Ramadi, the two largest cities in al-Anbar province.  There are signs, however, that ISIS may already be retreating from Fallujah, with Sunni tribesmen (particularly loyal to neither the government nor ISIS) now wresting back control of both cities.  Iraq’s Shiite prime minister Nouri al-Maliki signaled earlier this week that he planned on launching a military offensive to retake the city using Iraqi national forces, a move that seems surely to cause even more sectarian tensions between Sunni and Shiite Iraqis.  For those of you who’ve forgotten, al-Anbar, at over 53,000 square miles, is the largest of 19 governorates in Iraq, by far the largest province.  Its population is just 1.56 million of Iraq’s 31 million people, but it forms part of the heart of Iraq’s Sunni population — about 97% of Iraq’s population is Muslim and about one-third of them are Sunni.  Al-Anbar’s geography is even more strategically vital, because it borders much of eastern Syria, northern Saudi Arabia and the northeastern tip of Jordan.

What is ISIS? I thought that was the spy agency in the animated Archer series.

ISIS formed in 2003 as a conglomerate of diverse Sunni groups, largely as a response against the US invasion.  It fairly quickly pledged allegiance to al-Qaeda and soon even became as al-Qaeda in Iraq, and it had its heyday between 2004 and 2006, when US forces killed its leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.  But ISIS’s modern iteration only really emerged in spring 2013, when it started making mischief in northern Syria, and the Syrian cities of Homs and Aleppo.  ISIS, like most hardcore Salafist groups, wants to institute sharia law throughout the Middle East, and ISIS’s leaders dream of creating a new caliphate that stretches from Arabia to central Africa.  More realistically, it’s now fighting for dominance in northern Syria and Sunni-dominated western Iraq.  Western media outlets are quick to proclaim this weekend’s turn of events as ‘al-Qaeda regains ground,’ but ISIS is really more interested in holding power in Iraq and Syria than in exploding planes into buildings in New York City.  Its current leader is Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, is still sympathetic to al-Qaeda’s wider anti-American goals, though, and that’s earned him a $10 million bounty, courtesy of the US state department.

Why is Fallujah such a big deal, anyway? 


Fallujah holds an important symbolic value because it was the hub of the Sunni counterinsurgency early in the US occupation of Iraq and, in 2004, it became the site of some of the heaviest fighting during the US occupation.  One story about Fallujah in National Journal this week managed to quote seven Americans (and not a single Iraqi citizen) about the costs of Fallujah’s recent tumult, and an NPR piece noted that many US veterans are crestfallen that their sacrifices a decade ago may have been for naught.  That tells you just how important Fallujah is in the narrative of the US involvement in Iraq.

After the first battle of Fallujah in April 2004, US forces were actually forced by insurgents to withdraw, though in the second battle in November 2004, US troops finally took the city, but not without a year or two of further guerrilla attacks.  The two battles of Fallujah were responsible for some of the highest casualties of the Iraq War, though many more Iraqis died (some by the controversial use of white phosphorus) than US or allied troops.

The city, which lies on the banks of the Euphrates River, is just 69 kilometers away from Baghdad and, taken together with Ramadi, the capital of al-Anbar governorate, comprises one of the chief Sunni-majority cities in Iraq.  Deposed president Saddam Hussein took extra special care to keep Fallujah in his good graces between 1979 and 2003.

So that means Iraq is moving back toward civil war?  Continue reading What is happening in Iraq, Fallujah and al-Anbar province?

Neither Republicans nor Democrats learned the real lesson of Benghazi


In the United States, ‘Benghazi’ has become a code word for conservative Republicans hinting at a dark cover-up within the administration of US president Barack Obama about who actually perpetrated the attack on September 11, 2012 against the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya’s second-most populous city.Libya_Flag_IconUSflag

The furor stems largely from comments by Susan Rice, then the US ambassador to the United  Nations and a candidate to succeed Hillary Clinton as US secretary of state, that indicated the attack was entirely spontaneous, caused by protests to a purported film trailer, ‘Innocence of Muslims,’ that ridiculed Islam and the prophet Mohammed.  Republicans immediately seized on the comments, arguing that al-Qaeda was responsible for the attack, which left four US officials dead, including Christopher Stevens, the US ambassador to Libya at the time, a volatile period following the US-backed NATO efforts to assist rebels in their effort to end the 42-year rule of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi.

An amazingly detailed report in The New York Times by David Kirkpatrick on Saturday reveals that there’s no evidence that al-Qaeda was responsible for the attack.  While it was more planned than the spontaneous anti-film riots that rocked the US embassy in Cairo the same day, the Benghazi incident was carried out by local extremist militias.  Kirkpatrick singles out, in particular, Abu Khattala, a local construction worker and militia leader, but he also identifies other radical militias within Benghazi, such as Ansar al-Sharia, which may not have been responsible, but still seem relatively sympathetic to anti-American sentiment:

Mohammed Ali al-Zahawi, the leader of Ansar al-Shariah, told The Washington Post that he disapproved of attacking Western diplomats, but he added, “If it had been our attack on the U.S. Consulate, we would have flattened it.”

Similarly named groups have emerged throughout north Africa and the Arabian peninsula over the past few years — a group calling itself Ansar al-Sharia, not ‘al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’ (AQAP), took control of portions of southern Yemen after the battle of Zinjibar in 2011.  The United States ultimately listed ‘Ansar al-Sharia’ as an alias for AQAP, but it’s unclear the degree to which the two are (or were) separate.  It also underscores the degree to which local Islamist groups like AQAP are necessarily fueled by local interests and concerns .  Most Yemenis fighting alongside AQAP are doing so for local reasons in a country that remains split on tribal and geographic lines — South Yemen could claim to be an independent state as recently as 1990.  Groups also named Ansar al-Sharia also operate  in Mali, Tunisia, Mauritania, Morocco and Egypt, and some of them have links to al-Qaeda affiliates and personnel.  Others do not.

If Khattala, as The New York Times reports, is the culprit behind the consulate attack (and the US government continues to seek him in response to the attack), he fits the profile less of a notorious international terror mastermind and more of a local, off-kilter eccentric:

Sheikh Mohamed Abu Sidra, a member of Parliament from Benghazi close to many hard-line Islamists, who spent 22 years in Abu Salim, said, “Even in prison, he was always alone.”  He added: “He is sincere, but he is very ignorant, and I don’t think he is 100 percent mentally fit. I always ask myself, how did he become a leader?”

Moreover, if there’s a scandal involving the Obama administration, it’s the way in which the United States came to enter the Libyan conflict in 2011.  The Obama administration refused to seek authorization from the US Congress when it ordered military action in Libya in support of the NATO mission and to establish a no-fly zone, pushing a potentially unconstitutional interpretation of the 1973 War Powers Resolution, which requires Congressional authorization for open-ended conflicts that last for more than 60 days.  Ironically, Obama’s case for ignoring Congress was actually stronger with respect to potential airstrikes on Syria earlier this year, though Obama’ ultimately decided to seek Congressional support for a potential military strike in August in response to the use of chemical weapons by Syria’s military. 

Republicans, who control the US House of Representatives but not the US Senate, the upper house of the US Congress, just as they did in 2011, could have (and should have) held Obama more accountable for his decision vis-à-vis the War Powers Resolution.  Instead, they’ve colluded with a conservative echo chamber that mutters ‘Benghazi’ like some unhinged conspiracy theory, suggesting that somehow the Obama administration purposefully lied about what happened that day.  The reality is that the Obama administration was as caught off guard as anyone by the attack.  Democrats that would have howled with disgust over Benghazi if it had happened under the previous administration of Republican George W. Bush have remained incredibly docile during the Obama administration — to say nothing of the Obama administration’s encroaching internet surveillance, ongoing war in Afghanistan, frequent use of drone attacks and pioneering use of ‘targeted killings’ (including assassination of US citizens).

Kirkpatrick’s report showed that while US intelligence agencies were tracing an individual with tangential ties to al-Qaeda and Osama Bin Laden, they largely missed the more local threats like Khattala and Ansar al-Sharia:

The C.I.A. kept its closest watch on people who had known ties to terrorist networks abroad, especially those connected to Al Qaeda. Intelligence briefings for diplomats often mentioned Sufian bin Qumu, a former driver for a company run by Bin Laden.  Mr. Qumu had been apprehended in Pakistan in 2001 and detained for six years at Guantánamo Bay before returning home to Derna, a coastal city near Benghazi that was known for a high concentration of Islamist extremists.

But neither Mr. Qumu nor anyone else in Derna appears to have played a significant role in the attack on the American Mission, officials briefed on the investigation and the intelligence said.  “We heard a lot about Sufian bin Qumu,” said one American diplomat in Libya at the time. “I don’t know if we ever heard anything about Ansar al-Shariah.”

That, in turn, highlights the real lesson of Benghazi — both the Obama administration and the national security apparatus that it has empowered, and the conservative opposition to the Obama administration are missing the larger problem with the way that the United States engages the world.  It’s a point that rings most clearly in the words of Khattala himself:

“The enmity between the American government and the peoples of the world is an old case,” he said. “Why is the United States always trying to use force to implement its agendas?”….

“It is always the same two teams, but all that changes is the ball,” he said in an interview. “They are just laughing at their own people.” Continue reading Neither Republicans nor Democrats learned the real lesson of Benghazi