Riyadh’s Great Leap Forward?

One of the clear analytical distinctions that could be made about the “Arab Spring” (2011-2014) was the marked stability of monarchial regimes—as opposed to “dynastic republics” (gumrukiyah) like Egypt, Syria, and Libya—in the Arab world. Eddies of the wave of rebellion that swept many of the Arab republics touched on Jordan and Morocco, but gained little traction (except in Bahrain, the newest Arab kingdom, whose challenges from its majority Shia population are different in kind).

Saudi Arabia is a stellar example of the truth of this generalization. For many years, for those who closely follow Middle Eastern politics, Saudi politics were an occasionally interesting but generally arid and glacial process. The country’s politics could be summed up as a gerontocracy of exquisite checks and balances between the dozens of sons of Ibn Saud, the founder of the third Saudi state, from his various wives, with the kingship passing from one son to the next. Their legitimacy and stability was buttressed by the fundamentalist religious establishment, and the state apparatus functioned to a large extent to facilitate the excesses of the sprawling royal family. This was all funded by the great wealth generated by the world’s largest oil reserves, which enabled the Kingdom to have great influence when it chose: since 2005, in Lebanese politics and since 2011, in Syrian politics. While challenges have arisen over the years from the Shia minority in the Eastern part of the Kingdom, they never posed a real threat to the survival of the regime. For decades, change in this incredibly stable system was anticipated only when the “rule by brothers” would eventually end, and the “generation of the grandsons” would begin.

The harbinger of this long-anticipated change in generations took place in April 2015 when King Salman appointed Mohammad bin Nayef—a member of the third generation and the grandson of Ibn Saud—Crown Prince, the second most powerful position in the Kingdom and for much of its history, the de facto day-to-day monarch, in place of Prince Muqrin, the latter’s brother. Salman also appointed his own son, Mohammad bin Salman—the Minister of Defense and the architect of the intervention in Yemen—as Deputy Crown Prince (second  in line to the throne). This June, Salman replaced bin Nayef with bin Salman. The Saudi “Great Leap Forward” picked up steam.

Many explanations have been given for the surprising and unprecedented (since the coup of 1964, at least) move this week against powerful members of the royal family. But many of them are tactical, and the explanations which see a significant cause in the Iranian threat should be taken with a grain of salt. The Iranian threat has riveted the Saudi leadership since 1979, but it does not seem to have qualitatively changed in the past year, and in any case has little bearing on the internecine politics of the Saudi royal family.

Rather, the generational shift of 2015 led to a release of political and social energy which had been bottled up for decades by the consensus rule of conservative septuagenarians and octogenarians. The change also occurred on the background of the elemental forces and changes released in 2011with the Arab Spring. In conjunction with the lackluster response and effort of the U.S. in the region, Saudi Arabia was pushed into an unaccustomed, overt leading role in the Middle East. The two Prince Mohammads led, to a very large degree, the country in its newfound role in the region. The urge for change and renewal, for a paradigmatic shift which would “shock and awe” the opposition within the regime, and for the new generation to quickly make its mark (supported by King Salman, who at 81, and understanding that he is the last king of the old order, may also feel this need) has, it seems, been enabled by the anti-status quo rhetoric and disposition of President Donald Trump, and his lack of concern for the internal hygiene of friendly governments.

For the past year and a half, Saudi Arabia has consistently been in the news with dramatic developments of the type never seen in the Kingdom: the plan to restructure and diversify the economy (including the well-publicized launch of a new economic zone called NEOM); the decision to take Aramco public (and then the reports of second thoughts); the economic war on Qatar; the granting permission for women to drive; the restrictions of the arrest powers of the religious police; the creation of an anti-corruption council under bin Salman (to ostensibly root out behavior that is the very essence of Saudi politics); and most recently, the moves by the Crown Prince against other princes in the Royal Family (in one way, these have all served Saudi Arabia well, as they have forced up the price of oil).

The key to the Saudi regime’s stability and longevity—but also to its inertia and lifelessness—has been its internal conservatism (including its grounding in religious fundamentalism), its ponderousness, and its frozen politics and society. The most hidebound country in the Middle East has provided in an incredibly short time its most sweeping changes in the past five years. Hopefully, Saudi Arabia’s Great Leap Forward will not carry it, through Salman’s and Mohammad’s own actions, into the abyss.

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One Click at a Time: The Change Agents of the Middle East

The Arabic-speaking world, extending from Morocco in the east to Oman in the west, is changing rapidly. The Arab Spring was but the first chapter of this change. Despite ongoing violence in Syria, Libya, and elsewhere, in much of the Arab world the most powerful force for change is nonviolent activism. Millions of people are pursuing creative, peaceful ways to effect political change, even as both extremists and dictators, continue to assert their power using their proven means: violence.


Take the example of Aramram, a Jordanian WebTV platform. Its videos provide unprecedented civic education for young Jordanians, in easy-to-follow language. It also provides videos on economic issues.  In one of their programs called, “209 King Hussein Street,” named after the address of the Parliament building, they discuss every bill proposed or passed by the members of the parliament, acting as a Jordanian C-SPAN. While this doesn’t raise an eyebrow in America, for a country where most votes are cast to support one’s tribe or religious affiliation, this kind of civic education aims at fundamentally changing voting patterns and creating, for the first time, a state-based citizen, rather than a tribal citizen, with expectations of an accountable government. Aramram’s productions meet a hunger for such knowledge as their videos have been viewed millions of people and shared by hundreds of thousands. For a small country like Jordan, that is a significant percentage of the country.


Or take the example of Sami al-Hourani, a brilliant Jordanian medical doctor who decided to leave a fellowship at Stanford University to dedicate his time to a platform he created to help his fellow young men and women find opportunities around the world for training and fellowships. His website, Fursa, Arabic for opportunity, receives more than ten thousand visitors a day. His Facebook page is even more popular. He is not stopping there. Among other initiatives he created is Fadfid, which means vent in Arabic. He distributed blank pieces of white paper to young men and women in Jordan and asked them to list their grievances. He then translated these into charts and data, an effortless task for someone who started coding in seventh grade. His goal is to find creative solutions for these grievances, as he did with Fursa.


Like many of his peers who are providing a much-needed service, al-Hourani’s company is severely lacking in funding. He told the author on a recent trip to Amman that if things do not change for him in a year, he would have to go back to Stanford. The hundreds of thousands who rely on his service to obtain professional opportunities would join the millions of unemployed young men and women in the Middle East and North Africa region who constitute the highest regional unemployment in the world. Perhaps some would consider joining violent groups that promise change more forcefully. Although “CVE”, or countering violent extremism, is not their primary purpose, civic-minded innovators like Sami al-Hourani are providing services that meet the needs of the vast numbers of educated, unemployed Arab youth. Without an alternative, these young people are vulnerable to the lure of extremism. Don’t people like Sami al-Hourani deserve some of the vast funds the west is pouring into the Arab world in the effort to promote stability and counter violent extremism?


Stand-up comedian Fahad al-Butairi is another example of creativity and influence. Born and raised in, arguably, the most conservative country on earth, Saudi Arabia, Fahad is one of tens of thousands of Saudis who are also Western educated. To meet the needs of his fellow young Saudis for candid debates on the challenges they are facing, Fahad created political satire shows aimed at raising awareness among his peers. His videos went viral on YouTube, attracting millions of followers. In fact, his YouTube channel competes, and even surpasses at times, the viewership of well-financed conventional satellite television stations, which are mostly government owned, and often push a more conservative agenda. In his satire, he mocked political, social and even religious norms. For example in one episode, which was watched by over five and a half million viewers, he tackled the negative impact of the kingdom’s internal conservative rules and its severe gender segregation policies.


The Arabic speaking world has thousands of young men and women who are empowering their peers to be pro-active citizens, and  to push for meaningful change through peaceful means. In age of violence and disruption, these young innovators are  providing  the “ammunition” through the peaceful means of  information, knowledge,  and awareness to bring  about the essential transformation of  the Middle East into a region of  opportunity  and justice. The question is, when will policy makers in the US and the rest of Western world pay attention to these change agents who are impacting millions of their peers?


This blog post is drawn from a presentation the author made at the Foreign Policy Research Institute’s Competitive Soft Power and Engagement Seminar entitled “Arts, Culture, and the Media in the Contemporary Middle East: Competitive Soft Power and Engagement in the Arab World” held in Washington, DC on October 4, 2016.

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It All Started When He Hit Me Back

[Editor’s Note: This blog entry originally appeared on Michael Neiberg‘s personal blog and has not been edited in any way.]

In August, I had the great privilege of spending eight days studying Israeli and Middle Eastern security issues as a guest of Academic Exchange and the Yitzhak Rabin Center. The trip involved high-level discussions with Israeli and Palestinian government officials, journalists, business leaders, peace negotiators, and security specialists. What follows are a few of my impressions of the trip. I have not used the names of specific individuals with whom we spoke in order to preserve the honesty and frankness with which they spoke to us off the record.

Although the Middle East is habitually unstable, we may be living through the most revolutionary period in its history since 1967, maybe even 1948 or 1918. Across the Middle East, state authority is collapsing; the Shia-Sunni rivalry is replacing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as the main driver of instability; non-state actors like ISIL, Hizbollah, and Hamas are becoming dominant players; Turkey is in turmoil; Syria is in civil war; the rise of Iran has triggered responses by most of its Sunni neighbors; and the loss of faith in a two-state solution for Palestine has sapped whatever optimism remains from the Oslo process.


These changes have had some ironic and unintended consequences for Israeli security. First, they have left Israel with few serious state challengers in the region. Egypt and Jordan are allies with shared interests in deterring and preventing both terrorism and a spillover from the Syrian civil war. Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq are failed states that cannot threaten Israel’s existence, although the possibility exists of terrorist groups taking advantage of that failure, especially given Hizbollah’s exploitation of Lebanese territory.

The rise of Iran has created strange bedfellows for Israel. Traditional rivals like Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States now have a shared interest with Israel in preventing an Iranian bid for regional hegemony. Israeli foreign policy therefore now looks more and more like what one might expect from a moderate Sunni state. As for the Sunni states themselves, one speaker mentioned that they treat Israel like a mistress. They enjoy the pleasures of the relationship, but prefer to do so in the dark or when they are out of town. Israel is also enjoying better relations with India, Brazil, Singapore, China, and even Russia, partly as a result of Israel’s booming tech sector and partly because warmer relations with Israel no longer compromise these nations’ dealings with Arab states.

Israel’s greatest threats come from non-state actors closer to home. Hizbollah (based in Lebanon) and Hamas (which runs the Gaza Strip) both have the means and the will to cause Israel great harm. Both have used rockets and terrorism to kill Israelis in recent years. Gaza presents a special problem. Hamas’s endemic corruption and Islamist ideology have led Egypt to close its border crossing with Gaza. International humanitarian support for Hamas has dried up, leaving 1.2 million people in Gaza with so few resources that the UN estimates that Gaza will not be able to support human life by 2020. Already hundred of thousands of people there lack regular access to electricity, sewage, and clean water.


We visited Kerem Shalom, the main entry point for all supplies into Gaza and the self-styled ugliest place in Israel. It handles 900 to 1,200 trucks per day in a complicated ballet wherein Israeli and Palestinian drivers never see one another. All trucks are inspected and analyzed, then brought into one of eleven “neutral” areas where goods are offloaded. Then the Israeli drivers leave the neutral zone, allowing Palestinian drivers to enter and load the goods into their own trucks. As the director of the crossing told us, it is the first place of its kind built not with the hope of peace but the expectation of perpetual war. He knows most of the Palestinian drivers and workers by name, but, as he told us repeatedly, he operates from a position of zero trust. He was himself one of the families whose homes in Gaza the Israelis destroyed as part of Israel’s complete and unilateral withdrawal from Gaza in 2005. The memory obviously still caused him great pain, though his sense of duty to ease the suffering of Gaza (as long as it did not threaten Israeli security in the least) was quite evident.

The situation in the West Bank is a bit better than Gaza, but it is also tense. The various pieces of the jigsaw puzzle bequeathed by the Oslo process have createdthree non-contiguous areas. Area A is controlled by the Palestinian Authority (PA); Area B is controlled for civil purposes by the PA, but security is Israeli; and Area C is fully under Israeli control. In a region where my enemy’s enemy is not necessarily my friend, the PA and Israel both fear and despise Hamas, but that shared interest has not brought them much closer together. Each side deeply mistrusts the other and the issues of Israeli settlements, borders, and the future of Jerusalem are just a few of the problems with no foreseeable compromise or agreement in sight. Each side can trace its history back centuries, can find defenses in international law for their positions, and can mobilize a great deal of emotion. As one veteran of years of negotiations between the two said, it is like being the parent of a child who says “It all started when he hit me back.”


The PA is deeply corrupt, terribly inefficient in its governance, and unwilling to divorce itself from the violence often done in the name of the Palestinian people it represents. The unequal sharing of resources and security with Israel surely handicaps the PA, but the modernization and professionalization of the state that the Oslo process was supposed to usher in has clearly not happened. Municipal elections in October and the impending withdrawal of Mahmoud Abbas from the political scene could portend even greater instability. Should Hamas do well in those elections, the situation is likely to get significantly more tense.

Still, we saw some positive signs in the West Bank which, compared to Gaza, shows some promise. The parts of Ramallah that we saw showed a few signs of new construction and economic growth, including the modern hotel and lovely restaurant that hosted us. We also visited Rawabi, a truly inspiring planned community under construction about 25km north of Jerusalem. Once completed it will have 5,000 apartments, a central commercial area with high-tech employers, schools based on the Cambridge model, green spaces, water parks, mosques, a church for Christian residents, a 15,000 seat amphitheater, and even a winery. Everything about it looks to the future. The project developer has gone out of his way to hire women as engineers and architects. We all left Rawabi wishing we had money to invest or perhaps to buy ourselves an apartment. The sense of promise in Rawabi was contagious. The town’s motto reads “The Best Is Yet to Come.”

5But Rawabi faces enormous challenges. It cannot possibly make money for many years to come, so it depends on international aid, mostly from Qatar. Construction crews store six months of everything they need to keep building because Israel occasionally closes the one small road leading out of Area C to Rawabi. The PA hates Rawabi because it challenges the narrative of Palestinian victimhood and is independent of PA funding; the Israeli settler community nearby fears its growth; and traditional Muslims dislike its modern orientation. One can’t help but cheer for it and hope for its success, but the more we learned about the problems ahead, the less we academics were sure about the wisdom of investing our (admittedly hypothetical) capital, however much we were charmed by what we saw.

Rawabi also highlights the question of whether Palestine more urgently needs economic development or political stability. In an ideal world, of course, it would get both, but resources are limited. Rawabi’s supporters hope that by improving the economy and living conditions, Palestinians will be less likely to turn to groups like Hamas. Critics of this approach argue that political stability must precede economic development because without functioning schools, police, and civil administration, Rawabi and ideas like it are doomed to failure.

A further problem comes from the nature of Israeli society. Repeatedly we heard the essential dilemma expressed as the difference between Israel as a Jewish modern state or a modern Jewish state. The two need not be in conflict, but in reality they often are. Maintaining Israel as a Jewish state means restricting the rights of Arab citizens and resisting any incorporation of West Bank Palestinians (to say nothing of Gazans) into the polity. To make Israel a democracy means to many people risking changes to its essential identity. Recent court cases challenging the menorah as a state symbol and the Hatikvah as the national anthem highlight this tension as does the growth of political influence among the ultra-Orthodox.

6The following are seven general points of consensus among most of the speakers we heard:


  1. The Sunni-Shia rivalry across the region has largely replaced the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as the main schism of the Middle East. It is being played out both as a state vs. state conflict and a proxy war through various militias and terror groups. Iran’s support for Hizbollah gives it a cheaper and easier way to deter Israel than a nuclear weapon, which may explain why Iran was willing to agree to the nuclear treaty.
  2. We may well be seeing the end of the Westphalian state in most of the region, though what will replace it is anyone’s guess. Arab states failed to give people either economic security or a sense of belonging that could supersede ethnic and religious identity. Even in Israel, the tensions of pluralism and the classic problem of balancing security and democracy is putting pressure on the state. The imposition of western models of governance in the region may at long last be ready to implode. To complicate matters further, “God is back in town” after a long period of essentially secular governance in the region, and the sacred cannot be compromised.

  3. Until or unless the state system does implode, improved Israeli relations with moderate Sunni states hold out the potential to reshape the region. Those states can offer to recognize an Israel that recognizes a Palestinian state. They may also be able to serve as a productive third party, as the Saudis have recently tried to do; they can also provide money and encouragement to fellow moderates. Still, there is a perception that states like Saudi Arabia and Qatar are playing the role of both the arsonist (in promoting extremist ideologies) and firefighter (in allying with Israel against Iran). 

  4. The international community has very little legitimacy in the region. No one trusts the UN, the EU has proven ineffective, and the USA gets decidedly mixed reviews. Some see the USA as a powerful and indispensable broker, while others are convinced that the USA has little real idea of what is happening in the region. Most thought the Iran nuclear deal a positive development, but thought the USA could and should have gotten more from it. The USA also inadvertently helped to create the Iranian problem by eliminating two of Iran’s biggest foes, Saddam Hussein and the Taliban.

  5. The situation in Gaza is a true tinderbox awaiting a spark that could come at any moment. The crisis is not far away there as conditions continue to deteriorate and no one comes to help. But a focus on Gaza may distract from the West Bank, where Israeli settlements and the lack of help from Arab states has made Palestinians ever more desperate and pessimistic.

  6. A majority of people on both sides still say that they want a two-state solution, but a majority among both majorities believes that the other side is not a reliable partner. Thus even though a two-state solution is still probably the best way forward, the chances of it succeeding continue to fade. Each successive setback only exacerbates the problem, further undermining the faith of people on both sides.

  7. US policy makes two false presumptions. First, it assumes that the people of the region want what Americans want, namely democracy, equality, and integration. But in the Middle East, where identities are still tribal, this assumption is flawed. The United States cannot expect to export Jeffersonian democracy to the Middle East, and it should stop trying. Second, Americans continue to talk about solving the problem when few people in the region have any hope that it can be solved. The goal now is to try to improve the quality of life for as many people as possible. Solutions are a bridge too far.

Despite the ubiquitous joy and energy in the country, it would be easy to leave Israel depressed about its future and the future of the region more generally. The improved relations with many of the states on Israel’s borders will likely last only as long as the states themselves do, and some of them may have short futures indeed. Most importantly, the essential problem of the Palestinians looms menacingly over Israel, even if (or perhaps specifically because) for many Israelis the status quo seems perfectly acceptable. Israel may be reduced to taking what unilateral action it can in the absence of reliable partners for peace, but even that will require political leadership that may be lacking.

Still, there are reasons for optimism. Israel is dynamic, democratic, and full of resources. The most important of those resources is its people, many of whom have a deep appreciation of the problems they face and a commitment to finding ways to improve the situation. There was also a sincere appreciation of the pain and suffering of the Palestinian people and an awareness that the two communities must find a way to live together or die side by side. Whether that determination will be enough is for the future to decide.

More photos can be seen at: https://goo.gl/photos/1irUohpD923Je9EP7

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What Should We Make Of The Islamic State’s Ramadan Wave Of Violence?

The Islamic State has taken the final week of Ramadan to make a big statement: “We will not go quietly.” In the last seven days the terror group has shown that a “wounded Islamic State is a dangerous Islamic State” lashing out in an unprecedented wave of suicide bombings and other attacks around the Middle East, South and Southeast Asia.


The Islamic State’s gradual decline in Syria and Iraq has finally brought a long expected shift in the group’s tactics from conventional military operations back towards insurgencies paired with regional and international terror attacks. The Islamic State overtook al Qaeda by declaring a caliphate and has since surpassed their forefathers as a terror group by executing a daily string of directed and networked attacks in six countries while narrowly missing in a seventh.

Here’s a quick recap of the Islamic State’s Ramadan Campaign. (For an explanation of the directed versus networked taxonomy see “Directed, Networked and Inspired: The Muddled Jihad of ISIS and al Qaeda Post Hebdo.” I’m estimating whether these attacks are directed or networked based upon available open source information. These classifications may change as further information arises.)

June 27 to July 5: The Islamic State’s Cascading Terrorism

Success breeds success for the Islamic State and their directed suicide assaults seek to amplify their image, rally their base during a down time, and inspire their supporters to undertake further violence in their name. Here’s what the Islamic State has perpetrated in short order.

Interestingly, only two of the above attacks do not involve a suicide operation – Bangladesh and Malaysia. Jama’at ul Mujahideen Bangladesh, a group connected with the Islamic State, but not a formal wilayat, had until recently only perpetrated targeted sectarian assassinations and this attack appears to not only be a major, violent step forward for the group but also seems more reminiscent of the Paris attacks and other international hostage seizures. Association of the Malaysian grenade attack with the Islamic State would also be a new trend regionally. In both cases, these peripheral attacks in South and Southeast Asia show the lesser capability of these distant Islamic State associates. It’s difficult to tell at this point whether they don’t have the capability to perpetrate suicide bombings or the personnel willing to execute such attacks.

Ultimately, the Islamic State has cascaded its terror attacks striking one target in a different country each day. Will it inspire attacks globally? Only time will tell, but possibly not. Western media has paid short attention to these attacks with the exception of the Istanbul airport. As al Murabitoon and al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb learned with its Western African terror campaign post Paris, Western media coverage endures when Westerners are killed in the West, all other attacks have less value.

Here are some other items of note from this past week’s terror campaign.

The Islamic State against all enemies – Muslim, Christian, Shi’a, Sunni, Arab, Western

Some have incorrectly suggested that the Islamic State nimbly focuses its attacks predominately against Westerners or certain audiences. This week’s Islamic State attacks and resulting deaths point to the opposite conclusion: all enemies of the Islamic State are targets and Muslims have suffered the worst. In Saudi Arabia alone, the Islamic State hit near a Western consulate, a Shi’a mosque and a Sunni holy site. Lebanon saw targeting of Christians. Bangladesh brought a focus on Westerners. The Istanbul attack killed mostly Muslims. Yemen and Saudi Arabia saw the Islamic State concentrating on security forces. Each Islamic State affiliate may pick and choose certain targets for local reasons but as an aggregate, no one faith or ethnicity is spared from the Islamic State’s wanton violence.

Islamic State’s Remaining Fighters: Die In Place Or Go Out With A Bang?

The Islamic State lost Fallujah last week and some of its members that tried to escape were pulverized in massive airstrikes. Many Islamic State foreign fighters can’t return home or have no Islamic State affiliate to drift back to. For those homeless foreign fighters, the choice is simple: they can either die in place fighting for a crumbling caliphate or they can go out as martyrs striking their homelands or a regional or international targets. The Islamic State owns the largest number of homeless foreign fighters in history. As the group loses turf, they’ll likely become part of the largest human missile arsenal in history and be directed against any and all soft targets they can reach. This campaign is likely not the end of the Islamic State’s suicide campaign, but only the beginning.

 Foreign Fighters Go As Far As Their Passports Will Take Them

 Last winter, the West suffered from the Islamic State’s decision to allegedly dispatch hundreds of European foreign fighters back to their homelands. Paris and Brussels burned and operatives across a host of European countries were arrested. Western passport holders and those hidden in refugee flows pushed as far as they could to hit high profile soft targets. Turkey struggled for years with foreign fighters passing easily through their borders into Syria and fighters from the Caucasus and Central Asia found the country quite permissible, likely facilitating this past week’s Russian-speaking suicide bombers. Richard Engel reported that as many as 35 operatives were recently dispatched into Turkey alone. The Yemeni and Saudi attacks focused more heavily on security forces and were likely perpetrated by Islamic State pledges from their respective countries and possibly a Pakistani. The bottom line: the Islamic State is sending its bombers to the locations where they can achieve the biggest results. They are not in short supply of Western, Middle Eastern, Central Asian, or Russian operatives – expect more suicide attacks in places that al Qaeda only dreamed of reaching.

Strong Counterterrorism Matters: The Islamic State Preys On The Weak

Those countries with stronger counterterrorism and security apparatuses have fared the best this past week. The Saudis, long known for squelching terrorists in their midst, sustained far fewer deaths than other countries hit this week. Iraq, despite years of investment, seems unable to protect itself from suicide attacks with yet another massive suicide bombing. Lebanon and Bangladesh, two locations of rising promise for the Islamic State (see Figure 1), have weaker security environments and local conditions ripe for extremism. The Islamic State will likely learn from this past week and exploit those places where they got the greatest return on their investment.

Is The Islamic State Looking For An Exit Strategy?

In conclusion, the Islamic State’s rapid pace of violence may come at a time when they need to find a new home for the brand. Their caliphate revenues and oil production continue to dry up. They will need to shift to illicit schemes and donations to survive. Successful attacks attract investors: will this latest string of violence bring money? Probably not, but what this rampant violence can do is signal to Islamic State’s central leadership which affiliates are still committed to the Islamic State brand. Affiliates, existing or emerging, may want to carry on the Islamic State’s vision outside of Syria and Iraq. Much like al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula was for the al Qaeda Central during their downturn, Islamic State Central will need an affiliate to carry the black banner forward or their caliphate experiment will crumble as fast as it was created.

ISIS affiliates Figure 1

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On the execution of Saudi Shi’ite cleric Nimr al-Nimr

Map of Middle East

In the Arab world as well as the West, the discussion of yesterday’s execution of Saudi Shi’ite cleric Nimr al-Nimr has been strident: Sunni Gulf states applaud the action as a step forward in the struggle against terrorism, Iran and Arab Shi’ites condemn it as part of a war on their sect, and in the West, Nimr has mostly been cast as a nonviolent opposition leader, unjustly imprisoned and wrongfully killed.

For clarity’s sake, here is some information from Saudi sources whom I regard as reliable, including one who maintained a personal friendship with Sheikh Nimr for over a decade, which speaks to the context in which the decision to execute him was made.

In the 1980s and early ‘90s, Nimr al-Nimr was a leadership figure in “Hezbollah al-Hejaz,” an avowedly Khomeinist armed group established in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province and active in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Bahrain. In sermons and other public statements, Nimr declared the three Sunni ruling dynasties to be illegitimate, and called for taking up arms against their governments. It was a period of lethal confrontation between the movement’s activists and Saudi security forces, a predictably asymmetric conflict claiming lives on both sides. Many of the group’s fighters, and Nimr himself, fled to Iran.

In 1992, Riyadh established a truce with Hezbollah al-Hejaz, on the basis of amnesty for members who renounced the movement, forswore ties to Iran, and declared their loyalty to the Saudi state. Among the many returnees from Iran was Nimr al-Nimr: He rejected the terms of amnesty, but temporarily toned down his rhetoric.

By 2009, however, he had returned to openly advocating for “the military option,” calling in a sermon for secession from the government in Riyadh. The remarks followed a confrontation between Shi’ite protestors and Saudi police at a cemetery containing the graves of venerated Shi’ites in the holy city of Mecca. After delivering the sermon, Nimr went into hiding.

He resurfaced in 2011 in the Eastern Province during the period of the Arab spring demonstrations. At a time when some of the area’s Shi’ite leaders counseled peaceful protest and others called for taking up arms, Nimr joined the latter camp, and was seen publicly with youth who threw molotov cocktails and fired at security forces. In the final incident which came to the public’s attention, in the course of a further armed confrontation, he was seen in a car with armed youth as they fired at Saudi police.

The Saudi government contends that throughout his years as an activist, in addition to inciting violence, he played a role in organizing it, though it has not made evidence available to the public. From the standpoint of the interior ministry, Nimr is simply the Shi’ite equivalent of Sunni members of ISIS and Al-Qaeda whom they believe to have blood on their hands, a number of whom were also executed yesterday. Whatever the case might be, the interior ministry did apply the same policy toward Nimr’s family which it accords the relatives of Sunni jihadists — by tending to their most urgent needs during the period of his imprisonment: His wife, stricken with cancer, was flown to a New York hospital for care, where she stayed for nine months at the government’s expense. Within the context of Saudi political culture, this measure can be understood as part of an effort to stem a cycle of vengeance, reassure the prisoner that no ill will is harbored toward his loved ones, and ultimately “reacquire” the family as loyal subjects. Nimr’s sons declined to visit their father in prison during his incarceration.


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The Sudairi Seven Back on Top

Tally Helfont is the Director of FPRI’s Program on the Middle East.

Friday has been a busy day in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. It was only mere hours ago that Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud (90) passed away and his successor is now firmly in place. The new king, Salman bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud (79), had occupied the role of Crown Prince for two and a half years prior to his accession to the throne, rendering the announcement of his appointment more a matter of protocol. Salman’s successor, Crown Prince Muqrin bin Abdulaziz (69), also came as no surprise as he too had been named by late King Abdullah as his Deputy Crown Prince back in March. It isn’t as if there were many to choose from. Unlike in Western monarchies, where succession is passed father to son, in Saudi Arabia, it can pass between brothers. Salman and Muqrin are among the remaining sons of the late King Abdulaziz (1876-1953) eligible for the position. However, these appointments were not the only ones to be made in the wake of the succession.

King Salman made a few strategic appointments of his own today, moving his sons and some of his allies into key positions within the kingdom. For example, Mohammad bin Salman Al-Saud (34), Salman’s son, has been appointed defense minister (replacing Salman himself) and head of the royal court, replacing influential advisor to the late king, Khaled al-Tuwaijri. Another appointment of particular note was the naming of Interior Minister Mohammed bin Nayef bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud (55) as the new Deputy Crown Prince – marking the first time that a grandson of Abdulaziz is (second) in line to the throne. This appointment begins to address questions surrounding the quandary of non-patrilineal succession favored in the Kingdom by finally introducing a treacherous generational change into the lines of succession from the sons of Abdulaziz to his grandsons. But it is much more than that.

The other, if not more important aspect of these “new” faces on the block has to do specifically with their matrilineal identity. Abdulaziz had many wives. Therefore, most of his sons are half-brothers. Salman is one of the “Sudairi Seven”[1] – an influential alliance of seven full brothers born to King Abdulaziz and Hassa bint Ahmad al-Sudairi. The Sudairi Seven represent the largest sibling cluster in Al-Saud family. Though the now late King Abdullah was not one of the Sudairi seven, many among the new cadre[2] are affiliated in some way with this powerful bloc. Sudairi influence stretches throughout the kingdom, encompassing a host of minor and senior posts within Saudi Arabia. The appointment of Mohammed bin Nayef not only reasserts the supremacy of this alliance since the deaths of King Fahd and Crown Princes Sultan and Nayef reduced the bloc’s strength, but also potentially secures the Saudi crown in Sudairi hand forevermore. By finally making the jump to the generation of the grandsons of Abdulaziz, and putting a male of Sudairi lineage in line for the crown as Deputy Crown Prince, hundreds of Abdulaziz’s progeny, many of whom are sons of a former king, will likely lose any prospect of ascending to the throne.

Though the consolidation of power within a certain familial bloc is not surprising in such a tribal society, its implications are nonetheless important as the stability of the kingdom in a post-succession period may depend on it. The current climate in the region is certainly a breeding ground for instability so consolidating power within a small loyal group bound by ‘asabiya (tribal solidarity) may ultimately prove to be the glue that helps the kingdom weather this transition successfully.

For his part, Salman expressed sorrow over the passing of Abdullah in his first televised speech as king, and affirmed that the kingdom will hold the same “correct path” it has taken since it was founded in 1932. He then went on to declare via Twitter:  “I ask Allah to make me succeed in serving our dear people and in achieving their wishes, and that He keeps our country and nation safe and stable, and He protect it from all mischief and harm.”


For a good depiction of the Saudi Royal Tree, see: http://graphics.wsj.com/saudi-arabia-family-tree/

For more by FPRI on the New Saudi King, see: A New King for Saudi Arabia By Rachel Bronson


[1] Fahd, Sultan, Abdulrahman, Nayef, Turki, Salman, and Ahmed made up the Sudairi Seven. 

[2] Salman (Sudairi son), Mohammed Bin Salman (Sudairi grandson), Mohammed bin Nayef (Sudairi grandson).

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Seven Flaws In the U.S. Strategy to Counter ISIS

(Editor’s Note: This blog post is derived from Clint Watts’ Ginsburg Lecture delivered at the National Liberty Museum on September 16, 2014.)

The past week’s debate on how to counter ISIS has proven just how effective terrorism is as a tactic for extremist groups.  Two videos showing the beheading of American hostages have provoked the largest U.S. response since the attacks of 9/11, compelling President Obama to hastily gather up a strategy to counter ISIS. Aside from the general confusion over what to call the group, there is even greater disagreement over what to do.  Overall, I don’t disagree with most of the actions the U.S. is taking to counter ISIS, but I am baffled why ISIS, America’s third or fourth most pressing national security concern right now, requires such a reaction.  The lesson for other extremist groups scattered from Morocco to Malaysia is clear – fly a black flag, film an atrocity and post it on the Internet and you too can capture the American media cycle and provoke a U.S. response. 

Aside from my quibbling over the U.S. need to be out front in countering ISIS, it is clear that something needs to be done to counter the rise of the group.  The U.S. actions to counter ISIS to date are not necessarily wrong.  Building up rebels, airstrikes to protect key allies, and working with partners all represent sound actions the U.S. will need to take at one point or another.  As a comprehensive strategy, however, the plan will likely fail from seven fatal flaws presented by the current situation in Iraq and Syria. The U.S. can do whatever it wants to militarily, and probably will, but these apparent weaknesses will prevent any meaningful defeat of ISIS and, in the process of being the global leader to counter ISIS, the U.S. has confirmed the jihadist narrative it so desperately sought to escape in the past decade – the “Far Enemy” propping up “Near Enemy” apostates. (See my post from two weeks ago “Why Does The U.S. Want To Be ISIS ‘Far Enemy’?” for a larger discussion on this issue.)

Seven Flaws in the U.S. Strategy To Counter ISIS

My thesis remains that the “U.S. Can’t Destroy ISIS, Only ISIS Can Destroy ISIS”, but neither my proposal nor the current U.S. plan being put forth, “Airstrikes and Allies” (or maybe “Mitigate and Pray” might be more appropriate), can achieve its goals without addressing seven obvious challenges present in Iraq and Syria (See Figure 1). 

  1. Syrian Civil War – Two years of Syrian civil conflict has created a gapping wound in the Middle East exploiting many religious, regional and international friction points.  A wound left untreated turns into an infection, an infection today known as ISIS.  Fearful of blowback after Qaddafi’s collapse in Libya and mired in the 2012 reelection campaign, the Obama administration accompanied by the West has avoided the Syrian conflict for years allowing ISIS to fester and grow amongst the chaos. The U.S. will be unlikely to defeat ISIS in a meaningful way without developing a strategy for resolving the Syrian conflict.
  2. Turkish Border – Foreign fighters and resources pour into Syria and ultimately ISIS through Turkey.  A strategy of containment and annihilation will not work when there is a gapping hole in the perimeter.  Recent news suggests that the Turks may be deploying up to 50,000 police to seal the border.  But how effective will this be when Turks compromise a large base of support for ISIS and a steady supply of foreign fighters?  
  3. The Double-Edged Sword of Saudi Arabia – Saudi Arabia quickly signed up as a partner in the U.S. coalition to counter ISIS – a logical and smart move for the Saudis who may be most threatened by hundreds of their citizens helping power ISIS. Saudi Arabia was one of the first to arrest ISIS operatives in their country back in May and is a natural terrorist target for the group. Of course, partnering up with Saudi Arabia affirms al Qaeda’s old narrative for attacking the U.S. – the “Far Enemy (US)” is propping up “Near Enemy (Saudi)” apostates. The current U.S. plan includes sending military trainers to Saudi Arabia , another justification used by Bin Laden for attacking the U.S. dating back to the 1990s.  More importantly, the U.S. plan re-opens the 13-year debate about the tradeoffs encountered with counterterrorism partners. How can the U.S. promote democracy to counter a terror group that beheads people and observes Shari’a law, while partnering with a government that just beheaded dozens of people “according to Shari’a” for offenses that include drug trafficking and sorcery?
  4. Arab Partner Nations – Defeating ISIS will not come without a wide base of support from Arab partners.  However, most Arab countries, to include what might be the United States’ most important ally Jordan, seem reluctant to join forcefully into the coalition for two reasons.  First, these countries have disenfranchised communities that sympathize and even support ISIS with fighters and money.  By joining the U.S. coalition, they are putting themselves at risk domestically.  Second, ISIS’s campaign to date has largely focused on killing Shi’a and countering the Assad regime.  Thus ISIS has become a convenient proxy army for Sunni nations wanting to meet what they see as Iranian (Shi’a) expansion in the region. 
  5. Iran is a bigger adversary to the U.S. than ISIS – By engaging ISIS, the U.S. is simultaneously 1) acting as a proxy air force for Iran whose IRGC has become a line of defense for the Shi’a dominated Iraqi government and 2) becoming the savior for Iran’s regional ally; the Assad regime in Syria.  By destroying ISIS without addressing the Syrian Civil War, the U.S. is rewarding its adversary Iran who bloodied American noses the past decade in Iraq. 
  6. Sunni partners in Iraq – The U.S. must create some lasting stability in the Western and Northern Sunni areas of Iraq if it wants to permanently root out ISIS.  ISIS gains correlate with Sunni disenfranchisement in the so-called democratic system left by the U.S.  The U.S. has noted the need for a more inclusive and representative Iraqi government, but the plan to counter ISIS must go further and regain the buy-in of Sunni leaders in Iraq.
  7. Shi’a Dominated Iraqi Government – The Iraqi government looks to Iran for direction and the U.S. for support, while undermining the country’s new democracy by reinforcing ethnic divisions. Meanwhile, Shi’a divisions of the Iraqi army, despite being numerically superior, refused to fight for Sunni areas of Iraq instead turning tail and retreating only to be executed in mass by ISIS.  The U.S. must address the challenges of the past decade and explore new possibilities for how to stabilize Iraq in terms of both governance and security.

Two Fronts For Defeating ISIS: On-The-Ground and Online

Along with these seven challenges, the U.S. media has made ISIS’s success difficult to understand.  Defeating ISIS requires the U.S. to meet and defeat ISIS both “On-The-Ground” and “Online.”  These two fronts of ISIS aggression though are symbiotic. ISIS’s success building an Islamic state and conducting widespread violence on the ground in Syria and Iraq has empowered their well planned and technically sound media strategy on the Internet.  As seen in Figure 2, ISIS’s increased success leads to greater online support.  Greater online support equals more recruits and more resources for ISIS from their international base of support.  Thus, the U.S. can’t really defeat ISIS online, without degrading ISIS on the ground.  Fortunately, foreign fighter recruits are a fickle bunch. In general, when a terror group begins to fail, recruits tend to decrease and donors start to dry up.  Everyone likes a winner, even terror group supporters. 

ISIS’s two fronts also speak to U.S. interests with regards to defeating ISIS and should shape the amount of effort the U.S. puts into its counterterrorism actions.  ISIS’s on-the-ground success threatens the security of the Middle East and American allies in the region.  ISIS’s online success threatens the U.S. homeland and U.S. personnel abroad.  The U.S. strategy against ISIS will ultimately have two campaigns and countering ISIS online will depend on U.S. success defeating ISIS on-the-ground. 

My next several posts will be a series called “Thoughts On Countering ISIS.” The first in this series actually came out last week – the “Let Them Rot” strategy — which I still contend is the more appropriate approach for defeating ISIS, although it appears the U.S. lacks the patience to execute it.  In the upcoming posts, I’ll try to provide some perspective on how the U.S. can fight the two campaigns against ISIS’s two fronts while addressing the seven challenges I noted above.   

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