Elizabeth Ladd, owner of River Knits Fine Yarns, poses while holding up a 'This businesses serves everyone' sticker she plans to place outside her business in downtown Lafayette, Indiana March 31, 2015.
(Reuters) - Arkansas lawmakers passed a Religious Freedom Restoration Act on Tuesday that critics said would allow businesses to deny service to gays and lesbians, drawing a swift demand from Wal-Mart Stores Inc for the governor to veto the bill.
Arkansas followed Indiana, which passed a similar act last week. They are the first to do so since same-sex marriage became legal in many states last year. Corporations have criticized the measures.
At present 37 of the 50 states and the District of Columbia permit gay marriage. The world's biggest retailer, Wal-Mart (WMT.N), based in Bentonville, Ark., issued a statement saying the Arkansas bill threatened to undermine "the spirit of inclusion" in the state and "does not reflect the values we proudly uphold."
Signed by Doug McMillon, chief executive officer, the statement asked Republican Governor Asa Hutchinson to veto the legislation.
Indiana's Republican Governor Mike Pence, responding to national outrage over his signing of his state's law last week, vowed earlier on Tuesday to "fix" the act so that businesses could not use the law to deny services to same-sex couples.
Some of the most powerful U.S. companies, including Apple (AAPL.O), Angie's List, diesel engine-maker Cummins Inc (CMI.N), Salesforce Marketing Cloud and drug-maker Eli Lilly and Co (LLY.N), had called on Pence to clarify or repeal the law, which passed with an overwhelming majority in the state's legislature.
Democratic governors, joined by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo on Tuesday, banned official state business travel to Indiana. Auto racing company NASCAR and the Indianapolis-based NCAA, an organization for university athletic programs, voiced concern over the law.
At a news conference Pence said the law protected people of all faiths from being forced by the government to go against their beliefs. The lawyer and one-time radio talk-show host repeatedly denied that the intent of the law was to allow discrimination.
Critics said Indiana's law as it is now written would allow businesses to deny services such as wedding cakes or wedding music for gay marriages on religious grounds.
Pence found support from conservatives including Republican presidential hopeful Ted Cruz and possible presidential contenders Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio, who praised the law.
Supporters have said the acts do not allow for discrimination and are needed to protect religious freedoms.
But critics contend they are part of a broader effort by Republican-dominated statehouses in socially conservative states to push back against a series of U.S. court decisions allowing same-sex marriage.
Pence said the law he signed last week had been unfairly "smeared" and called on the Republican-controlled General Assembly to come up with clarifications this week.
SUPREME COURT CASE
The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to decide by the end of June whether the U.S. Constitution protects a right to same-sex marriage, and if it does not, whether states that ban it must recognize marriages performed in states permitting such unions.
"What's happened is that with same-sex marriage on the horizon, the individuals and the believers who do not want to support same-sex marriage are looking to a formula in RFRAs to allow them to avoid same-sex marriage in the market place," said Marci Hamilton, law professor at Yeshiva University's Benjamin N. Cardozo Law School and an opponent of RFRAs.
Arkansas' RFRA also allows religious discrimination lawsuits between private parties, and goes a step further in that it would bar employees from invoking religious freedom in suing employers, Hamilton said.
Lori Windham, senior counsel with the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which has brought RFRA cases on behalf of people of different faiths, said the clarification should not be necessary.
"It should already be clear that these laws require courts to balance religious freedom against other interests. They don't mean religion always wins, they mean that religious people have their day in court," she said.
In the old game of chicken, two cars race toward each other and at the last second one veers away to avoid a collision. Today, the Israelis and Palestinians are engaged in a new game of chicken but as they accelerate toward each other, they have missed the reality that there is a gorge between them and they are each in danger of driving off the cliff. If there is a task for American diplomacy now, it is to try to get each off their self-destructive path.
For Prime Minister Netanyahu, his hard right tack in the campaign won him the election in Israel and lost him the world. President Obama’s obvious anger and unwillingness to accept Netanyahu’s effort to walk back his campaign statement on there being no Palestinian state so long as he was prime minister did not create his problems internationally but certainly has added to them. Indeed, fair or not, it is an unfortunate reality that few on the global stage believe Netanyahu is committed to trying to find a way to end Israel’s occupation of the Palestinians.
The prime minister is surely right about the profound danger that a nuclear Iran would pose to Israel, but Israel’s next government also needs to treat the de-legitimization movement as threat to Israel’s existence. It is, after all, about trying to deny Israel’s right to exist.
One problem with the White House’s reaction to Netanyahu’s comments is that it will feed not just the de-legitimization momentum but it will make the Palestinians feel free of any obligations. The onus will be on Israel, Palestinians can push the campaign against Israel at the International Criminal Court and other international fora, and nothing will be expected of them. Unfortunately, none of these steps will advance the day that Palestinians see an end to Israeli occupation or the emergence of their state. And, that will deepen the frustration of the Palestinian public which sees a gap between what its leaders claim and what they produce on the ground. That frustration is made all the worse when they see the conflict between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas paralyzing any efforts to rebuild a devastated Gaza—a reality that according to Palestinian pollster, Khalil Shikaki, has deeply undercut support for President Mahmoud Abbas among Palestinians.
Israel needs to take an initiative to counter the de-legitimization movement and show it is not the reason that nothing is possible on peace. Ironically, such an initiative might also shift the onus onto the Palestinians and move them off the position that all the responsibility for the conflict is Israel’s and they need do nothing. In addition, it could also convince the Obama administration that it need not proceed either to support or draft a U.N. Security Resolution laying out the parameters for a permanent status deal, especially because Israel was acting to alter an unsustainable status quo.
The question is how to get Israel to take the first step. That should be the U.S. objective at this point. This is not the time to try to resume peace negotiations, when the disbelief on each side is so great and the gulf between Israelis and Palestinians has never been wider. To be sure, if the White House wants to move the prime minister to take a step after he forms a government, challenging his word in public won’t make that more likely. Rather, it ought to cool the public rhetoric and privately convey that the U.S. ability to help Israel internationally now requires an Israeli move that lends credence to the prime minister’s words. Even an administration more well-disposed to Netanyahu would be hard-pressed to convince the international community that he was serious about two states in the aftermath of his campaign statements.
So what steps could Netanyahu and the new Israeli government take to give the administration and its friends something to work with? They could declare that they were going to make Israel’s settlement policy consistent with its two-state policy: meaning that Israel would only build in what it thinks will be Israel not in what it thinks will be part of the Palestinian state. In other words, Israel would not build in the 92 percent of the West Bank that is outside what Israel currently defines as the settlement blocs. Even if Netanyahu thinks that a two-state outcome cannot be implemented soon, he can at least show he will not act to make it more difficult to produce it. If he would also allow the Palestinians to build in parts of area C—which makes up 60 percent of the West Bank—that would boost the Palestinian economy and show the Palestinian public that the possibility of change remains.
Netanyahu will want something in return from the Palestinians or the United States. The Palestinians could turn away from internationalizing the conflict and commit anew to a negotiated outcome. In addition, President Abbas could agree to take over the crossing points in Gaza—something the donor community, the Israelis and the Egyptians have held is the key to opening up Gaza for the movement of reconstruction materials and even people into the Strip. Ironically, this matters to the Israelis because they understand that if the pressure within Gaza is not reduced, there is bound to be another explosion and renewed warfare.
But creating these steps, which could jump-start a process, won’t happen by itself. The United States will need to set it in motion. At this point, Netanyahu needs to blunt the de-legitimization movement, Abbas needs to regain some semblance of trust from his own people, and we need to foster a virtuous cycle between Israelis and Palestinians. Pressing for a quick return to negotiations—or a Security Council Resolution that will trigger long discussions in New York and likely be ground down in the .U.N Cuisinart—will yield none of these results. But focusing on practical steps could do so and move the Israelis and Palestinians off their self-destructive trajectories and in a far more hopeful direction.
French Bishop Jean-Michel Faure walks during a mass in Nova Friburgo.
The Resistance Against Pope Francis
Ultra-traditionalist bishops in Brazil claim to be leading The Resistance to Pope Francis's religious revolution, despite their own excommunications.
Two renegade Catholic bishops plan to consecrate a new generation of bishops to spread their ultra-traditionalist movement called "The Resistance" in defiance of the Vatican, one of them said at a remote monastery in Brazil.
French Bishop Jean-Michel Faure said on Sunday (March 29) the new group rejects Pope Francis and what it calls his "new religion."
Bishop Richard Williamson and Faure initially belonged to a larger dissenting group that been a thorn in Rome's side for years and have since broken off to form their own religious group. Asked what the new group called itself, Faure said it is firstly Roman Catholic, secondly St Pius X, and now "The Resistance".
They said that they would not engage in a dialogue with Rome until the Vatican turns back the clock.
The Society of St Pius X (SSPX) is a larger ultra-traditionalist group that was excommunicated in 1988 when its founder consecrated four new bishops, including Williamson, despite warnings from the Vatican not to do so.
It rejected the modernizing reforms of the 1962-65 Second Vatican Council and stuck with Catholicism's old Latin Mass.
Former Pope Benedict readmitted the four SSPX bishops to the Catholic fold in 2009, but the SSPX soon expelled Williamson because of an uproar over his Holocaust denial.
The tension mounted two weeks ago when Williamson consecrated Faure without Vatican approval. In response, the two were subsequently excommunicated from the Roman Catholic Church.
The monastery had said Williamson would ordain a priest there this past weekend but he was not seen by reporters and clergy said it was impossible to talk to him.
Instead, Faure ordained the priest himself in a mass in which he told the sizable congregation that they were being deceived by the Vatican.
"They are destroying your faith, your morals, with the pretext of false obedience, false humility, false charity. It is all a lie," Faure told church-goers at Santa Cruz Monastery in Nova Friburgo, 140 km (87 miles) inland from Rio de Janeiro.
Faure did not give an estimate as to how many followers they have but their plans to consecrate bishops indicates potential for growth.
The church does not hide their objection to Pope Francis, saying they are more faithful to the teachings of the pre-Vatican two Roman Catholic Church.
"He (Pope Francis) is using doctrine which is condemned by the Catholic Church. He is less Catholic than us," the monastery prior Thomas Aquinas added.
"The Pope cannot do anything in the Church. The authority of the Pope is limited by the service of the truth and by the doctrine of Our Lord Jesus Christ, which has been in place for twenty centuries," said Faure, who claims to follow all the popes of the past but not the current one.
In contrast to Benedict, Pope Francis pays little attention to the SSPX ultra-traditionalists, who claim to have a million followers around the world and a growing number of new priests at a time that Rome faces priest shortages. Their remaining three bishops have no official status in the Catholic Church.
Under Catholic law, Williamson and Faure are excommunicated from the Church but remain validly consecrated bishops. That means they can ordain priests into their schismatic group and claim to be Catholic, albeit without Vatican approval.
Faure claims his excommunication is invalid, however.
"An excommunication is valid, effective, if it follows mortal sin, what we call mortal sin, grave sin, public... And our sin is not a sin because it is only - our will is only to follow the religions they learn to us. We have been always in this religion and we stay in this religion. But of course, to stay in this religion we need priests and to have priests we must have bishops," said Faure after the ordination ceremony.
Faure said he was not sure what it would take for Rome to return to its old traditions but conflict could be a catalyst.
He suggested that the Church might go back to the way it was before should there be a Third World War, though refused to speak of history in light of the problems created by Williamson's controversial comments in 2009.
Sophisticated and lethal, growing in number, Islamic State and other extremist groups won't become a global force. Here's why.
BySeth G. Jones, Contributor, Christian Science Monitor
KABUL, AFGHANISTAN; DJIBOUTI CITY, DJIBOUTI; LONDON; AND WASHINGTON — Mullah Abdul Rauf Khadim looked like any ubiquitous insurgent commander in southern Afghanistan. He had a sunbaked complexion, serried black beard, charcoal eyes, and the usual accessory – an AK-47 slung over his shoulder.
But there was something distinctive about him, which alarmed American officials. He had recently defected from the Taliban and joined Islamic State (known as both IS and ISIS), creating concern that the militant extremist group was expanding its footprint in South Asia.
So on Feb. 9, a US aircraft locked onto the vehicle he was traveling in near the village of Sadat in Helmand Province. It fired a missile, killing Mr. Khadim and five of his companions.
“The Islamic State is increasingly active in the region,” says a senior American military official in Kabul, Afghanistan, though cautioning not to inflate their size or significance – at least not yet. “Some locals appear to be attracted to their battlefield success in Iraq. And everyone loves a winner.”
A year ago, the prospect that IS might emerge in South Asia, the birthplace of Al Qaeda, seemed preposterous. True, IS operatives and their Sunni allies had pushed into western Iraq, seizing the cities of Fallujah and Ramadi, and moved rapidly across other parts of the country.
But they had yet to establish much of a presence elsewhere in the restive Islamic belt, including Pakistan and Afghanistan. These, after all, were strongholds of Al Qaeda, traditionally a fierce IS competitor, and the Taliban. But since last fall, IS has been slowly and methodically forging ties with militant groups in these two countries as well as other places around the globe.
“The initial ISIS reports began as rumors,” notes an Afghan defense official. “But not anymore.”
IS efforts to gain a foothold in South Asia and other regions highlight a disturbing trend. Islamic extremism is rising in key areas of the world.
Driven by a lack of stable governments and the movement of trained and ideologically committed recruits from battlefields in Iraq and Syria, extremist groups – such as IS and Al Qaeda – are spreading their reach into new areas of Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia. They are becoming more sophisticated in their communications, more lethal in their tactics, and more adept at fundraising.
But while some groups may be working together, creating the specter of a worldwide movement, deep fissures persist among the groups that will likely prevent them from becoming a global network.
Many Islamic fighters disagree about how much, if at all, to target Western countries and their citizens. Others disagree about the size and global nature of their desired emirate, the legitimacy of attacking Shiite Muslims, and the morality of killing civilians. In some countries, such as Syria, extremists have even engaged in intense battles with each other, widening already significant splits.
For all the strengths of today’s Islamic extremists, most are not committed to – or even capable of – conducting sophisticated attacks in the West. What’s more, polls show there is little popular support for most groups. Over the long run, their lack of local support and legitimacy may well undermine any fleeting gains – and the threat they pose to the West.
• • •
The narrow valleys and swelling rivers of the Hindu Kush mountains, along the Afghan-Pakistani border, make the terrain inhospitable. But it was here, nearly three decades ago, that Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri started Al Qaeda in the waning years of the war against the Soviets.
Bearded tribesmen clog the streets of many of the border towns, clad in their dusty sandals and shalwar kameez, the loose-fitting trousers and long, baggy shirts worn by locals. Most of Al Qaeda’s surviving leaders still remain in the area, despite the attempts by IS to recruit here.
Today, the terrorist landscape centers around these two broad movements: Al Qaeda and IS.
Al Qaeda is led by Mr. Zawahiri, the fiery Egyptian who took over when Mr. bin Laden was killed by US Navy SEALs in 2011. Al Qaeda’s goal remains establishing a loose Islamic caliphate that extends from Africa through the Middle East, South Asia, and parts of the Pacific.
Al Qaeda’s primary strategy from its base here is to work with its affiliates – such as Al Shabab in Somalia, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in Yemen, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb in North Africa, and Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria – to overthrow local regimes. Zawahiri and his colleagues seek to replace these governments with ones that implement an extreme interpretation of Islamic law, or sharia.
“Al Qaeda leaders continue to encourage their affiliates to create states,” says a US State Department official in Kabul. “In a sense, it’s extremist nation-building.”
That’s what Nasir al-Wuhayshi, the head of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, is hoping to do. Mr. Wuhayshi is a thin, olive-skinned Yemeni with dark hair and crooked teeth. He explains in a letter to fellow extremists that the “places under your control are a model for an Islamic state.” And he encourages them to provide basic services to locals, much like a government might do.
This type of state sounds eerily similar to what IS leaders are trying to create. IS has emerged as Al Qaeda’s premier Pan-Islamic competitor. Formerly Al Qaeda in Iraq, IS broke away from Al Qaeda in early 2014 because of a series of personality, ideological, and tactical disputes.
Its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, could not bear coming under the control of Al Qaeda any longer. And IS’s anti-Shiite attacks and brutal executions, including beheadings and burnings, were too extreme even for Al Qaeda. But IS and Al Qaeda have a similar goal: to establish a radical Islamic emirate.
“Rush O Muslims to your state. Yes, it is your state,” says Mr. Baghdadi in a recent announcement, asking for volunteers to immigrate to Iraq and Syria to fill key positions.
IS leaders such as Baghdadi have focused most of their operations on Iraq and Syria. But they have also attempted to expand their network into Africa, other countries in the Middle East, and South Asia.
In Nigeria, for instance, the terrorist organization Boko Haram recently pledged its allegiance to IS. While the move might end up aiding the group with fundraising and recruitment, it was largely seen as a public relations stunt to help counter recent military setbacks Boko Haram has suffered at the hands of Nigerian and neighboring government forces.
In Libya, IS sent emissaries in late 2014 to meet with extremist groups across the country in an effort to establish a formal relationship. IS fighters now control key sections of Libyan cities like Surt, along the Mediterranean coast. In Egypt, leaders from the group Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, based in the Sinai Peninsula, pledged their loyalty to IS after a series of meetings and electronic communications.
In addition, other jihadist groups, such as the various Ansar al-Sharia organizations in Libya, exist that aren’t members of either IS or Al Qaeda. The rise of these groups has forced the umbrella networks to compete more for fighters, money, and influence.
While IS and Al Qaeda both want to establish Islamic emirates, they differ in important ways. IS has a separate command-and-control structure with committees that cover the media, administrative activities, military operations, Islamic law, and other matters.
IS is also less reliant on funding from Persian Gulf donors and raises money from such activities as smuggling oil, selling stolen goods, kidnapping and extortion, and seizing bank accounts.
While both movements view Shiite Muslims as infidels, IS has conducted more attacks against Shiites than any other jihadist group. As its beheadings and burnings highlight, IS operatives have also been more inclined to conduct grisly attacks. A decade ago, Al Qaeda leader Zawahiri wrote a letter to extremists in Iraq – the predecessors of IS – warning that their gruesome practices were counterproductive.
“Among the things which the feelings of the Muslim populace who love and support you will never find palatable – also – are the scenes of slaughtering the hostages,” Zawahiri scolded.
The warnings went unheeded. And the differences between IS and Al Qaeda have turned key parts of the Islamic world into a fierce competition between the two movements. Among the most intense battlegrounds is the Horn of Africa.
• • •
Where they flourish
The heat in Djibouti is oppressive. Sun-baked, mud-brick buildings dot the country’s landscape, caked in a layer of dirt and dust. Its capital, Djibouti city, is built on coral reefs that jut into the southern entrance of the gulf. The country is strategically located on the Bab el-Mandeb Strait, which separates the Red Sea from the Gulf of Aden.
For US counterterrorism officials, Djibouti sits on a critical seam. It borders Somalia, home to the Al Qaeda-affiliated group Al Shabab. And it lies less than 20 miles from Yemen, home to Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
“The trend is unmistakable,” says a US military official in Djibouti. “There are more violent extremists in this region than we’ve ever seen before. No comparisons.”
Take Yemen. In January, the government collapsed as Houthi rebels, a Zaidi Shiite movement from northern Yemen, took control of key ministries, and President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi, an American ally, resigned. Over the past several weeks, Al Qaeda fighters have expanded their attacks across multiple provinces.
Meanwhile, Al Shabab distributed a video on Twitter recently threatening attacks against malls in the West. “What if such an attack were to occur in the Mall of America in Minnesota?” asks a masked fighter, cloaked in a checkered head scarf and wearing military fatigues. “Or the West Edmonton Mall in Canada? Or in London’s Oxford Street?”
Based on these developments, Djibouti has become a major base of operations. In 2001, the Djiboutian government reached an agreement with the United States to use Camp Lemonnier as a hub of counterterrorism activity. Since then, the US presence has grown. Camp Lemonnier now serves as the US headquarters to train, advise, and assist governments in the region in fighting extremist groups, under the command of Combined Joint Task Force – Horn of Africa. It’s also a critical node for strikes against groups in Yemen, Somalia, and other countries.
But the surge in terrorist activities isn’t just confined to the Horn of Africa. In addition to Yemen, Libya has become a breeding ground for new groups because of the collapse of its government only four years after the overthrow of Muammar Qaddafi. While Mr. Qaddafi’s demise and the July 2012 democratic elections represented a remarkable achievement for political freedom, Libya faces massive challenges.
The bureaucracy is weak, well-armed militias control much of the countryside, and extremist groups have attacked Sufi shrines across the country by digging up graves and destroying mosques and libraries. Ansar al-Sharia Libya, a loose collection of extremist groups, has emerged in this vacuum. Based in such cities as Benghazi, Darnah, and Misurata, which hug the Mediterranean coast, Ansar al-Sharia Libya seeks to establish sharia in the country.
Overall, the total number of extremist groups across the region jumped 58 percent between 2010 and 2013, according to a study by the RAND Corp.The number of extremist fighters increased dramatically, too – more than doubling between 2010 and 2013, to a high of more than 100,000 fighters.
The war in Syria is the most important attraction for fighters. Extremist groups represent a significant portion of the Syrian rebel manpower against the regime of Bashar al-Assad, including IS, Jabhat al-Nusra, Suqour al-Sham, Ahrar al-Sham, Liwa al-Islam, and Liwa al-Tawhid.
The levels of extremist violence have also grown. Among Al Qaeda affiliates alone, the number of attacks more than doubled between 2010 and 2013. But most are not directed at the US – or the West more broadly. Roughly 98 percent of these attacks targeted local regimes and civilian populations across such countries as Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and Somalia.
This rise in extremism has been caused, in part, by a growing weakness of governments across Africa and the Middle East, where the Arab uprisings created an opportunity for radicals to secure a foothold.
Since 2010, governance indicators in these areas have dropped markedly in such categories as political stability, rule of law, and control of corruption, according to World Bank data.
The surge has also been caused by the transnational movement of fighters trained on battlefields in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. These wars have provided a unique environment for extremists to pray, share meals, train, socialize, and fight together. A growing number of these operatives have moved from these battlefields to new locations in Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia.
Not surprisingly, these trends have caused alarm in Western capitals, including London.
• • •
Risk of the returning recruit
The headquarters of Britain’s domestic intelligence agency, MI5, is nestled along the Thames River in central London. The building, called Thames House, was designed by Sir Frank Baines in the imperial neoclassical tradition. Statues of St. George and Britannia dot the building’s Portland stone facade. The Westminster coat of arms, mounted on the building, aptly reads “Custodi civitatem domine” in Latin – or “Lord protect the citizens.”
MI5 has a long history of trying to protect its population from terrorism and working closely with its American partners. Of particular concern to the agency today are Islamic extremists trained in Syria and Iraq, who also pose a threat to the US. Approximately 600 British extremists have traveled to Syria and Iraq, MI5 estimates. Many have joined IS. British agencies have watched with unease the growing number of attacks and plots across the West tied either formally or informally to Syria and Iraq.
These include attacks in Brussels in May 2014; Ottawa in October 2014; Sydney, Australia, in December 2014; Paris in January 2015; and Copenhagen, Denmark, in February 2015. More broadly, more than 20 terrorist plots in the West were either directed or provoked by extremist groups in Syria between October 2013 and January 2015, according to MI5.
“Our surveillance resources are overwhelmed,” says one British government official.
Despite the challenges, MI5 and local counterterrorism units remain aggressive. In England and Wales, terrorist-related arrests have jumped 35 percent since 2011. And more than 140 individuals have been convicted of terrorism-related offenses since 2010, according to MI5 statistics.
The British are not alone. Counterterrorism agencies across Europe and North America are under tremendous pressure to prevent attacks. A growing contingent of foreign fighters – more than 20,000 – is traveling to Syria to fight in the war, according to data collected by the US National Counterterrorism Center. Approximately 3,400 fighters, or 17 percent, appear to be coming from the West, especially from Europe.
It is difficult to predict whether most of these fighters will remain in Syria, move to future war zones in other regions, or return to the West. And even if some return, it is uncertain whether they will help hatch terrorist plots, focus on recruiting and fundraising, or become disillusioned with terrorism.
Still, foreign fighters have historically been agents of instability. Volunteering for war is often the principal steppingstone for individual involvement in more extreme forms of militancy.
And this struggle is as much about ideas as it is about military combat. It is a clash increasingly occurring online and on social media forums. Indeed, IS’s sophisticated use of social media has created opportunities for the group to reach potential recruits or influence those inspired by its message.
One of the most important forums is IS’s online magazine, Dabiq.
• • •
How dangerous, really?
The seventh issue of Dabiq, published in February, boasts a sleek cover photograph. It shows two imams, clad in creamy white robes and wearing snuggly fitting prayer caps, holding signs emblazoned with the words “JE SUIS CHARLIE” (“I AM CHARLIE”).
It is the slogan adopted by those who denounced the January attack against the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo.
Like all issues of Dabiq, which is printed in several languages including English, the seventh installment includes an assortment of articles intended to establish the religious legitimacy of the group and encourage extremists to come to Syria and Iraq – or else conduct attacks in their home countries.
The feature article, which accompanies the cover image, is titled “The Extinction of the Grayzone.” It starkly divides the world into two camps: Islam, represented by IS and its supporters, and the West and its followers. The article denounces Muslims that show sympathy for the victims of the Charlie Hebdo attack as apostates – guilty of abandoning Islam.
Since its expansion in Iraq and Syria, IS has become a growing threat to the US. Rather than the complex attacks on 9/11, which involved years of training and meticulous planning, the most likely IS threat today comes from smaller, less-sophisticated attacks from individuals who have taken up the cause.
“The uptick in moderate-to-small scale attacks in the West since last summer by individual extremists reinforces our assessment that the most likely and immediate threat to the Homeland will come from Homegrown Violent Extremists, or individuals with loose affiliation to terrorist groups overseas,” said Nicholas Rasmussen, director of the National Counterterrorism Center, at a US Senate hearing in February.
IS is not the only extremist group that could mount an attack on US soil. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula provided training to two operatives involved in the Charlie Hebdo shootings, Said and Chérif Kouachi. Several Yemen-based operatives continue to plot attacks against the US as well.
Core members of Al Qaeda, based in Pakistan, also present a threat to the US homeland. But their leaders have had difficulty recruiting – or even inspiring – competent operatives in the West. That’s why Zawahiri sent a small group of operatives, referred to as the Khorasan Group, to Syria to plot attacks in Europe and America.
In addition, a small number of individuals who have embraced Al Qaeda’s ideals, like the Tsarnaev brothers, who perpetrated the April 2013 Boston Marathon bombings, concern security officials. Still, terrorists have had difficulty striking the US because of robust counterterrorism steps by the Department of Homeland Security, Federal Bureau of Investigation, and other federal and local agencies. Authorities have thwarted all but four of more than 40 home-grown terrorist plots since 9/11.
Several groups pose what experts consider a medium-level threat because of their capability to target US citizens overseas, not the US homeland. Ansar al-Sharia Tunisia, for instance, has planned attacks against American diplomats and infrastructure in Tunis, including the US embassy. In Somalia, Al Shabab’s objectives are largely parochial: to establish an extreme Islamic emirate in Somalia and the broader region. But it does possess an ability to strike targets in East Africa.
Other extremist groups represent, at best, a low-level threat to the US. These groups do not possess the capability or intent to target America domestically or overseas. They include organizations such as the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, which is mainly interested in Chinese targets. Even in Afghanistan, many local groups have little interest in attacking the US homeland.
• • •
A threat overrated
While IS and other extremist groups have made some gains, in the long term they face a challenge because their firebrand version of Islam is unpopular. After the IS execution of Jordanian Air Force pilot Muath Kassasbeh by immolation in early February, a groundswell of opposition surfaced across the Muslim world.
Numerous activists on Twitter accounts and English-language jihadist forums condemned the actions as un-Islamic. They argued that burning Muslims is strictly forbidden in Islam.
“I have become very troubled upon hearing this news, because I thought that burning anyone (even animals) was not allowed under any condition in Islam,” posted one participant on the Ansar al-Mujahideen English Forum, using the name “pathoftrials.”
Islamic scholars have also been widely critical of IS. “What happened to the Jordanian pilot is by all means a crime. This barbaric action is far away from humanity, much less religion. Islam is innocent of this act,” said Sheikh Shawki Ibrahim Abdel-Karim Allam, the grand mufti of Egypt.
What’s more, support for extremist groups across the Muslim world is low, according to survey data from the Pew Research Center. Al Qaeda received negative marks in all 14 countries surveyed. In addition, the vast majority of respondents, both Muslims and Christians, have an unfavorable view of Boko Haram in Nigeria.
Concern about Islamic extremism is growing among countries with substantial Muslim populations as well. It jumped from 81 percent in 2013 to 92 percent in 2014 in Lebanon, 71 percent to 80 percent in Tunisia, and 69 percent to 75 percent in Egypt, according to the Pew Research Center.
Viewed in this context, the rise of extremist groups may well be fleeting. With little local support, they lack the foundation necessary for a sustainable movement. Even IS has had trouble holding ground on its home turf, as Iraqi government forces and local militias have retaken control of key portions of cities like Tikrit, Iraq.
Deep divisions also exist among these groups about ideology, tactics, and objectives. For all the strengths of today’s Islamic extremists, most are not committed to or capable of conducting sophisticated attacks in the West, like on 9/11.
“Most of the plots uncovered in the United States were amateurish schemes that were detected long before they got close to being operational,” says Brian Jenkins, a terrorism expert at the RAND Corp. “Two-thirds of the US plots involved single individuals. Most of the remaining plots were tiny conspiracies. This is unlikely to change in the foreseeable future.”
Seth G. Jones is director of the International Security and Defense Policy Center at the RAND Corp., and adjunct professor at Johns Hopkins University’s School for Advanced International Studies. His most recent book is “Hunting in the Shadows: The Pursuit of Al Qa’ida Since 9/11.”
Syria, Iraq a 'finishing School' for Foreign Fighters: U.N. Report
One growing malady owes its very existence to modern medicine, but the cure for it may stretch back a millenium.
The antibiotic-resistant MRSA bacteria is a deadly and growing problem in many countries. So scientists at the University of Nottingham recently approached Christina Lee, a professor of English at the university who specializes in Anglo-Saxon texts, to see if an unconventional cure could be found. She's a founding member of a cross-disciplinary research network on "Disease, Disability and Medicine in Early Medieval Europe."
“The science people said, ‘In your period, people must have had infections?’" she remembers. "And I said, 'Yes, of course they did, and they died of them.' And they said ‘Well, did they have anything against them?’”
Lee remembered a potion in a 10th century book called Bald’s Leechbook, a rare medical text that contains remedies for a wide variety of ailment. The one she had in mind was intended to treat eye infections. “We all looked at it, and then we thought, 'OK, why not try this?'" Lee says, and set about translating the recipe
According to a press release from the university, that translation called for "two species of Allium [garlic and onion or leek], wine and oxgall [bile from a cow’s stomach.] It describes a very specific method of making the topical solution including the use of a brass vessel to brew it in, a straining to purify it and an instruction to leave the mixture for nine days before use.”
Scientists then painstakingly reconstructed the mixture, which has proved stunningly effective against MRSA in lab tests and on mice. In separate studies at both Nottingham and Texas Tech University, the researchers claim the mixture has killed up to 90 percent of the deadly bacteria that causes MRSA.
Dr. Kendra Rumbaugh, an associate professor at Texas Tech, called the results remarkable. “I’m a real skeptic," she says. "We have to test a lot of odd suggestions here. And this appears to be just as good or better than modern antibiotics.”
Many tests still need to be done, but the team is currently submitting its findings to scientific journals for publication.