New Canadian Media
Thursday, 20 July 2017 08:27

Suffer the Children of Islamic State

Commentary by: Phil Gurski in Ottawa

If there is one searing image of the fall of Communism in Eastern Europe it is that of the orphanages of Romania. The regime of President Nicolae Ceausescu outlawed both contraception and abortion.  As a consequence, thousands of women left babies that were either unwanted or those that they could not care for at state institutions.  These institutions were understaffed and underfunded. 

When the wall fell  (Ceausescu and his wife were executed on Christmas Day 1989) the world got a look at these orphanages and what it saw was beyond shocking.  Children were often tied to cribs, rocking back and forth in repetitive ways that spoke of a lack of human contact.  Food was insufficient and the care devoted to life’s most vulnerable was largely absent.  A global effort to help these kids ensued and while some undoubtedly ended up okay, thanks probably to the amazing resilience of the human body and mind, many did not and never recovered from their tragic start in life.

We are now faced with a similar situation in Iraq and Syria now that the parody of a state that called itself one – Islamic State – is sinking fast.  Thousands of ‘fighters’ have died at the hands of airstrikes, in battle and in the flames of suicide attacks.  Tens of thousands of civilians in cities like Mosul, taken by IS and ruled with an iron fist, have also died.  And then there are the children.

One of the most striking aspects of the social Frankenstein that was IS was their effort to create an actual self-sustaining society.Unlike other jihads (Somalia, Afghanistan, Bosnia, Chechnya…), IS went out of its way to create an image of a normal, functioning state.  Men were encouraged to leave their homes in the West and elsewhere to take up arms to ‘defend Islam’.  Women were encouraged to come and marry those men and help create future generations of IS ‘Islamic Utopia’.  Out of that arrangement came children, naturally, including young boys IS called the ‘lion cubs of the Caliphate’ (the men were the ‘lions’). 

Some of these children were urged (coerced?) to take part in truly heinous acts of violence such as executions and many more were present at public beheadings.  There was even one case of an Australian jihadi who posted a picture of his son, who appears to be between 8 - 10, holding a severed head.  Truly disturbing.

To me all of this is a no-brainer.  These children deserve our help.

Now that IS is all but defeated as a functioning group, what do we do with these children?  We know that war is hell in all cases and that children suffer disproportionately when exposed to death and brutality.  In some cases kids in Iraq were kidnapped by IS and either raped or forced to do terrible things. 

There is already one case of a Yazidi mom in Winnipeg who has learned that her 12-year old son is still alive: she wants him back with her.

To me all of this is a no-brainer. These children deserve our help. Professionals with seasoned experience in dealing with the trauma of war need to be found and persuaded to assist in this regard.  It won’t be easy: just as in the case of Romania, some children will be scarred for life.

We can both hate the barbarity that is IS and feel for the children that are its product. These young people are not at fault and we should do whatever we can to provide them with the best chances to achieve a normal life.  If anything positive can come out of the enormous tragedy that was Islamic State maybe this is it. 

Phil Gurski worked in the Canadian intelligence community for more than 30 years.  His latest book, The Lesser Jihads, will be published on September 15.

Published in Commentary
Thursday, 27 October 2016 16:11

Do Returning IS fighters Deserve an Amnesty?

Commentary by Phil Gurski in Ottawa

Historically, amnesties have been offered to former combatants in an attempt to stop the violence and allow a country the chance to rebuild itself. 

A really good example where an amnesty seemed to work would be in South Africa where it was part of that nation's Truth and Reconciliation Commission post-Apartheid.  On the other hand, amnesty for fighters was rejected in the recent Colombian referendum on ending the half century war with the FARC.

Amnesties can be hard to sell.  Conflicts where hundreds or thousands of people have been killed by insurgencies or guerrilla movements or terrorists can result in acrimony and long memories where populations are unwilling to let those responsible for the violence get off lightly.  This is what appears to have happened in the narrow defeat of the Colombian referendum.

A question that is being asked by some is whether we should consider offering an amnesty to returning foreign fighters with Islamic State.  One such proposal was published recently by David Wells (full disclosure: Wells is an acquaintance and, like me, a former intelligence analyst).  He wrote that by offering a "plea bargain" to those who are coming home disillusioned, security intelligence and law enforcement agencies could focus their limited resources on those who pose a real threat to their homelands upon return.

Brutality and inhumanity

Wells does offer a few cautionary statements about the difficulties of carrying out such an amnesty and I want to build on those (NB: more in my forthcoming book Western Foreign Fighters: the threat to homeland and international security).

To my mind, the single greatest obstacle to social acceptance of any form of amnesty for those who joined IS is the sheer brutality and inhumanity of the group's actions.  Whether we are talking about beheadings, immolations, throwing people off roofs, raping girls or selling women into slavery, the depravity so rampant among IS members puts them in a special level of hell. 

No one will want to see these animals get any break on the punishment they so richly deserve.

Compounding this problem is determining who did what in theatre. Aside from the really stupid ones who posted videos online boasting of their lust for violence and those even more stupid to return home – assuming they have not been Hellfired into oblivion (the best case scenario really) – we will probably not be able to determine who the worst actors are.

Gathering evidence

States will want to prosecute those guilty of war crimes, but unless we have posted videos as evidence, this will be very difficult.  Gathering such evidence in a conflict zone like Syria is unquestionably a challenge and it is not as if we can rely on Syrian authorities for help (besides, given recent cases of Syrian-Canadian "collaboration" in several alleged torture incidents, Syrian assistance would be politically impossible even if it were offered).

Furthermore, what do we do with the confessions/denials of some returnees? While it is probable that there are legitimate instances of those who are disgusted with what they saw and may not have actually contributed to the horror, how do we make that determination?  Whom do we believe?

In the end, the fact that these individuals have left Canada (or many other countries) to join IS (or other groups) is a criminal offence and it is in the interest of the state to pursue legal action where the evidence is available.  Each case will have to be judged on its merits and there may be ones where an amnesty – or the decision not to take to trial – can be considered.

"Forgiving" populations

We do have one instance of this already in Canada when the Crown chose not to charge three young women from the Toronto area after they unsuccessfully tried to travel to Syria to join IS (they were interdicted in Egypt thanks to excellent police work on this end).

We also have to bear in mind that some of these ex-combatants will still pose a threat to our societies. We have already seen attacks carried out by returnees and we will see more.  It is not unreasonable to predict that over the next five years or so our security intelligence and law enforcement agencies will be very busy trying to stop future attacks by returning terrorists.

I suppose that amnesties are feasible where there are at least some people on both sides of the conflict who can see the perspective and justification of violence from the other's point of view.  And, yet, it is impossible to imagine a scenario where anyone views the actions of IS this way. 

There are also significant differences in the nature of conflict where amnesties appear to have had a positive effect – say South Africa – versus ones where the "forgiving" population has not been beset by direct warfare in their own backyards.  If you are not from Syria or Iraq, you have not witnessed the daily carnage caused by IS and are thus less willing to take a chance to end it by offering amnesty.

I fear that anyone who proposes forgiving returning terrorists will have a very tough job ahead of them.  And, I am not sure that this is a good idea in the first place.

Phil Gurski worked for more than  three decades in Canadian intelligence, including 15 at Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), and is the author of the Threat from Within and the forthcoming Western Foreign Fighters (Rowan and Littlefield). He blogs at http://www.borealisthreatandrisk.com/blog/

Published in Commentary
Monday, 08 August 2016 11:45

‘We are Just as Safe as a Year Ago’

by Our National Correspondent

Recent terror attacks in Europe have unnerved Canadians and many wonder which nation or what out-of-the-way tourist spot may be the next venue for a suicide bomber. New Canadian Media asked two experts on the evolution of terrorism, Amarnath Amarasingham and Phil Gurski, to give us their latest threat perceptions.

This interview was conducted by e-mail. 

NCM: Do recent attacks in western Europe, including some involving refugees, and the anti-immigrant sentiment stoked by Brexit alter your views on the threat faced by Canada?

PHIL: The terrorist threat to Canada is not more significant now than it was a year ago (i.e. during the Paris attacks – see Ralph Goodale’s statement). The recent events in France and Germany do not have a direct bearing on what may happen in Canada: that is why the Canadian government does not tend to raise the level in the aftermath of overseas attacks. The level is set based on intelligence and relates directly to the threat to this country.

 

AMAR: Having said that, I do think many people are worried about copycat attacks, especially by individuals who are already inspired by the ISIS (Islamic State) or AQ (Al Qaeda) message. As we saw in Europe in July, several attacks happened almost back to back. This is often not a coincidence, but involves individuals who see other attacks and are inspired to launch their own. Or, more operationally speaking, see a law enforcement crack down around the corner and speed up their own plans.

 

NCM: As you know, Canada is at the forefront of resetting refugees caught in the Syrian quagmire. Do recent events give you pause?

PHIL: With respect to the refugee issue, my guess would be that the small number of attacks tied to refugees in Europe would not play into the threat to Canada. The situations in Europe and Canada are starkly different. Europe was faced with an onslaught of millions of refugees whom they were not able to screen: hence it was possible for those with ties to terrorist groups to mingle with legitimate refugees. Canada took in far fewer and these were carefully vetted by CSIS (Canadian Security Intelligence Service) and CBSA. (Canadian Border Services Agency). While it is possible that an extremist would be able to get through, it is less likely. Here is a link to my blogs on the refugee issue here and here. Canada has never had the same scale of anti-immigrant lunacy we are seeing in the wake of Brexit and I do not think we ever will – at least not in the near future.  Canadians are largely pro-immigration – we have been raised that way.

AMAR: Canadians are certainly pro-immigration, but I think it’s within bounds. As we saw with the last election, most Canadians (and polls confirm this) make a distinction between immigrants and refugees. They see the latter as somehow illegitimate, as people who milk the system, as people who are potentially dangerous and so on. And as we also saw with the last election, when attacks happen abroad, like the Paris attacks, where one of the attackers was rumored to have traveled on a fake passport through migrant networks, it does have an effect here. This happens even though it was one person, and, as Phil says, we are separated from these conflict zones by large bodies of water, which allows us to choose who we let in very carefully.

[Canadians] see [refugees] as somehow illegitimate, as people who milk the system, as people who are potentially dangerous and so on.

NCM: Phil has previously written about radicalization being an "idiosyncratic" process: there is perhaps no pre-determined pathway. Does that make the challenge of dealing with radicalization an impossible task?

PHIL: It is not “impossible” to deal with radicalisation to violence even if the process is idiosyncratic.  The inputs are unique to every person: the outputs (or the signs) are usually quite obvious to those who know what to look for (see my book The Threat from Within for a fuller discussion). I am no longer privy to the “chatter” about Canada.  

AMAR: I agree with most of that, but there’s a difference between whether groups “out there” hate us and whether we are making our citizens feel included and welcome. On the one hand, there is no real evidence that increased inclusion prevents radicalization to violence. In fact, I’ve interviewed fighters who still love the country they grew up in, never experienced racism, etc. They left to fight in Syria because they saw it as a religious obligation to defend fellow Muslims. 

NCM: What's the latest "chatter" about Canada? Are we in the crosshairs of the various terrorist groups or are we less so because of our humanitarian and empathetic response to the refugee crises? 

PHIL: I am no longer privy to the “chatter” about Canada.  In a weird way, Amar is closer to this now than I am. It must be said, however, that there never was much “chatter” about Canada when I was with CSIS or CSE (Communications Security Establishment).  We have never been a primary target of any Islamist terrorist group.  This is not to say we can down tools and lower our vigilance but we will never garner the same attention as the US, the UK, France or others.

AMAR: We are certainly on the radar. Canada often shows up in speeches by ISIS spokesman Adnani, and in some of the jihadist Twitter and Telegram platforms. The question is whether “chatter” constitutes a real threat and something we should put our resources into protecting against. A good example are these “kill lists” that often get published by pro-ISIS hacking groups online. These lists are published in fairly obscure, by mainstream standards, jihadi platforms and the only people who often know about them are people like me and Phil, who have nothing better to do than to watch this stuff. A recent kill list had thousands of names for example. So, yes, we should be vigilant, but we should also be careful not to over-react. 

NCM: Lastly, are we more safe or less safe as a result of the change in government in Ottawa last fall? The Liberals have made "inclusion" a big part of their narrative, including immigrant and refugee inclusion. Does that bode well to minimize the risk of terrorism and radicalization?

PHIL: If you look at the latest Dabiq (#16), you see a section (page 30) where IS tells us why it hates us.  Whether we have a Conservative or Liberal (or even NDP!) government is irrelevant.  Terrorist groups like IS have a laundry list of grievances against everyone and they don’t take the time to read about our more “inclusive” society and change their view.  We are, to put it simply, an enemy because of who and what we are and the likelihood that this will change is next to nil. Still, it must be stressed that we are relatively safe in Canada.

Whether we have a Conservative or Liberal (or even NDP!) government is irrelevant.

AMAR: Phil is right that for some of these groups, the bar for inclusion is quite high – like some of these “Sharia4Belgium” type groups who don’t feel “included” unless they are living under Sharia Law. It’s not a level of inclusion that people in the West are ever going to accept. On the other hand, I think we in Canada are indeed doing something right, even if we can’t really put our finger on what that might be. The challenge is to not screw it up. 

Phil Gurski worked for more than  three decades in Canadian intelligence, including 15 at Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), and is the author of the Threat from Within and the forthcoming Western Foreign Fighters (Rowan and Littlefield).

Amarnath Amarasingam is a Fellow at The George Washington University’s Program on Extremism and tweets at @AmarAmarasingam 

Published in Top Stories
Sunday, 15 November 2015 15:30

Paris Attacks: Requiem for the Nameless

by Hadani Ditmars in Vancouver, British Columbia

As friends in Paris, Beirut and Baghdad reach out to tell me they are safe after recent attacks by Islamic State (IS), a myriad of thoughts and images run through my mind. Huge obscenities and small graces alike.

I think of the billions of dollars that Dick Cheney and his cohorts made on the back of an illegal invasion and occupation that spawned its own counter-barbarism that unleashed itself on three nations this past week.

I think of the shy Iraqi altar boy with a sweet smile I photographed on Christmas Eve in Baghdad in 1998, three days after the Desert Fox bombing by (U.S.) President Bill Clinton.

I think of the massacre of Algerians by French police in 1961 – technically the worst in Paris since World War II. And of the romantic postcard vision of Paris vs. the reality that France is currently the fourth biggest arms exporter in the world with Saudi Arabia its biggest client.

Luxury of security

I think of my friends living in war zones and am reminded of the luxury of security here in Canada and the open-heartedness of those preparing for the arrival of refugees.

And I remember the time I spent living in Paris in the early 90’s. Then, in between writing about Algerian intellectuals fleeing FIS, metro bombings and the cinema of the banlieue, I earned my keep singing on weekends in le Marais – not far from one of the six attacks on Friday.

[I am] reminded of the luxury of security here in Canada and the open-heartedness of those preparing for the arrival of refugees.

Under the old archways of Place des Vosges, I would sing flamenco incantations – often accompanied by a Senegalese pal who chimed in African rhythms  (until he got deported back to Dakar). I would also play gypsy songs from war-torn Bosnia and of course — as a patriotic Canadian — the songs of Leonard Cohen.

I think of some now … music as a balm for my soul — and for all our broken hearts — the same songs I sang with friends in Beirut and in Baghdad and Sarajevo that helped stave off the darkness and somehow reach the emotional truth of our war-torn world. As a Palestinian singer from Sabreen once told me, “We have tried every kind of resistance … now all that is left is to sing.”

I remember songs like Stories of the Street “All these hunters who are shrieking now oh do they speak for us?”)

When Love Calls You By Your Name – “Between the newsreel and your tiny pain”

There is a War – “why don't you come on back to the war, let's all get even”

And of course the Partisan song Cohen sang of the French resistance – “through the graves the wind is blowing, through the graves the wind is blowing, freedom soon will come.”

Compassion for all

I also remember the (Chilean nueva cancion) Victor Jara songs I used to sing – especially right now - El Derecho de Vivir en Paz (the Right to Live in Peace)

These songs are full of struggle and despair but also of hope – from a time when the Vietnam War raged and atrocities ran rampant. They still lift the human spirit and speak to universal values.

I sing them now silently in remembrance of all this week’s victims, and wonder why this new barbarism can’t spawn once again — instead of more hate — a mass movement of peace, justice and solidarity.

I hope that – like the refugee crisis that has affected so many nations – this fresh new barbarism will be an opportunity for the human family to transcend petty tribalisms and unite in protest and calls for peace, dignity and compassion for all.

I sing them now silently in remembrance of all this week’s victims, and wonder why this new barbarism can’t spawn once again — instead of more hate — a mass movement of peace, justice and solidarity.

Each generation has its horrors and counter-responses. The recent Remembrance or Veterans Day – before it was co-opted for glorification of the military – was a day initiated to refuse war and violence.

Admittedly, compassion is often very selective and culturally determined and really is about who we identify with — mostly. It's quite an art to transcend that. But I hope by now, we are up to the challenge.

And so as the names of the dead in Paris are slowly, terribly revealed on 24-hour news channels around the world, I say a prayer for them, but also for the nameless in less televisual climes. Those who had the misfortune of being blown up on their way to work, taking their kids to school, shopping in the market, while going to church or praying in a mosque, in some remote corner of a Baghdad suburb, where journalists dare not dine.

I say a prayer for Beirutis, who have lived this so many times before; a prayer for innocent Palestinian families, burned to death by settlers with American passports; a prayer for all the Kenyans, killed in terrorist attacks, who also had names and hopes and families. A prayer for the Rohingyan widows and orphans and those murdered in the name of democracy. A prayer for Yemenis whose wedding parties are routinely bombed to no great alarm.

A prayer for all the Syrians who experience scenes like those in Paris every day and as they flee, are conflated with the very terror they run from. A prayer for us all who struggle to make this life one of meaning and dignity.

May we all sing a Requiem together as one human family, and pierce the darkness with our tears of light.


Hadani Ditmars is the author of Dancing in the No Fly Zone and is working on a new book about ancient sites in Iraq. She has been reporting from the Middle East for two decades and is also a singer and musician. 

This content was developed exclusively for New Canadian Media and can be re-published with appropriate attribution. For syndication rights, please write to publisher@newcanadianmedia.ca

Published in Commentary

In 2003, Canada opted out of the coalition that pummeled Iraq back into the Middle Ages. Now, Canada has joined the coalition to fight the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) that emerged out of the U.S.-led invasion.

In this three-part series, Firas Al-Atraqchi, a member of NCM's editorial board, frames the Iraq quagmire, traces the evolution of ISIL, and how the Islamic State has come to dominate large areas of Iraq and Syria. Before they elect a new government, Canadians need to weigh the pros and cons of taking the fight to ISIL. Here are the current party positions --
Conservatives: Committed to bombing ISIL positions from the air in Iraq and Syria and deployment of troops in a non-combat role. NDP: End bombing campaign and pull out all military personnel from Iraq and Syria; boost aid to help refugees affected by ISIL as well as investigate and prosecute war crimes. Liberals: End the bombing campaign but keep military trainers in Iraq; boost aid to help refugees and allow more into the country from Iraq and Syria. Greens: Ensure responses to terrorism are consistent with international law.
 
This is the third installment in a 3-part series. Read the first installment here, and the second installment here.

by Firas Al-Atraqchi in Cairo, Egypt

A man who set himself on fire in Tunisia sparked the spirit of revolution in Egypt, Bahrain, Libya and Syria.

By 2012, Syria was in the throes of a brutal and bloody civil war. Islamist forces backed by Saudi Arabia, Qatar, France and others were violently trying to overthrow the government of Bashar Al Assad.

 Eastern Syria fell into lawlessness and the Islamic State in Iraq took advantage of the already porous borders to push a constant stream of its Nineveh-based fighters into Syria.

There, they were able to enjoy the funds and materiel that a number of nations provided to various anti-Assad groups.

 ISI now again renamed itself as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (Sham) - ISIL or ISIS, an indication of what the group was intending to do. By including the Levant in the moniker, it was telling the world it would reach through Syria and into Lebanon.

This differed from previous Al-Qaeda strategy; here, ISIL was carving out the foundations of a state from which it could declare a caliphate, something Al-Qaeda never dreamed of doing.

Anarchy in Baghdad

Meanwhile, political implosions were increasing in Baghdad as yet another general election was to be held in April 2014.

In 2013, Sunni frustrations with the central government erupted in a continuing wave of violence that mimicked the sectarian tit-for-tat massacres in 2005 - 2007.

ISIL was well aware that greatest threat to the Islamic state did not come from the Shia-led government in Baghdad, from neighboring Iran or the U.S.-led Coalition, but from within.

Sunni forces such as the Baa'thists and other national entities represent the greatest threats to the Islamic State because they offer alternatives.

In that respect, the government in Baghdad has played a significant role in inadvertently helping ISIL strengthen its hold on northern and western Iraq.

Most Sunnis in Iraq do not agree with the Islamic State and if offered a choice would prefer an inclusive system of governance.

No amount of weapons deliveries or air raids against ISIL positions will resolve the current crisis in the country.

How does ISIL rule?

While it is important to understand how a system functions it is perhaps more important to understand why a system functions.

Why did the Islamic State come to dominate and hold its grip on such large areas of Iraq and Syria?

The ISIL leadership has fashioned a mechanism of governance that relies on four major principles: political opportunism, exploitation of the lack of viable alternatives, fear and propaganda of the spectacular.

Sunnis living in ISIL-controlled territory understand that only if they toe the line will they be able to survive. ISIL leaders have beheaded rapists and opportunists -- those who would extort money from families at checkpoints or during security raids.

Sunnis living in ISIL-controlled territory understand that only if they toe the line will they be able to survive.

They have beheaded members of their own forces who didn't follow orders who appeared to be an existential threat.

Their carefully filmed footage of horrific burnings and beheadings, coupled with the destruction of centuries-old heritage sites is part of an outreach campaign that is mean to prove they can do what they want, where they want and remain unchallenged.

Indeed, the world has been unable to lift a finger to prevent the destruction of historic temples and cities in Palmyra, Syria or Nineveh, Iraq.

A human exodus ... and tragedy

All of this recent history brings us to the dilemma facing Canadians today: their air force is bombing ISIL targets in Syria and Iraq, while thousands stream out of these multiple-front battlefields in search of asylum in western European nations.

Civilian populations living under ISIL's control have been subjected to barbaric punishments for breaking rules around some of the simplest pleasures – a ban on smoking and watching soccer games.

Entire societies from Iraq to Syria to Libya -- and any territory that is under ISIL control -- live in fear of flogging, torture, and decapitation. They also fear the bloodbath that is likely once a serious military push is made to liberate areas under ISIL control.

As a result, people have been fleeing with their families in hopes of finding sanctuary elsewhere.

It is no coincidence that the exodus of hundreds of thousands of civilians from their home countries across the Mediterranean to southern European shores peaks at the same time that ISIL is making an entrance on the global stage.

The more the Islamic State penetrates into Africa, Asia, and the Middle East, the larger the migration of desperate people risking life and limb to reach Germany, the United Kingdom or anywhere where they do not fear the persecution of extremist Islamist forces.

Not a coincidence

It is also no coincidence that these refugees are seeking shelter in the very countries that supported military intervention in Middle Eastern states.

The hundreds of thousands of refugees crossing the Mediterranean are an unfortunate and tragic lesson in the futility of military intervention.

If Europe, Canada, the United States and their allies are serious about helping refugees then they surely must find the will to implement a political, and not exclusively military solution, to the plague that is ISIL.

It is also no coincidence that these refugees are seeking shelter in the very countries that supported military intervention in Middle Eastern states.

In 2003, Canada opted out of the coalition that pummeled Iraq back into the Middle Ages. It looked before it leapt.

It was the U.S. invasion and subsequent ill-prepared post-war administration that created the perfect storm of conditions which paved the way for ISIL's rise. The US created a political nightmare in Iraq and is trying to deal with the aftershock through military means.

Now, Canada has joined the coalition which lacks the fortitude to demand political reforms (enfranchising the Sunnis in an inclusive process) and is unable to pressure Baghdad to provide an alternative to ISIL.

It leapt before it looked.

What do we do?

Ottawa needs to understand that the fight against ISIL and the mass migration of Arab refugees to Europe are interminably linked.

These refugees are aware that their homes, streets and villages have become battlegrounds where the coalition, including Canada, is waging war against ISIL.

They now not only fear ISIL but the kind of collateral civilian casualties that have all too often come with wars of liberation.

A new post-election government must carefully weigh this equation before again hastily committing military resources without a parallel political initiative.

This content was developed exclusively for New Canadian Media and can be re-published with appropriate attribution. For syndication rights, please write to publisher@newcanadianmedia.ca


Firas Al-Atraqchi is a Canadian journalist of Arab descent who has covered the Middle East since 1992. A former senior editor with Al Jazeera's English-language website, currently he teaches journalism at the American University of Cairo as an associate professor.
Published in Commentary

by Leah Bjornson in Vancouver

Over the last week, the Canadian public has awakened to the grim reality of the current refugee crisis springing from Syria after images emerged of a three-year-old boy whose body washed ashore in Turkey. Nevertheless, the public remains divided on how Canada should intervene — if at all.

Alan Kurdi and his family were attempting to flee the country, which has been devastated by fighters from the self-proclaimed Islamic State (IS) and a prolonged civil war seeking to oust President Bashar Al Assad, to seek sanctuary first in Europe and ultimately perhaps in Canada. The family paid smugglers to take them from Bodrum, Turkey to Greece, but drowned when the boat capsized en route.

Canada has been largely insulated from the humanitarian crisis occurring overseas, and it is a crisis indeed. Since IS forces began systematic killings in the region, more than half the population of Syria has been killed, displaced or has fled. This year alone, more than 350,000 migrants have sought refuge in Europe.

Deaths at sea

Kurdi and his family are among the estimated 2,500 people who have died attempting to make the journey to safety.

Given that a large majority of migrants have attempted to enter European countries rather than cross the Pacific to seek shelter in North America, the Canadian public has played more of a spectator role during the crisis. However, this attitude shifted in the last week as news of Kurdi’s Canadian connection surfaced, throwing Canada's refugee policy into the spotlight in the run-up to the fall’s federal election.

Since the body was discovered on September 2, social media sites have exploded with Canadians expressing their sympathies for Syrian families and their frustration at the country’s current refugee policies.

At a recent Stephen Harper event in Vancouver, Conservative staffers forcibly removed a local activist when they noticed that he was wearing a T-shirt reading "Aylan (sic) should be here." When Sean Devlin, who has been an outspoken member of the group Shit Harper Did, refused to leave, he was arrested for obstruction of justice.

This outcry has been matched with an outpouring of support from many Canadian citizens. Hilde Schlosar, executive director of Nanaimo’s Immigrant Welcome Centre, said the centre has seen a huge spike in the number of offers of assistance this week.

Even Toronto Mayor John Tory is making a personal commitment to help Syrian families in crisis. Tory has agreed to sponsor a Syrian family through the Toronto-based non-profit group Lifeline Syria. The group hopes to resettle 1,000 Syrian refugees as permanent immigrants in the Greater Toronto Area over the next two years.

Ontario Health Minister Eric Hoskins went even further on Friday when he called on the federal government to bring in 5,000 Syrian refugees by the end of the year.

Split along party lines

Despite these and other individual commitments of support, an Angus Reid report released on September 4 shows that Canadians are divided on how the country should respond to the current migrant crisis.

Overall, 70 per cent of Canadians polled say Canada has a role to play in the migrant crisis, but consensus on what the nature of that role should be is less clear. While 76 per cent said individuals and community groups should sponsor more refugees, only 54 per cent said the government itself should be responsible for taking in more refugees.

[O]nly 54 per cent said the government itself should be responsible for taking in more refugees

Canada has resettled 2,347 Syrian refugees in the past three years (despite initial intentions to resettle 11,300) largely as a result of private sponsorship. The Conservative government has plans to bring in an additional 10,000 over the next four years if re-elected.

Seventy-six per cent of respondents said Canada should send professionals, such as doctors or soldiers, overseas to help the migrants, and 23 per cent said Canada should take no action.

Respondents were particularly divided along partisan lines. Conservative voters were the least likely to support options for how Canada could help the migrants, with 37 per cent of Conservatives polled agreeing with the statement that many of the migrants seeking refuge are “bogus,” criminals or economic opportunists looking to jump the immigration queue for a better life.

Regardless of political preferences, the vast majority of Canadians do view the Syrian refugees as genuinely in need of help and agree that Canada should do its part to support them in their search for safety. Now, only the means of doing so are left to be determined.

This content was developed exclusively for New Canadian Media and can be re-published with appropriate attribution. For syndication rights, please write to publisher@newcanadianmedia.ca

Published in Top Stories
Wednesday, 02 September 2015 08:01

The Evolution of Evil - Part 2 in series

In 2003, Canada opted out of the coalition that pummeled Iraq back into the Middle Ages. Now, Canada has joined the coalition to fight the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) that emerged out of the U.S.-led invasion.

In this three-part series, Firas Al-Atraqchi, a member of NCM's editorial board, frames the Iraq quagmire, traces the evolution of ISIL, and how the Islamic State has come to dominate large areas of Iraq and Syria. Before they elect a new government, Canadians need to weigh the pros and cons of taking the fight to ISIL. Here are the current party positions --
Conservatives: Committed to bombing ISIL positions from the air in Iraq and Syria and deployment of troops in a non-combat role. NDP: End bombing campaign and pull out all military personnel from Iraq and Syria; boost aid to help refugees affected by ISIL as well as investigate and prosecute war crimes. Liberals: End the bombing campaign but keep military trainers in Iraq; boost aid to help refugees and allow more into the country from Iraq and Syria. Greens: Ensure responses to terrorism are consistent with international law.
 
This is the second installment in a 3-part series. Read the first installment here.
by Firas Al-Atraqchi (@Firas_Atraqchiin Cairo, Egypt
 
While it is important to acknowledge that Islamic extremism did not exist in Iraq prior to the 2003 U.S. invasion, it is also equally vital to consider that ISIL was not born overnight but has evolved over the course of two decades.
 
With the Iraqi army disbanded by the U.S. administrators in Baghdad in 2003 and the borders now porous, it was easy for Jordanian Abu Musab Al Zarqawi to cross into the war-ravaged country and begin to establish a nexus of sectarian and extremist militias.
 
Naming his group Al-Qaeda in Iraq in homage to Osama bin Laden and Ayman Al Zawahri in Afghanistan, Al Zarqawi launched a brutal campaign of beheadings and deadly attacks against the Shia community.
 
Before Twitter, Facebook and YouTube came to be, Al Zarqawi's people were already disseminating online videos of their executions.
 
Common lineage
 
Let's trace the lineage a bit further. Bin Laden himself had been inspired by the Arab and Afghan Mujahideen who had succeeded in driving out Soviet forces from Afghanistan in the 1990's.
 
The Mujahideen themselves had been inspired by the strategies and violent revolution called by Islamic Jihad and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt in the 1940's-1980's period. Zawahri was himself a former senior member of Islamic Jihad in Egypt in the late 1960's and 1970's.
 
Between 2003 and and his death at the hands of U.S. forces in 2006, Al-Zarqawi used the security vacuum and the political divisiveness that was forming between the Shia-led Iraqi government and the thousands of disgruntled Sunni generals and officers, politicians, and technocrats to recruit personnel.
 
His stated enemy was first and foremost the Shia community, whom he considered apostates. But he also targeted former senior cadres loyal to Saddam Hussein. The bottom line was that anyone who disagreed with Al-Qaeda in Iraq was put to the sword or assassinated.
 
Islamic militancy 2.0
 
He had also distanced himself from Al-Qaeda, which found his actions abhorrent. This is important to consider because Islamic militancy 2.0 now bears little resemblance to Al-Qaeda.
 
By the time he was killed in a U.S. air strike, he had laid the groundwork for the civil war which erupted between Shia and Sunni militias.
 
Tens of thousands were tortured and killed on both sides and Iraq looked like it was about to be torn apart at the seams.
 
In 2007, the U.S. Bush administration, which was still effectively running Iraq, decided to recruit Sunni tribal fighters (also including former Iraqi officers) to fight Al-Qaeda.
 
The Pentagon also dispatched additional American military units -- a redeployment referred to as the "surge" -- to assist these Sunni militias, known as Sahwa (awakening) brigades.
 
The strategy worked, somewhat. Al-Qaeda in Iraq was driven out of Anbar province, bordering Baghdad; the threat to the capital was removed.
 
Sowing discord
 
But this is where the first problem occurs. The media reported that Al-Qaeda was defeated. It wasn't. It merely moved to another predominantly Sunni province, Nineveh, and began to slowly plan a resurgence.
 
In the years to come, the U.S. withdrew its additional forces and began to negotiate with Baghdad the Status of Forces Agreement (SoFA) to bring the entire deployment home.
 
While this was happening, the Sunni Sahwa fighters were growing increasingly disillusioned with Prime Minister Maliki (who replaced Jaafary in 2006). He failed to deliver on his promises to integrate them into the Iraqi military and repeatedly balked at regularly paying them monthly wages -- a condition agreed to with the U.S. forces.
 
Instead, many of them were disarmed and arrested. They were now virtually defenceless against Al-Qaeda retaliatory attacks.
 
Simultaneously, significant political landmines, which threatened to further disenfranchise Sunnis from the political process, were coming to the fore.
 
Iraq was preparing for general elections in 2010, but the democratic process almost came unhinged as all of Iraq's different political factions squabbled over a new electoral law.
 
Sectarian politics
 
It didn't help either that hundreds of mostly Sunni candidates, many of whom were part of the Iraqiya bloc led by Shia secularist politician Iyad Allawi, were disqualified in a pre-poll purge.
 
Nevertheless, Iraqiya beat Maliki's State of Law party. The UN lauded the elections as fair and free; the election process -- bedeviled as it was -- was seen as the Middle East's most powerful statement of democratic institution building.
 
But this was not to last. Maliki challenged the results in a constitutional court by arguing a different definition of "bloc". Eventually, he -- not Allawi -- was tasked with forming a new government.
 
The squabbles resurfaced, violence began to surge, and more Iraqis were being killed in terrorist attacks.
 
It took nine months for a government to be formed, but by then Al-Qaeda in Iraq had started to spread its tentacles back into Anbar from Nineveh, and re-branded itself as the Islamic State in Iraq (ISI).
 
Then history delivered a boon to the Islamic State.

Firas Al-Atraqchi is a Canadian journalist of Arab descent who has covered the Middle East since 1992. A former senior editor with Al Jazeera's English-language website, currently he teaches journalism at the American University of Cairo as an associate professor.
 

This content was developed exclusively for New Canadian Media and can be re-published with appropriate attribution. For syndication rights, please write to publisher@newcanadianmedia.ca

Published in Commentary
by Firas Al-Atraqchi (@Firas_Atraqchiin Cairo, Egypt
 
In 2003, Canada opted out of the coalition that pummeled Iraq back into the Middle Ages. Now, Canada has joined the coalition to fight the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) that emerged out of the U.S.-led invasion.
In a three-part series, Firas Al-Atraqchi, a member of NCM's editorial board, frames the Iraq quagmire, traces the evolution of ISIL, and how the Islamic State has come to dominate large areas of Iraq and Syria. Before they elect a new government, Canadians need to weigh the pros and cons of taking the fight to ISIL. Here are the current party positions --
Conservatives: Committed to bombing ISIL positions from the air in Iraq and Syria and deployment of troops in a non-combat role. NDP: End bombing campaign and pull out all military personnel from Iraq and Syria; boost aid to help refugees affected by ISIL as well as investigate and prosecute war crimes. Liberals: End the bombing campaign but keep military trainers in Iraq; boost aid to help refugees and allow more into the country from Iraq and Syria. Greens: Ensure responses to terrorism are consistent with international law.
 
 
Canada's active role in the U.S.-led aerial bombardment campaign against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) continues to be an important election issue.
 
ISIL is an immediate threat to Middle East security. It has grown and expanded into areas where political and security vacuums persist: Afghanistan, Egypt's Sinai, Libya, Syria, Yemen, and has even gained the allegiance of Boko Haram in Nigeria.
 
ISIL needs to be eradicated at its points of origin -- Iraq and Syria. But current U.S.-led strategies will inevitably fail because ISIL's expansion came about due to political, not military, incompetence.
 
ISIL's expansion came about due to political, not military, incompetence.
 
The debate in Ottawa shouldn't only center on whether or not Canadian forces should participate in Washington's campaign against the Islamic extremists who have blitzkrieged their way through large areas of Iraq and Syria.
 
It should also consider where ISIL came from, what it wants to achieve and how it can be defeated. What are the socio-political factors that helped spawn and sustain ISIL? And, what does Canada's contribution really mean in the long run?
 
No Plan B
 
Ottawa's current Middle East strategy fails to plan for the possibility that ISIL won't be defeated militarily.
 
Ottawa's approach also fails to account for the political impasse in Baghdad, which has played right into ISIL's hands.
 
In the U.S., the Iraq quagmire is also an important election issue but for entirely different reasons.
 
Campaigning for the Republican Party nomination, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush blamed U.S. President Barack Obama and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for ISIL's rise and Iraq's current crisis.
 
The media has been critical of his position on Iraq and a number of pundits appear to blame his brother, former U.S. President George Bush, for the debacle in the Middle East.
 
But Jeb Bush is not entirely wrong.
 
While his brother is to blame for creating the conditions that would eventually help foment ISIL, the Obama administration is also to blame for walking away from Iraq without correcting those blunders.
 
Under Paul Bremer, George Bush's administrator in Iraq, all Baa'thists were purged from government positions in 2003. The Iraqi army was disbanded, effectively releasing hundreds of thousands of disgruntled trained men (some retaining their arms) into the clutches of Shia and Sunni militia that were willing to pay for their services.
 
Bremer also played a pivotal role in building the foundations of an Iraqi government that was divided along sectarian, not nationalistic, lines.
 
Cosmetic changes
 
From crisis to crisis, any changes in Baghdad's political landscape were cosmetic.
 
When Iraq was on the verge of a civil war in 2006, Prime Minister Ibrahim Jaafary was removed and replaced with Nouri Al Maliki.
 
Shortly after ISIL overran Mosul in June 2014, Maliki was replaced with Haider Abadi.
 
The problem here is that all three men come from the same Da'awa party. Iraqi ministers appear to be rotated through different positions. Abadi himself was Communications Minister in 2004.
 
When Maliki was sacked as prime minister, he was given the office of one of the three vice-presidents. Jaafary was last year made foreign minister.
 
The same politicians that were blamed for much of Iraq's demise in the formative years since 2003 effectively remained in positions of influence. It was only after hundreds of thousands of Iraqis took to the streets two weeks ago that Abadi abolished the three vice-presidencies and removed Maliki who has since left for Iran.
 
From the sidelines
 
The Obama administration has pretty much remained on the sidelines as Iraq's political stability in Baghdad evaporated, and the various factions squabbled over office and influence. In 2008, Obama campaigned on a platform that the Iraq war was misguided and should have never happened. However, his administration kept the status quo in place and allowed the seeds of division to grow.
 
Iraq is in an economic, political, security and social mess. Aerial bombardment might resolve some problems, but given that the country is on the verge of collapse, the current approach could create an even bigger mess.
 
Iraq is in an economic, political, security and social mess. Aerial bombardment might resolve some problems, but given that the country is on the verge of collapse, the current approach could create an even bigger mess.
 
More than a million Iraqis have for the past week been protesting against government corruption and mismanagement.
 
In Baghdad, Basra and Najaf, they have demanded that the government be held accountable for lack of basic services (such as electricity), an end to religious rule, and better security.
 
Abadi has responded by cutting the number of ministries in government, and promised a review of public expenditure. But the protests continue to grow.
 
In the meantime, ISIL continues to hold large swathes of territory in Iraq (and Syria) and has changed tactics to target Baghdad's military leadership. On Wednesday, four ISIL fighters captured U.S. Humvees, detonated their body-strapped explosives and killed two senior generals responsible for Baghdad's counter-offensive in Anbar province.
 
The manner by which ISIL has evolved reveals that the group's prime goal is not only to survive by adapting and mutating in the face of opposing firepower, but also to fully manipulate the divisiveness and weakness in its enemies.
 
Firas Al-Atraqchi is a Canadian journalist of Arab descent who has covered the Middle East since 1992. A former senior editor with Al Jazeera's English-language website, he currently teaches journalism at the American University of Cairo as an associate professor.
Published in Commentary

by Hadani Ditmars (@HadaniDitmars) in Vancouver, British Columbia

It’s a long way from Lebanon to Vancouver.

I contemplate this as I wait to meet the Lebanese foreign minister, Gebran Bassil, here on a flying visit to Canada to meet with the country’s substantial diaspora.

The weeklong trip that has seen Bassil and an entourage from the foreign ministry visit Halifax, Montreal, and Edmonton, includes a meeting with the Canadian foreign affairs minister to discuss the Syrian refugee crisis and Islamic State.

But connecting with the Lebanese-Canadian community is also a key part of the visit.

The first high-level Lebanese government delegation to visit Vancouver in more than 50 years has caused much community excitement.

Visits have been arranged to the statue of Khalil Gibran, a famous Lebanese poet, and a memorial to Lebanese immigrants installed next to a giant cedar at Queen Elizabeth Park. A chartered yacht to Indian Arm, an island near Deep Cove, has also been organized for him.

Unfortunately, in all the excitement, the organizer has forgotten to give me the details of the cruise departure and sent me an incorrect contact number.

In vain, I call some old friends of my grandmother’s, whose parents emigrated to Canada over a century ago from Lebanon’s Bekkah Valley, old-timers who used to be regulars at the annual ‘Lebanese picnic’ in Vancouver’s Maple Grove park. Here, the language was lost, but not the kibbee and the dancing of dubke – the folkloric circle dance.

But my grandmother’s friends are not on close terms with the relative newcomers. They are from the first wave of emigrants – mainly Christians fleeing war, famine and the Ottomans before World War I. Now, new crises claw at tiny, beautiful Lebanon.

By the time I track down the organizer’s actual number, he is just about to sail off with Bassil and the assorted entourage.

“The sea is not a barrier to terror,” Bassil has remarked in recent media interviews. I remember this now as I think of all the crises Lebanon has weathered, long before there even was a Lebanon.

I grab a taxi to Coal Harbour, a former First Nations village turned upscale condo neighbourhood, so I can be there when they arrive back.

Still in a slightly surreal jet lagged stupor from a London flight, I stand at the dock and think of the harbour where my ancestors waited at night – in Port Said, Egypt – over a century ago. The women and children were already on board a freighter, while the men came out in the wee hours on a rowboat to evade Turkish authorities.

A gunboat spotted them as they were climbing up a rope ladder and fired. Only the top two men made it on board.

“The sea is not a barrier to terror,” Bassil has remarked in recent media interviews. I remember this now as I think of all the crises Lebanon has weathered, long before there even was a Lebanon.

Early Days in Canada

My great grandfather Najib Mussallem’s passport was stamped “Asiatic” when he and his family arrived in Canada in 1908 (pictured to the right), via a long sea route from Port Said to Marseille (where they waited during a long three-month shipping strike and visited Lourdes) through Ellis Island, before travelling to Vancouver’s “Chinatown”, finally settling in a place called Prince Rupert – about as far away from the Bekkah Valley as one could imagine.

The tiny port town near the Queen Charlotte Islands was supposed to become the port of call for the Grand Trunk Railway, and transport silk from China to garment factories in Montreal. But when the English Jewish financier, Charles Hayes, died on the Titanic (along with many Lebanese immigrants fleeing the chaos of their homeland) Prince Rupert was bypassed, left to dream of future greatness.

My grandmother’s brother was adopted by Haida chief William Matthews – in an outlawed clandestine ceremony in the back of the store. When I went there to meet elders in 1997, the chief’s granddaughter told me that I was part of the ‘eagle clan’.

It was home to Scottish immigrants, Haida, Tsimshian, Nisga’a and one lone Arab family who opened a store. Lacking the same cultural baggage as other immigrants, they were the only merchants that did not have First Nations people followed by a store detective.

They kept the Nass Valley alive by extending credit for groceries during the Depression, the late Nisga’a elder Rod Robinson told me. He related a childhood memory of shopping at the Mussallem family store with his father.

Having just watched a silent movie the night before about the British army fighting ‘evil Arabs’, he burst into tears when he first saw my great grandfather – who resembled the cinematic villain. But he was soon consoled by the ice cream and gentle smiles he was offered.

My grandmother’s brother was adopted by Haida chief William Matthews – in an outlawed clandestine ceremony in the back of the store. When I went there to meet elders in 1997, the chief’s granddaughter told me that I was part of the ‘eagle clan’.

Second-Class Citizens? Never.

Now, in tony Coal Harbour, an eagle flies overhead just as the yacht bearing the foreign minister arrives.

There is no time for an interview, as they must be off to the airport, I am told. I manage a quick question about the second-class citizenship law Bill C24, which Bassil seems unaware of. “The Lebanese will never be second-class citizens,” he vows, citing their entrepreneurial spirit.

“Lebanon, with its 18 different [officially recognized] sects, could be a model of diversity for the world.” - Gebran Bassil's adviser

Later, his adviser tells me that, “Lebanon, with its 18 different [officially recognized] sects, could be a model of diversity for the world.” Canadian dreams have promised similar things, of course. But cultural harmony is a fragile creature, and Lebanon is also a reminder of how quickly things can turn the other way.

But the young adviser speaks of a new plan for “homeland hubs” – a way of uniting the diverse Lebanese diasporas – from Denmark to Dakar. 

Soon after arriving at the airport, disguised as a Musqueam theme park, everyone gathers to say goodbye and take photos – a great Lebanese tradition in itself.

I embrace strangers with whom I share a bloodline, and say a prayer for the land of my ancestors and the one they fled to. I think of second-class citizens and boats and terror and grandparents’ stories as I say masalameh – and for a moment, I have a vision of a grove of cedar trees, and an eagle flying over them.


Hadani Ditmars is the author of Dancing in the No-Fly Zone: a Woman's Journey Through Iraq, a past editor at New Internationalist, and has been reporting from the Middle East for two decades. She spent nine months in Lebanon in 1992/93 doing an Ontario Arts Council funded interactive theatre/video project with children of war in Beirut, and visited her ancestral village, Karoun.

 

This content was developed exclusively for New Canadian Media and can be re-published with appropriate attribution. For syndication rights, please write to publisher@newcanadianmedia.ca

 

 

Published in Commentary

Washington: A U.S. man arrested on terrorism charges revealed that he had plotted to shoot President Barack Obama and bomb the Capitol to retaliate against the U.S. airstrikes against militant group Islamic State (IS), a U.S. TV station reported Friday. The FOX 19 WXIX-TV in Cincinnati, Ohio, aired Friday night part of its phone interview […]

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