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The al-Qaeda Menace: A Tale of Two Headlines

3:58 pm in Uncategorized by JP Sottile

What exactly is al-Qaeda?

What exactly is al-Qaeda?

Is it a group of committed jihadists previously led by Osama bin Laden? Or is it a “brand?”

Is the enemy just the so-called “core” al-Qaeda, or is it now an amorphous conglomerate of affiliates, franchisees and enthusiasts?

If “core al-Qaeda” is, as Director of National Intelligence James Clapper just said in his most recent congressional testimony, those “remnants” of the original ideological core still in Pakistan and Afghanistan, by what criteria are other groups not self-identifying as “al-Qaeda” then deemed as “designated al-Qaeda”

Considering the President’s State of the Union anti-terrorist to-do list of Yemen, Somalia, Iraq and Mali, is al-Qaeda really “on the path to defeat?” Is it “resurgent?” Or is the to-do list just a broad wish list of militants and insurgents not really associated with “core” al-Qaeda?

And now that Osama bin Laden is long-since dead, is Ayman al-Zawahri truly running a massive network of evildoers? Or is he, as CNN’s Peter Bergen wrote in 2012, “a black hole of charisma” who will never fill the void left behind by Osama bin Laden?

Questions are manifold. Answers are, as ever, scarce.

The confusion about al-Qaeda’s role in Syria and Iraq—supposed fronts in the nearly thirteen year war on those responsible for 9/11—illustrates the extent to which an ill-defined al-Qaeda is the crucial element sustaining the War On Terror.

It has been both officially asserted and widely accepted that al-Qaeda is actively fighting to take control of both Syria and Iraq. Both print and television news media used alarming headlines to emphasize the persistent specter of al-Qaeda in Syria and to bemoan its takeover of two Iraqi cities—Fallujah and Ramadi.

But then came a poser. Zawahri seems to have distanced himself and his “core” version of al-Qaeda from the proceedings in Syria. The way two major news agencies handled the story tells as much about the problem of defining al-Qaeda as it does about al-Qaeda itself.

Here’s how the Associated Press headlined the story: “Al-Qaida breaks with Syria group in mounting feud.”

However, that was not the first version to appear on AP’s website. The original headline from AP was: “Al-Qaida breaks ties with group in Syria.” And that was the headline run by Yahoo! News, US News & World Report, the San Francisco Chronicle and a variety of outlets that use AP’s wire service. FOX News altered AP’s headline a bit: “Al Qaeda announces it’s breaking ties with militant group fighting in Syria,” and the Times of Israel followed suit by also adding a qualifier: “Al-Qaeda breaks ties with rebel group in Syria.”

On the other hand, The Guardian took the story from Reuters and, therefore, a completely different tack: “Al-Qaida denies links to ISIL in Syria.”

This isn’t a simple difference in style. In this second headline, al-Qaeda “denies” a connection to the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL)—a group consistently identified as “al-Qaeda” by the U.S. news media. Other European outlets used both “denies” and “ISIL” in their versions, and Haaretz used the Reuters wire story and an even more precise headline: “Al-Qaida denies link to Syrian militant group ISIL.”

“Syrian militant group” is a far cry from al-Qaeda, which is how the ISIL is consistently referred to by the US government, members of Congress and much of the U.S. media. Make no mistake, it matters how these groups are characterized. Although decision-makers like to raise the all-inclusive threat posed by “The Terrorists,” there is a black and white distinction at the very center of who’s who in the wide world of terrorism.

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For America, Denial Is a River in Iraq

5:55 pm in Uncategorized by JP Sottile

Americans don’t know much about geography.

Iraq map

We can barely find Iraq on a map, much less “fix” it with our troops and drones.

In 2006, three years into the bloody War on Iraq, 63% of Americans aged 18-24 couldn’t find the “target-rich” nation on a map. To be fair, only half could find New York State on a map, so it is unsurprising that, in spite of its then-dominance of the news cycle, they couldn’t locate the principal fixation of American foreign policy on a map that still brims with U.S. military bases and deployments.

It’s been nearly eight years since that geography test and just over two years since President Obama declared an all-too-Pyrrhic victory as some of the last remaining troops returned home. In March of 2012, just a few months after Obama opined about Americans leaving with “their heads held high,” the President’s current Deputy National Security Adviser, Antony J. Blinken, proclaimed at the Center for American Progress that “Iraq today is less violent, more democratic and more prosperous” than “at any time in recent history.”

Armed with this rosy view of “recent” history, Blinken doubled-down on Iraq’s bright future in July of 2012 when he wrote with a sunny, Reaganesque optimism that it was “Morning in Mesopotamia!” And that was it. For all intents and purposes, Iraq disappeared from the map as soon as America walked away from the furies it had capriciously and illegally unleashed on the Iraqi people.

Like geography, America doesn’t do accountability.

But now Iraq is back in the headlines and, as with every day since the 2003 invasion, there is a great deal of mourning in Mesopotamia. And, as with every day since the snipe hunt for WMDs could no longer be justified, the story of Iraq remains cloaked in denial about America’s responsibilities to sovereign nation that was invaded under false pretenses, its government toppled, its infrastructure obliterated and its people killed in numbers that still haven’t been accurately tabulated.

The names are familiar—Fallujah, Ramadi and Anbar Province.  And so is the unwillingness of the political, military and foreign policy establishments to deal directly with the fact that serious crimes have been committed and nothing has been done to reconcile the U.S. with Iraq—no formal apology has been made, no decision-makers held to account nor any reparations paid to the Iraqi people.

This fundamental denial flows right through the middle of U.S. policy in the Middle East. Although the War on Iraq is widely and quite cavalierly regarded as a “strategic blunder” in the United States, the view around the world and in the region is quite different. After the Shock and Awe, world opinion shifted almost immediately against the United States. More importantly, the Pew Global Attitudes Research Project found in 2012—the same year as “Morning in Mesopotamia”—that the median favorability rating for the U.S. among key nations in the region was 21%. China came in at 45%. The survey didn’t include the nations most affected by the war—Iraq, Iran and Syria. And that median number reflects to some extent Israel’s 83% favorable view of the U.S. The next highest was Lebanon at 47%.

Back in the U.S., a reliably myopic and co-dependent media encourages denial among Americans. Since CNN “quietly” shuttered its Baghdad bureau last year, news from the steadily decaying country has been hard to come by, even as Iraq suffered a daily onslaught of bombings and attacks that made 2013 its deadliest year since 2007. Perhaps to its credit, CNN was the last TV news operation standing, but its departure completed a full retreat by the American news media that began, perhaps coincidentally, shortly after Obama won the White House.

After taking office, Obama dismissed the idea of accountability for the second Bush Administration or, by extension, for those within his own party who—like pre-emptive 2016 front-runner Hillary Clinton—aided and abetted its grand schemes in Congress. To wit, he quickly declared that he wanted his administration to “look forward, as opposed to looking backwards.”

“Don’t look back” is big hit with incoming administrations. It’s the careful karaoke and sanguine sidestep we get instead of truth and consequences. Bill Clinton sang the song as he entered the White House. His administration let a long-forgotten scandal called “Iraq-gate” just fade away and operatives in the first Bush Administration skated by without so much as a slapped wrist for the illegal arming of … wait for it … Saddam Hussein.

Funny how all roads lead to Iraq. Less funny is how often the scene of the crime involves the usual suspects.

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