SIS Experts Debate Response to Terrorism

My piece for the School of International Service

Facing the rise of the Islamic State group in the Middle East, Boko Haram in Nigeria, recent terrorist attacks in Paris, and extremist groups elsewhere, the United States and its allies are grappling with how to combat extremism and prevent and respond to terrorism. A panel discussion at the School of International Service on February 3 — U.S. and European Responses to Terrorism: Do We Have It Right? — addressed these challenges.

Moderated by Distinguished Journalist in Residence David Gregory, the former host of Meet the Press, the panel included Distinguished Practitioner in Residence Lt. Gen. David Barno (Ret.), who was senior commander of U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan from 2003–05, and Distinguished Scholar in Residence Nora Bensahel, a national security expert.

“This is a conflict that defies easy explanations,” said Barno, noting that the presence of terrorist groups such as ISIS and Boko Haram is threatening to destabilize the entire Middle East and North African region.

Bensahel noted that it is not a traditional military challenge alone. “These types of threats are a response to U.S. conventional supremacy, and since they do not take place on a force-on-force battlefield, even state adversaries are turning to irregular tactics like terrorism to achieve their goals.”

She noted that the Al Qaeda model of the past was a centrally-organized unit, which offered more options to counter it. Al Qaeda has since morphed into many different groups with different agendas, which makes a central strategy to combat it very difficult.

Both panelists concurred that the United States has a geographic advantage that allows it to mostly avoid terrorist attacks at home, and that the United States takes a “if we fight them there, we do not have to fight them here” approach to radical combatants.

Europe, on the other hand, is vulnerable to domestic terrorist attacks, given its proximity to North Africa and the Middle East and its continuing challenges to assimilate its Muslim communities. Europe “sees terrorism as a criminal activity — as such, it is a law enforcement problem,” said Bensahel. This non-military based response differentiates the fight against terrorism waged by Europe from that waged by the United States.

Gregory asked about the legacy of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the consequences for global terrorism. Barno noted that these wars were plagued by a number of issues. He pointed to a “lack of any continuity and zigzagging far too much” and suggested that the U.S. approach has lacked a proactive element. “We have to figure out how to get at the ideology of militant Islam. We have to limit their ability to recruit by removing their ideological legitimacy, attack their finances, and also address the humanitarian crisis they leave in their wake,” he said.

Bensahel and Barno both said that a containment strategy is more realistic than a “seek out and destroy” worldview. “Instead of talking about ‘defeat and destroy,’ a more realistic goal might be ‘degrade and contain geographically,’” said Barno. To that end, intelligence and law enforcement cooperation is crucial and there is also a greater need to understand dynamics on the ground — particularly difficult in Syria, which is wracked by a civil war.

At SIS, Barno and Bensahel are collaborating on a book on military adaptation and the future of U.S. warfare. Follow them and David Gregory on Twitter: @DWBarno76; @norabensahel; @davidgregory.

Watch a video of the event here: http://www.american.edu/sis/events/SIS-Forum-Terrorism-and-US-Strategy-in-the-Middle-East.cfm

Timbuktu Film Review

My review of the film Timbuktu

Abderrahmane Sissako’s Timbuktu is social commentary subtly woven into a beautifully-painted, lush-yet-measured allegory. At times harkening to an early Clint Eastwood western, this is a polemics-free look on film at life under conservative Islam.

Timbuktu, recently nominated in the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar category and the first film from Mauritania to earn that honor, takes place in Mali. Occupied by Islamic fundamentalists (they call themselves jihadists), the already-pious Muslim community living there is plunged into a new, rigid world order thoroughly unfamiliar to them.

The opening scene of machine guns destroying ancient African relics is  understated. The scene of a woman singing while she is being lashed for music-making (one of the many forbidden activities under the new regime) is equally so. Children playing soccer with a ghost ball (because soccer, too, is forbidden) is yet another haunting rendering of quiet resistance even in the face of the stripping of all that is sensory.

The protagonist in the film is cattle herder Kidane who lives peacefully in the dunes with his wife Satima, his daughter Toya, and Issan, their twelve-year-old shepherd. When one of Kidane’s cows is killed by Amadou, the fisherman, for its encroaching into his nets, Kidane is entangled in a life-or-death net of his own. Kidane’s character also shines a light on the lives of desert nomads like him—people increasingly buffeted by the crashing waves of whatever political tides reign in the region. All of his neighbors have left; living in the desert offers Kidane’s family a certain degree of freedom but also puts him in tremendous peril, under a rule determined to erase his culture, even though many of the Islamist recruits are his own people.

In town, the people suffer, powerless, under the regime imposed by the jihadists. Laughter, music, soccer, cigarettes, and not wearing gloves while in public for women, are just a few of the verboten things. Every day, the religious police patrol the city and pass violent sentences on anyone daring to break the laws. What is remarkable about Timbuktu is the way that the people respond to this draconian state: for example, a woman asked to wear gloves while selling fish simply explains to the militants that it is not practical for her to wear gloves while doing her work. There are no histrionics here, just quiet dignity as everyone seems to be equal parts confused and resigned to what has happened to this place they used to call home.

The absurdity of the ideology is made apparent without much fanfare. When a mother asks what justification there is for one of the jihadists marrying her daughter without the consent of her parents, the courts tell her that the man in question is, “pious and according to Sharia, if a man is pious, he should be given a bride.” One can’t help but see that even the enforcers of this state of terror seem to have no rhyme or reason for their behavior.

Timbuktu Timbuktu presents the jihadist occupation in a surprisingly subdued way, with little reliance on emotionality from any of its characters, yet it is not devoid of emotional pull. The scenes are carefully composed, with a desert blues cadence to them. The line between singing and howling/wailing in pain is blurry. Perhaps its greatest strength is how it renders the disruption of living under such turmoil seem so ordinary—something superimposed on the people there like a foreign cloak on the already pious fabric of their society.

A Disconnected Modem: My Accent and Your Privilege

This piece of mine first appeared on Stoner’s Journal:

“Where are you from?” “WHERE are you from!?”

Where am I from…two places, really, but I have a feeling I already know the one you want me to identify, so I will answer that way. You might wonder how such a simple question could be so incredibly loaded. Well, this isn’t really the question I am being asked, you see. Let me present you with several real scenarios I encounter all too often.

“Where are you FROM?” (Asked with an at-best-rather-thinly-veiled-expression-of-dismay-bordering-on-disgust)

“Bulgaria. But I have lived in the United States for the last 24 years.”

“Wow. Your accent is SO strong and heavy.”

“Where are you from?”

“Washington, DC.”

“No, but where are you REALLY from?”

“Bulgaria.”

Ok, let’s parse this out. My accent, without exaggeration, is nothing short of the proverbial scarlet letter. It forces me to engage in conversations often too probing and personal and sometimes, yes, confrontational for a gregarious enough Eastern European with a smile that presents itself rather easily.

“I can’t be languid about my linguistics; I don’t get to be detached from my discourse.

Look at the first scenario. My accent could be described as droll, charming, different, or interesting. Or, it could be a signal of A. a general stupidity and/or ineptitude, or B. an inability to adapt and make myself more socially acceptable and, therefore, palatable to your Western sensibilities. Let’s talk about A. The incongruity of this will not escape you: I teach GRE test prep at an university. My vocabulary, factually-speaking, is probably far wider than that of most “native” speakers. I have no issues comprehending or speaking English. Yet, as soon as I open my mouth, I am waging a tacit battle against so many assumptions: that I am somehow intellectually-deficient, that I am only here to visit for a short while and couldn’t possibly live here, that I just got here, and am soon to return “home.” At the very least, it forces me to engage–to make excuses, to explain, to expound, to prove, to dispel, to educate, to elucidate, to open hearts and minds…that’s a lot for a girl to do. Casual banter becomes…well, not quite so casual.

I can’t be languid about my linguistics; I don’t get to be detached from my discourse.

You might read this and imagine me to be some kind of an oversensitive, chip-on-the-shoulder ideologue. I am actually none of those things. Like you, I too would like to partake in idle chatter that doesn’t involve accounting for my immigration status.

Simple, really.

I sometimes wonder how the people who say, “But your accent is SO strong,” expect me to respond. I am not sure there is a retort to this. Is there? “Ehm, I am sorry, I guess…” I wonder if the people who ask me realize this.

This, of course, is about something much bigger than my accent.  I first came to U.S. when I was twelve. I would sit in class, unable to raise my hand or speak. The words were lodged into my throat…It felt like the only way they would come out was if you turned me upside down and shook them out of me. They probably would have landed like marbles on the floor, enunciating their landing one by one. I remember my utter dismay when, after the first test I took (in geography, funnily enough), the teacher announced “Only one person got a 100 on this test and she hasn’t even been here as long as all of you have.” Even more amusingly, I later won the award for the best student in U.S. history during high school.

I digress–what I’m really saying here is that my accent is merely the manifestation of something bigger. It’s both the cause and the reminder of my general alie-nation. “I’m cut off from the main line, like a disconnected modem.” You see, my own words are foreign to me. When I speak and hear the accent, I feel divorced from *me.* Because the words certainly don’t sound accented in my head. Mostly, I feel like I am talking to people through a plexiglass window. There is a disconnect. Sometimes literally. Occasionally, I have that one cruel student in my class who grumbles about my accent being heavy. But the chasm is much deeper. I am constantly made aware of it as soon as I begin speaking, laden with–and beset by–assumptions. The words coming out of my mouth are far less weighty than the speaker. I am front and center, not them.

I sometimes wish I would lose my accent–not because of some imagined social benefit I might extract from the white-washing of me but for the reprieve from being center stage all of the time. I am proud of who I am. I would never want to lose sight or contact with my heritage–there is nothing there to be ashamed of. But I am so much more than where I was born and where I live. Correction: Maybe better put is that I am so much less. I don’t really have a “geography of self;” I don’t really belong anywhere. Yet, this doesn’t bother me on an internal level. It only bugs me when it becomes the yard stick by which people measure me.

Maybe the worst part of all this is (well-intentioned, self pep talks notwithstanding) there is a point at which you begin to feel as if you have no right to speak. Fear and loathing in *insert location of your choice.* You do lose your voice. It took me so long to allow myself the moniker “writer.” I, too, believed I didn’t have a right to a voice. I had spent so long silencing myself, I forgot how to speak. I made my own words filled with gravitas/heavy with gravity.

I don’t really need to find myself–I am pretty clear on who I am. I wish I did not have to locate myself for others, but even that is generally all right. I hope that, maybe, next time you ask someone about her “heavy accent,” you first take a moment and think about the fact that an accent is not a voice.