Tag Archives: ISIS

The U.S. and Syria: After ISIS

It was recently announced that, for the second time in the last twelve months, that significant numbers of U.S. Marines have been deployed in the fight against the Islamic State. The first time was in March of 2016, when around 100 Marines were deployed to an artillery position in northern Iraq to support U.S. backed Iraqi forces in their assault on the city of Mosul, resulting in the first U.S. combat death in Iraq since 2011. This month we have word of a second, apparently much larger, deployment of U.S. Marines to Syria. They include members of the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unity (MEU) who have established an artillery base to provide support for U.S. backed local forces that have recently intensified their focus on Raqqa, the Islamic State’s capital city.

The Marines are not the only U.S. forces operating in Syria, as they are part of an estimated 400 additional U.S. troops being sent to the country to prepare for the fight to take Raqqa, which could represent one of the most significant and bloody battles of the war to date. Continue reading

A Few Thoughts on Trump’s Executive Order on Immigration

As anyone paying attention will know, the election of Donald J. Trump to the U.S. Presidency has roused the political left to an extraordinary degree. The most recent hot-button issue, at least until Trump announces his pick for the Supreme Court this evening, has been his executive order to ban travelers to the United States from Syria and pause (for 120 days) travelers from six other majority Muslim countries, including Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Iran, Sudan, and Yemen. The order seems to target travelers from those countries seen as most problematic from the perspective of the U.S. government (e.g. civil wars, high levels of terrorism or Islamic extremism, Iran’s quarrels with the U.S., etc…).

Regardless of what partisans say on either side of the political isle, it’s a complex issue that needs serious consideration. Indeed, many are still debating the meaning and extent of the order.

I only have a few thoughts that I would like to lay out here, and realize this is by no means exhaustive analysis as far more has been written about the topic by others. Continue reading

ISIS and the Nation of Islam?

Above Image: A crowd of Black Muslims applaud during Elijah Muhammad’s annual Saviors’ Day message in Chicago in 1974.


In respond to my recently posting a story on Facebook about an ISIS supporter in Phoenix (apparently an African-American male who had converted to Islam) who was searching for a midnight mass he could attack over Christmas, a friend asked me the following question.

“Is there a concern that black Americans, who feel marginalized in society, will be a segment of the population ISIS may try to manipulate and recruit? The Nation of Islam is still very active in the US, estimates of around 20,000 or more followers. And while I can distinguish between the Nation and ISIS, I am concerned that in our current political and social climate more African American males will be led to believe they are not valued in Western society. We have the case you have posted here, I think there was a potential plot in Miami a few months ago. I just worry if we do not address the appeal of ISIS to a disenfranchised group of vulnerable Americans, we may see more and more cases of this.”

There are many issues to consider here and I admit plainly that I am no expert on the Nation of Islam, how it indoctrinates its adherents, and the impact of black militancy or black nationalism ideology in the production of terrorists. As a result, let me address some of these points in more general terms and then tentatively theorize a bit about the details.

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Africa, Islamic Terrorism, and the West: An Interview with Evans Gumbe

While focusing on terrorism and the rise of the “Islamic State” over the last 18 months, I have spent a lot of time talking with a variety of interesting people with unique perspectives on the issue, including academic, military, and law enforcement experts. Yet one of the more interesting people I have come across is Evans Gumbe, who is particularly noteworthy for his life experiences.

Evans is a budding scholar, fluent in English, German, Luo, Abagusii, and Kiswahili. He also has a basic knowledge of Spanish and French and his goal is to become a history professor. To this end, he has completed a M.A. in history from Egerton University in Kenya (2011) and then completed a second master’s degree in Leadership and Management (2014) at York St John University in England, where he also worked as a Researcher and teaching assistant. His research to this point focuses on ethnicity and sex and its role in the peace making process in Kenya. His most recent publication, reflecting these interests, is “The Role of Women in Inter ethnic Peace Building in South Nyanza, Kenya, 1850-2008,” in The International Journal of Humanities and Social Studies (2015). While at York, Evans met his German wife Johanna and in 2015 they moved to her home country where he is now enrolled as a Ph.D. student in history at Bielefeld University, Germany. By all appearances he will have a great career as an academic, but it is what he has lived through up to this point that provides his greatest insights. Continue reading

A Troubling Analysis of the Recent Pew Poll on ISIS

ISIS is the largest terrorist organization in history, at one point seemingly controlling a land mass larger than Britain and ruling over a population of millions in parts of Syria and Iraq. Since ISIS first emerged on the international scene, with their invasion of Iraq last summer, their influence has only grown as they now have supporters and affiliates in several countries (e.g. Libya, Afghanistan, Nigeria, Egypt, etc…) who have declared their allegiance to ISIS’ self-proclaimed “caliphate” and wage war and commit acts of terror on their behalf.


Image: Map showing ISIS declared provinces from recent NYT article on the growth of ISIS.

As an organization, they regularly commit extraordinary acts of violence. Recently, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum found in a report that ISIS committed an act of genocide against the Yazidi people. Others have highlighted efforts by ISIS that have contributed to the extinction of Christianity in the Middle East. They have also, more than any other group, slaughtered enormous numbers of Muslims (primarily Shia) for not adhering to their particular view of Islamic orthodoxy. ISIS has also brought back institutionalized slavery at the quasi-state level, as they systematically enslave and rape captured female populations, with thousands of Yazidi women suffering this fate. By some estimates, as many as two to three thousand Yazidi women are still prisoners of ISIS. Add to all of this a long list of other abuses, including regularly throwing homosexuals off of rooftops as a form of execution, crucifixions of children, drowning of prisoners, burning prisoners alive, amputations, and of course beheadings, beheadings, beheadings, etc… all proudly recorded and posted online.



One might assume that such an organization would be universally condemned. Unfortunately, a recent Pew Poll shows otherwise. While the poll has been celebrated for showing how unpopular ISIS is in the Muslim world, and initially appears to show extraordinarily high “unfavorable” responses by participants when they were asked about ISIS, a closer look at the numbers really gives no reason for cheer and only feeds my pessimism. In a survey of ten Muslim majority countries, the Pew Poll reveals that ISIS has, in actuality, troublingly high numbers of support. Continue reading

Studying Medieval History and Fighting ISIS?

Republican presidential candidate Carly Fiorina recently announced that her study of medieval history as an undergraduate at Stanford University in the mid-1970s would aid her as a future commander-in-chief in the war against ISIS.


She reasoned that ISIS is essentially medieval, seeking to drag the people and societies it controls back to the Middle Ages before listing a number of atrocities carried out by the group including burning prisoners to death, crucifixions, and beheadings. Because she associated these actions exclusively with the Middle Ages, she argued her education in medieval history would serve her well in dealing with these problems.

Is she right?

Medieval historians, like myself, tend to cringe when they hear modern commentators refer to something particularly brutal as uniquely medieval, as if brutality defined the Middle Ages in contrast to an enlightened and more gentle modern world. The reality is that medieval barbarism, as bad as it could be at times, often pales in comparison to the horrors of the technologically advanced 20th century, which include over sixty million people killed in World War II, the first use of Atomic Weapons, tens of millions killed under communist regimes, and the Holocaust.

Yet, as recently pointed out in a much discussed piece by Graeme Wood for The Atlantic, to dismiss any connection between ISIS and medieval history would be wrong. The self-declared “Caliphate” created by ISIS claims its legitimacy, and authority, is demonstrated in its adherence to the earliest Islamic principles as reflected in the life and examples of the Prophet Muhammad and its strict adherence to the Qur’an. Muhammad’s time as a religious leader and the emergence of the Qur’an came during the seventh century, which is about as medieval as one can get.

The leaders of ISIS often point to medieval historical examples and religious texts to cite precedents that they argue justify their own extreme actions. In light of this, Fiorina is correct in the sense that a western leader well educated on early/medieval Islamic history could have a better understanding of how ISIS and their supporters interpret their actions, motivate their followers, and justify their actions.

The problem is that I have no idea how much knowledge of medieval history Fiorina picked up as an undergraduate at Stanford and has retained since then. I doubt that, as a busy CEO and businesswoman, she has had much time or interest in keeping up with medieval scholarship over the past few decades. Yet her broader point, that knowledge of the Middle Ages can be helpful for modern leaders facing some of our current challenges, is valid.

One well versed in medieval history is presumably more aware of historical understandings of the life and example of the prophet Muhammad (which still influences the actions of many Muslims today), the emergence and background of medieval religious texts like the Qur’an, the basis for the Sunni-Shia split (contributing to extensive conflict within the Muslim world even today), the historical treatment of non-Muslims in Muslim ruled lands (a pressing issue at the moment as we have recently seen step declines in Middle Eastern Christianity), the causes and consequences of the crusades (whose interpretation remains a hot button issue among many today), etc…

Fiorina’s suggestion that her study of medieval history is valuable for understanding events in the present has been mocked, but one could certainly do worse than to have a solid understanding of the medieval past as a base from which they consider some of the issues we face in our presumably “clash of civilizations” modern world.

*Updated on 10/8. ———————————–

*A 350 word version of this essay was published as a “Lead Letter” in the Florida Times Union on 10/9/2015. See http://jacksonville.com/opinion/letters-readers/2015-10-09/story/lead-letter-fiorina-has-point-suggesting-history-background


Below are some additional thoughts of mine on a Facebook post (10/7/2015) on a thread by Paul Halsall linking to a recent essay by David Perry for The Guardian (Available at: http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/oct/06/carly-fiorina-medieval-history-degree-fight-isis?CMP=share_btn_fb )

My comments follow:—————

I’m not entirely sure of one of David’s points. While I respect David as a thinker and writer, he seems to be hedging his bets in this piece a bit.

In one place, at least, he seems to be mocking Fiorina’s suggestion that a degree in medieval history is useful for a political leader dealing with modern problems involving the Islamic world. He writes:

“She really does seem to be claiming that her undergraduate degree [in medieval history] will enable her to make sound foreign policy decisions…”

But elsewhere he writes:

“the Middle Ages do in fact shape contemporary events all the time…”


“I believe that we need to study the past in order to respond to the present…”

Based on these last two comments David clearly see’s value in studying medieval history to “respond to the present.” So in that sense, at least, he agrees with Fiorina’s larger point, even if he does not like doing so.

Let me get into the weeds a little bit here. As you all know, ISIS bases its ideology on how it interprets medieval events and medieval texts. Particularly the life and example of the Prophet Muhammad in the seventh century (which they cite all the time to justify their actions- e.g. “Muhammad burned apostates according to the Hadith so it’s okay for ISIS to do it.”) and the Qur’an and other texts that emerged around this time. Understanding that, to some degree, is unquestionably a huge plus for any political leader. In fact, in an ideal world, I would wish all western generals and politicians who involve themselves in Middle Eastern affairs had a solid grounding in a number of medieval topics (e.g. the rise of Islam, the evolution of Islamic beliefs and texts, etc…). Even if ISIS is somehow interpreting those medieval events and texts incorrectly, then one needs an education in medieval history to know the difference and be able to argue the point.

Also, there are so many other ways an education in medieval history can help one better understand events in the present. One of the reasons I have been called on so much by local media to comments on ISIS and events in the Middle East is because such media often has very basic questions on topics like the origins of Shia-Sunni animosity, which is rooted in the Middle Ages, or questions about crusading rhetoric often used on both sides in modern clashes between Islamists and westerners, the historic treatment of non-Muslims under Muslim rule, or many other topics. Nobody else [or at least very few] at my college really has the background in those areas (e.g. early Islam, the crusades, etc…) that I as a medieval historian have. That became a base from which I have come to analyze events in the M.E. over the past 15 months or so, doing no less than 32 interviews with local media. So I certainly know from personal experience that having a background in medieval history can help one better understand (than many people without such an education) at least some of the complexities of current events in a way that engineering or accounting majors, for example, will not understand. I admit that knowledge of medieval history alone was not enough to provide coherent commentary on current events, but it was undoubtedly a solid base from which to engage in additional studies over the past 15 months.

So on this very basic point, that a background in medieval history is useful for a leader dealing with modern relations between the west and the Islamic world, Fiorina is obviously right.

Now, whether or not Fiorina actually remembers anything about the Middle Ages from her studies at Stanford back in the 70s, or her study of the Middle Ages involved any significant focus on Islam or related topics, is entirely another topic and fair game. I doubt as a business woman and CEO she bothered to keep up with recent medieval scholarship over the past 40 years since she graduated and I have no doubt that like a good politician she is touting her degree in the most opportunist of ways. But nevertheless I don’t like seeing some commentators (not referring to David here) dismiss the value of medieval history with regard to understanding current events. Diss Fiorina all you want and question her motives, but not the value of studying the medieval past for a greater grasp of events in the present. On that point she is right, even if she is only saying it to score political points rather than maintaining any real devotion to understanding the Middle Ages.

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The Iran Deal and ISIS?

Regardless of the debate over the broader merits of the plan, when I first heard about the controversial recent deal by the U.S. and other countries with Iran, lifting sanctions on Iran in exchange for a suspension of their nuclear efforts, I immediately thought of how ISIS (e.g. “Islamic State”) might factor into this.

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Soldier, Scholar, Politician: An Interview with Dr. Wayne Bowen

Although Dr. Wayne Bowen is an accomplished author, professor, and Chair of the Department of History at Southeast Missouri State University, he does not look or act like what one might expect from a history professor. He is physically fit, has close-cropped hair, and carries himself with an obvious military bearing, all of which is undoubtedly a product of his many years as an officer in the U.S. Army Reserve. Indeed, Wayne is a veteran of deployments to both Bosnia and Iraq, and has risen to the rank of Lt. Col. Perhaps equally as interesting, he has also recently embarked on a successful career as an elected politician, currently serving as a city councilman in his hometown of Cape Girardeau, Mo. Moreover, he has done so unapologetically as a Republican, which is a rarity among academics in the humanities.


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President Obama, ISIS, and the Crusades

Since President Obama’s controversial speech at the National Prayer Breakfast on Feb 5th, during which he compared the medieval crusades (as a form of religious extremism) with the religious extremism of modern terrorist groups like the ISIS, crusades historians have been busy writing a number of pieces that address the issue. Medieval historian Dan Franke has given a comprehensive overview (with links) of the various debates that have taken place. I’d suggest that those unfamiliar with these arguments and discussions start by reading his overview provided here.

Although a bit late to the party, I have also offered my two-cents on the issue in an guest column published by the Florida Times-Union. See Guest Column: Crusades were a Reaction to Islamic Militarism– Florida Times-Union.

A selection from that column is provided below.


“Significantly, it was in large part because of a period of heightened threat to Christians in the East during the late 11th Century that the First Crusade was called, as Muslim armies had recently conquered much of once Christian Anatolia.

For more than 20 years, Byzantine emperors had been requesting (and sometimes pleading for) military aid from Western Christians until they finally received it in the form of the First Crusade as called by Pope Urban II in 1095.

As retired Cambridge University historian Jonathan Riley-Smith once noted, “The denigrators of the crusades stress their brutality and savagery, which cannot be denied; but they offer no explanation other than the stupidity, barbarism and intolerance of the crusaders, on whom it has become conventional to lay most blame. Yet the original justification for crusading was Muslim aggression…”

This brings us back to Obama’s comments. I found them problematic for reasons cited by Riley-Smith.

The president told critics of modern Islamic violence to get off their “high horse” by citing the crusades as an example of similar Christian violence. Paradoxically the crusades were largely the product of medieval Islamic violence.”


Edit: Dan Franke continues to keep us updated on the current debate taking place online and in print. Here he links to the most recent articles, including my own, and even an online discussion I had the other night with two medieval historians, David Perry and Paul Halsall, about some of these issues. See Dan’s addendum here and my exchange (on David Perry’s website) with David and Paul here.

Will the Real Extremists Stand Up Please?

Recently an article in the U.K. Independent came out with the headline “Al-Qaeda video shows public execution of woman accused of adultery – and has disgusted even Isis supporters.”

Previously, it was widely reported that one of the reasons ISIS developed independently from Al-Qaeda was that even Al-Qaeda saw their methods as too extreme– causing division.

Now ISIS is taking shots at Al Qaeda suggesting their methods are too extreme (in this case over something that is relatively minor compared to what ISIS has done).

Add to this the recent condemnation of the Pakistan version of the Taliban’s killing of 130 plus school children as too extreme by the Afghan version of the Taliban and it begins to get a bit ridiculous. Who knows what they all think of their fellow jihadists Boko Haram in Nigeria. They probably nit-pick about their mass killings and public executions as well.

Will the real extremists stand up please?

The fact is that they are all extreme, ruthless, and brutal in their methods of course, but perhaps this is a way to try to win points with potential jihadists looking to join an organization that provides the right fit for their extremism since they now have so many choices? With over 18,000 foreign fighters from all over the world drawn to ISIS’s wars in Iraq and Syria and who knows how many foreign recruits drawn to various Ai-Qaeda or Taliban manifestations around the Middle East and Africa, not to mention the apparent appeal of Boko Haram in Nigeria, recruiting must be very competitive in the jihadist world at the moment. This would all be great material for a Monty Python style sketch if the reality was not so serious.