Tag Archives: Islamic State

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

The Modern Muslim Memory of the Crusades

Above Image: Cover of issue 4 of the Islamic State’s glossy English language propaganda magazine. Many of its issues contain references to the crusades or explicit crusading rhetoric.


In 2015 I had the pleasure of co-editing (w/Alfred J. Andrea) the book Seven Myths of the Crusades (Hackett, 2015). It includes seven essays by prominent crusade historians dealing with various popular modern “myths” related to the medieval crusading movement. While recently preparing for an upcoming talk at Georgia Southern University, titled “The Modern Politics of Medieval Crusading,” I was carefully rereading the various chapters of Seven Myths, and thought it worthwhile to briefly highlight one of them here.

One of the historians who agreed to contribute to our project was the distinguished American medievalist Edward Peters, the former Henry Charles Lea Professor of History at the University of Pennsylvania (now Professor Emeritus). Over the course of his career, his work on medieval inquisitions has been highly influential and his translations of crusade texts have been used in college or university classrooms for nearly two decades. Consequently, when Ed agreed to contribute a chapter to Seven Myths, co-authored with his talented former doctoral student Mona Hammad (Associate Professor of Medieval History at the University of Jordan), Al and I were elated. The combination of the two authors was ideal in light of the topic they considered in their essay, titled “Islam and the Crusades: A Nine Hundred-Year-Long Grievance?”

The subject of their essay is a potentially controversial one, particularly as it argues that much of the Islamic world’s modern memory of the medieval crusades, a memory which frames the crusades as a largely unprovoked Christian attack on the Muslim world, serving as a constant source of division and mistrust today, was only developed in the 19th and 20th centuries during an age of western imperialism that influenced its construction.  Moreover, Ed and Mona’s essay emphasizes that it was essentially the modern imperialist west that taught the modern Muslim world to hate the crusades, as there had been relatively little concern about them expressed in texts by Muslim authors in the centuries prior.

Having a well known and highly respected medievalist like Ed, as well as Mona, who is fluent in Arabic and lives and works in Jordan, seemed like (and proved to be) an ideal pairing for the chapter. Anyone seriously interested in the topic should, of course, consult their work, but here I want to highlight only a few key parts of their otherwise much lengthier and more engaging essay. 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.

Continue reading

The Current Status of the Islamic State’s “Caliphate”

Map: Situation as of June 29th, 2016. The grey area represents the territories effectively under the control of the Islamic State (source).

A July 12th report in the Washington Post by Joby Warrick and Souad Mekhennet has caused a stir recently for suggesting that the Islamic State’s “caliphate” is on the ropes. Titled “Inside ISIS: Quietly Preparing for the Loss of the ‘Caliphate,” the story has received a lot of attention on cable news and has been widely (and in some cases, enthusiastically) shared online. Indeed, I have been asked to comment on the topic in an interview for a local television station on Saturday morning, but I assume the topics considered during the interview will now, unfortunately, expand to include discussion of the terrorist attack killing 84 people in Nice (and wounding over 200) that took place on July 14th. Yet here I want to focus on the claims of the Washington Post article and think through the issue a bit.  Continue reading

Few Warning Signs of Radicalization?

I just read the following NPR piece titled “Orlando Shooter Update: Few Warning Signs Point to Radicalization.”

This is stunning. “Few Warning Signs” of radicalization?

According to reports from his past coworkers and school-mates:

1. He was sent home in high school for celebrating the 9/11 attacks.
2. He grew up under the influence of a father that was a supporter of the Taliban.
3. In 2007 he became so unhinged at a party when a piece of pork touched his hamburger that he threatened to kill everyone.
4. In 2010 he declared his desire to become a martyr.
5. In 2013 he was investigated by the FBI for his extremist rhetoric.
6. In 2014 he was again investigated by the FBI for his ties to an extremist he knew from his mosque that had joined the Islamic State.

7. He got his kicks from watching Islamic State beheading videos and later telling his coworkers about them.

8. He declared his support for the Islamic State during the attacks, declaring it revenge for bombing “his country” (by this he meant Afghanistan) and said true Muslims would never accept “the filthy ways of the west” before shooting over 100 people at a gay bar, killing 49 of them.

[Update: In addition, in 2014 Mateen also became a devotee of the radical preacher Anwar al-Awlaki, whose lectures had inspired other radicals to commit acts of terrorism.]

In light of such a past, it hardly seems surprising that he declared his support and allegiance to the Islamic State as he carried out his slaughter. What surprises me is the effort to pretend all of this is not somehow related to his actions in Orlando. Other factors such as mental health, homophobia, etc… most likely played a part in this, but to deny also the radicalization aspect in this seems itself a form of denial. It is also a dangerous one, particularly if it means we refuse to factor in or downplay the threat of the global jihadist movement (led by the Islamic State) and its massive online propaganda machine (which has demonstrated its effectiveness in motivating others on many occasions). Indeed, Mateen, is precisely the type of person they hope to target with their efforts, even if they never have direct contact. Today the DOJ even released only partial transcripts of the killer’s conversations with the police during the massacre, scrubbing the killer’s extremist views and omitting his pledged allegiance to the Islamic State [Edit: See addendum].

What else did Mateen need to add to his resume to be considered as having shown “warning signs” of radicalization?

He seems to have checked every box.

He even called the police and posted on Facebook to make his motivations and intentions as clear as possible, after a long history of personal connections with extremism, yet we refuse to believe him.


Continue reading

Martial Arts in the Age of the War on Terror: An Interview with Master Daniel Gimenez

When I was a kid growing up in St. Augustine, I took karate lessons from the great Taekwondo Instructor Ken Durling. Even then, more than thirty years ago, the always kind and soft-spoken Mr. Durling was something of a local legend. I vaguely recall one day before class, sitting huddled with other elementary or middle school aged kids, one of the older kids telling us with great sincerity and enthusiasm of how Mr. Durling had once killed an opponent by punching through his chest, snatching his heart, and showing it to the man before he died. Needless to say, at a young age when I was more willing to entertain stories like that, I was likely a bit quicker in snapping to attention that day and promptly obeying all of Mr. Durling’s commands during class.

I have no idea where this particular myth originated. For all I know, the “showing your opponent his heart before he dies” myth probably began with Bruce Lee or Chuck Norris and then found its way to local heroes or legends like Mr. During, to be endlessly repeated by young students and fans who lionize their indestructible martial arts instructors. The myth itself might be silly, but not the respect that young students have for such instructors. Martial arts instructors are often extraordinarily important role models for kids, who look to them for guidance not only in dealing with a bully, or any sort of dangerous situation, but also more generally in terms of character and discipline.

It was for this reason that almost two years ago I decided to stop in the Karate America martial arts school located off of Solana Road in Ponte Vedra, Florida. Continue reading

Al-Azhar and the Islamic State

Al-Azhar University is considered Sunni Islam’s oldest and most distinguished institution of learning. The University was founded c. 1171 in Cairo when the Ayyubids under Salah al-Din overthrew the Shia Fatimid Empire in Egypt. The new Sunni rulers insisted that the instruction of Sunni jurisprudence should replace any Shia instruction and the new university would be centered around the Al-Azhar mosque (originally constructed c. 970-972). It was at this point, with the founding of the university c. 1171, that Al-Azhar (and Cairo) began to establish itself as one of the most authoritative Islamic institutions of the past nine-hundred years, remaining so today. Thus, the views of the scholars of Al-Azhar matter to many modern Muslims, particularly in the absence of a modern generally recognized caliphate, who often look to Al-Azhar for guidance on modern controversies. Consequently, I have found Al-Azhar’s commentary on issues related to the rise of the Islamic State (and related issues) troubling. Continue reading

The West, the Muslim World, and Slavery

With the recent institutionalization of slavery in the so-called Islamic State, as well as the troubling and much publicized acknowledgement of the legitimacy of slavery by some modern Islamic scholars (see examples here, here, and here), the issue of slavery in the Muslim world has been on my radar recently.


Consequently, some comments by the former Princeton scholar Bernard Lewis on this issue recently caught my attention. In his book Race and Slavery in the Middle East (Oxford University Press, 1990), Lewis wrote: Continue reading

Teaching Marines

I recently had one of the more rewarding teaching experiences of my career when I had the opportunity to present two lectures on the background of the so-called “Islamic State” to U.S. Marines from Company B, 4th Assault Amphibian Battalion. These were not just any Marines, mind you, but Marines from the reserve unit I once proudly served in as a sergeant. Continue reading

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