AMISOM's Brig. General Dick Olum speaks to his soldiers before the launch of the military Operation Indian Ocean against al-Shabaab in the Lower Shabelle region of Somalia, August 29, 2014. (AMISOM/Tobin Jones)

On September 1, the leader of the Somalia-based extremist group al-Shabaab, Ahmed Abdi Godane, was killed in a US-led drone strike in an al-Shabaab stronghold in Somalia’s Lower Shabelle region. The drone strike coincided with an ongoing military offensive launched August 25 by the African Union Mission to Somalia (AMISOM) and Somali government forces in southern and central Somalia, dubbed Operation Indian Ocean.

Godane’s death and the simultaneous territorial losses faced by the group in the Middle and Lower Shabelle regions have raised various concerns over al-Shabaab’s response and how the militant group—which controls most of southern and central Somalia, and has carried out several terrorist attacks in the region—will function under its newly-appointed leadership. While the killing of Godane may represent a significant victory to some, the impact of his death may result in an increase in terrorist assaults in the region in the short term. Long-term implications are harder to assess.


The map shows ISIS-led activity.  Areas controlled by the group are in orange. (Institute for the Study of War)

When the Islamic State (ISIS) suddenly began to dominate headlines, their quick takeover and brutal acts surprised the world–but they shouldn’t have. Earlier this year, as ISIS slowly gained ground in Iraq and Syria, polls had revealed a sea change in attitudes that opened the door to the movement’s seizure of Mosul in June and subsequent sweeps across northern and western Iraq. Insecurity was rampant in those Sunni regions; economic conditions were deteriorating; and alienation from the Shia-majority government was increasingly pervasive.

The security collapse in the Sunni regions was dramatic by early 2014, as shown by polling by IIACSS, an Iraqi market research firm, for Gallup International’s World Social Values Survey. Some 21% of residents in Diyala and fully 25% of people in Nineveh said a family member had suffered a crime in the past year. In contrast, just 1% of families in Basra in the mostly-Shia south had experienced such violence. Sentiment was strong that security was deteriorating in the mostly-Sunni west (a massive 84%) and north (55%), while more than two-thirds said it was improving in the south, a Greenberg poll found.


French President François Hollande (R) and French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian (L) review French troops at Kossei military base near N'Djamena, Chad, on July 19, 2014, after visiting Operation Barkhane's headquarters in the capital. (ALAIN JOCARD/AFP/Getty Images)

On July 15, 2014, French President François Hollande launched Operation Barkhane, a counterterrorism force intended to hunt down terrorist groups in Sahel countries and prevent them from re-forming. This new mission is the continuation of Operation Serval, which was launched on January 11, 2013 in Mali and had the following three objectives: to stop terrorist groups’ offensives; to ensure security in Bamako in order to protect French nationals; and to preserve Mali’s territorial integrity. According to Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, France has fulfilled its mission, but has to prevent “the emergence in another regional state of a threat similar to that which prompted the 2013 intervention.”


Artwork by Nigerian artist Sarah Peace uses black veils to represent the Chibok girls kidnapped in April 2014 by Boko Haram. Over 200 girls are still missing. (Wikipedia)

On July 26, a group of heavily armed assailants attacked Kolofata, a Cameroonian town located near the country’s shared border with Nigeria. While there have been no immediate claims of responsibility for the attack, in which three people were killed and the wife of Cameroon’s deputy prime minister was kidnapped, the incursion conformed to the modus operandi typically employed by the Boko Haram Islamist extremist sect.

The Kolofata incident was by no means the first attack in Cameroon to be attributed to Boko Haram. Indeed, over the past 18 months, the sect has conducted a number of armed incursions in the country’s Extreme-Nord administrative division, which shares a long and porous border with Nigeria’s insurgent-embattled Adamawa and Borno states.


Men carry a Yazidi woman who fainted after crossing from Syria back into Iraq. (Sebastian Meyer/Corbis)

Since its emergence around April 2013 as a major player in Syria’s civil war, the radical jihadist group which calls itself the Islamic State (known as ISIS) established a formidable reputation for brutality, arbitrary killing, and mass atrocities. In Syria, the group used extreme violence against non-combatants as much as enemy fighters to impose its will. Intent on forcibly and quickly re-engineering society to fit its own ideological vision, ISIS employed massive violence and extreme brutality to cow dissent, enforce its rules, and eliminate potential opponents. In pursuit of its objectives, ISIS crucified, beheaded, stoned, shot, knifed, tortured, and bludgeoned thousands of Syrian non-combatants to death.

Past history teaches us that the road to genocide is paved with the ideological fervor of extremists bent on imposing their particular vision of utopia upon unsupportive populations. This week, many miles away from Syria, a court in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, found two elderly communist extremists–leading members of the Khmer Rouge–guilty of crimes against humanity that contributed to the destruction of a quarter of that country’s population in a little over three years. ISIS offers the Middle East a similarly destructive blend of unworldly ideology and massive doses of unbridled violence.


The militant group the Islamic State has used social media, videos, and pamphlets in its recruitment efforts. Above: a screenshot from one of their videos. (YouTube)

The extremist groups gaining ground in Iraq and Syria have benefited from the Arab Spring uprisings by reframing the aspirations and disappointments of marginalized youth to gain support, said Richard Barrett in this Q&A with the Global Observatory. Mr. Barrett helped establish the system-wide United Nations working group on terrorism known as the Counter Terrorism Implementation Task Force, and also served as coordinator of the UN’s al-Qaeda and Taliban Monitoring Team.

In this interview, Mr. Barrett noted the limited impact that the UN’s counterterrorism strategy has had in some countries but said that the strategy itself should not change. He also discussed the role of governments and the Islamic faith in sectarian violence.

Mr. Barrett, now Senior Vice President of the Soufan Group, was interviewed by Michael R. Snyder, research assistant with the Center for Peace Operations at the International Peace Institute.


A modified screen grab of the 2014 Global Peace Index. For the dynamic version that includes previous years, go here.

The 2014 Global Peace Index released its findings last month, concluding that peacefulness worldwide has dropped for the seventh straight year (the index itself started in 2007).  Daniel Hyslop, research manager for the Institute for Economics & Peace (IEP), which produces the index, talked to the Global Observatory last week about what that means. The interview was conducted by Ramy Srour, Assistant Web Editor at the International Peace Institute.

How does the IEP measure "peacefulness," and what would you say are some of the challenges in capturing this concept?

The definition of peace in the Global Peace Index is negative peace. And that is the absence of violence, or the absence of the fear of violence. So we're measuring direct violence. That’s in contrast to something like positive peace, which is really about the institutions, attitudes, instructions that underpin an environment that is not violent.


Iraqi Shiite tribesmen brandish their weapons as they show their willingness to join Iraqi security forces, Karbala, Iraq, June 17, 2014. (Mohammed Sawaf/AFP/Getty Images)

The sudden and sweeping advance of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and its recent announcement of an Islamic caliphate have thrown the entire Middle East region into a cloud of uncertainty. Images of ISIS forces dismantling the Sykes-Picot border posts between Syria and Iraq have cast an additional veil of doubt over prospects for long-term peace and stability. And while it remains unclear what the concrete consequences of the announcement of a caliphate will be, there are signs that ISIS’ actions are already contributing to a shift in the region’s dynamics.

How some of the key regional powers—Syria, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey—will react to the ISIS advance is tricky to predict. What is clear is that the four countries have substantial interests at stake, and ISIS’ recent gains are already pushing them to adjust accordingly, either to secure strategic gains or to avoid losing power and influence. Below are some possible implications.


Kenyan soldiers serving with AMISOM stand in front of the al-Shabaab flag painted on the wall of Kismayo airport, Somalia, October 2, 2012. (AU-UN IST Photo/Stuart Price)

It has been almost three years since Kenyan troops were deployed in neighboring Somalia to create a security buffer zone on the Somali side of the border. The main aim at the time was to reduce growing insecurity in Kenya, which has affected the country’s economy—especially the tourism industry. Since the deployment and subsequent integration of Kenyan troops into the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), however, the goal of reducing insecurity is yet to be realized. Instead, the insecurity—which some attribute to the very presence of Kenyan troops in Somalia—has continued to rise.

The recent attacks on June 16 in Mpeketoni, Lamu County, Kenya, where more than 60 people died, are another reminder that terrorist incidents are increasing since Kenya’s deployment in Somalia. Despite the ongoing debate between government and opposition groups about the cause and perpetrators of the Mpeketoni attacks, Kenya’s presence in Somalia remains an important factor.


Young men stand guard during a demonstration by a local militia formed to provide security in Marka, Somalia, April 30, 2014. (UN Photo/Tobin Jones)

Can community policing deter terrorism in weak states where government security sectors are unable to cope with violent extremism? This is a question of mounting urgency in a number of countries beset by terrorist groups, including Iraq and Nigeria. It is of growing importance in both Somalia and Kenya, where the militant group al-Shabaab has regrouped over the past year and launched a series of devastating terrorist attacks that national law enforcement—as well as the multinational African Union (AU) peacekeeping mission in Somalia—have been unable to prevent.

In Somalia, the national police formed a community police program in June 2014, while in Kenya, calls are being made for Somali communities to self-police their neighborhoods against threats by al-Shabaab as an alternative to the heavy-handed Kenyan police crackdown on Somali neighborhoods.


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