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.


In the northern province of Raqqa, Syria, female students wear full face veils (niqabs) in accordance with sharia law enforced by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), which  took control of the area last fall. (March 31, 2014/© Stringer/Reuters/Corbis)

The swift and destructive advance of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) into Iraq could affect the ongoing conflict in neighboring Syria, as ISIS’ seizure of Iraqi military equipment and financial resources is likely to give the group a comparative advantage over other rebels in Syria, said Dr. Thomas Pierret, a lecturer in contemporary Islam at the University of Edinburgh.

Dr. Pierret, who has advised US, British, and other Western governments on the Syrian crisis, spoke to me by telephone on Monday, June 16 about ISIS’ advance in Iraq and its implications for the Assad regime, Syrian rebels, and the response of key regional players.

In the eastern Syrian province of Deir ez-Zor, ISIS has been fighting against other rebels in an effort to gain full control of Syria’s eastern flank. According to Dr. Pierret, ISIS’ seizure of Iraqi armored vehicles and of over $400 million during its advance toward Baghdad could tilt the balance, both materially and psychologically, in favor of the terrorist group.

“There is also a symbolic dimension here,” he said. “ISIS victories in Iraq have provided the group with some prestige,” which, he said, ISIS could use to render other rebel groups like al-Nusra Front and the Free Syrian Army (FSA) more hesitant about fighting against it.


Prime Minister of Iraq Nouri al-Maliki in May 2008. (Staff Sgt. Jessica J. Wilkes/US Air Force)

Dr. Charles Tripp, professor of politics at SOAS University of London, spoke to the Global Observatory’s Ramy Srour yesterday on recent developments in Iraq and if support for Maliki is waning among his allies, and what the US, Iran, and other regional players might do about the militant group ISIS’ growing insurgency, which some believe is threatening to divide the region.

Dr. Tripp has researched extensively on the Middle East and on the nature of autocracy, state, and resistance in the region.

Given ISIS’ extensive gains in the majority Sunni areas and reports that Kurdish fighters have now seized the town of Kirkuk, do you think Iraq is disintegrating into three de facto states, a Sunni, a Kurdish, and a Shia state?

I don't think it's got to that stage yet. I think that since 2003, there have been two de facto states in Iraq–one is ruled from Baghdad, and the other from Irbil in the north, in the Kurdish area. When you look at the solidity of the Kurdish area, it certainly looks like a state to me. It has its own economy, armed forces, sovereignty, Parliament, and so on.

I think the situation in the northwest of Iraq, the so-called Sunni areas of Iraq, is far more fluid and, despite the claims that it is going to establish the Islamic State of Iraq and the Sham (ISIS), it's still a very uncertain situation and I don't think one could talk about three states at all, no.


Soldiers of the Somali National Army (SNA) advance during an anti-Shabaab operation near Afgooye, Somalia, May 24, 2012. (UN Photo/Stuart Price)

The militant group Harakat al-Shabaab Mujahideen (al-Shabaab) has once again made international news headlines, this time with two deadly attacks carried out on May 24 on the Somali Parliament building in Mogadishu and La Chaumiere restaurant in Djibouti. News reports suggested over a dozen people were killed, including the attackers in each incident.

These attacks have prompted renewed scrutiny of al-Shabaab’s current status, its strategy, and its principal tactics and procedures, and two narratives have emerged. One describes a resurgent al-Shabaab that is now unified, transnational, and is readily able to exploit weaknesses in the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) and Somali Federal authorities. The other narrative suggests al-Shabaab’s fortunes are at an all-time low, its reinvention was forced by necessity, and its levels of popular support in Somalia are diminishing daily. Al-Shabaab is thus currently fighting to survive and has become more desperate.

Early indications from AMISOM’s latest series of offensive operations, Operation Eagle, suggest that while the second narrative is more persuasive, al-Shabaab remains an active and potent enemy that will focus on exploiting weaknesses within AMISOM and the Somali authorities. It is these weaknesses that need to be remedied to keep al-Shabaab on the back foot.


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