Paris Attacks Radio Interview

On Saturday, November 14 I was asked by 580 CFRA News Talk Radio in Ottawa to comment on the attacks in Paris. Many of the details of the attack, including the identities of the perpetrators, were unknown at the time. While the Islamic State had claimed responsibility, it was unclear as to whether the group played a direct or indirect role in the worst attack in France since WWII and possibly the most deadly attack in a Western city after 9/11.

We now know that Abdelhamid Abaaoud, a Belgian national who had fought with ISIS in Syria, masterminded the November 13 attacks that saw nine militants claim the lives of 170 and injure another 368 people. Abaaoud, who grew up in the Molenbeek suburb of Brussels, an area known for terrorist activity, had escaped Belgian authorities in January 2014 after a raid in the city of Verviers resulted in the death of two suspected terrorists. According to an interview with Abaaoud in Dabiq, the Islamic State’s English-language magazine, he and the two deceased had returned to Belgium “to terrorize the crusaders waging war against the Muslims.” While it is not known whether Abaaoud had made it back to the Islamic State in Syria after the raid, as he had claimed in Dabiq, when the Belgian appeared again it was to carry out a sadistic attack on innocent civilians in Paris.

The events of November 13 have changed political calculations, reignited debates and, sadly, resulted in increased public displaces of bigotry. In Canada, the United States and elsewhere in the Western world, politicians have addressed public worries about Syrian refugees after authorities in France found a fake Syrian passport on the body of one of the assailants. Some of these politicians have taken calculated steps to ease these fears, others have played to the worst fringe, spewing hate and misconception. For the later and their constituencies, it should be important to remember that out of the 750,000 refugees that have been resettled in America since 9/11 not one has been arrested on domestic terrorism charges. Refugee policy is not the only issue up for debate, those over Islam have vehemently reemerged, with some arguing that the religion is the problem, while others have aptly pointed out that the situation is much more complex.

In the internationally realm Western leaders have been pressed to more thoroughly defend their anti-Islamic State strategy and play a bigger role in the fight. France and Russia have increased cooperation over the skies in Syria, a knee jerk reaction by the government of Francois Hollande. Prime Minister Trudeau of Canada has had to defend his government’s promise to end participation in the bombing mission, though the majority of Canadians want it continued or even expanded. Britain, whose government had previous voted against bombing the Syrian regime, has already launched its first airstrike in Syria, hours after UK lawmakers voted in favor . While much of the media has focused on the air, a debate over what should be done on the ground is of utmost importance.

I briefly addressed these and other issues in my interview with CFRA below.

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Securing Lebanon, Widening Divides

As I write this post it has been reported by The Daily Star that militants near the Lebanese town of Arsal have killed two soldiers, almost immediately after the army had secured two captured soldiers. For now it seems like the al-Qaeda affiliate, Jabhat al-Nusra is responsible, prompted by the arrest of one of their commanders. The troops were attacked at the Wadi Hmayyed checkpoint on the outskirts of this Sunni town, located in the Shia-dominated Bekaa Valley, on the border with Syria. Whether locals were involved or it was the work of Syrian jihadists, or a mixture of both, this event is further evidence of the deepening cleavages between the state and Lebanon’s Sunni population.

The civil war, which has ranged next door and will celebrate its morbid fourth anniversary next March, has put intense strain on the Lebanese state. Sunnis, who have suffered under Syrian occupation during and after the civil war, viewed the uprising in 2011 as a chance to change the political dynamic in Lebanon. With the regime of Bashar al-Assad gone, so they thought, a Sunni government in Damascus would allow them to reverse Hezbollah’s prominence in the political sphere, and eventually, its monopoly on violence–a monopoly that should be reserved for state institutions.

The Syrian revolution faltered: a lack of leadership on behalf of the West; competing regional Sunni powers backing different proxies; the ensuing power vacuum exploited by al-Qaeda and now its dangerous offshoot the Islamic State; and the oil wealth of rich Gulf donors and their alacrity to back Salafi groups, turned an opportunity for mainstream Sunni politicians into a quagmire with dangerous consequences.

Now, over three years into the conflict, Sunni politicians have begrudgingly come to accept the fact that the Syrian revolution threatens to pull the Lebanese state into another civil war, one that would see the rise of Salafi militants within the country, and further threaten their control over the poorest rungs of Sunni society. By signing onto the security plan, which de-facto includes a cooperative relationship between the military and Hezbollah (which is fighting on behalf of the regime in Syria and created the catalyst for spillover into Lebanon, with Sunnis wanting to take out their revenge within Lebanon) these politicians have helped put the state in direct opposition to downtrodden Sunnis and the groups they back.

For more on this dynamic and the current state of Sunni-government relations in Lebanon read my piece for Carnegie Endowment’s Sada: Middle East Analysis, entitled Securing Lebanon, Widening Divides.