TIME Iraq

Extremists in Iraq Continue March Toward Baghdad

IRAQ-UNREST-TIKRIT
An image grab taken from a propaganda video uploaded on June 8, 2014, by the jihadist group the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) allegedly shows ISIL militants firing from the back of a vehicle near the central Iraqi city of Tikrit. AFP/Getty Images

Militant Sunni forces are taking territory with lightning speed, moving toward the ultimate goal of establishing a new Islamic Caliphate

As Islamist extremists captured Tikrit, a major city in Iraq’s Sunni heartland, just a day after taking Mosul, analysts offered sobering assessments of a fundamentalist militant force whose ambitions may no longer be the stuff of fantasy.

Hardened by years of battle in neighboring Syria, the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) is routing the forces of a modern nation-state and gathering land with the ultimate goal of establishing an alternate form of governance, an Islamic caliphate.

“This is not a terrorism problem anymore,” says Jessica Lewis, an expert on ISIS at the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington think tank. “This is an army on the move in Iraq and Syria, and they are taking terrain.”

In capturing Tikrit, famed as the hometown of Saddam Hussein, Islamist militants whom the secular dictator had not tolerated were moving south down Iraq’s main highway toward Baghdad. Lewis cited reports that Abu Ghraib, the city just to the west of the capital, was also under assault from ISIS forces that have held Fallujah and much of Ramadi since January.

“We are using the word encircle,” Lewis tells TIME. “They have shadow governments in and around Baghdad, and they have an aspirational goal to govern. I don’t know whether they want to control Baghdad, or if they want to destroy the functions of the Iraqi state, but either way the outcome will be disastrous for Iraq.”

There was little argument on that point on Wednesday among the American specialists who came to know the country well during the almost nine years U.S. forces remained there, yet faced no opposition as militarily organized as ISIS. The Sunni extremists at the time were known to the U.S. military as AQI, for al-Qaeda in Iraq.

“They were great terrorists,” says Douglas Ollivant, a former Army Cavalry officer who later handled Iraq for the White House National Security Council. “They made great car bombs. But they were lousy line infantry, and if you got them in a firefight, they’d die. They have now repaired that deficiency.”

Like other analysts, Ollivant credits the civil war in Syria for the striking improvement in battlefield ability. “You fight Hizballah for a couple of years, and you either die or you get a lot better,” he says. “And these guys got a lot better.”

Lewis, who was a U.S. Army intelligence officer in Iraq and Afghanistan, calls ISIS “an advanced military leadership.” “They have incredible command and control and they have a sophisticated reporting mechanism from the field that can relay tactics and directives up and down the line,” he said. “They are well-financed, and they have big sources of manpower, not just the foreign fighters, but also prisoner escapees.” In Mosul, many of the estimated 1,200 prisoners released as the city fell were thought to be Islamist militants.

“They are highly skilled in urban guerrilla warfare while the new Iraqi army simply lacks tactical competence,” says Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi, who monitors jihadist activity for the Middle East Forum. In a battle that is fought largely on sectarian lines — Iraq’s government under Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has championed the country’s Shiite majority — Iraqi officials have solicited Shiite militias to engage the ISIS, “though they prove to be equally incompetent,” al-Tamimi adds.

Ollivant, now a fellow at the New America Foundation, says that despite the thunderclap of Mosul’s collapse after only four days of fighting, it’s not yet apparent how formidable ISIS really is. The windfall of military materiel left behind by fleeing Iraqi forces—especially simple weapons and ammunition, because they do not require complex maintenance—are significant, but less so than the group’s operational depth: “Is it holding what it’s taking or is it just kind of sweeping through and moving on to the next thing, leaving only a skeletal force behind, that would be easy enough to push out,” says Ollivant. “Or is it strong enough to hold the territory it’s taken? Those are the two options. One is embarrassing, the other is catastrophic.”

But if ISIS can in fact hold the area it has overrun, it may well be able to fulfill its stated mission of restoring the Caliphate, the governing structure for the Sunni Muslim world that inherited authority from the Prophet Mohammed. “This is of great significance,” according to an assessment released Wednesday by The Soufan Group, a private security company. A restored Caliphate will attract “many more disaffected young people … from all over the Muslim world, especially the Middle East, lured by nostalgia for al-Khulafa al-Islamiya (the Islamic Caliphate), which remains a potent motivator for Sunni extremists.”

Restoring the Caliphate was the stated goal of Osama bin Laden in creating al-Qaeda, but the terror group has never operated militarily. “It’s ISIS that will build the Caliphate, not al-Qaeda,” says al-Tamimi.

The entire concept of the Caliphate remains obscure to most Westerners. It has not existed since the Ottoman Empire (which claimed dominion over the world’s Muslims) was pulled apart after World War I. The European powers divided the Middle East into their preferred system of governance–nation states–though that arrangement lately seems under threat, especially in Syria and Iraq.

Thomas Ricks, who covered the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq for the Washington Post and named his bestselling account of the subject Fiasco, says the current crisis in Iraq was set in motion over a decade ago. “I think that the U.S. invasion fundamentally unbalanced Iraq, and the Middle East,” Ricks tells TIME in an e-mail. “By removing Sunni power in Baghdad we increased Iran’s influence in the country–and so provoked a Sunni backlash. Big picture, I think we may be seeing the beginning of the re-drawing of the map, this time done by residents of the region instead of by British and French diplomats.”

With reporting from Hania Mourtada in Beirut

TIME Iraq

Iraq’s Second Largest City Falls to Extremists

Iraqis fleeing violence in the Nineveh province wait in their vehicles at a Kurdish checkpoint in Aski Kalak, 25 miles West of Arbil, the capital of the autonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq, on June 10, 2014.
Iraqis fleeing violence in Nineveh province wait in their vehicles at a Kurdish checkpoint in Aski Kalak, 25 miles west of Arbil, the capital of the autonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq, on June 10, 2014. Safin Hamed—AFP/Getty Images

Soldiers in Mosul threw down their guns and stripped off their uniforms as Sunni insurgents approached and raised their black flags on Tuesday, allowing the city to fall after just four days of fighting. Terrified residents were streaming out of the city

The fall of Iraq’s second largest city to Islamist extremists Tuesday sends an alarming message about the deterioration of a country where the U.S. spent eight years, 4,500 lives and $1.7 trillion. Mosul, a city of 1.8 million located in the far north of the country, long cultivated a reputation as a military town. But Iraqi soldiers threw down their guns and stripped off their uniforms as the insurgents approached on Tuesday, according to officials stunned by the collapse of its defenses.

“When the battle got tough in the city of Mosul, the troops dropped their weapons and abandoned their posts, making it an easy prey for the terrorists,” Osama Nuajaifi, the speaker of Iraq’s parliament who hails from Mosul, said during a news conference in Baghdad. “Everything is fallen. It’s a crisis. Having these terrorist groups control a city in the heart of Iraq threatens not only Iraq but the entire region.”

The fall of Mosul after only four days of fighting speaks volumes about both the state of Iraqi forces and the depth of the sectarian division at the bleeding heart of the nation’s ongoing crisis: the population of Mosul is mostly Sunni, and the central government led by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is widely criticized as favoring the country’s Shi‘ite majority. Al-Maliki is likely to remain in office after the April 30 elections left him with the largest share of votes and negotiating chiefly with other Shi‘ite parties to form a new governing coalition.

The insurgents — who raised black flags over parts of the city on Tuesday — are Sunni extremists known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), a group al-Qaeda disowned as too extreme.

“Iraq is undergoing a difficult stage,” al-Maliki said at a televised news conference, after asking parliament to declare a state of emergency. The Premier confirmed that militants controlled much of Mosul, and that soldiers had deserted their posts. News reports said militants had overrun the airport, gaining access to military helicopters, and had cranes moving blast walls — erected as protection against terrorist car bombs — to reinforce their positions and block roads against a counterattack. Police stations had been overrun and set afire, and the doors of at least one jail flung open: the Associated Press quoted residents who saw prisoners running down the street still wearing their yellow jump suits.

Terrified residents were streaming out of the city — the International Organization for Migration reports 500,000 people have left their homes since Saturday — and there were reports that water and electricity were cut off. On its Twitter account, ISIS gloated about seizing arms and vehicles abandoned by the city’s supposed defenders. Elsewhere in the country, its fighters have been spotted driving humvees captured from government forces in previous encounters.

The situation was dire in more ways than one. Besides its symbolic importance as Iraq’s second largest city — and the historic home of the country’s oil industry — Mosul has crucial strategic significance. It sits near both Turkey and the largely autonomous Kurdish zone of northern Iraq, but most important, it functions as Iraq’s most prominent doorway to Syria, where ISIS emerged as one of the main rebel forces arrayed against Syrian President Bashar Assad.

Led by an Iraqi, ISIS has ranged freely across an international border that separates the countries far more on maps than in reality. The conflicts raging in both Syria and Iraq are grounded in sectarian identities — Sunni vs. Shi‘ite — that have in crucial ways overridden national identities. The terms of the ancient conflict steepen the challenge Baghdad faces in subduing the insurrection that currently has divided Iraq between east and west. ISIS and its Sunni allies control much of Anbar province, including portions of Ramadi and much of Fallujah, which lay due west of the capital. Mosul, though also home to Shi‘ite and Kurdish populations, remained restive for most of the U.S. occupation, and was a battleground between al-Maliki’s troops and forces associated with al-Qaeda as recently as 2008, when the Premier promised a “decisive” battle for the city.

On Tuesday, al-Maliki was preparing again. Despite warnings from analysts that the insurrection was at heart a political problem that might only be worsened by a heavy-handed military response, al-Maliki announced his government had created a Crisis Unit and was preparing a counteroffensive that, according to one report, would include civilian volunteers armed by his government. Nuajaifi, the parliament speaker, warned, “They will reach every corner of Iraq if it doesn’t stop.”

TIME Vatican

Pope Francis Joins Israeli and Palestinian Leaders in Prayer for Peace

The stately Vatican prayer ceremony inverted Middle East diplomacy, which usually requires an agreement to justify pageantry

At the very hour Pope Francis sat with the Presidents of Israel and the Palestinian Authority in the garden of the Vatican, filling a soft June evening with the very best of intentions, more immediately meaningful events continued to unfold in the Middle East.

In Israel, the leader of the pivotal faction in the ruling coalition unveiled his own roadmap for peace — embracing the gritty specifics of the conflict that the Vatican “invocation for peace” avoided. Yair Lapid, who holds the title of Israeli Finance Minster and controls the Yesh Atid party that claimed the crucial centrist vote in the 2013 election, threatened to bring down the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu if Israel moves to annex any of the West Bank, the Palestinian territory that, along with the Gaza Strip, would form a proposed Palestinian state.

Lapid urged the resumption of negotiations that fell apart in April, pointedly calling for Israel to prepare a map of its own boundaries — something American and Palestinian officials have said Netanyahu has refused to do. Lapid also called for a freeze on construction of Jewish settlements deep in the West Bank, beyond the so-called blocs that under most scenarios would become part of Israel in a final arrangement. “There is no reason to keep avoiding the necessity of drawing out the state of Israel’s future borders,” Lapid said.

Meanwhile, in Egypt, the former field marshal Abdul Fattah al-Sisi was sworn in as President. In his first speech, he declared battling terrorism Egypt’s top priority, an approach that rewards moderates in the Palestinian camp. Al-Sisi has taken aim at Hamas, a branch of the Muslim Brotherhood that he removed from government last July. Badly weakened, Hamas has formed a “unity government” with the Fatah Party of President Mahmoud Abbas, who sat beside the Pope on Sunday, fresh in from Cairo.

Abbas’ presence was one of the few tangibly political impacts of the nominally apolitical session, which Pope Francis had announced during his visit to the Holy Land two weeks ago. Abbas was received, and thus validated, as head of a unified Palestinian government, one staffed by technocrats but supported by Hamas, which Netanyahu says disqualifies it as a negotiating partner because the group has failed to acknowledge Israel’s right to exist. Even Israeli President Shimon Peres expressed skepticism of the reconciliation on Sunday, saying that Hamas’ history of terrorism was an impossible contradiction from Fatah’s renunciation of violence: “You can’t have water and fire in the same glass,” Peres told reporters.

But Washington, the E.U. and the U.N. continue to work with the interim government, and Abbas’ presence in the stately setting, embraced by the charismatic Pontiff, carried a symbolic weight.

And symbolism was everything in Rome. The 90-minute program, made up entirely of prayers interlaced by classical music, inverted the customary order of Middle Eastern diplomacy. Instead of pageantry occasioned by an agreement, the event offered stately ceremony as incentive, or perhaps a reminder, to two sides that have not negotiated in earnest since 2008.

Rabbis, priests and imams spoke in turn. And if the Muslim prayers dwelled more on justice (as the faith itself does), and Abbas more than once invoked Jerusalem (“Oh God, we ever praise you for making Jerusalem our gate to heaven”), the skein of grievance was subtle enough not to disrupt the occasion. Abbas, though head of a faction routinely described as secular, often flips open a well-worn Koran on the flights between the world capitals where he is received as a statesman, albeit one without a universally recognized state.

But it was Pope Francis who said, “To have peace, one needs courage, far more than you need for a war.” And it was the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople who read from Isaiah, “They shall not labor in vain, or bear children in calamity.” The black-clad Orthodox cleric Bartholomew I had prayed with Pope Francis in Jerusalem two weeks ago, where the Pontiff had come to celebrate the 50 years since a predecessor had formally ended 900 years of hostility between the two branches of the church. On Sunday, when the prayers ended, Francis pulled the onetime nemesis to his side for the group photo.

There the two churchmen stood, one in white, the other in black, side by side between the Israeli and the Palestinian, showing it can be done.

TIME World Cup

Qatar Bribery Allegations Loom Over the 2022 World Cup

FIFA President Sepp Blatter announces Qatar as the host nation for the FIFA World Cup 2022  in Zurich
FIFA President Sepp Blatter announces Qatar as the host nation for the FIFA World Cup 2022, in Zurich, Dec. 2, 2010. A bribery scandal may cost the Middle Eastern nation the tournament. Christian Hartmann—Reuters

A trove of emails allegedly implicating a former Qatari official in bribery has some critics questioning whether Qatar should host the 2022 tournament

Qatar, the tiny Gulf monarchy that has spent most of the last decade punching above its weight, is in danger of losing the 2022 World Cup – and with it a peerless showcase for its global aspirations.

An investigator for the international soccer association FIFA was in Doha on Wednesday questioning Qatari officials about allegations that bribery was involved in naming the dark horse as host of the month-long tournament, bringing what many consider the greatest spectacle in sports to the Middle East for the first time. The region was due a turn after the tournament was played in South Africa and divided between Japan and South Korea, but FIFA ethics investigator Michael Garcia was already probing corruption rumors when London’s Sunday Times over the weekend revealed documents apparently showing a former Qatari official paid $5 million in bribes to soccer officials to secure the selection. The report is due to be delivered to higher-ups June 9, three days before the 2014 tournament begins in Brazil.

“This is the one way a country can literally be the center of the world for a month,” says Laurent Dubois, a Duke University professor of Romance studies who has written a book on the politics of the World Cup. “And from the standpoint of political elites, that is a kind of catnip.”

So revoking the 2022 selection of Qatar – as at least one senior FIFA official has suggested could happen – and re-opening the competition for a host nation would strike a huge blow to the country’s prestige. And after raising its global profile by investing lavishly in museums, satellite news, and universities, Qatar lately has been already coping with a string of setbacks: the Muslim Brotherhood governments it supported in Egypt and the Gaza Strip are either removed or on their heels, while the rebels it arms in the Syrian civil war are losing to forces aligned with President Bashar Assad. Meanwhile correspondents for its satellite news channel Al Jazeera remain jailed in Cairo.

“The regional situation hasn’t gone very well for Qatar in the last year, so the World Cup becomes that much more important,” says Shadi Hamid, a fellow at the Brookings Institution Saban Center for Middle East Policy in Washington. “So much is tied to the success of the World Cup, whether it’s building new hotels, or building an entire metro system from scratch, all of that is to prepare for the World Cup in eight years. So without the World Cup, what is this all going towards?”

Qatari officials emphatically deny authorizing any bribery, insisting that Mohamed bin Hammam, the official at the heart of the Sunday Times’ devastating e-mail cache, was not involved in the official effort to land the tournament. Still, the Cup was already a source of controversy for Qatar. The new stadiums and infrastructure are being built by foreign workers who account for 1.4 million of the country’s 2.2 million people, and whom human rights groups say are so badly exploited that a number have lost their lives on the job – prompting a promise from FIFA to push for better conditions. The country’s climate is also a problem: temperatures in June and July, when the Cup is played, reach 120 degrees, raising the question of shifting the tournament to a cooler time of year. As former U.S. Treasury official Jonathan Schanzer tweeted about the Taliban prisoners released from Guantanamo into Qatari custody in exchange for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl: “To be fair, Qatar in late spring and summer is worse than prison.”

But the corruption allegations play to an image of a petroleum-drenched monarchy so wealthy it simply buys whatever it wants. And they come just as as FIFA is already reeling from a match-fixing scandal, and controversy over the $11 billion Brazil is spending, amid widespread poverty and social ills.

“It’s like the pigeons coming home to roost a little bit,” says Dubois, who teaches a course on the World Cup. “There’s no justification for FIFA having so little transparency, except corruption. Really, if you think about it. Their job is to organize soccer games. Why all the secrecy?” Yet the global body has answered only to itself for so long that it’s difficult to imagine it casting aside its choice of Qatar, even in the face of documents that the newspaper says number over a million. “On the one hand it seems to be inevitable that they’ll revisit the decision,” Dubois says. “And on the other hand, I can’t imagine them doing it.”

It’s just as hard for Hamid, who worked in Brookings’ Doha office for the last four years, to fathom the loss to the host country. “It would really be devastating, I think,” Hamid says. “I’m having difficulty imagining how Qatar would recover, in terms of perception.”

TIME Bowe Bergdahl

Israel Is Experienced With Prisoner Exchanges and Their Consequences

Over the decades Israel has freed 7,000 prisoners to secure a handful of its soldiers, pleasing the public but encouraging kidnap plots

Israel knows a few things about prisoner exchanges. Over the decades, its governments have released more than 7,000 captives in order to secure the freedom of 16 Israelis and, in some cases, the bodies of Israelis. It’s a lopsided exchange rate — about 450 to 1 — that reflects the extraordinary value Israeli society places on its individual members. It also offers a perspective on the price the Obama Administration paid for the release of Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, the U.S. soldier was released by the Taliban over the weekend in exchange for five senior Taliban figures freed from Guantánamo.

“To be honest, I felt as an Israeli, as a security man, I felt proud for the United States,” says Avi Dichter, a former head of Shin Bet, as Israel’s internal security agency is known. “I’m glad they decided to bring him back, even if it’s five, 50 or 500. I think bringing him back is more important than any other issue. In my life, 43 years in the security business, either in the army or Shin Bet or government, I’ve never seen a terrorist, including an archterrorist, that he’s worth more than the nails of an Israeli soldier. That’s why I don’t believe the five are worth more than the nails of Bowe Bergdahl.”

But prisoner deals are just that — transactions, which in the law of supply and demand create a market for captives, one that Republican critics of the Bergdahl exchange say will put more U.S. service members at risk. Indeed, Israel has seen a surge in plots to kidnap soldiers or civilians since its last prisoner exchange, the October 2011 release of a record 1,027 Palestinian prisoners in exchange for Gilad Shalit, the captive Israeli soldier held in the Gaza Strip for five years.

The windfall from Shalit stirred militants to shift their energies toward abductions. In Gaza, the chant was “The people want a new Gilad,” as Hamas officials vowed to repeat their success. Militants burrowed toward Israeli military outposts and communities in what a leader dubbed “the strategy of the tunnels” aimed at reaching Israeli outposts and communities. In the past 20 months, Israeli forces have stumbled on four concrete-reinforced underground channels, each apparently intended to carry back a captive; that’s how Shalit was taken.

Kidnap efforts are also being made in the West Bank, and inside Israel, where 20% of the population is Palestinian. Israeli officials say the effort involves every Palestinian faction, and shows no sign of waning. In December 2012, Israeli security arrested four men trying to pick up hitchhiking Israeli soldiers in an SUV where investigators found rope, masking tape, ski masks and a toy gun. In the next nine months, officials detected another 37 plots, but in September a Palestinian man lured an off-duty Israeli soldier he knew from work to the West Bank, killed him and threw his body in a well. He told investigators his plan was to trade the body for the release of his imprisoned brother.

In the nine months since, the number of plots rose to 50, including 11 traced to Israeli prisons, where high-value inmates were orchestrating the plots, according to a Shin Bet statement.

Still, the exchanges are not only accepted by Israelis, but applauded. At the time, 80% of Israelis supported the Shalit deal, according to polls. And while senior officials appointed a committee to explore ways to avoid releasing such large numbers of prisoners in the future, nothing is known to have changed. The Mossad, Israel’s external intelligence agency, has an agent assigned full time to prisoner exchanges.

“It’s crazy to outsiders, but that’s how it is,” Rami Igra, who formerly held the job, told TIME when the Shalit exchange was taking shape. “We are a small nation, a fighting nation. We have to show the people that fight with us and for us that we as a community will do the utmost to bring them back home. It’s a battlefield value. It’s a very important value, and it has a lot of weight in our national security. Unfortunately the other side knows it, and they use it against us.”

Dichter, the former Shin Bet chief, points out that Israel has the means to have the last word. Hamas founder Sheik Ahmed Yassin was released twice from an Israeli prison, he notes, first in 1985 along with 1,149 others in an exchange for three Israeli soldiers, then, after being arrested again, for two Mossad agents caught trying to poison a Hamas official in Jordan in 1997. Finally, an Israeli Apache gunship fired a Hellfire missile at the partially blind cleric as he was wheeled out of morning prayers. “When we had no option to detain him, we targeted him in 2004,” Dichter says. “So those who think there’s only one round — no, no, no. There’s many rounds.”

TIME Terrorism

Syria Conflict Spawning ‘New Generation of Terrorists,’ Report Warns

A rebel fighter walks on a street in the Syrian city of Aleppo following a reported bombardment with explosive-packed "barrel bombs" by the government forces on April 27, 2014
A rebel fighter walks on a street in the Syrian city of Aleppo following a reported bombardment with explosive-packed "barrel bombs" by the government forces on April 27, 2014 Baraa Al-Halabi—AFP/Getty Images

In just three years, 12,000 foreign fighters have traveled to Syria to fight, according to a new report by the Soufan Group — and most arrive already steeped in extremism

The civil war in Syria already appears to have drawn more foreign fighters than the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s, and may prove an even more dangerous incubator for terrorism in the long run, according to a new report by a private security company.

The report, by the Soufan Group, estimates that 12,000 foreign fighters have traveled to Syria. The estimate is up sharply from 7,000 that U.S. and Israeli intelligence estimated at the start of 2014, and more than the 10,000 thought to have fought the Soviets in Afghanistan, the decadelong conflict that spawned al-Qaeda.

The greatest concern about terrorism resides in the perhaps 3,000 fighters the report says traveled to Syria from Western countries to fight with rebel groups dominated by Islamic extremists. Though arrayed against the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad and his Iranian allies, the fundamentalists might in time choose to direct violence against Western targets, “the far enemy” in the parlance of al-Qaeda — and recruit those battle-hardened foreign fighters to return to their home countries and carry out attacks.

“Leaving aside what may happen in Syria, if al-Qaeda can maintain a network of even a small number of motivated returnees, or recruit fighters to its terrorist agenda while they are still in Syria, it may once more pose a significant global threat,” the report says.

Most of the foreign fighters in Syria arrived from Arab countries, with 3,000 alone from Tunisia and another 2,500 from Saudi Arabia. But 700 fighters are thought to have traveled to Syria from France; 400 from the U.K.; and around 250 each from Belgium, Australia and Germany, the report says, quoting estimates by the nations ’ own governments.

The study says about 70 fighters from the U.S. have traveled to Syria, quoting an FBI statement from May. Last Friday, the conflict recorded its first known American suicide bomber, when Moner Mohammad Abusalha, a recent resident of Florida, detonated the truck he was driving in an attack for al-Nusra Front, an extremist Sunni force.

Study author Richard Barrett, a former British intelligence official and U.N. specialist on al-Qaeda, writes that that leaders of groups that attract most foreign fighters — al-Nusra Front, Ahrar al-Sham and the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) — were previously members of al-Qaeda. He adds that the process of indoctrination in extremist thought may well be accelerated by social media, as young would-be fighters reinforce their views in self-limiting Twitter, Facebook and other feeds. In any event, most already are familiar with the extremist ideology that recruits learned from Osama bin Laden and his acolytes.

“The progression from foreign fighter to terrorist is not a linear one, nor is it inevitable, and the majority of people who return from the fighting in Syria may pose no terrorist threat,” Barrett writes. “But the difficulty remains how to distinguish those who will from those who won’t.”

The only known attack outside Syria by a foreign fighter occurred in Belgium in May, where a French citizen who had fought for a year in Syria with ISIS killed three people at a Jewish museum on May 24. But if the experience after the Soviet war in Afghanistan is any example, the report says, “the Syrian war is likely to be an incubator for a new generation of terrorists.”

TIME Libya

Libyan General With U.S. Passport Wages War On Islamist Extremists

Gen. Khalifa Hifter has assembled a force that is taking the fight to Islamist extremists in the worst fighting since the 2011 revolution

Into the chaos of post-revolution Libya rides Gen. Khalifa Hifter, a former confidant of Muammar Gaddafi with a U.S. passport and a reputed history with the CIA. A resident of northern Virginia until the 2011 revolution that deposed his old boss, Hifter, 71, returned to his homeland and, after a couple of embarrassing personal setbacks, recently persuaded elements of the military forces to join him in battling the most extreme of the many armed militias operating in Libya today.

The fighting, described as the worst since the overthrow of Gaddafi, prompted the State Department this week to urge Americans to leave Libya, and the Pentagon to move a warship with 1,000 Marines on board into the vicinity. The USS Bataan was ordered, if not quite to the shores of Tripoli, then close enough to respond quickly if an evacuation is ordered.

Libya has remained conspicuously unstable since Gaddafi’s regime fell in August 2011 in an armed rebellion supported by a NATO air campaign. A constitutional process was set up, and a legislature and prime minister elected. But the government has failed to establish what academics call the fundamental element of sovereignty—a monopoly on force. Last October, the premier was kidnapped in broad daylight. Scores if not hundreds of militias are active, the most feared of which are Islamist extremists like the gunmen responsible for overrunning the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi in September 2012, killing ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans.

Those are the militias Hifter is targeting. “We are now fighting not only on behalf of Libya, but on behalf of the whole world,” he told the New York Times by telephone on Wednesday. Fighter-jets loyal to Hifter bombed a base in Benghazi held by an extremist militia. In Tripoli, the capital, a militia loyal to Hifter overran the legislature on May 18, prompting lawmakers to finally name a date for new elections (June 25).

U.S. officials deny that Hifter is getting American support, something he reportedly boasted of receiving decades earlier when he commanded a force trying to unseat Gaddafi. He had helped Gaddafi come to power in a 1969 coup, but then turned against the strongman in the 1980s after being captured in neighboring Chad, which Gaddafi had ordered invaded. He later moved to Virginia, and voted in local elections in 2008 and 2009.

His 2011 return to Libya was not triumphant. Hifter tried but failed to take command of the rebel force arrayed against Gaddafi. And when he showed up on television in February calling for the overthrow of the government, he was mocked.

But in the weeks that followed, a force took shape behind him—motivated, according to the current U.S. ambassador, Deborah Jones, by a wave of assassinations carried by extremists, including a bomb attack on graduating military cadets. “That was the breaking point,” Jones said in a May 21 talk at The Stimson Center, a Washington think tank.

“Hifter’s focus is very specifically on terrorist groups,” Jones said, in remarks she acknowledged were more supportive of Hifter than the official State Department line, which criticizes the use of force. “It’s not necessarily for me to condemn his action going against… groups that are frankly are on our lists of terrorists,” Jones said.

Libya’s politics remain chaotic. The country has had three prime ministers in the last two months, two of whom still claim the title. The constitution is only now being drafted. Hifter has shown signs he views himself as Libya’s version of Abdul Fattah al-Sisi, the Egyptian general who deposed an elected Islamist government in neighboring Egypt, and was elected president this week. But the dynamic in Libya is a different one, analysts say.

“I hear a lot of support for his actions against these specific groups, less support for him as an individual, given his background,” Jones said. “The jury is still out, because it’s not clear what the political agenda is.”

TIME Egypt

Al-Sisi Wins Egypt’s Presidency But Is Stumbling Already

Supporters hold up posters of Egypt's former army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi as they celebrate at Tahrir square in Cairo May 28, 2014.
Supporters hold up posters of Egypt's former army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi as they celebrate at Tahrir square in Cairo May 28, 2014. Amr Abdallah Dalsh—Reuters

Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has won what is being called a "landslide" victory but the low voter turnout—by every count well under 50 percent—has undermined his savior image and deprived him of the mandate he so eagerly sought

As fully expected, the man who deposed Egypt’s last elected president — and who has been running the country for the 10 months since — will remain in charge. Early on Thursday, supporters of Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, said the former field marshal had garnered 23.38 million votes, while his only opponent, the leftist political activist Hamdeen Sabahi, was said to have notched up just 735,285.

But if the outcome of the election was never really in doubt, the way balloting unfolded this week had the perverse effect of undermining the winner — and in more ways than one. Embarrassingly low voter turnout has cast a shadow over al-Sisi’s victory, which he had framed as a request for a “mandate” from an Egyptian public that government and private media alike portrayed as in rapturous thrall of the career soldier. The Sabahi campaign said just 25 percent of voters showed up at polls during the two days of official voting; an Egyptian official put the figure at “about 37 percent.” Neither figure could be confirmed by independent observers, but both were well below the 52 percent turnout in the 2012 presidential ballot.

Perhaps worse for al-Sisi, in political terms, was the decision to extend voting to a third day in order to boost turnout — a move that only served to emphasize the lonely emptiness of numerous polling places. His campaign sought to distance itself from the extension, which even according to official sources quoted by Reuters early Wednesday produced barely half the 80 percent turnout al-Sisi had sought. In the end, an election carefully presented as the public coronation of a new military strongman turned out to be something else altogether: A display of the deep and wide cleavages in the nation of 80-million the new president will have to govern.

Those divisions were what prompted al-Sisi to dispose of Morsi, whose Islamist Muslim Brotherhood government had ruled with a high hand after just scraping into office. But the tensions have been exacerbated by the crackdown al-Sisi enforced against Morsi supporters. Despite the hagiography of al-Sisi by Egyptian media, a rare external public opinion survey released May 22 found that only 54 percent of Egyptians approved of al-Sisi – the same percentage who approved his removal of Morsi (who had enjoyed similar approval ratings just a year earlier).

The poll, conducted by the well-regarded Pew Charitable Trusts, based in Washington DC and Philadelphia, questioned 1,000 Egyptians in face-to-face interviews in mid-April. It found the Brotherhood retained significant support in Egypt — 38 percent voiced a favorable opinion of the group, despite it being dubbed a terrorist organization last December by the interim government al-Sisi put in place. Brotherhood supporters had called for a boycott of the presidential ballot, and the low turnout might indicate a measure of success: Rank and file of the Nour Party, the most prominent remaining Islamist party, reportedly ignored their leaders’ instructions to cast ballots.

Voters found other reasons to stay home as well — including a heat wave that Sisi’s campaign cited on its website. But the net effect of the disappointing turnout was to shine a spotlight on the one word that Morsi supporters have made their slogan since his removal: “Legitimacy.” His supporters shout it as they march into the courtroom where the deposed president is on trial.

“I’m not sure what we’re looking for in Sisi,” Ali Desoke, the owner of a modest central Cairo sandwich shop said in a pre-election interview. “Are we looking for a new hero? A new pharaoh?” The Pew poll had an answer to that as well, asking Egyptians whether democracy was more important, or a stable government without full democracy. Unlike a year ago, a majority — once again, 54 percent —– said a stable government was more important.

That appears to be what al-Sisi is giving them. Though running as protector of the 2011 revolution that ended President Hosni Mubarak’s three decades of autocratic rule, al-Sisi presided over an interim government that banned public demonstrations, killed 1,000 Brotherhood supporters and arrested more than 20,000 people, including prominent journalists.

“The Egyptian people and democracy, it doesn’t work like it does in Europe,” Ahlam Ali Mohamed, a 47-year-old housewife in Alexandria, who voted for Sisi, told Reuters. “I voted today because I want to feel safe.”

Sisi’s campaign was founded on that desire. “If this framework is not tight between the police, the people, the courts and the government, Egypt is in danger,” Hazem Abdel Azim, a senior campaign official told TIME earlier this month. “It’s very important to have this binding relationship.”

Others toyed with the reductionist notion that — after thousands of years under pharaohs, kings and, since 1953, career military men — Egyptians embraced the familiar. “It’s easy to be determinist, to say after 7,000 years of Pharaohs, our government perhaps hasn’t changed over time, because we haven’t thought it would be any other way: One strong ruler,” says Mohamed Lotfy, a founder of the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedom, an independent human rights group. But he goes on to observe that the French struggled under despots for decades after their revolution, and that the last three years have left Egyptians exhausted — another explanation for the low turnout.

“People got tired of calling for change and not getting what they want,” Lotfy says.

Indeed, Pew found dissatisfaction with the way things are going in Egypt, at 72 percent, higher than before the 2011 revolution. Desoke, the sandwich maker who asked if Egyptians want another pharaoh, supports Sisi but considers his candidacy a colossal mistake. “By running, he’s losing a lot,” he says, “and if he wins he will lose even more. Because the problems are still there. Look at the problem of the economy.

“We came out in demonstrations against Morsi because the electricity was being cut. And when Sisi takes over the electricity will still be cut.”

TIME Israel

Pope Offers Israel Gestures of Reconciliation

After pleasing Palestinians a day earlier, the pontiff made a flurry of symbolic moves Monday aimed at healing 2,000 years of tension between the Catholic Church and Jews

A day after pleasing Palestinians by calling attention to their incipient statehood and praying at the concrete barrier that symbolizes Israel’s occupation of their land, Pope Francis made a concerted effort to engage Israelis on Monday.

The pontiff prayed at the Wailing Wall, laid a wreath on the grave of the founding father of Zionism, and spoke movingly at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum where he kissed the hands of Israeli Jews who survived the Nazi regime.

Francis also gamely accommodated a request from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who after seeing the Pope stop to pray in Bethlehem at the separation barrier that divides Israel from Palestinian territory, asked the pontiff to add a stop to his schedule in Jerusalem: A memorial to victims of terror attacks, which Netanyahu pointed out was the reason the barrier was put up.

The result was a photo of Francis bending to the terror memorial, as Netanyahu and a phalanx of fellow officials look on from close quarters. A less forced symmetry with the Bethlehem stop–which had been the Pope’s own idea–had occurred less than an hour earlier, in the image of the Pontiff praying before the Western Wall, a palm on the massive Herodian stones that had formed the foundation of the Temple where God was believed to reside.

But on the final and busiest day of his three-day Holy Land tour, it’s the effort that counts, especially in Israel.

“Every single gesture on this trip has some significance,” says Jeffrey Woolf, a scholar of Christian-Jewish relations at Bar Ilan University in Ramat Gan, outside Tel Aviv. “And we, because we live in an Internet age which cultivates superficial thought, have no idea how powerful these can be. But in the Middle East it certainly [resonates] very powerfully.”

“All these actions are very loaded,” Woolf tells TIME. “He crammed a lot of meaning into a few hours.”

The Pope’s itinerary in Israel was intended to bridge tensions that extend to Biblical times, says Woolf, and address the schism between the emerging Christian church and the Jews its leaders rejected, and later oppressed. “Look, [Jews] have a 2,000-year account with the Catholic Church,” says Woolf. “It’s a fact that the fundamental oppression of the Jews was enforced by the papacy.”

So it was that Francis’ visit to the Western Wall, a standard stop for any VIP visit, carried particular significance for Jewish Israelis. “For 2,000 years about, the destruction of the Temple was the symbol of the rejection of the Jews,” Woolf says. “And now the Pope is going to the Wall. That’s an affirmation. That’s a powerful switch, that [Catholics]no longer believe the Jews are a ‘fossil religion.’”

The visit also carried a modern ecumenical message, as the pontiff, after turning from the wall, embraced two old friends from his native Argentina, a rabbi and an imam, who are his traveling companions on the trip.

The pope then did something no other pontiff has done: He honored the grave of Theodor Herzl, the Austrian journalist who championed the idea of a Jewish homeland after realizing anti-Semitism in Europe could not be overcome. The gesture was an effort to undo a specific slight: Pope Pius X’s tart rejection of Herzl’s movement, dubbed Zionism. Woolf adds that Francis’s move also represents a belief in Israel’s right to exist. “By going to Herzl’s grave he’s making a statement that the founding of the state of Israel is not a result of the Holocaust; it’s an understanding of it as an assertion of the right of self-determination.”

At Yad Vashem, the museum documenting the murder of the 6-million Jews killed by Nazi Germany, Francis quoted the book of Genesis, where after his creation has sinned God asks, “Adam, where are you?”

“Who corrupted you?” Francis asks. “Who disfigured you? Who led you to presume that you are the master of good and evil? Who convinced you that you are God? Not only did you torture and kill your brothers and sisters, but you offered them in sacrifice to yourself because you made yourself a god.”

The pontiff also met with Israeli President Shimon Peres, who earlier agreed to travel to the Vatican to pray for peace with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas; and with Netanyahu, who as prime minister would be in a position to actually make peace. There was a brief session as well with religious leaders: The chief rabbis of both major Jewish traditions, who joined the pontiff in a vow to fight anti-Semitism, and the Muslim Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, during a brief visit to the Haram al-Sharif, as Muslims call the Temple Mount above the Western wall.

There, with an Israeli helicopter hovering overhead, the Pope made yet another plea for peace. “Dear friends, from this holy place I make a heartfelt plea to all people and to all communities who look to Abraham,” Francis says. “May no one abuse the name of God through violence.”

 

TIME Egypt

A Tale of Two Sisis

Egypt's Military Chief Visits Moscow
Field Marshal Abdul Fattah al-Sisi Sasha Mordovets—Getty Images

The extraordinary rise of Abdul Fattah al-Sisi will be complete this week with his all-but-certain election to Egypt's presidency. But the story of a man who shares his last name illustrates the enormous challenges facing the former military commander when he takes office

For Abdul Fattah al-Sisi, life has gotten better and better since the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak.

The career military man was doing well even before the popular revolt of January 2011 ended the three-decade reign of the Egyptian president: al-Sisi sat on the general staff, holding the delicate portfolio for military intelligence.

But he was just getting started. When the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi was elected president in 2012, al-Sisi was named minister of defense, as well as chief of general staff. And when Morsi fell out of favor with Egyptians a year later, with millions marching for his removal last June 30, al-Sisi rose to the occasion, removing the country’s first and only freely-elected president in a coup that most Egyptians call a second revolution.

In January he was promoted to Field Marshal, and polls say that in balloting that begins Monday, he will be elected president.

The scope of the challenge now facing the next president might best be understood by the post-Revolution experience of another al-Sisi. Mohamed Mahmoud al-Sisi shares the family name with the candidate, but that’s all. In 2011, he had his own business selling finely crafted gold jewelry made in a shop he owned. He commuted daily from a Cairo suburb, and says he took home 5,000 Egyptian pounds a month, worth about $870 at the time. His wife and four daughters, aged 12 to 3, ate fish one night, chicken the next, beef when they liked. Money was not a problem—he had so much, he says, he was investing in the Egyptian stock market–but governance was. So he joined the throngs in Tahrir Square, chanting the slogan of the Revolution, “Bread, Freedom, Dignity, Social Justice,” and cheered when Mubarak surrendered his office.

Then his troubles began, he says. First, the stocks collapsed. The father of four had invested in companies that looked rock solid under Mubarak, including Ezz Steel; its shares plummeted from $25 just before Tahrir to $5 after its president, a Mubarak man, was convicted of money-laundering.

Egypt became a dangerous place, and not just to investors. The political uncertainty created a security vacuum, and crime rates soared. One day men with knives confronted al-Sisi as he left his workshop, carrying finished gold jewelry to client shops. The thieves took it all.

“I was a gold maker and I had my own workshop, and I lost all my money and now I’m doing this,” says al-Sisi.

He stands in a Cairo alley, holding a platter. On the platter are paper plates. Some hold peanuts. Others, chick peas. Each plate sells for two Egyptian pounds, or about 23 cents. His government ID card still reads “gold maker” but al-Sisi, 40, spends his workdays moving through the side streets of Zamalek, a relatively prosperous island in the Nile, imploring people smoking water pipes to buy one of his snacks.

On a good night, he makes 70 Egyptian pounds, or $10. On a bad night, 50 pounds, or $7. “From bad to worse,” he says. “The economy is going lower and lower and lower.”

His monthly income, which formerly approached $900, now ranges from $84 to $125. Most nights the girls eat macaroni and rice. “Some vegetables, but not much,” he says. The family has meat only on feast days, two or three times a year. “Now fruit is the third priority. I know it’s important to my children, but first I have to feed them,” al-Sisi says. “My children love apples, the red and the yellow. Now when they are asking for it, I just cry. I cannot afford it any more.”

The candidate al-Sisi is asked constantly about the economy. By some measures, 25 percent of Egyptians live in poverty. By others, the measure approaches 50 percent. A poll released Thursday by Pew Research Center found that 76 percent of Egyptians describe the economy as “bad,” up from 64 percent just after the revolution. Tourism is staggering, and hard currency is so scarce the government has been failing to pay the international firms that pump its oil.

“If things go according to the plan we have prepared, we will see an improvement in two years,” the former field marshal told Sky News Arabia in a May 11 interview. Except for championing energy-saving lightbulbs, however, he has declined to share his economic plan with Egyptians, or anything else that would constitute a platform.

A few days before balloting began, his campaign released a color-coded “Map of the Future,” which appeared to recycle a 30-year-old plan to create a band of cities in what is now desert. Critics say the expense would be beyond Egypt’s means, already burdened by subsidies that keep the prices of food and fuel artificially low, and deter investment.

The al-Sisi selling peanuts says he might not even vote. “Most likely he will be like Mubarak,” he says, of the candidate who shares his name. “This is their nature, the men from the army.” He admits only to the dimmest flicker of hope, rising from the general’s personal religious piety. “Yes,” he says, “this is a very good and important point, and yes it gives hope. But only if the whole system is changing. Otherwise it’s not enough.”

“I will not speak big words,” Mohamed al-Sisi says. “All I care about is that they give people the minimum wage, not less. And that they cast a kind look to the poor people. Social justice.”

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