September 25, 2012

TSG IntelBrief: Anti-U.S. Violence: Emerging Trends and Strategic Warnings

As of late September 2012, the "Innocence of Muslims," a film made by Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, a convicted con artist from the United States, has caused a week of fiery unrest across the Islamic world. The violent backlash over the film — one that portrayed the Prophet Mohammed as a power-hungry womanizer, a depiction that is perceived as a deep insult to Islam — resulted in the deaths of at least 49 people, including the popular U.S. ambassador to Libya. On Friday, Pakistan's government held a national holiday called the "Day of Love for the Prophet,"" which led to protests across the country. Although the disorder has abated, this sort of violent unrest looks set to continue over the coming days and perhaps weeks.     In the most shocking incident of violence thus far, suspected militants attacked the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, in an incident that killed the U.S. Ambassador and three other embassy personnel. There was no claim of responsibility, but the type of weaponry and the coordinated nature of the incident suggest that it was a terrorist attack. According to several sources, Ansar al-Sharia, a small Salafist Jihadi group, conducted the operation after receiving guidance from al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).

The concerted anti-American protests that followed — fueled by allegations of an "unprecedented" insult against Islam — have been directed primarily against both U.S. and Western diplomatic interests in a growing list of countries in the region, including Afghanistan, Tunisia, Egypt, Iran, Sudan, and Yemen, and have even spread beyond the Middle East to countries such as the Philippines and Australia. Contrary to some media reports, the targets were not exclusively connected to diplomatic missions: American schools were torched in Tunis, while protesters attacked restaurants in Beirut, Lebanon.

The past week of violence is the latest in a series of incidents that have targeted Western interests within regional countries in transition, from the so-called "green on blue" attacks in Afghanistan (where members of the Afghan security forces have attacked and killed international coalition personnel) to an escalation in anti-American sentiment in Iraq. As the U.S. heads toward a tightly contested November presidential election — and against a backdrop that includes the increasing influence of emerging Chinese geopolitical power — the latest violence once again raises the strategic question as to the role of the United States across the Islamic World. (Note: In previous IntelBriefs published in April and September, The Soufan Group described how "green on blue" attacks had the potential to dramatically shift U.S. doctrine in Afghanistan…and elsewhere.)


Trends, Indicators, and Strategic Warnings

The unrest demonstrates a number of underlying trends from across the Islamic world. The most notable is that of violent anti-Americanism. Although radical Islamist factions appear to have orchestrated the worst of the violence — particularly in Sudan, Libya, and Egypt — the root of the issue is a deep and lingering disdain for U.S. values. As one example of this, Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi took more than 24 hours to condemn the attack against the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, drawing suspicion in the White House that he was wavering on whether to criticize the incident at all, and prompting a diplomatic rebuke from the U.S. President.

Indeed, a Pew Survey conducted in 2012 reported that only 15% of people in Muslim countries had a positive view of the U.S. The new governments in Libya, Tunisia, Egypt, Iraq, and Afghanistan all require U.S. and Western support to help rebuild their economies and to strengthen their security forces, but among many dissatisfied Muslims there is still an abiding distrust of U.S. intentions. With the Internet facilitating unrestricted — and unedited — content across the world, further outbreaks of unrest appear almost certain to occur over incidents similar to the controversial film.

This unrest has also shown the transitional nature of post-Arab Spring states, whose security forces have struggled to protect Western diplomatic interests. This is not a surprise; in Libya, Tunisia, and Egypt, the Arab Spring revolutions removed dictators who had previously held a vice-like grip on the opposition, and simultaneously weakened the security services. The positive news is that despite the anger, there was no wider revolution as the protests did not threaten the governments' viability. However, more violence is likely as post-Arab Spring governments seek to carefully balance modernization with Islamic principles.

In one clear trend, radical Islamist groups believe these new governments have become too secular and have been gradually adopting American principles. In Tunisia, Salafist groups have attacked shops selling alcohol, while in Egypt, Salafist protests have taken place over a lack of political representation in the new government. With enfeebled security forces not yet up to the task of protecting foreign government installations or officials, further incidents of violence targeting Western diplomats, business interests, and outposts of culture are highly likely in the coming weeks and months. As a consequence, the new governments will face continued difficulty in seeking to balance national interests and international obligations.

The attack against the Libyan consulate also provides further evidence of an increasing Salafist Jihadi terrorism threat to Western interests. Suspected Salafist Jihadi terrorists have previously attacked the International Red Cross/Red Crescent office and British Ambassador's convoy in Benghazi. There is also anecdotal evidence that Libyans who fought against U.S. forces in Iraq have returned to Iraq and are using their operational skill sets and training to conduct attacks against the local military forces. This trend — and the threat to Western interests in these countries — looks set to continue. AQIM, for example, has issued a communique calling for further attacks against U.S. diplomatic staff to "liberate Muslim countries from American hegemony." To date, there have been few indications that AQIM has been directly active in Libya; however, there are reports that it is coordinating with local Salafist Islamist groups. If accurate, this would suggest that AQIM is helping to boost the capabilities of Libyan extremist groups.

More generally, the death of the U.S. Ambassador to Libya and his fellow statesman, along with the violent protests against other targets across the Islamic world, are likely to have a negative effect on U.S. policy toward the wider Middle East. Among the war weary American public and political leadership, the recent violence would appear to support the narrative that the U.S. and its allies should seek to rein in their involvement. In terms of short-term policy implications, the U.S. is likely to distance itself further from humanitarian intervention in Syria, despite the rising death toll. Moreover, the unrest may also prompt further calls for the U.S. to accelerate its "strategic pivot" toward the Pacific.


Alternative Scenarios

The bitter consequences of a film produced by a dubious Coptic Christian include the loss of a talented ambassador and three other diplomats along with the rapid expansion of protests targeting the U.S. and other Western countries. For a U.S. administration already facing an array of domestic problems, the logical position would be to protect its short-term interests and scale down its diplomatic, military, and cultural presence in the Middle East. However, this could well threaten longer-term interests and regional stability; countries across the region still rely heavily on American economic assistance and training support to help combat current threats. A reduced U.S. presence would likely threaten the post-Arab Spring transition and could result in a sustained escalation in terrorist attacks.

An alternative, and arguably more constructive policy for the U.S. would be to maintain its level of multidimensional support across the Islamic world. Muslims continue to hold a negative view of the U.S. (and some of its allies) for reasons that include the widely unpopular American drone operations, the perception of the U.S. as a staunch supporter of Israel, and Washington's long-standing strategic relationships with authoritarian regimes, such as those led by Muammar Gaddafi and Hosni Mubarak. This perception can only be improved through a more even-handed foreign policy, one that seeks to build upon common values and interests (and there are, to be certain, plenty of both), along with facilitating stronger governance while collaboratively combatting growing terrorist threats.



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