Iraqi Turkmen preparing to fight Isis militants last weekend. Photo: Marwan Ibrahim, AFP
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Isis and the global rise of non-state actors

The recent onslaught by Isis isn't a rogue success for terrorist groups; non-state actors are on the rise worldwide. We should be watching and wary.

Over the weekend Isis insurgents expanded their control across northwestern and central Iraq, seizing crucial border crossings to Syria and Jordan in Anbar province, as well as a number of key towns close by.

The latest conquests render the colonial border between Iraq and Syria all but obsolete. This blurring of state lines is, of course, all part of the jihadists' aim to create a pan-Islamic caliphate spanning as great a reach of territory as possible.

In geopolitical terms, Isis's challenge to traditional state authority and national divisions is also emblematic of the explosion of terror-driven non-state actors around the globe - most markedly in the Middle East and Africa, but also extending as far as the Asia Pacific to countries such as Indonesia.

It is worth being mindful of this global phenomenon, because the successful onslaught by Isis in the past fortnight appears to have caught Western intelligence agencies offguard. In reality it should have come as no surprise, not least because the group’s name-change last year from al-Qaeda in Iraq (Aqi) to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isis) reflected the growing scope of the group’s ambition.

Another reason the West should have been prepared is that Isis has been patently swelling its ranks during the past 18 months in Syria, another nation in which the state actor - the embattled Assad regime - is threatened by non-state players.

Events in the past year seem to indicate that Islamist terror groups are on the rise around the world, a sense that is backed up by statistics in a recent report by Rand Corporation, a US non-partisan think tank. The number of Salafi-jihadist groups (which includes al-Qaeda and its affiliates) jumped 58 per cent since 2010, from 31 to 49 groups, according to the report.

Outside of Iraq and Syria in the Middle East, Salafi-jihadists are flourishing in Yemen. In the US’s country reports on terrorism last year, the State Department described the Yemeni government as “struggling somewhat” in its efforts to combat al-Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula (Aqap).

Meanwhile terrorist groups in North, East and West Africa continue to grow in influence too. A series of deadly attacks last year in Kenya, Somalia, Algeria, Mali and Nigeria put Islamist militancy on the continent under the spotlight briefly, but interest seems to have faded quickly.

To recap: a spate of lethal bombings to the recent kidnap of innocent schoolgirls, 200 of whom remain missing, Islamist terrorists Boko Haram are increasing a reign of terror in Nigeria. The group killed more than 1,200 people in under 8 months last year, according to the UN.

On the east coast of Africa, Islamist group al-Shabaab wreaked devastation when they stormed Nairobi's Westgate shopping mall last September, killing 63 people. The non-state actor, which is mired in a bitter contest with Somalia's UN-backed government, is suspected of having carried out a number of attacks in neighbouring Kenya over the past year as a warning to the nation that its attempts at intervention are unwelcome.

In Tunisia, separate assassinations of two leading secular politicians by the terrorist group Ansar al-Shari’a in Tunisia (AAS-T) last year plunged the government into crisis.

Meanwhile al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (Aqim), North Africa's branch of the global terror franchise, has extended its tentacles deeper into the sands of Libya and Mali in the past year. Splinter groups have also formed and grown; most notable has been the Signed in Blood Brigade, which was responsible for the death of 39 foreign hostages, including 5 Brits, in Algeria's In Amenas gas facility attack last year.

In addition to lethal terrorist attacks, kidnapping operations have yielded hefty ransom sums for Aqim and its offshoots, which have upped their operations in the Trans-Sahara region. Meanwhile the smuggling of arms, narcotics and cigarettes remains a lucrative trade for these non-state actors too.

These are just some of the Islamist examples of non-state actors that are heaping pressure on governments; the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan, Hezbollah, and the Muslim Brotherhood are a few other examples of non-state actors growing in influence and authority.

Unbound by the constraints of law and, in many cases, quick to extreme violence to bolster their influence and aims, non-state actors are a growing threat and one of which we should be wary.

Lucy Fisher writes about politics and is the winner of the Anthony Howard Award 2013. She tweets @LOS_Fisher.

 

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France’s burkini ban could not come at a worse time

Yet more legislation against veiled women can only further divide an already divided nation.

Since mayor of Cannes David Lisnard banned the full-body burkini from his town’s beaches, as many as 15 French resorts have followed suit. Arguments defending the bans fall into three main categories. First, it is about defending the French state’s secularism (laïcité). Second, that the costume represents a misogynistic doctrine that sees female bodies as shameful. And finally, that the burkini is cited as a threat to public order.

None of these arguments satisfactorily refute the claims of civil rights activists that the bans are fundamentally Islamophobic.

The niceties of laïcité

The Cannes decree explicitly invokes secular values. It prohibits anyone “not dressed in a fashion respectful of laïcité” from accessing public beaches. However, the French state has only banned “ostentatious” religious symbols in schools and for government employees as part of laïcité (the strict separation between the state and religious society). And in public spaces, laïcité claims to respect religious plurality. Indeed, the Laïcité Commission has tweeted that the ban, therefore, “cannot be based upon the principle of laïcité”.

While veils covering the entire face such as the burqa or niqab are illegal, this is not to protect laïcité; it is a security matter. The legal justification is that these clothes make it impossible to identify the person underneath – which is not the case for the burkini.

 

By falling back on laïcité to police Muslim women in this way, the Cannes authorities are fuelling the argument that “fundamentalist secularism” has become a means of excluding Muslims from French society.

Colonial attitudes

Others, such as Laurence Rossignol, the minister for women’s rights, hold that the burkini represents a “profoundly archaic view of a woman’s place in society”, disregarding Muslim women who claim to wear their burkini voluntarily.

This typifies an enduring colonial attitude among many non-Muslim French politicians, who feel entitled to dictate to Muslim women what is in their best interests. Rossignol has in the past compared women who wear headscarves through choice to American “negroes” who supported slavery.

Far from supporting women’s rights, banning the burkini will only leave the women who wear it feeling persecuted. Even those with no choice in the matter are not helped by the ban. This legal measure does nothing to challenge patriarchal authority over female bodies in the home. Instead, it further restricts the lives of veiled women by replacing it with state authority in public.

Open Islamophobia

Supporters of the ban have also claimed that, with racial tensions high after recent terrorist attacks, it is provocative to wear this form of Muslim clothing. Such an argument was made by Pierre-Ange Vivoni, mayor of Sisco in Corsica, when he banned the burkini in his commune. Early reports suggested a violent clash between local residents and non-locals of Moroccan origin was triggered when strangers photographed a burkini-wearing woman in the latter group, which angered her male companions. Vivoni claimed that banning the costume protected the security of local people, including those of North African descent.

Those reports have transpired to be false: none of the women in question were even wearing a burkini at the time of the incident. Nonetheless, the ban has stood in Sisco and elsewhere.

To be “provoked” by the burkini is to be provoked by the visibility of Muslims. Banning it on this basis punishes Muslim women for other people’s prejudice. It also disregards the burkini’s potential to promote social cohesion by giving veiled women access to the same spaces as their non-Muslim compatriots.

Appeals to public order have, occasionally, been openly Islamophobic. Thierry Migoule, head of municipal services in Cannes, claimed that the burkini “refers to an allegiance to terrorist movements”, conveniently ignoring the Muslim victims of recent attacks. Barely a month after Muslims paying their respects to friends and family killed in Nice were racially abused, such comments are both distasteful and irresponsible.

Increased divisions

Feiza Ben Mohammed, spokesperson for the Federation of Southern Muslims, fears that stigmatising Muslims in this way will play into the hands of IS recruiters. That fear seems well-founded: researchers cite a sense of exclusion as a factor behind the radicalisation of a minority of French Muslims. Measures like this can only exacerbate that problem. Indeed, provoking repressive measures against European Muslims to cultivate such a sentiment is part of the IS strategy.

Meanwhile, the day after the incident in Sisco, riot police were needed in nearby Bastia to prevent a 200-strong crowd chanting “this is our home” from entering a neighbourhood with many residents of North African descent. Given the recent warning from France’s head of internal security of the risk of a confrontation between “the extreme right and the Muslim world”, such scenes are equally concerning.

Now more than ever, France needs unity. Yet more legislation against veiled women can only further divide an already divided nation.

The Conversation

Fraser McQueen, PhD Candidate, University of Stirling

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.