Citizens and leaders of the Euro-Atlantic community are scared, and to some degree fascinated, by the rise, power and influence of fundamentalist islamic movements such Al-Qaeda, AQIM, and most recently with the notorious Islamic State in Iraq and Levant (ISIL). These powerful networks are attracting Westerners, especially their young adults, to either join the fight in Syria, Mali, Somalia, Iraq, Afghanistan or even taking it to their homelands, like in Paris, Toulouse, Brussels, and in the Thalys. Westerners are trying to understand the logics and thought process of these networks. So far the narratives have been engrained in the traditional framework of us versus them, Christian versus Muslims, and the inevitable clash of civilization. The recent picture Timbuktu offers us an artistic look into one of these islamic networks, their ideologies, their contradictions, and the horrors perpetuated in the name of bigotry and oppression.
Aside from traditional hollywood mainstream pictures, Abderrahmane Sissako dug deep, his powerful Timbuktu(2014), into the darkness of an fundamentalist islamic movement ruling over Timbuktu, the historical Malian city and a scholarly centre in Africa. Sissako, a Mauritanian-born film-maker, decided to make this movie after hearing about a story of a unmarried couple being stoned to death by a fundamentalist islamists for having children outside of the sacred bound of marriage. This movie is, as titled by a Guardian’s article, ‘a cry from the heart,’ which shows the horror, stupidity, ignorance of radical islamists over the inhabitants of Timbuktu. However, the picture is much more than a basic criticism as it confronts the viewers to a complex conundrum. Sissako is very careful in maintaining the humanity of these men fighting the jihad.
One of the most beautiful scenes of the movie is a group of young Malian playing soccer on a soccer field without a soccer ball. On a previous scene, a young Malian is being physically punished by the newly-established Islamic tribunal enforcing the Sharia law for owning and playing with a soccer ball. The scene of soccer game, so well choreographed playing with a red sunset light and the yellow dust of the sand, offers one of the most stunning moments of the picture. While the youngsters are playing ‘virtual’ soccer, which includes corner kick, penalty kick and counter-attacks, two jihadists are riding in circle around the field on their motorcycle in order to assure that no soccer ball is being used. In some way, the game illustrates the limits of oppression and Sharia law. The soccer match offers a powerful moment demonstrating the power of the mind and the desire for freedom under oppression. One can compare this scene as one of the many examples written in Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning.
Throughout the movie, one cannot stop making connection with any authoritarian regimes, from the Nazis to the Soviets and so forth, about the basic concept of power and authority (reference to Foucault, Freud and other great thinkers can be undeniably made throughout the picture). Even though scenes of oppression and injustice are ever-present and make the movie difficult to watch at times, Sissako wanted to give humanity to the fundamentalist fighters, the jihadists, by showing their doubts, lack of convictions of their actions and beliefs, and their violations of their bans on the inhabitants. For instance, one leader continues smoking even though it’s forbidden; another one, in a moving scene, is dancing ballet-like; others are continuously talking about the best soccer players being Zidane, so on and so forth.
A large part of the success of ISIL and other group has been to attract muslims in joining the jihad either at home or abroad. A lot of emphasis in Western media has been done on the successful PR campaign of these groups recruiting in US, France, Britain either in person (in prisons and/or in mosques) or through social media (facebook, youtube, twitter and so forth). Sissako spends a look moment filming the making a video for recruitment, wherein the speaker, a young fighter, talks with a real lack of conviction about his past ‘sins’ being a smoker and a rap singer. The man, behind the camera whom is much older and clearly not from Mali (as it has been the case in most of these terrorist networks), is desperate by the lack of conviction of the young jihadist.
Timbuktu whom was nominated for an Academy Awards for Best Foreign Picture and for a New Regards at the Cannes Film Festival, was celebrated by receiving Césars Awards, the French equivalent of the Oscars, for Best Picture and Best Director in February 2015. This movie offers the only artistic look into the horror of oppression, violence, power, and morality. It does respond to the growing interest, fear and fascination of Westerners about ISIS and alike networks.
For instance, a recent study produced by the Pew Research Center looking at the perceptions of global threats by citizens of the world demonstrates that ISIS is considered as the greatest threat in every members of the Euro-Atlantic community. ISIS is perceived as more dangerous than global economic instability and climate change.
Interestingly enough, if climate change has been considered as a direct threat to humanity as whole for decades, ISIS was a non-factor two years ago. Al-Qaeda was the principal network since 2001. It is quite interesting to see that Westerners consider ISIS as a greater threat than climate change.
In the case of Mali, the French have been the only Western power to use their military force in order to protect Timbuktu and block the progression of the radical islamists. At the time of the 2012 American Presidential campaign, between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama, only Mitt Romney acknowledged the growing threat taking place in Mali. When François Hollande launched Operation Serval 63% of the French citizens were in favor of the use of military force in order to maintain order in Mali, block the progression of radical islamists in Mali and throughout the Sahel region (read a previous analysis on Operation Serval here). A little later, President Obama provided assistance to the French army through transports and through intelligence gathering.
Timbuktu offers Westerners a needed look into the reality of oppression in the case of Mali. It falls in the same category of great movies looking at bigotry, power, oppression, violence, injustice and stupidity like Path of Glory and Dr. Strangelove. It confronts the viewer with contradictory emotions of anger and amazement. Dark as it is, Sissako’s core message of the unbreakable human spirit is an ode to hope.
(Copyright 2014 by Politipond. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission).
2014 has certainly been a complex and eventful year for the world; and 2015 already started at full throttle with the recent terrorist attacks in France. The relentless year was marked by a succession of events affecting directly or indirectly the Euro-Atlantic community at every level of analysis imaginable: individual, domestic, national, regional and naturally international. This year Politipond has identified six axiomatic issues occurring in 2014 with likely future repercussions.
The election of the European Parliament – the European earthquake
Were the European Parliament elections in May 2014 a wake-up call for Europe? Or the beginning of a new direction for the Union? The elections underscored a trend in most EU Member States, a shift towards the extremes (right and left). Some EU Member States have seen an increasing attraction to extreme-left parties. Greece, which has been at the heart of the future of the Eurozone since 2009, is still experiencing considerable traumas caused by the austerity measures implemented as required by the terms of the bailout. Today, Greece is still facing political problems, which has been a blessing for Syriza, a far-left populist party led by Alexis Tsipras. In other EU Member States, the shift has been towards the extreme-right wing political parties. This is the case in several large EU Member States such as France (with the Front National led by Marine Le Pen), the United Kingdom (with UK Independence Party with Nigel Farage), the Netherlands (Party of Freedom with Geert Wilders), Austria (Freedom Party of Austria and Alliance for the Future of Austria withHeinz-Christian Strache and Josef Bucher), among others.
Among these parties, the Front National, UKIP and the Freedom Party have increased their visibility on the European stage and their influence on shaping national debates. In the case of the Front National, the party received the most votes in France for the 2014 EP elections with 25% of the votes representing an increase by 18.9% from the 2009 EP elections (read analysis on France here). Marine Le Pen even called her party the first one of France. The graph below illustrates the votes received by extreme-right wing parties in the 2014 EP elections.
The 2014 EP elections were certainly a political earthquake in Europe as large EU Member States fell to extreme parties. However, institutionally, the influence of right-wing parties at the EP remains minor as they only have 52 seats out of the 751. At the end of the day, the EP remains in the hands of the EPP (Social Democrats) and the S&D (Socialists). But the increase of votes received by extreme-right parties underlined several aspects: a high discontentment with the EU; a misunderstanding of the EU; nationalist feelings; and the permanent anger towards immigrants. During Pope Francis’ speech before the EP in December, he described the EU as an “elderly and haggard” Europe. Europe needs to reconnect with its citizens, and it won’t be with the help of its radical parties.
A new EU leadership
2014 was the year of the renouveau in terms of changing personnel at leadership positions in the EU. This was the case for the High Representative (HR/VP), known as the EU foreign minister, the President of the Commission, and the President of the European Council. Ensuing the European elections for the European Parliament (EP) in May, the President of the EP remained the same, Martin Schulz. Considering the HRVP and the
President of the Commission, the latter went to former Prime Minister of Luxembourg, Jean-Claude Juncker (read here an article on the Juncker Commission) and to the former Italian Foreign Minister, Federiga Mogherini. These two individuals have been welcomed as they are expected to bring a new wind to Europe and their respective institutions. The José Manuel Barroso’s years have affected the dynamism of the Commission, especially in his last quinquennat; while, for his counterpart, Catherine Ashton, she never seemed at her ease leading the European foreign policy machine and the EEAS. However, Herman Van Rompuy, President of the European Council left the position to Polish Prime Minister, Donald Tusk, in excellent standing. Herman Van Rompuy, undeniably discrete but efficient, was axiomatic in holding European unity especially during the period of tense negotiations to save the PIIGS and the Eurozone (read here one of the best peer-reviewed articles on Ashton and Van Rompuy).
Soon after his appointment Jean-Claude Juncker pledged before the EP that he would seek to reboost and/or reboot the European economic engine. Later this fall, he announced his strategy, known as the Juncker Plan, a €315bn investment fund program intended to kick-start the European economy/ies. The Commission argues that the Juncker plan could “create up to 1.3 million jobs with investment in broadband, energy networks and transport infrastructure, as well as education and research.” This public-private investment fund program (the Commission and the European Investment Bank (EIB) would create a €21bn reserve fund allowing the EIB to provide loans of a total of €63bn, while the bulk of the money, €252bn, would come from private investors) would allow to fund broad construction and renovation programs across Europe. Some experts argue that the Juncker plan is too little, in terms of the size of the investments, while EU Member States are reluctant to invest their shares in such program. In any case, it won’t start before mid-2015.
Sluggish negotiations around the TTIP
The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), initiated in July 2013, has become a sluggish and complex series of negotiations between the EU and the US. At first this massive bilateral trade agreement was expected to be quickly completed and agreed. The TTIP consists in removing trade barriers in a wide range of economic sectors as well as harmonizing some rules, technical regulation, standards, and approval procedures. According to the European Commission, the TTIP is projected to boost the EU’s economy by €120 billion; the US economy by €90 billion; and the rest of the world by €100 billion. “The TTIP’s goal” argue Javier Solana and Carl Bildt, “is to unleash the power of the transatlantic economy, which remains by far the world’s largest and wealthiest market, accounting for three-quarters of global financial activity and more than half of world trade.”
Almost two years in, the negotiations on the TTIP are facing serious criticisms inside Europe. The TTIP has provided the arguments to anti-globalization movements, fear of decline of democratic foundations, declining national sovereignty, as well as destruction of national/regional identities and cultures. Nevertheless, as demonstrated below, a majority of European citizens are in favor of the TTIP at the exception of Austria.
The TTIP is seen as a way to relaunch the transatlantic economy, but mainly European economies stagnating since the financial crisis. The TTIP is as well a response to the other trade agreements, like the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), and the rise of Asian economies. Economists and experts argue that a failure to conclude the TTIP in 2015 could lead to the collapse of the negotiations and leave the European economy in difficult position in the years/decade to come.
A Climate Deal for the Earth?
President Obama announced on November 11 the historical climate deal with his Chinese counterpart to control the level of pollution of the two nations. The US pledged to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by at least 26% below the 2005 levels by 2025, while China committed to increase its share of power produced by non-carbon sources, nuclear and solar, to 20%. Nevertheless, China recognized that its greenhouse gas emissions will continue peaking until at least 2030.
This climate pact between the two largest polluting nations was agreed weeks prior the Lima summit laying down groundwork for the comprehensive UN greenhouse gas reduction pact expected to be agreed at the 2015 Paris summit, known as the United Nations Climate Change Conference(UNFCC COP21). The 2014 US-Chinese climate pact is an important stepping-stone prior the 2015 climate summit in Paris. The 2015 Paris summit may be a turning point for the EU and the EU-28 to lead on this question after the 2009 Copenhagen fiasco.
A Terrorist Triad: ISIL, Boko Harm, and Al-Shabaab
Terrorism has always existed and will continue to live on. However, the type of terrorism faced by the Euro-Atlantic community since the mid-1990s has been principally based on radical islamic terrorism. The principal group on top of Western lists was Al-Qaeda, which has lost some of its grandeur since the assassination of its leader Ben Laden. The year 2014 was important as three groups have shaped Western foreign policies: the new comer, Islamic State in Iraq and Levant (ISIL, also now referred as the Islamic State, IS), and two more established groups, Boko Haram and Al-Shabaab. Each group does fall under a similar category of being inspired by Islam, but have different agendas and different radiance.
In the case of Boko Haram and Al-Shabaab, both groups are located on the African continents. Boko Haram, an Islamic sect, recognized by the US in 2013 as a foreign terrorist organization, seeks to create an Islamic state in Nigeria. Boko Haram became a familiar house-name in 2014 with the kidnapping of hundreds of school girls creating an outcry in the US. In the case of Al-Shabaad, a somali islamic terrorist group, is an Al-Qaeda militant group fighting for the creation of an Islamic state in Somalia. The group has started to increase its attacks outside of Somalia’s borders and especially against Uganda and Kenya (remember the terrorist attack on a Nairobi Mall in 2013) as both states are actively involved in fighting Al-Shabaad.
The last terrorist group, ISIL, is more recent. It has risen from the rubbles of the Syrian civil war, ensuing the Arab Spring. Prior its existence as ISIL, it was identified as Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) and emerged during the US campaign against Saddam Hussein. The group became ISIL in 2012 when the ambition of the group became regional and some fighters moved their fight to Syria. Even though Western governments were aware of its existence, ISIL became a top priority for Western citizens – regardless of its real threat to Western homelands – in June 2014 after several victories in overtaking large Iraqi cities like Mosul and Fallujah. ISIL has progressively begun a territorial warfare in order to create its own state, a caliphate, over parts of Syria and Iraq.
The core distinction between ISIL and the two other groups lays in their soft power. ISIL has been extremely attractive to many Europeans and Americans citizens, while Boko Haram and Al-Shabaab have remained more local/regional in their recruiting efforts. A large number of Western citizens, mainly from France, Belgium and the UK, have decided to join the fight aside ISIL fighters in Syria. These fighters have been perceived as a real threat to homeland security (as proven by the January 7th attacks in France against Charlie Hebdo).
Ultimately, these three terrorist organizations will keep their importance on influencing Western foreign and defense policies as the US and some of its European allies are already involved in military actions in Iraq and Syria. In the case of Europe, France is actively fighting terrorist networks in the region of the Sahel (Operation Barkhane, read here a previous analysis) and other African nations like in Mali (Operation Serval).
On the European chessboard, 2014 belongs to Russia. Russia brought back the European continent to traditional warfare with territorial invasions and other types of military provocations unseen since the Cold War (including the destruction of an airliner above Ukraine). 2014 started with the ‘invasion‘ of Crimea by the Russian army leading to its annexation to Russia validated by a referendum. By mid-Spring 2014, Ukraine had lost a part of its territory without any actions by the members of the Euro-Atlantic community. The West started to act against Russia during the summer once reports revealed the presence of ‘green men’ in Eastern Ukraine and movement of military equipments across the border.
During the summer, EU Member States agreed on a series of sanctions against Russian individuals and some financial institutions. At first, many experts thought that the sanctions were too little too late, but in late 2014 the Russian economy was showing serious signs of weakness. However, one needs to underscore that the slowdown of the Russian economy is related to the collapse of the oil prices and a decrease in consumer spendings. In almost one year, the rouble has lost 30% of its value and the Russian economy is on the verge of recession. As reported by the Economist, “Banks have been cut off from Western capital markets, and the price of oil—Russia’s most important export commodity—has fallen hard.”
Despite the economic situation of Russia, at least until now, Vladimir Putin has maintained throughout 2014 a very strong domestic support and sky-high approval rating. Putin’s decision to invade and annex Crimea was highly popular in Russia (as illustrated below). Additionally, the anti-Western narratives advanced by Putin have been well received domestically. However, with the decline of the Russian economy the shift from Russian foreign prestige to more concrete concerns, like jobs, economic stability, and social conditions, may re-become of importance in the national debate.
2015, Year of the Renouveau?
The economists seem very optimistic considering the forecast of the global economy. According to Les Echos (of December 30, 2014) 2014 was indeed an excellent year for world markets with record results for Shanghai (+49.7% since December 31, 2013), New York (+13.1% for S&P 500 since December 31, 2013), a modest result for Stoxx Europe (+4.9%), a stagnating French CAC40 (+0.5%), and a declining British FTSE (-1.7%). But with rising world markets, declining oil prices, increasing US gas production, and an increasing American growth, 2015 looks bright for the US, but remain mitigated for European economies.
The Grexit may be back on the table based on the elections of January 25th. With Syriza at the head of the polls, his leader has been calling for a renegotiation of Greece’s loan terms implemented by the Troika (IMF, Commission, and ECB). Neither Berlin nor Brussels want to go down this road. According to Der Spiegel, Berlin is willing to let Athens leave the European Monetary Union (EMU) if it decides to abandon the austerity measures. Two aspects can be underscored: on the one hand, some argues that Berlin is not worried anymore about a contagion to other European economies in case of a Grexit. While on the other, some others are claiming that it is part of a ‘tactical game’ played by Berlin in order to lower the chances of a Syriza victory at the end of the month. In any case, the question of the Euro and EU membership will remain throughout 2015.
Will the Brexit occur? In 2015, British subjects will be voting for the next Prime Minister. The elections are going to be closely monitored considering the possibilities of an eventual referendum on the future of the United Kingdom’s EU membership. The current PM, David Cameron, has been promising a referendum for 2017 if re-elected and has been a counter-productive force in Brussels. Additionally, Nigel Farage, leader of the UK Independence Party (UKIP), getting strong results at the 2014 EP elections seem a strong frontrunner for the post of PM. He has, as well, promised a referendum on the EU membership of the UK. The financial hub of Europe, the City, has been concerned about the financial and economic repercussions of a Brexit. The City’s argument is that by being outside a powerful club, the EU, the UK won’t be able to influence its decision-making and direction. In a recent poll, 56% of British citizens are favorable in staying within the Union.
Last but not least, 2015 may be the year of another large debate in Europe about terrorism versus immigration, freedom versus security and the solidification of the rise of anti-immigrants parties. The terrorist attacks of January 7th, 2015 in Paris will change the national and European debate about counterterrorism, social-economic policies, domestic political narratives, and naturally foreign policies towards the Arab world.
(Copyright 2015 by Politipond. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission).
The French are back in Africa, and apparently ready to stay. With the recent agreement announced, Operation Barkhane will began early August and take over the precedent French mission in Mali, Operation Serval. Operation Barkhane, named after a crescent-shaped dune in the Sahara desert, is to become the french pillar of counterterrorism in the Sahel region. French will use and deploy a 3,000-strong counterterrorism forces over five countries, Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger. The purpose of Operation Barkhane seeks at ‘regionalizing‘ the counterterrorism efforts in the Sahel.
It all started with the Libyan intervention in 2011. With the collapse of the Qaddafi regime, the Libyan borders became so porous that a large number of criminal and terrorist networks were able to spread across the region. The French intervened in emergency in 2012 in Mali in order to stop the jihadist incursion from Northern Mali to the Malian capital. Operation Barkhane will bring Operation Serval, in charge of fighting jihadists in Mali, to an end. President Hollande has argued that Operation Barkhane seeks to assist and help Africans to enforce their own security. In other words, French defense minister underscored (see in the video) that France assures its own security, Europe’ security and ultimately France is becoming the leader in fighting radical islamic terrorism.
The early involvements of French in Africa with Libya, Mali and Central African Republic are demonstrating the renouveau of French interests and implication in such strategic region for France.
President Hollande of France promised the French a quick Malian adventures and now France is looking at a long-term fight against terrorism in the Sahel region. The reason is that “there still is a major risk” announced French defense minister, Jean-Yves le Drian, “that jihadists develop in the area that runs from the Horn of Africa to Guinea-Bissau.” He added that the “aim [of the Operation] is to prevent what I call the highway of all forms of traffics to become a place of permanent passage, where jihadist groups between Libya and the Atlantic Ocean can rebuild themselves, which would lead to serious consequences for our security.”
In order to fight jihadists in this vast region, Operation Barkhane shall be seen as a reorganization of the forces already present in the region. It will be composed in terms of military and human capabilities of 3,000 military personnel, six fighter jets, 20 helicopters, 200 armored vehicles, 10 transport aircrafts, and three drones (as described by AllAfrica.com and RFI). Considering the number of countries the division of labor will be organized as such:
headquarters and air force in the Chadian capital of N’Djamena under the leadership of French Général Palasset;
a regional base in Gao, north Mali, with at least 1,000 men;
a special forces base in Burkina Faso’s capital, Ouagadougou;
an intelligence base in Niger’s capital, Niamey, with over 300 men;
aside from the four permanent bases, several temporary bases will be created with an average of 30-50 men where required.
Several points shall be underlined concerning the success rate of such wide counterterrorist mission. First, as demonstrated in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Mali, without a solid state, composed of territorial-polity-society package (to retake the terms of Barry Buzan), the long-term success of any counterterrorist operation will be difficult. The fighting aspect of this mission could go endlessly without the inclusion and implementation of statebuilding dimension in the each country of the Sahel region. Who will undertake the lengthy, costly and complex task of statebuilding? the EU? the UN? the French? Enforcing security in the region with boots on the ground in order to assure the protection of the European homeland may only be a one dimensional strategy.
Second, in term of costs, how much is France willing to invest in this wide counterterrorist operation? The domestic economic situation of France is worrisome considering its slow economic and industrial engine. The French Defense minister confirmed that France has the required economic resources to lead this counterterrorist endeavor. It appears that the French President is giving the economic resources to the military in order to lead the mission to its end. Nevertheless, with a continuous inward looking public opinion and middle class hurt by the Eurozone crisis, it looks like a real political gamble for President Hollande. How will the French respond to such operation? The answer to such question may be easy. Considering the extremely low media coverage on the implementation of Operation Barkhane, the French government is doing it quietly in this period of holiday.
Third, aside from African cooperation, will the US and the EU contribute to the military efforts? After the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the American public opinion has grown war-tired. A large majority of Americans are opposed to the idea that the US should play the role of the global policeman. Thus, President Obama has been in the business of bringing back troops, precise targeting and pivoting to Asia. The US may remain on the sideline, eventually providing some intelligence to the French. When it comes to the EU, the Union has already deployed some forces on the ground through one military CSDP mission in Mali (EUTM Mali) and two civilian CSDP missions (EUCAP Sahel Mali and EUCAP Sahel Niger). These CSDP missions may provide some assistance in training armed forces – police and army – of these countries in addressing counterterrorism tactics and strategies. The EU may additionally provide some aids to Sahel countries.
At the end of the day, France is starting a lengthy and risky military endeavor in a vast region with no end in sight. The question that has not be answered is quite simple: what is the endgame? When does France consider the mission accomplished? Fighting terrorism has become the Western windmills.
(Copyright 2014 by Politipond. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission).