What we’re reading: The Paris, Beirut, and Baghdad attacks in a global context

We at Blog would like to extend our condolences to those who have been affected by recent and on-going attacks in Paris, Beirut, and elsewhere in the world. Thankfully, all 18 Brown students studying abroad in Paris were safe throughout the attacks. In light of recent events, this week’s “What we’re reading” will focus on the attacks in Paris, their international implications, and the international response by the media and society at large. At 5 p.m. today, Wednesday, November 18th, the Chaplains will host a “candlelight vigil to express our prayers, concern, and commitment to our global neighbors.” There will be a reception to follow in JWW 411.

On the night of Friday, November 13th, eight individuals killed at least 129 people and wounded over 350 others throughout Paris in an attack that has been linked to the Islamic State (ISIS). The eight attackers–seven of whom are dead–worked in three teams to carry out the attack that spanned the city, targeting several restaurants, the soccer stadium, and the Bataclan concert hall, where 89 victims were killed. The New York Times breaks down the timeline of events and the reaction of the French government.

French authorities have identified Abdelhamid Abaaoud, a 27-year-old Belgian man, as being responsible for orchestrating the attack, the New York Times reports. Authorities are also searching for Abdeslam Salam, 26, who is one of two French brothers living in Belgium who helped carry out the attack and is the only one of the eight attackers still at large.

The Saalam brothers lived in Molenbeek, a Belgian neighborhood that is largely populated by immigrants from the Arab world and has been linked to other attempted and successful attacks in Europe. Slate explores how Belgium became a hotbed for extremist activity. Politico reports that Jan Jambon, Belgium’s interior minister, is vowing to “clean up Molenbeek.” The implications of the connection of Belgians to the attacks are unclear as of yet. Jambon has not specified how he intends to “clean up” the area of concern. 

French President François Hollande declared that “France is at war” and enacted a state of emergency that he now proposes should be extended to three months, the Wall Street Journal reported. Under a state of emergency, the government can conduct raids without a proper search warrant. French officials conducted 168 raids early Monday morning throughout 19 departments, including Paris, Lyon, and Marseille. They arrested 23 people and put an additional 104 people under house arrest.

Looking Ahead (and Behind): ISIS, Immigration, and Islamophobia

France has expanded its aerial bombing of ISIS targets in Syria in response to the attack. They have dropped at least 20 bombs on Raqqa, Syria in the past couple days. Since the beginning of the Syrian Civil War in 2011, more than 200,000 Syrians have been killed and the country has been destabilized by various factions battling for control, including ISIS. The Atlantic outlines France’s role in fighting ISIS in Iraq since September of 2014. Olivier Roy, a professor at the European University Institute in Florence, wrote an op-ed for the New York Times outlining the geopolitical challenges to confronting ISIS and the likely course of action for France.

The conflict has displaced over  11 million Syrians, many of whom have migrated to Europe to escape the violence. For a more in-depth look at refugee resettlement, CNN has a report from September that looks at migrant flows. 

The attack in Paris raised concerns over accepting Syrian refugees into European countries after a Syrian passport was found near the body of one of the suicide bombers. The Guardian cautions against jumping to conclusions about the discovered Syrian passport. Because of the attack, several governments whose nations have been opening their doors to these refugees are receiving intensified backlash from various citizens. In Germany, a country considered friendly to migrants, debate has been especially pointed and a tense climate has emerged (discussed here in Time). 

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Scott Shane on the Lessons of Anwar Al-Awlaki

One of the things Scott Shane wants to impress on his audiences – both the readers of his book, Objective Troy, and the lecture-goers at his talk this past Friday – is that the digital age has severely complicated issues of national security and the spread of propaganda. In the twenty-first century, the United States uses Predator Drones – remotely controlled from military bases – to hit targets from over 1,000 miles away and a number of radical Islamic groups like Al-Qaeda harness the power of YouTube to recruit and inspire young Muslims around the world to commit terrorist attacks.

Scott Shane

Scott Shane

Brought to Brown by the Amnesty International Chapter and the Brown Journal of World Affairs, Scott Shane introduces himself by explaining that the journalism that led to Objective Troy started with some simple questions. What is the nature of terrorism? What leads someone to want to a kill a large group of strangers?

Then, diving into the topic at hand, Shane rewinds to New Mexico in 1971 – the place and date of Anwar Al-Awlaki’s birth. Awlaki would grow up to be Osama Bin Laden’s top recruiter as well as an operational member of Al-Qaeda, helping new recruits like Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the infamous “Underwear Bomber,” to secure explosive materials. But Awlaki wasn’t born into a radical Islamic family. Nasser Al Aulaqia, a Yemeni politician and Awlaki’s father, was a huge fan of Larry King, Shane tells the full crowd. Aulaqia wanted his son to grow up to be a engineer. But it wasn’t until Anwar Awlaki fell in with a conservative group of Muslims while studying at Colorado State University that he became interested in becoming an imam.

Awlaki began his preaching career in San Diego before being hired at a popular mosque just outside of Washington D.C. After the terrorist attacks on 9/11, media outlets like the Washington Post, NBC and CBS looked for an Islamic presence on news segments to help “bridge the east and west.” Awlaki was smart, young, articulate and just a few miles outside of the capital, making him an easy choice for many outlets. Shane brings up a video on the projector, telling the audience: “this is the good Anwar.” The video is a Washington Post video from early 2002, following Anwar through his daily life at the mosque and at home. In one scene, Awlaki tells the reporter, “Islam is a religion of peace.”

Then, by Shane’s telling, something happened to Awlaki. Unexpectedly, in March of 2002, Awlaki disappeared from the United States. Shane has a theory for why Awlaki left so abruptly but tells the audience that we’ll need to read his book to get that important bit.


Awlaki in an undated photo.

Anwar Al-Awlaki would end up back in Yemen. He found that as his preaching became more and more radical, the response he got from his congregation was more positive. He was arrested by the Yemini government and thrown in jail for 18 months without trial. In his lecture, Shane notes that the U.S government perhaps had a hand in keeping Awlaki locked up without the right to a fair trial.

Upon release, Al-Awlaki went from a radical imam to figurehead in Al-Qaeda. The hundreds of videos he had uploaded to YouTube were being watched by young Muslims all over the world. Shane pulls up another video and describes this one as the “bad Anwar.” In the Al-Qaeda-produced video, Awlaki wears a military jacket, telling viewers: “I invite you to fight in the west or join your brothers in the new front, Yemen.” Awlaki was put on Obama’s “Capture or Kill” list – and Shane points out that the list has resulted in less capturing and more killing (but that’s another discussion for another time). After an 18-month hunt for Awlaki, a hunt that involved numerous federal agencies, he was killed by drone strike in September of 2011 in Yemen. It was the first time in over two decades the United States military had killed an American civilian without charging them of a crime. But what the U.S military wasn’t able to destroy was Awlaki’s Internet presence. A quick search on YouTube for “Anwar Al-Awlaki” yields over 62,000 results of his speeches and collections of his quotes. Awlaki tapped into a vein of radical Islamic youth and it’s clear that, even in death, his utilization of social media platforms like Youtube is unrivaled in militant Islamist organizations.

It’s slightly unclear, even by the end of the lecture, whether Shane sees Awlaki as a tragic character who was inhumanely murdered by his own government as the result of the Obama Administration’s decision to step up drone strikes in the Middle East or an interesting case of how the power of the Internet has transformed international terrorism, serving as a home for radical thought in the form of videos like Awlaki’s. But as Shane wraps up his lecture, a final image appears on the projector, it’s of a young boy – Anwar’s son Abdulrahman. “Abdulrahman,” Shane notes, pointing to the image of the smiling sixteen-year old, that “[he] was also an American citizen. He was in Yemen, searching for his father in the fall of 2011 when he was killed by a drone strike just two weeks after his father’s death.”

“He had no ties to terrorism.”

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