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The Middle East, Southwest Asia, and North Africa are on Fire

Historic Conflagration

The world faces a historic turning point as religion, nationalism, and a growing power vacuum combine to pose a complex threat to global stability. A series of events and political strategies gone awry have culminated to engulf two continents in a series of violent and, existential conflicts. Although each of the various conflicts is unique, all the violence has common threads and linkages. The intelligence profession and terrorism studies face a daunting challenge to track the geostrategic ramifications of the current violence. However, beyond reporting current information, the US Intelligence Community has the responsibility to provide information to support new US security policies in response to this significant new threat.

The Middle East and Global Stability

Most of the Middle East’s political history provides few vestiges of democracy as measured by contemporary Western standards. Rather, much of the Middle East’s political history tells a story of domination by a series of ancient dynastic empires including Persia, Egypt, and Rome as predecessors to modern overlords like Turkey, European colonial powers, feudal kingdoms and dictators. Interspersed in between these times of authoritarian governance were periods of tribal and national strife. With the Arab Spring, some observers proclaimed that democracy was now on the horizon for the Middle East. The intelligence profession and experts in terrorism studies generally did not share this sanguine political view by the social-media crowd that authoritarian regimes would be no more. The reality is, in a period of a few months, the Middle East transitioned from relative order to anarchy, with wars that now threaten the global economy. In addition, the deterioration of events present a dire new threat of Islamic extremist terror attacks against the West. Given the history of the region and the modern convergence of religion, politics, and national goals, the broader aspects of the current crisis were predictable.

The division of the Middle East into countries with borders that did not reflect inherent ethnic, tribal, and religious realties was a formula for future crisis.1 The current situation in Syria and Iraq is emblematic of the chaos across the Middle East, Southwest Asia and North Africa. Iraq is a composite of Shi’ia, Sunni and Kurds who share little except animosity. Iraq first was dominated by a Sunni minority, which was displaced and replaced during the US invasion of 2003. The new Shi’ia government did little to bridge the religious and political gulf between the three competing parties in this deeply divided nation. Syria was in effect a mirror image of Iraq as the minority Shiite Alawite sect dominated an authoritarian government to rule the national majority of Sunnis. Iran complicated the fragile balance through a geostrategic goal to establish a Shi’ia ”arc of influence: from Iran across Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.2 The Arab Spring’s unintended consequences combined with a US disengagement across the region was a catalyst for the Syrian Civil War, which has now morphed into a cross-border sectarian war and Iraqi Civil War that in-turn presents an emerging global threat.

Dealing with Dramatically New and Unexpected Threats

The Sunni-Shi’ia sectarian war and the potential for a radical terrorist Caliphate nation-state carved out from Iraq and Syria is a threat to the modern world. The threat to the Middle East oil flow portends catastrophic problems for the world economy. The resurgence of an al Qaeda network spanning three continents is potentially exacerbated by the dramatic success of the violent extremist group ISIS (also known as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant). ISIS is poised to control a substantial part of Eastern Syria and Western Iraq as a terrorist bastion-state. Iran is pressured to move beyond the use of proxies to intervene for the Shi’ia government in Iraq.3

The intelligence profession and security elements conducting terrorism studies face profound challenges to US security that require immediate understanding of the full range of these threats. Online security and intelligence education resources can contribute to meeting this challenge. Our expert faculty members have experience in intelligence field operations and are invaluable in the education and training for a new generation of analysts for the US intelligence community.

1. The Avalon Project : The Sykes-Picot Agreement : 1916 Retrieved: avalon.law.yale.edu/20th_century/sykes.asp
2. Alaghia, J., (2013). Hezbollah DNA. University of Calcutta, KW Publishers Pvt Ltd, New Delhi, India. ISBN: 978-93-81904-39-8
3. The Intrigue Behind Iraq’s Jihadist Uprising. Stratfor, June 17, 2014. Electronic Newsletter.

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