The Erbil Rocket Attack


On Monday 15 February 2021, the biggest attack in months occurred in the Kurdish region of Iraq. 14 rockets were fired against the US coalition base at Erbil airport, which was established to support Iraq in defeating ISIS. The rockets hit residential areas and damaged civilian properties. As a result, one foreign contractor for the US military was killed and at least 9 civilians were wounded.  

The Iraqi President Salih and Prime Minister Al-Kadhimi, the Kurdish President Barzani, as well as several Arab states, the EU and the US strongly condemned the attack, with the US accusing pro-Iranian militia forces of being behind it. The Iranian-backed Shia militia group “Saraya Awliya al Dam” claimed responsibility for the attack and did not hold back from threatening the US with possible retaliation.

Iran denied the “suspicious rumours” regarding its involvement and claimed that it has no intent to disrupt Iraq’s stability and security. The Islamic Republic used the usual narrative concerning the Iraqi people being involved as they do not want any US presence in their country. Despite Iran’s claims of innocence, these attacks mirrored those in 2019 and 2020, where it retaliated against the US on Iraqi military bases, launched rockets on Baghdad’s airport and the Green Zone near the US embassy, aiming to force all US troops out of the country and thus remain the sole hegemon on the ground. 

Shia cleric and militia leader Al-Sadr himself described the attack as an attempt to undermine people’s trust in the upcoming elections and to prevent Pope Francis’ planned visit to Iraq in March. The Kurds further saw the attack as a possible attempt to harm their relations with the US. It is also likely that the Iranian regime is playing the coercion card to make the US lift its sanctions and return faster to the nuclear deal. 

In the end, the attack has merely heightened the already unstable position of Iraq. On the one hand, armed militias have been dominating the country; on the other, ISIS, can now regain its foothold more easily. It is highly concerning that the reckless militias signalled their readiness to attack anywhere at any given time. Erbil used to be the safest place in Iraq, but that too has changed. The new US administration under President Biden now faces its first test on Iraq, which will be crucial in determining its priorities for the country and the Middle East in general. 

For now, the White House has planned to increase NATO troop numbers in Iraq and to cooperate with the Iraqi and Kurdish authorities in the investigation of the Erbil perpetrators, who shall be held accountable. The US government also stressed “its right to respond.” At the same time, a response could lead to further escalations, with Iraq caught in the middle of the tensions between Tehran and Washington.

It is time that both states find a common ground to resolve their disputes without continuing to put Iraq’s sovereignty and territorial integrity at stake. And it is equally important that Iraq tackles its internal challenges to regain its strength and ensure a secure and stable nation for its people; free from regional intervention.

The US needs a National Introspection

On 6 January 2021, 800 people stormed the Capitol building in Washington, D.C. So far, more than 135 people have been charged. Call it what you will – an insurrection, a riot, a terrorist attack, a failed coup or rather meekly, a protest – chants of ‘Stop the Steal’ from the pro-Trump mob (with clear linkages emerging among extremist groups such as the Proud Boys, Three Percenters and Oath Keepers) echo through live footage shared on Twitter of wrecked media equipment, FBI reports of pipe bombs, and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s recent account of lasting trauma. Passing more anti-terrorism laws will do very little to engage with the realities of white supremacy – issues at the heart of the United States’ founding that urgently demand proper recognition, reparations and work towards reconciliation. 

These events have reignited calls among lawmakers for a more expansive means to address terrorism-related activities, including widening the targets of surveillance and creating a new category of crime, ‘domestic terrorism’. Signed declarations such as The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights outline major concern with such demands, fearful of more anti-terrorism legislation exacerbating existing frameworks rooted in bias, discrimination and a denial of fundamental rights such as due process. 

Highlighting the political and discriminatory choices within anti-terrorism programmes, Adama Bah shares her story of harassment as a Muslim post-9/11. Accused of being a potential suicide bomber in 2005, aged sixteen, “when I hear people say, ‘we need to expand the war on terror or create new laws’, it’s an insult to me because, for some reason, they found the laws to detain me and accuse me of terrorism”. Though released after six weeks in a juvenile centre, Adama was subject to a 10pm curfew, an ankle bracelet for three years, and put on a no-fly list in face of deportation to Guinea, where she had not lived since age two. Eventually granted asylum on grounds that she would face forcible circumcision if deported, Adama notes how “history shows that having anti-terrorism laws just affect people like myself”. 

4th April 2019. Sign outside the United Methodist Building, across from the Capitol – reads: ‘No one can serve two masters. You cannot serve God and White Supremacy’

Although calls such as Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s for a 9/11-like commission to examine the causes of the events on January 6th are a necessary start, the storming of the Capitol should not be treated as exceptional. Instead, these events reflecta storm brewing over the past four years and since the Civil War of 1861-65.

As columnist Fintan O’Toole puts it, the imagery of “rampaging savages desecrating the neo-Roman Capitol” serves a rather reassuring role in deflecting from the real issues at the heart of this debate. Unpacking the role of Trumpism in inciting the violent attack on the Capitol, O’Toole draws attention to its construction coinciding with the increasing contradictions faced by the Republican Party. Most poignantly, such imagery implies the deep-rooted racism of a few, while sustaining an illusion of a democratic, anti-racist majority. Whilst Trump may have brought together and helped brand a crowd of ‘great patriots’, this is nothing new. 

Expanding state powers in a supposed effort to combat white supremacy inherently strengthens the very institutions that continue to harm minorities. Moreover, an event-driven reaction feeds into the storming of the Capitol as an exceptional moment in US democracy. Such processes serve to obscure, distract and deny the systemic racism at play, alongside the tragic inevitability of the violence and hatred shown on January 6th being repeated on a wider scale soon enough. 

So what is an appropriate response? A national reckoning may seem intimidating and idealistic, yet much important work has already begun. It’s a matter of listening and engaging. All around Capitol Hill we are reminded of the realities on which the US was founded. The Capitol Building itself was constructed by enslaved African Americans. Further down the National Mall, The National Museum of African American History and Culture reminds us of the brutality endured by some and not others in the country’s founding. Drawing attention to the generational struggles that have come with a legacy of enslaved ancestors traded as property sheds powerful light on the multi-faceted traumas of African Americans over the past 400 years.

Neither do we have to look very far today to see how pain and violence persists among those structurally marginalised. The Colour of Coronavirus Project highlights, for example, how Indigenous Americans have suffered almost double the number of deaths of White Americans per 100,000. The US’s response to COVID-19 has exacerbated inequality among already vulnerable communities – what the Brookings Institution has referred to globally as the ‘Inequality Pandemic’. 

The events on January 6th are thus more a question of whether the US is ready to engage with the deep contradictions at the heart of claims to be ‘the world’s greatest democracy’. First and foremost this should start with holding Trump and a long list of Republican Party members of Congress to account for their role in inciting violence. But we need to go much further. There needs to be an interrogation of how the storming of the Capitol was ‘allowed’ to happen, with necessary recognition that white supremacy is systemic and endemic. With political will, this crisis of white supremacy – amplified by the events on January 6th – provides a vital opportunity for lawmakers to take an active role in prioritising education, dialogue and national introspection. 

Photo credits: from the author.

Bye Bye, Trump!

America has beaten its chest for decades claiming to be the world’s “greatest democracy”, at the top of its lungs, loud and clear, for everyone to hear. It has portrayed itself as the saviour and purveyor of peace, often to those evil Middle-Eastern folks who might have some naughty toys they shouldn’t have (by toys I mean Weapons of Mass Destruction).  However, has America really ever been a peaceful democracy?

There has long been a discussion of the relationship between democracy and peace. The democratic peace theory tells us that democratic countries tend to have relative peace since they share ideological similarities and would not be interested in fighting one another, as well as with other states. America has proven such a concept wrong in several ways.

First, America has taken it as its mission for decades to expand democracy in order to bring peace, which helped justify its international campaigns on the “War on Terror” since 2001. Such missions have worsened the situation in countries such as Iraq or Afghanistan. When Trump took office, he promoted an agenda of “leaving the wars”, and one can say he left some wars. As we speak or sit down with our morning tea, the Taliban and the Afghan government are discussing peace talks with little US intervention. However, under the Trump administration, several acts such as airstrikes in Syria or the killing of a senior Iranian general were made as an executive order outside Congress, which (normally) passes the legislation, especially in matters of war. 

Second, peace is a controversial concept within America’s own borders. Is America really peaceful when extrajudicial killings and further human rights violations take place? Is America really peaceful when Black Lives Matter supporters and Trump supporters are treated in very different ways? As we saw last month, white supremacists and far-right movements stormed the Capitol and walked through its corridors, parading confederate flags, while months before, Black citizens couldn’t even walk the streets of their neighbourhoods without police assault. If anyone had any doubt that racism still existed in the US, well, let us just assume this would be (even more) evidence that it is very much alive and well. If we understand peace in line with the great scholar Johan Galtung, as not merely negative peace – the absence of war – but as positive peace – the absence of structural violence – then is America peaceful?

Now that Trump has left, we wonder, what will Biden’s position be on matters of foreign policy? And, particularly, how will he position the US in terms of international peace? If we look at Biden’s Mandate under the Obama administration, it is important to remember that Obama entered not one, not two, but nine international military interventions – Libya being one of them -, with Biden serving as Vice-President. While Obama might have done some good – signing the Paris Agreement, which is now back on Biden’s to-do list – his time in office was hardly peaceful

And since (unfortunately) the power of the North still looms over the world, we must be alert to what Biden imagines peace and democracy to be. 

The Misconceptions of a ‘Terrorist’

The perception of a ‘terrorist’ has played a fundamental role in exacerbating racism. since 9/11, the portrayal of Islam has been deeply damaging to the Muslim community worldwide, as the international media has had no hesitation in associating Islam with acts of terrorism, propagating racist depictions of Muslims and Islam.  

The definition of ‘terrorism is “commonly understood to refer to acts of violence that target civilians in the pursuit of political or ideological aims” Its damage is both physically immediate and socially incendiary. It often manifests in illicit and clandestine organisations, involving careful planning and carried out through bombings and assassinations. A ‘terrorist’ is a person who has used unlawful violence and intimidation against civilians in the pursuit of political/ideological aims. 

The global media such as CNN, the BBC, Time and Newsweek’  have played a vital role in manufacturing an inherent relationship between Islam and terrorism. As a result, to overcome the threat of terrorists, certain repressive policies have been implemented restricting freedoms by such means as increased surveillance, immigration regulations, and indefinite detention centres created to control and exploit minorities leading to endless human rights violations. 

Consider the example of the three ex-detainees who attended a wedding in Pakistan and decided to visit Afghanistan. Once they discovered that Kandahar was under attack, they attempted to return to Pakistan and mistakenly ended up in a Taliban stronghold. They were captured and sent to Guantánamo Bay without charge or trial, where their human rights were stripped. ‘The War on Terror’ declared by the Bush administration as a counterterrorism response to 9/11 amplified the mislabelling of ‘terrorist’, enabling human rights violations against individuals like the Guantánamo inmates and justifying the the US military invasions of Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and Yemen. 

Abu Ghraib, a military prison-complex based in Iraq which held up to  50,000 individuals, robbed entire groups of their humanity. A series of pictures including one showing a detainee balancing on a box with electrical wires attached to him, received global attention and condemnation by Amnesty International. Other Abu Ghraib detainees suffered physical abuse, sexual abuse, rape and even murder by US guards. 

However, confessed and convicted domestic terrorists are portrayed very differently by popular media. Take for example, the Ku Klux Klan (KKK), Theodore John Kaczynski and Dylann Roof, to mention just three. The KKK, the white nationalist organisation founded in the 1920s needs no introduction; Kaczynski (also known as the ‘Unabomber’) was convicted of a nationwide bombing campaign in 1996; and Roof, white supremacist and admitted church shooter, was convicted in 2015. The KKK remains active up to the current date as evidenced by events in Charlottesville in 2017 . Roof, now serving nine consecutive life sentences, was cast, albeit principally by his defence attorneys, as a victim of ‘mental health issues’ and thus, in the eyes of the public, as a societal aberration. Lastly, Kaczynski –whose face astoundingly appears as a feature of certain brands – is now essentially glorified as a ‘popular icon’. But ‘ ٱللَّٰهُ أَكْبَرُ’ (Allah Hu Akbar) on a t-shirt, or a woman wearing a Niqab is a cause for concern in Heathrow’s Terminal 2 . Whereas their Muslim or ‘brown’ counterparts are portrayed as soldiers in a broad movement intent on an ideological goal of civilisational destruction.

The question that derives from these examples is: are all Muslim terrorists? Obviously not; otherwise, the scale of the problem would be far beyond any national or international ‘policy’. So, are all terrorists Muslims? The evidence suggests otherwise. Therefore, there can at best be a circumstantial relationship drawn between Islam and terrorism as such, at least insofar as logic is concerned. The issue remains therefore, how and why Muslims and Islam are portrayed as they are in both popular media and culture?

This has been overshadowed by radicalised, illicit, clandestine groups through the sensation coverage on Muslims and Islam. As a result, their depiction is seen as a threat to society, as the ideological threat of ‘all Muslims must be terrorists’ allows Muslims to be suppressed, strengthening Islamophobia and thus, seen as troublemakers.

photo credit: Unsplash

Dystopia after Democracy: Myanmar Coup

In the two weeks since a military coup against the government of Myanmar, growing numbers of civilians have taken to the streets of Yangon and in cities around the world to demand the release of jailed democratically-elected representatives, including the domestically popular, if internationally disgraced, icon Aung San Suu Kyi. The demonstrations in Myanmar have featured a vibrant array of references to meme culture and themed attire in an appeal to garner support against the military’s attempt to take control of Myanmar for the next year. Perhaps the strongest gesture throughout the peaceful protests has been the three-finger salute. The sign of solidarity, first used in anti-coup protests in Thailand, is attributed to the Hunger Games series. The dystopian tale of underdog youth taking on vicious and authoritarian evil has become an international rallying cry across a new generation of activists. 

The fragile steps towards a representative democracy under the Thein Sein government in 2010 ushered in unparalleled levels of international engagement that fundamentally altered Myanmar’s society in official and unofficial channels after nearly six decades of rule by the military junta. International aid and foreign leaders poured in to demonstrate support for the transition while civil society reforms exponentially increased internet access across the country. Alongside the Hunger Games references, popularized signage and social media posts communicate another common message: “You’ve [messed] with the wrong generation.” 

Both the actors and the political landscape have changed. General Min Aung Hlaing has misjudged the dynamics and discourses that have become broadly entrenched over the past decade. Internal forces that the military has long sought to control, through overt violence and constitutional measures, are quickly gaining momentum. By some local estimates, the growing number of civil society actors participating in the protests may be substantial enough to wrestle effectual control away from the military in under three months. Subsequent reports have also cited growing support from within the police force, most often evidenced through a surreptitious display of the three-finger salute.

The lack of international reaction – at the time of writing only New Zealand and the US have responded to the coup with sanctions – is all too familiar for Myanmar’s pro-democracy movement and ethnic minority communities like the Rohingya, Karen, Chin and others.  Beyond a stifling set of international sanctions, external actors have historically provided little meaningful support to the people of Myanmar. The resistance, swollen in size and resolve, is likely to be seen as an increasing threat to military dominance. This troubling dynamic could soon lead to an escalation of violence unless some form of external pressure is applied to shift the balance of power. In the Hunger Games series, ‘tributes’ appeal to sponsors to provide critical aid and material support. Provisions, especially when leveraged at the right time, can alter the outcome of the ‘competition.’ Anti-coup protests, if supplemented by timely strategic support from the international community, could help to restore the democratically elected government and signal robust backing for transitional policies.  

Protest in Kayuske, 9 Feb 2021

Explaining the prominence of the three-finger salute, one protester responded, “We knew that it would be easily understood to represent concepts of freedom, equality, solidarity.” And while the realm of international relations is markedly nuanced, identifying authoritarian violence in Myanmar is relatively straightforward. The only question that remains is whether the international community will rise to match this resolve and put substance behind the words ‘May the odds be ever in your favor.’

Playing with the Terrorist Label

Photo: Tribal fighters loyal to Yemen’s government during fightings against Houthi rebels

On Sunday 10th January 2021, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo designated the Houthi rebels as terrorists.
The Houthis are fighting a civil war in Yemen – with roughly 70% of the population living under their control – both to win power across the country and to resist Saudi Arabia’s influence. Pompeo’s decision to label the Houthis as terrorists has major consequences for the future trajectories of this conflict. 

It is unclear exactly what the Houthis did to irk the US to change its official stance on the group. The likeliest explanation is that it was not what the Houthis did, but what Joe Biden did – win the US election. 

In recent weeks, Pompeo has embarked on what has been described as a round-the-world tour of diplomatic vandalism. He began official diplomatic relations with Taiwan, declared Iran to be the new Al-Qaeda base, and has now labelled the Houthis terrorists. Officially, the decision is part of the “maximum pressure” campaign on Iran. In reality, these last-minute foreign policy changes are nothing more than thinly veiled attempts to sabotage the incoming administration. 

If Biden reverses these decisions, the response from Republicans will be painfully predictable. End diplomatic relations with Taiwan and you’re soft on China, correct Pompeo’s fictional Al-Qaeda story and you’re soft on Iran, reverse the decision on the Houthis and you’re soft on terrorism. 

The decision to brand the Houthis as terrorists has very real repercussions for the Yemeni population who live under Houthi control. These people rely on humanitarian aid to survive, but humanitarian aid becomes extremely difficult to deliver in areas considered to be governed by terrorists. The Yemeni people living under Houthi control have no choice but to rely on outside help to access food and water. The extent of the damage to Yemen’s water infrastructure has resulted in two cholera outbreaks since 2015. In addition, Yemen imports 90% of all its food.  Pompeo’s decision has created the conditions for what the UN predicts will be “The worst famine in 40 years”.

This potential calamity demonstrates the destructive potential that declaring a group as terrorists has on a chronically vulnerable population. It also highlights the inherent hypocrisy of the Trump administration. Trump labelled the Houthis terrorists in the same week that he described a mob of white supremacists who carried out an attack on Capitol Hill to be “very special people”.

The terrorist label has real consequences and should not be used lightly. This change in US foreign policy demonstrates how terrorism is constructed to meet a political end. Terrorism has been heavily theorised since the declaration of the War on Terror. One theory is that terrorism is a socially constructed term deployed by states to exercise further social control or to justify policy changes

When declaring a group as “terrorists” the state has actively identified an existential threat that can only be overcome through greater social control, thus legitimising measures such as increased surveillance, immigration controls, and indefinite detention. To justify these further controls, the state must continue to identify threats that it must protect its citizens from.

For years, the Trump administration has actively constructed threats to justify state control. The list of threats is seemingly never ending: Muslims, Mexicans, BLM, Antifa, Democratic Party pedophile rings in pizzeria basements – the list goes on. In the case of Yemen, the end goal of labelling the Houthis terrorists seems far pettier than state control. Instead, it’s a case of state sabotage. 

Now, we shouldn’t romanticise the Houthis, who have been responsible for serious human rights violations in recent years, including persecuting minorities and using civilians as human shields15. However, Pompeo’s declaration demonstrates that the terrorism label can be constructed not only out of security concerns, but out of a desire to deliberately cause instability. If the US were motivated by human rights violations, then it certainly wouldn’t support the Saudi-led coalition. It is now up to Biden to pick up the pieces of the Trump administration’s recklessness by reversing this decision. 

Yemen is experiencing the world’s most pressing humanitarian crisis. By carelessly playing with the terrorism label, the US is wilfully deepening this disaster.