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Nov. 21 2014 4:55 PM

Can Obama Get a Climate Commitment Out of India?

The White House announced Friday that President Obama will visit India in January to serve as “chief guest” at the country’s Republic Day celebrations. A foreign head of state is typically invited to the celebration, and as Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi pointed out in a chummy tweet, he’ll be the first U.S. president ever to receive the honor. The visit will also make Obama the first U.S. president ever to visit India twice while in office. Remarkably, there have been only six U.S. presidential visits to the country ever.

Relations between the two countries were at a nadir at the end of last year, when India was vowing retaliation for the arrest of an Indian diplomat in New York. Things have improved since Modi took office in May, which is pretty ironic given that he was barred from even entering the United States until this year. Earlier this month, the two countries reached a deal a major deal on trade and food subsidies.

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That news was understandably overshadowed by the U.S.-China climate pact but capped off Obama’s surprisingly productive Asia trip. This India visit is also worth watching on the climate front, coming at the beginning of a year when a new U.N. climate treaty is due to be negotiated. The U.S.-China deal has now put the spotlight on India, the world’s third-largest carbon emitter.

Obama and Modi agreed to “consult and cooperate closely” on climate change during the Indian premier’s visit to Washington last month, which is pretty vague but still an improvement after years of clashes between the two governments on the issue.

It’s extremely unlikely that India will agree to the kind of emissions cap China signed on to during Obama’s visit. It lags well behind China on both emissions per capita and level of economic development. As just one example, 99.8 percent of Chinese people have access to electricity, versus just 70 percent for India, and the government has made electrification a major priority. Indian officials have said flat out that they expect the country’s emissions to continue increasing.

But there’s still room for cooperation, perhaps on renewable energy investment, where Modi’s government has been making some major commitments. India, along with China, has also signaled that it will drop its opposition to expanding an exiting treaty to cut the use of hydrofluorocarbons, chemicals used in refrigeration that are even more potent in their greenhouse impact than carbon dioxide.

It would be a shock to see anything as major as the U.S.-China deal announced, but it will still be interesting to see if these two leaders can take advantage of the current era of good feelings to make some progress.

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Nov. 21 2014 3:40 PM

Can Putin Turn the ISIS Mess to Russia’s Advantage?

Sputnik News, the slick new-media rebranding of the venerable Russian news wire RIA-Novosti, reports that Russia has called on the U.N. Security Council to ban purchases of oil from terrorist-controlled regions, including the territory held by ISIS. This isn’t a surprising position, but it does draw some attention to Russia’s interesting outsider role in the international anti-ISIS effort.

While the U.S. and Russia have pledged to share intelligence on the group, Russia—one of the main international backers of Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian government—is not a member of the U.S.-led “broad coalition” against ISIS announced last month. As one Russian foreign ministry official recently put it, “We do not expect any invitations and we are not going to buy entry tickets.”

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Russia has taken the position that airstrikes against ISIS in Syria ought to have been debated in the U.N. Security Council, where Moscow enjoys veto power. Russia has also relished the opportunity to say I told you so, with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov arguing that ISIS is made up of the same rebels that the U.S. and other Western countries were supporting against Assad. Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev also made much of his umbrage at President Obama’s speech to the U.N. General Assembly in September, which listed Russian aggression in Ukraine (along with ISIS and the Ebola virus) as major international threats. Discussing the diplomatic puzzle presented by Syria, a senior U.S. administration official recently told CNN, “The Russians are not our friend here.” 

So there’s little reason to think Russia will formally join the U.S.-led coalition. But there are some ways that this all could work to Moscow’s advantage.

For one thing, the fight against ISIS could provide a pretext for why countries in Russia’s backyard need its “protection.” Edward Lemon writes at EurasiaNet that Russian officials seem to be playing up the potential threat that Central Asian ISIS fighters could pose to their home countries. Estimates vary wildly, but there are almost certainly dozens to hundreds of fighters from Central Asian countries as well as Russia fighting with ISIS in Syria. Russia has military assets in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, but would like to expand that presence. As Lemon writes, “Russian officials have often stressed that the threat to Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, which do not host Russian troops, is particularly acute.” These governments have, for years, been fighting the al-Qaida-linked militant group Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan.

(Ironically, some of the Central Asians fighting in Syria appear to have been radicalized in Russia rather than on the battlefield. Olim Yusuf, a Tajik ISIS member captured in September, says he was recruited while working on a building site in Russia. Many Central Asians travel to Russia for low-wage work, and often face discrimination and xenophobia.)

It also seems conceivable that Syria could once again provide the venue for a Russian diplomatic victory. (Remember when a John Kerry gaffe and a last-minute intervention from Russia led to a deal to remove Assad’s chemical weapons and forestall U.S. airstrikes? I know, that seems like four wars ago.) It seems sadly inevitable that the U.S. will eventually come to terms with Assad remaining in power and go back to trying to push for a peace deal in Syria among the various anti-ISIS forces in the country. If that happens, U.S. diplomats may, much to their chagrin, need to call on Russia to help get Assad on board.

And generally speaking, a leader like Putin who tends to see great-power competition in zero-sum terms, presumably appreciates the fact that U.S. attention and resources continue to be tied down in the Middle East.

Nov. 20 2014 4:57 PM

Are We on the Verge of a Polio-Free Africa?

With all of the news about Ebola’s rapid, dispiriting spread through West Africa, you may have missed an encouraging public health development: The continent appears tantalizingly close to fully eradicating polio, once one of the world’s most feared and destructive diseases.

A U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention progress report on Nigeria released Thursday notes that just six cases of wild poliovirus have been diagnosed in the country this year, compared with 49 during the same period last year. Nigeria is considered particularly critical since, as the report notes, the country’s northern region has served as “a reservoir for WPV reintroduction into 26 previously polio-free countries.” Nigeria now hasn’t seen a case of polio since July and the African region as a whole hasn’t seen one since a case in Somalia in August.

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The good news follows some other positive developments, including reports that two of the three strains of wild poliovirus have likely been eradicated and India being declared officially polio-free by the WHO. This is all welcome news given the concerns earlier this year that the disease was making a global comeback, including in several countries in Africa. Cameroon, for instance, saw a re-emergence of polio due in part to fears of vaccines and the disruption to the country’s health infrastructure caused by refugees fleeing conflict in the Central African Republic.

The most dramatic progress has come in Somalia, which saw 183 cases of polio last year and just six so far this year. This is likely due to a ramped-up vaccination effort in the country in 2014, and the weakening of the militant group al-Shabab, which was violently opposed to vaccination campaigns.

We’re not quite out of the woods yet. It takes three years without a new case for the WHO to declare a country or region polio-free, and armed conflict in places like northern Nigeria and Somalia could continue to disrupt vaccination efforts. Nigeria’s Boko Haram has gunned down polio workers in the past.

The Ebola virus has also strained health resources and made vaccination against other diseases, including polio, far more complicated in the countries where it’s raging. On the bright side, the CDC report notes that the staff and infrastructure set up to address polio in Nigeria were critical in helping the country organize its successful Ebola response.

Now, with only the African and eastern Mediterranean regions (the latter of which includes the Middle East and Western Asia) waiting to be declared polio-free, we do seem to be inching closer to wiping the disease off the planet. That would make it only the second human disease, after smallpox, to be eliminated through vaccination.*

If the trends in Africa continue, it seems likely that polio will make its last stand in either Pakistan and Afghanistan, where the Taliban have waged a campaign of terror against health workers, or in Syria and Iraq, where the civil war is helping the disease make a comeback.

*Correction, Nov. 20, 2014: This post originally misstated that polio could be the second disease eradicated through vaccination. It could be the second human disease. Rinderpest, a viral infection affecting cattle, was formally declared eradicated in 2011. 

Nov. 20 2014 12:36 PM

Listen to the Ebola Charity Single That Isn’t Condescending Schlock

My colleague Aisha Harris does a great job explaining why Band Aid 30’s star-studded, Ebola-themed update of the 30-year-old charity single “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” is as cringe-inducing as its predecessors. Its lyrics are both condescending—perpetuating an image of Africa as an undifferentiated mass of suffering where there is “no peace and joy”—and borderline nonsensical: Liberia is predominantly Christian, as is Ethiopia, the subject of the original 1984 version of the song, so people there are presumably aware that it is Christmas. Guinea and Sierra Leone are predominantly Muslim, so the majority of people there probably don’t care.

This year’s video, which features footage of a dying woman before transitioning to pop stars like Bono, Ed Sheeran, and One Direction dodging paparazzi on their way to the studio, has also been criticized as exploitative.

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On the other hand, it’s hard to argue with success. Band Aid 30 is currently sitting at No. 10 on iTunes and has already raised millions of dollars for Ebola-related charities. As organizer Bob Geldof put it, “I don’t care if you like it, just buy it.”

Of course, there’s a way to support the fight against Ebola without endorsing Geldof’s schlock. Just give money directly to one of any number of organizations doing difficult work on the ground in West Africa. But if you absolutely must have a musical accompaniment for your charitable donation, let me suggest the single “Africa Stop Ebola,” released last month by an organization of the same name.

Aside from being more pleasing to the ear, it’s a very different beast from “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” The artists are all West African, including the superstar Malian duo Amadou & Mariam, Malian chanteuse Oumou Sangare, and Ivorian reggae star Tiken Jah Fakoly. Only one African artist, Benin’s Angelique Kidjo, participated in Band Aid 30. The British-Ghanaian Afrobeat star Fuse ODG explained in the Guardian Wednesday why he turned down Geldof’s invitation to participate after being “shocked and appalled” by the lyrics.

Unlike Band Aid’s platitudes, the lyrics, in French and several West African languages, are practical and aimed at people in the countries affected. Fakoly’s verse, for instance, tells listeners to trust doctors to help them if they feel sick. It’s one of a number of pop songs by local artists giving advice about the disease in recent months.

“Africa Stop Ebola” is available on iTunes, and all proceeds go to Medecins Sans Frontieres. No Bono involved. 

Nov. 19 2014 4:25 PM

Kuwait’s Novel Solution for Undocumented Residents: Buy Them Citizenship in Some Other Country

Later this week, President Obama will announce an executive action meant to provide legal protections for up to 5 million undocumented migrants now living in the United States. Of course, the United States isn’t the only country with a large population of undocumented immigrants. Kuwait also announced a major new initiative this week, one that deals with the problem very differently.

More than 100,000 people in Kuwait belong to a group known as the “Bidun.” The Bidun are mainly descended from nomadic Bedouin tribes who, for various reasons, failed to complete the application procedures for citizenship after Kuwait became an independent nation in 1961. Today, they are formally stateless.

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Though many have lived in the country their entire lives, they are considered illegal migrants by the Kuwaiti government and have been repeatedly rebuffed in their subsequent requests for citizenship. As noncitizens, they are barred from holding most jobs in Kuwait and are denied access to health care and education, as well as many legal protections.

This month, however, the Kuwaiti interior ministry announced that the Bidun would soon be eligible for citizenship … but not in Kuwait. Rather, the government plans to bulk purchase “economic citizenship” for the Bidun from the East African island nation of Comoros, hundreds of miles away. Comoros, a member of the Arab League, has already provided passports to some stateless residents of the United Arab Emirates under a similar scheme. Before the program gets up and running, Comoros has to establish an embassy in Kuwait.

The Bidun wouldn’t actually live on the tiny islands, which have a population of just 800,000. Comoros is one of a growing number of countries that sell citizenship to foreigners in legally precarious situations, though this would be on an unprecedented scale. Kuwait argues that Comoran citizenship would formalize the status of the Bidun, allowing them access to jobs and social services.

This is probably legal under international law, but, as Al Jazeera reports, human rights groups are not impressed. The scheme stops short of the full Kuwaiti citizenship that the Bidun have been demanding and, they argue, would effectively formalize their status as second-class citizens.

In reality, citizenship could indeed make the Bidun less secure. Countries are prohibited by U.N. convention from expelling stateless people, of whom there are an estimated 10 million around the world. But the treaty doesn’t cover citizens of other countries.

Legal niceties inside, the Bidun aren’t thrilled with the notion that their country is trying to make them citizens of someplace else. As one Bidun activist put it on Twitter, “I went to bed West Asian, & woke up east african. These are the miracles of arab regimes.”

Nov. 19 2014 12:37 PM

Saudi Arabia Is Fighting an Oil War. But Who’s the Enemy? 

As my colleague Jordan Weissmann wrote Tuesday, there are a number of factors behind the continuing global slide in oil prices, including North American production, increased energy efficiency, Europe’s economic stagnation, and China’s slowing growth. But a big one is Saudi Arabia, which, to the dismay of fellow oil-producing nations, has resisted pressure to cut production in order to stabilize prices.

Ahead of an OPEC meeting in Vienna next week, there are some contradictory theories about why Saudi Arabia is content to keep oil cheap for the time being. One is that the Saudis want to nip the U.S. oil boom in the bud. American shale oil is more expensive to produce and needs high prices to remain competitive. As one analyst put it when the kingdom cut prices for U.S. customers earlier this month, “the Saudis have basically declared war on the U.S. oil producers.”

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But there’s a competing narrative, or “conspiracy theory” if you prefer, that the Saudis are waging war in cooperation with the United States, against their mutual enemies Russia and Iran. “Saudi Arabia, which intends to manage OPEC, serves the interests of the G20 group,” a former Iranian oil minister told Reuters. Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, whose government is collateral damage in this war, also aired this view recently, saying, “What is the reason for the United States and some U.S. allies wanting to drive down the price of oil? To harm Russia.”

The U.S.-Saudi oil alliance is basically taken as a given in the Iranian and Russian media, and the idea got a recent endorsement from New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman as well. Saudi Arabia may indeed want to punish Russia for its support of Bashar al-Assad’s government, and will take any leverage it can get over regional archrival Iran. The U.S., meanwhile, wants to punish Russia for its actions in Ukraine and to pressure Iran into agreeing to a nuclear deal.

To be clear, there’s no proof of any deal, and Saudi Arabia denies its policies are motivated by geopolitical interests. Moreover, U.S.-Saudi relations aren’t at their best at the moment, and the kingdom is extremely skeptical of America’s latest opening to Iran. But even if there isn’t explicit collusion going on, Saudi Arabia’s move certainly benefits some key U.S. foreign policy interests, if not the bank accounts of North Dakota oil drillers.

For the sake of argument, let’s assume that the conspiracy theory is real, and that there is an agreement in place between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia to keep oil prices down. Is it working?

Low oil prices are having an impact on both the Russian and Iranian economies. In Russia’s case, that impact is probably greater than that of the recently imposed Western sanctions. But as Dan Drezner points out, if economic performance were a reliable guide to the future prospects of authoritarian governments, Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe and North Korea’s Kim family would have been deposed by angry mobs decades ago. For now, the dire state of the Russian economy doesn’t appear to be having much of an effect on Vladimir Putin’s popularity, and actions that anger the West only seem to make his position stronger at home.

In Iran, the situation is a little murkier. Some experts estimate the country needs $140-a-barrel oil to balance its budget. The price is currently about $80 per barrel. The Islamic Republic’s economic distress is likely one reason why President Hassan Rouhani’s government has been more cooperative on the nuclear issue. The government can’t do much about oil prices, but better relations with the West could bring sanctions relief and investment. But ultimately, the success of the talks will hinge on the views of Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamanei, who as the Times notes, “has been less focused on Iran’s economic future than on its status as a regional and world player.”

The oil war may be making life difficult for these countries, then, but there’s no guarantee it will change the behavior of their regimes.

On the other hand, there is one regime whose behavior is likely being affected by the world of cheap oil. Senate Democrats narrowly defeated the Keystone XL pipeline on Tuesday, in part because President Obama was expected to veto it even if it did pass. He likely feels more comfortable about that stance than he would if oil were priced at more than $100 a barrel right now.

Nov. 18 2014 2:32 PM

Does the World Have a Terrorism Problem or a Civil War Problem?

The Institute for Economics and Peace has released its annual Global Terrorism Index, and the main headline, as reported by the BBC and several other outlets,  is that the number of deaths from terrorism increased 61 percent between 2012 and 2013. The number of attacks increased 44 percent to nearly 10,000.The news is all the more dispiriting since, just two years ago, the index reported that global terrorist violence had flatlined between 2007 and 2011. The big reason why it’s picking up again is pretty simple: Syria.

Iraq has led the world in nine of the last 10 years, but things took a turn for the worse last year, with the number of deaths rising 162 percent, thanks largely to the destabilizing effect of the war in neighboring Syria and the emergence of ISIS. Iraq accounted for more than a third of all terrorism deaths last year. Syria itself recorded zero deaths from terrorism for the two years before the war began in 2011 but now has the fifth-most in the world with more than 1,000 last year. Obviously, many more people than that died as a result of violence in Syria, but the index classifies most of these deaths as the result of conventional warfare rather than terrorism.

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That distinction gets into a tricky question about this data. As I’ve discussed on this blog before, terrorism is a global problem but also a relatively localized one. Last year, 82 percent of terrorist attacks counted by the GTI occurred in just five countries: Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nigeria, and Syria. In all of these countries, there are large regions where the government is fighting with militant groups for political control. These attacks were primarily carried out by four groups: the Taliban, Boko Haram, ISIS, and various affiliates of al-Qaida. All of these could be described as “part-time” terrorist groups, organizations that employ terrorist tactics but often act more like insurgent or guerilla groups. In other words, when ISIS is fighting with the Iraqi army or the Kurdish Peshmerga for control of towns, it’s not engaging in what’s traditionally considered terrorism. But when it executes its American hostages or sets off bombs at the Baghdad airport, it is. 

While these five countries dominate global terrorism, the report also notes that there were nine additional countries last year that had more than 50 terrorism deaths, bringing the total number to 24—the highest in 14 years. These were: Algeria, Central African Republic, China, Egypt, Lebanon, Libya, Mali, Sudan, and South Sudan.

Algeria is on that list largely because of one horrific incident. Lebanon’s terrorism is closely tied to Syria’s. CAR, Libya, Mali, Sudan, and South Sudan are all experiencing various states of intrastate warfare.

So the issue here may be less a global increase in terrorism than a set of worsening civil wars (one war in particular) in which the traditional tactics of terrorism—kidnappings, suicide bombings, etc.—are employed by the combatants.

This is more than just a semantic issue. Developed countries are often drawn into costly military interventions in the name of preventing terrorism against themselves, though they experience only a tiny percentage of terrorist violence. Not counting Turkey and Mexico, only 16 people were killed by terrorism in OECD countries in 2013, the year of the Boston Marathon bombing. (The 2014 numbers are sadly going to be higher because of recent events in Israel.)

In the popular imagination, we tend to think of “terrorism” in terms of decentralized radical groups targeting the citizens of wealthy and powerful countries. But around the world, the vast majority of it occurs in the context of battles over territory in some of the most unstable places on Earth. And the strategies being employed to stop it obviously aren’t working.  

Nov. 18 2014 11:54 AM

What’s Really Behind Jerusalem’s Explosion of Violence?

Tuesday morning’s attack on an Orthodox synagogue complex in Jerusalem, which left four rabbis—three U.S. citizens and one Briton—dead during morning prayers is the worst act of violence suffered by Israeli civilians in years. (Update, Nov. 18, 2014: A fifth victim, a Druze police officer injured in the attack, died on Tuesday night.) In the New York Times, the leader of a religious emergency response team compared the carnage at the site to “scenes from the Holocaust.” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has vowed to respond with a “heavy hand,” and the incident will add to the growing perception that the recent unrest in the city resembles something close to a new intifada, albeit one characterized more by sporadic uncoordinated attacks than a mass organized uprising.

The Times reports that the attackers were “described as being motivated by what they saw as threats to the revered plateau that contains Al Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock.” Hamas has also stated that the attack was in retaliation for an incident involving the death of a Palestinian bus driver whose body was found in Jerusalem yesterday.

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At the moment, Jews are allowed to visit, but not pray, at the complex, the third-holiest site in the world for Muslims. Netanyahu has promised to keep it that way, most recently in a conversation earlier this month with King Abdullah II of Jordan, the complex’s official custodian.

However, hard-line Jewish religious activists have been pushing for the right to pray at the site, which Jews refer to as the Temple Mount, and a number of lawmakers, including members of Netanyahu’s Likud Party, support the movement. One of the leaders of the campaign, U.S.-born settler and activist Yehuda Glick, was shot last month, prompting Israel to take the rare step of closing off access to al-Aqsa entirely. Israel has frequently placed restrictions on entry to the site or barred specific groups, such as young men, from praying, but the full closure was described by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas as an “act of war.”

Both Netanyahu and Secretary of State John Kerry said that Tuesday’s attack was the direct result of “incitement” by Palestinian leaders. This was referring not only to the “act of war” remark but also a speech last week in which Abbas accused Israel of waging a “religious war” by allowing “settlers and extremists” to pray at the site. “We will not allow our holy places to be contaminated,” he said at a ceremony in Ramallah to honor the 10th anniversary of Yasser Arafat’s death. Abbas condemned Tuesday’s attack, though there were reportedly celebrations in parts of Gaza and the West Bank.

Amid all of this, the violence has been growing. Over the past month, Reuters reports, “five Israelis and a foreign visitor have been deliberately run over and killed or stabbed to death by Palestinians. About a dozen Palestinians have been killed, including those accused of carrying out the attacks.” These also included a Palestinian man fatally shot by Israeli security forces during a demonstration in the West Bank last week. 

The most recent incident involves 32-year-old bus driver Yussuf al-Ramuni, whose body was found hanged in his vehicle on Monday morning. Police say it appears to be a suicide but his family has rejected this explanation and reports have circulated in the Palestinian media that he was murdered by settlers.

Going forward, it seems unlikely that Netanyahu will change the policy at al-Aqsa. But the voices in favor of doing so, including within his own coalition, are strong enough that it at least seems plausible to Palestinians that this could happen.

Likewise, while Abbas’ comments certainly haven’t calmed the situation, neither his Fatah movement nor Hamas actually appears to be orchestrating the violence. Abbas almost certainly doesn’t want another devastating intifada, which, if it comes, could potentially be driven as much by frustration with the Palestinian Authority as with Israel.

While important for understanding the recent outbreak of violence, the al-Aqsa question may ultimately be secondary to the lasting anger from last summer’s Gaza war and overall frustration with the lack of political progress. If al-Aqsa weren’t the flashpoint right now, it seems likely that something else would be. 

Nov. 17 2014 4:24 PM

The Mystery of ISIS’ Foreign Fighters

The video released over the weekend showing the execution of American aid worker Peter Kassig is going to focus new attention on the role played the Westerners fighting for ISIS. In addition to the British fighter referred to in the U.K. media as “Jihadi John,” the video also features men suspected to be a British medical student from Cardiff and a French national and recent convert to Islam who traveled to Syria last year.

ISIS’s potential threat to Western countries is an important, if a little misguided, reason why the public supports military intervention in Syria and Iraq to counter the group. And concern that fighters could return from the Middle East to their countries of origin to carry out attacks has prompted governments throughout the world, including the United States, to raise the alarm about ISIS recruitment.  As President Obama has said, “Trained and battle-hardened, these fighters could try to return to their home countries and carry out deadly attacks.”

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But is the foreign fighter threat overstated?

Estimates vary, but both U.S. intelligence services and the U.N. say that about 15,000 foreigners have traveled to Syria and Iraq to fight for the Islamic State from 80 countries—a large portion of the group’s total manpower.

About 2,000 of those are from Western countries, including, according to one adviser to the U.S. director of national intelligence, “at least 500 from the U.K, 700 from France, 400 from Germany, and more than 100 Americans [who] have traveled, or tried to travel into Syria.” Australia could actually have the highest number of fighters per capita.

Recruitment methods for these volunteers vary. Some anecdotal evidence suggests that European ISIS fighters are more likely to be recruited in person while Americans are more likely to self-radicalize after encountering online material.

There’s good reason to wonder just how useful these angry young Western men—and occasionally women—are on the battlefield. The anonymous social networking site Ask.fm has emerged as a popular venue for potential Western recruits to ask questions to English-speaking ISIS fighters. Some of their questions, as reported by Radio Free Europe, include “how easy is it to get contact lenses there? are they expensive?”; “Do you think in the future they will improve wi-fi and stuff?”; “Do u have to cook for yourself and clean everyday?”; and “Could you take captured woman as slaves?"

Despite the reassuring answers they received from their allegedly Syria-based interlocutors, none of these exactly sounds like the queries of battle-ready fighters.

As journalist Graeme Wood writes, based on an interview with former CIA case officer Patrick Skinner, “As men without significant military training—like most jihadis from Western or upper-class backgrounds—their main purpose is to create grotesque propaganda and, perhaps, to perform the low-skill role of blowing themselves up.”

The fighters who appeared in the Kassig video exemplified the first function. Moner Mohammad Abusalha, the Florida man who blew himself up at a mountaintop restaurant in Syria in May, exemplified both, recording a video in which he burned his U.S. passport before carrying out the attack.

Daniel Byman and Jeremy Shapiro of the Brookings Institution have argued that the foreign-fighter threat is real but exaggerated, writing:

[T]he vast majority of Western Muslims who set out to fight in the Middle East today will not come back as terrorists. Many of them will never go home at all, instead dying in combat or joining new military campaigns elsewhere, or they will return disillusioned and not interested in bringing the violence with them. Even among the rare individuals who do harbor such intentions, most will be less dangerous than they are feared to be because they will attract the attention of authorities before they can strike. 

And as Byman has pointed out elsewhere, “the foreign volunteers’ propensity to use social media to broadcast every detail of their jihadist lives makes them even more likely to be caught.”

So far, while a number of terrorist plots in North America, Australia, and Europe have been linked to ISIS sympathizers, only one—the shooting at a Jewish Museum in Brussels in May—has been carried out by someone with actual experience in Syria.

Still, it seems unlikely that ISIS has recruited all of these Westerners just to make propaganda—they actually seem to be making less of it lately—or blow themselves up. And it’s also hard to imagine that a group of 20,000 to 30,000 fighters is spending its time baby-sitting a group of 2,000 incompetents.

ISIS’ Western volunteers are clearly playing a role on the ground for the Islamic State, but whether they can really take the fight home is still a mystery.

Nov. 17 2014 4:06 PM

Boris Johnson’s Churchill

Boris Johnson doesn’t compare himself to Winston Churchill. When the London mayor describes his political hero, though, it sounds just a little bit like he’s talking about himself—or at least, the best possible version of himself. “In his politics, he was much more consistent that we often think. He was an imperialist, socially progressive free trader with elements of bohemianism, and he never really deviated from that,” says the staunch conservative Johnson, who is also known for his support for bike lanes, medical marijuana, and gay marriage.

Asked what surprised him about the prime minister when researching his new book, The Churchill Factor, Johnson—famous for his iconic disheveled haircut—notes how Churchill transcended his physical appearance. “He was a runty guy: 5-foot-6 1/2, 31-inch chest. But he manages to present himself to the world as this bisonlike figure. How he became that is fascinating.”

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He was also stunned by Churchill’s “sheer intellectual energy,” as exemplified by his ability to “write after drinking an awful lot at dinner, a skill not known even to the most hard-bitten British journalist. Nowadays, we’re a much softer bunch. We think we can do it, but we can’t. We can do it after lunch but not after dinner.”

Johnson, who spoke with Slate during a D.C. stop on his U.S. book tour, doesn’t lack for energy either. The former journalist, who was first elected mayor in 2008, has made himself into an internationally known figure and, according to one recent poll, the most popular politician in Britain, through his ubiquitous media presence, memorable one-liners, and penchant for not taking himself seriously. (It is a little hard to imagine Churchill finding himself stuck on a zip-line, as Johnson did during the 2012 Olympics.)

Johnson, who’s been called a “a walking Bartlett’s of political incorrectness” for statements like joking that voters’ wives would grow bigger breasts if they voted Tory, or suggesting that economic inequality can be largely explained by variations in IQ, says he also wanted to defend Churchill from the slings and arrows of the modern press. “He’s getting a bit further from us in time and like a great constellation, some of his stars are losing their luminescence,” Johnson says. “I wanted to defend him from a lot of the carping and the sniping we hear today, that he was a racist and a sexist and so on.”

The New York-born Johnson also reflected on America’s own longstanding love of Churchill, which can be more fulsome than Britain’s affection for its own wartime leader. “I think Americans see him, in some ways, more clearly,” he says. “They appreciate aspects of his personality and his achievement that Brits don’t. He is about freedom. He is about standing up for what you believe in. The political correctness stuff has been much more corrosive of Churchill’s legacy in Britain than it has been in America.”

But despite Churchill’s iconic status for American hawks, Johnson notes, “He wasn’t a neocon in any means. I don’t think he would have wanted to put boots on the ground in Iraq or Syria.” Churchill, who played a key role in the creation of the modern state of Iraq after World War I, also famously described it as an “ungrateful volcano.”

Johnson, who is often mentioned as a possible future candidate for prime minister but has been coy about his plans, says Churchill would feel right at home in today’s politics. “I think a lot of the debates we’re having today would be very familiar to him,” he says.

Among the biggest of those debates is the one over Britain’s role in Europe, which could dominate British politics for the next few years if the country goes ahead with a proposed yes-or-no referendum on EU membership in 2017. This will almost definitely take place if the Tories win next year’s general election.

Churchill was a strong supporter of a united Europe following the second war. His most recent biographer, by contrast, has been a skeptic, saying Britain shouldn’t be afraid to pull out of the union if it can’t get the reforms and concessions it wants and calling for quotas on EU migrants.

The destiny of Britain, as Churchill saw, was to be allied with America when we possibly can be, allied with our friends in the former empire and the commonwealth, but also being a key European player,” Johnson says. “We may want to change our relationship a bit, but fundamentally we will remain within the European common market.”

Johnson says he will be heavily involved the campaign to push for Britain to have more “control over borders and to restrain costly regulations from Brussels,” but he contrasts his approach with some of the public anger provoked by issues of immigration and sovereignty, saying, “We need to approach this whole thing with a spirit of openness and cheerfulness.” 

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