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Why five emerging powers may determine the future of democracy around the world

Why five emerging powers may determine the future of democracy around the world

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Editors’ Note: The world is facing an entrenched recession in terms of democracy, human rights, and rule of law, writes Ted Piccone. As he argues in his new book, five emerging powers from around the world—India, Brazil, South Africa, Turkey, and Indonesia—will determine if and how the global democracy and human rights regime constructed over the last 70 years can survive. This post originally appeared on the National Endowment for Democracy’s “Resurgent Dictatorship” blog.

As documented in a slew of recent reports from Freedom House, Transparency International and Human Rights Watch, the world is facing an entrenched recession in terms of democracy, human rights, and rule of law. This phenomenon is affecting societies both on and off the democratic path. To make matters worse, authoritarians are learning how to consolidate their illiberal regimes and organize internationally to withstand and undermine international scrutiny and accountability to universal norms.

To push back against the so-called authoritarian resurgence, democracies from North and South need to join hands in a renewed effort to strengthen their own democratic practices at home and build pro-democracy coalitions internationally. As I argue in my new book, Five Rising Democracies and the Fate of the International Liberal Order, five emerging powers from every corner of the globe—India, Brazil, South Africa, Turkey, and Indonesia—will determine if and how the global democracy and human rights regime constructed over the last 70 years can survive. Representing 25 percent of the world’s population, these five countries have made tremendous progress since their historic transitions toward political and economic liberalization. But they have checkered records when it comes to validating and enforcing fundamental norms beyond their borders.

Like many other new and transitioning democracies, these five states face two principal challenges when it comes to joining forces with other like-minded democratic governments. First, they are mainly preoccupied with their own domestic affairs, particularly with closing the persistent gap between their national development goals and actual outcomes. When they come to the table to discuss cooperation on human rights, they want to know how more developed democracies can help them address fundamental challenges like clean water, adequate housing, quality education and health care that their populations rightly demand.

Second, they look at Western strategies to promote democracy and human rights with a very jaundiced eye. Their own national histories of colonialism, apartheid, and military dictatorship supported by external forces, alongside more recent misadventures in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya, push them away from joining more coercive efforts at regime change and humanitarian intervention. The global economic downturn, which is hitting Brazil and South Africa especially hard, further restrains their regional and global ambitions, for better or worse.

Despite this ambivalence, it wouldn’t take much for democracies to find common ground around some basic principles and initiatives to shore up the democratic wave of the late 20th century. For starters, there is strong consensus around the fundamental norms and practices of democracy and human rights, both as goods in and of themselves and as instrumental values that encourage better development, greater security, and stronger societies. Second, there is a decent track record of cooperation on positive initiatives like the Open Government Partnership, the United Nations Democracy Fund, election monitoring, and even, at times, on human rights matters at the United Nations.

To build on these measures, both established and emerging democracies need to recognize their common interest in supporting and strengthening democratic values and practices. They should identify a set of practical priorities with win-win benefits for their own societies and other liberalizing countries. These include strengthening the rule of law to fight corruption and impunity; defending civil society; delivering rights to a basic quality of life, including quality education for women and girls; and expanding rights to information and an unhampered Internet. They should also redouble efforts to support states like Myanmar, Nigeria, Burkina Faso, Honduras, Hungary, and Tunisia in their shaky transitions to democracy.

In the summer of 2017, the U.S. Presidency of the Community of Democracies will culminate in a ministerial meeting in Washington. It will be a welcome opportunity to bring these elements together in a global coalition of democracies committed to realizing an oft-proclaimed vision of peace, development, and prosperity. This kind of concerted effort, led by new and old democracies alike, is the sine qua non of any strategy to address the autocrats’ claims to legitimacy on the world stage.

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Ted Piccone
Senior Fellow, Foreign Policy, Project on International Order and Strategy, Latin America Initiative

Ted Piccone is a senior fellow in the Project on International Order and Strategy and Latin America Initiative in the Foreign Policy program at Brookings. His research is focused on global democracy and human rights policies; U.S.-Latin American relations, including Cuba; emerging powers; and multilateral affairs. Previously, he served as the acting vice president and director of the Foreign Policy program. Piccone is the author of the upcoming book, “Five Rising Democracies and the Fate of the International Liberal Order” (Brookings Institution Press, 2016).

The prince of counter terrorism

The prince of counter terrorism

قراءة المقال باللغة العربية

The kingdom of Saudi Arabia, America’s oldest ally in the Middle East, is on the verge of a historic generational change in leadership. King Salman bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud, 79, who ascended to the throne in January, following the death of King Abdullah, will be the last of the generation of leaders who built the modern kingdom, transforming it from a poor desert backwater into a prosperous, ultra-conservative regional power with enormous oil wealth.

House of Saud: A Primer

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Muhammad bin Nayef (MBN)

The crown prince and heir to the kingdom. Wikipedia

What the future has in store for the kingdom is of great concern to Washington. Within months of becoming king, Salman plunged into what appears to be a quagmire war in Yemen, snubbed President Obama, and endorsed hardline clerics who are opposed to reforms that Obama argues are necessary if Saudi Arabia is to remain a stable partner for the United States. Not a promising start from the American point of view. However, one of the king’s first moves was greeted very enthusiastically: he changed the order of succession, pushing aside his half-brother Muqrin bin Abdul-Aziz as next in line to the throne and making one of his nephews, Muhammad bin Nayef, 56, the new crown prince and heir.

MBN, as he is known, will be the first of his generation to rule the kingdom—unless, of course, the king reshuffles the deck again. U.S. officials are keeping their fingers crossed, since MBN is the darling of America’s counterterrorism and intelligence services, having performed several critical services for the U.S. in his capacity as deputy minister of the interior and then minister of the interior—the office that oversees all domestic security matters. Unlike his father, who preceded him in those positions, he is pro-American, almost certainly more so than any other member of the Saudi leadership.

Line of Succession

Only rulers and certain would-be rulers are shown.

The Black Prince:
Nayef Bin Abdul-Aziz

In the Saudi monarchy bloodlines are all-important. Who your father is in the royal pecking order is the major factor in determining your fate. If your father is a direct descendant of the king, you may become king. Since Saudis have many wives and concubines, the mother’s bloodline is less important but not irrelevant.

The founding patriarch of modern day Saudi Arabia, and father of all the kings who have followed him, was King Abdul-Aziz bin Saud, known in the West as Ibn Saud. He led his tribal army into power in Riyadh early in the 20th century, and by the 1930s he was the undisputed master of the Arabian Peninsula from the Red Sea to the Persian Gulf, including the two holy cities of Mecca and Medina.

Ibn Saud had at least 22 wives and 44 acknowledged sons. Since his death in 1953, six of those sons have ruled the kingdom in succession. His 23rd son, Nayef bin Abdul-Aziz (Nayef)—MBN’s father—was second in line to the throne, but died in 2012, just a few years before he would have succeeded King Abdullah.

King Ibn Saud and President Franklin Delano Roosevelt near Cairo in 1945. The alliance between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia goes back decades. Wikimedia Commons

Born in 1934 near Taif, Nayef was educated in Riyadh at what was called “the princes’ school,” where his teachers were clerics of the Wahhabi faith, the brand of Sunni Islam that runs the kingdom. The alliance between the House of Saud and the Wahhabis dates back nearly three centuries, to the very beginning of the rule of the Saudis. In 1744 an itinerant preacher and cleric named Muhammad Ibn Abd al-Wahhab joined forces with the then head of the Saudi family, Muhammad al-Saud, to create the first Saudi kingdom. While the Saudis provided political and military leadership, Wahhab and his descendants provided religious leadership and legitimacy. Wahhab and his disciples preached a puritanical and sectarian version of Islam that called for a return to literal fundamentalism and an intolerance of any deviation from their hard line views on what constituted the original faith of the Prophet Muhammad.

Early in the 19th century, at a time when the Ottoman Empire was preoccupied with fighting off Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt and Palestine, the Saudis mounted a land grab against the empire. Their tribal armies conducted raids into today’s Iraq and pillaged the Shiite holy city of Karbala, then turned west and conquered the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, purging them of any symbols of Ottoman rule and anything that struck the Wahhabi faithful as deviationist. Most of the Islamic world at the time viewed the Saudis and their clerical allies as fanatics and usurpers, similar in some ways to how the Islamic State is regarded by mainstream Muslims today. This first Saudi state was larger in territory at its peak than today’s but their reign was brief. Once the French were defeated, the Ottomans sent armies into Arabia to recover the holy cities and then destroy the Saudi capital at Diriyah, just outside of today’s Riyadh. Later the Saudis were exiled to Kuwait, not to resume power over the Arabian Peninsula until Ibn Saud led his tribal army out of exile, re-captured Riyadh, and established the third Saudi kingdom, which has lasted until the present day—as has the power of the Wahhabis.

In the 19th century, most of the Islamic world considered the Saudis fanatics and usurpers—much like mainstream Muslims today regard the Islamic State.

The Wahhabis’ alliance with the royal family allows them to oversee Saudi society and enforce Islamic law and customs, which they do in part by working closely with the Ministry of the Interior, their most important ally in the government. In 1970, when Nayef’s full brother Fahd was the minister, he made Nayef his deputy minister. In 1975 when Fahd became crown prince, after their older brother King Faisal was assassinated by a disgruntled prince angry at the introduction of television in the kingdom, Nayef succeeded Fahd as the minister.

As interior minister, Nayef had a reputation as an arch-reactionary. He aligned himself very closely with the most puritanical elements of the clergy, opposed reform and change, rejected demands for more freedom of expression, continued the treatment of the kingdom’s Shiite minority—around 10 percent of the population, located mostly in the oil rich Eastern Province—as second-class citizens, and only reluctantly tolerated any kind of development. When asked why he opposed reforms that would start the kingdom on the path to becoming a constitutional monarchy, Nayef, who clearly had his eye on the throne, replied, “I don’t want to be Queen Elizabeth.” His policies were so extreme that Nayef was known as the Black Prince among the large expatriate Western worker population in the kingdom.

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Saudi Arabia is 85–90% Sunni and 10–15% Shia. The minority is mostly concentrated in the oil-rich Eastern Province and near the border with Yemen. Gulf/2000 Project, Columbia University

In November 1979, the kingdom experienced a major challenge to the Saudi royal family’s legitimacy and governance. A band of Islamic extremists who believed the apocalyptic End Times had arrived took control of the Great Mosque in Mecca. The largest in the world, it houses the Kaaba, the holiest site in Islam, which is believed to be the first house of worship.

Only after weeks of hard fighting by troops from the Interior Ministry and the Saudi National Guard, aided by French commandos whom the royal family secretly recruited, and by lethal chemicals that the family persuaded the Wahhabi clergy to allow them to use in the Grand Mosque, was the government able to rout the extremists. Much to the embarrassment of the government, however, when the culprits were interrogated it became clear that many of them had been known to the Interior Ministry. Some had even been detained prior to the attack on the mosque, but had been let go at the recommendation of senior clerics close to Nayef.

Saudi royalty was friendly with Osama bin Laden during the Russian-Afghan war and slow to realize that al-Qaida posed a threat to the kingdom.

However, the Black Prince escaped blame for the attack. Instead, the governor of Mecca, one of the most liberal Saudi princes, was made the scapegoat in yet another instance of the familiar royal pattern of appeasing the clerics and their close allies at the expense of reformers.

The episode frightened the royal family into moving even closer to the Wahhabi establishment, slowing reform, and stepping up support for militant Islamic causes in other countries. In particular, the Saudis—with much help from the United States—armed and otherwise supported the Afghan mujahedeen fighting the Soviet invasion of their homeland during the years 1979-89.


The so-called Black Prince, Nayef (left), with his son MBN—now Crown Prince—in Mecca in 2008. AP

The current King Salman, who was then governor of Riyadh, was put in charge of raising private funds for the mujahedeen from the royal family and other wealthy Saudis. He funneled tens of millions of dollars to the mujahedeen, and later did the same for Muslim causes in Bosnia and Palestine. Later, when Osama bin Laden founded al-Qaida, Nayef was conspicuously slow to recognize that al-Qaida posed a threat to the kingdom. He had become friendly with bin Laden during the Russian-Afghan war when bin Laden was allied with the mujahedeen, and viewed him as being exclusively focused on defeating the Soviets. Nayef believed al-Qaida’s reputation as a terrorist organization was a product of American propaganda and was sure that al-Qaida posed no real threat to the kingdom—a delusion he had in common with much of the royal family.

When George Tenet, director of the Central Intelligence Agency, and other senior American intelligence officials warned Nayef that al-Qaida had created an extensive underground infrastructure inside the kingdom, he was skeptical, largely because he had long been suspicious of the United States’ motives in the region. As President Clinton’s Middle East advisor I dealt extensively with Nayef during this period. He was cordial but often uncooperative. When Shiite terrorists bombed the U.S. Air Force base at the Khobar Towers in Dhahran in 1996, killing 19 airmen, Nayef was reluctant to share with the Americans information on the perpetrators and their links to Iran. He claimed to fear that Washington would use the information to justify military action against Iran, which would drag the kingdom into a war. But I felt the deeper reason was that he was, essentially, anti-American.

Nayef continued to ignore warnings about al-Qaida for years. But the threat would eventually become impossible to ignore, and it would be none other than Nayef’s own son, MBN, who would lead the battle against it.

Popular with U.S. officials, MBN shakes hands with President Obama during the 2015 Arab Summit in Washington. AP

The Son Also Rises

Like many of his generation of Saudi royals, MBN went to school in the United States, attending classes at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Oregon, though he did not get a degree. To prepare him to succeed his father at the Ministry of the Interior he studied at the FBI in the late 1980s, and at Scotland Yard’s antiterrorism institute between 1992 and 1994. It was around that time, in my capacity as a senior CIA officer dealing with the Middle East, that MBN began to register on my horizon as an up and comer.

Later, as special assistant to President Clinton for Near East and South Asia affairs in the National Security Council, I accompanied Vice President Al Gore to the kingdom during a tour we took through the Middle East in May 1998. We met with both father Nayef and son MBN during our calls in Riyadh. Only afterward did we learn that the Interior Ministry had disrupted a plot by al-Qaida to attack the United States Consulate in Jiddah while the vice president was there to meet with then-Crown Prince Abdullah.

The plot against Gore was the exception to what had been bin Laden’s general rule of avoiding violent operations inside the kingdom. Since al-Qaida’s infrastructure inside Saudi Arabia provided him a large number of recruits and much financial support, he preferred to keep it off the Interior Ministry’s radar, and thanks in part to Nayef’s blindness was largely successful at doing so.

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Fifteen of the 19 hijackers on 9/11 were Saudi citizens.

Then came 9/11, and the news that 15 of the hijackers aboard the planes that were downed in the U.S. were Saudis. But minds were slow to change even then. As late as December 2002 Nayef, like many in the royal family, was still not convinced that al-Qaida had a base within the kingdom’s borders, insisting that the Saudi hijackers were “dupes in a Zionist plot”—despite the fact that, according to Saudi sources, two of them had earlier been involved in the plot to attack Gore.

Nayef’s son was a different matter. By 2001, MBN was already a major—and respected—figure in the war on terrorism. He had become assistant minister of the interior two years earlier. In that capacity, much to the relief of U.S. officials, he had taken over most of the day-to-day management from his father. This would prove fortunate for the Saudis, because bin Laden was about to turn his attention to his native land. After 9/11 and the subsequent American overthrow of the Taliban, al-Qaida’s hosts in Afghanistan, he ordered al-Qaida’s underground cells inside Saudi Arabia to begin operations against the monarchy and its American ally.

On February 14, 2003—the Muslim holy day of Eid al-Adha—bin Laden’s intentions in Saudi Arabia became unmistakably clear. He issued an audio message titled “Among a Band of Knights,” accusing the House of Saud of betraying the Ottoman Empire in the First World War to the British and Zionists. And now the royal family, he said, was turning over the mosques and other holy places to the American Crusaders and secretly colluding in a plot with “Jews and Americans” to betray Palestine and create a “Greater Israel” in the region. Predicting that American air bases in the kingdom would be used to launch part of the invasion of Iraq that he said was imminent, he called the Saudi royals and their allies in Kuwait, Bahrain, and Qatar “quislings.”

The first major attack in the kingdom came on May 12, 2003, at a compound in Riyadh that housed foreign military experts working for the Saudi armed forces. Over a dozen al-Qaida terrorists attacked the compound with car bombs and small arms. At least eight Americans, two Australians, and several other westerners were killed along with Saudi security guards. It was the first volley in what became a campaign of terror against foreign workers in the kingdom and their Saudi hosts. Robert Jordan, then the U.S. ambassador in Riyadh, had been pressing the Saudis to take al-Qaida more seriously for months; now he called the May attacks Saudi Arabia’s Pearl Harbor.

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Immediately after the May attack, George Tenet, the director of the CIA at the end of President Clinton’s administration and in the first years of President George W. Bush’s, flew to the kingdom to see Crown Prince Abdullah, who had been serving as de facto regent for almost eight years, after King Fahd suffered a stroke. According to Tenet’s memoir, At the Center of the Storm, he told the Crown Prince, “Your Royal Highness, your family and the end of its rule is al-Qaida’s objective now. Al-Qaida operatives are prepared to assassinate members of the royal family and attack key economic targets.” Tenet warned the Saudis that, “we have great specificity with regard to the planning. It is directed against your family.” Tenet convinced Abdullah and MBN that the danger was acute.

Tenet regarded MBN as the CIA’s closest partner in fighting al-Qaida and the key to the defeat of the al-Qaida threat to the House of Saud between 2003 and 2006. “My most important interlocutor,” he wrote. “A relatively young man, he is someone in whom we developed a great deal of trust and respect.” It was during that period that MBN came into his own.

For the next three years the kingdom was a battlefield as al-Qaida attacked targets that included even the Interior Ministry’s own headquarters in Riyadh. Other compounds for foreign nationals were attacked and an American was kidnapped and then beheaded. Shootouts between al-Qaida terrorists and the police took place in virtually every major Saudi city and many towns. More attacks followed on foreign targets, including a major assault on the United States consulate in Jiddah on December 6, 2004, in which a young female American diplomat was almost captured by the terrorists. Hundreds died and many more were wounded during these battles. It was the longest sustained campaign of violent unrest Saudi Arabia had endured in 50 years, and the most serious internal challenge to the House of Saud since the establishment of the modern state in 1902. Before it was over, the war would cost the government well over $30 billion.

MBN led the counteroffensive. The Interior Ministry issued lists of the most wanted al-Qaida terrorists and then proceeded to hunt them down ruthlessly. Whenever any of the men on a list were eliminated in firefights or ambushes, the ministry would update the list with the names of the next most wanted al-Qaida fighters. It was a tough and dangerous time—most foreigners who could leave the kingdom did so, or at least sent their families away. MBN was the face of the Saudi war on al-Qaida, appearing on television and in the newspapers to explain the threat the kingdom was facing.

The CIA viewed MBN as its closest partner in fighting al-Qaida and the key to defeating the threat to the House of Saud.

Efficient and deadly as MBN’s strategy was, he was careful not to engage in the kind of massive and disruptive search-and-destroy operations that would have entailed collateral damage, and created an impression that the kingdom was in flames. His manhunts were targeted and selective, avoiding civilian casualties and the violence that characterized counterterrorism operations in Algeria in the 1990s and in Iraq today. Thus his Interior Ministry commandos were able to hunt terrorists without causing blowback among the population. The prince understood the need for proportionality and discretion in fighting a terror underground.

By 2007 it was apparent that MBN and the Interior Ministry had gained the upper hand on al-Qaida and the threat was dissipating. The jihadists lost the battle for hearts and minds in the country. While many Saudis sympathized with bin Laden’s battle against America, they were disillusioned when innocent Saudis died in al-Qaida attacks and the war was brought to their own homes. The terrorists failed to gain popular support for their cause, which doomed them to defeat.

The Great Mosque in Mecca receives millions of Muslim worshippers each year. Reuters

The Spymaster:
Muhammad Bin Nayef

It took three years to beat back al-Qaida inside Saudi Arabia, but it has not gone away. Instead, the organization has metastasized throughout much of the Middle East and into Africa. In 2009 al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, the successor to the group MBN defeated at home, surfaced in Yemen. In December 2009 it sent Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a Nigerian, to blow up Northwest Airlines Flight 253 on Christmas Day as it was descending over southern Ontario to Detroit. But the explosives Abdulmutallab had hidden in his underwear failed to detonate properly and he was subdued by a fellow passenger and members of the airplane crew.

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Ever vigilant against the danger al-Qaida continues to pose to the kingdom, MBN has cultivated a network of informants, and has foiled more than one plot against the U.S. When al-Qaida planted bombs on UPS and FedEx planes headed from Yemen to Chicago on the eve of the 2010 U.S. congressional elections, MBN called the White House and gave President Obama’s terrorism advisor, John Brennan, the tracking numbers for the deadly containers. The planes were then detained at stopovers in Dubai and East Midland in the United Kingdom and the bombs were removed.

In addition to his international reputation as a resourceful spymaster, MBN is a hero in his own country as the result of an incident in which he nearly lost his life six years ago. He agreed to meet Abdallah Asiri, an al-Qaida terrorist, who said he would turn himself in if he could surrender directly to the Saudi deputy minister of the interior. Asiri promised that if he could meet the minister face-to-face, he would then be able to convince his comrades—including his own brother, Ibrahim Asiri, al-Qaida’s premier bomb maker, the very man who would later build the bombs that were on the planes to Detroit and Chicago—to surrender as well. When the meeting took place on August 27, 2009, Asiri triggered a bomb, blowing himself up but only lightly wounding the prince. Hours later MBN appeared on Saudi television to tell the story to the kingdom, without getting into the details.

A few days later, Leon Panetta, then the director of central intelligence, who was visiting Riyadh, got a fuller account. After Abdallah Asiri entered his office, MBN said, the two men sat on the floor on a set of pillows. Suddenly Asiri began to shake and cry. He produced a cell phone from his robes, saying he wanted to call his family. After talking intensely on the phone with his brother, Ibrahim, he passed the phone to MBN, who opened the conversation with the traditional Arab greeting, salaam alaykum (God’s peace be with you). At that moment, Asiri blew himself into a thousand pieces. The explosives, hidden in Asiri’s rectum, blasted downward and left a crater where he had been sitting, but spared MBN.

This was at least the third major attempt on the prince’s life. But these near misses only reinforced MBN’s determination to lead Saudi Arabia’s counteroffensive against al-Qaida. He has always been characterized by an intense sense of duty, something he inherited from his father, who was minister of the interior for 37 years.

In 2011, MBN’s father, Nayef, moved up to become crown prince, much to the worry of American officials, who did not want him on the throne. That same year saw the blossoming of the Arab Spring. Many in the West welcomed what seemed to be the peaceful overthrow of authoritarian regimes in Tunisia and Egypt, accompanied by protests elsewhere in the region, including in Saudi Arabia’s neighbor, the island emirate of Bahrain. Nayef, however, like many people in power in the area, was horrified by what was happening—and irate when President Obama pressed Hosni Mubarak to quit the presidency of Egypt. Nayef pushed for Saudi intervention in Bahrain to shore up its Sunni royal family, which was facing unrest among its Shiite majority. A brutal crackdown ensued, crushing the reform movement there. Despite muted American protests Saudi troops remain on the island today.

MBN is the public face of repression in the kingdom. Dissidents across the Gulf States accuse him of promoting a “Pax Saudiana” and treating all dissent in the kingdom as terrorism.

At home Nayef urged his half-brother King Abdullah to respond to demands for change without compromising. But Abdullah took a more flexible line. For years he had been cautiously, incrementally, introducing limited reforms. Under his rule many more Saudi women had access to higher education and to at least a few mid-level government jobs. There were even hints from his court that someday Saudi women might be allowed to drive cars. He also appointed representative councils that had a voice in municipal affairs. And he appropriated over a hundred billion dollars in new spending to improve the conditions of the Saudi lower and middle classes.

But Abdullah’s reforms never challenged the fundamentals of the Saudi system. The Interior Ministry, now being run by MBN, cracked down mercilessly on dissenters, imprisoning anyone who advocated reform. MBN was savvy about terrorist threats to the kingdom, but less so about the dangers of refusing to allow its citizens to express themselves freely. Abdullah’s reforms gradually got reversed or stalemated. The reactionaries had again thwarted the reformer.

Nayef’s health failed him in 2012. When he died at 78 in June of that year in Geneva, there were quiet sighs of relief down the official corridors of Washington—and a spirit of optimism about working with his son MBN, who by then had already taken on the mantle of the Prince of Counterterrorism.

MBN has been at the forefront of innovative new tactics in fighting terrorism, especially in the effort to rehabilitate terrorists who were either captured by the police or defected from the terror apparatus because of disillusionment with the jihadist cause. The Ministry of the Interior today runs five special high security prisons with some 3,500 prisoners, almost all former al-Qaida operatives, where the goal is not incarceration but rehabilitation. The prisoners are showered with perks, can receive visits from their relatives and are even allowed to go to weddings and funerals with supervision; their families get special allowances from the government for better housing, medical care, and education. The objective is to make the former terrorists’ families take responsibility for their sons’ future. The theory is that if the family feels it has a stake in the rehabilitation of their wayward children, it will take on the job of convincing them of the error of their ways.

At one of Saudi Arabia’s high-security prisons for terrorists, the goal is not incarceration but rehabilitation—a controversial strategy promoted by MBN.  Reuters

The Interior Ministry acknowledges that 20 percent of the “graduates” of its rehabilitation prisons return to terrorism, but that’s a rate of recidivism considerably below that of prisons in the U.S. and Europe.

Still, the system MBN, now crown prince, has put in place has significant drawbacks. As the head of the feared Interior Ministry—he was made minister in 2012—MBN, like his father before him, is the public face of repression in the kingdom. Dissidents across the Gulf States accuse him of promoting a “Pax Saudiana” of repression, for the monarchy continues to treat all dissent in the kingdom as terrorism.

The extent of government repression of all forms of dissent has rightly raised new questions about the wisdom of close relations between the House of Saud and the U.S. and other Western democracies. The Economist has called for an end to business as usual with the kingdom and a more robust approach to encouraging transparency and accountability in Saudi politics. In an editorial just after Salman became King entitled “An Unholy Pact,” The Economist wrote that “the Wahhabism they [the Saudis] nurture endangers not just the outside world, but the dynasty itself” by encouraging extremism.

President Obama has been a strong supporter of the kingdom; it was the first place in the Middle East he visited as president. But he has said that while the Saudis face real external threats, including from Iran, it is the internal threat that is most serious. The kingdom’s population is “in some cases alienated, youth are underemployed, (with) an ideology that is destructive and nihilistic, and a belief that there are no legitimate political outlets for grievances.” The president has promised “tough conversations” with the leadership about liberalizing some of its policies.

King Salman has instead moved the kingdom even closer to the Wahhabi establishment. He fired the only female cabinet level minister shortly after coming to the throne; she had been an advocate of physical education for girls and a target for hardliners. Salman has met often with notoriously reactionary members of the clerical elite. He built close ties to them during the 50 years he was governor of Riyadh, a period when the city went from a population of about 200,000 to over 7 million, but retained its status as the most conservative city in Islam.

The late King Abdullah (right) and the Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdul Aziz Al-Asheikh. The Saudi royal family has always been close with the country’s Wahhabi establishment. Today, thanks to King Salman, that relationship is closer than ever. Getty

Enter the Islamic State and Yemen

The kingdom’s Wahhabi Islam is the most fundamentalist Sunni branch of the religion. But it has now been outflanked by religious radicals who are even more intolerant, xenophobic, and far more violent. The blood-curdling appearance of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria in 2014 represents a new challenge to the world and, in particular, to MBN and his counterterrorism program. Heir to al-Qaida in Mesopotamia, which went deep underground during the American surge in Iraq in 2007 only to resurface after the withdrawal of foreign forces, the Islamic State has staged a multipronged comeback campaign. In 2012-13, it began targeting Iraqi prisons where al-Qaida terrorists were incarcerated and creating an infrastructure in neighboring Syria to assist in its revival. In the summer of 2014 it waged a blitzkrieg-like offensive across Sunni populated Iraq, took command of the country’s second city, Mosul, and declared the creation of a caliphate to rule all of Islam.

In November 2014 the Islamic State announced that its goal is to take control of the mosques in Mecca and Medina and oust the “serpent’s head”—the Saudi royal family. Its English language magazine published a cover story with a photo of the Kaaba with the Islamic State’s black flag flying over it. Islamic State militants have attacked Saudi security posts along the Iraqi border and sent suicide bombers to attack Shiite mosques inside the kingdom in order to fuel sectarian enmity. In response to the threat the Interior Ministry has arrested hundreds of Islamic State operatives and is constructing a 600 mile long security fence or wall along the Saudi-Iraqi border, similar to a 1,000 mile long wall it built along the Saudi-Yemeni border to defeat al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula.

The Islamic State announced that its goal is to take control of the mosques in Mecca and Medina and oust the Saudi royal family.

Abdullah died in January this year after almost 20 years of ruling the kingdom, first as crown prince filling in for an incapacitated King Fahd, then as king in his own right. Having outlived two crown princes, Sultan and Nayef, Abdullah had tried to prepare for an orderly succession. In July 2012 he made his half-brother Prince Muqrin the deputy prime minister, second in line to the throne after Crown Prince Salman, now king, also a half-brother. Muqrin was very close to Abdullah and his reforms.

Abdullah’s passing marks a major milestone in the kingdom’s history. A reformer by Saudi standards, he ruled longer than any of his brothers and through perilous times. His designated successor was Salman, 13 years younger. Once Salman ascended the throne, he made Muqrin crown prince, as was expected, and moved MBN up to second in line as deputy prime minister. It was assumed that Muqrin, who was born in 1945, the 35th son of Ibn Saud, would become king some day, and that MBN would then have some years to prepare for his own ascension, and to get the country ready for the generational transition from the sons of Ibn Saud to his grandsons.

A Saudi government-issued photo celebrating Operation Decisive Storm reflects the new order of royal succession: MBN (left), who’s next in line for the throne; King Salman (center); and the second-in-line, MBS. Saudi government

Then came a stunning and unprecedented family reshuffle. At four o’clock in the morning on April 29, Salman sacked Muqrin and made MBN crown prince in his stead. Salman’s son Muhammad bin Salman (MBS) became the new number two. No explanation for the unprecedented ouster of a crown prince was given then or since. There is intense speculation that Salman made this change because MBN has no sons of his own (only two daughters), which means that MBS—who some sources say is not yet 30—will have a better chance of one day succeeding to the throne. Some speculate that MBN will sooner or later get the boot himself to ensure MBS makes it to the top.

MBS’s unbridled ambition has alienated many of his fellow princes. He has a reputation for arrogance and ruthlessness. He controls oil policy, but his complete lack of experience in the energy industry is all too evident. However, his principal vulnerability is his prominence, in his role as minister of defense, as the driving force and public advocate of Saudi policy toward its desperately poor, politically unstable neighbor on the peninsula: Yemen.

Yemen has always been a thorn in Saudi Arabia’s side. Ibn Saud went to war with Yemen in 1934. His armies captured much of the low-lying coastal plain along the Red Sea but could not conquer the mountainous interior of the country. A peace treaty ceded several border provinces to the kingdom, thus ensuring a long-standing irredentist movement in Yemen. In the 1960s the Saudis backed the Zaydi Shiite monarchs who traditionally ruled Yemen against an Egyptian backed republican movement that threatened to topple all the monarchies in the peninsula.

But in March of this year the Saudis launched air strikes against the Houthis, the Zaydi Shiite rebels who had deposed the pro-Saudi government in Sanaa last fall and taken control of much of the country. The Saudis were particularly alarmed by the Zaydi decision to open direct air flights to Tehran (a first), offer Iran use of Hudaydah port, and negotiate a cheap oil deal with Iran. Riyadh got support for its air war from all the other Arab states of the Gulf region except Oman. Jordan, Morocco, and Egypt have also joined Saudi Arabia in the war effort but Pakistan, a longtime Saudi ally, refused.

Backed by the U.S., Saudi Arabia’s coalition against Yemen comprises fellow Gulf nations as well as Egypt and Sudan.

The United States is providing intelligence and logistical help, despite getting only a few hours’ notice from Riyadh about the first strikes. The Saudis initially called the campaign Operation Decisive Storm, a deliberate echo of the United States’ pummeling of Saddam Hussein’s regime and the eviction of his forces from Kuwait in 1991. It is by far the most assertive foreign policy move in the kingdom’s recent history. Previous Saudi interventions in Yemen were clandestine, covert affairs. King Salman is projecting Saudi military might in an aggressive manner unprecedented since the days of his father Ibn Saud in the 1930s. The stakes are high.

So far the Yemeni adventure has not gone well, however. The war seems to be bogged down in a stalemate. Saudi Arabia and its allies control Yemen’s airspace and coastal waters and the southern port of Aden, but the Zaydi Houthis and their allies control most of northern Yemen.

Meanwhile, the Saudi blockade is creating a humanitarian catastrophe for the 25 million Yemenis, and the war has been a net gain for al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula. With the Saudis fighting the Houthis, much of eastern Yemen has become even more lawless than usual, allowing al-Qaida to take control of large parts of the Hadramawt province in the southeast, where bin Laden’s father and family had lived before emigrating to the kingdom in the 1930s.

The Yemen war, which is King Salman’s first major foreign test, has profound implications for the stability of Saudi Arabia, the Arabian Peninsula, and the region as a whole. The war has a Sunni-Shia sectarian dimension, and it’s also an arena of the broader Saudi-Iranian struggle for regional hegemony. Moreover, because the war is partly about Yemeni aspirations for a more inclusive government, it represents, in effect, the unfinished business of the Arab Spring, which the Saudis have resisted so vigorously.


  • For regional analysis, visit the Brookings Center for Middle East Policy.
  • Explore the nexus of policy-making and intelligence at the Brookings Intelligence Project.
  • Read about Middle East politics and policy at Markaz, a blog by Brookings experts.
  • The Brookings project Rethinking Political Islam offers insight and analysis of mainstream movements and groups.
  • To find out how the Arab uprisings led to upheaval in key countries, read the Brookings report “The Middle East in Transition.”

The conflict is likely to draw in more players as it goes on and to spill out of Yemen to other countries. Already it has sparked violent clashes between MBN’s Interior Ministry forces and Shiite militants in the Saudis’ Eastern Province.

In short, Yemen could end up being a black mark on King Salman’s reign, and fatal to the ambitions of both MBN and MBS. Given how much he has identified himself with the war effort as minister of defense, MBS has the most to lose. So far he still has his father’s ear, and has represented him in visits to Russia and France. When King Salman abruptly canceled plans to meet President Obama at Camp David to show his pique at the president’s plan to secure a nuclear deal with Iran, he sent the two princes, MBN and MBS, in his stead. Obama pressed them on reform but backed their war. When King Salman finally did travel to Washington the talks were brief and the focus for the Saudi audience was more on MBS than his father.

MBN may be the most pro-American prince ever to be in line to the throne. He is probably the most successful intelligence officer in the Arab world of today. Panetta, like Tenet, praises him, calling MBN the “smartest and most accomplished of his generation.” Only King Fahd, another former minister of the interior, may have been so instinctively inclined to support American interests. Unlike his father, MBN seems altogether comfortable working closely with Americans. He seemed to get on fine with President Obama at Camp David. His agents just captured the mastermind of the 1996 Saudi Hezbollah attack on U.S. military barracks in Khobar, Saudi Arabia, that killed 19 American service members. MBN has already had more responsibility than any Saudi of his generation, and his burden is likely to become all the heavier given the chaos in the post-Arab Spring Middle East. He knows he needs allies.

But Washington should have no illusions that MBN will take Western advice to reform the kingdom. Saudi Arabia makes no bones about being the leading opponent of everything the Arab Spring stood for when it began in 2011 and everything that so many in the West were cheering for. The Saudis helped engineer the 2013 coup in Egypt that restored military rule to the largest Arab country and dealt the Arab Spring a fatal blow. They are skilled counterterrorists, but they are also accomplished and unabashed counterrevolutionaries.

Saudi Arabia is the world’s last significant absolute monarchy. It will not have a Gorbachev moment, because the royal family will not give up their control of the nation, nor will they loosen their ties with the Wahhabis and their faith. King Salman, Crown Prince Muhammad bin Nayef, Deputy Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman, and virtually all of the rest of the Saudi establishment believe they have survived more than two and a half centuries in the rough politics of the Middle East not just because of their ruthless determination to stay absolute monarchs, but because of their alliance with the Wahhabi clerics.

The House of Saud has outlasted the Ottomans, Nasserism, Communism, Baathism, and most other royal families. In 1979 many thought they would go the way of the Shah of Iran. As a young analyst at the CIA charged with the Saudi portfolio I predicted then that they would survive for many decades to come. It is too soon to write their epitaph, but I suspect it is too late to expect them to change.

“The Believer,” a profile of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, leader of the Islamic State (ISIS). In this essay, Brookings Fellow William McCants details how Baghdadi became radicalized, found his path to power, and declared himself the head of a reborn Islamic empire bent on world conquest.

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Bruce Riedel is a senior fellow and director of the Brookings Intelligence Project, part of the Brookings Center for 21st Century Security and Intelligence. In addition, Riedel serves as a senior fellow in the Center for Middle East Policy. He retired in 2006 after 30 years of service at the Central Intelligence Agency, including postings overseas. He was a senior advisor on South Asia and the Middle East to the last four presidents of the United States in the staff of the National Security Council at the White House. He was also deputy assistant secretary of defense for the Near East and South Asia at the Pentagon and a senior advisor at the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in Brussels.

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A New Libya, With ‘Very Little Time Left

A New Libya, With ‘Very Little Time Left

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It was a grisly start to the new era for Libya, broadcast around the world. The dictator was dragged from the sewer pipe where he was hiding, tossed around by frenzied rebel soldiers, beaten bloody and sodomized with a bayonet. A shaky cellphone video showed the pocked face of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, “the Leader” who had terrified Libyans for four decades, looking frightened and bewildered. He would soon be dead.

The first news reports of Colonel Qaddafi’s capture and killing in October 2011 reached the secretary of state in Kabul, Afghanistan, where she had just sat down for a televised interview. “Wow!” she said, looking at an aide’s BlackBerry before cautiously noting that the report had not yet been confirmed. But Hillary Clinton seemed impatient for a conclusion to the multinational military intervention she had done so much to organize, and in a rare unguarded moment, she dropped her reserve.

“We came, we saw, he died!” she exclaimed.

Two days before, Mrs. Clinton had taken a triumphal tour of the Libyan capital, Tripoli, and for weeks top aides had been circulating a “ticktock” that described her starring role in the events that had led to this moment. The timeline, her top policy aide, Jake Sullivan, wrote, demonstrated Mrs. Clinton’s “leadership/ownership/stewardship of this country’s Libya policy from start to finish.” The memo’s language put her at the center of everything: “HRC announces … HRC directs … HRC travels … HRC engages,” it read.

The Libya Gamble

An examination of the American intervention in Libya and Hillary Clinton’s role in it.

It was a brag sheet for a cabinet member eyeing a presidential race, and the Clinton team’s eagerness to claim credit for her prompted eye-rolling at the White House and the Pentagon. Some joked that to hear her aides tell it, she had practically called in the airstrikes herself.

But there were plenty of signs that the triumph would be short-lived, that the vacuum left by Colonel Qaddafi’s death invited violence and division.

In fact, on the same August day that Mr. Sullivan had compiled his laudatory memo, the State Department’s top Middle East hand, Jeffrey D. Feltman, had sent a lengthy email with an utterly different tone about what he had seen on his own visit to Libya.

The country’s interim leaders seemed shockingly disengaged, he wrote. Mahmoud Jibril, the acting prime minister, who had helped persuade Mrs. Clinton to back the opposition, was commuting from Qatar, making only “cameo” appearances. A leading rebel general had been assassinated, underscoring the hazard of “revenge killings.” Islamists were moving aggressively to seize power, and members of the anti-Qaddafi coalition, notably Qatar, were financing them.

On a task of the utmost urgency, disarming the militia fighters who had dethroned the dictator but now threatened the nation’s unity, Mr. Feltman reported an alarming lassitude. Mr. Jibril and his associates, he wrote, “tried to avert their eyes” from the problem that militias could pose on “the Day After.”

Where the Islamic State Is Active in Libya

Last year, ISIS carried out dozens of attacks in Libya, just 300 miles from Europe.

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Episodes of violence by ISIS or its affiliates in 2015

ISIS controls more than 150 miles of coastline around Surt

Bin Jawad
Area of detail

Source: Data on episodes of violence compiled by the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project based on news reports

By The New York Times

In short, the well-intentioned men who now nominally ran Libya were relying on “luck, tribal discipline and the ‘gentle character’ of the Libyan people” for a peaceful future. “We will continue to push on this,” he wrote.

In the ensuing months, Mr. Feltman’s memo would prove hauntingly prescient. But Libya’s Western allies, preoccupied by domestic politics and the crisis in Syria, would soon relegate the country to the back burner.

And Mrs. Clinton would be mostly a bystander as the country dissolved into chaos, leading to a civil war that would destabilize the region, fueling the refugee crisis in Europe and allowing the Islamic State to establish a Libyan haven that the United States is now desperately trying to contain.

“Nobody will say it’s too late. No one wants to say it,” said Mahmud Shammam, who served as chief spokesman for the interim government. “But I’m afraid there is very little time left for Libya.”

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Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met a wounded soldier loyal to the transitional government at a hospital in Tripoli during a visit to Libya on Oct. 18, 2011. Credit Pool photo by Kevin Lamarque


Media reports referred to Mrs. Clinton’s one brief visit to Libya in October 2011 as a “victory lap,” but the declaration was decidedly premature. Security precautions were extraordinary, with ships positioned off the coast in case an emergency evacuation was needed. As it turned out, there was no violence. But the wild celebratory scenes in the Libyan capital that day actually highlighted the divisions in the new order.

At a hospital, a university and government offices, Mrs. Clinton posed for photos with the Western-educated interim leaders and hailed the promise of democracy.

“I am proud to stand here on the soil of a free Libya,” she declared, standing alongside a beaming Mr. Jibril. “It is a great privilege to see a new future for Libya being born. And indeed, the work ahead is quite challenging, but the Libyan people have demonstrated the resolve and resilience necessary to achieve their goals.”

But everywhere Mrs. Clinton went, there was the other face of the rebellion. Crowds of Kalashnikov-toting fighters — the thuwar, or revolutionaries, as they called themselves — mobbed her motorcade and pushed to glimpse the American celebrity. Mostly they cheered, and Mrs. Clinton remained poised and unrattled, but her security detail watched the pandemonium with white-knuckled concern.

Hillary Clinton’s Legacy in Libya

As the secretary of state in 2011, Hillary Clinton pressed the Obama administration to intervene militarily in Libya, with consequences that have gone far beyond the fall of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi.

At the University of Tripoli, students were trampling wall hangings of Colonel Qaddafi that had been pulled to the ground, recalled Harold Koh, the State Department’s top lawyer, who had flown in with Mrs. Clinton on an American military aircraft. One grateful student pointed out the gallows where anti-Qaddafi protesters had been hanged, while others wondered what the United States might do to help win the peace.

“We know what the U.S. can do with bombs,” one student told Mr. Koh. “What else can you do?”

When Mrs. Clinton’s entourage finally departed, Gene A. Cretz, the American ambassador, wrote a relieved email to Cheryl Mills, the secretary of state’s chief of staff. The visit, he wrote, had been “picture perfect given the chaos we labor under in Libya.”

Mrs. Clinton certainly understood how hard the transition to a post-Qaddafi Libya would be. In February, before the allied bombing began, she noted that political change in Egypt had proved tumultuous despite strong institutions.

“So imagine how difficult it will be in a country like Libya,” she had said. “Qaddafi ruled for 42 years by basically destroying all institutions and never even creating an army, so that it could not be used against him.”

Early on, the president’s national security adviser, Tom Donilon, had created a planning group called “Post-Q.” Mrs. Clinton helped organize the Libya Contact Group, a powerhouse collection of countries that had pledged to work for a stable and prosperous future. By early 2012, she had flown to a dozen international meetings on Libya, part of a grueling schedule of official travel in which she kept competitive track of miles traveled and countries visited.

Dennis B. Ross, a veteran Middle East expert at the National Security Council, had argued unsuccessfully for an outside peacekeeping force. But with oil beginning to flow again from Libyan wells, he was pleasantly surprised by how things seemed to be going.

“I had unease that there wasn’t more being done more quickly to create cohesive security forces,” Mr. Ross said. “But the last six months of 2011, there was a fair amount of optimism.”

Even so, the gulf separating the suave English speakers of the interim government from the thuwar was becoming more and more pronounced.

After decades in exile, some leaders were more familiar with American and European universities than with Libyan tribes and the militias that had sprung from them. Others, like Mr. Jibril, were suspect in some quarters because of previous roles in the Qaddafi regime. It was increasingly evident that the ragtag populist army that had actually done the fighting against Colonel Qaddafi was not taking orders from the men in suits who believed they were Libya’s new leaders.

“It should have been clear to anyone,” said Mohammed Ali Abdallah, an opposition member who now heads a leading political party, “that there were clear contradictions in the makeup of the opposition and that unity could not last.”

Jeremy Shapiro, who handled Libya on Mrs. Clinton’s policy staff, said the administration was looking for “the unifier — the Nelson Mandela.” He added: “That was why Jibril was so attractive. We were always saying, ‘This is the guy who can appeal to all the factions.’ What we should have been looking for — but we were never good at playing that game — is a power balance.”

Under the circumstances, Libya’s push for elections by July 2012, nine months after Colonel Qaddafi’s death, appeared to some to be premature. But the schedule fulfilled the opposition’s promises to the West and had the backing of competing factions.

“Suddenly you had people who belonged to political parties,” said Abdurrazag Mukhtar, a member of the interim government who lived in California for many years and is now Libya’s ambassador to Turkey. “The Muslim Brotherhood. Jibril. All these guys thinking, ‘Time for an election.’”

“But we were not ready,” he said. “You needed a road map for security first.”

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Abdurrahim el-Keib, the interim prime minister, seated in center, met representatives of the Toubou ethnic group in April 2012. By then, Mrs. Clinton had received “worrying” reports about what was happening in Libya. Credit Anis Mili/Reuters


By January 2012, there was an unmistakable drumbeat of trouble.

His popularity sagging, Mr. Jibril had stepped down as transitional prime minister. A prominent Muslim scholar had accused him of guiding the nation toward a “new era of tyranny and dictatorship.” In a deal struck between two powerful militias, he was replaced by Abdurrahim el-Keib, an engineering professor who had taught for years at the University of Alabama.

On Jan. 5, Mrs. Clinton’s old friend and adviser Sidney Blumenthal emailed her with the latest in a series of behind-the-scenes reports on Libya, largely written by a retired C.I.A. officer, Tyler Drumheller, who died last year.

The memo detailed the roiling tensions between Islamists and secularists over the role of Islamic law, fighting between rival militias associated with two different towns and four visits to Mr. Keib’s office by “angry militiamen” demanding concessions.

Mr. Keib, the email said, “believes that if he does not disarm the militias and meet their demands in the next six months, there is a good chance of increased fighting among rival groups that could lead to civil war.” Mrs. Clinton forwarded the message to Mr. Sullivan, her policy aide, with a single comment: “Worrying.”

Such alarming reports might have been expected to spur action in Washington. They did not.

After Colonel Qaddafi’s fall, with minimal violence and friendly interim leadership, Libya had moved quickly off the top of the administration’s agenda. The regular situation room meetings on Libya, often including the president, simply stopped. The revolt in Syria, in the heart of the Middle East and with nearly four times Libya’s population, took center stage.

Libya, Mr. Ross said, “was farmed out to the working level.”

The inattention was not just neglect. It was policy.

“The president was like, ‘We are not looking to do another Iraq,’” said Derek Chollet, then handling Libya for the National Security Council. “And by the way, the Europeans were all along saying: ‘No, no, no, we’re doing this. We got it. We believe in Libya. This is in our neighborhood.’”

In Their Own Words: The Libya Tragedy

Architects of the Libyan intervention lament its aftermath.

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So the president and the National Security Council set what one official called “fierce limits” on the American role: The United States would provide help only when it could offer a unique capability, only when Libya explicitly requested the services and only when Libya paid for them with its oil revenue. In practice, those conditions meant the United States would do very little.

And though the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, and the British prime minister, David Cameron, visited Libya together, they, too, were soon distracted, by re-election campaigns and economic worries.

The neglect was made easier by the Libyans themselves. Displaying both naïveté and nationalism, the interim leaders insisted, at least in public, that they wanted no outside interference. They were so wary of foreign troops that they refused to let the United Nations maintain a basic security force to protect its compound.

“They were very keen to take responsibility for their country,” Mr. Shapiro said. “And we were very keen to let them, for our own reasons. So there was a sort of conspiracy there.”

As the months passed and the factional fighting grew worse, Mrs. Clinton pressed for the administration to do more, asking the Pentagon, for example, to help train security forces. But she was boxed in by the president’s strictures and the Libyans’ resistance.

“It’s like you’re twisting yourself into a pretzel to try to say, ‘O.K., we won’t have boots on the ground, but we know we got to do something,’” Mr. Ross said.

Even modest proposals foundered. When Mrs. Clinton proposed sending a hospital ship to treat wounded Libyan fighters, the National Security Council rejected the idea, aides said.

But whatever her misgivings, Mrs. Clinton prized her relationship with the president and respected his authority to set policy. So she went along, as disciplined as ever.

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A depot in Benghazi where arms and ordnance were collected by anti-Qaddafi forces. American efforts to secure the vast arsenal left by Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi largely failed. Credit Tyler Hicks/The New York Times


Andrew Shapiro was trying to make the best of a bad situation. He had to explain what the United States was doing to secure the vast military arsenal that Colonel Qaddafi had left behind — a notable exception to the hands-off policy.

Speaking in Washington in February 2012, Mr. Shapiro, the assistant secretary of state for political-military affairs, described efforts to “galvanize an international response” to find and destroy arms caches. But he acknowledged that the $40 million program Mrs. Clinton had announced was not going as well as hoped, even when it came to the most worrisome weapons, the Manpads, shoulder-fired missiles capable of shooting down an airliner.

“How many are still missing? The frank answer is we don’t know and probably never will,” Mr. Shapiro said. “We cannot rule out that some weapons may have leaked out of Libya.”

The covert coals-to-Newcastle effort to arm the rebels during the revolution was the least of it. The dictator had stashed an astonishing quantity of weapons in the desert.

“We knew he had a lot, but he had 10 times that,” said Jean-David Levitte, then a top aide to Mr. Sarkozy.

While the C.I.A. moved quickly to secure Colonel Qaddafi’s chemical weapons, other efforts fell short. “There was one arsenal that we thought had 20,000 shoulder-fired, surface-to-air missiles, SA-7s, that basically just disappeared into the maw of the Middle East and North Africa,” recalled Robert M. Gates, the American defense secretary at the time.

A major stumbling block was that the Obama administration was negotiating with interim Libyan ministers as if they represented a unified government. In fact, they were often rivals, jockeying for power in advance of the elections.

“I know this sounds incredible, but for months and months and months on end we could not get anyone in authority in the government to just sign an agreement on anything, including our detailed offers of security assistance,” said Antony J. Blinken, then the top security aide to Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. “There was total paralysis.”

When it came to securing weapons, the Americans’ initial idea — to give the interim government assistance to buy them back itself — foundered when the Libyan ministers failed to carry out the program, several Libyan officials said.

So the State Department, working with the C.I.A., was left to try to strike its own deals with the militias. But there was little incentive to sell. As Mr. Shammam, the former spokesman for the interim government, put it: “How are you going to buy a Kalashnikov for $1,000? With a Kalashnikov, someone can make $1,000 a day kidnapping people.”

Where Weapons From Libya Have Been Found

Weapons have been trafficked out of Libya since 2011, especially through the country’s remote areas in the south. Many have turned up in regional conflict areas as far as Mali and Syria.

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Sources: United Nations Security Council reports; Small Arms Survey

By The New York Times

Worse, the program created an incentive for militias to import weapons to sell to the Americans, said Ali Zeidan, an adviser to the interim government who would inherit the problem in November 2012 when he became prime minister.

“If you want to buy weapons, you have to control the border,” Mr. Zeidan said, adding that the failure to do that led fighters to “sell them, get more and sell them again.”

Asked by a reporter that spring why it was so difficult for the United States to “get it right” when it intervened in the Middle East, Mrs. Clinton was still holding up Libya as a model of success. “I would take issue with the premise of that question,” said Mrs. Clinton, who declined to be interviewed for these articles.

But she was well aware of the deteriorating security situation.

In a February 2012 report, Amnesty International had called Libya’s militias “out of control.” The same month, Mr. Cretz, the American ambassador, warned in an email that the July elections would take place “in the context of militia control.”

“Continuing rivalries among the militias remain dangerous from the perspective of the havoc they can wreak with their firepower,” he wrote to Mrs. Clinton’s policy adviser, Mr. Sullivan, who sent it on to her.

In Mrs. Clinton’s inner circle, the boasting about her achievements in Libya had given way to a “nagging worry that it would go south,” one senior aide said. The aide recalled being instructed jokingly by Mr. Sullivan “to make sure that didn’t happen” before the American presidential election in November.

So when Libyans went to the polls on July 7, in what international observers characterized as a fair election with high turnout and little violence, Mrs. Clinton and other advocates of the intervention were relieved. In the wake of the Arab Spring in Egypt and Tunisia, voters had chosen Islamist-led governments. But in Libya, the winning coalition consisted of Western-friendly political parties led by Mr. Jibril.

The next month, with crowds in Tripoli chanting that the “blood of the martyrs will not be wasted,” power was handed over to the newly elected General National Congress, the first peaceful transition in Libya’s history.

Mrs. Clinton, who one aide said privately shared the worry that the country was not ready for elections, nevertheless congratulated the Libyans on “this historic milestone.”

“Now the hard work really begins to build an effective, transparent government that unifies the country,” she said.

But unity was already impossible.

“In a sense it was lost from the beginning,” said Gérard Araud, France’s ambassador to the United States and an early advocate of the intervention. “It was the same mistake you made in Iraq. You organize elections in a country with no experience of compromise or political parties. So you have an election, and you think that everything is solved. But eventually tribal realities come back to haunt the country.”

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A voter in Benghazi in July 2012 — Libya’s first election in more than 40 years. Aides said Mrs. Clinton had privately shared concerns that the country was not ready. Credit Tomas Munita for The New York Times


While the Americans struggled against weapons proliferation and hoped for the best, a former rebel officer took on the problem at the core of Libya’s predicament: disbanding the volatile forces that had ousted Colonel Qaddafi and helping the fighters find a place in a peaceful new Libya. The officer, M. Mustafa El Sagezli, would never meet Mrs. Clinton. But the outcome of his lonely campaign would decide to a considerable degree Libya’s place in her record as secretary of state.

As deputy commander of the February 17 Martyrs Brigade, one of the largest and most capable rebel militias, Mr. Sagezli had tried his best to look after his recruits. It was, he felt, an obligation that did not end with the revolution.

Shortly after Colonel Qaddafi was killed, Mr. Sagezli had gathered a group of fighters in Benghazi. A businessman with degrees from Utah State University and the London School of Economics, he knew the rebel militias had been organized along Libya’s deepest fault lines: tribal divisions, regional loyalties and differing stances on Islam’s proper role. Yet the country could not progress unless the militias were reintegrated into civil society and replaced by a regular army.

“What do you need?” he asked the fighters. “What are your dreams?”

Their modest answers surprised and encouraged him.

“Some were very simple dreams,” he said. “‘Help us get married.’ Some wanted a scholarship.”

The transitional government soon set up a Warriors Affairs Commission, headed by Mr. Sagezli. Many of the 162,000 former fighters it registered were illiterate and needed education. Some wanted to join a police force or a new army, but nearly half hoped to start small businesses.

Mr. Sagezli said he had taken a proposal to the transitional government: The Labor Ministry could help would-be businessmen, the Interior Ministry could train customs and police officers, the Defense Ministry would absorb others into a national army, and so on.

It was ambitious, but the government had plenty of money; Mrs. Clinton had worked hard to free up billions of dollars in Libyan assets that had been frozen by anti-Qaddafi sanctions. Her view, said one top aide, was that if the interim government “couldn’t rule by force, let them rule by finance.”

But instead of giving priority to demobilizing the militias, as an aide said Mrs. Clinton had hoped, the transitional regime simply began paying fighters salaries that many viewed as protection money. In one illustrative incident in May 2012, Kikla militiamen stormed the office of Mr. Keib, the interim prime minister, demanding back pay as gunfire filled the air.

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A militia group that had taken part in the Libyan revolution paying its members in March 2012. The money intended to help former fighters ended up strengthening the militias. Credit Jehad Nga for The New York Times

“Don’t give them salaries for nothing,” Mr. Sagezli recalls begging. “Giving a commander money means giving strength to the militias, more loyalty for the commander, more armaments and more corruption. They never listened.” Instead, he said, “the politicians started bribing them to buy loyalty.”

With the July elections, precedent became political imperative.

In the run-up to the vote, a powerful militia shut down roads to press its demand that its eastern Libyan region have a greater say when the incoming Parliament drafted a constitution. The authorities capitulated, leaving the writing of the constitution for a second assembly to be elected later, with more seats from the east.

That, in turn, made it harder to disarm the militias, since each faction and town knew its weapons might be needed to protect its interests in the constitutional process. That was how the game would be played.

Mr. Zeidan, who became prime minister in November 2012, financed a few of Mr. Sagezli’s programs. But he continued to pay off militia leaders. Political parties aligned themselves with various commanders, and with no army or police force to carry out their will, the elected officials became increasingly dependent on the fighters extorting them.

Haig Melkessetian, a former American intelligence operative whose company provided security for European embassies in Libya, described militia rule as “anarchy — there’s just no other word for it.”

“We had to have five or six IDs to be able to pass, depending on the street,” he said.

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“But there were plenty of signs that the triumph would be short-lived, that the vacuum left by Colonel Qaddafi’s death invited violence and…


Here’s some good advice for us, at least in Syria:”The Russians seem to be eager; let them have a

Assassinations and “the worst kind of vigilantism” became commonplace, said Sarah Leah Whitson, who was tracking abuses in Libya for Human Rights Watch. One militia leader told her, “The G.N.C. may have had electoral legitimacy, but we have revolutionary legitimacy.”

Mr. Sagezli said he had discussed the difficulties with United Nations representatives and with the new American ambassador, J. Christopher Stevens. “I kept asking them for support,” he recalled.

But if there was any pressure from American or European officials to stop the government payoffs, he said, “it wasn’t loud enough.”

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Police officers prayed next to the body of Faraj al-Deirsy, the Benghazi police chief, at his funeral after he was assassinated November 2012. Credit Esam Al-Fetori/Reuters


The American ambassador was hearing it from both sides.

Officials from Libya’s moderate governing coalition were demanding that the United States stop the wealthy nation of Qatar from sending money and arms to militias aligned with Libya’s Islamist political bloc. The Islamists, in turn, were accusing a rival gulf power, the United Arab Emirates, of providing similar patronage to fighters aligned with their political enemies.

The shipments violated a United Nations arms embargo. But Mr. Stevens told Mr. Abdallah, the Libyan party chief, that when he raised the issue with his Qatari and Emirati counterparts, he was met either with outright denials or with protestations that the shipments had gone through blessed official channels, namely government ministers aligned with various factions.

“When I go to the U.A.E., they say, ‘I’m dealing with the minister of defense — how much more official can I get?’” Mr. Abdallah recalled the ambassador saying.

It was bad enough that Libya’s elected officials lacked the will to force militias to lay down the arms they already possessed. Now, with Libya veering toward civil war, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates — waging a broader war for influence throughout the region — were providing opposing militia commanders with back-channel resupply routes.

In Washington, though, it was the Islamists’ patrons, the Qataris, who were of paramount concern.

During the 2011 Libyan revolution, Mrs. Clinton had successfully pushed the administration to take a direct role in arming opposition groups, hoping that would persuade the Qataris to stop sending weapons to extremist rebel factions. Though that clearly had not worked, she explored a similar play as she wrangled with what to do about “the Qatar problem” in 2012, aides said.

Mrs. Clinton was already pushing for an aggressive American program to arm and train Syrian rebels trying to topple President Bashar al-Assad. What if she could secure what one top aide called a “bank shot” deal in which the United States would provide assistance to certain of Qatar’s allies in Syria in return for Qatar’s dropping its support for Islamist militias in Libya?

But Mrs. Clinton’s activist streak ran up against President Obama’s deep wariness of further entanglement in the Middle East, and she lost the debate on arming the Syrian opposition. With no carrot to offer the Qataris, she asked aides to prepare a memo on how the United States might wield a stick.

Mrs. Clinton typically relied heavily on a tiny circle of close advisers. But facing a thorny problem, she sometimes convened a larger group, 15 or more aides, in her outer office, where her long sofa sat beneath a window with a view of the Lincoln Memorial.

“She really liked to get people to think through the what-if pieces — what if we do this, what are the consequences of doing that, and exploring alternatives,” said James B. Steinberg, her deputy secretary of state.

Some advisers suggested trimming military aid to Qatar or threatening to move American military assets elsewhere in the region. But Middle East hands at the State Department pushed back, saying that pressuring the gulf monarchy would only backfire. And the Defense Department strongly objected: It had a 20-year history of close cooperation with Qatar, which hosted critical American military bases.

In the end, there was no appetite for anything beyond quiet diplomacy. “We didn’t do nearly enough,” said Mr. Ross, who also explored ways to “raise the price” on Qatar, to no avail.

Only last year did President Obama rebuke the nations meddling in Libya, and by then it was too late.

“They created the monsters we are dealing with today,” Mr. Abdallah said, “which is these militias that are so empowered they will never subordinate themselves to any government.”

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Protesters jumped on a car during clashes in the eastern city of Benghazi on March 16, 2012. Credit Abdullah Doma/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images


On Aug. 8, 2012, a month after the elections, Mr. Stevens, the American ambassador, signed off on a cable sent to Washington titled “The Guns of August,” playing on the title of a classic history of the first days of World War I. It described Benghazi as moving “from trepidation to euphoria and back as a series of violent incidents has dominated the political landscape” and warned of “a security vacuum.”

No American official knew Libya better. He would pay with his life for his determination to see Libya’s tumultuous reality up close. A month after the cable was sent, Islamist extremists attacked the United States mission in Benghazi, and Mr. Stevens was one of four Americans killed.

In the assaults on the diplomatic compound and nearby C.I.A. annex, the most worrisome trends in the country came together: the feeble central government, the breakdown of law and order, the rise of militants and the months of minimal attention from Washington. Republicans quickly seized on the episode for what would become years of inquiries, hearings and fund-raising focused on Mrs. Clinton.

Still, in her last months at the State Department, Mrs. Clinton rode a wave of popularity, bolstered by an Internet meme called “Texts From Hillary.” Its emblem was a photograph of the secretary of state gazing through dark glasses at her BlackBerry. Few knew that it had been taken aboard the military transport plane taking her to Libya in those heady days after the dictator’s fall.

If the attempt to pin blame for the Benghazi attack on Mrs. Clinton would largely fail, the notion that the Libyan intervention was among her successes had become steadily more threadbare. Libya would not conform, either as cudgel or brag, to the needs of American politics.

As she exited the State Department in February 2013, factional violence, which would break into open civil war in 2014, was on the rise. The flow of refugees paying smugglers for a hazardous trip across the Mediterranean was swelling. And the Libyan chaos would give rise to two rival governments — one backed by Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, the other by Qatar, Turkey and Sudan — providing sanctuary to extremists, soon to be joined by emissaries of the Islamic State.

Desperate Crossing

For 733 migrants crammed aboard two tiny boats somewhere between Libya and Italy, a leaky hull was neither the beginning nor the end of their troubles.

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Desperate Crossing

For 733 migrants crammed aboard two tiny boats somewhere between Libya and Italy, a leaky hull was neither the beginning nor the end of their troubles.

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The weapons that had made it so hard to stabilize Libya were turning up in Syria, Tunisia, Algeria, Mali, Niger, Chad, Nigeria, Somalia, Sudan, Egypt and Gaza, often in the hands of terrorists, insurgents or criminals.

In the fall of 2012, American intelligence agencies produced a classified assessment of the proliferation of arms from Libya. “It was like, ‘Oh, my God,’” said Michael T. Flynn, then head of the Defense Intelligence Agency. “We’ve not had that kind of proliferation of weapons since really the end of the Vietnam War.”

A cynical line would begin to circulate in Washington: In Iraq, the United States had intervened and occupied — and things had gone to hell. In Libya, the United States had intervened but not occupied — and things had gone to hell. And in Syria, the United States had neither intervened nor occupied — and things had still gone to hell.

It was a dark jest designed to shift blame from baffled American policy makers to a troubled region. But it raised a serious question about Libya: If overthrowing a hated dictator in a small and relatively rich country produced such epic troubles, was American intervention ever justified?

“It’s true that things went wrong,” said Mr. Sagezli, of the warriors commission. “But from a Libyan point of view, things could not go right. We had 42 years of Qaddafi’s rule, no infrastructure, a terrible education system, thousands of political prisoners, divisions among tribes, destruction of the army. When you have such a state, when you take out the dictator, it’s like taking the cover off the pot.”

Given that background, Ms. Whitson, who monitored Libya for Human Rights Watch, thought the United States’ failure to follow up was unforgivable.

“If you are going to carry out a military intervention to decapitate the government, you are making a commitment to the stability of that country over the long haul,” she said. “Doing nothing, as we did here? A bunch of eighth graders can agree that is not an approach that is going to work.”

The history that Mrs. Clinton often cited should have been instructive, Ms. Whitson said. “In Bosnia, yes, we intervened. But there’s been peacekeeping troops there for 20 years,” she said.

Strikingly, President Obama said in 2014 that such criticism was just, and that Libya had provided his biggest lesson in foreign policy.

He did not regret the intervention, he told Thomas L. Friedman, the New York Times columnist, because without Colonel Qaddafi’s overthrow, “Libya would have been like Syria, right? Because Qaddafi was not going to be able to contain what had been unleashed there.”

But Mr. Obama said the United States and its allies “underestimated the need to come in full force” after the dictator’s fall. The Libyan experience, he said, is “a lesson that I now apply every time I ask the question: Should we intervene militarily? Do we have an answer for the day after?”

Libya, aides say, has strongly reinforced the president’s reluctance to move more decisively in Syria. “Literally, this has given him pause about what would be required if you eliminated the Syrian state,” a top adviser said.

Mrs. Clinton, by contrast, pushed for greater American involvement early in the Syrian civil war and has repeatedly called for a no-fly zone, a move Mr. Obama has so far rejected. The lessons of the Libya experience have not tempered her more aggressive approach to international crises.

While remaining political allies, the president and his former top diplomat have taken revealing shots at each other. In a rare flash of emotion after leaving office, Mrs. Clinton derided the president’s guiding principle in foreign relations: “Don’t do stupid stuff.”

“Great nations need organizing principles, and ‘Don’t do stupid stuff’ is not an organizing principle,” she said in a 2014 interview with The Atlantic.

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Armed Libyans in Benghazi this month, marking the fifth anniversary of the revolution. Credit Esam Omran Al-Fetori/Reuters

Last fall, frustrated with calls for greater American involvement in Syria, Mr. Obama dismissed them as “half-baked” and “mumbo jumbo.” Asked whether those labels applied to Mrs. Clinton’s proposals, the president denied it, not entirely convincingly.

When asked to defend her record on Libya, Mrs. Clinton has taken a line quite the opposite of her aides’ previous insistence on her central role in the intervention. “At the end of the day, this was the president’s decision,” she told a House committee in October.

She has said the military alliance that overthrew Colonel Qaddafi represented “smart power at its best,” but called Libya “a classic case of a hard choice.” Mostly, she has insisted that history’s judgment on the intervention, and her role in it, are not yet final.

“I think it sometimes shows American impatience,” she said in 2014, “that, ‘O.K., you got rid of this dictator who destroyed institutions. Why aren’t you behaving like a mature democracy?’ That doesn’t happen overnight.”

Yet if, for Mr. Obama, the Libyan experience has underscored doubts about the United States’ power to shape outcomes in other countries, it has demonstrated for Mrs. Clinton just how crucial an American presence can be.

“We have learned the hard way when America is absent, especially from unstable places, there are consequences,” she said at a House hearing on Benghazi in October, articulating what sounded like a guiding principle. “Extremism takes root, aggressors seek to fill the vacuum, and security everywhere is threatened, including here at home.”

Hillary Clinton, ‘Smart Power’ and a Dictator’s Fall

Hillary Clinton, ‘Smart Power’ and a Dictator’s Fall

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By the time Mahmoud Jibril cleared customs at Le Bourget airport and sped into Paris, the American secretary of state had been waiting for hours. But this was not a meeting Hillary Clinton could cancel. Their encounter could decide whether America was again going to war.

In the throes of the Arab Spring, Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi was facing a furious revolt by Libyans determined to end his quixotic 42-year rule. The dictator’s forces were approaching Benghazi, the crucible of the rebellion, and threatening a blood bath. France and Britain were urging the United States to join them in a military campaign to halt Colonel Qaddafi’s troops, and now the Arab League, too, was calling for action.

President Obama was deeply wary of another military venture in a Muslim country. Most of his senior advisers were telling him to stay out. Still, he dispatched Mrs. Clinton to sound out Mr. Jibril, a leader of the Libyan opposition. Their late-night meeting on March 14, 2011, would be the first chance for a top American official to get a sense of whom, exactly, the United States was being asked to support.

In her suite at the Westin, she and Mr. Jibril, a political scientist with a doctorate from the University of Pittsburgh, spoke at length about the fast-moving military situation in Libya. But Mrs. Clinton was clearly also thinking about Iraq, and its hard lessons for American intervention.

Did the opposition’s Transitional National Council really represent the whole of a deeply divided country, or just one region? What if Colonel Qaddafi quit, fled or was killed — did they have a plan for what came next?

“She was asking every question you could imagine,” Mr. Jibril recalled.

Mrs. Clinton was won over. Opposition leaders “said all the right things about supporting democracy and inclusivity and building Libyan institutions, providing some hope that we might be able to pull this off,” said Philip H. Gordon, one of her assistant secretaries. “They gave us what we wanted to hear. And you do want to believe.”

Her conviction would be critical in persuading Mr. Obama to join allies in bombing Colonel Qaddafi’s forces. In fact, Mr. Obama’s defense secretary, Robert M. Gates, would later say that in a “51-49” decision, it was Mrs. Clinton’s support that put the ambivalent president over the line.

The consequences would be more far-reaching than anyone imagined, leaving Libya a failed state and a terrorist haven, a place where the direst answers to Mrs. Clinton’s questions have come to pass.

This is the story of how a woman whose Senate vote for the Iraq war may have doomed her first presidential campaign nonetheless doubled down and pushed for military action in another Muslim country. As she once again seeks the White House, campaigning in part on her experience as the nation’s chief diplomat, an examination of the intervention she championed shows her at what was arguably her moment of greatest influence as secretary of state. It is a working portrait rich with evidence of what kind of president she might be, and especially of her expansive approach to the signal foreign-policy conundrum of today: whether, when and how the United States should wield its military power in Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East.

Hillary Clinton’s Legacy in Libya

As the secretary of state in 2011, Hillary Clinton pressed the Obama administration to intervene militarily in Libya, with consequences that have gone far beyond the fall of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi.

From the earliest days of the Libya debate, Mrs. Clinton was a diligent student and unrelenting inquisitor, absorbing fat briefing books, inviting dissenting views from subordinates, studying foreign counterparts to learn how to win them over. She was a pragmatist, willing to improvise — to try the bank-shot solution. But above all, in the view of many who have watched her up close, her record on Libya illustrates how, facing a national-security or foreign-policy quandary, she was inclined to act — in marked contrast to Mr. Obama’s more reticent approach.

Anne-Marie Slaughter, her director of policy planning at the State Department, notes that in conversation and in her memoir, Mrs. Clinton repeatedly speaks of wanting to be “caught trying.” In other words, she would rather be criticized for what she has done than for having done nothing at all.

“She’s very careful and reflective,” Ms. Slaughter said. “But when the choice is between action and inaction, and you’ve got risks in either direction, which you often do, she’d rather be caught trying.”

The New York Times’s examination of the intervention offers a detailed accounting of how Mrs. Clinton’s deep belief in America’s power to do good in the world ran aground in a tribal country with no functioning government, rival factions and a staggering quantity of arms. The Times interviewed more than 50 American, Libyan and European officials, including many of the principal actors. Virtually all agreed to comment on the record. They expressed regret, frustration and in some cases bewilderment about what went wrong and what might have been done differently.

Was the mistake the decision to intervene in the first place, or the mission creep from protecting civilians to ousting a dictator, or the failure to send a peacekeeping force in the aftermath?

Mrs. Clinton declined to be interviewed. But in public, she has said it is “too soon to tell” how things will turn out in Libya and has called for a more interventionist approach in Syria.

Libya’s descent into chaos began with a rushed decision to go to war, made in what one top official called a “shadow of uncertainty” as to Colonel Qaddafi’s intentions. The mission inexorably evolved even as Mrs. Clinton foresaw some of the hazards of toppling another Middle Eastern strongman. She pressed for a secret American program that supplied arms to rebel militias, an effort never before confirmed.

Only after Colonel Qaddafi fell and what one American diplomat called “the endorphins of revolution” faded did it become clear that Libya’s new leaders were unequal to the task of unifying the country, and that the elections Mrs. Clinton and President Obama pointed to as proof of success only deepened Libya’s divisions.

Now Libya, with a population smaller than that of Tennessee, poses an outsize security threat to the region and beyond, calling into question whether the intervention prevented a humanitarian catastrophe or merely helped create one of a different kind.

The looting of Colonel Qaddafi’s vast weapons arsenals during the intervention has fed the Syrian civil war, empowered terrorist and criminal groups from Nigeria to Sinai, and destabilized Mali, where Islamist militants stormed a Radisson hotel in November and killed 20 people.

A growing trade in humans has sent a quarter-million refugees north across the Mediterranean, with hundreds drowning en route. A civil war in Libya has left the country with two rival governments, cities in ruins and more than 4,000 dead.

Amid that fighting, the Islamic State has built its most important outpost on the Libyan shore, a redoubt to fall back upon as it is bombed in Syria and Iraq. With the Pentagon saying the Islamic State’s fast-growing force now numbers between 5,000 and 6,500 fighters, some of Mr. Obama’s top national security aides are pressing for a second American military intervention in Libya. On Feb. 19, American warplanes hunting a Tunisian militant bombed an Islamic State training camp in western Libya, killing at least 41 people.

“We had a dream,” said Mr. Jibril, who served as Libya’s first interim prime minister. “And to be honest with you, we had a golden opportunity to bring this country back to life. Unfortunately, that dream was shattered.”

On the campaign trail and in relentless congressional investigations, Republican critics have used a singular tragedy, the Sept. 11, 2012, terrorist attack on the American diplomatic complex in Benghazi, which killed Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans, as a hammer against the former secretary of state. And while attempts to pin blame on Mrs. Clinton have largely been frustrated, her rival for the Democratic presidential nomination, Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, has seized on her role in the larger narrative of the Libyan intervention; during a recent debate, he said he feared that “Secretary Clinton is too much into regime change.”

President Obama has called failing to do more in Libya his biggest foreign policy lesson. And Gérard Araud, the French ambassador to the United Nations during the revolution, is deeply troubled by the aftermath of the 2011 intervention: the Islamic State only “300 miles from Europe,” a refugee crisis that “is a human tragedy as well as a political one” and the destabilization of much of West Africa.

“You have to make a moral choice: a blood bath in Benghazi and keeping Qaddafi in power, or what is happening now,” Mr. Araud said. “It is a tough question, because now Western national interests are very much impacted by what is happening in Libya.”

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Rebel volunteers in Benghazi, Libya, in March 2011. Mrs. Clinton pushed President Obama to join allies in airstrikes in Libya, and eventually pressed for a secret program to provide arms to rebel militias. Credit Lynsey Addario for The New York Times


It was late afternoon on March 15, 2011, and Mr. Araud had just left the office when his phone rang. It was his American counterpart, Susan E. Rice, with a pointed message.

France and Britain were pushing hard for a Security Council vote on a resolution supporting a no-fly zone in Libya to prevent Colonel Qaddafi from slaughtering his opponents. Ms. Rice was calling to push back, in characteristically salty language.

e not going to drag us into your shitty war,’” said Mr. Araud, now France’s ambassador in Washington. “She said, ‘We’ll be obliged to follow and support you, and we don’t want to.’ The conversation got tense. I answered, ‘France isn’t a U.S. subsidiary.’ It was the Obama policy at the time that they didn’t want a new Arab war.”

In the preceding weeks, a series of high-level meetings had grappled with the escalating rebellion, and some younger White House aides believed the president should join the international effort.

But a far more formidable lineup was outspoken against an American commitment, including Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr.; Tom Donilon, the national security adviser; and Mr. Gates, the defense secretary, who did not want to divert American air power or attention away from Afghanistan and Iraq. If the Europeans were so worried about Libya, they argued, let them take responsibility for its future.

“I think at one point I said, ‘Can I finish the two wars I’m already in before you guys go looking for a third one?’” Mr. Gates recalled. Colonel Qaddafi, he said, “was not a threat to us anywhere. He was a threat to his own people, and that was about it.”

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A Libyan soldier with a portrait of Colonel Qaddafi in March 2011. Momentum was building for the United States to intervene militarily. Credit Moises Saman for The New York Times

Some senior intelligence officials had deep misgivings about what would happen if Colonel Qaddafi lost control. In recent years, the Libyan dictator had begun aiding the United States in its fight against Al Qaeda in North Africa.

“He was a thug in a dangerous neighborhood,” said Michael T. Flynn, a retired Army lieutenant general who headed the Defense Intelligence Agency at the time. “But he was keeping order.”

Then there was Secretary Clinton. Early in Mr. Obama’s presidency, she had worked hard to win the trust of the man who had bested her in a tough primary campaign in 2008, and she sometimes showed anxiety about being cut out of his inner circle. (In one 2009 email, she fretted to aides: “I heard on the radio that there is a Cabinet mtg this am. Is there? Can I go?”)

Mrs. Clinton had cultivated a close relationship with Mr. Gates. Both tended to be more hawkish than the president. They had raised concerns about how rapidly he wanted to withdraw troops from Afghanistan. More recently, they had argued that Mr. Obama should not be too hasty in dropping support for Hosni Mubarak, the embattled Egyptian leader, whom Mrs. Clinton had known since her years as the first lady.

But they had lost out to the younger aides — “the backbenchers,” Mr. Gates called them, who he said argued that in the moral clash of the Arab Spring, “Mr. President, you’ve got to be on the right side of history.”

In Libya, Mrs. Clinton had a new opportunity to support the historic change that had just swept out the leaders of its neighbors Egypt and Tunisia. And Libya seemed a tantalizingly easy case — with just six million people, no sectarian divide and plenty of oil.

ut the debate was handicapped by sketchy intelligence. Top State Department officials were busy trying to evacuate the American Embassy, fearing that the Libyan leader might use diplomats as hostages. There was no inside information on whether, or on what scale, Colonel Qaddafi would carry out his threats.

“We, the U.S., did not have a particularly good handle on what was going on inside Libya,” said Derek Chollet, a State Department aide who moved to the National Security Council as the Libya debate began. American officials were relying largely on news reports, he said.

Human Rights Watch would later count about 350 protesters killed before the intervention — not the thousands described in some media accounts. But inside the Obama administration, few doubted that Colonel Qaddafi would do what it took to remain in power.

“Of course, he would have lined up the tanks and just gone after folks,” said David H. Petraeus, the retired general and former C.I.A. director.

Jake Sullivan, Mrs. Clinton’s top foreign-policy aide at State and now in her campaign, said her view was that “we have to live in a world of risks.” In assessing the situation in Libya, he said, “she didn’t know for certain at the time, nor did any of us, what would happen — only that it passed a risk threshold that demanded that we look very hard at the response.”

So, after some initial doubts, Mrs. Clinton diverged from the other senior members of the administration.

The comparison with Mr. Biden was revealing. For the vice president, according to Antony J. Blinken, then his national security adviser and now deputy secretary of state, the lesson of Iraq was crucial — “what Biden called not the day after, but the decade after.”

“What’s the plan?” Mr. Blinken continued. “There is going to be some kind of vacuum, and how’s it going to be filled, and what are we doing to fill it?” Former Secretary of State Colin Powell’s famous adage about Iraq — if “you break it, you own it” — loomed large.

More decisive for Mrs. Clinton were two episodes from her husband’s presidency — the American failure to prevent the Rwandan genocide in 1994, and the success, albeit belated, in bringing together an international military coalition to prevent greater bloodshed after 8,000 Muslims were massacred in Srebrenica during the Bosnian war.

“The thing about Rwanda that’s important is it showed the cost of inaction,” said James B. Steinberg, who served as Mrs. Clinton’s deputy through July 2011. “But I think the reason Bosnia and Kosovo figured so importantly is they demonstrated there were ways of being effective and there were lessons of what worked and didn’t work.”

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Mrs. Clinton with President Nicolas Sarkozy of France in Paris on March 19, 2011, two days after a United Nations Security Council resolution authorized “all necessary means” to protect Libyan civilians. Mr. Sarkozy told her that French fighter jets were already in the air. Credit Pool photograph by Lionel Bonaventure


On the same March afternoon when Ambassador Rice was telling her French colleague at the United Nations to back off, President Obama and his security cabinet were arrayed in the White House situation room. Speaking on the video screen from Cairo was Secretary Clinton, just arrived from Paris.

The day before, at lunch with President Nicolas Sarkozy of France, she “was tough, she was bullish” on the idea of intervention in Libya — the “perfect ally,” recalled Mr. Sarkozy’s senior diplomatic adviser, Jean-David Levitte.

But now Mrs. Clinton did not directly push Mr. Obama to intervene in Libya. Nor did she make an impassioned moral case, according to several people in the room.

Instead, she described Mr. Jibril, the opposition leader, as impressive and reasonable. She conveyed her surprise that Arab leaders not only supported military action but, in some cases, were willing to participate. Mostly, though, she warned that the French and British would go ahead with airstrikes on their own, potentially requiring the United States to step in later if things went badly.

Dennis B. Ross, then a senior Middle East expert at the National Security Council, said he remembered listening to her and thinking, “If she’s advocating, she’s advocating in what I would describe as a fairly clever way.”

He recalled her saying: “‘You don’t see what the mood is here, and how this has a kind of momentum of its own. And we will be left behind, and we’ll be less capable of shaping this.’”

Mrs. Clinton’s account of a unified European-Arab front powerfully influenced Mr. Obama. “Because the president would never have done this thing on our own,” said Benjamin J. Rhodes, the deputy national security adviser.

Mr. Gates, among others, thought Mrs. Clinton’s backing decisive. Mr. Obama later told him privately in the Oval Office, he said, that the Libya decision was “51-49.”

“I’ve always thought that Hillary’s support for the broader mission in Libya put the president on the 51 side of the line for a more aggressive approach,” Mr. Gates said. Had the secretaries of state and defense both opposed the war, he and others said, the president’s decision might have been politically impossible.

Having decided to act, Mr. Obama questioned military leaders about the effectiveness of a no-fly zone, the Europeans’ favored military response. When they told him that it could not prevent a massacre, Mr. Obama directed his staff to draft a new, tougher United Nations resolution.

Late that night, Mr. Araud, the French diplomat, was astonished to get a second call from Ms. Rice: The United States would not only support intervention, but wanted United Nations support for more than a no-fly zone. Mr. Araud said the turnabout had so shocked him and his British counterpart that they at first suspected a trick.

There remained only one real obstacle: Russia could block a Security Council resolution with a veto. Mrs. Clinton had done her best to develop a relationship with Russia’s leader, Vladimir V. Putin, listening to his tales of tagging polar bears and tracking Siberian tigers.

“Her theory on Putin is, this is a person with some passions — if you get him going on those passions, your capacity to try and deal with him is improved,” one Clinton aide said.

But the relationship remained difficult, and the secretary of state sparred constantly with her Russian counterpart, Sergey V. Lavrov, who, Mrs. Clinton wrote in her memoir “Hard Choices,” was initially “dead set against a no-fly zone.”

“We don’t want another war,” she told Mr. Lavrov, stressing that the mission was limited to protecting civilians.

“I take your point about not seeking another war,” she recalled him responding. “But that doesn’t mean that you won’t get one.”

In the end, Mrs. Clinton would acknowledge that Colonel Qaddafi himself had helped win over the Russians, by giving a fiery speech just before the Security Council vote calling his opponents “the rats” and vowing to hunt them “house by house, alley by alley.”

On March 17, 10 members of the Security Council voted for a resolution authorizing “all necessary means” to protect Libyan civilians. Five countries, including Russia, abstained.

Two days later, Mr. Sarkozy met with Mrs. Clinton and David Cameron, the British prime minister, at the Élysée Palace in Paris to discuss the next move. The French president emphasized that within a day or so, Colonel Qaddafi’s troops would be inside Benghazi, mingling with civilians, making it difficult or impossible to use air power against them.

Then he played his trump card. French fighter jets were already in the air, he said. But, he added, “this is a collective decision, and I will recall them if you want me to,” Mr. Levitte said. Mr. Sarkozy’s maneuver had abruptly pushed forward the timing of the operation, but for all of Mrs. Clinton’s irritation, she was not prepared to object.

“I’m not going to be the one to recall the planes and create the massacre in Benghazi,” she grumbled to an aide. And the bombing began.

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A body was carried from the rubble of a house in Tripoli, Libya, after a reported NATO airstrike in June 2011. Credit Moises Saman for The New York Times



About the time the air campaign began, Charles R. Kubic, a retired rear admiral, received a message from a senior Libyan military officer proposing military-to-military negotiations for a 72-hour cease-fire, potentially leading to an arranged exit for Colonel Qaddafi and his family.

But after he approached the American military command for Africa, Admiral Kubic said, he was directed to end the talks. The orders, he was told, had come from “outside the Pentagon,” though aides to both Mr. Obama and Mrs. Clinton said the offer had never made it to their level. He was baffled by the lack of interest in exploring an option he thought might lead to a less bloody transition.

“The question that stays with me is, why didn’t you spend 72 hours giving peace a chance?” he said.

The answer, at least in part, was that the two sides had started from positions of mutual mistrust.

In the weeks leading up to the intervention, aides to Colonel Qaddafi had reached out to potential intermediaries, including Gen. Wesley K. Clark, who served as NATO commander under Mrs. Clinton’s husband, and Tony Blair, the former British prime minister and longtime Clinton friend. Diplomats representing the United Nations, the African Union and a half-dozen countries discussed the chances, however remote, of a political settlement. Even the Russian multimillionaire who headed the World Chess Federation got involved.

There was “envoy proliferation,” said Mr. Chollet, who monitored such exchanges from the National Security Council.

The Americans did not believe that the Libyans purporting to speak for the leader could actually deliver a peaceful transfer of power. Colonel Qaddafi, the Americans thought, would simply use a cease-fire as an opportunity to regroup.

“My view is that there was never a serious offer from Qaddafi to step down from power,” said Gene A. Cretz, who preceded Mr. Stevens as the American ambassador in Libya. “I firmly believe that none of those characters around him ever had the gumption to raise the issue with him personally.”

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The chaos in Libya has left cities in ruins: Misurata in September 2011. Credit Bryan Denton for The New York Times

For the Libyan leader and his inner circle, episodes like the one Admiral Kubic described were proof that the Americans had no desire to negotiate, said Mohamed Ismail, a top aide to Colonel Qaddafi’s son Seif and frequent envoy to the West. “They just wanted to get rid of Qaddafi,” he said.

The Libyans saw the threatened intervention not as a noble act to save lives, as Mrs. Clinton portrayed it, but in far darker terms. After all, Colonel Qaddafi, fearing the fate of Saddam Hussein, had abandoned his nuclear program and was sharing intelligence with the C.I.A. in the fight against Al Qaeda. Mrs. Clinton herself had publicly welcomed one of the leader’s sons to the State Department in 2009.

Now Colonel Qaddafi saw deep treachery, ingratitude and mercantile revenge. He railed to anyone who would listen that he was Libya’s only bulwark against extremism, that without him the country would become a terrorist haven.

In a further complication, the United Nations Security Council had recently voted to refer the attacks on protesters to the International Criminal Court, so both the leader and his inner circle might face prosecution if he ceded power.

“We were open to power sharing, but the minute that happened it was hard to go forward,” Mr. Ismail said. A top American diplomat agreed, saying that the threat of prosecution “boxed Seif into a corner.”

Over the years, Mr. Ismail noted, Colonel Qaddafi had certainly found ways to offend nearly every country now allied against him. He had financed political opponents and been accused of plotting the murder of the Saudi king. And, Mr. Ismail said, he had recently reneged on oil and arms deals with the British and the French.

Then there was Lebanon and the matter of the missing Shiite cleric.

Back in 1978, a revered Lebanese imam, Moussa al-Sadr, had disappeared while visiting Libya. Lebanon suspected foul play, probably with government involvement. But the mystery had never been definitively solved.

In an interview with The Times, Mr. Ismail confirmed the Lebanese suspicions. “We said he left to go to Italy,” Mr. Ismail said of Mr. Sadr. But that was a lie.

“He was killed,” Mr. Ismail said, offering a chillingly succinct explanation: “There was an argument with the leader.”

Mr. Ismail said he had learned of the cleric’s fate long after the fact, and stressed that Colonel Qaddafi’s family, including a son now imprisoned in Lebanon, had no involvement or knowledge.

The cleric’s body, he said, was thrown into the sea.

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Colonel Qaddafi on March 2, 2011. Before being overthrown, he said that without him Libya would become a terrorist haven. Credit Moises Saman for The New York Times


Early on, President Obama had declared that Colonel Qaddafi had lost his legitimacy and had to go. But the president was careful to point out that this was the administration’s political position, not its military objective.

“We are not going to use force to go beyond a well-defined goal, specifically the protection of civilians in Libya,” he said. Mrs. Clinton echoed that five days after the Security Council resolution was adopted. “There is nothing in there about getting rid of anybody,” she told ABC News.

Depends on what you mean by “is”–oops. I mean “power” and “influence”. Military power as we should have learned in Vietnam or Iraq is not…

Whoever become a USA’s president will impact to other country, not only in middle east. I think USA has good international relation to every…

Getting involved in Libya was a major mistake and should give pause to Mrs. Clinton’s backers.

The president directed the Pentagon to use its unique military capabilities to stop the feared massacre and, within 10 days, turn the operation over to European and Arab allies. An unnamed aide described this approach as “leading from behind,” handing the president’s Republican opponents an enduring talking point. But Mr. Obama was adamant that Libya would not become another protracted American war.

In fact, his limited goal was achieved far faster than planned. “We basically destroyed Qaddafi’s air defenses and stopped the advance of his forces within three days,” recalled Mr. Rhodes, the deputy national security adviser.

But the mission quickly evolved from protecting civilians in Benghazi to protecting civilians wherever they were. As the rebellion swelled and bystanders became combatants, the endgame became ever more murky. The United States and its allies were increasingly drawn to one side of the fighting, without extended debate over what that shift portended.

“I can’t recall any specific decision that said, ‘Well, let’s just take him out,’” Mr. Gates said. Publicly, he said, “the fiction was maintained” that the goal was limited to disabling Colonel Qaddafi’s command and control. In fact, the former defense secretary said, “I don’t think there was a day that passed that people didn’t hope he would be in one of those command and control centers.”

Two of Mrs. Clinton’s top Libya advisers said in interviews that they had harbored misgivings about the intervention precisely because of fears that the coalition would not be able to stop short of regime change, with no ability to manage the aftermath.

One was Mr. Gordon, the assistant secretary. The other was Jeremy Shapiro, who handled Libya on Mrs. Clinton’s policy planning staff.

Mr. Shapiro said he had expressed his concerns to Mrs. Clinton’s top policy aide, Mr. Sullivan. “Once you get into a fight where we basically say, ‘We have to stop a madman from killing tens of thousands of people in his own country,’ how do you stop?” Mr. Shapiro said.

“Ultimately the logic becomes, Jesus, the Qaddafi regime is a real threat to civilians,” he added. “It required nothing to escalate to that. It would have required an amazing force of will not to.”

Practical military considerations also complicated Mr. Obama’s in-and-out strategy. Though he had directed that the United States provide only unique capabilities that its allies did not possess, that turned out to be quite a bit: a continuing supply of precision munitions, combat search and rescue, and surveillance, Mr. Petraeus said.

By April, the president had authorized the use of drones, and, according to a senior rebel commander, C.I.A. operatives began visiting rebel camps and “providing us with intercepts of Qaddafi’s troop movements.”

The incremental escalation ran against Mr. Obama’s instincts, and he did it reluctantly, said Mr. Ross, the former National Security Council official. Mrs. Clinton, he said, was less concerned that “every step puts you on a slippery slope.”

“Her view is, we can’t fail in this,” Mr. Ross said. “Once we have made a decision, we can’t fail.”

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Makeshift bomb in a rebel fighter’s hand in Brega, Libya, in 2011. American intelligence officials were worried about what would become of the country if Colonel Qaddafi lost control of it. Credit Tyler Hicks/The New York Times


When Mr. Jibril and his Libyan entourage showed up in Rome in May to meet with Mrs. Clinton, they expected a 10-minute check-in. Instead, they talked for nearly an hour.

The opposition leaders had already given her a white paper setting out a spectacular future: Political parties would compete in open elections, a free news media would hold leaders accountable and women’s rights would be respected.

In retrospect, Mr. Jibril acknowledged in an interview, it was a “utopian ideal” quite detached from Libyan reality. But Mrs. Clinton had been enthusiastic, according to those in attendance, and now she wanted to talk in greater depth about how to turn the vision into reality.

“She said, and I remember this, ‘Let us brainstorm about Libya,’” said Mahmud Shammam, the rebel council’s chief spokesman.

The opposition leaders wanted something more immediate. They wanted weapons.

Despite hundreds of coalition airstrikes, the fighting was at a stalemate. Every time the rebels gained some ground, government forces retook it. The rebels seemed unable to get past Brega, an oil port on the way to Tripoli, and they hoped more sophisticated weapons from the Americans would tip the balance.

The secretary of state heard them out. She “was very patient, very charming,” Mr. Shammam said. “Always had a smile.” In the end, though, she demurred.

But back in Washington, where a low-grade panic over the stalled fighting was setting in, Mrs. Clinton pressed the rebels’ case, according to three senior White House officials and two State Department officials involved in the secret debate.

The American military involvement that Mr. Obama had hoped to curtail after 10 days had dragged on for months, and political support was waning. Some members of Congress were outraged over the administration’s failure to seek approval after 60 days, as the War Powers Act seemed to require.

Onetime advocates of the intervention, including Ms. Slaughter, the secretary’s former policy planning director, had grown disillusioned over the rebels’ human-rights abuses.

“We did not try to protect civilians on Qaddafi’s side,” said Ms. Slaughter, who at the time called for a deal in which Colonel Qaddafi would have turned over power to one of his sons.

The international coalition that Mrs. Clinton had stitched together was also unraveling. Russia accused the United States and its allies of a bait-and-switch, and the Arab League called for a cease-fire and settlement.

“Regime change — that was not our business at all,” Amr Moussa, who headed the organization at the time, said in an interview.

“There was a moment, around about June or July,” recalled Mr. Shapiro, the State Department’s Libya policy adviser, “when the situation on the ground seemed to settle into a stalemate and we weren’t sure we were winning, or at least winning quickly enough.”

Moreover, the United States’ strategy of letting other countries arm the opposition was backfiring, creating a regional power imbalance that could come back to haunt Libya if the rebels did win.

Throughout the spring, the administration had effectively turned a blind eye as Qatar and the United Arab Emirates supplied the rebels with lethal assistance, according to Mr. Gates and others. But Mrs. Clinton had grown increasingly concerned that Qatar, in particular, was sending arms only to certain rebel factions: militias from the city of Misurata and select Islamist brigades.

She could hardly tell Qatar to stand down if the United States was unwilling to step in with lethal assistance of its own, one State Department aide said, “because their answer would be, ‘Well, those guys need help — you’re not doing it.’” Her view, often relayed to her staff, was that to have influence with the fractious opposition and Arab allies, you had to have “skin in the game,” Mr. Ross said.

Former President Bill Clinton had publicly noted in April 2011 that the United States should “not rule out” arming the opposition, and in emails with Mr. Sullivan, her policy adviser, Mrs. Clinton discussed using private contractors to do just that. Mr. Ross, speaking generally, said she had frequently consulted her husband: “I’d say, ‘Here’s what I think we should do.’ She’d say, ‘That’s what Bill said, too.’”

Now Mrs. Clinton took what one top adviser called “the activist side” of the debate over whether to counter Qatar by arming more secular fighters.

“If you didn’t,” Mr. Ross recalled her arguing, “whatever happened, your options would shrink, your influence would shrink, therefore your ability to affect anything there would also shrink.”

But other senior officials were wary. NATO’s supreme allied commander, Adm. James G. Stavridis, had told Congress of “flickers” of Al Qaeda within the opposition. Mr. Donilon, Mr. Obama’s national security adviser, argued that the administration could not ensure that weapons intended for “the so-called good guys,” as one State Department official put it, did not fall into the hands of Islamist extremists.

In fact, there was reason to worry. Mr. Jibril himself described in an interview how a French shipment of missiles and machine guns had gone awry. At a June meeting, President Sarkozy had agreed to “ask our Arab friends” to supply the Transitional National Council with the weapons, Mr. Jibril said. But, he said, the acting defense minister diverted them to a militia led by Abdel Hakim Belhaj, a militant Islamist who had once been held in a secret prison by the C.I.A.

Mrs. Clinton understood the hazards, but also weighed the costs of not acting, aides said. They described her as comfortable with feeling her way through a problem without being certain of the outcome.

President Obama ultimately took her side, according to the administration officials who described the debate. After he signed a secret document called a presidential finding, approving a covert operation, a list of approved weaponry was drawn up. The shipments arranged by the United States and other Western countries generally arrived through the port of Benghazi and airports in eastern Libya, a Libyan rebel commander said.

“Humvees, counterbattery radar, TOW missiles was the highest end we talked about,” one State Department official recalled. “We were definitely giving them lethal assistance. We’d crossed that line.”

Prompted in part by the decision to arm the rebels, the State Department recognized the Transitional National Council as the “legitimate governing authority for Libya.” Mrs. Clinton announced the decision on July 15 in Istanbul.

“That very day, our troops had started to get inside Brega,” Mr. Shammam recalled. “We told that to Mrs. Clinton, and she said — I remember her smiling — ‘Good! This is the only language that Qaddafi is understanding.’”

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A Libyan rebel atop a statue of a fist crushing an American warplane on Aug. 23, 2011, after opposition forces stormed the Qaddafi compound. Credit Bryan Denton for The New York Times


One month later, Secretary Clinton appeared at the National Defense University with Leon E. Panetta, who had recently replaced Mr. Gates as defense secretary. She hailed the intervention as a case study in “smart power.”

“For the first time we have a NATO-Arab alliance taking action, you’ve got Arab countries who are running strike actions,” she said. “This is exactly the kind of world that I want to see where it’s not just the United States and everybody is standing on the sidelines while we bear the cost, while we bear the sacrifice.”

Mr. Panetta spoke of a “sense that Qaddafi’s days are numbered.”

Six days later, on Aug. 22, the cumulative efforts of the international coalition bore fruit when exuberant rebels stormed the Qaddafi compound in Tripoli. The dictator was still at large, but his reign was over.

Mrs. Clinton’s old friend and political adviser, Sidney Blumenthal, who regularly emailed her political advice and vaguely sourced intelligence reports on Libya, urged her to capitalize on the dictator’s fall.

“Brava!” Mr. Blumenthal exclaimed. As always, he was thinking about Mrs. Clinton’s presidential ambitions. “You must go on camera. You must establish yourself in the historical record at this moment.” She should be sure to use the phrase “successful strategy,” he wrote. “You are vindicated.”

Read Part 2 of our examination of the American intervention in Libya and Hillary Clinton’s role in it.

Jo Becker reported from Cairo; Istanbul and Ankara, Turkey; Tunis; Paris; New York; and Washington, and Scott Shane from New York and Washington. Kitty Bennett contributed research.

Pakistani general’s exit may be good for democracy — but bad for stability

Pakistani general’s exit may be good for democracy — but bad for stability

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Pakistan’s army chief, Gen. Raheel Sharif, at the change of command ceremony in 2013. (Aamir Qureshi/AFP/Getty Images)
By Tim Craig January 25

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — The most powerful and popular man in Pakistan, Gen. Raheel Sharif, announced Monday that he will step down as army chief when his term expires in November, a positive step for the country’s historically unstable democracy but one that creates new uncertainty about the battle against Islamist militants.

Sharif, who pushed the country onto a war footing against the Pakistani Taliban and is credited for a steep decline in terrorist attacks, made his announcement on Twitter. “I don’t believe in extensions and will retire on due date,” Sharif said through his chief spokesman, Lt. Gen. Asim Bajwa. He added that the fight against “terrorism will continue with full vigor and resolve.”

Taliban rifts exposed by campus attack

Sharif’s announcement could have major implications for Pakistan’s posture toward Islamist extremist groups as well as efforts to encourage peace talks between Afghanistan’s government and the Taliban insurgency. Sharif is widely considered to be a dominant voice in Pakistan’s efforts to nudge the Afghan Taliban into formal talks with Kabul.

Under Pakistan’s constitution, army chiefs hold the post for three years but are eligible for extensions. Sharif’s predecessor, Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, served for six years. But Kayani’s extension was controversial in a country that has been under military rule for about half of its 68-year history.

“Thank you Raheel Sharif,” one of Pakistan’s most prominent and progressive columnists, Cyril Almeida, tweeted after Sharif announced his plans to retire.

Still, the departure of the popular army chief could usher in a new period of unease. Although Pakistan completed its first transfer of power from one democratically elected government to another in 2013, many Pakistanis still look to the army for stability and security.

After Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif passed over more-senior military leaders to promote Gen. Sharif in 2013 — the two are not related — the new army chief pressured the government into supporting a major military operation against the Pakistani Taliban.

New Afghan Taliban leader faces test over peace talk bid

Coupled with the evacuation of more than 1 million civilians from North Waziristan in Pakistan’s tribal belt, the army sent 250,000 soldiers into the area in June 2014, driving Islamist militants from most of their safe havens near the Afghan border, according to assessments from Western officials.

Sharif also coordinated an operation against Islamist militants and criminal gangs in unruly Karachi, Pakistan’s largest city.

“General Sharif rightly conceived that the war on terror needed to be fought from the front,” said Nazir Mohmand, a retired Pakistani army brigadier.

Over the past year, those operations are credited with a major decline in violence. Deaths from terrorist attacks dropped by nearly 50 percent, and 2015 was the safest year in Pakistan since 2006, according to data compiled by the South Asia Terrorism Portal.

With Pakistan’s economy also improving as security concerns have eased, Gen. Sharif’s popularity soared. He had an 83 percent approval rating in a poll issued in October by the Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development and Transparency. But there have been moments of tension and controversy during his tenure.

Afghan leader stirs backlash over outreach to Pakistan

In his first year as prime minister, Nawaz Sharif called for rapprochement with Pakistan’s archenemy, India. Many analysts suspect that call unsettled the Pakistani military, causing it to fan anti-government demonstrations in Islamabad in 2014.

Amid speculation that a coup was imminent, Gen. Sharif visited the prime minister. According to an account of that meeting by the Reuters news agency, he told the prime minister there would be no coup so long as the military kept full control over Pakistan’s foreign policy. Since then, both Sharifs have worked to play down any tension between the military and the civilian government.

Gen. Sharif also appeared to have good relations with the Obama administration as well as U.S. military commanders in Afghanistan. Western officials have said they generally viewed him as a more honest and determined partner than some past Pakistani military rulers, including Kayani.

Numbers say Pakistan safer, but attitudes more skeptical

But his departure comes at a critical time. Last week, the Pakistani Taliban killed 20 students and two teachers when it attacked a college near Peshawar. The United States, China, Pakistan and Afghanistan are in talks about reviving the Afghan peace process. Some U.S. officials have become encouraged that the Pakistani army doesn’t intend to stand in the way of planned talks between Islamabad and New Delhi.

Mohmand said Gen. Sharif is mindful of how the public and international image of both Kayani and ex-military ruler Pervez Musharraf, who led the country for nine years in the late 1990s and early 2000s, seemed to deteriorate the longer they held power. “By deciding himself not to take extension, he is saying that the institutions are bigger than the individuals, and the state is bigger than the institutions,” Mohmand said.

Gen. Zubair Mahmood Hayat, Pakistan’s army chief of general staff, is most often mentioned as a likely successor.

Shaiq Hussain in Islamabad and Haq Nawaz Khan in Peshawar contributed to this report.

Pakistani Documentary ‘A Girl in the River’ Wins Oscar

Pakistani Documentary ‘A Girl in the River’ Wins Oscar

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Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy poses with her Oscar for Best Documentary Short Subject, “A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness,” in the press room during the 88th Oscars in Hollywood, Feb. 28, 2016.

Robyn Beck/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

A documentary about honor killings in Pakistan won an Oscar on Sunday night having already spurred the country’s government toward toughening laws to protect women.

“A Girl in the River” is the story of Saba Qaiser, whose father and uncle shot her in the face, stuffed her in a bag and tossed her in a river in rural Punjab province, after she ran away to marry the man she loved. Ms. Qaiser, 18 years old at the time, survived.

The film was the second Oscar for Pakistani producer and director Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy and won the award for best short documentary.


After its nomination in January but before it being screened nationally, the film caught the attention of Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif who vowed to to tackle a deeply rooted tradition in the country that sanctions killing women who disobey male elders in matters of love and marriage.

Since 2004, attacks on women over honor have been treated like regular murder and attempted murder. Before, such attacks could be defended as crimes of passion. But the culprits still often go unpunished because they are forgiven by the victim or her family members under an Islamic provision in Pakistani law.

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“Last week, our Pakistani prime minister has said that he will change the law of honor killing after watching this film. That is the power of film,” said Ms. Obaid-Chinoy in her acceptance speech.

Changes to the law would likely meet opposition from some religious conservatives who regard the provisions as basic principles of retribution and forgiveness in Islam.

Mr. Sharif, a conservative politician who usually focused on the economy, said he is determined to press ahead with the legal revisions.

“There is no place for killing in the name of honor in Islam,” Mr. Sharif said Monday in a statement congratulating Ms. Obaid-Chinoy. He added that his government “is in the process of legislating to stop such brutal and inhumane acts in the name of honor.”

In the film, Ms. Qaiser is forced by pressure from her family, in-laws and the village to legally pardon her father, who is released from jail. Once released, her father boasts that he has won more respect from the community. In the film, he says he shot his daughter to restore his honor, adding that his other daughters now won’t dare to disobey him.

Mr. Sharif’s statement said: “Women like Ms. Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy are not only a pride for the Pakistani nation but are also a significant source of contribution towards the march of civilization in the world.”

Ms. Obaid-Chinoy won her first Academy Award in 2012 for “Saving Face,” a film about Pakistani women disfigured in acid attacks usually by spurned suitors

Oslo’s 20-year legacy of failure lives on

Oslo’s 20-year legacy of failure lives on

Analysis: An agreement to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has instead established a new format of occupation
September 13, 2013 1:24AM ET
by Khaled Elgindy.

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Two decades on, the Oslo agreement has defined virtually all aspects of Israeli-Palestinian relations.AFP/Getty Images

It has been 20 years to the day since the famous handshake between Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) Chairman Yasser Arafat. On September 13, 1993, on the White House lawn, the two former enemies, flanked by President Bill Clinton, signed a historic “declaration of principles” (DOP) pledging to pursue a peaceful resolution to the nearly century-old conflict between their two peoples. Although both men are now deceased, the process launched with their historic handshake lives on.

Two decades on, the Oslo Accords, named for the secret talks held in the Norwegian capital in the months before the Washington signing ceremony, along with the many successive initiatives derived from it, has defined virtually all aspects of Israeli-Palestinian relations ever since. Oslo also came to define America’s approach to the conflict. Yet, its remarkable longevity stands as a testament not to Oslo’s utility, but to its failure.
Ultimately, the record of the Oslo process speaks for itself. Three formal rounds of permanent-status negotiations — Camp David in 2000, Taba, Egypt in 2001 an d Annapolis, MD. in 2007 — all failed to produce an agreement. Nor did the dizzying array of partial agreements, protocols, memorandums and other micro-initiatives — the Hebron Agreement, Wye River Memorandum, Sharm el-Sheikh Memorandum, the Tenet Work Plan, the Mitchell Report, President Bush’s roadmap and others.
The 1993 Accords were followed by a series of additional agreements, most notably the Interim Agreement of 1995 (“Oslo II”), which laid out the specific responsibilities and jurisdictions of each party as well as the exact functions of the newly created Palestinian Authority (PA). Under the Oslo framework, the parties agreed to a five-year interim period while putting off negotiations over the most difficult questions — Jerusalem, refugees, borders and security — until the end.

The logic of this deferral rested on the belief that incremental progress on smaller-scale issues, such as security cooperation and improving economic conditions, would build mutual trust and confidence between the parties and enable them to tackle the tougher issues further down the road. The entire process was to have been completed by May 1999; although not explicitly stated in the accords, the goal was understood to be an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

In the interim, the parties agreed that “[n]either side shall initiate or take any step that will change the status of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip pending the outcome of the permanent status negotiations” — the first of many provisions that’s meaning was effectively nullified by Oslo’s tradition of “constructive ambiguity.” Whereas Palestinians understood that provision to include a cessation of Israeli settlement activity (a view shared by successive U.S. administrations), Israel interpreted it as applying only to the legal status of the occupied territories rather than to the geographic and demographic status quo.

Oslo assumed that the arrangements it created would be temporary, and that the facts on the ground would remain unchanged in the meantime. In the 20 years since Oslo, however, Israel’s settler population in the occupied territories has more than doubled — from roughly 270,000 in 1993 to well over 560,000 today — even as the parties were ostensibly negotiating the fate of these areas.

Thanks to Israel’s ever-expanding settlement enterprise and other “facts on the ground,” the logic of Oslo was effectively inverted; instead of becoming easier, key permanent-status issues such as Jerusalem and borders became more difficult to negotiate by preempting the outcome of negotiations and diminishing trust. Meanwhile, endless delays and missed deadlines, as well as the renegotiation and outright lack of implementation of previous agreements, effectively transformed ostensibly “interim” arrangements into a permanent reality.

The logic of Oslo had presumed that the control of the PA would be gradually expanded and the Israeli occupation gradually rolled back. Even at the height of the Oslo process in 1999, however, the PA never controlled more than 40 percent of the West Bank — 18 percent under full Palestinian civil and security control (“Area A”) and 21 percent under Palestinian civil control and joint PA-Israeli security control (“Area B”). The remaining 60 percent of West Bank territory (“Area C”) remained under exclusive Israeli civil and military control.

Palestinian territory was further fragmented by the elaborate network of Israeli checkpoints and internal closures that proliferated throughout the West Bank in the wake of the Palestinian uprising that began in 2000. The uprising, or intifada, marked a new phase in the Oslo process. The violence associated with the intifada — including numerous suicide bombings that both hardened Israelis and isolated the Palestinian leadership diplomatically — along with Israel’s violent response to it, helped to accelerate the PA’s demise. In addition to the heavy human toll on both sides, the second intifada witnessed the physical destruction and dismantling of the PA’s infrastructure and governing institutions.

Meanwhile, the Bush administration’s 2003 “roadmap” fared no better. While key demands on the Israelis such as its call for a total freeze on settlement activity were completely abandoned, its security and “reform” demands on the PA were vigorously enforced.

Even the highly-celebrated “institution-building” program that became the hallmark of the “peace process” in recent years is little more than a figment of the international community’s collective imagination. Far from the state-in-waiting envisioned by Oslo, today’s PA is financially bankrupt, has no functioning parliament and suffers from a debilitating split between the Fatah-dominated West Bank and the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip. Thus, instead of the unitary “democratic Palestinian state” called for in the roadmap, Palestinians have two dysfunctional, autocratic and unaccountable governments.

Despite Oslo’s 20-year legacy of failure, however, U.S. policymakers and much of the international community remain loyal to it. Two decades after the famous White House handshake between Rabin and Arafat, their successors, Benjamin Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas, are back at the negotiating table — thanks mostly to the efforts of  Secretary of State John Kerry.

While there is much in Kerry’s approach that is new, it clings to the hopelessly outdated and dysfunctional framework established by Oslo. Indeed, the proposition that the most pro-settlement government in Israel’s history and one of the weakest and most divided Palestinian leaderships in more than four decades can somehow conclude a conflict-ending peace deal is fanciful at best. Moreover, the current process continues to exclude both Gaza and Hamas, which remain unavoidable facts of Palestinian political life.

Ironically, the “peace process” launched by Oslo may have become an obstacle to a peaceful resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Instead of resolving that conflict, it established a new reality of limited Palestinian self-rule under continued Israeli occupation and colonization. Absent an entirely new approach that confronts these realities, Kerry is likely to face the same outcome as his predecessors.

Nothing beats the two-state solution for Israel and the Palestinians

Nothing beats the two-state solution for Israel and the Palestinians

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Let’s take a moment for a thought experiment. I do this days after more Palestinian attacks on Israelis, including the horrific murder of a mother of six children; soon after Israel announced the expropriation of another 370 acres of land near Jericho; and after Majed Faraj, the Palestinian security chief, announced that Palestinian security forces had intercepted 200 potential terrorist attacks against Israel. The thought experiment focuses on whether the “Plan B” for the Israel-Palestine dispute should be Israel’s annexation of the territories it occupied in 1967 and the extension of full citizenship rights to the Palestinians in those areas.

To be sure, I still count myself among the dying breed of those who believe fervently in the two-state solution—two states living side by side in peace and security, each enjoying sovereignty and political independence in part of the land that both claim as their exclusive national homes. This is still the best, by far, of all possible outcomes of the dispute. This is not to say that the two-state solution is without faults. Thus far, the two sides have not been able to agree on critical details, and there is no guarantee that achieving two states would assure peaceful relations. But the two-state solution, based on partition of the land, appears to offer the best chance for long term peace. I would dump all Plan B’s and C’s in a heartbeat if leadership emerged in Israel and Palestine—and in the United States—that proved willing to move toward a two-state outcome.

I still count myself among the dying breed of those who believe fervently in the two-state solution.

But hoping for better, stronger, more farsighted leadership is not a substitute for policy. The fact is that both Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) are further today from bringing forth such leaders than at any time before. Even if Benjamin Netanyahu yields the prime minister’s office to another contender, no one in Israel is proposing the kind of far-reaching accommodation toward which Ehud Olmert was heading in 2008. None of Mahmoud Abbas’s likely successors has even articulated a reasonable peace plan. And none of the candidates for U.S. president is likely to be as committed to the search for peace as Barack Obama has been, and even his commitment has fallen far short of what is needed to move the recalcitrant parties toward peace. The sad reality is that politics—not policy, per se—is what blocks progress toward a two-state solution.

The sad reality is that politics—not policy, per se—is what blocks progress toward a two-state solution.

Regional solution?

In the absence of progress toward two states, are there better alternatives than throwing in the towel and looking at annexation as Plan B? The search for alternative Plan B’s is a fool’s errand. Some of those ideas are creative, but none of them will be accepted by both sides. For example, one Plan B variant du jour rests on the premise of a “regional solution”—that is, having Israel and the Arab world reach a comprehensive peace agreement that includes a resolution of the Palestinian issue. Sounds good, except it makes no sense.

First, Israel has not accepted the Arab Peace Initiative (API) of 2002, the closest the Arab world has come to accepting Israel within the borders of the 1949 armistice line and agreeing to normalize relations with Israel once peace has been achieved. But no Israeli government has liked its terms, especially the paragraph on Palestinian refugees, the notion of a Palestinian capital in Jerusalem, and the API’s insistence on full Israeli withdrawal. Thus, the question to those who propose a regional solution today is whether there is a coalition in Israel ready to use the API as the basis for negotiating a comprehensive peace. I think not.

Second, the Arab world is in no position to deliver on what the API promises. The Arabs have never followed up the API by engaging Israel. And the premise of the API has been that the Arabs will recognize Israel and agree to normalize only after peace is concluded with the Palestinians (and the Syrians and Lebanese)– not a very attractive incentive for Israelis to enter a risky peace process.

The Arab world of 2002, however dysfunctional, was far more stable than the Arab world of 2016.

And third, the Arab world of 2002, however dysfunctional, was far more stable than the Arab world of 2016. The opponents of the two-state solution in Israel point to this when describing the security dangers that Israel would face were it to concede anything now to the Palestinians. Even if a comprehensive solution were to rest on the shoulders of Egypt and Jordan, Israel’s peace treaty partners, would Israeli skeptics truly be assuaged that these countries could assure Israel’s security in the face of continued instability (Egypt) or the impact of refugees and economic distress (Jordan)? Indeed, the idea of a regional or comprehensive solution based on Arab stability today is chimerical.

Status quo?

The alternatives to the regional idea are equally unrealistic. The idea of confederation rests on the agreement of Jordan (and potentially Egypt) to join a political entity with the Palestinians. However, neither state has indicated any interest in doing so.

“Maintaining the status quo” is a non-starter, because status quos are never static—as the events of recent years prove, they tend to get worse. How many Intifadas or stabbings will it take for the people of Israel to believe their own security chiefs, who recognize that these actions are born of frustration over the occupation and related grievances? Why should Israelis believe that the majority of Palestinians are interested in peace when Hamas—opposed to Israel’s very existence—still rules Gaza and commands significant popular support, and while the Palestinian Authority is crumbling and hardly represents anyone anymore? And how long will it take Palestinian supporters of armed and violent resistance to recognize that their abortive efforts to destroy Israel and indiscriminate attacks on Israeli civilians are repugnant: targeting civilians is a morally unacceptable tactic for any resistance movement.

Thus, the idea of “conflict management” or even “conflict mitigation”—staple products of those who support maintaining the status quo until somehow things change—is pernicious, for it rests on an assumption that the rest of us simply don’t understand the conflict.

The idea of a regional or comprehensive solution based on Arab stability today is chimerical.

A futile search for alternatives

And so it is for all other Plan B’s. Several years ago, my Princeton graduate students embarked on an effort to find a viable alternative to the two-state solution; and they told me at the outset that they intended to prove that such an alternative existed. In the end, they failed and returned to the idea that the only viable solution was to partition the land into two states. Others, too, have tried to find alternatives, and some retain the hope that their policy proposal might win the day. I wish them well—for I really do believe in peace, whether it’s via two states or otherwise. But I have no confidence they will succeed.

The idea of “conflict management” or even “conflict mitigation”—staple products of those who support maintaining the status quo until somehow things change—is pernicious, for it rests on an assumption that the rest of us simply don’t understand the conflict.

And so we are back to the thought experiment. This would take as a starting point what Israeli Minister Uri Ariel told my students several years ago: we (Israel) have won, and the land of Israel is ours. Under this scenario, Israel would:

  • Formally annex the territories it occupied in 1967, basing its legal argument on its belief that these are “disputed” rather than “occupied” territories.
  • In connection with this act of annexation, Israel would offer full citizenship rights to all the Palestinians living in the territories. While Israel would probably want to include only the West Bank in this arrangement, excluding Gaza would make it impossible to secure any support internationally, in that Gaza is as much a part of Resolution 242 as is the West Bank.
  • Those Palestinians who accept citizenship would then enjoy equal rights with all other Israelis; those Palestinians who reject citizenship would be offered permanent residency, a status that would include certain rights and privileges but not full citizenship rights (for example, voting in national elections).
  • Israel would then approach the United Nations Security Council to argue that these measures constituted an act of self-determination, and that the outcome represented an end of the conflict in accordance with Resolution 242. I am not a lawyer and I assume that many—including Palestinians and Arabs—would dispute this Israeli argument. But the process would change the status quo fundamentally and offer a real alternative to the two-state solution.

Could this work, and is it a real Plan B for the conflict? This is but a thought experiment. I suppose most Israelis will hate this idea for it exposes the most significant weakness of the Israeli right wing and the settlements movement, namely that it undercuts fundamentally the idea of a permanent Jewish majority state. Similarly, most Palestinians will also hate this idea because it forecloses the possibility of a real act of self-determination culminating in an independent state and forces Palestinians to confront the emptiness of the slogans that their leaders have employed over the years in the context of the Arab-Israeli dispute.

The thought experiment is thus not very sound. Perhaps, then, it will scare everyone enough for leaders to get serious about peace.

  • Daniel Kurtzer

S. Daniel Abraham Professor in Middle Eastern Policy Studies, Woodrow Wilson School; Former U.S. ambassador to Egypt (1997-2001) and Israel (2001-2005).

What ISIS Really Wants

What ISIS Really Wants

The Islamic State is no mere collection of psychopaths. It is a religious group with carefully considered beliefs, among them that it is a key agent of the coming apocalypse. Here’s what that means for its strategy—and for how to stop it.

Graeme Wood

March 2015

What is the Islamic State?

Where did it come from, and what are its intentions? The simplicity of these questions can be deceiving, and few Western leaders seem to know the answers. In December, The New York Times published confidential comments by Major General Michael K. Nagata, the Special Operations commander for the United States in the Middle East, admitting that he had hardly begun figuring out the Islamic State’s appeal. “We have not defeated the idea,” he said. “We do not even understand the idea.” In the past year, President Obama has referred to the Islamic State, variously, as “not Islamic” and as al-Qaeda’s “jayvee team,” statements that reflected confusion about the group, and may have contributed to significant strategic errors.

The group seized Mosul, Iraq, last June, and already rules an area larger than the United Kingdom. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has been its leader since May 2010, but until last summer, his most recent known appearance on film was a grainy mug shot from a stay in U.S. captivity at Camp Bucca during the occupation of Iraq. Then, on July 5 of last year, he stepped into the pulpit of the Great Mosque of al-Nuri in Mosul, to deliver a Ramadan sermon as the first caliph in generations—upgrading his resolution from grainy to high-definition, and his position from hunted guerrilla to commander of all Muslims. The inflow of jihadists that followed, from around the world, was unprecedented in its pace and volume, and is continuing.

Our ignorance of the Islamic State is in some ways understandable: It is a hermit kingdom; few have gone there and returned. Baghdadi has spoken on camera only once. But his address, and the Islamic State’s countless other propaganda videos and encyclicals, are online, and the caliphate’s supporters have toiled mightily to make their project knowable. We can gather that their state rejects peace as a matter of principle; that it hungers for genocide; that its religious views make it constitutionally incapable of certain types of change, even if that change might ensure its survival; and that it considers itself a harbinger of—and headline player in—the imminent end of the world.

The Islamic State, also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), follows a distinctive variety of Islam whose beliefs about the path to the Day of Judgment matter to its strategy, and can help the West know its enemy and predict its behavior. Its rise to power is less like the triumph of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt (a group whose leaders the Islamic State considers apostates) than like the realization of a dystopian alternate reality in which David Koresh or Jim Jones survived to wield absolute power over not just a few hundred people, but some 8 million.

We have misunderstood the nature of the Islamic State in at least two ways. First, we tend to see jihadism as monolithic, and to apply the logic of al‑Qaeda to an organization that has decisively eclipsed it. The Islamic State supporters I spoke with still refer to Osama bin Laden as “Sheikh Osama,” a title of honor. But jihadism has evolved since al-Qaeda’s heyday, from about 1998 to 2003, and many jihadists disdain the group’s priorities and current leadership.

Bin Laden viewed his terrorism as a prologue to a caliphate he did not expect to see in his lifetime. His organization was flexible, operating as a geographically diffuse network of autonomous cells. The Islamic State, by contrast, requires territory to remain legitimate, and a top-down structure to rule it. (Its bureaucracy is divided into civil and military arms, and its territory into provinces.)

We are misled in a second way, by a well-intentioned but dishonest campaign to deny the Islamic State’s medieval religious nature. Peter Bergen, who produced the first interview with bin Laden in 1997, titled his first book Holy War, Inc. in part to acknowledge bin Laden as a creature of the modern secular world. Bin Laden corporatized terror and franchised it out. He requested specific political concessions, such as the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Saudi Arabia. His foot soldiers navigated the modern world confidently. On Mohammad Atta’s last full day of life, he shopped at Walmart and ate dinner at Pizza Hut.

Nearly all the Islamic State’s decisions adhere to what it calls, on its billboards, license plates, and coins, “the Prophetic methodology.”

There is a temptation to rehearse this observation—that jihadists are modern secular people, with modern political concerns, wearing medieval religious disguise—and make it fit the Islamic State. In fact, much of what the group does looks nonsensical except in light of a sincere, carefully considered commitment to returning civilization to a seventh-century legal environment, and ultimately to bringing about the apocalypse.

The most-articulate spokesmen for that position are the Islamic State’s officials and supporters themselves. They refer derisively to “moderns.” In conversation, they insist that they will not—cannot—waver from governing precepts that were embedded in Islam by the Prophet Muhammad and his earliest followers. They often speak in codes and allusions that sound odd or old-fashioned to non-Muslims, but refer to specific traditions and texts of early Islam.

To take one example: In September, Sheikh Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, the Islamic State’s chief spokesman, called on Muslims in Western countries such as France and Canada to find an infidel and “smash his head with a rock,” poison him, run him over with a car, or “destroy his crops.” To Western ears, the biblical-sounding punishments—the stoning and crop destruction—juxtaposed strangely with his more modern-sounding call to vehicular homicide. (As if to show that he could terrorize by imagery alone, Adnani also referred to Secretary of State John Kerry as an “uncircumcised geezer.”)

But Adnani was not merely talking trash. His speech was laced with theological and legal discussion, and his exhortation to attack crops directly echoed orders from Muhammad to leave well water and crops alone—unless the armies of Islam were in a defensive position, in which case Muslims in the lands of kuffar, or infidels, should be unmerciful, and poison away.

The reality is that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic. Yes, it has attracted psychopaths and adventure seekers, drawn largely from the disaffected populations of the Middle East and Europe. But the religion preached by its most ardent followers derives from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam.

Virtually every major decision and law promulgated by the Islamic State adheres to what it calls, in its press and pronouncements, and on its billboards, license plates, stationery, and coins, “the Prophetic methodology,” which means following the prophecy and example of Muhammad, in punctilious detail. Muslims can reject the Islamic State; nearly all do. But pretending that it isn’t actually a religious, millenarian group, with theology that must be understood to be combatted, has already led the United States to underestimate it and back foolish schemes to counter it. We’ll need to get acquainted with the Islamic State’s intellectual genealogy if we are to react in a way that will not strengthen it, but instead help it self-immolate in its own excessive zeal.

Control of territory is an essential precondition for the Islamic State’s authority in the eyes of its supporters. This map, adapted from the work of the Institute for the Study of War, shows the territory under the caliphate’s control as of January 15, along with areas it has attacked. Where it holds power, the state collects taxes, regulates prices, operates courts, and administers services ranging from health care and education to telecommunications.

  1. Devotion

In November, the Islamic State released an infomercial-like video tracing its origins to bin Laden. It acknowledged Abu Musa’b al Zarqawi, the brutal head of al‑Qaeda in Iraq from roughly 2003 until his killing in 2006, as a more immediate progenitor, followed sequentially by two other guerrilla leaders before Baghdadi, the caliph. Notably unmentioned: bin Laden’s successor, Ayman al Zawahiri, the owlish Egyptian eye surgeon who currently heads al‑Qaeda. Zawahiri has not pledged allegiance to Baghdadi, and he is increasingly hated by his fellow jihadists. His isolation is not helped by his lack of charisma; in videos he comes across as squinty and annoyed. But the split between al-Qaeda and the Islamic State has been long in the making, and begins to explain, at least in part, the outsize bloodlust of the latter.

Zawahiri’s companion in isolation is a Jordanian cleric named Abu Muhammad al Maqdisi, 55, who has a fair claim to being al-Qaeda’s intellectual architect and the most important jihadist unknown to the average American newspaper reader. On most matters of doctrine, Maqdisi and the Islamic State agree. Both are closely identified with the jihadist wing of a branch of Sunnism called Salafism, after the Arabic al salaf al salih, the “pious forefathers.” These forefathers are the Prophet himself and his earliest adherents, whom Salafis honor and emulate as the models for all behavior, including warfare, couture, family life, even dentistry.

The Islamic State awaits the army of “Rome,” whose defeat at Dabiq, Syria, will initiate the countdown to the apocalypse.

Maqdisi taught Zarqawi, who went to war in Iraq with the older man’s advice in mind. In time, though, Zarqawi surpassed his mentor in fanaticism, and eventually earned his rebuke. At issue was Zarqawi’s penchant for bloody spectacle—and, as a matter of doctrine, his hatred of other Muslims, to the point of excommunicating and killing them. In Islam, the practice of takfir, or excommunication, is theologically perilous. “If a man says to his brother, ‘You are an infidel,’ ” the Prophet said, “then one of them is right.” If the accuser is wrong, he himself has committed apostasy by making a false accusation. The punishment for apostasy is death. And yet Zarqawi heedlessly expanded the range of behavior that could make Muslims infidels.

Maqdisi wrote to his former pupil that he needed to exercise caution and “not issue sweeping proclamations of takfir” or “proclaim people to be apostates because of their sins.” The distinction between apostate and sinner may appear subtle, but it is a key point of contention between al-Qaeda and the Islamic State.

Denying the holiness of the Koran or the prophecies of Muhammad is straightforward apostasy. But Zarqawi and the state he spawned take the position that many other acts can remove a Muslim from Islam. These include, in certain cases, selling alcohol or drugs, wearing Western clothes or shaving one’s beard, voting in an election—even for a Muslim candidate—and being lax about calling other people apostates. Being a Shiite, as most Iraqi Arabs are, meets the standard as well, because the Islamic State regards Shiism as innovation, and to innovate on the Koran is to deny its initial perfection. (The Islamic State claims that common Shiite practices, such as worship at the graves of imams and public self-flagellation, have no basis in the Koran or in the example of the Prophet.) That means roughly 200 million Shia are marked for death. So too are the heads of state of every Muslim country, who have elevated man-made law above Sharia by running for office or enforcing laws not made by God.

Following takfiri doctrine, the Islamic State is committed to purifying the world by killing vast numbers of people. The lack of objective reporting from its territory makes the true extent of the slaughter unknowable, but social-media posts from the region suggest that individual executions happen more or less continually, and mass executions every few weeks. Muslim “apostates” are the most common victims. Exempted from automatic execution, it appears, are Christians who do not resist their new government. Baghdadi permits them to live, as long as they pay a special tax, known as the jizya, and acknowledge their subjugation. The Koranic authority for this practice is not in dispute.

Musa Cerantonio, an Australian preacher reported to be one of the Islamic State’s most influential recruiters, believes it is foretold that the caliphate will sack Istanbul before it is beaten back by an army led by the anti-Messiah, whose eventual death— when just a few thousand jihadists remain—will usher in the apocalypse. (Paul Jeffers/Fairfax Media)

Centuries have passed since the wars of religion ceased in Europe, and since men stopped dying in large numbers because of arcane theological disputes. Hence, perhaps, the incredulity and denial with which Westerners have greeted news of the theology and practices of the Islamic State. Many refuse to believe that this group is as devout as it claims to be, or as backward-looking or apocalyptic as its actions and statements suggest.

Their skepticism is comprehensible. In the past, Westerners who accused Muslims of blindly following ancient scriptures came to deserved grief from academics—notably the late Edward Said—who pointed out that calling Muslims “ancient” was usually just another way to denigrate them. Look instead, these scholars urged, to the conditions in which these ideologies arose—the bad governance, the shifting social mores, the humiliation of living in lands valued only for their oil.

Without acknowledgment of these factors, no explanation of the rise of the Islamic State could be complete. But focusing on them to the exclusion of ideology reflects another kind of Western bias: that if religious ideology doesn’t matter much in Washington or Berlin, surely it must be equally irrelevant in Raqqa or Mosul. When a masked executioner says Allahu akbar while beheading an apostate, sometimes he’s doing so for religious reasons.

Many mainstream Muslim organizations have gone so far as to say the Islamic State is, in fact, un-Islamic. It is, of course, reassuring to know that the vast majority of Muslims have zero interest in replacing Hollywood movies with public executions as evening entertainment. But Muslims who call the Islamic State un-Islamic are typically, as the Princeton scholar Bernard Haykel, the leading expert on the group’s theology, told me, “embarrassed and politically correct, with a cotton-candy view of their own religion” that neglects “what their religion has historically and legally required.” Many denials of the Islamic State’s religious nature, he said, are rooted in an “interfaith-Christian-nonsense tradition.”

Every academic I asked about the Islamic State’s ideology sent me to Haykel. Of partial Lebanese descent, Haykel grew up in Lebanon and the United States, and when he talks through his Mephistophelian goatee, there is a hint of an unplaceable foreign accent.

According to Haykel, the ranks of the Islamic State are deeply infused with religious vigor. Koranic quotations are ubiquitous. “Even the foot soldiers spout this stuff constantly,” Haykel said. “They mug for their cameras and repeat their basic doctrines in formulaic fashion, and they do it all the time.” He regards the claim that the Islamic State has distorted the texts of Islam as preposterous, sustainable only through willful ignorance. “People want to absolve Islam,” he said. “It’s this ‘Islam is a religion of peace’ mantra. As if there is such a thing as ‘Islam’! It’s what Muslims do, and how they interpret their texts.” Those texts are shared by all Sunni Muslims, not just the Islamic State. “And these guys have just as much legitimacy as anyone else.”

All Muslims acknowledge that Muhammad’s earliest conquests were not tidy affairs, and that the laws of war passed down in the Koran and in the narrations of the Prophet’s rule were calibrated to fit a turbulent and violent time. In Haykel’s estimation, the fighters of the Islamic State are authentic throwbacks to early Islam and are faithfully reproducing its norms of war. This behavior includes a number of practices that modern Muslims tend to prefer not to acknowledge as integral to their sacred texts. “Slavery, crucifixion, and beheadings are not something that freakish [jihadists] are cherry-picking from the medieval tradition,” Haykel said. Islamic State fighters “are smack in the middle of the medieval tradition and are bringing it wholesale into the present day.”

Our failure to appreciate the essential differences between ISIS and al-Qaeda has led to dangerous decisions.

The Koran specifies crucifixion as one of the only punishments permitted for enemies of Islam. The tax on Christians finds clear endorsement in the Surah Al-Tawba, the Koran’s ninth chapter, which instructs Muslims to fight Christians and Jews “until they pay the jizya with willing submission, and feel themselves subdued.” The Prophet, whom all Muslims consider exemplary, imposed these rules and owned slaves.

Leaders of the Islamic State have taken emulation of Muhammad as strict duty, and have revived traditions that have been dormant for hundreds of years. “What’s striking about them is not just the literalism, but also the seriousness with which they read these texts,” Haykel said. “There is an assiduous, obsessive seriousness that Muslims don’t normally have.”

Before the rise of the Islamic State, no group in the past few centuries had attempted more-radical fidelity to the Prophetic model than the Wahhabis of 18th‑century Arabia. They conquered most of what is now Saudi Arabia, and their strict practices survive in a diluted version of Sharia there. Haykel sees an important distinction between the groups, though: “The Wahhabis were not wanton in their violence.” They were surrounded by Muslims, and they conquered lands that were already Islamic; this stayed their hand. “ISIS, by contrast, is really reliving the early period.” Early Muslims were surrounded by non-Muslims, and the Islamic State, because of its takfiri tendencies, considers itself to be in the same situation.

If al-Qaeda wanted to revive slavery, it never said so. And why would it? Silence on slavery probably reflected strategic thinking, with public sympathies in mind: when the Islamic State began enslaving people, even some of its supporters balked. Nonetheless, the caliphate has continued to embrace slavery and crucifixion without apology. “We will conquer your Rome, break your crosses, and enslave your women,” Adnani, the spokesman, promised in one of his periodic valentines to the West. “If we do not reach that time, then our children and grandchildren will reach it, and they will sell your sons as slaves at the slave market.”

In October, Dabiq, the magazine of the Islamic State, published “The Revival of Slavery Before the Hour,” an article that took up the question of whether Yazidis (the members of an ancient Kurdish sect that borrows elements of Islam, and had come under attack from Islamic State forces in northern Iraq) are lapsed Muslims, and therefore marked for death, or merely pagans and therefore fair game for enslavement. A study group of Islamic State scholars had convened, on government orders, to resolve this issue. If they are pagans, the article’s anonymous author wrote,

Yazidi women and children [are to be] divided according to the Shariah amongst the fighters of the Islamic State who participated in the Sinjar operations [in northern Iraq] … Enslaving the families of the kuffar [infidels] and taking their women as concubines is a firmly established aspect of the Shariah that if one were to deny or mock, he would be denying or mocking the verses of the Koran and the narrations of the Prophet … and thereby apostatizing from Islam.

  1. Territory

Tens of thousands of foreign Muslims are thought to have immigrated to the Islamic State. Recruits hail from France, the United Kingdom, Belgium, Germany, Holland, Australia, Indonesia, the United States, and many other places. Many have come to fight, and many intend to die.

Peter R. Neumann, a professor at King’s College London, told me that online voices have been essential to spreading propaganda and ensuring that newcomers know what to believe. Online recruitment has also widened the demographics of the jihadist community, by allowing conservative Muslim women—physically isolated in their homes—to reach out to recruiters, radicalize, and arrange passage to Syria. Through its appeals to both genders, the Islamic State hopes to build a complete society.

In November, I traveled to Australia to meet Musa Cerantonio, a 30-year-old man whom Neumann and other researchers had identified as one of the two most important “new spiritual authorities” guiding foreigners to join the Islamic State. For three years he was a televangelist on Iqraa TV in Cairo, but he left after the station objected to his frequent calls to establish a caliphate. Now he preaches on Facebook and Twitter.

Cerantonio—a big, friendly man with a bookish demeanor—told me he blanches at beheading videos. He hates seeing the violence, even though supporters of the Islamic State are required to endorse it. (He speaks out, controversially among jihadists, against suicide bombing, on the grounds that God forbids suicide; he differs from the Islamic State on a few other points as well.) He has the kind of unkempt facial hair one sees on certain overgrown fans of The Lord of the Rings, and his obsession with Islamic apocalypticism felt familiar. He seemed to be living out a drama that looks, from an outsider’s perspective, like a medieval fantasy novel, only with real blood.

Last June, Cerantonio and his wife tried to emigrate—he wouldn’t say to where (“It’s illegal to go to Syria,” he said cagily)—but they were caught en route, in the Philippines, and he was deported back to Australia for overstaying his visa. Australia has criminalized attempts to join or travel to the Islamic State, and has confiscated Cerantonio’s passport. He is stuck in Melbourne, where he is well known to the local constabulary. If Cerantonio were caught facilitating the movement of individuals to the Islamic State, he would be imprisoned. So far, though, he is free—a technically unaffiliated ideologue who nonetheless speaks with what other jihadists have taken to be a reliable voice on matters of the Islamic State’s doctrine.

We met for lunch in Footscray, a dense, multicultural Melbourne suburb that’s home to Lonely Planet, the travel-guide publisher. Cerantonio grew up there in a half-Irish, half-Calabrian family. On a typical street one can find African restaurants, Vietnamese shops, and young Arabs walking around in the Salafi uniform of scraggly beard, long shirt, and trousers ending halfway down the calves.

Cerantonio explained the joy he felt when Baghdadi was declared the caliph on June 29—and the sudden, magnetic attraction that Mesopotamia began to exert on him and his friends. “I was in a hotel [in the Philippines], and I saw the declaration on television,” he told me. “And I was just amazed, and I’m like, Why am I stuck here in this bloody room?

The last caliphate was the Ottoman empire, which reached its peak in the 16th century and then experienced a long decline, until the founder of the Republic of Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, euthanized it in 1924. But Cerantonio, like many supporters of the Islamic State, doesn’t acknowledge that caliphate as legitimate, because it didn’t fully enforce Islamic law, which requires stonings and slavery and amputations, and because its caliphs were not descended from the tribe of the Prophet, the Quraysh.

Baghdadi spoke at length of the importance of the caliphate in his Mosul sermon. He said that to revive the institution of the caliphate—which had not functioned except in name for about 1,000 years—was a communal obligation. He and his loyalists had “hastened to declare the caliphate and place an imam” at its head, he said. “This is a duty upon the Muslims—a duty that has been lost for centuries … The Muslims sin by losing it, and they must always seek to establish it.” Like bin Laden before him, Baghdadi spoke floridly, with frequent scriptural allusion and command of classical rhetoric. Unlike bin Laden, and unlike those false caliphs of the Ottoman empire, he is Qurayshi.

The caliphate, Cerantonio told me, is not just a political entity but also a vehicle for salvation. Islamic State propaganda regularly reports the pledges of baya’a (allegiance) rolling in from jihadist groups across the Muslim world. Cerantonio quoted a Prophetic saying, that to die without pledging allegiance is to die jahil (ignorant) and therefore die a “death of disbelief.” Consider how Muslims (or, for that matter, Christians) imagine God deals with the souls of people who die without learning about the one true religion. They are neither obviously saved nor definitively condemned. Similarly, Cerantonio said, the Muslim who acknowledges one omnipotent god and prays, but who dies without pledging himself to a valid caliph and incurring the obligations of that oath, has failed to live a fully Islamic life. I pointed out that this means the vast majority of Muslims in history, and all who passed away between 1924 and 2014, died a death of disbelief. Cerantonio nodded gravely. “I would go so far as to say that Islam has been reestablished” by the caliphate.

I asked him about his own baya’a, and he quickly corrected me: “I didn’t say that I’d pledged allegiance.” Under Australian law, he reminded me, giving baya’a to the Islamic State was illegal. “But I agree that [Baghdadi] fulfills the requirements,” he continued. “I’m just going to wink at you, and you take that to mean whatever you want.”

To be the caliph, one must meet conditions outlined in Sunni law—being a Muslim adult man of Quraysh descent; exhibiting moral probity and physical and mental integrity; and having ’amr, or authority. This last criterion, Cerantonio said, is the hardest to fulfill, and requires that the caliph have territory in which he can enforce Islamic law. Baghdadi’s Islamic State achieved that long before June 29, Cerantonio said, and as soon as it did, a Western convert within the group’s ranks—Cerantonio described him as “something of a leader”—began murmuring about the religious obligation to declare a caliphate. He and others spoke quietly to those in power and told them that further delay would be sinful.

Social-media posts from the Islamic State suggest that executions happen more or less continually.

Cerantonio said a faction arose that was prepared to make war on Baghdadi’s group if it delayed any further. They prepared a letter to various powerful members of ISIS, airing their displeasure at the failure to appoint a caliph, but were pacified by Adnani, the spokesman, who let them in on a secret—that a caliphate had already been declared, long before the public announcement. They had their legitimate caliph, and at that point there was only one option. “If he’s legitimate,” Cerantonio said, “you must give him the baya’a.”

After Baghdadi’s July sermon, a stream of jihadists began flowing daily into Syria with renewed motivation. Jürgen Todenhöfer, a German author and former politician who visited the Islamic State in December, reported the arrival of 100 fighters at one Turkish-border recruitment station in just two days. His report, among others, suggests a still-steady inflow of foreigners, ready to give up everything at home for a shot at paradise in the worst place on Earth.

Bernard Haykel, the foremost secular authority on the Islamic State’s ideology, believes the group is trying to re-create the earliest days of Islam and is faithfully reproducing its norms of war. “There is an assiduous, obsessive seriousness” about the group’s dedication to the text of the Koran, he says. (Peter Murphy)

In London, a week before my meal with Cerantonio, I met with three ex-members of a banned Islamist group called Al Muhajiroun (The Emigrants): Anjem Choudary, Abu Baraa, and Abdul Muhid. They all expressed desire to emigrate to the Islamic State, as many of their colleagues already had, but the authorities had confiscated their passports. Like Cerantonio, they regarded the caliphate as the only righteous government on Earth, though none would confess having pledged allegiance. Their principal goal in meeting me was to explain what the Islamic State stands for, and how its policies reflect God’s law.

Choudary, 48, is the group’s former leader. He frequently appears on cable news, as one of the few people producers can book who will defend the Islamic State vociferously, until his mike is cut. He has a reputation in the United Kingdom as a loathsome blowhard, but he and his disciples sincerely believe in the Islamic State and, on matters of doctrine, speak in its voice. Choudary and the others feature prominently in the Twitter feeds of Islamic State residents, and Abu Baraa maintains a YouTube channel to answer questions about Sharia.

Since September, authorities have been investigating the three men on suspicion of supporting terrorism. Because of this investigation, they had to meet me separately: communication among them would have violated the terms of their bail. But speaking with them felt like speaking with the same person wearing different masks. Choudary met me in a candy shop in the East London suburb of Ilford. He was dressed smartly, in a crisp blue tunic reaching nearly to his ankles, and sipped a Red Bull while we talked.

Before the caliphate, “maybe 85 percent of the Sharia was absent from our lives,” Choudary told me. “These laws are in abeyance until we have khilafa”—a caliphate—“and now we have one.” Without a caliphate, for example, individual vigilantes are not obliged to amputate the hands of thieves they catch in the act. But create a caliphate, and this law, along with a huge body of other jurisprudence, suddenly awakens. In theory, all Muslims are obliged to immigrate to the territory where the caliph is applying these laws. One of Choudary’s prize students, a convert from Hinduism named Abu Rumaysah, evaded police to bring his family of five from London to Syria in November. On the day I met Choudary, Abu Rumaysah tweeted out a picture of himself with a Kalashnikov in one arm and his newborn son in the other. Hashtag: #GenerationKhilafah.

The caliph is required to implement Sharia. Any deviation will compel those who have pledged allegiance to inform the caliph in private of his error and, in extreme cases, to excommunicate and replace him if he persists. (“I have been plagued with this great matter, plagued with this responsibility, and it is a heavy responsibility,” Baghdadi said in his sermon.) In return, the caliph commands obedience—and those who persist in supporting non-Muslim governments, after being duly warned and educated about their sin, are considered apostates.

Choudary said Sharia has been misunderstood because of its incomplete application by regimes such as Saudi Arabia, which does behead murderers and cut off thieves’ hands. “The problem,” he explained, “is that when places like Saudi Arabia just implement the penal code, and don’t provide the social and economic justice of the Sharia—the whole package—they simply engender hatred toward the Sharia.” That whole package, he said, would include free housing, food, and clothing for all, though of course anyone who wished to enrich himself with work could do so.

Abdul Muhid, 32, continued along these lines. He was dressed in mujahideen chic when I met him at a local restaurant: scruffy beard, Afghan cap, and a wallet outside of his clothes, attached with what looked like a shoulder holster. When we sat down, he was eager to discuss welfare. The Islamic State may have medieval-style punishments for moral crimes (lashes for boozing or fornication, stoning for adultery), but its social-welfare program is, at least in some aspects, progressive to a degree that would please an MSNBC pundit. Health care, he said, is free. (“Isn’t it free in Britain, too?,” I asked. “Not really,” he said. “Some procedures aren’t covered, such as vision.”) This provision of social welfare was not, he said, a policy choice of the Islamic State, but a policy obligation inherent in God’s law.

Anjem Choudary, London’s most notorious defender of the Islamic State, says crucifixion and beheading are sacred requirements. (Tal Cohen/Reuters)

III. The Apocalypse

All Muslims acknowledge that God is the only one who knows the future. But they also agree that he has offered us a peek at it, in the Koran and in narrations of the Prophet. The Islamic State differs from nearly every other current jihadist movement in believing that it is written into God’s script as a central character. It is in this casting that the Islamic State is most boldly distinctive from its predecessors, and clearest in the religious nature of its mission.

In broad strokes, al-Qaeda acts like an underground political movement, with worldly goals in sight at all times—the expulsion of non-Muslims from the Arabian peninsula, the abolishment of the state of Israel, the end of support for dictatorships in Muslim lands. The Islamic State has its share of worldly concerns (including, in the places it controls, collecting garbage and keeping the water running), but the End of Days is a leitmotif of its propaganda. Bin Laden rarely mentioned the apocalypse, and when he did, he seemed to presume that he would be long dead when the glorious moment of divine comeuppance finally arrived. “Bin Laden and Zawahiri are from elite Sunni families who look down on this kind of speculation and think it’s something the masses engage in,” says Will McCants of the Brookings Institution, who is writing a book about the Islamic State’s apocalyptic thought.

During the last years of the U.S. occupation of Iraq, the Islamic State’s immediate founding fathers, by contrast, saw signs of the end times everywhere. They were anticipating, within a year, the arrival of the Mahdi—a messianic figure destined to lead the Muslims to victory before the end of the world. McCants says a prominent Islamist in Iraq approached bin Laden in 2008 to warn him that the group was being led by millenarians who were “talking all the time about the Mahdi and making strategic decisions” based on when they thought the Mahdi was going to arrive. “Al-Qaeda had to write to [these leaders] to say ‘Cut it out.’ ”

For certain true believers—the kind who long for epic good-versus-evil battles—visions of apocalyptic bloodbaths fulfill a deep psychological need. Of the Islamic State supporters I met, Musa Cerantonio, the Australian, expressed the deepest interest in the apocalypse and how the remaining days of the Islamic State—and the world—might look. Parts of that prediction are original to him, and do not yet have the status of doctrine. But other parts are based on mainstream Sunni sources and appear all over the Islamic State’s propaganda. These include the belief that there will be only 12 legitimate caliphs, and Baghdadi is the eighth; that the armies of Rome will mass to meet the armies of Islam in northern Syria; and that Islam’s final showdown with an anti-Messiah will occur in Jerusalem after a period of renewed Islamic conquest.

The Islamic State has attached great importance to the Syrian city of Dabiq, near Aleppo. It named its propaganda magazine after the town, and celebrated madly when (at great cost) it conquered Dabiq’s strategically unimportant plains. It is here, the Prophet reportedly said, that the armies of Rome will set up their camp. The armies of Islam will meet them, and Dabiq will be Rome’s Waterloo or its Antietam.

“Dabiq is basically all farmland,” one Islamic State supporter recently tweeted. “You could imagine large battles taking place there.” The Islamic State’s propagandists drool with anticipation of this event, and constantly imply that it will come soon. The state’s magazine quotes Zarqawi as saying, “The spark has been lit here in Iraq, and its heat will continue to intensify … until it burns the crusader armies in Dabiq.” A recent propaganda video shows clips from Hollywood war movies set in medieval times—perhaps because many of the prophecies specify that the armies will be on horseback or carrying ancient weapons.

Now that it has taken Dabiq, the Islamic State awaits the arrival of an enemy army there, whose defeat will initiate the countdown to the apocalypse. Western media frequently miss references to Dabiq in the Islamic State’s videos, and focus instead on lurid scenes of beheading. “Here we are, burying the first American crusader in Dabiq, eagerly waiting for the remainder of your armies to arrive,” said a masked executioner in a November video, showing the severed head of Peter (Abdul Rahman) Kassig, the aid worker who’d been held captive for more than a year. During fighting in Iraq in December, after mujahideen (perhaps inaccurately) reported having seen American soldiers in battle, Islamic State Twitter accounts erupted in spasms of pleasure, like overenthusiastic hosts or hostesses upon the arrival of the first guests at a party.

The Prophetic narration that foretells the Dabiq battle refers to the enemy as Rome. Who “Rome” is, now that the pope has no army, remains a matter of debate. But Cerantonio makes a case that Rome meant the Eastern Roman empire, which had its capital in what is now Istanbul. We should think of Rome as the Republic of Turkey—the same republic that ended the last self-identified caliphate, 90 years ago. Other Islamic State sources suggest that Rome might mean any infidel army, and the Americans will do nicely.

After mujahideen reported having seen American soldiers in battle, Islamic State Twitter accounts erupted in spasms of pleasure, like overenthusiastic hosts upon the arrival of the first guests at a party.

After its battle in Dabiq, Cerantonio said, the caliphate will expand and sack Istanbul. Some believe it will then cover the entire Earth, but Cerantonio suggested its tide may never reach beyond the Bosporus. An anti-Messiah, known in Muslim apocalyptic literature as Dajjal, will come from the Khorasan region of eastern Iran and kill a vast number of the caliphate’s fighters, until just 5,000 remain, cornered in Jerusalem. Just as Dajjal prepares to finish them off, Jesus—the second-most-revered prophet in Islam—will return to Earth, spear Dajjal, and lead the Muslims to victory.

“Only God knows” whether the Islamic State’s armies are the ones foretold, Cerantonio said. But he is hopeful. “The Prophet said that one sign of the imminent arrival of the End of Days is that people will for a long while stop talking about the End of Days,” he said. “If you go to the mosques now, you’ll find the preachers are silent about this subject.” On this theory, even setbacks dealt to the Islamic State mean nothing, since God has preordained the near-destruction of his people anyway. The Islamic State has its best and worst days ahead of it.

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was declared caliph by his followers last summer. The establishment of a caliphate awakened large sections of Koranic law that had lain dormant, and required those Muslims who recognized the caliphate to immigrate. (Associated Press)

  1. The Fight

The ideological purity of the Islamic State has one compensating virtue: it allows us to predict some of the group’s actions. Osama bin Laden was seldom predictable. He ended his first television interview cryptically. CNN’s Peter Arnett asked him, “What are your future plans?” Bin Laden replied, “You’ll see them and hear about them in the media, God willing.” By contrast, the Islamic State boasts openly about its plans—not all of them, but enough so that by listening carefully, we can deduce how it intends to govern and expand.

In London, Choudary and his students provided detailed descriptions of how the Islamic State must conduct its foreign policy, now that it is a caliphate. It has already taken up what Islamic law refers to as “offensive jihad,” the forcible expansion into countries that are ruled by non-Muslims. “Hitherto, we were just defending ourselves,” Choudary said; without a caliphate, offensive jihad is an inapplicable concept. But the waging of war to expand the caliphate is an essential duty of the caliph.

Choudary took pains to present the laws of war under which the Islamic State operates as policies of mercy rather than of brutality. He told me the state has an obligation to terrorize its enemies—a holy order to scare the shit out of them with beheadings and crucifixions and enslavement of women and children, because doing so hastens victory and avoids prolonged conflict.

Choudary’s colleague Abu Baraa explained that Islamic law permits only temporary peace treaties, lasting no longer than a decade. Similarly, accepting any border is anathema, as stated by the Prophet and echoed in the Islamic State’s propaganda videos. If the caliph consents to a longer-term peace or permanent border, he will be in error. Temporary peace treaties are renewable, but may not be applied to all enemies at once: the caliph must wage jihad at least once a year. He may not rest, or he will fall into a state of sin.

One comparison to the Islamic State is the Khmer Rouge, which killed about a third of the population of Cambodia. But the Khmer Rouge occupied Cambodia’s seat at the United Nations. “This is not permitted,” Abu Baraa said. “To send an ambassador to the UN is to recognize an authority other than God’s.” This form of diplomacy is shirk, or polytheism, he argued, and would be immediate cause to hereticize and replace Baghdadi. Even to hasten the arrival of a caliphate by democratic means—for example by voting for political candidates who favor a caliphate—is shirk.

It’s hard to overstate how hamstrung the Islamic State will be by its radicalism. The modern international system, born of the 1648 Peace of Westphalia, relies on each state’s willingness to recognize borders, however grudgingly. For the Islamic State, that recognition is ideological suicide. Other Islamist groups, such as the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas, have succumbed to the blandishments of democracy and the potential for an invitation to the community of nations, complete with a UN seat. Negotiation and accommodation have worked, at times, for the Taliban as well. (Under Taliban rule, Afghanistan exchanged ambassadors with Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and the United Arab Emirates, an act that invalidated the Taliban’s authority in the Islamic State’s eyes.) To the Islamic State these are not options, but acts of apostasy.

The United States and its allies have reacted to the Islamic State belatedly and in an apparent daze. The group’s ambitions and rough strategic blueprints were evident in its pronouncements and in social-media chatter as far back as 2011, when it was just one of many terrorist groups in Syria and Iraq and hadn’t yet committed mass atrocities. Adnani, the spokesman, told followers then that the group’s ambition was to “restore the Islamic caliphate,” and he evoked the apocalypse, saying, “There are but a few days left.” Baghdadi had already styled himself “commander of the faithful,” a title ordinarily reserved for caliphs, in 2011. In April 2013, Adnani declared the movement “ready to redraw the world upon the Prophetic methodology of the caliphate.” In August 2013, he said, “Our goal is to establish an Islamic state that doesn’t recognize borders, on the Prophetic methodology.” By then, the group had taken Raqqa, a Syrian provincial capital of perhaps 500,000 people, and was drawing in substantial numbers of foreign fighters who’d heard its message.

If we had identified the Islamic State’s intentions early, and realized that the vacuum in Syria and Iraq would give it ample space to carry them out, we might, at a minimum, have pushed Iraq to harden its border with Syria and preemptively make deals with its Sunnis. That would at least have avoided the electrifying propaganda effect created by the declaration of a caliphate just after the conquest of Iraq’s third-largest city. Yet, just over a year ago, Obama told The New Yorker that he considered ISIS to be al-Qaeda’s weaker partner. “If a jayvee team puts on Lakers uniforms that doesn’t make them Kobe Bryant,” the president said.

Our failure to appreciate the split between the Islamic State and al-Qaeda, and the essential differences between the two, has led to dangerous decisions. Last fall, to take one example, the U.S. government consented to a desperate plan to save Peter Kassig’s life. The plan facilitated—indeed, required—the interaction of some of the founding figures of the Islamic State and al-Qaeda, and could hardly have looked more hastily improvised.

Given everything we know about the Islamic State, continuing to slowly bleed it appears the best of bad military options.

It entailed the enlistment of Abu Muhammad al Maqdisi, the Zarqawi mentor and al-Qaeda grandee, to approach Turki al-Binali, the Islamic State’s chief ideologue and a former student of Maqdisi’s, even though the two men had fallen out due to Maqdisi’s criticism of the Islamic State. Maqdisi had already called for the state to extend mercy to Alan Henning, the British cabbie who had entered Syria to deliver aid to children. In December, The Guardian reported that the U.S. government, through an intermediary, had asked Maqdisi to intercede with the Islamic State on Kassig’s behalf.

Maqdisi was living freely in Jordan, but had been banned from communicating with terrorists abroad, and was being monitored closely. After Jordan granted the United States permission to reintroduce Maqdisi to Binali, Maqdisi bought a phone with American money and was allowed to correspond merrily with his former student for a few days, before the Jordanian government stopped the chats and used them as a pretext to jail Maqdisi. Kassig’s severed head appeared in the Dabiq video a few days later.

Maqdisi gets mocked roundly on Twitter by the Islamic State’s fans, and al‑Qaeda is held in great contempt for refusing to acknowledge the caliphate. Cole Bunzel, a scholar who studies Islamic State ideology, read Maqdisi’s opinion on Henning’s status and thought it would hasten his and other captives’ death. “If I were held captive by the Islamic State and Maqdisi said I shouldn’t be killed,” he told me, “I’d kiss my ass goodbye.”

Kassig’s death was a tragedy, but the plan’s success would have been a bigger one. A reconciliation between Maqdisi and Binali would have begun to heal the main rift between the world’s two largest jihadist organizations. It’s possible that the government wanted only to draw out Binali for intelligence purposes or assassination. (Multiple attempts to elicit comment from the FBI were unsuccessful.) Regardless, the decision to play matchmaker for America’s two main terrorist antagonists reveals astonishingly poor judgment.

Chastened by our earlier indifference, we are now meeting the Islamic State via Kurdish and Iraqi proxy on the battlefield, and with regular air assaults. Those strategies haven’t dislodged the Islamic State from any of its major territorial possessions, although they’ve kept it from directly assaulting Baghdad and Erbil and slaughtering Shia and Kurds there.

Some observers have called for escalation, including several predictable voices from the interventionist right (Max Boot, Frederick Kagan), who have urged the deployment of tens of thousands of American soldiers. These calls should not be dismissed too quickly: an avowedly genocidal organization is on its potential victims’ front lawn, and it is committing daily atrocities in the territory it already controls.

One way to un-cast the Islamic State’s spell over its adherents would be to overpower it militarily and occupy the parts of Syria and Iraq now under caliphate rule. Al‑Qaeda is ineradicable because it can survive, cockroach-like, by going underground. The Islamic State cannot. If it loses its grip on its territory in Syria and Iraq, it will cease to be a caliphate. Caliphates cannot exist as underground movements, because territorial authority is a requirement: take away its command of territory, and all those oaths of allegiance are no longer binding. Former pledges could of course continue to attack the West and behead their enemies, as freelancers. But the propaganda value of the caliphate would disappear, and with it the supposed religious duty to immigrate and serve it. If the United States were to invade, the Islamic State’s obsession with battle at Dabiq suggests that it might send vast resources there, as if in a conventional battle. If the state musters at Dabiq in full force, only to be routed, it might never recover.

Abu Baraa, who maintains a YouTube channel about Islamic law, says the caliph, Baghdadi, cannot negotiate or recognize borders, and must continually make war, or he will remove himself from Islam.

And yet the risks of escalation are enormous. The biggest proponent of an American invasion is the Islamic State itself. The provocative videos, in which a black-hooded executioner addresses President Obama by name, are clearly made to draw America into the fight. An invasion would be a huge propaganda victory for jihadists worldwide: irrespective of whether they have given baya’a to the caliph, they all believe that the United States wants to embark on a modern-day Crusade and kill Muslims. Yet another invasion and occupation would confirm that suspicion, and bolster recruitment. Add the incompetence of our previous efforts as occupiers, and we have reason for reluctance. The rise of ISIS, after all, happened only because our previous occupation created space for Zarqawi and his followers. Who knows the consequences of another botched job?

Given everything we know about the Islamic State, continuing to slowly bleed it, through air strikes and proxy warfare, appears the best of bad military options. Neither the Kurds nor the Shia will ever subdue and control the whole Sunni heartland of Syria and Iraq—they are hated there, and have no appetite for such an adventure anyway. But they can keep the Islamic State from fulfilling its duty to expand. And with every month that it fails to expand, it resembles less the conquering state of the Prophet Muhammad than yet another Middle Eastern government failing to bring prosperity to its people.

The humanitarian cost of the Islamic State’s existence is high. But its threat to the United States is smaller than its all too frequent conflation with al-Qaeda would suggest. Al-Qaeda’s core is rare among jihadist groups for its focus on the “far enemy” (the West); most jihadist groups’ main concerns lie closer to home. That’s especially true of the Islamic State, precisely because of its ideology. It sees enemies everywhere around it, and while its leadership wishes ill on the United States, the application of Sharia in the caliphate and the expansion to contiguous lands are paramount. Baghdadi has said as much directly: in November he told his Saudi agents to “deal with the rafida [Shia] first … then al-Sulul [Sunni supporters of the Saudi monarchy] … before the crusaders and their bases.”

Musa Cerantonio and Anjem Choudary could mentally shift from contemplating mass death to discussing the virtues of Vietnamese coffee, with apparent delight in each.

The foreign fighters (and their wives and children) have been traveling to the caliphate on one-way tickets: they want to live under true Sharia, and many want martyrdom. Doctrine, recall, requires believers to reside in the caliphate if it is at all possible for them to do so. One of the Islamic State’s less bloody videos shows a group of jihadists burning their French, British, and Australian passports. This would be an eccentric act for someone intending to return to blow himself up in line at the Louvre or to hold another chocolate shop hostage in Sydney.

A few “lone wolf” supporters of the Islamic State have attacked Western targets, and more attacks will come. But most of the attackers have been frustrated amateurs, unable to immigrate to the caliphate because of confiscated passports or other problems. Even if the Islamic State cheers these attacks—and it does in its propaganda—it hasn’t yet planned and financed one. (The Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris in January was principally an al‑Qaeda operation.) During his visit to Mosul in December, Jürgen Todenhöfer interviewed a portly German jihadist and asked whether any of his comrades had returned to Europe to carry out attacks. The jihadist seemed to regard returnees not as soldiers but as dropouts. “The fact is that the returnees from the Islamic State should repent from their return,” he said. “I hope they review their religion.”

Properly contained, the Islamic State is likely to be its own undoing. No country is its ally, and its ideology ensures that this will remain the case. The land it controls, while expansive, is mostly uninhabited and poor. As it stagnates or slowly shrinks, its claim that it is the engine of God’s will and the agent of apocalypse will weaken, and fewer believers will arrive. And as more reports of misery within it leak out, radical Islamist movements elsewhere will be discredited: No one has tried harder to implement strict Sharia by violence. This is what it looks like.

Even so, the death of the Islamic State is unlikely to be quick, and things could still go badly wrong: if the Islamic State obtained the allegiance of al‑Qaeda—increasing, in one swoop, the unity of its base—it could wax into a worse foe than we’ve yet seen. The rift between the Islamic State and al-Qaeda has, if anything, grown in the past few months; the December issue of Dabiq featured a long account of an al‑Qaeda defector who described his old group as corrupt and ineffectual, and Zawahiri as a distant and unfit leader. But we should watch carefully for a rapprochement.

Without a catastrophe such as this, however, or perhaps the threat of the Islamic State’s storming Erbil, a vast ground invasion would certainly make the situation worse.

  1. Dissuasion

It would be facile, even exculpatory, to call the problem of the Islamic State “a problem with Islam.” The religion allows many interpretations, and Islamic State supporters are morally on the hook for the one they choose. And yet simply denouncing the Islamic State as un-Islamic can be counterproductive, especially if those who hear the message have read the holy texts and seen the endorsement of many of the caliphate’s practices written plainly within them.

Muslims can say that slavery is not legitimate now, and that crucifixion is wrong at this historical juncture. Many say precisely this. But they cannot condemn slavery or crucifixion outright without contradicting the Koran and the example of the Prophet. “The only principled ground that the Islamic State’s opponents could take is to say that certain core texts and traditional teachings of Islam are no longer valid,” Bernard Haykel says. That really would be an act of apostasy.

The Islamic State’s ideology exerts powerful sway over a certain subset of the population. Life’s hypocrisies and inconsistencies vanish in its face. Musa Cerantonio and the Salafis I met in London are unstumpable: no question I posed left them stuttering. They lectured me garrulously and, if one accepts their premises, convincingly. To call them un-Islamic appears, to me, to invite them into an argument that they would win. If they had been froth-spewing maniacs, I might be able to predict that their movement would burn out as the psychopaths detonated themselves or became drone-splats, one by one. But these men spoke with an academic precision that put me in mind of a good graduate seminar. I even enjoyed their company, and that frightened me as much as anything else.

Non-muslims cannot tell Muslims how to practice their religion properly. But Muslims have long since begun this debate within their own ranks. “You have to have standards,” Anjem Choudary told me. “Somebody could claim to be a Muslim, but if he believes in homosexuality or drinking alcohol, then he is not a Muslim. There is no such thing as a nonpracticing vegetarian.”

There is, however, another strand of Islam that offers a hard-line alternative to the Islamic State—just as uncompromising, but with opposite conclusions. This strand has proved appealing to many Muslims cursed or blessed with a psychological longing to see every jot and tittle of the holy texts implemented as they were in the earliest days of Islam. Islamic State supporters know how to react to Muslims who ignore parts of the Koran: with takfir and ridicule. But they also know that some other Muslims read the Koran as assiduously as they do, and pose a real ideological threat.

Baghdadi is Salafi. The term Salafi has been villainized, in part because authentic villains have ridden into battle waving the Salafi banner. But most Salafis are not jihadists, and most adhere to sects that reject the Islamic State. They are, as Haykel notes, committed to expanding Dar al-Islam, the land of Islam, even, perhaps, with the implementation of monstrous practices such as slavery and amputation—but at some future point. Their first priority is personal purification and religious observance, and they believe anything that thwarts those goals—such as causing war or unrest that would disrupt lives and prayer and scholarship—is forbidden.

They live among us. Last fall, I visited the Philadelphia mosque of Breton Pocius, 28, a Salafi imam who goes by the name Abdullah. His mosque is on the border between the crime-ridden Northern Liberties neighborhood and a gentrifying area that one might call Dar al-Hipster; his beard allows him to pass in the latter zone almost unnoticed.

A theological alternative to the Islamic State exists—just as uncompromising, but with opposite conclusions.

Pocius converted 15 years ago after a Polish Catholic upbringing in Chicago. Like Cerantonio, he talks like an old soul, exhibiting deep familiarity with ancient texts, and a commitment to them motivated by curiosity and scholarship, and by a conviction that they are the only way to escape hellfire. When I met him at a local coffee shop, he carried a work of Koranic scholarship in Arabic and a book for teaching himself Japanese. He was preparing a sermon on the obligations of fatherhood for the 150 or so worshipers in his Friday congregation.

Pocius said his main goal is to encourage a halal life for worshipers in his mosque. But the rise of the Islamic State has forced him to consider political questions that are usually very far from the minds of Salafis. “Most of what they’ll say about how to pray and how to dress is exactly what I’ll say in my masjid [mosque]. But when they get to questions about social upheaval, they sound like Che Guevara.”

When Baghdadi showed up, Pocius adopted the slogan “Not my khalifa.” “The times of the Prophet were a time of great bloodshed,” he told me, “and he knew that the worst possible condition for all people was chaos, especially within the umma [Muslim community].” Accordingly, Pocius said, the correct attitude for Salafis is not to sow discord by factionalizing and declaring fellow Muslims apostates.

Instead, Pocius—like a majority of Salafis—believes that Muslims should remove themselves from politics. These quietist Salafis, as they are known, agree with the Islamic State that God’s law is the only law, and they eschew practices like voting and the creation of political parties. But they interpret the Koran’s hatred of discord and chaos as requiring them to fall into line with just about any leader, including some manifestly sinful ones. “The Prophet said: as long as the ruler does not enter into clear kufr [disbelief], give him general obedience,” Pocius told me, and the classic “books of creed” all warn against causing social upheaval. Quietist Salafis are strictly forbidden from dividing Muslims from one another—for example, by mass excommunication. Living without baya’a, Pocius said, does indeed make one ignorant, or benighted. But baya’a need not mean direct allegiance to a caliph, and certainly not to Abu Bakr al‑Baghdadi. It can mean, more broadly, allegiance to a religious social contract and commitment to a society of Muslims, whether ruled by a caliph or not.

Quietist Salafis believe that Muslims should direct their energies toward perfecting their personal life, including prayer, ritual, and hygiene. Much in the same way ultra-Orthodox Jews debate whether it’s kosher to tear off squares of toilet paper on the Sabbath (does that count as “rending cloth”?), they spend an inordinate amount of time ensuring that their trousers are not too long, that their beards are trimmed in some areas and shaggy in others. Through this fastidious observance, they believe, God will favor them with strength and numbers, and perhaps a caliphate will arise. At that moment, Muslims will take vengeance and, yes, achieve glorious victory at Dabiq. But Pocius cites a slew of modern Salafi theologians who argue that a caliphate cannot come into being in a righteous way except through the unmistakable will of God.

The Islamic State, of course, would agree, and say that God has anointed Baghdadi. Pocius’s retort amounts to a call to humility. He cites Abdullah Ibn Abbas, one of the Prophet’s companions, who sat down with dissenters and asked them how they had the gall, as a minority, to tell the majority that it was wrong. Dissent itself, to the point of bloodshed or splitting the umma, was forbidden. Even the manner of the establishment of Baghdadi’s caliphate runs contrary to expectation, he said. “The khilafa is something that Allah is going to establish,” he told me, “and it will involve a consensus of scholars from Mecca and Medina. That is not what happened. ISIS came out of nowhere.”

The Islamic State loathes this talk, and its fanboys tweet derisively about quietist Salafis. They mock them as “Salafis of menstruation,” for their obscure judgments about when women are and aren’t clean, and other low-priority aspects of life. “What we need now is fatwa about how it’s haram [forbidden] to ride a bike on Jupiter,” one tweeted drily. “That’s what scholars should focus on. More pressing than state of Ummah.” Anjem Choudary, for his part, says that no sin merits more vigorous opposition than the usurpation of God’s law, and that extremism in defense of monotheism is no vice.

Pocius doesn’t court any kind of official support from the United States, as a counterweight to jihadism. Indeed, official support would tend to discredit him, and in any case he is bitter toward America for treating him, in his words, as “less than a citizen.” (He alleges that the government paid spies to infiltrate his mosque and harassed his mother at work with questions about his being a potential terrorist.)

Still, his quietist Salafism offers an Islamic antidote to Baghdadi-style jihadism. The people who arrive at the faith spoiling for a fight cannot all be stopped from jihadism, but those whose main motivation is to find an ultraconservative, uncompromising version of Islam have an alternative here. It is not moderate Islam; most Muslims would consider it extreme. It is, however, a form of Islam that the literal-minded would not instantly find hypocritical, or blasphemously purged of its inconveniences. Hypocrisy is not a sin that ideologically minded young men tolerate well.

Western officials would probably do best to refrain from weighing in on matters of Islamic theological debate altogether. Barack Obama himself drifted into takfiri waters when he claimed that the Islamic State was “not Islamic”—the irony being that he, as the non-Muslim son of a Muslim, may himself be classified as an apostate, and yet is now practicing takfir against Muslims. Non-Muslims’ practicing takfir elicits chuckles from jihadists (“Like a pig covered in feces giving hygiene advice to others,” one tweeted).

I suspect that most Muslims appreciated Obama’s sentiment: the president was standing with them against both Baghdadi and non-Muslim chauvinists trying to implicate them in crimes. But most Muslims aren’t susceptible to joining jihad. The ones who are susceptible will only have had their suspicions confirmed: the United States lies about religion to serve its purposes.

Within the narrow bounds of its theology, the Islamic State hums with energy, even creativity. Outside those bounds, it could hardly be more arid and silent: a vision of life as obedience, order, and destiny. Musa Cerantonio and Anjem Choudary could mentally shift from contemplating mass death and eternal torture to discussing the virtues of Vietnamese coffee or treacly pastry, with apparent delight in each, yet to me it seemed that to embrace their views would be to see all the flavors of this world grow insipid compared with the vivid grotesqueries of the hereafter.

I could enjoy their company, as a guilty intellectual exercise, up to a point. In reviewing Mein Kampf in March 1940, George Orwell confessed that he had “never been able to dislike Hitler”; something about the man projected an underdog quality, even when his goals were cowardly or loathsome. “If he were killing a mouse he would know how to make it seem like a dragon.” The Islamic State’s partisans have much the same allure. They believe that they are personally involved in struggles beyond their own lives, and that merely to be swept up in the drama, on the side of righteousness, is a privilege and a pleasure—especially when it is also a burden.

Fascism, Orwell continued, is

psychologically far sounder than any hedonistic conception of life … Whereas Socialism, and even capitalism in a more grudging way, have said to people “I offer you a good time,” Hitler has said to them, “I offer you struggle, danger, and death,” and as a result a whole nation flings itself at his feet … We ought not to underrate its emotional appeal.

Nor, in the case of the Islamic State, its religious or intellectual appeal. That the Islamic State holds the imminent fulfillment of prophecy as a matter of dogma at least tells us the mettle of our opponent. It is ready to cheer its own near-obliteration, and to remain confident, even when surrounded, that it will receive divine succor if it stays true to the Prophetic model. Ideological tools may convince some potential converts that the group’s message is false, and military tools can limit its horrors. But for an organization as impervious to persuasion as the Islamic State, few measures short of these will matter, and the war may be a long one, even if it doesn’t last until the end of time.

Youth Radicalization in Pakistan

Youth Radicalization in Pakistan

By: Raheem ul Haque

Amid the serious threat of extremism within Pakistan’s large young adult population, author Raheem ul Haque explores the process of youth radicalization and recommends how policymakers can best confront the growing challenge.


  • Pakistani leaders face serious domestic extremism challenges; more than 47,000 thousand lives have been lost in terrorism-related violence in Pakistan over the past decade.
  • Effective counter-radicalization processes must take into account Pakistan’s large young adult population (ages 15-29), which collectively accounts for at least 30 percent of the overall population.
  • Youth radicalization in Pakistan can be understood as the product of an exclusively Islamic identity—meaning a majority of youth identify primarily through their religion over nationality— combined with a broader reactive movement comprised of militant, political and missionary organizations.
  • A variety of religious, political and militant organizations operating within Pakistan, some with the tacit or active support of the state, have fostered an enabling environment for radicalization and at times violent action. Some groups provide forums for interaction and connections with more militant actors, while others carry out the whole range of social, political and violent activity.
  • When radical groups can popularize an exclusive Islamic or sectarian identity, even nonviolent organizations can become connected or aligned with more radical organizations and concepts.
  • Confronting youth radicalization in Pakistan requires a holistic approach that supports political, social and educational alternatives to exclusionary Islamic identities, reducing the space for groups that espouse violence in the name of an exclusive Islamic identity.

About This Brief

Based in part on USIP-supported surveys and focus group interviews conducted in Lahore, Pakistan from late 2011 to spring 2013 with a range of youth, author Raheem ul Haque provides a theoretical framework for understanding the process of youth radicalization in Pakistan. The author is a research fellow at the Forman Christian College Centre for Public Policy and Governance in Lahore, Pakistan; the views expressed here are his own.


Within the past decade, more than 47,000 people have been killed in terrorism-related violence in Pakistan.1 Attacks by domestic terrorist organizations have implications for physical security, but they also impact the domestic social and political fabric. The surge in attacks in Pakistan has often been attributed to external factors, particularly the conflict in neighboring Afghanistan or the covert U.S. Predator drone campaign in Pakistan’s Federally Administrated Tribal Areas, but most violence is carried out by Pakistani militant actors targeting their fellow citizens.

Despite the costs borne by Pakistani victims of terror, some segments of Pakistani society continue to sympathize, justify or at times even directly support violence, providing an “enabling environment” within which militant groups and their affiliates are able to operate. This support, whether tacit or active, is particularly concerning when it is expressed by members of Pakistan’s large young adult (ages 15-29) population, which collectively accounts for 30 percent of the overall population.2 Pakistan’s youth bulge is projected to persist for at least another three decades3 and can either be an asset or a liability for the country depending on how effectively this segment of the population is integrated into society. In either case, the youth population is bound to define the future course of the country, which is currently mired in multiple crises.

Based in part on surveys and focus group interviews conducted in Lahore from late 2011 to spring 2013 with a range of youth, this brief posits that youth radicalization in Pakistan can be understood as the product of a closed Islamic identity combined with a broader reactive movement comprised of militant, political and missionary organizations.4 As the new national government led by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif grapples with how to formulate a response to terrorism conducted by extremist groups, it must contend with the domestic roots of the threat, a key component of which will be to counter radicalization of the youth population at large.

Exclusive Islamic Identity and Youth Radicalization

Pakistan’s formation as a state specifically intended to represent the former British India’s Muslim population and conscious state-led ‘Islamization’ efforts under the dictatorship of former General Zia ul-Haq in the 1980s, have encouraged the spread of individual exclusivist identities among Pakistani youth and adults. These are furthered by political and religious groups that seek to define themselves in alignment with Islam and in opposition to all else, including indigenous culture.

In surveys of Lahori youth conducted for this piece and in other previous studies, young Pakistani respondents expressed high levels of identification with religious-based values systems.5 For example, in one survey 88 percent of educated youth in elite school institutions stated that religion was their primary identity and 50 percent considered their national identity to be dependent on their Islamic identity.6 In another countrywide survey, 75 percent identified themselves as Muslims, as compared to just 14 percent as Pakistani, suggesting that their religious identity was far more important than their nationality.7 At the extremes, this form of closed, homogenized self-identity can increase youth propensity to radicalization, leading them to accept or at times even justify violence conducted against other groups in the name of Islam.

The “Enabling Environment” for Radicalization

Violent terrorist attacks are not the product of a single actor operating in isolation, but are instead embedded in a larger social and political milieu. Indeed, violent radicalization can be represented as a pyramid, with the active terrorist at the top, the religious-political organizations in the middle and the missionary Islamic organizations at the bottom. Linkages between these three levels create an “enabling environment” that enhance the means and opportunities to advance an Islamic identity-based social movement and, in effect, the radicalization of youth to potentially militant causes.

These linkages can be categorized into three basic models:

  • the loosely-coupled model, where a shared space facilitates interaction between nominal sympathizers, supporters and militant actors. For example, a mosque or large congregations of missionary organizations, such as the Tableeghi Jamaat, allows for literatures of all levels to be distributed, and political and militant activists have the opportunity to interact with lower level sympathizers.
  • the bridge model, where one organization bridges the initial pool of sympathizers with more militant organizations. As an example, the Jamiat-Ulema-e-Islam (JUI) is a religious-political party which acts as the political representative of the large Deobandi mosque-madrasa network, composed of various missionary organizations. It also acts both as an ideological guide as well as a channel for youth volunteers to join Taliban militant actors. During the 1990s, for example, the JUI-S faction led by Maulana Sami-ul Haq closed its madrasa schools to allow students to participate in the Afghan civil war alongside the Afghan Taliban. Similarly, the Jamaat-e-Islami both has a strong national student organi-zation, the Islami Jamiat-e-Talaba, and is connected with militant organizations such as Hizbul-Mujahideen.8
  • the encapsulating model, whereby an entire social network has been mobilized to form a large organizational form, encapsulating all three levels of the pyramid. For example, the Jamaat-ud-Dawa acts as a proselytizing actor with a network of mosques and educational institutions, as well as a service oriented NGO; it has increasingly taken on a political role through its messaging on culture and politics, while its militant role as the banned Lashkar-e-Taiba has been well documented.

Though the methodology of missionary organizations may be peaceful, the acceptance of their message increases the likelihood that youth will also accept the message of religious-political or militant groups as being absolute.

For example, missionary organizations such as the male-focused Tableeghi Jamaat and the female-oriented Al-Huda, which have the largest public reach, have the potential to increase youth receptiveness to more radical groups by reinforcing messages of a primarily Islamic identity, through the rejection of indigenous ethnic, national or tribal identities as well as foreign cultural and political signifiers. By popularizing an exclusive Islamic or sectarian identity, they may contribute to align-ment with more radical organizations, and the rejection of pluralistic politics.

Religious political parties like Jamaat-e-Islami and the JUI have generally maintained a cordial relationship with the state and participated in the electoral political process, endorsing violent jihad only in select situations, such as Pakistan’s policy in Kashmir or Afghanistan in the 1980s and 1990s. Most militant organizations such as the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi instead pick up this thread at the extremes, calling for youth to join in violent jihad. Militant jihad presents a call for revolutionary action to achieve the same goals, a just Islamic order against an unjust and un-Islamic system of governance at the domestic as well as at the global scale against infidels and persecutors of Muslims. While general goals are common, differences in the under-standing of a just Islamic order and competition for power also leads to sectarian violence against fellow Muslims and intra-Islamist violence. The Pakistani state has historically allowed ample space for many Islamist organizations to operate, recruit and mobilize support, including in some cases active militant and sectarian organizations. The Pakistani military’s historical practice of selective support for certain militant actors in order to support regional policy objectives in neighboring Afghanistan or India has helped build a resource base for not just militant but also nonmilitant organizations serving bridging or encapsulating roles.

Today, a vibrant free market of 232 religious organizations and militant groups exists within the country; 100 of them have their headquarters in Punjab and 71 in Lahore alone.9 Some militant groups operate openly in the country — establishing parallel educational or training institutions, collecting or extorting financial donations, and distributing published materials and media. The state’s education system also facilitates these groups, who are often able to fill a vacuum left open by low levels of public education provision. The strength of these organizations leads to better marketing and recruitment, enabling them to draw youth from lower ends of the radicalization ”pyramid” upward toward active militancy.

Conclusion and Recommendations

In this assessment, youth radicalization in Pakistan emerges from the interlinking of an exclusively Islamic identity, and a strong and unchecked Islamic identity-based social movement, which has greater opportunities to promote its message and mobilize resources within the Pakistani political and security framework.

Confronting youth radicalization in Pakistan requires a holistic approach that, in addition to police actions against militant organizations, also supports political, social and educational alternatives to this narrow Islamic identity. Only a comprehensive approach can disempower the groups espousing violence in the name of a reactive Islamic identity.

Steps in this regard should include:

  • Publicize and support alternative discourse and world view linked to an inclusive reli-gious meaning in all public domains, including physical and virtual spaces. Strengthen civil society initiatives to reform the education curriculum, and engage large media house executives to support programming that covers inter-faith and inter-sectarian harmony, tolerance, and diversity within the religious framework. Additionally, support similar initiatives in social media, which is the single most important source of information for the youth.
  • Encourage the celebration of local cultural diversity and establish centers to ensure youth participation in cultural activities, social clubs and professional and sports organizations. Currently most public schools, colleges and universities are bereft of student unions, student clubs and extra-curricular activities. Lower cost private institutions experience similar shortages, as do low-income communities where most youth do not attend school. Art councils supporting literature, arts and music currently exist only in large cities, and should be strengthened and expanded. Youth centers for low-income communities and extracurricular activities for public educational institutions can be supported by nongovernmental organizations, private institutions and education leaders, combining cultural activities and vocational skills.
  • Promote greater inter-provincial, inter-national and inter-religious interaction among the youth. Support civil society and inter-college youth-led initiatives through student clubs that use inexpensive technology for regular interactive discussion among the youth of different provinces, sects, religions and nationalities. Additionally, engage universities and colleges to initiate courses on peace and conflict resolution while also bringing together youth for interactive workshops.

Because radicalization of Pakistani youth stems from cultural socialization in a strictly religion-bound identity, a deradicalization strategy needs to focus on opening up the social identity by strengthening other identity constituents.


  1. “Fatalities in Terrorist Violence in Pakistan 2003-2013,” South Asia Terrorism Portal. New Delhi: The Institute for Conflict Management.
  2. “Chapter 7: Population, Labour Force and Employment” references National Institute for Population Studies, Pakistan Economic Survey,
  3. Ibid
  4. Moeed Yusuf, “A Society on the Precipice: Examining the Prospects of Youth Radicalization in Pakistan,” in Reaping the Dividend, Woodrow Wilson Center, 2011, pages 76-112.
  5. Raheem ul Haque, “Youth Radicalization in Punjab,” Framework for Youth Policy and De-radicalization, Centre for Public Policy and Governance, forthcoming.
  6. Ayesha Siddiqa, Red Hot Chilli Peppers Islam: Is the Youth in Elite Universities in Pakistan Radical?, Heinrich Boll Foundation, 2010.
  7. British Council, Pakistan: The Next Generation 2009,, (accessed Dec 18, 2012).
  8. Terrorist Organization Profile: Hizbul Mujahideen, National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism, organization_profile.asp?id=52.
  9. Mohammad Amir Rana, “Evolution of militant groups in Pakistan”, Conflict and Peace Studies, Volume 4, Number 2. , (Accessed on November 20, 2012).