A 52 second clip that explains why we are at war with ISIS.

It is hard to simply explain why we are fighting another war in the Middle East. However, this six sentence long conversation between a senator and a general did much of the work for me. All I had to do in this article was put the clip into context and translate what they were saying.

First, the clip:

Who is speaking?

First Person: Lindsey Graham.


Lindsey Graham: Republican, Senator of South Carolina. He is everything you think he is based off that description.

Lindsey Graham has a 0% rating by the Human Rights Campaign (LGBT/human rights group.) He is anti-abortion. He either doesn’t believe in global warming, or doesn’t act like he believes in global warming. He has an A rating by the NRA. I could go on. Graham has also been given a lot of campaign money from the weapons industry. My anti-favorite quote by him is, “Free speech is a great idea, but we’re in a war.”

Here is why Lindsey Graham is important in this context. He is part of the following committees:

  • Committee on Armed Services
    • Subcommittee on Emerging Threats and Capabilities
    • Subcommittee on Personnel (Ranking Member)
    • Subcommittee on Strategic Forces
  • Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs
    • Subcommittee on Oversight of Government Management, the Federal Workforce and the District of Columbia
    • Ad Hoc Subcommittee on State, Local, and Private Sector Preparedness and Integration
    • Ad Hoc Subcommittee on Disaster Recovery (Ranking Member)
    • Ad Hoc Subcommittee on Contracting Oversight

Second Person: Marin Dempsey


General Marin Dempsey is the current Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. That means he is the highest ranking military officer in the US. He is also the principal military advisor to the President of the United States, the National Security Council, the Homeland Security Council, and the Secretary of Defense.

Marin Dempsey has a lot of experience in the Middle East and generally has done a good job in whatever military operations he has been a part of.

Context of the video: On September 16, 2014 there was a public hearing to discuss ISIS and what the US should do about them. It was 3 hours and 41 minutes long. This video is a 52 second clip from it. Here it is again:

What is being said: (Note: ISIS and ISIL are the same thing.)

I have put a translated version in italics.

Senator Lindsey Graham: …Our national defense in terms of stopping ISIL from killing thousands or millions of Americans if they get the capability, really comes down to whether or not we can get the Arab world to go in there and defeat these guys?

Senator Lindsey Graham: ISIL is going to get nuclear weapons through terrorist voodoo magic, and our only hope to stop them is a bunch of sneaky Arabs?

General Dempsey: It really comes down to building a coalition so that what the Arab Muslim world sees, is them rejecting ISIS not-

General Dempsey: The only thing that’s going to stop ISIS is if Arabs and Muslims reject them.

Senator Lindsey Graham: They already reject ISIL. Do you know any major Arab ally that embraces ISIL?


General Dempsey: I know major Arab allies who fund them.

General Dempsey: Yes, ISIL is being funded by our major Arab allies. [Qatar and Saudi Arabia.]

Senator Lindsey Graham: Yeah but do they embrace them? They fund them because the Free Syrian Army [Syrian Rebels that aren’t ISIL] couldn’t fight Assad. They were trying to beat Assad. I think they realized the folly of their ways. Let’s don’t taint the Mid-East unfairly…

Senator Lindsey Graham: Yeah obviously Qatar and Saudi Arabia fund ISIL but that doesn’t mean they embrace them. [???] Qatar and Saudi Arabia didn’t want Assad to win the civil war so they gave money to anyone who was fighting against Assad. But I think they’ll stop doing that now. [???]

Let’s don’t taint the Mid-East unfairly… [Untranslatable]


In a democracy, war (if it should be fought at all) should be fought by the generals until they are concluded by the politicians. Lately I’ve been seeing generals trying to find ways to conclude wars while politicians find ways to keep fighting them. In this clip Dempsey is saying that a war in the Middle East cannot be ended by the US unless the Arab states want to end it as well. Graham is saying that we should fight this war because… well I’m sure it’s not because arms manufactures were his second biggest campaign contributor. In the end the Obama administration took Graham’s side and we are currently fighting a new war against people being armed by our major Arab allies.

Also, the phrase, “Let’s don’t taint the Mid-East unfairly…” is going to haunt my dreams forever.


How I tracked down a militia group on the Israeli/Syrian border without knowing anything – and how you can too.

How can I, a broke Jew living in San Francisco with almost no knowledge of Arabic, make a difference to anybody in a warzone? As the saying goes, “Where there’s a will, there’s a way.” Well, I have the will and here is the way.

Open Source Investigation

“Open source investigation,” is using tools on the internet that a bunch of people contribute to in order to create an investigation that others can contribute to. For example, let’s say you discover this video on Youtube and you think that your friends would enjoy it, so you post it on Facebook. Then one of your friends finds this video on Youtube and she thinks that her friends would enjoy it, so she posts it on Facebook. Then a mutual friend on Facebook watches both videos on his Facebook and realizes THIS.

That is how open source investigation works.

Another example would be if ISIS put up a propaganda video on Youtube. People watched it and took note of the weapons that ISIS was using in the video. Then they watched other videos and see what weapons ISIS was using in those. By using this information people could put together a map of where ISIS gets its weapons from.

The ISIS example is just one way that open source investigations can be used. Open source investigations could be used for any field imaginable; from piecing together human trafficking networks, to documenting the effects of climate change, to learning about global music trends.

How to Start an Investigation

There are some great tutorials on website called, Bellingcat. If you are interested in open source investigation you should go there.

The tutorials on Bellingcat showed that creating an open source investigation was a piece of cake. This made me very skeptical. But it looked interesting and fun so I decided to give it a shot. Here is how it went.

Finding something to investigate.

I am interested in the Syrian/Iraqi conflict so I decided to start there. I went on to Twitter and in two minutes I found this tweet:

Here is the video from the Tweet:

This video appears to be showing off some rebel-held territory. As this was a test investigation, I decided to come up with some questions that may have been relevant to real investigation.

  • Which militia was filming this? There are about eighty billion militias in Syria right now.
  • Where was Hamidiyah? (And was the video really in the Hamidiyah area?)
  • When was this video made?
  • What does this information mean if I put it all together?

Which militia was filming this?

This video and the text surrounding it was in Arabic but that was not a problem. First off, I noticed it was part of a playlist put together by some group. I guessed this was the rebel group that made the video. This is the group’s logo:

The Criterion Brigade logo.

Upon using Google Translate, I found the that the rebel group called themselves the “Criterion Front.” 30 seconds of research gave me a photo with the caption, The Criterion Brigades (aka Alwiya al-Furqan) display their military prowess in various convoys and parades in towns near Damascus, Syria. The Criterion Brigades is one of the larger armed groups allied with the Islamic Front who are taking the fight to Assad’s regime.

OK so now I’m going to presume that the Criterion Brigade/Alwiya al-Furgan made this video and it might have been made somewhere within driving distance to the Damascus area. I could have been wrong about both those things but it gave me a starting point to find the answer to the next question.

Where was Hamidiyah? (And was the video really filmed in the Hamidiyah area?)

The description of the video that Google Translate gave me was, A quick tour of the Mujahideen Brigades in the town of Al-Furqan Hamedia liberated on the border Alasraúalh.

Google Translate is terrible at grammar so I could only use it for key words. Al-Furqa is the Criterion Brigade. Hamedia is probably Hamidiyah which is where the Tweet said this video was from, and it’s probably on the border of Alasraúalh. Where is Alasraúalh?


Oh I get it. Alasraúalh is Israel.

That made it easy. The border between Israel and Syria is not very big. There are a lot of Hamidiyahs and a lot of ways to spell Hamidiyah so searching using the name was not successful. However, after going along the Israeli/Syrian border in Google Earth, I found a tiny village called “el Hmidaiah.”

el hmidaiah

That had to be it. el Hmidaiah was also right on the Israeli/Syrian border. Now that there was a little context to the video, I wanted to verify it’s authenticity. Were the Criterion Brigade really where they said they were? A lot of times militias and the Syrian Army lie about where they are – even in videos – especially in videos.

I got lucky when I randomly chose this video because the camera man seemed to be trying to prove that the militia was where they said they were. He even paused on some road signs. Unfortunately, the glare on the signs made them unreadable. No worries, I had Photoshop. I turned these signs:


Into these signs:


The cameraman also showed two signs that said Damascus was 43km away and KH Anarhabheh was 6km away. A quick check on the map showed that el Hmidaiah would have been in the area of these signs. However, there was a big problem: where was the village? Where was el Hmidaiah? On the map el Hmidiah looked a lot more densely packed than what the video showed. Where exactly was this video filmed?


I looked for clues in the video. In the video there was a huge flagpole in the middle of an intersection. In front of the intersection there was a field with some buildings in it. In the back of the intersection there was a field with no buildings in it. The left of the intersection had a road lined with trees. There was also a water-tower close to the trees. Most importantly, the layout of the intersection was a roundabout with an island in the middle of it, rather than a simple intersection. el Hmidaiah did not have an intersection like this.

However, using Wikimapia I followed the road south from el Hmidaiah and found a place that almost matched the description.


Just like in the video, buildings were in a field on one side but not the other, trees lined the road going out one side of the intersection, and there seemed to be something that looked like a large flagpole in the middle of the intersection. But other things were off. Mainly, the island in the middle of the intersection wasn’t round enough and the buildings didn’t quite match up. Also, the video showed more buildings than there were in the satellite photo. So I changed source’s satellite.


That was more like it. I could see that this was a more updated photo because the road to the right had been completed. In the first satellite’s photo the road was under construction. Either right before or during the civil war, the Syrian government must have developed this area.

To further investigate this area in the map, I used Panoramio, a website that shows pictures taken from any area of the world. I found these two pictures of the intersection with Panoramio:



Both pictures showed the flagpole, and the second picture showed street lamp that matches the layout of the street lamps in the video. Just to triple-check that this was the intersection in which the rebels made the video, I used Google Earth. Google Earth has an option to see 3D terrain. It’s terrible at showing 3D buildings and trees, but great for viewing mountains. To compare the video with Google Earth, I positioned my viewpoint in Google Earth to where I thought the cameraman was in Syria.


Video facing southeast.


Google Earth facing southeast.


Video facing northwest.


Google Earth facing northwest.


Video facing southwest.


Google Earth facing southwest.

So this video did not show that the militia was in the village of el Hmidaiah, but it did show that the militia was close by. That is a very important difference in a warzone.

When was this video made?

A lot of times militias and armies will use old footage to prove new gains. The army will say that they took over a village today and prove it by showing footage from 2012. Very little of the information in this video would matter if it was filmed in 2012.

In searching for the video’s date using some extreme googling, I found that the name of the village shown in the video was called, “al-Rawadi.” I remembered a sign in the video saying, “R ARRADI.” A search for “R ARRADI” brought up nothing, but things got very easy once I searched for “al-Rawadi.”

The most interesting thing a search for “al-Rawadi” brought up was a video put up by a different poster that uses the Islamic Front’s logo. (The Islamic Front is an umbrella group of militias that the Criterion Brigade is a part of.) The video was posted on September 2nd 2014. This new video showed what might have been a different militia fighting a battle in the intersection, as well as them taking down the giant Syrian government flag.

This newly discovered video put the video I was investigating into a whole new light. The new video was posted 11 days before the one I was investigating. To really find when either video was filmed I would have to go down a couple more rabbit holes. I didn’t feel like doing that because this was just a test investigation and I want to see the sun sometimes.

What does this information mean if I put it all together?

Since I didn’t want to spend the time to conclude the investigation, I cannot publish a solid conclusion. Although I can say that there is some intense stuff going on down by the Golan Heights, and it’s almost certainly being done by The Islamic Front. The Criterion Brigade is probably involved as well.


I am incredibly impressed by the scope of what I can do with an open source investigation. It was interesting to see militia groups running around the border of the Golan Heights. However next time I investigate something, I would like it to be something worthwhile – something that could make a difference to anybody trapped in a warzone.

The News in 219 Cities: This week’s cities: Sabha, Homs, and Tunis!

I put together a list that included the 10 most populated cities of each country (though tiny Bahrain only had 9 cities.) Then I used a random number generator to pick three cities to write about.

By doing this I hope to gain a better picture of what the Arab world looks like. In the US all we see of the Middle East is explosions but that does not mean the entire Middle East is exploding. Unfortunately because my project is based in news articles, it will be hard to completely get away from writing about explosions. In either case, I will do my best to portray a snippet from the lands where our civilization was born.

Sabha, Libya

Population: 130,000 (9th most populated city in Libya)



Description from Wikipedia:

With a relatively large population, and growing fast, Sabha’s importance is due to its being the air and road transport hub of the Fezzan, a military base, and the centre of a remarkable agricultural industry in the desert. Sabha is famous for the Fort Elena castle, which is the castle featured on the reverse of the ten dinars banknote of Libya. Fort Elena was previously known as Fortezza Margherita, built during the Italian colonial period. Currently the Italian-built fort is a military institution.


June 12, 2014: Sand surfing! (Twitter)

Any news coming out of Libya is not good this week. In contrast to Libyan culture, a civil war between tribes seems to be coming to the country. Despite its distance from Libya’s main population centers, Sabha has not been immune to the looming conflict. Most of the English news coming from Sabha has been about tribal clashes or about Vietnamese workers being pulled out of the city.

However, I searched Twitter and found a different side of Sabha. Here’s one of my favorite tweets in English:


Homs, Syria

Population: 775,404 (3rd most populated city in Syria)



Description from Wikipedia:

Previous to the civil war, Homs was a major industrial centre, and was the third largest city in Syria after Aleppo to the north and the capital Damascus to the south. Its population reflects Syria’s general religious diversity, composed mostly of Arabic-speaking Sunni Muslims and Alawiteand Christian minorities. There are a number of historic mosques and churches in the city, and it is close to the Krak des Chevaliers castle, a world heritage site.

In the ongoing Syrian civil war, Homs became an opposition stronghold and the Syrian government launched a military assault against the city in May 2011. By 14 January 2014, the government was in control of Homs except for the Old City, which remains in rebel hands and is under government siege. The Syrian army’s artillery shelling and warplane bombing has left much of the city completely destroyed and thousands dead.

August 13, 2014: Rebuilding a Restaurant in the midst of Civil War. (Press TV, Horst Fiedler)

Through a series of sieges and intense bombing campaigns the Syrian government has ultimately gained back what is left of the city of Homs. Now in the relative peace, former residents have come back and rebuild their city. During this period of reconstruction the iconic restaurant Julia’s Palace has been revived, though the repairs have not been completed yet.

Julia’s Palace before the war.

Julia's Palace Today

Julia’s Palace today during reconstruction.


It wouldn’t be surprising to find Julia’s Palace bustling soon. A restaurant would be a welcome site for a city that was so recently under siege. And besides, this is Syria after all.


Tunis, Tunisia

Population: 693,210 (The most populated city in Tunisia.)


Description from Wikipedia:

Situated on a large Mediterranean Sea gulf (the Gulf of Tunis), and behind the Lake of Tunis, the city extends along the coastal plain and the hills that surround it. At the centre of more modern development (from the colonial era and later) lies the old city.

The colonial-era buildings provide a clear contrast to smaller, older structures. As the capital city of the country, Tunis is the focus of Tunisian political and administrative life; it is also the centre of the country’s commercial activity. The expansion of the Tunisian economy in recent decades is reflected in the booming development of the outer city where one can see clearly the social challenges brought about by rapid modernization in Tunisia.

*Tunis is also the capital of Tunisia, which was the country where the Arab Spring began.*

August 24, 2014: Walid Sultan Midani’s new company is making the first Tunisian video games. (BBC)


It has not been easy, but Walid Sultan Midani has created a video game company called Digitalmania in Tunis. In the early days of Digitalmania, he could only pay his employees enough money to buy lunch. Since then business has picked up. In its three year history, Digitalmania has developed 34 games. Most of the games have been for third parties, but four have been released under the Digitalmania’s own name.

So far Digitalmania has thirteen employees: seven men and six women. Midani says he is still looking for more employees. Thinking of moving to Tunisia?


Let’s not kid ourselves, Iraq no longer exists.

This is what the Levant region of the Middle East looks like as of August 19th, 2014. The old state borders are receding while new ones are being created. The border between Iraq and Syria has dissolved. There is a new, more solid border between Sunni-Iraq (North/West Iraq) and Shia-Iraq (South/East Iraq.)

This article will give a simple explanation of the meaning of these border changes.

The Iraqi-Syrian Border


The old Iraqi/Syrian border being bulldozed by the Islamic State.

Iraq and Syria are separate countries because of an agreement made between the UK and France in 1916. This agreement was called the Sykes-Picot agreement. In 1916 the UK and France drew a line in the sand and called one side “Iraq,” and the other side “Syria.” This line separated the Sunnis living on both sides and pushed them into different countries. They were forced to share their new countries with other groups like the Shias and Arab minority groups. Likewise, these groups had to share their new countries with the Sunnis.

It was not the most amiable arrangement. Western powers tried to sooth ethnic tensions in Iraq and Syria by attempting to strip Arabs of their ethnic identities, promoting nationalism, and installing kings from foreign lands. Eventually the Western-backed kings were overthrown in Iraq and Syria and anti-Western dictators took their place. These dictators were Hafez al-Assad (Bashar al-Assad’s father) and Saddam Hussein.

Saddam Hussein and Hafez al-Assad kept their country’s ethnicities from fighting each other by killing or jailing anyone who disrupted the status-quo. At the same time, both dictators promoted an eventual dissolution of the borders between their states. You can see this in the old flags of Syria and Iraq. The Iraqi flag had two stars: one for Iraq, and one for Syria. The Syrian flag is almost the same, but with three stars.


Iraqi flag under Saddam Hussein

Flag_of_Iraq_ (1963-1991); _ Flag_of_Syria_ (1963-1972) .svg

Syrian flag under Assad

The Sunni-Shia Border

In 2003 Saddam Hussein was overthrown by Western powers. While the West was able to succeed in taking away one of the cruelest dictators in history, they reverted back to ignoring ethnic identities and promoting nationalism as a way to keep Iraq together. It did not work and by 2004, many ethnic groups in Iraq had armed themselves and begun fighting each other as well as the Western powers in Iraq. One of  these groups is now, “the Islamic State.” More on them soon.

The West feared that recognizing armed groups would hinder Iraqi nationalism, so they chose the Shia side of the conflict and fought the armed Sunni groups. Yes, I know that doesn’t make much sense. By 2007 the West and the new Shia Iraqi government were fighting a war against the Sunnis.

During this post-Saddam period, and with the West’s influence, the new Shia Iraqi government moved away from the idea of dissolving the Sykes-Picot borders. The Shia government wanted full control of Iraq, and with the Americans backing them, they were confident that they could get it. A change in the Iraqi flag reflects this decision. The new flag replaces the two stars with a generic phrase, “Allah akbar,” or “God is great.” No more one star for Iraq, one star for Syria.


Present-day Iraqi flag



The Borders Change

By 2011 the West and the Iraqi government had mostly won the civil war. The West got the hell out of there and pulled their troops and support from Iraq. Meanwhile the rest of the Arab world was rebelling against their dictators. The dictators in Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt had already been overthrown, and the rest of the Arab dictators were frantically making reforms in order to keep their power.

However, this was not the case in Syria.  Hafez al-Assad’s son was still in control of his country and wanted to keep it that way. Pro-democracy demonstrators were cracked down upon with every violent tool Assad had. Eventually, almost reluctantly, ethnic tensions within Syria were inflamed and Sunni groups began arming themselves against Assad. Some of these groups had ties in Iraq and brought their battle-hardened Sunni friends from war-torn Iraq, into Syria in order to fight a war against Assad.

By 2012 civil war had come to Syria. Meanwhile in Iraq, tensions between the Sunnis and Shia were beginning to grow again. At the end of 2012 and beginning of 2013, peaceful Sunni protests spread across Northern Iraq but the protesters were eventually gunned down by the Shia Iraqi government. This ended the protests but tensions in Iraq grew.


An Iraqi protest in January 2013

Around this time it became clear to Sunni groups in both Iraq and Syria that with so much war and unrest going on in both countries, it was finally possible to eradicate the Sykes-Picot borders. Without the borders keeping them appart, Sunnis in both countries would be stronger and better able to fight off the Shia government in Iraq, and Assad in Syria.

By the end of 2013 Sunni portions of Iraq began overthrowing their Shia governors. In June 2014 a Sunni military group called, “ISIS,” a group fighting in Syria but had originally come from fighting Americans in Iraq, blitzed into northern Iraq from Syria.

Sunni towns and cities either welcomed ISIS or didn’t resist them. Soon ISIS and other allied Sunni groups were in control of all of northern Iraq as well as a large portion of Syria. ISIS solidified their territory by claiming it as all one country. They now call this new country and themselves, “The Islamic State.” Today this is the flag that flies over much of Syria and what was once more than half of Iraq:

A little hard to translate, but it means, “Mohammad is the one true profit.”

Now what?

I am going to have to make this a two-part post. The second post will examine the future and take a look at what is over the Iraqi horizon, and whether or not there is an Iraqi horizon to look over.


The News in 219 Cities: This week’s cities: Hama, Seeb, and Sayyan

For my latest project/experiment I am going to write down the latest news from three randomly picked cities in the Arab world. I will also include cities in Israel and Turkey.

To do this I put together a list that included the 10 most populated cities of each country (though tiny Bahrain only had 9 cities.) Then I used a random number generator to pick three cities to write about.

By doing this I hope to gain a better picture of what the Arab world looks like. In the US all we see of the Middle East is explosions but that does not mean the entire Middle East is exploding. Unfortunately because my project is based in news articles, it will be hard to completely get away from writing about explosions. In either case, I will do my best to portray a snippet from the lands where our civilization was born.


Hama, Syria

Population: 460,602 (4th most populated city in Syria)




Description from Wikipedia:

Hama (Arabic: حماةḤamāh [ħaˈmaː], Biblical Ḥamāth, “fortress”) is a city on the banks of the Orontes River in west-central Syria. It is located 213 kilometres (132 mi) north of Damascus and 46 kilometres (29 mi) north of Homs.

The city is renowned for its seventeen norias used for watering the gardens, which are locally claimed to date back to 1100 BC. Though historically used for purpose of irrigation, the norias exist today as an almost entirely aesthetic traditional show.

In the last decades, the city of Hama has become known as a center of the anti-Ba’ath opposition in Syria, most notably the Muslim Brotherhood. The city was raided by the Syrian Army, beginning with the 1964 Islamic uprising, and becoming the scene of carnage during the Islamic uprising in Syria in April 1981 and especially in 1982, when nearly 25,000 people were killed in what became known as Hama massacre. The city was once again the site of conflict between the Syrian military and opposition forces, as one of the main arenas of the Syrian civil war in 2011 and 2012.


July 28th, 2014: The Syrian War has created over three million refugees, but websites like Shaam News Network have created something to come home to. (Syria Deeply)

Before the civil war it was hard to find Syrian media that was not controlled by the state. Now untainted news is everywhere. Thanks to the Hama-based Shaam News Network, and other news websites like them, Syrians get can a more accurate picture of what is happening in their country. When the civil war is over, a free press will be key insuring a better society in Syria. In the mean time, the hard and dangerous work of “alternative” journalists gives refugees and aid works the information needed to save lives.


Seeb, Oman 

Population: 237,816 (2nd most populated city in Oman)



staticmap (1)


Description from Wikipedia:

Seeb, As Seeb or As Sib (Arabic: السيب‎) is a coastal fishing city, located several kilometres northwest of Muscat, in northeastern Oman.

Landmarks include the Naseem Garden, The Amouage Perfumery, the Royal Stables and Equestrian Centre, Royal Guard of Oman Technical College, the Bait al Baraka palace, Seeb International Airport and Markaz al Bahja.


July 16th, 2014: Al Rafd Fund Mobile Unit Arrives in Seeb! (Oman Observer)

The Al Rafd mobile unit has arrived in Seeb! The Al Rafd Fund mobile unit is basically a truck that drives around and gives finical assistance to a few people who want to start small to medium sized businesses. Best of luck Seebians!



Sayyan, Yemen

Population: 69, 404 (9th most populated city in Yemen)

staticmap (2)

staticmap (3)

Magwala, Yemen (close to Sayyan)

Magwala, Yemen (close to Sayyan)

Description from Wikipedia:

Sayyan is a small town in western central Yemen. It is located in the San‘a’ Governorate, to the southeast by road from Sana’a along Route 901.

Infrastructure like in many other areas of western Yemen was improved in the late 1980s and early 1990s; Swedish company Transelectric and the Yemen General Electricity Corporation ( YGEC) laid feeder and distribution lines and substations in the Sayyan vicinity, reportedly completed in late 1991. It contains a hospital, mosque and a school.

Description from Geckogo.com:

Sayyan is among Yemen’s least visited places. Travelers visiting the area usually prefer to go to other destinations.

November 8th, 2012: Drone spotted above Sayyan linked to attack close to Yemeni capital. (China.org.cn, The Long War JournalXinhua)

The only news I could find of Sayyan was from almost two years ago. I could find nothing from before or after. No news is good news I guess..?

On late November 7th, 2012 a drone attacked and killed the al-Qaida commander Adnan al- Qathi, and at least two other militants. al-Qathi was suspected of caring out a bomb attack on the US embassy in Sana’a (the capital of Yemen) in 2008. A drone was seen by Sayyan residents just two days before the attack. Though the Chinese news agency Xinhua reported that the attack was only a few miles away from Sayyan, most accounts pointed to an area closer to Sana’a.

Drone strikes in Yemen have decreased from 41 in 2012, to 26 in 2013, and 14 (so far) in 2014. (http://www.longwarjournal.org/multimedia/Yemen/code/Yemen-strike.php)


That’s it for Hama, Seeb, and Sayyan. See you, and three more cities next week!


Things are happening fast in Iraq (but what’s happening?)

Things are moving very quickly in Iraq. The narrative in the US media seems to be that “the terrorists are taking over Iraq!” This is not the case. What is happening in Iraq is important and concerning, but if you are alarmed that terrorists have suddenly taken over half of Iraq, you can put your mind at rest.

In this post I will briefly explain what is going on with Iraq (as of June 22, 2014.)

Regarding “ISIL” vs. “ISIS.”

In my last post I wrote about the military group called “ISIS.” From now on I will be calling them “ISIL” instead of “ISIS.” ISIL stands for “The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.” They are called this because ISIL is a military group that wants to take over the Sunni areas of Iraq and the Levant and turn them into a new, Islamic country. If you’re wondering what the Levant is, it isn’t a specific area, but it is this general region:



In reality, ISIL does not want the entire Levant. For now ISIL wants to conquer this general area: (in black)


What the change from “ISIS” to “ISIL?” Both President Obama and al-Jazeera calls them “ISIL.” So I’m going to go with what they’re going with. Why not call them what they call themselves? Because they call themselves, “ad-Dawlat al-Islamiyah fi il-Iraq wa-ash-Sham.” So no.


What is happening in Iraq right now?

ISIL is taking over Northern Iraq. Although they’re not exactly “taking over.” I will explain what they are actually doing later on in this post.

According to Wikipedia, this is a map of ISIL territory from yesterday: (June 21)


Today ISIL have gained even more territory. At the moment they are beginning to seal off the North-Western borders of Jordan and Syria. *Update* The Western border of Iraq is now under full ISIL control.


This looks a lot like ISIL, a terrorist group, has taken over a huge portion of Iraq. Yet you say the media is wrong in saying so. What gives?

To explain the real situation in Iraq, I would like bring three main characters to the stage. You have already met them in the last post. They are:

Nouri al-Maliki! Or "al-Maliki" for short.

Nouri al-Maliki! Or “al-Maliki” for short.

Nouri al-Maliki is the Prime Minister of Iraq. This is the highest position in the Iraqi government. He is Shia, and has given away a lot of important government positions to his Shia friends. He has created conflict between the Shia Iraqis and Sunni Iraqis, because he gives all the good stuff to the Shias and suppresses the Sunnis. Iraq is 60% Shia and 40% Sunni.



ISIL is a Sunni military group that wants to take over the Sunni areas of Syria and Iraq and turn them into a single Islamic country. ISIL was formed in the beginning of the 2003-2011 War in Iraq. In 2012-2013 they took advantage of the neighboring Syrian conflict and conquered Sunni parts of Syria. Now they are taking over Sunni parts of Iraq.

The Iraqi people!

The Iraqi people!

It is important to remember that the Iraqi people are not fighting each other. At the moment most of the fighting that is happening is between ISIL and al-Maliki’s Shia government. Since 2003, the Iraqi people have lived in a state of war. Before that they lived under the rule of Saddam Hussein. I cannot speak for the Iraq people but I think it is safe to say that they do not want war, nor do they want to live under a repressive government.


A simple analogy to the current situation in Iraq: Pirates and Kings

Under al-Maliki, the Sunni Iraqis are living under a repressive government. Al-Maliki has been their Prime Minister since 2006 and they are soooo done with him. In 2012 -2013 they had massive demonstrations against him. Al-Maliki responded to these mostly peaceful demonstrations by ignoring and then shooting the protesters.


Now ISIL has come in to the Sunni areas and began taking away al-Maliki’s control. Think of it this way: imagine if you are living on an island that is ruled by a king who isn’t from your island, and doesn’t even like your island. The king is constantly making your life worse. When the people of your island ask him to change his ways, he responds by attacking them. A few months later some pirates who are actually from your island show up, and scare the King’s men off your island. Suddenly you are free from the king! You may be wary of the surly pirates but your island isn’t being controlled by the king any more. That is the situation in Iraq right now.

So it’s not exactly like ISIL has taken over Northern Iraq. ISIL is far too tiny to take over such a large amount of territory. They’re more like little groups of surly pirates who are fighting off the al-Maliki’s guards to take away his control from Sunni areas.

This is not to say that ISIL is a bunch of Robin Hoods, with the sole intention of liberating Iraqi Sunnis from the clutches of al-Maliki. What is happening right now is that ISIL is simply taking advantage of the lack of love the Sunnis have for al-Maliki. At the moment Sunnis are letting ISIL fly their flags over their cities because:

1) Fuck al-Maliki and

2) If the Sunnis fight ISIL they will have al-Maliki back. ISIL is Sunni and al-Maliki is Shia. The Iraqi Sunnis have been suppressed by the Shia government too long to give up the chance to have Sunnis control the Sunnis.

Things have moved very quickly in Iraq. ISIL has not had time to settle in. The Sunnis have not had time to react to their new situation. And al-Maliki has so far barely responded to his loss of power. But at the moment, this is the situation in Iraq.


What does the future hold?

ISIL is taking over so quickly that it is hard enough to grasp the present, let alone the future. But simply put, the biggest threat to the future of Iraq is civil war. The threat of civil war is nothing new to Iraq. It has been a threat since the creation of the Iraqi boarders some 70 years ago. Although this month is the closest we’ve come to civil war since Saddam Hussein was overthrown.

Is civil war really coming to Iraq? It’s hard to tell. Of course most Iraqis don’t want it, but most Syrians didn’t want civil war either. Luckily, civil war is not the inevitable conclusion to Iraq’s circumstances. On June 19, Obama decided not to bomb ISIL, averting American military involvement. This is good. Iraqi peace is too fragile to withstand foreign military intervention.

"The United States will not pursue military actions that support one sect inside of Iraq at the expense of another. There’s no military solution inside of Iraq, certainly not one that is led by the United States. "

“The United States will not pursue military actions that support one sect inside of Iraq at the expense of another. There’s no military solution inside of Iraq, certainly not one that is led by the United States. ” -Obama June 19, 2014

Though civil war in Iraq in not inevitable, both ISIL and al-Maliki may desire it. A civil war would force the Sunnis to defend themselves and join ISIL in the fight against al-Maliki. In turn, the Shias would be forced to defend themselves against ISIL and support al-Maliki’s government and Iraqi military. Both ISIL and al-Maliki are weak and desperate for support of the people they claim to represent. A civil war would force people to support them.

On the other hand, things are not that easy. ISIL and al-Maliki are weak. Even if they initiate a civil war, they may not be able to survive it. In the political chaos of a civil war, other groups will rise and may take power from ISIL and/or al-Maliki. ISIL has been popular as liberators but not as governors. al-Maliki is loosing popularity among the Shias and lately there have been some major Shia threats to his power. So even from a cynical point of view, ISIL and al-Maliki may not want civil war anymore… maybe.

But much more importantly, who the fuck else wants civil war?? The Iraqi people certainly don’t! This isn’t like the American civil war where the South wanted to leave the US and was willing to fight over it. Nor is this like Libya in 2011, when the Libyans were able to overthrow a crazy dictator and his army. Iraq is more like Syria, and an Iraqi civil war would be very much like the war that’s happening in Syrian right now. Nobody wants that.

The solution?

There are two solutions:

1) Iraq can split into two countries: Shia-Iraq, and Sunni-Iraq. It’s not that hard to imagine because Iraq has split once before. During the 2003 – 2011 war in Iraq, the Kurdish population of Iraq quietly became their own country. This country is now called Iraqi-Kurdistan. Technically, Iraqi-Kurdistan is not their own country, but they basically are. The Kurds are able govern themselves freely, make lots of money without the Iraqi government interfering, and Iraqi-Kurdistan is an island of peace despite all the conflicts around them. Also, the Kurds did not have a revolution or fight a civil war to get their country.

Erbil, the capital of Iraqi-Kurdistan

Erbil, the capital of Iraqi-Kurdistan

If al-Maliki cuts his losses and lets the Sunnis have their own government, civil war can be averted. With ISIL in control of the Sunni areas, the Sunni government of a Sunni-Iraq would not be a democracy. But please, how could civil war be the better option?

Iraqi demographics according to Wikipedia, June 22, 2014

Iraqi demographics according to Wikipedia, June 22, 2014

2) The Iraqi government could become more inclusive towards Sunnis. Given al-Maliki’s history, he will not allow for a more inclusive government. However, international and internal pressure could force him to stop his old ways. Due to the recent events in Iraq, the US government finally seems to be aware of the danger al-Maliki has put Iraq in. If the US and other governments as well as the Iraqi Shias put enough pressure on al-Maliki, he may acquiesce.

3-?) Things are moving so quickly in Iraq and it’s hard to grasp the present, let alone the future. There are plenty of other possibilities that would prevent an Iraqi civil war. For example, even if al-Maliki does not change the government, his generals may refuse to fight civil war. It is very possible that has already happened earlier this month when 30,000 Iraqi troops “fled” from only 800 ISIL fighters.

The End

And that’s the simple version of what is going on in Iraq right now! There’s a lot more to it but it is far more important to understand the basic concept rather than all the small details. If nothing else, the next time you hear about “terrorists taking over Iraq,” please remember this post. I will end with some pictures of some Iraqi cities that may be hearing of in the news.




Old section of Kirkuk



Evening in Baghdad

Evening in Baghdad

Bridges in Baghdad

Bridges in Baghdad

Construction of the massive ar-Rahman Mosque in Baghdada

Construction of the ar-Rahman Mosque in Baghdad

This thing is massive!

This thing is massive!


What is going on in Iraq? (As of June 18, 2014)

If you’ve listened to the news this past week you’ll know that something is going on in Iraq right now and it looks pretty crazy. This is a very simplified explanation of  what is happening and what it means for everyone involved.


What is happening in Iraq???

Right now a military group called ISIS is trying to take over Northern Iraq. So far they have been shockingly successful.


ISIS: Who and what is ISIS?


ISIS is a military group that wants to create an Islamic state. They are at war with anyone who opposes them. ISIS has been fighting in Iraq for about ten years and Syria for about three years. They are currently fighting the Iraqi government, the Syrian government, the Syrian rebels, Al Qaeda, and anyone else in Iraq and Syria who gets in their way.


How has ISIS suddenly gained so much territory in Iraq?

This week ISIS took over a large amount territory, including a few cities. It took them just a few days. The army of ISIS was 800 men while the Iraqi government troops were numbered at least 30,000. How could 800 militants defeat an army of 30,000? We need to go back in time for the answer.


This is the important part:

I’m going to backtrack a bit. Both Iraq and Syria are fragmented countries, and have been since their creation. This is because the countries have a bunch of completely different groups of people in them competing for power (and survival.) They are so fragmented because 70 years ago the British and French governments created Iraq and Syria by randomly drawing some borders on a map and then gave control to the two countries to foreign-born kings. It would be like if someone did this to Europe:

"And they shall be ruled by Spainish kings!"

“And they shall be ruled by Spanish kings!”

Since the two country’s artificial creation, various religious and ethnic groups within the borders have tried to become independent while dictators, kings, and outside governments have tried to keep Iraq and Syria from breaking apart. What is happening in Iraq and Syria right now is a continuation of this struggle.


Back to ISIS:

I’ve been hearing a lot lately that ISIS stands for “The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.” This translation is not 100% accurate because it makes ISIS sound like they want to conquer all of Iraq and Syria. They don’t. But ISIS does want to conquer large portions of it. These portions are based off religion and ethnicity. This is the territory ISIS wants to take over:


Why does ISIS want these areas?

You may have heard of the two major sects in Islam: Sunni and Shia. I don’t want to get into the differences between them right now. Just like how in Christianity there are Catholics and Protestants; in Islam there are Sunnis and Shias. Simply put, ISIS wants to turn the Sunni areas of Iraq and Syria into a single Islamic country.

Yeah, but a lot of people want a lot of things, so how is it that ISIS has been so successful?

This week when ISIS conquered the northern half of Iraq, they did so with only 800 men. The 30,000 Iraq troops guarding the territory fled. So what, the Iraq troops are cowards or something? Definitely not. There’s more going on than meets the eye. But it requires a little more explanation to see what’s really going on.


This is the other important part:

I’m going to back track again. In 2003 the US and Briton invaded Iraq. The Iraqi people were liberated from Saddam but still squashed together within the boarders of Iraq. Now that they were free from Saddam’s oppression, various groups in Iraq wanted more freedom and power. They began fighting each other for it. The US and Briton did not want to see Iraq divided so in order to keep the country together, they began fighting the Iraqi groups that were fighting each other. In turn, the Iraqi groups began fight the US/UK troops and each other. This is what the 2003-2011 Iraq War was all about.

During the war the US made this man Prime Minister (the most powerful position in the government) of Iraq:


His name is Nouri al-Maliki and he is still Prime Minister.

Remember how Islam can be divided into two groups: Sunni and Shia? Al-Maliki is Shia. This makes sense because Iraq is about 60% Shia. The problem is, what about the 40% that are Sunni? It has become a very big problem in Iraq. This is where ISIS comes in.


Where did ISIS come from?

Once Al-Maliki became Prime Minister of Iraq he started given government positions to his friends. Because Al-Maliki was Shia, he friends were Shia too. Eventually Shias began to gain more and more power in the Iraqi government, and Sunnis began loosing power.

When the Sunnis began loosing their strength in the government, Sunni groups turned to more drastic measures. Sunni areas of Iraq began forming their own militaries to fight the Iraqi government and the US/UK troops that protected it. One of the main Sunni militaries that grew during this time was ISIS. The worst fighting in the Iraq War was between the US/UK troops and ISIS.

*note: Anyone who knows their Iraqi history knows that it didn’t exactly happen like this, but come on, it basically did.

As the war in Iraq continued, Sunnis lost even more power in the Iraqi government. By the time Obama pulled out the last troops in December 2011, Al-Maliki had replaced key Sunni military and governmental positions with Shia ones. Sunni groups accused him of trying to become a Shia dictator.

In 2012 and 2013, many Iraqis (mostly Sunni) became fed up. With the threat of the US gone, Sunnis took to the streets in mostly peaceful demonstrations. They demanded better representation and an end to their repression. At first Al-Maliki ignored their demands, then he began shooting them.

ISIS moves from Iraq to Syria

Meanwhile in Syria, a similar thing was happening. In 2011-12 Syrians were also having anti-government protests, and having their protests crushed the government. By 2013 the anti-government protests in Syria led to civil war. In the chaos, ISIS fighters were able move across the Iraq/Syria border and conquer large amounts of land in Syria, including Syrian cities. ISIS fighters already had plenty of experience from fighting the Americans. As of now, they have been able to hold on to most of the Syrian territory they gained in 2013.

ISIS in Syria  ಠ╭╮ಠ

It is important to note that ISIS is not loved in the territory they conquered in Syria. Syria is a historically secular and tolerant country. When ISIS takes over a city, they are the opposite. ISIS makes strict laws based on their skewed interpretation of Islam and do things like force women to cover their heads and loose their jobs. They have harsh punishments for anyone who doesn’t follow their laws. They are basically a militarized version of an Islamic Westboro Baptist Church. Though there have been  protests against ISIS as well as open war between ISIS and both the Syrian Government and Syrian rebels, civilians living under ISIS are understandably more focused on surviving the war than stirring up trouble.


"Grandpa nooooo!"

“Grandpa nooooo!”


Putting the pieces into place:

To summarize:

  • Iraq and Syria have different groups of people all squashed together.
  • Iraq is 60% Shia and 40% Sunni.
  • For the past 10 years, the Shia groups have been gaining more and more power in the Iraqi government, while Sunni groups are getting less and less.
  • ISIS is a Sunni military group that wants to create a Sunni-only Islamic country from the Sunni parts of Iraq and Syria.

Recent events:

  • Peaceful protests by Sunnis (and many others) in Syria were crushed by the Syrian government in 2011-12. This led to fighting between military groups by 2012-13.
  • In the chaos of the Syrian civil war, ISIS, a Sunni military group that already has a lot of experience from fighting Americans, moved into Syria and conquered a lot of Syrian territory. It proclaimed the territory a separate Islamic country.
  • Peaceful protests by Sunnis (and others) in Iraq were crushed by the Iraqi government in 2012-13.
  • Support of ISIS in Iraq began to grow again in 2013-14.

The events that immediately led to the ISIS take-over this week:

  • In January 2014 ISIS re-took Falluja, a Sunni city in Iraq that ISIS had originally lost to the Americans in 2004. A side note: The worst fighting of the 2003-2011 Iraq War was between the Americans and ISIS in Falluja. After re-taking Falluja  in 2014 ISIS proclaimed it part of their Islamic State. The Iraqi government tried and failed to take it back.
  • On June 5th 2014, 800 ISIS troops began fighting the Iraqi military in the Sunni north of Iraq. By June 9th they had taken some major Sunni cities. At the time of writing this (June 17, 2014) ISIS continues to take Sunni territory in Iraq, and remains an hour drive away from Baghdad.

For the last time, how could ISIS suddenly conquer half of Iraq??

ISIS propaganda tweet.

ISIS propaganda tweet.

Now that we have some context, let’s look at how 800 ISIS troops could overtake 30,000 Iraqi government troops.

The simple answer is incompetence. In his attempt to become a dictator, Al-Malilki has replaced experienced generals with weaker, more subservient generals. In addition to this, Iraqi troops may not want to fight and die for a government that has become so corrupt and weak. Many many many Iraqis (both Sunni and Shia) are not happy with Al-Malilki and his government that is dominated by Shias. How would you like to be living under a government that George W. Bush selected for you? After 11 years of war? Without any hope of it changing?

The Iraqi people want a better life and Al-Malilki’s greed is preventing a stronger government. ISIS may bring a stricter government to the territories it conquers but at least they are competent, and most importantly, they are taking power away from Al-Maliki. In short, ISIS is Sunni and is bringing Sunni power back to the Sunni areas of Iraq and Syria.

Basically, I see three things going on here:

1. Al-Maliki’s attempt to become a dictator has significantly crippled the Iraqi army and government.

2. ISIS has gained significant support from Sunnis in Iraq, and significant experience from fighting the Americans and in Syria.

3. Not enough Iraqis care about Al-Maliki’s government to try to save it from ISIS.

This does not mean that Sunnis in Iraq and Syria are glad to see ISIS. Last week when the 800 ISIS troops thundered through the Sunni areas of Iraq, 500,000 people fled their homes. With them 30,000 Iraqi government troops fled as well. This shows that ISIS certainly can’t win the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people, but with Iraq’s current government so hated, ISIS can shoo away an army that is unwilling to fight.


That’s what’s happening in Iraq right now. Read further if you want to know the future…


What does this mean for the future?

***If things in Iraq run their current course*** two things are guaranteed to happen:

1. Al-Maliki will to hold onto his crown until it is pried off him. How will he do this? If things run their current course in Iraq, things will get ugly. If Al-Maliki gets desperate, he will use all means necessary to start an ethnic war between the Sunnis and Shias. In other words: he is going to use genocide and civil war to gain power. A civil war will guarantee him the dictatorial power he’s always wanted because if the Shias and Sunnis are fighting each other, it will force the Shias to his side.

In other words if a civil war begins between the Sunni and Shia, the Shia will be forced to go to Al-Maliki for protection and stop complaining about their lack of democracy. Iraq is 60% Shia. That’s a lot of people to bring to his side.

2. ISIS wants the same exact thing to happen. Ethnic conflict between Sunni and Shia will force the Sunnis to ISIS for protection. And after all, Iraq is 40% Sunni. That’s a lot of people to bring to their side.

Of course, it’s not that simple, but you get the idea.

So let’s end this mess and just eliminate ISIS! We have to stop genocide before it begins! Al-Maliki may be bad, but at least he is the real government, and once we prevent ISIS from taking over, we can try harder to fix things in Iraq.

This is the kind of thing that people are telling Obama right now. “Just eliminate ISIS and we can begin to fix things in Iraq! Just eliminate ISIS before it’s too late!

There are two problems with this:

1. We’ve tried to eliminate ISIS before. The 2003-2011 Iraq War was all about the US, UK, and Iraqi government trying to eliminate ISIS. In 2004 we almost completely leveled the city of Falluja in an attempt to get rid of them. It didn’t work. ISIS has already proved that they are not a problem war can fix. ISIS is created by war.

2. Many Iraqis will see an American attack on ISIS as the beginning of the civil war between Sunni and Shia. By trying to prevent genocide we will more likely start it. This is because the battle lines are already drawn. Even if we mean to only attack ISIS, it would be seen as an attack the Iraqi Sunnis. Many Iraqis felt that the Iraqi War in 2003-2011 was about the US, UK, and Iraqi government waging war against the Sunnis. An attack on ISIS today would not be perceived any differently. Anyways, they wouldn’t be wrong. Most of the people we killed in the Iraqi war were Sunnis. Bush preferred calling them “Bad Guys,” but they were Iraqi Sunnis all the same.

Most importantly, it is likely that once we fire upon ISIS, it will be seen as a Shia attack. There is no real difference between the US attacking ISIS, and the US fighting for the Shia government. An attack on ISIS will result in retaliation attacks against Shia. In turn, the Shia will retaliate, and the ethnic war Al-Malkiki and ISIS are seeking will have begun.

But we have to prevent genocide! How do we prevent genocide if we don’t bomb the culprits?

Well, we don’t have to bomb people to prevent genocide. In fact, I can’t think of a time when bombs have done much to prevent genocide. So what can we do? We can do really really really boring things. Un-newsworthy things. We talk with ISIS and Al-Malilki. Not these bullshit “peace talks” crap. We can talk peace and mean it. We can pry the crown off Al-Malilki. We put him on his throne – we can take him off! Put someone in his place who is willing to work with the Sunnis. If Sunnis see a government trying to include them, it would make ISIS look like the tyrants, rather than the Iraqi government.

I know a lot of young’ns are reading this last paragraph and thinking, “That paragraph is not cynical enough, therefore it is not realistic.” Well fuck you young people! You’re wrong! The US used to resolve conflicts all the time. I already know what you’re thinking, and yes, we didn’t solve every conflict you cynical bastards, but we did a lot of trying and sometimes we succeeded. And then Bush came on the scene and ruined it for everyone. (by bombing everyone.)

The End.

I’m obviously getting a little tired so I’m going to end it here. But I’d like to end this how I like to end a lot of my talks/presentations/blog posts, and put in a bunch of pictures of the normal people living under the crazy governments that I focus too much on. It is the people that are important. It’s the peoples and cultures that I love. They are the reason why I have no problem spending my time writing blog posts like this.

Also, if you want to do tell Obama and Congress not to bomb Iraq, call his office and call it now! (They close at 2:00pm PST, 5:00pm EST and the line is very busy today.)

The number is (202) 456-1111. All you have to say is “Hello my name is _____ and I’m calling to tell the president not to bomb Iraq. Thank you.” *click*

Here are some pictures of Iraqi people to look at while you ask Obama not to bomb them:


Iraqi Kurds having a wedding.

Iraqi Kurds having a wedding.

People chillin at the Spiral Minaret of the Great Mosque.

People chillin at the Spiral Minaret of the Great Mosque.


A different angle of the same place.

A different angle of the same place.

This picture was titled, "Avoid Sugary Food." Whatever, just enjoy life.

This picture was titled, “Avoid Sugary Food.” Whatever, I think these people are more focused on enjoying each other’s company rather than avoiding anything.


Aww grandma! So cute!

Aww grandma! So cute!


Dancing to dabka music. (I'm assuming.)

Dancing to dabka music.

A totally cool pic.

A totally cool pic.


Chillin on the swings.

Chillin on the swings.


A "Marsh Arab." I should do a blog post on them! They have a super interesting way of life.

A “Marsh Arab.” I should do a blog post on them! They have a super interesting way of life.



“I’m taking a photo! Do something cool!”