Congress narrowly rejects proposal for military to conduct a ‘strategic assessment’ of Islam

Tucked into a massive military spending bill was a provision that would have required the Department of Defense to study “the use of violent or unorthodox Islamic religious doctrine to support extremist or terrorist or terrorist messaging.”  A narrow majority of the U.S. House of Representatives — including all but one of the members from Minnesota — stripped that proposal out of the bill on Friday.

The idea of government scrutinizing people’s faith, rather than their actions, “goes against everything we strive to be,” said U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison, a Minneapolis DFLer and the first Muslim elected to Congress.

The amendment to the $696 billion National Defense Authorization Act asked military and outside experts to identify “Islamic religious doctrines, concepts, or schools of thought used by various extremist groups” and then come up with ways to counter them.

Ellison questioned why a study of religious extremism would focus on just a single faith.

German Army rocked by right-wing extremism revelations

To what extent is the German Army – the Bundeswehr – a home for far-right sentiments? This disconcerting question has dominated the German political debate since last week’s arrest of Franco A. Apparently motivated by far-right ideology, the 28-year-old Lieutenant is suspected of having planned attacks on politicians, civil society institutions, and Jewish and Muslim representatives while seeking to make it appear as if refugees were to be held responsible.

A far-right backstory

Franco A., who is a member of the Franco-German Brigade stationed in Illkirch in the French Alsace region, has a history of engagement with far-right ideas. The young man’s master’s thesis – submitted at the French elite military academy of Saint-Cyr in 2014 – was marked by an obvious adherence to right-wing extremist and racial ideologies.

His professors notified their German colleagues, whose evaluation of the thesis came to the same conclusions: an internal Bundeswehr document noted that the text was “not a work for an academic degree but rather a radical nationalist, racist call for action”.(( https://www.welt.de/politik/deutschland/article164193275/Die-voelkisch-rassistische-Masterarbeit-des-Franco-A.html ))

Nevertheless, his superiors still reached the conclusion that any doubts about the soldier’s fitness for service and about his politico-ideological convictions could be “excluded”. As a result, no further steps were taken and his disciplinary file remained unsullied.(( https://www.welt.de/politik/deutschland/article164193275/Die-voelkisch-rassistische-Masterarbeit-des-Franco-A.html ))

A second identity as a refugee

In light of Franco A.’s brinksmanship, the following events read like an adventure tale. In late 2015, he approached local authorities in Bavaria under the pseudonym ‘David Benjamin’ and, claiming that he was a green grocer from Damascus, sought asylum in Germany.(( http://www.spiegel.de/politik/deutschland/bundeswehr-offizier-unter-terrorverdacht-das-bizarre-doppelleben-des-franco-a-a-1145166.html ))

Inexplicably enough, over the following months he managed to lead a double life by commuting back and forth between his refugee shelter in Bavaria and his barracks in Alsace. And even more remarkable is the fact that, although he spoke hardly any Arabic, he not only managed to demand legal protection in Germany – he also obtained it.

Whilst this casts an extremely bad light on the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (BAMF), Franco A. prepared meticulously for his role by questioning fellow soldiers who had helped out at the Office at the height of the so-called refugee crisis in late 2015 and early 2016. In this way, he appears to have obtained valuable insider information on the conduct of asylum procedures and hearings.(( http://www.spiegel.de/politik/deutschland/franco-a-soll-bundeswehr-kollegen-vor-asylantrag-ausgefragt-haben-a-1146248.html ))

Run-in with the police at Vienna Airport

Subsequently, Franco A. – together with an accomplice who has also been arrested but whose role remains unclear – began collecting weapons and ammunition. He had hidden an old pistol in the cleaning shaft of the toilet facilities of Vienna’s international airport. The weapon was discovered; and A. was briefly detained when attempting to recuperate it in February 2017.(( http://www.spiegel.de/politik/deutschland/bundeswehr-offizier-unter-terrorverdacht-das-bizarre-doppelleben-des-franco-a-a-1145166.html ))

The Austrians tipped off their German counterparts, who began a surveillance operation. Over the following weeks and months, ample materials testifying to A.’s far-right views were collected. Investigators reached the conclusion that A. and some of his confidants might be planning an attack.(( http://www.spiegel.de/politik/deutschland/bundeswehr-offizier-unter-terrorverdacht-das-bizarre-doppelleben-des-franco-a-a-1145166.html ))

This premonition appeared justified when, following the arrests of A. and one of his accomplices, investigators uncovered a large stash of ammunition, most of which was taken from Bundeswehr depots.(( http://www.spiegel.de/politik/deutschland/bundeswehr-soldat-franco-a-hortete-1000-schuss-munition-a-1146177.html ))

Accomplices and targets

The size of the Lieutenant’s network is as of now unclear. The weapons were stored by fellow soldier Matthias F. in the central German city of Offenbach.(( http://www.spiegel.de/politik/deutschland/bundeswehr-soldat-franco-a-hortete-1000-schuss-munition-a-1146177.html )) A blacklist of potential targets for assassinations appears to have been compiled by Franco A. together with at least one other accomplice, Maximilian T., who served together with Franco A. in the Alsace-based battalion.(( http://www.zeit.de/politik/deutschland/2017-05/bundeswehr-franco-a-mitwisser-angela-merkel-ursula-von-der-leyen ))

The blacklist seems like a compilation of all political actors A. and his followers despised: targets include former German President Joachim Gauck, current Minister of Justice Heiko Maas, Green party politician Claudia Roth, as well as Bodo Ramelow, Minister President of the state of Thuringia and leading member of the Left party.

Yet the list also mentioned civil society institutions, such as the Amadeu Antonio Foundation, the most important foundation seeking justice for the victims of far-right and neo-Nazi violence; as well as the Central Council of Jews and the Central Council of Muslims.(( http://www.zeit.de/politik/deutschland/2017-05/bundeswehr-franco-a-mitwisser-angela-merkel-ursula-von-der-leyen ))

A larger issue

The extent to which the conspirators’ deliberations amounted to a coherent plan or just to a megalomaniacal laundry list of unreachable targets needs to be uncovered by further investigations. Yet even so, the events surrounding Franco A. cast an exceedingly negative light on the Lieutenant’s environment in Germany’s armed forces.

Not only was A.’s master’s thesis not seen as a cause for a concern (critics would say that it was, in fact, swept under the rug). Army inspectors also visited the Lieutenant’s barracks in French Illkirch, only to report that they had found swastikas drawn on the barracks’ walls as well as on an assault rifle. They also noted that the buildings contained a range of memorabilia from the Wehrmacht, the National Socialist predecessor of the current German Bundeswehr.(( http://www.zeit.de/politik/deutschland/2017-05/bundeswehr-verteidigungsministerin-ursula-von-der-leyen-usa-reise ))

Extremism in the Bundeswehr

The Bundeswehr has repeatedly had to struggle with allegations of unsavoury behaviour in its ranks. Over the past few months, a string of sexual harassment scandals have rocked the Army. Moreover, the armed forces have faced repeated accusations that they are too lenient vis-à-vis right-wing extremism.

The military intelligence agency (Militärischer Abschirmdienst, MAD) is currently investigating 280 cases of potentially far-right and neo-Nazi soldiers. Yet the treatment of these affairs is long-winded and the number of unreported cases potentially considerably higher.(( http://www.sueddeutsche.de/politik/rechtsextremismus-in-der-bundeswehr-wenn-der-soldat-den-hitlergruss-zeigt-1.3493827 ))

In fact, an overriding concern in recent years had been the possibility that Islamists might join the armed forces in order to gain military training or even battlefield experience. This is, to be sure, a risk: from 2007 to 2016, 24 soldiers with Islamist leanings were identified by the MAD.(( https://www.tagesschau.de/inland/bundeswehr-islamisten-101.html )) Nevertheless, against the backdrop of the case of Franco A., this strong focus on Islamists looks like a major blunder on the part of the military and intelligence leadership.

Political repercussions

These events have placed considerable pressure on the German Defence Minister, Ursula von der Leyen. Widely dubbed as a potential successor to Chancellor Merkel in her CDU Party, von der Leyen took up the Ministry of Defence after the last federal election in 2013 in order to gain political clout.

At the same time, the Ministry is famed for being “ungovernable”.(( http://www.dw.com/de/schleudersitz-verteidigungsministerium/a-16889658 )) Successive corruption affairs, as well as managerial incompetence have long plagued the German defence portfolio, including during von der Leyen’s tenure. Yet no scandal has developed into such a threat to von der Leyen’s position as the case of Franco A.

The Minister initially took a strikingly bold stance, attesting the army an “attitude problem” and “leadership weaknesses”. However, a backlash from within the CDU forced von der Leyen to apologise for these utterances, seen as tarnishing the work of thousands of committed soldiers. Others questioned von der Leyen’s ability to actually control her own ministry and the armed forces. (( http://www.sueddeutsche.de/politik/bundeswehr-skandal-nur-merkel-verteidigt-von-der-leyen-1.3492235 ))

Growing militancy of the German far right

The case involving Franco A. is only the latest indication of growing militancy on the part of the German far-right. Answering to an information request by a Left party MP, the federal government has just published new data showing that more and more known far-right activists are acquiring weapons, with numbers nearly doubling between 2014 and early 2017.(( http://www.sueddeutsche.de/news/politik/waffen-750-rechtsextreme-besitzen-legal-schusswaffen-dpa.urn-newsml-dpa-com-20090101-170506-99-343300 ))

In recent months, the German National Day celebrations were have been overshadowed by bomb blasts and far-right agitation. More generally, the incidence of xenophobic hate crimes has skyrocketed with the ‘refugee crisis’ has remained high ever since.

On the backs of refugees

The fact that Franco A. sought to pass himself off as a Syrian grocer is also indicative of a scapegoating mechanism that seeks to paint refugees as the originators of violence. In this respect, the presence of refugees is instrumentalised to carry out agendas of violent action.

These agendas need not necessarily be political. A particularly striking case in this regard was the recent bomb attack on the team bus of the Borussia Dortmund football team. The perpetrator placed three letters at the scene in which the so-called Islamic State appeared to claim responsibility.

Investigators later found, however, that the man had most likely sought to make large financial gains on the stock market by speculating on a dramatic fall in the football clubs’ share prices in the aftermath of his attack.(( https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2017-04-21/german-soccer-team-attacker-hoped-to-profit-from-share-slump ))

Egyptian-American woman freed in Egypt goes home on U.S. military plane

Aya Hijazi, an Egyptian who holds U.S. citizenship, was acquitted by a Cairo court on Sunday along with seven others who had worked with street children. Hijazi was released from jail on Tuesday, having been held for nearly three years.

She was flown to Joint Base Andrews, the U.S. military airfield on the outskirts of Washington.

President Donald Trump had privately asked Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to help out in the case when Sisi visited the White House on April 3, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Number of French jihadists in Syria and Iraq decreases

The number of French citizens traveling to join Islamic State in 2016 has dropped drastically from last year, Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said on Tuesday, putting the fall down to military reverses suffered by the militant group.

Speaking to security agents at the ministry, Cazeneuve said there had been a “fourfold decrease” with just 18 French people recorded traveling to the area in the first six months of the year compared with 69 in the corresponding period in 2015.

The depletion, he said, was explained by the group’s recent losses on the ground but also by France’s “enhanced anti-terrorism efforts.”

According to interior ministry figures released on Tuesday, 689 French citizens are still in the region, including 275 women and 17 underage fighters.

More than 900 people have been identified as having either attempted to travel to the region or expressed a desire to go there, the ministry’s figures showed.

French Army Asks Citizens To Enlist–But No Muslim Headscarves

After the July 14 terrorist attack in Nice, the French interior minister called on “all willing French patriots” to help defend the country by volunteering for the military’s reserves.

Two sisters, Majda and Amina Belaroui, French Muslims of Moroccan heritage, heeded the call in the aftermath of the Bastille Day attack, when a Tunisian truck driver mowed down crowds of spectators, killing 84 and wounding hundreds.

Majda, 21, and Amina, 24, are both university students who live in Nice, on the French Riviera. They pair French fashion with traditional Muslim dress, sporting wide-brimmed sun hat and headscarf ensembles.

The Monday morning following the attack, the third major terrorist rampage in the past 18 months, young men and high school boys trickled through the gates of Nice’s military recruitment center. So did Majda. Wearing a hat and headscarf, she walked past soldiers guarding the gate with weapons across their chests.

She was there to sign up for the “operational reserves,” comprising both former soldiers and civilians with no military background. She wasn’t interested in holding a gun. She just wanted to see how she could help, and set an example as a Muslim amid the growing fears over radical Islam.

“I want to show,” she said, “that I am not like that.”

The receptionist told her she must take off her hijab to enter the recruitment center.

French law prohibits people from displaying their religion in government-run buildings, including public schools, to maintain secularism in the public sphere. It’s a fundamental tenet of the country, stretching back more than a century as part of an effort to reduce the influence of the Catholic Church. But the old concept of secularism is now rubbing up against France’s new efforts to integrate its Muslim population, the largest in Europe.

France has succeeded, in many cases. In Nice, Muslims are an integral part of the landscape. They, too, were on the promenade watching fireworks along with their French compatriots on Bastille Day, the most French day of the year, when the crowd came under attack. Nearly a third of the victims of the attack were Muslims, according to a Muslim community group.

But some Muslims in France believe prohibitions against wearing religious clothing in government venues are actually targeted specifically at them, sending a message that Muslim culture is unwelcome in France.

“Although France has managed to integrate many immigrants and their descendants, those it has left on the sidelines are more embittered than their British or German peers, and many feel insulted in their Muslim or Arab identity,” sociologist Farhad Khosrokhavar wrote recently in The New York Times. “Laïcité, France’s staunch version of secularism, is so inflexible it can appear to rob them of dignity.”

It poses a dilemma for people like the Belaroui sisters, who want to stay true to both flag and faith.

Minutes after entering the recruitment center, Majda walked out, unwilling to remove her hijab when asked.

“If I weren’t Muslim, I think I would be so afraid of these people,” she said, referring to Muslims. That’s precisely why she came to volunteer, hijab proudly wrapped around her head.

“For me, it’s discouraging. We want to show that we are against this violence,” she said, adding, “We are demotivated.”

Her sister, Amina, a third-year engineering student, faced the same difficult decision.

Amina had already been to the recruitment center a week prior to the Nice attack and went back again, by herself, more determined following the attack.

Both times, she agreed to take off her hijab in front of the uniformed men, though she really didn’t want to. She said it felt like undressing in public.

“I think the ends justify the means. That’s why I took it off,” Amina said in her flawless English. “I really want to commit and help people, and also try to give another image of Muslim girls, and Muslims in general.”

Anger is boiling over in Nice, which leans conservative. At the memorial ceremony for the victims, some residents argued with Muslim citizens. In the days after the attack, some in the city voiced their support for the National Front, France’s far-right political party, which has used anti-Muslim rhetoric.

Amina hopes joining the military reserves while she finishes her engineering degree can help change minds in France. Or, at the very least, it can help change the minds of French Muslim girls like her.

“Maybe it will encourage other girls to do something they didn’t think they could do before,” she said. “Maybe it will change things.”

Psych exam ordered for man accused of threatening military

CLEVELAND — A federal judge has ordered a man charged with soliciting people to kill members of the military to undergo a psychiatric evaluation to determine if he’s competent to stand trial.
Cleveland.com reports (http://bit.ly/29c333x ) that U.S. District Judge Dan Polster ordered the evaluation Monday after 23-year-old Terrence McNeil appeared to laugh when the judge told him he could face life in prison if convicted of solicitation of a crime of violence and threatening military personnel.
Authorities say McNeil posted online the names and addresses of more than 100 military personnel and asked people to kill them on behalf of the Islamic State group. He was indicted in December.

Radical Islam Or Radical Islamism? It Depends Whom You Ask

The Orlando shooter, Omar Mateen, claimed allegiance to the leader of the Islamic State during a phone call to 911 early Sunday. And that’s reignited a debate over how to label the ideology that apparently inspired the attack.
Republican Donald Trump and many on the right say it’s “radical Islam.” But Democrat Hillary Clinton used a different term: “radical Islamism.” It’s not just a debate over semantics.
“What exactly would using this label accomplish?” President Obama asked Tuesday as he spoke about his administration’s fight against ISIS. He spoke at length about the language debate. “Would it bring in more allies? Is there a military strategy that is served by this? The answer is none of the above. Calling a threat by a different name does not make it go away. This is a political distraction.”
NPR.org: http://www.npr.org/2016/06/14/482011041/radical-islam-or-radical-islamism-it-depends-who-you-ask

The Latest: Muslim Girl Picks School That Will Allow Hijab

A 17-year-old Muslim girl from Florida says she’s grateful Vermont’s Norwich University agreed to allow her to wear a headscarf beneath her military uniform so she can achieve her goal of becoming a naval officer.
Sana Hamze had initially hoped to attend The Citadel in South Carolina, but the school would not change its uniform policy to accommodate her headscarf.
Norwich agreed to her request. The “religious headgear” must be in “authorized colors and fabrics that can be covered” by the uniform.

British Army seeks to recruit more Muslim troops

British Muslims share information about Islam during Islam Awareness Week at the army's headquarters in Andover. (Photo: Library, UK Government/Armed Forces)
British Muslims share information about Islam during Islam Awareness Week at the army’s headquarters in Andover. (Photo: Library, UK Government/Armed Forces)

More must be done to recruit soldiers from ethnic minorities and in particular the Muslim community, the Head of the British Army has admitted. General Sir Nicholas Carter, who took up the role of Chief of the General Staff last year, said that ethic minority representation in the military is “nowhere near where it needs to be”.

“We have to do more. My highest priority is ensuring we continue to have the best possible talent throughout our Army,” he said. Figures released by the Ministry of Defence reveal there are only 480 Muslims serving in Army.

That is only 0.54% of the total regular force of 88,500. Moreover, not all of those Muslims are British – some joined from Commonwealth countries. Overall, all ethnic minorities – including black, Asian, Sikh, Hindu and Fijian people – make up less than 10% of the force.

The military’s Islamic Religious Advisor welcomed General Carter’s comments.
“In my view, the values of the Armed Forces are fully compatible with the values of Islam as well as other faiths,” said Imam Asim Hafiz.

“Anybody wishing to pursue a career in the Services, Regular or Reserve, and is prepared to work hard can be assured of a very rewarding experience.”

Senior figures in the military and Ministry of Defence recognise that conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan have led to negative perceptions of the military in Muslim communities. General Carter wants that to change through closer interaction and engagement with ethnic minority communities.

Islamic State: Hollande ready to “increase actions” in Iraq

Francois Hollande assured Iraq’s president of his support in the fight against the Islamic State. In a joint statement with prime minster Haidar Al-Abadi, Hollande declared that France is ready to “increase actions” against the Islamic State.

“We will continue to provide military support to Iraq, which is the victim of a full-scale terrorist attack,” he continued. “For three months actions were carried out by the Iraqi army after having received the coalition’s support, and these actions have led to clear progress and military success and therefore political success.”

There are currently nine Rafale and six Mirage fighter jets that are part of the “Chammal” operation. “Baghdad is secure. We are currently moving to free the entire territory that has been occupied by [the Islamic State],” said Hollande. Al-Abadi added, “We believe that liberation is not far away. Today there is more optimism and more hope that Iraq can stay together as one nation, one people.”

The Prime Minister also asked for funding to reconstruct occupied areas. “Reconstruction of areas destroyed by the Islamic State is an important topic,” he added, because “terrorism thrives on the people’s poverty and dissatisfaction with their economic circumstance.” Al-Abaid added that, “the decline in oil prices and in our oil exports have had a negative impact on our budget.”