Geopolitics

ISIS Has Begun To Spread Beyond The Middle East

Unlike al-Qaeda, which was always meant to operate on a global level, ISIS has been much more linked to its territory in Syria and Iraq. But that's now starting to change.

Hervé Gourdel and his captors in Algeria before the French tour guide was beheaded
Hervé Gourdel and his captors in Algeria before the French tour guide was beheaded
Benjamin Barthe

BEIRUT — ISIS is spreading beyond its "borders." For the first time, the terrorist group also known as the Islamic State moved into action outside of its Middle East base. Last month's kidnapping and killing of French tourist Hervé Gourdel by Algerian disciples of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi marks a turning point for an organization that until now was focused on creating a "state" astride the Levant and Mesopotamia.

"It’s the sign of a move from a regional strategy to a more global strategy," says Romain Caillet, a Beirut-based specialist in Islamist movements.

While al-Qaeda is an organization based on the nebula network model, with branches scattered across several continents, ISIS claims a strong territorial link. Before the gloomy beheading videos, aimed at terrifying Western populations, most of its efforts were dedicated to the more immediate necessity of reinforcing and expanding its hold in the Middle East.

The "Caliphate's" propagandists used to attack mostly Shia Muslims and non-Muslim minorities, such as Middle East Christians, as opposed to al-Qaeda, which made the United States its No. 1 enemy. It is the difference in method between a jihad choosing an enemy that is close, rather than one far away.

But the creation of an anti-ISIS coalition accelerated the change to both a rhetoric and action that is more global and anti-Western. In a long Internet diatribe posted Sept. 22, ISIS spokesman Abu Mohammed al-Adnani calls not only for the murder of citizens whose countries joined the coalition, "especially the spiteful and filthy French." The 42-minute audio urges the muwahidin (monotheists, meaning Sunni Muslims) of the whole Arab world to take part in the fight against the "crusaders" and the "rafidah," a pejorative way to describe Shia Muslims.

Adnani is especially proud of the many Sinai attacks carried out in the past few months against Egyptian security forces, which ISIS accuses of being "the guards of the Jews."

"Rig the roads with explosives for them," he said. "Attack their bases. Raid their homes. Cut off their heads. Do not let them feel secure."

This was a direct message to Ansar Bait al-Maqdis, the main organization behind these attacks in Egypt and which, though not necessarily linked to ISIS, is ideologically close to it. What's more, its fighters seem to be more and more inspired by al-Baghdadi's methods, as the beheading of four Egyptian civilians in August demonstrated. In the video of their execution, al-Maqdis accused them of "collaborating with the Mossad."

But ISIS is also speaking to the Libyans and Tunisians, urging them to follow in the footsteps of Egyptian jihadists. "What are you waiting for? Do you aspire to a life of humiliation and dishonor?"

The ISIS spokesman also reacted to the seizure of the Yemeni capital of Sanaa by Houthi rebels, a Zaidi Shia insurgent group. "Unfortunately, the car bombs have not yet roasted their skin, nor have the explosive belts cut their joints," he said. "Is there nobody in Yemen who will take revenge for us on the Houthis?"

Again, it is likely that these words are intended to stir up Arabian Peninsula divisions inside al-Qaeda, the main jihadist organization in Yemen, which is still faithful to Osama bin Laden's successor, Ayman al-Zawahiri. This has been successful with al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, now divided between pro and anti-ISIS.

"ISIS is under pressure in the Middle East," explains Lina Khatib, the director of the Carnegie Center in Beirut. "It needs to widen the spectrum of its action beyond the region to preserve its impact."

It's not really a turning point, per se, but rather an evolution. "The confrontation with the West was inevitable," Khatib adds.

Romain Caillet concludes that "ISIS never hid its intentions to attack Lebanon, Jordan and Israel. Sooner or later, the West would have had to defend its allies."

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Geopolitics

How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.


But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Activist in front of democracy monument in Thailand.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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