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Perspective and Analysis

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Preventing the Reemergence of Violent Extremism in Northeast Syria

United Nations ESCWA and NYU Center on International Cooperation, March 2021


Authored by CIC's Hanny Megally and lead researcher Jasmine M. El-Gamal, this report takes a historical look at the NE, why it became a target for IS to control, the “post-IS” landscape, and the current vulnerabilities that exist on the ground—social, economic, military, and political—that may lead to violent extremism or a reemergence of IS. The failure to address the core issues that gave rise to violent extremism will undermine the enduring defeat of IS and other extremist groups and lead to the continued suffering of the people of northeast Syria.

Lost and Found in Guantanamo Bay

New Lines Magazine, December 2020


“My daughter, this life is but one short minute.”

The old, frail man sat in front of me in a wheelchair, hunched over and paralyzed from the waist down. I don’t remember much about the cell he was in, or the American officer standing next to me, or how long the interview lasted. I stood frozen, my eyes locked on his face which was lined with age, weary yet somehow serene. His beard was gray and frazzled; it was too long for him to appear grandfatherly, instead he looked like a relic of another time and place, like someone the world, already too tired and traumatized to deal with what he represented, had forgotten and left behind.

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Jasmine El-Gamal is a nonresident senior fellow with the Middle East program at the Atlantic Council. Between 2008 and 2015, she served as a Middle East advisor in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, and as a special assistant to three undersecretaries of defense for policy. She is the author of a recent article in Newlines magazine entitled, "Lost and Found in Guantanamo Bay: Two encounters with two different men in the most notorious detention facility in the world shaped my faith – and my life – forever." She joined Benjamin Wittes to talk about the article, how she ended up as a young woman as a translator at Guantanamo and in Iraq, what she's done since, and how the experience of Guantanamo shaped her later policy career, as well as her view of America, Islam and counterterrorism.

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This month last year, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which was formed in response to the September 11th terrorist attacks, proclaimed its intent to respond to "domestic terrorism, white nationalist threats and other acts of homegrown violence." In the twelve months since, however, there is almost nothing to show for it. Indeed, President Trump has long used his platform to stoke such extremism, suggesting that so long as he is in office, these challenges will remain unaddressed.

"Muslim" is Not an Insult

The Atlantic Magazine, January 2020

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The president’s recent tweet was personal for me. January 15, 2020 Amir Levy / Getty Donald Trump recently retweeted a doctored photo of the Democratic congressional leaders Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer wearing a traditional Iranian maghnaeh (headscarf) and amameh (turban), respectively, and accused them of sympathizing with Iran’s supreme leader. The image was disturbing, confusing, and—given that hate crimes against Muslims and those perceived to be Muslim are a growing concern—dangerous.

Is Arab Unity Dead?

Project Syndicate, September 2019

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Historically, the task of promoting multilateralism in the Middle East has rested with two institutions: the League of Arab States, a broad alliance for collaboration on political, economic, and cultural issues, and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), which deals mainly with economic matters. Despite the differences in their history, focus, and membership, both bodies were intended to serve as vehicles for ensuring Arab unity on crucial issues – such as opposing Israel – and avoiding conflict among member states.

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In Idlib, Syria, where villages are being razed and hospitals mercilessly targeted by Syrian and Russian forces, children who have been displaced several times over are showing signs of severe psychosocial distress, crying and screaming as they watch their world once again collapse before their eyes. To the northeast, the al-Hol camp houses 43,500 children under the age of twelve, 480 of them unaccompanied. After being born into extreme violence and trauma under the rule of the Islamic State (ISIS), the children now lack regular access to the most basic healthcare and education, and they continue to fester in sordid conditions as their home countries decide whether to take them in. 

In Syria, Reconstruction Brings Little Hope for Peace

The Cairo Review of Global Affairs, Summer 2019

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Over the last two years, experts and policymakers have discussed the prospects for reconstruction in a Syria that, against all odds and efforts to oust him, is still ruled by Bashar Al-Assad. The discussion has largely centered around the role of external actors in reconstructing “Al-Assad’s Syria” to include the role of humanitarian organizations, with some recommending a “decentralized reconstruction” approach while others warn that, without major behavioral change on the part of Al-Assad’s government, even well-meaning, humanitarian-focused efforts will likely bolster the regime and harm ordinary Syrians. Some argue that the West should stay away completely while others still predict that Western reconstruction funds will merely serve to shift the discussion from one of political transition to how the regime will manage its own survival. The debate, however contentious, clearly highlights the paucity of options that exist today to enable long-lasting, genuine peace and stability in Syria.

The Displacement Dilemma: Should Europe help Syrian Refugees Return Home?

European Council on Foreign Relations, March 2019

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After eight years of fighting and destruction resulting in the largest humanitarian and refugee crisis of our time, the government of Bashar al-Assad has all but won Syria’s brutal war. As his regime tightens its grip on Syrian territory and as conditions for refugees in their host countries become increasingly unbearable, European governments now face the challenge of when and how to protect those who fled the conflict and now wish to return home. With donor fatigue increasingly palpable,[1] many EU member states unwilling to expand their resettlement quotas, and states such as Lebanon and Jordan facing difficulties sustaining adequate conditions for their refugee populations, the European Union should adopt a more humanitarian-focused policy that seeks to improve the living conditions of voluntarily returning refugees.


With a few keystrokes this past Wednesday, President Trump laid the groundwork for an abrupt withdrawal of the 2,000 U.S. troops stationed in Syria, effectively abandoning anti-Islamic State allies on the ground and potentially sealing the fate of more than 50,000 Syrian refugees dependent on the United States for protection. Trump’s announcement, which took even his most senior advisers by surprise, will reduce American influence at a critical stage in the Syria conflict and render unattainable his administration’s stated goals: an “enduring” defeat of ISIS, a change in the behavior of Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad and a reduced Iranian presence in Syria. A president who prides himself on doing the opposite of whatever President Barack Obama did, Trump has just repeated his predecessor’s mistakes in the region — and the consequences this time around will be worse.

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The Supreme Court upheld President Trump’s ban on travel from five mostly Muslim nations this week, finding that the ban had a “legitimate grounding in national security concerns” and was thus constitutional. Trump celebrated by calling opponents of the ban “hysterical.” The Supreme Court upheld President Trump’s ban on travel from five mostly Muslim nations this week, finding that the ban had a “legitimate grounding in national security concerns” and was thus constitutional. Trump celebrated by calling opponents of the ban “hysterical.” But the biggest threat to the United States today does not come from immigrants, refugees or the immigration system but from extremists of all races and religions within our own borders. The court’s conclusion therefore isn’t just wrong or unjust — it is downright dangerous.

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On Saturday, aid groups accused Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria of carrying out a suspected chemical attack in the rebel-held suburb of Douma, east of Damascus. That would mean Assad has once again violated a string of U.N. Security Council resolutions and warnings regarding his use of chemical weapons. Casualty figures range from 40 to 70 killed and hundreds to thousands injured. After the last time Assad used chemical weapons, almost exactly a year ago, U.S. strikes on a Syrian airfield did little to deter him. An effective U.S. response this time should take into account the overall brutality with which the Syrian president has conducted this war — including the use of chemical weapons but also other atrocities that the world has up until now shrugged off.

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Since 2012, when the Assad regime escalated its reign of terror, Syrians have desperately, if reluctantly, tried to escape their country with whatever remnants of their life they managed to salvage. Syrians have spoken of a living hell, where bombs rain from the sky unannounced and mothers are forced to watch helplessly as life is slowly and cruelly starved out of their children. It is within this horrifying context that Syrians are fleeing en masse, with over 5 million of them now refugees and over 6 million internally displaced within Syria. It would be a mistake, however, to assume or even demand that Trump’s sympathetic reaction to the latest chemical attack could or should be the determining factor in his decision to let refugees into the United States. The argument for refugee resettlement cannot simply be a moral one; proponents of resettlement have to state their case comprehensively and unemotionally — and there is a strong case to be made — otherwise, their pleas and admonishments will continue to fall on deaf ears.

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I am a first-generation American Muslim who has spent my career in public service, including as a translator in Iraq and a policy adviser at the Department of Defense, and what I have learned is this: The enemy we face as Americans is not limited to one race or religion. Our enemy is extremism of all kinds, and the best way to fight it is to embrace our diversity and the strength it gives us. During his first address to Congress, President Trump specifically and rightly denounced racism in the context of Black History Month, and anti-Semitism in the context of the abhorrent vandalism of Jewish cemeteries. But when it came to Purinton's attack on two young Indian men, the president simply referred to “the shooting in Kansas.” He didn’t mention that the attacker mistakenly thought his victims were Middle Eastern, or that he yelled, “Get out of my country” before pulling the trigger. He didn’t mention the victims’ names, their families' heartache or the fear now gripping their communities.

An Open Letter to Idahoans

Huffington Post and Idaho Falls Post Register, November 2016

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On November 16, North Idaho Rep. Heather Scott wrote her constituents and told them to be scared of Muslim refugees coming to America, calling them a “Trojan Horse.” I want to tell you that I understand why you might be nervous about the possibility of a large influx of strangers from a war-torn land coming into our country. I also want to tell you why we shouldn’t close our borders to our fellow human beings at a time when they need our compassion the most.

My name is Jasmine El-Gamal and I am the daughter of Muslim immigrants. My father left Egypt in his 20s. A proud Egyptian, he was also always searching for ways to better himself. With his parents long gone, he kissed his siblings goodbye and headed to a country he heard was built by immigrants, for immigrants. A land where everyone was equal, where hard work meant a steady paycheck and the possibility of owning your own house, and where families convened every year on Thanksgiving to celebrate their blessings.

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Throughout my career I have worked closely with military officers who have commanded hundreds of men and women in Iraq and elsewhere. These incredible individuals, now dear friends of mine, have shared stories of pulling mangled bodies of young soldiers from a burning Humvee or having to call a mother to tell her that she would not be seeing her son or daughter again. I do not claim to understand what that does to a person but I do understand the frustration with having to listen to an endless game of “gotcha!” every two years in the run-up to a midterm or general election. This extreme politicization of the war may be frustrating for ordinary Americans who have not been there, but it can be traumatic for those who actually lived it on the ground. On Memorial Day, we stood together to honor the memory of those who gave their lives for our country, including those who made the ultimate sacrifice in Iraq. The solemn ceremonies and heartwarming testimonies I heard made me wish that we could finally stop using the Iraq war as a political tool to be wielded in polarizing exchanges between politicians and in the media. 


American Muslims—much like French Muslims, I imagine—are in between a rock and a hard place. We are often judged by the actions of extremists who would just as soon have us killed as they would our fellow non-Muslim Americans—let us not forget that two of the victims in Paris were Muslims. These extremists, like Choudary, would have you believe that all Muslims want to see everyone abide by Sharia law; that all Muslims believe adulterers should be stoned, women covered, and cartoonists murdered for exercising free speech. If we live in the East and are not religious, we are sometimes derided and even threatened by these fanatics who have no tolerance for dissent. However, if we live in the West and are religious, we are sometimes viewed with suspicion in our own countries, where it is easier to walk around in Daisy Dukes than to cover your head with a scarf. In an era defined by the question “Why do they hate us?” we are viewed as “the other” by both “they” and “us.”

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