This is the web version of the newsletter sent to Century International subscribers in January 2023.
The United States’ Global War on Terror reinforced some lazy and inaccurate ideas about lawlessness and violence—most perniciously, that vast zones of the world had become ungovernable incubators of extremism and terror.
Our latest research offers concrete understandings of some networks and political decisions driving corruption and ISIS recruitment—specifics that counter misleading stereotypes and generalities.
Thankfully, American policymakers have finally discarded many of the worst policies of the Global War on Terror. It’s now time to dismantle many of the regrettable ideas that underpinned those policies, in particular our understanding of extremism, corruption, and state decay.
You can learn more further down in this newsletter about two recent Century International research projects that tell the nitty-gritty story behind two gross recent examples of decay in the Middle East: Iraq’s $2.5 billion “heist of the century,” and a surge of ISIS recruits from one Lebanese city.
We know now, from painful experience, that there is no single pathway to insecurity. Violence, corruption, and bad governance reinforce one another, and it’s not always clear what drives insecurity past a tipping point. Careful, critical research can illuminate the reversible human decisions behind the most serious problems of our time.
Researching Networks of Power
As I think about the year that just came to an end, I feel a great deal of gratitude for the critical audience and supporters for whom we work. The world is as turbulent as ever. The end of the Trump presidency brought a perhaps temporary respite from the outright assault on democracy in the United States. But across the world, militarism and illiberalism continue to spike. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine further polarized a world order that never recovered from the U.S. invasion of Iraq.
Our research methods—which combine journalistic, academic, and policy approaches—allow us to keep pace with our turbulent times while providing the kind of analytical depth required to make concrete policy recommendations.
Our mission at Century International is to work on the most perplexing questions about power and disorder, beginning with how people experience insecurity in their daily lives—whether or not those questions top the ever-shifting policy and news cycles.
We start with eyewitness fieldwork; we try to document how things work and map who has power; and once we diagnose what ails the status quo, we try to identify what should be done instead.
In this period of tumult and uncertainty, I’m grateful for the colleagues and collaborators at Century International who are willing to dive into the unknown.
Director, Century International
Structural Pathways to Corruption and ISIS
Sam Heller’s report, “The Mysterious Pipeline for ISIS Recruits from Northern Lebanon,” showcases the methods and analysis that distinguish Century International. This piece, based on extensive interviews conducted in Tripoli, examines the mechanism by which young men were seemingly recruited from Lebanon’s collapsing, poorest city to fight alongside the Islamic State in Iraq. Sam debunks reductive narratives that suggest that Tripolitans are “extremists-in-waiting”—that Tripoli’s poverty naturally translates into religious militancy. Instead, he presents a more complex account, in which recruiters have learned to exploit the vulnerabilities of individuals living under Tripoli’s crushing conditions, in which state security services play a murky role, often exacerbating the conditions that make some of Tripoli’s young men susceptible to recruitment.
And Sajad Jiyad says it all with the title of his latest report: “Corruption Is Strangling Iraq.” Recent headlines on Iraq have been filled with the news of the theft, and attempted recovery, of $2.5 billion from government coffers. But scandalous stories like this represent a tiny fraction—perhaps just one percent—of what has been plundered from the Iraqi state since the 2003 invasion. Sajad argues that corruption in Iraq is systemic, sitting at the core of the country’s dysfunctional post-2003 political economy. Iraq’s kleptocracy encompasses its entire political elite, from rival U.S.- and Iranian-backed coalitions to known embezzlers and purported reformers. Corruption in Iraq is intimately tied to—and to a certain extent flows from—the model of ethno-sectarian division imposed after 2003. In this system, elites channel resources to their respective communities while maintaining cross-communal alliances with their peers. Sajad suggests that this scandal could aid in the formation of a counter-coalition, made up of anticorruption civil society members supported by reformist politicians and the international community, dedicated to uprooting the consociational kleptocracy.
Finally, here are the reports, commentaries, and podcasts that our network of fellows has produced over the past several months.
Networks of Power
Progressive Foreign Policy
Forthcoming at tcf.org
- “Cholera in the time of Assad: How Syria’s Water Crisis Caused an Avoidable Outbreak,” by Aron Lund
- Broken Bonds: The Existential Crisis of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, 2013–22 (TCF Press: February 20, 2023), Century International’s newest book. Researchers Abdelrahman Ayyash, Amr ElAfifi, and Noha Ezzat argue that the Brotherhood is experiencing multiple crises—of identity, legitimacy, and membership—and that the same factors that have hobbled the organization are likely to drive its resurgence. We’ll tell you more about the book and launch events in February.
Header Image: Prime minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani stands in front of cash recovered from Iraq’s “heist of the century.” Source: Iraqi Government/Prime Minister’s Office