How ISIS Changed History’s Cultural Landscape

By Sarah Taylor

Palmyra, Syria used to be a city of magically stoic Roman ruins, steeped in ancient history: a city that bore the scars and wrinkles of a storied civilization. The landscape of ancient Assyria and Mesopotamia was once the pinnacle of civilization, home to the most ancient cities and the dawn of humanity. Palmyra itself represented the fluctuating artistic and architectural influences of the major imperial powers of antiquity, as it went through various periods of independence and control under the Roman Empire. Today, the land is marked by destruction and stands not only as a monument not of historical significance but also of the tragedy that the Islamic State has brought upon Palmyra. One example is the Temple of Bel, a structure that is almost two thousand years old, and was the last remaining early Roman pilgrimage complex. It was completely razed in 2015, as it represented the polytheism of Roman pagan religion. There are countless other examples of destruction that have swept across the Middle East. The library of the Great Mosque in Aleppo was burnt down, causing it to lose rare religious manuscripts. The once-well preserved porticoes and Byzantine mosaics of Apamea in Western Syria have been replaced by complete desolation. ISIS has taken up a program of destroying historic and once-sacred sites in order to clear the area of symbols that go against their Islamic extremism, hiding behind their radical interpretations to justify the destruction of ancient cultures in Syria and Iraq.

Dura Europos is considered the oldest and by some accounts the first, true Christian city of the ancient world. It represented a blending of cultures and religions, with Christianity, Judaism, and Roman paganism influencing each other and producing unique works of antiquity. It is home to not only the world’s oldest synagogue but also the first Christian house church, the predecessor to the development of churches and cathedrals throughout the Roman Empire. Once a truly sacred site to the Christian community, the house at Dura Europos has been taken under control by the Islamic State. ISIS has ransacked over 70 percent of the city, destroying archaeological evidence, and reaping the profits of their looting. Perhaps what is most devastating about the destruction of Dura Europos is the loss of future excavation. When the city was co-opted by ISIS it was still relatively unexplored, having been abandoned in the third century AD and re-discovered in the twentieth century. The future hope to uncover more about how the ancient civilization led to the development of a greater Christian culture is now lost.

Mosul is another example of the extent of the destruction wreaked by ISIS on cultural landscapes. Once standing as an exemplar of rich cultural heritage and some of the oldest historical sites in the world, the city now lies as Iraq’s Ground Zero, the most devastating destruction at the hands of ISIS.  In Mosul, they have not only destroyed Christian communities, but also Sufi and Shia temples and mosques, demolishing archaeological sites from the Ottoman imperial period. Mosul also sits at the crux of ancient civilizations; at different points in time, it was the heart of the Assyrian, Parthian, and Sumerian empires. The Nouri mosque, built in the 12th century, was the seemingly indestructible soul of the city as it withstood regime changes and civil unrest. In June 2014, ISIS declared its capture of Mosul from the mosque. Three years later, the mosque ceased to exist and was replaced by rubble, fear, and a fierce realization of the new reality. ISIS’s destruction, in this case, was spurred by political rather than historical motivations. Since the mosque was a landmark of the city, destroying it would effectively destroy the cultural epicenter of the city, sending a message of authority to the citizens of Mosul.

Rebuilding these cities will be no easy task. The landscape that once stood as the backdrop for the development of all humanity is now irreparably reduced to rubble. These projects are often mismanaged by the governments attempting to restore what once was, as corruption, financial mismanagement and waste, and the existing political and social conflict, prevent them from focusing on rebuilding these lost cities. The rubble and ash marks stand as permanent reminders of the new reality of the remaining citizens now living in fear. Their houses of worship, an institution needed more than ever in this time of despair, have been ripped from the ground. Archaeologists have asked experts to refrain from acknowledging ancient sites, as it will only attract the attention of ISIS to another site to demolish. These sites are also subject to bombing from the powers fighting ISIS, namely the United States and Russia. The new field of “cyber archaeology” is working to create digital reconstructions of lost artifacts, hoping to create digital renderings of not only lost items but entire museums and cities. Though these strides bring us closer to restoring the evidence of such sites, it will never repair the damage done to the landscape itself, which has now lost its uniqueness. The unbroken history of humanity that once stood at sites like Palmyra has been broken by the inhumanity and radicalism of ISIS.

The Fragile State of U.S. Cybersecurity Policy: Is it enough?

By Sarah Taylor

Google the word “hack” these days and thousands of hits come up regarding large, multinational companies being hit by attacks that you think shouldn’t have happened in the first place. In the current media frenzy focusing on the North Korean missile crisis, hurricanes and natural disasters, and humanitarian crises, cybersecurity threats and attacks fly relatively under the radar. Only when the attack threatens an election or millions of identity thefts does the news of a detrimental hack make headlines. Most recently, the Equifax hack released the private information of 143 million of Americans that resulted in many having their identity stolen and leaving their credit ruined. The United States has been the subject of thousands and thousands of cybersecurity threats, and yet the policy (both domestic and foreign) regulating them is relatively undeveloped. The investigation into Russian cyber-meddling in the 2016 Presidential election seems as though it has stalled at best. At worst, it has been completely forgotten in the sidetracking hearings of former F.B.I. Director James Comey. What should have been a hallmark case in foreign cyber attacks turned into a political tête-à-tête.

Cyber attacks are nearly impossible to predict, and even harder to prosecute after the fact, as there are no fingerprints or DNA  evidence left behind in a purely digital invasion. Thus, the policy surrounding cybersecurity is notably lacking in specificity, especially with regards to foreign entities performing the attacks. Often times, the attacks are a result of pure human error, which makes policy formulation that much harder. For example, in the Russian hack into the DNC emails, Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager John Podesta clicked a link to reset his password that he thought was sent by “the Gmail team”. This very basic phishing email gave Russian hackers full access to Podesta’s emails and sent the final months of the 2016 presidential campaign into a frenzy that included the word “emails” being exhausted in every debate. By the time the breach was even discovered, the irreparable damage had already been done.

Thirty-nine states have found evidence of invasions by Russian hackers into software systems and voter databases, using this data to attempt to delete or alter votes. While this is clearly an extreme situation, little has been done to our relationship with Russia to ensure this doesn’t happen again, or to at least show that we are taking this as seriously as we should be. The implications of Russia hacking into the election are far-reaching. If they are able to alter voter data to alter to outcome of the election, then the entire integrity of the American political system is at danger. It is as though the fears of the Red Scare and the anti-communism nightmares of the mid-twentieth century are being realized as technology has made them an available possibility. Currently, the Department of Homeland Security has a “Framework” for private sector businesses to investigate and respond to cyber threats. Most multi-national corporations have an information security department that handles these matters as well. However, the United States’ body of foreign policy is lacking specific measures to identify and stop or respond to attacks from foreign nations that have malicious intentions. These attacks are especially dangerous when the attacks are backed by the government, as is suspected in the Russian election intrusion.

While I argue that Homeland Security should develop a similar framework with more specific details on how the United States’ public and private sectors should respond to foreign attacks, it is understandable how this goal can be significantly roadblocked by gaps in capabilities and detection. For obvious reasons, government entities are not quick to lay claim to an attack, especially when it impacts the political integrity of another country or hundreds of millions of Americans. DHS is making positive strides in identifying potential threats. Most recently, they identified a Russian cybersecurity firm, Kaspersky Lab, as using antivirus software to spy on the government. The firm likely has ties to the Kremlin. Though these are steps in the right direction, these incidences are still found when it is likely too late. In the case of Kaspersky, their ties to the Kremlin should have been an automatic red flag and disallowed business in or with the United States. Cybersecurity threats by foreign nations have been proven to have irreparable and unthinkable damage on the core of the United States, whether it be a presidential election or the credit of half the country.

Tunisia’s Struggling Democracy: An Unlikely Source of Hope

By Sarah Taylor

Tunisia is quite possibly the last hope for the success of the Arab Spring that brought a possible Fourth Wave of democratization; though it is currently struggling to maintain this title. Imed Trabelsi, a prominent Tunisian businessman who was imprisoned for 108 years in May for embezzlement and corruption, taped a video testimony speaking to the level of corruption in Tunisia. In his statement, he said “There has been a revolution but nothing has changed. According to what I hear, the same system is still operational.” This sentiment is echoed through the country as it struggles to maintain the democracy established after the Jasmine Revolution. Rampant corruption, weak economic growth, high unemployment, and wide protesting entice the country to backslide into another authoritarian regime, which would thus diminish the perceived success of the Arab Spring in general.

Though Tunisia is making strides in the right direction to provide a democratic setting that fosters participation and accountability, the system still struggles to qualm the political infighting and tension between parties that defines the country’s politics. Prime Minister Chahed replaced thirteen ministers in his cabinet recently, six from the Nidaa Tounes party, a secular party that some argue is anti-Islamist. The Ennahda party, the Islamic and religious conservative party, managed to keep three seats in Chahed’s overhaul. Three were given to ministers who were in office during the regime of past authoritarian leader Zine el Abidine Ben Ali. The Nidaa Tounes party, of which Chahed is a member, has been trying to get more representation with the hopes of quelling the religious Ennahda party. The changes by Chahed in the composition of the cabinet have tried to reduce the tension by granting the Nidaa Tounes party the representation they desired. Due to the Ennahda party’s close ties with religious conservatism, the tension between the two goes past pure political competition. The religious suppression that some say underlies the Nidaa Tounes party’s contention with the Ennahda party is a threat to the democracy the country wishes to foster. While healthy competition between political parties is vital to free and fair elections (and thus the integrity of democracy), this battling between parties has caused instability in the government system. Youssef Chahed’s cabinet changes were part of a larger program to reduce corruption in Tunisia. He has made extensive strides toward prosecuting corrupt officials and limiting the influence of mafia bosses, calling for a “war on corruption”. The fight against corruption has been so intensive that Chahed has called a state of emergency surrounding his investigations, justifying his use of military tribunals to try those implicated in corruption scandals, specifically mafia bosses. These tribunals have been a source of controversy intra and internationally, as to many they seem too harsh and simply a way to skirt the court system in place.

The graph below from the Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem) website shows the scores among many dimensions of democracy that Tunisia falls on between 2008 (under the previous authoritarian regime) and 2016 (after the Arab Spring revolution). Though the country is definitely performing much better on these dimensions than it was under the authoritarian rule of Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, the consistency that helps new democracies grow and be deemed as a success is lacking in the dimensions of party competition and state ownership of the economy. The latter dimension’s lower level is likely what is leading to the instability within the country associated with the poor economic growth.

tunisia democracy chart (1)

The tirade against corruption is harming the economy as well, as it costs money to go after and put to trial such individuals. The economic conditions of Tunisia have exposed many of the existing strains on democracy, some as a result of the cornerstone revolution. The conditions after the Arab Spring made the system vulnerable to terrorist attacks, leading to economic difficulty, and political and civil tension. After the revolution, there was a relaxation of state control and freedom of religion sharply increased due to the new democratic system in place. However, this gave Islamic extremism a space to grow and join forces with the extremist political prisoners who were released after the fall of the dictatorship. Multiple attacks on U.S. embassies and tourist destinations by extremist groups such as the Islamic State have left the country unstable and with increased economic pressure.

Although the country is thought to be in a weak state, it still must be interpreted in the context of a democracy rather than authoritarian rule. The people of Tunisia are still widely and immensely supportive of democracy in general and maintaining the relative freedom that was gained in 2011. This makes it unlikely that the government will actually backslide into authoritarianism from democracy, and helps it maintain its status as the last hope for a country that successfully came out of the Arab Spring with a somewhat successful democracy. Despite clear growing pains, the country is still strong in its pursuit of democratic ideals, unlike many of the countries that experienced the “Arab Winter” counter-revolution. This wave of democratic backslide in the region led to another rise in authoritarianism and wartime conditions in countries such as Egypt, Libya, Syria, and Yemen in 2014. Though Tunisia did experience some effects of this second movement, including a change of government and acts of violence, they managed to emerge with a sustained democracy. Tunisia serves as a hopeful precedent for a rare case of democratization in the Middle East, North Africa region gone right, as Chahed makes positive strides toward maintaining this status.